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Be the Change: Empathy and Mindset for Civics Learning

Be the Change embraces empathy and mindset to reflect on historic change agents, hone civics skills, and empower future change makers.

Stepping away from traditional civics knowledge, this day-long museum experience uses a change agent mindset to ensure content is more relevant to students. The framework for understanding historic people through identifiable characteristics increases empathy, makes explicit parallels with actions and student experiences, and acts as a catalyst for service learning projects in the community.



HundrED shortlisted this innovation

HundrED has shortlisted this innovation to one of its innovation collections. The information on this page has been checked by HundrED.

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March 2019
I can see people in the past who have changed the world and it motivates me to make a change.

About the innovation

Be the Change: A New Model for Civics Learning

At the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, PA, we prioritize a people-centric experience that makes the past relevant to audiences today, demonstrated in our “Be the Change” 9th Grade Civics program. Through a longstanding partnership with Pittsburgh Public Schools, the History Center hosts all 9th grade students as part of their civics curriculum. The program serves 1,800 students in an experience designed to encourage them to reflect on change agents from the past, hone their civics skills today, and become empowered as young change makers for the future. Unlike traditional civics curriculum that prioritizes knowledge about processes or procedures, the Be the Change program amplifies the stories of individuals who sought out and succeeded in making civic change happen. This framework for using historic models as contemporary inspiration to build the next generation of change makers and engaged citizens can be applied in multiple learning contexts.

A Mindset for Civics

As educators, we recognize that audiences are drawn to personal stories and we have extended that approach to include a range of creative activities that focus on ideas, issues and conditions, and personal agency. When we started focusing on personal narratives to teach civics, we recognized that our 9th grade audience often found people and actions from the past to be too abstract. We searched for a way to help students understand people stories in a new way, a way that enriched narrative and prioritized the way people may have felt, worked, and ultimately made an impact in our community. This search culminated in the concept of a “mindset” for change makers, the common personality attributes that span time, civic issues, and personal experience that students could also connect with and identify as being relevant in their own lives. This new approach allowed people, both the historic change agents and the modern student audience, to become central to the civics teaching.

A mindset is defined as a person’s way of thinking; a collection of thoughts and beliefs that shape thoughts and ways of working or behaving. Psychologist Carol Dweck poses the question: “what are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?” We want students to be able to identify the mindset of change agents in the past and recognize that they share some of these characteristics, and that they can shape their mindsets to develop more characteristics in the future. The mindset framework was also designed to support feelings of empowerment in the students, which is key as we shift the narrative from the historic stories of change to contemporary and future actions that students may take in their communities. The development of the mindset characteristics is explored further in the Steps Section.

Mindset Impact

The creation of the mindset approach was driven by student evaluation data, which revealed that students consistently showed strong and often negative reactions to the From Slavery to Freedom exhibition, which traces the story and legacy of slavery from West African culture to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, abolition, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and ultimately the struggle for civil rights. Given that the students who participate in this program are predominantly African American, it was no surprise that they found the exhibition space challenging and felt angry and sad after visiting it. We aimed to develop an experience that would help students relate to the personal stories that they encounter in the exhibit and make explicit ties to the change agent mindset, hoping to replace anger with agency.

A new workshop, Journey to Freedom, was created where students embark on journey through the exhibition using a range of activity prompts to help them examine the people, objects, and mindset characteristics they encounter. At the conclusion of their time, we ask students to record one word that represents the journey to freedom to them, which are then placed on a puzzle piece. We regard the words written by students on the back of the puzzle piece as an opportunity for us to understand the impact of the program and were hopeful that these responses would indicate if the introduction of the change agent mindset had influenced their gallery experience. The puzzle responses, once grouped and coded, provided evidence that the Journey activity was far more likely to produce positive responses than previous iterations of the program. Almost half of the students made an explicit connection to one of the change agent mindset characteristics. This was an important finding for us, as it supported our initial concept about the impact of the change agent mindset and indicated that students identified personal characteristics with the historical stories they encountered. The 289 responses were coded using the categories below, and had the following results:

• Positive Character Trait (examples: determined, brave, strong) – 43%

• Action Oriented (examples: fight, change, rights) – 20%

• Positive Affect (examples: pride, inspiring, empowering) – 13%

• Adverse Affect (examples: scary, angry, sad) – 24%

This data is further supported by survey responses, as students who indicated that the Journey to Freedom was the activity they enjoyed the most, also provided comments such as, “I enjoy learning more about slavery even if its sad because I’m African American and want to more about my ancestor’s lives,” and “I enjoyed seeing the evolution of slaves and black people changing themselves drastically to a new level of respect, careers, and their families.” This shift in student response was dramatic and encouraging for our work, particularly with the implementation of the mindset characteristics as a framing device for learning experiences.

Activating Civics through Empathy and Mindset

The change agent mindset is layered throughout the multiple activities within the Be the Change program, all of which are centered on making empathetic connections with the change agents of the past. The activities that students do throughout the course of the program also include student response elements, ensuring that youth voice is prioritized alongside the lessons of history. The activities could be replicated in a classroom setting using digital collections and primary sources.

Change Agents in History – this session connects the stories of change agents with the steps of service learning, asking students to recognize the steps in the stories featured in our regional history exhibition. There is a special focus on identifying causes in our community that people acted on in the past and how they might parallel with causes people care about today. Students respond to questions about the personal stories and causes through Instagram stories.

Objects of Civic Change – this session is designed for students to recognize how objects can represent civic change and reflect elements of the change agent mindset. Students uncover the stories of civic and social change, learning how objects from the past have relevance today and to understand how the people who made or used them in the past worked for change. This gallery work inspires each student’s contribution to a large collaborative artwork in one of the museum’s public spaces.

Journey to Freedom – this workshop takes place in the From Slavery to Freedom exhibition, where students embark on largely self-guided journey through the exhibition using bags with activity prompts to help them examine the people, objects, and mindset characteristics they encounter. Students enjoy the element of discovery as they complete the activities, which are part scavenger hunt, such as finding the object in the gallery that was pictured on a clue card, and part mindset interpretation. As the students explore their section of the gallery, they work to connect their group’s thematic word, either adversity, determination, or freedom, to the exhibit’s content. Similar words or phrases could be used in other learning settings as prompts to clearly focus interpretation of sources. At the end of the experience students gather to discuss what they have seen, and each small group is given a puzzle piece (constructed of mirrored acrylic) and asked to discuss and record one word that represents the journey to freedom to them. With these words placed on the back of the puzzle pieces, the students assemble the puzzle to reveal a powerful quote (featured in one of the posts below).

A Framework to Shape Teaching

Our Be the Change program is thoroughly evaluated each year with both teachers and students. This evaluation informs our yearly re-shaping of the program to better meet the needs of our learners. The framework that we have found to have the most noticeable impact on students, based on their own work and evaluation, has been the integration of a mindset that makes explicit ways of thinking and making change. This approach has become an integral way to teach, making historic people and events more relevant and allowing students to see themselves in these stories. We believe our teaching can become truly transformational when students are inspired to recognize, celebrate, and adapt their own civic mindsets because of their time with these powerful stories of change from the past.

Implementation steps

Identify Change Agents

Every community and region has people who have worked to make change and advance civic and social issues. Our list of example change agents, which is included in the attached file, was based on people who are featured in our galleries. Beyond that constraint, we used the following criteria in selecting the stories we integrated into the Be the Change program (not everyone on the example list made it into the program):

1) Did they work intentionally to make change? There are many examples of people who make change by happenstance or indirectly, so deliberate actions towards an identified issue was a key indicator for us in selecting change agents.

2) Was there enough in the person's story to see evidence of their role as a change agent? Not every story in history has the same amount of sources or record behind it, which caused us to ensure that the people we selected had well documented approaches to making change and evidence of impact.

3) Could students relate to the story? We were working towards making the learning experiences more empathetic and relevant, so we focused on change agents that worked on causes that students could connect to.

Define the Change Agent Mindset

1) Refine the set of mindset characteristics as needed. The characteristics used in the Be the Change program are:

Brave: You do something even when it is hard, dangerous, or scary.

Creative: You make something using your imaginative skills.

Resourceful: You use whatever you have around you to accomplish a task.

Curious: You want to investigate or learn something.

Problem Solver: You think about problems and try to find a solution.

Determined: You want to investigate or learn something.

Empathetic: You are aware of the experiences, feelings, or thoughts of others.

Passionate: You feel deeply about an issue or concern.

Collaborative: You work well with others to share ideas and make things happen.

Flexible: You change your approach as circumstances change.

2) Integrate these characteristics in fun ways! In our program we produced a series of playing cards for each characteristic and students worked towards earning the cards throughout the program. Cards were earned by participating in activities with thoughtful responses to the content, to what other students said, or by providing insights into contemporary relevance or about what it takes to be a change agent. When the facilitators distribute the cards they ask questions about the characteristic featured on the card, such as, have you seen this characteristic in the people we’ve seen in the gallery? How do you see this in your life? Which of these cards are most like you? The cards prove to be useful incentives, increasing student’s participation as they work to earn a card. They also provide a tangible way for students to connect with the mindset characteristics.

Research Relevant Historic Objects and Images

1) Educators can select historic objects and images from a range of digital museum and archival repositories. Alternatively, given the time and abilities of students, they can conduct this phase of research on their own.

Helpful websites include:

Smithsonian Learning Lab– featuring over 1 million digitized collections from across the Smithsonian Institution

Google Arts and Culture– this site has numerous ‘exhibits’ created by museums around the world

2) Use the Objects of Change graphic organizer to ask questions of the object and discover how it connects to civic change today.

Connect People, Objects, and Themes

1) Select, or have students suggest, relevant thematic terms that students can use as descriptors for connecting people and object stories.

For example, in the From Slavery to Freedom exhibition we used ‘adversity,’ ‘determination,’ and ‘freedom’ as key words for activities where students had to identify examples of those in both objects and people’s actions.

2) Themes can also be organized across chronology, location, and events to help map civic change.

3) The attached file provides an example of how we scaffold questions between a figure's story, the objects, and civics connections in the gallery activity.

Create a Space for Youth Voice

Consider appropriate ways for students to formulate a response to the exploration of civic change agents. At the History Center we had two public facing outlets for youth voice:

1) Instagram Stories – in the galleries, students were prompted to answer questions that asked them to identify the impact of change agents in the past and connect it with a contemporary issue. Using the Instagram Stories feature they were able to draw together their ideas using still photos and captions or the video feature.

2) Art Installation – the CHANGE Wall required minimal resources, but was high impact for both participating students and visitors. Students selected from cards that had images on the front of the museum objects and then wrote on the interior how it represented change in their eyes. These cards unveiled poignant connections, civic concerns, and opportunities for students to make the objects relevant.

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