Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Chris Evans (And Partners) Create A Useful Civics Tool

So this is how you do it.

Chris Evans has entered the world of celebrity education support, and he's done it up right. There's a companion post to this one over at Forbes that explains in a little more detail what the site does; in this post, I want to explain why I think Evans and his partners are setting an example for how the rich and famous can have a positive impact on education.

First of all, he hasn't done it alone. He has partnered up with actor/producer Mark Kassen, one of those guys who has a long, solid, steady career in the biz without becoming a household name, and Joe Kiani, who--well, Kiani is an Iranian-American tech entrepreneur who started one of those companies that does a medical thing you don't understand, but who also has been hugely active in trying to reform the world of health care. These three started up a civic engagement site called A Starting Point, and then teamed that up with Close Up, a DC-based civics education group, to create ASP Homeroom, a site where you can find short, simple videos in which elected officials (mostly Congresspersons) lay out their position on major issues.

ASP Homeroom is a civic engagement tool that is well-suited to use by classroom teachers. It works for several reasons, not the least of which Evans and Kassen don't imagine themselves as having all the secrets of teaching civics to high schoolers. I spoke to Kassen, who said "We could not be so arrogant as to tell teachers how to do this."  This same quality comes across in Evans' various interviews. Evans seems to know exactly who he is- not a teacher or professional educator, but a guy who can get his phone calls answered and whose name in a press release will draw some attention. They have a platform, and appear to have figured out the trick of using that platform for good without imagining that celebrity has given them special magical powers. For working with education, a field stuffed to the gills with amateurs posing as experts, this is awesome.

Evans and his partners are also not part of that other celebrity education trend--the one where somebody's business manager has explained that they can get a tax break by investing in a charter school or good press by bankrolling an after-school program. Nor does this project attempt justify itself by attaching itself to any silliness like claiming that it will raise test scores. Every indication is that these guys want to promote civic engagement while demystifying the whole sausage-making business.

Nor is anybody making money from this. The resource is free. Kassen told me that they developed their own software. There are not even sponsors trying to piggyback on this to build brand awareness. In early 2019, just as Avengers: Endgame was marking the end of Evans' ten-movie run as Captain America, Evans and Kassen were spending time in DC trying to line up legislators for this as-yet-unlaunched website, which is probably not the best way for a highly-bankable movie star to try to cash in. In other words, not only is the site not profitable, but given the man-hours invested over the past three years, it probably displays negative profitability.

The site is, as I say over at Forbes, devoid of lesson plans, instructional guides, or anything else to try to tell teachers how it is to be used. I call that a plus that goes hand in hand with its other positive feature--it's devoid of any political agenda. Instead, it provides an unfiltered look at what "the people who write policy believe." It offers voices from all sides and links to further resources. And elected officials get to say their piece in short one or two minute bursts, separated from each other. And no comments section or voting videos up or down. The emphasis is on light, not on heat. 

That all makes the resource flexible, useful in a hundred different ways. Invite a slate of elected officials in for current events day. Turn your students into trained fact checkers. Or simply provide students with a basic background about some of the issues of the day. 

There is a charming hopeful optimism to the whole thing; you can see in the video above Evans taking the first halting steps to try to interest politicians back in 2017, pushing that ethic of "if we could just get people to talk a little more and know a little more, maybe things would work a little better..." But I don't think that hopefulness is a bad thing. Nor is breaking down the barriers between elected officials and citizens (Kassen says that hundreds of thousands of people have contacted officials via the site). 

This is a promising resource. If I were still in the classroom, I'd use it as a basis for writing assignments and discussion. Lots of teachers could think of something like this--a website with hundreds of explainer videos from elected officials--but it takes celebrity to open doors, and a smart celebrity to open the door and then step back to let others walk through it.

Check out the site. Share it with a teacher friend. 

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