Digital Democratic Dialogue in Action: An Intimate Look Inside the 3D Project - National Council of Teachers of English
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Digital Democratic Dialogue in Action: An Intimate Look Inside the 3D Project

Dr. Katie Wolff is a teacher in Neah Bay, a small, rural village on the very northwestern tip of Washington state. The town is surrounded by the Makah reservation, and the majority of her students are members of this Indigenous tribe. She has five children, enjoys hiking and backpacking, and heartily believes the world would be a better place if everyone just baked more.

More than 1,200 miles south of Dr. Wolff, a high school student is living in a very different place—the seaside city of Oxnard, California. She loves cheeseburgers, painting, swimming, and playing trumpet in her school’s marching band. But she sees the world as a treacherous place, with homeless people dying of hunger on the streets and people fighting around the world.

These two individuals see the world so differently, it seems unlikely they could find commonality.

And that’s the point of the Digital Democratic Dialogue (3D) Project, an educational initiative funded by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The 3D Project brings together teachers and students from six different states across the country to share stories about their lives and worlds and, in so doing, explore a new approach to civics education.

Creating a Community of Literacy

The brainchild of NCTE member Nicole Mirra, a former high school English teacher and currently associate professor of urban teacher education in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, the 3D Project encourages students to engage in authentic conversations across the political spectrum while honing their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. It creates a community of literacy educators who use multimedia tools to connect their classrooms to explore civic histories, analyze current challenges, and work toward equitable futures. The goal is not to teach students what to think, but how to communicate for meaning and understanding.

“When I became a teacher, like many, I found that the field of civic engagement was often siloed into the discipline of social studies,” Mirra says. “My work has been focused on trying to dismantle that idea, because it leads to a faulty assumption that civics is a narrow collection of facts and figures about democracy rather than a way of living together in the world.”

The National Academy of Education, in a 2021 report, urged a variety of disciplines to pursue civic education. “Other core subject areas . . . offer deep learning opportunities for students to value complexity, examine multiple points of view, empathize with others, engage in ethical reasoning, analyze evidence, and examine the reliability of sources of information,” the report stated.

“All public education has a purpose of preparing young people for the future,” Mirra says. “If we embrace that purpose, it can change our units, change our assignments, and make education more relevant to the world that students are navigating every day.”

How Does the 3D Project Model Work?

Launched in the 2018–2019 school year with six high school English teachers from the National Writing Project network, the first iteration of the 3D Project involved students from across the United States. It begins with questions around identity and community, with students exploring topics such as stereotypes, community issues, and media portrayals.

Students tell stories about issues facing their own communities, then analyze information sources to explore why things are the way they are and why certain information resonates differently for different individuals. Students ask, “What does community mean to me? How do others define community? What do we have in common, and where are we diverging?”

“That’s such a different conversation from ‘Let’s just look at the facts,’” Mirra said.

By empowering students as writers and thinkers and having them discuss issues relevant to themselves and their communities, students build foundational skills necessary to contribute to a democratic society, Mirra said.

When the new cohort of teachers and students began working together last fall, they created photo essays, comic strips, poems, collages, and short stories to introduce themselves and talk about their worlds. As one teacher wrote:

I am the past, present, and future
Intellectually gifted
Seriously funny
Caramel sweet
Black and proud
Exhausted from being a chameleon
Just to still be othered, ignored, abused, misused
YET A RARE PEARL fearlessly roaring about
ARMED WITH my most powerful weapon—A PEN—always in hand

—From Unapologetically Shonterrius

One teacher shared a recipe for sweet potato casserole, “Prep time 25 years,” to discuss her family’s history with diabetes as well as chaos, grief, and joy.

One student created a nine-hour Spotify playlist, stating “Music is one of the few ways I express myself. I constantly have music playing AND I KNOWWWWW BANGERS.”

Another student wrote an essay about upcoming plans to visit relatives in California for the first time and what he hopes for the future.

“Maybe my dad’s family will show what they do for a living, and how they survive out there,” he writes, adding “I want the world to be a better place. I like my world with a little bit of color, some gray into my little world that I have. It makes me feel like I’m alive where there is a little bit of darkness.”

A student from Alabama shared: “I am a proud Black king reigning supreme. I am not defined by society’s standards, but embrace my individuality. Delight, encouragement and joy precede me. When I enter a room like the tide, I subtract indifference and negativity, while bringing in peace and remembrance of times past.”

Will this approach create active and informed citizens? Gabe Valdez, a teacher of English and career technical education in Oxnard, California, thinks it will.

“Getting students to talk to one another is key, and civics is a core part of that and our democracy,” he says. “I also think a key to diversity is not normalizing your own experience and your own perspective and worldviews. Starting students down that path of not normalizing their own ideas and just getting away from the very idea of ‘normal’—that is very important to a discussion of civics and having civic-minded individuals in the world.”

If you are interested in supporting innovative educational programs like the Digital Democratic Dialogue Project, please reach out to the executive office of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).