• Whitney Olson

It's a New Day

In the 2007 movie, Freedom Writers, Hilary Swank’s character tapes a line down the middle of the room. When I think about lines separating a room, I think about division first. Swank’s character, however, was making a point about commonality. In the Line Game, students were to step towards the line when they identified with her comment. As the game progressed, students could see that they had more in common than they had differences. Barriers were broken down and lines of communication opened as students started to consider other perspectives of the same problem.

Ah, the other side. In a culture that is so often designated by losers and winners, not much consideration is given to the person standing on the wrong side of the line. It’s all well and good to romanticize how to bring people together in the movies, but I’m guilty of drawing my line in the sand and digging my heels in. Today, with lines crisscrossing this country, dividing communities, families, and genders, I leave it to you to decide whether you’ll consider the view from the other side.

In my work in history education, it’s hard not to project how these deep divides will be remembered in history. While pundits and experts wax on about the future (I lose sleep and, perhaps, rant just a little), I’ve recently realized that we don’t have to wait to experience how quickly things have changed and how those changes will make peeking over the line just that much harder.

I’ve spent years teaching students that history is a story that has significance for the winners and the losers. Historical thinking requires students to consider multiple perspectives, and the availability of digitized sources creates opportunities for students to consider those multiple perspectives. In my way of thinking, it’s not so much about memorizing facts as it is learning how to think critically and empathetically. With an internet connection and a good research question, informational literacy is within reach.

Until last week. I was working with a young student who was researching the I.D.E.A. Act. He quickly googled his topic. I rubbed my hands together in anticipation of finding that one great source that would connect the dots for him. We peered at the search results. I showed him which extensions to look for. I pointed out that just because something shows up on a google search doesn’t mean it is based on facts. We looked and looked for balance. It was like a debate had exploded on his computer screen. Finally, I directed him to the U.S. Department of Education website, confident that we had steered clear of shark infested research.

At the end of our research session, I reflected on how online research has become a frustrating endeavor. Students are struggling to access verifiable, balanced sources online. Typically, it’s not that the sources aren’t there, it’s that they are buried beneath pages and pages of highly inflammatory sites and articles. When my young friend went back to take notes on his research, he found that the webpage no longer existed. Facts today. Gone tomorrow. The Internet has become one long, squiggly line in the sand. Navigate at your own risk; the user’s manual is out of date.

How does anyone support an opinion with evidence when information disappears? Even in uncertain times, the record must be true to the past. Pick a side to stand on, consider commonality if you wish, but guard closely the privilege to access information. It’s a new day.

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