David Olson, 2017 PBS Digital Innovator, works with students

Meet Wisconsin’s 2017 PBS Digital Innovator: David Olson

In April, we introduced you to David Olson, chair of the social studies department at Madison’s James Madison Memorial High School. As Wisconsin’s 2017 PBS Digital Innovator, he was one of 52 educators across the country to attend the 2017 PBS Digital Summit. Read their stories.

WPT spoke with Olson shortly after his return from the Digital Summit in San Antonio.

“Having access to high quality digital resources, and finding ways for teachers to connect with one other and foster innovation, can only lead to good things,” says Olson. “It will lead to much better outcomes for students; we’re creating citizens who hopefully will be ready to be full participants in a very different world than the one in which many WPT members might have grown up.”

For more great resources for educators, kids and anyone who loves to learn, visit WPT Education.

A board member for the Wisconsin Council for the Social Studies, Olson teaches courses including Modern U.S. History, AP Government and Politics and Criminal Justice for students ranging from 10th through 12th grades.

He believes that today’s classrooms are much more collaborative and dynamic than those of even 20 or 30 years ago.

“It’s definitely a challenge to find the right balance for all the activities I can do in my classroom,” says Olson. “For me, the use of digital resources, and the opportunity to make and create things, is so very important that sometimes I need to make difficult choices in terms of content.”

What made you want to apply for the Digital Innovator program?

[Laughs] A whim?

I really like the resources that PBS has to offer. Whenever I’m teaching a new course, revamping a unit or going back to fix something in my class that doesn’t quite work, PBS is at the top of the list of places I go to try to learn things. I know if I seek out PBS, I’m going to find resources, or the next great idea that might spark my interest.

I follow PBS on Twitter: the PBS account, PBS Learning Media, FRONTLINE, PBS Teachers, a handful of other things. When there are new resources or cool new shows that interest me, I see them there first.

As an example: FRONTLINE has an episode called “Solitary Nation” that looked at the use of solitary confinement in prisons. They partnered with The Guardian to create a virtual reality experience called 6×9 [the dimensions, in feet, of a typical solitary confinement cell]. I was able to use an app to have students experience life in a solitary confinement cell.

What do you think made your application stand out?

I honestly put together my application on the day it was due. I had mulled it over for a long time, but I thought, “Man, I bet it’s really hard to get this; I bet they’re looking for people who are absolutely changing the world with what they do with technology.”

I don’t know if I’m changing the world, but I certainly like to hope I’m finding more ways to reach students and find ways for students to have their own voice and do some creating.

Part of the submission was a three-minute video. I put a video together of some of the cool things I do in my classroom that use PBS resources, and some ways I push my students to use digital media and technology to create. Lo and behold, I was chosen.

I think one of the reasons I was chosen – for my AP Government class, I do something kind of unique. Students group into campaign teams and they run a campaign for U.S. Senate from the state of Wisconsin. We pick candidates; the candidates then pick their campaign manager; we develop advertising and social media teams, people involved in creating policy…

I bring in a group of outside experts – political science professors, people involved in state and local politics and campaigns – who hear presentations from campaign teams and then decide who put together a more effective and coherent and convincing campaign. People who do this for a living give them real time feedback and let them know how effective they were.

AP Government student Jessica Liebau

My students love it. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the course for them.


Sandireddy for House

Jessica Liebau: Progress for All

Faliski for Wisconsin

Do students respond differently to digital resources?

We’re studying what’s happening in the world as it happens – though one thing I try to do is make sure students understand how history actually relates to their lives.

We can do plenty of analysis of texts, but particularly when we talk about advocating for political and social change, gaining access to power in society, students absolutely respond to seeing people who look like they do. You get instant buy-in.

So knowing that Vel Phillips was a real person who lived in Wisconsin makes a big difference?

Absolutely. In my department, we’ve used WPT’s Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams package when examining the civil rights movement, and we’ve also made extensive use of The Ways [a series of stories from Native communities around the Great Lakes region].

The state of Wisconsin requires social studies educators to teach Wisconsin Native American history and issues of tribal sovereignty, so The Ways is extremely valuable for Wisconsin teachers. We were able to use information from The Ways to look at the spearfishing controversy in northern Wisconsin and how that relates to tribal sovereignty and Native Americans advocating for their own rights.

Which PBS programs work best in your classroom?

It’s definitely a challenge to find the right balance for all the activities I can do. Aside from American Experience, of course, FRONTLINE is the most valuable. There are plenty of good video resources out there for many topics, but a show like FRONTLINE is an amazing way to bring in very timely subjects, giving students the ability to go in-depth – in a short amount of time. One FRONTLINE episode, 50 minutes, is easily usable in my class; it will help inform an entire unit or the reflections we’re going to tackle.

With something like Ken Burns’ Vietnam, I plan on watching all 18 hours, but I have to figure out how to be efficient with that material. I look for the stories that either can connect my students to the essential things they need to know, or a way to use a story or snippet as a jumping off point for students to create or analyze on their own. I’m trying to figure out how I can help create some resources to go up on PBS Learning Media for other teachers.

What are your top takeaways for other educators, and from the Digital Summit?

Two big takeaways, for sure.

First: if you’re looking for inspiration, an engaging lesson or an idea about how to connect students with great material K-12, PBS Learning Media is a fantastic place to start. I guarantee that if you don’t find a lesson you’re looking for, you’ll come away with plenty of ideas for things to incorporate into your class.

Watch a video Olson created with other 2017 Digital Innovators. “We were trying to find people who ought to have their voice heard and could offer some insight into society or humanity. I interviewed one of my close friends who happens to be a Rwandan refugee, and put together a minute-long video about him and his journey from Rwanda to the United States. 

Second: One of the most unique things about teaching is the willingness to share materials and methods and bounce ideas off each other. An entire network of teachers out there are inspiring, amazing at their jobs, willing to not only create things but turn around and help other teachers come up with new ideas, implement things in their classroom.

New Mexico’s digital innovators, Rachel Thomas and Steven Lamb, were actually a package duo: two elementary school teachers in Albuquerque who collaborate across the city. We’re hoping to put together a way for my high school students, maybe Criminal Justice or AP Government, to teach these fourth-graders in New Mexico some things to know about how our government works, how our country is structured to hear people’s voices. Or, for my Criminal Justice students, what do fourth-graders need to know about their rights and responsibilities when they interact with police? Those connections I had all week long were fantastic.

We got to choose from a handful of different gifts from PBS; I selected a 3D printer. I talked with Rich Lehrer, the Digital Innovator from Massachusetts, whose work centers around the use of 3D printing to make a difference in society: he uses 3D printing with his students to make artificial limbs and things like that for other people.

For my upcoming Ancient Civilizations course, we came up with ideas for creating artifacts from civilizations: giving students the opportunity to design their own artifacts and Roman coins that represent them as individuals, then printing them out to have them as a physical item.

Amazing teachers all across the country are doing incredible things with students and technology.

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