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Using digital tools to make a difference

5 min read


Quick question: If you wanted to make a difference in the world when you were a kid, how did you do it?

For me, “making a difference” meant setting up a lemonade stand at the end of the driveway and selling Dixie cups full of sweet goodness to raise money that I would send off to the causes that I cared about. And while I really enjoyed the entire process, I didn’t make significant change in the world. There were only so many neighbors willing to buy lemonade!

Even as an adult, “making a difference” usually meant delivering food to a homeless shelter or serving meals to the needy on Thanksgiving — and while both of those practices made a difference in the local community, both of those practices had a limited impact on life beyond my town’s boundaries.

Things have changed for anyone who wants to make a difference today.  Using simple digital tools to raise awareness about causes in a process dubbed “clicktivism,” we can draw attention to the issues that we care about easily.

While many question whether clicktivism is a productive form of activism — clicktivists often have short attention spans and important issues don’t draw attention for long enough to result in sustainable change — for children with few real options for “making a difference” simply because of their age, using digital tools to get behind causes can be incredibly rewarding and productive.

Need some tangible examples of how children are using digital tools to raise their voices and support their causes in public ways?

Here are six:

  1. Salem Middle School Kiva Club — The digital project that I’m proudest of is a club that I run after school full of children committed to ending poverty in the developing world. Using the microlending service Kiva, we’ve helped 350 entrepreneurs in developing nations to start businesses and improve the lives of their families.
  2. The Ryan’s Well Project — When he was in first grade, Ryan Hreljac learned that many people around the world don’t have access to clean water. Since then, he’s been working to raise money and awareness about the issue of sanitation in the developing world — and he’s helped to build 713 wells in poor communities.
  3. 25 Days to Make a Difference — When she was in the fourth grade, Laura Stockman lost her grandfather to brain cancer. To honor him, she decided to do simple things to change her world for 25 straight days and to write about her efforts on her blog. When her story got out, Laura’s plan spread into a 16-month project that inspired people around the world — including other children like her — to get involved in social change.
  4. Be Straw Free — In February 2011, 9-year-old Milo Cress learned a shocking fact:  500 million plastic straws are used every day in our world. Knowing that plastic takes thousands of years to break down in landfills, Milo decided to take a stand against straws. Since then, he’s built this website, which shares details about simple ways that people can work to make their communities straw-free zones.
  5. Kindness Counts — In July, Mary Krieger — a Kansas middle-school student — decided that she didn’t need cake and presents to celebrate her birthday. Instead, she took all of the money that would have been spent on her and started a charity dedicated to recognizing kindness in her school. What makes this article interesting is that it also spotlights the work of two other students who have raised thousands of dollars to support their favorite charities.
  6. #OsseoNiceThings — Tired of the constant stream of hateful messages that peers were posting about one another in digital spaces like Facebook and Twitter, Kevin Curwick — a senior at Osseo High School in Minnesota — decided to fight back by starting a Twitter account dedicated to sharing positive comments and messages about the students and staff in his building. Known as a #niceitforward movement, Kevin is proud of helping to change the culture at Osseo. “When you see someone you care about get hurt,” he says, “sometimes you want to lash out. But I really believe using positivity is the way to combat it.”

 The lesson for teachers is a simple one, isn’t it?

No matter how old they are, our students want to make a difference in their world. Using digital tools to raise awareness is a great strategy for tapping into that desire to get involved — and a great way to incorporate traditional academic skills into real-world activities that resonate with children.

Like many accomplished educators, Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) wears a ton of professional hats. He’s a Solution Tree author and presenter, an accomplished blogger and a senior fellow in the Teacher Leaders Network. He checks all of those titles at the door each morning, though, when he walks into his classroom.