From storytelling, sources verification to cooperation and fun. How Polish teacher introduces Wikipedia to highschoolers

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Klara Sielicka-Baryłka: I am Wikipedian & Education Specialist at Wikimedia Poland. Graduated in Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Warsaw. I worked at the Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw (on a educational projects). For over 8 years I worked as a museum worker at The National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw developing #EtnoWiki idea among other things. Currently with my team I am implementing the new edu-wiki strategy in our organization called WikiSchool, which includes an original pilot project for schools & for the school libraries throughout Poland. I also coordinate the Wikipedia part of the educational project with the National Heritage Institute of Poland, working still on #EthnoWiki activities.

Maria Weronika Kmoch – Polish historian who specializes in the regional history of Mazovia and Kurpie, social activist. Since 2012 she runs a blog called Kurpianka w wielkim świecie (Kurpian girl in a big world; She is a member of many regional and scientific associations. Wikipedian, wikimedian, board member of the Association Wikimedia Polska 2022–2024. Since 2016 she teaches history in the 1st Independent High School “Bednarska” named after Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijay Sinhji in Warsaw. She runs school herstorian projects based on Wikipedia and regional projects associated with Wikipedia.

Klara Sielicka-Baryłka (WMPL) asking Maria Weronika Kmoch:

You are known to the world of Polish education as a creative teacher and the world of Polish-language Wikipedia knows you as an active wikipedian. Can you say something more about yourself? Where did your passion for teaching, such a strong interest in other people, and, as we know, your love for your so-called “little homeland” come from?

I am a historian first, teacher and regionalist second. Wikipedia has only been present in my life in a significant way since 2020.

When I was a child, I used to set up a school for my brother and the neighborhood children, I kept diaries and so on. Later on I would say that if I was going to work in a school, I would only do it in high school. I also always enjoyed learning, absorbing knowledge.

In college, I became interested in regional history, although the local area was close to my heart even earlier. I grew up in the town of Jednorożec described as “the gate of Kurpie region”, I was a member of the Kurpie Song and Dance Ensemble “Jutrzenka”, I took part in various quizzes about the patron of the Jednorożec elementary school, ethnographer Adam Chętnik. I knew that I lived in Kurpie, that it was a specific culture, language, etc., but this knowledge was relatively superficial. In 2013 I looked into regional books that were within reach and I was hooked. I yearned to know more, to share my knowledge with others and to look for small puzzle pieces on my own, from which I would be able to put together interesting local stories. I wanted to explore the unknown, fill in the gaps and educate.

Another factor that has influenced my curiosity, willingness to take on new challenges and creativity, is working at the 1st Independent High School “Bednarska” in Warsaw. Working with people of refugee or migrant experience, with different views and energy, in a supportive environment, gives a new and fresh perspective on the world. It has strengthened my sense of self-worth and self-confidence.

Was it those elements of your biography and your professional decisions discussed earlier that influenced you to start your adventure with Wikipedia? How did it all begin? Do you remember the first push?

I set up the account in 2013, but apart from a few small edits, done rather incompetently, it was inactive for years. Then I got engrossed in my studies and forgot about editing Wikipedia.

I returned as coordinator of a school project. In the spring of 2018, together with younger highschoolers, we improved articles about our school and the “Bednarska” school complex. The motivation was the desire to commemorate the late Krzysztof Machocki, who was a graduate of our school and an employee of Wikimedia Poland. If I had not taught at “Bednarska”, I probably would not have felt this impulse. Maybe I also wouldn’t have had the freedom to try new things, to try something different.

What do you remember about your first wikiproject? And the following ones? Were the expectations for the results of activities with students always met? How do you evaluate the results of your wikiprojects, and most importantly, what do your students think?

Correcting articles about the school and the “Bednarska” school complex was a cool experience, but… I didn’t remember how to edit, I forgot my password for the account, so we wrote in MS Word. I was supposed to put it on Wikipedia later, but I forgot. We didn’t have great expectations, but I remember a few people got hooked on the project.

In the spring of 2020 I wanted to do something interesting for people who didn’t major in history, something that would go beyond our classes. I wanted to focus on skills. I joined the “(Un)Known Women of Wikipedia” project, which is organized every March on the occasion of Women’s Day and lasts for a whole month. My project was inspired by a post on Wikimedia Poland’s Facebook page and the information that only 1 in 5 bios on Wikipedia is of a woman, and that there are few female Wikipedians. When the pandemic started, I thought it would be a good idea for online classes. About 75 highschoolers, working in groups of 2–4, wrote bios. Wikipedians were with us for the online classes, explaining the basics of editing Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons resources, checking the rough drafts of the articles. In the end, 32 new biographies were created and 1 article was expanded. They wrote articles about people in fields that interested them (sports, comic books, social activism etc.). There were historical, contemporary and fictional heroines. Many biographies were written from scratch, others were translated from foreign language Wikipedias. A year later I replicated the project with a younger class. Some people decided to use my suggestions, as I created a list of names of respected women without biographies in the Polish-language Wikipedia. 28 new articles were created and 4 were expanded. I wrote as many as 42 articles!

In the fall of 2021 the Wikipedia campaign was part of a project week for older students. Twice per school year one project can be selected from a list of suggestions and, instead of typical classes, the students work for a week on a given topic. 15 people participated in the wikiproject during PROweek. This time, finally working in person, I wanted more than “just” editing Wikipedia. I invited a Polish teacher, to talk about inclusive language, a historian to point out why we need narratives about women in history and what herstory and gender studies are, an activist to explain why we all need feminism, and a Wikipedian to introduce the key principles of Wikipedia and the idea of Wikimedia Commons, and to teach the youth how to write entries. There was a full-day edit-a-thon, which I supervised. The heroines were selected from a list prepared in advance. A total of 40 biographies were created and expanded. We searched for traces of women’s history at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews and on the streets of downtown Warsaw.

History teacher and school Wikipedia coordinator Maria Weronika Kmoch gives a lecture about Ukrainian feminism, edit-a-thon for highschoolers in Independent High School in Warsaw, Spring 2021

As part of PROweek in the Spring of 2022 we engaged in Wikipedia’s Ukrainian Month. We had 20 participants who took classes on editing Wikipedia, discussed local and family herstories and walked around the Warsaw district where our school is located in search of herstorical threads. We visited an exhibition at the Museum of Warsaw and the Polish teacher gave a workshop on women in spoken and written language. In art classes we prepared works modeled on the paintings of the most prominent Ukrainian women artists. They were presented at an exhibition at the school. In the end 23 articles were created, 78% of which were articles about Ukrainian women, because there were also other articles, for example, about a Japanese poet or an American entrepreneur.

I think the results of the projects were good. There were people who chose the wikiproject twice. Justifying the decision, they said that the wikiproject was a great adventure, that they enjoyed the opportunity to understand the mechanisms of Wikipedia, to practice research and writing. The young people appreciate the freedom to do things, the direct contact and the fact that their work has been shown to the world, and can be useful to others. They are happy that we are discovering the stories of forgotten people, previously underestimated. Articles created as part of our school projects were highlighted on the homepage of the Polish Wikipedia. I believe that storytelling, verification of information sources, cooperation and support of the more experienced, and a common goal – these are important values and skills that a school wikiproject gives. In a world full of division, polarization and a pervasive narrative about how bad today’s youth are and that they can’t use the Internet in a smart way, projects based on Wikipedia show that not only can it be different, but it is different!

Do you monitor the impact of running a school wiki project, also in terms of the work environment: on the school community (the rest of the teaching staff, the students themselves), on the wider teaching network? And how about the community of Wikipedians? How have these wiki activities affected you?

Positive feedback at online conferences and from young people participating in projects gave me wings. I reactivated my Wikipedia account and started writing about women. Participating in actions and theme weeks was a motivation to look for herstories in areas I had not yet explored. Wikipedia allowed me to open up to the history of different corners of Poland and the world, not just my region.

At school I am increasingly associated with Wikipedia. There are suggestions that interesting characters mentioned in other subjects’ classes should get described on Wikipedia. Sometimes teachers suggest that I include a given name in the list of proposed future articles. Sometimes I manage to persuade them to try their hand at editing themselves. People who study in the lower grades are interested in the herstorical PROweek, some can’t wait to edit. In history lessons I pay attention to the source of the articles we use, I emphasize the role of verified sources. This influences students’ perception of Wikipedia.

You carry out Wikipedia-related activities not only among students. Has going beyond the school walls changed anything in your approach to imparting knowledge about Wikipedia? What would be your recipe for the best introduction to this topic for a young person, but also for a senior citizen, local creator, activist, etc.?

In September 2021 I came up with a series called #herstoriawniedzielę (“herstory on Sunday”). Using Instagram stories at @mwkmoch, I talk about a chosen woman from among those about whom I have either written Wikipedia articles or expanded existing ones. Sometimes the inspiration is an anniversary and sometimes it’s just a person whose bio I recently wrote.

I get positive feedback. I know that someone has started writing Wikipedia articles thanks to the stories. The materials are being read and responded to by people I didn’t suspect of being interested in herstory. They are usually women, which is valuable because I care about empowering them. Thanks to the #herstoriawniedzielę series, I have made valuable online friendships and I am in contact with herstorians who are active on a wider scale. The series has become a platform for popularizing the history of women from my region of Mazovia in Poland, among others.

The experience gained in herstorical school wikiprojects made it possible to take the next step: biographies of Kurpie women as part of the “(Un)Known women of Wikipedia” campaign in March 2022 and the “Wikipedia in Kurpie region” project in the summer of 2022. My dream of involving a larger group in editing Wikipedia and increasing the visibility of the Kurpie region in the encyclopedia has come true. A total of 43 bios were created or expanded in the March campaign. More than 30 people took part in the summer Kurpie project. In almost 2 months 33 new articles were created and 106 were expanded. More than 800 photos were also added to Wikimedia Commons.

I am also a volunteer in the “Living Tradition in Wikipedia” project, which Wikimedia Poland is implementing in cooperation with the National Heritage Institute. It involves documenting the non-material heritage of the Kurpie Forest and including folk artists and creators in the creation of an archive of works in Wikimedia Commons. In this project I work mainly with senior women.

My recipe for introducing different people to Wikimedia is: be authentic, be yourself and show the importance of working with Wikipedia with your actions, patiently explain, show, advise, immediately give the opportunity to act and reinforce, emphasizing even small successes. Workshops and face-to-face meetings work well, but so do short instructional videos that can be played at home. It’s good for a person who is taking his first steps to know after a project or meeting that they have someone to count on, that there will be someone who will look at their work with care and point out what to improve and what worked great.

This is the typical work of a teacher and educator – I guess that’s why I’m so comfortable running wikiprojects in and out of school. I introduce a person to a new world, show them the way, but I don’t take baby steps for them, I don’t do their work for them. I cheer and accompany them, and help them in difficult situations. And together we change the world. Not just the Wikipedia one.

Translation from the Polish by user Drejwen

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