By Jacob Steiss
In this two-part blog, we will highlight the work of Dr. Antero Garcia and his colleagues, with help from The National Writing Project (@WritingProject) and KQED (@KQEDedspace). The project analyzed letters written by over 11,000 students from over 300 schools and 47 states. These letters were written to the future 2016 president, who had not been elected yet.
In examining students' compositions, they found that adolescents are engaged and eager to speak out on civic issues that impact their communities, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and police reform. Though written as a classroom activity, the writing also represents and sustains civic identities of youth engaging in activism that addresses government leaders.
"Students wrote alongside and in solidarity
with ongoing civil rights movements"
We see this research as particularly important for writing researchers, teachers, and school leaders as it describes the civic concerns and interests of adolescents and outlines a meaningful and authentic writing task educators may implement in their classrooms.
The project also highlights ways that teachers may focus their instruction to support students' crucial thinking and argumentative writing skills. In part one of this blog (here), we will discuss what researchers learned from studying these letters to the next president.
A close look at letters to the next president
With a broad, nationally representative sample, Garcia and colleagues examined the following:
What did students write about?
Overall, the civic-oriented arguments showed that student leveraged their writing skills, unique perspectives on social issues, and rhetorical capacities to advocate for change in a number of topics that were important to them.
“When provided [a] space and platform for voicing civic thought, students articulated complex statements about their needs, hopes, and fears during a particularly caustic political moment"
A useful illustration of the topics students most frequently wrote about is shown in the following figure:
Source: Garcia, Levinson, and Gargroetzi , 2020
These topics also show future educators what issues their students may find relevant. We emphasize, however, that teachers should also use their localized and personal knowledge of their students’ interests when designing inquiry lessons focusing on social or civic issues.
The researchers also found that writing about prejudice, race, discrimination, and policing more likely from schools serving BIPOC student majorities and students from lower-income households. Lower SES schools also more frequently featured student writing concerned with expenses of higher education and immigration. Such findings reflect a concern for persistent economic and social injustices that students see and may experience personally as seen in some of the letters. Indeed, a close reading of letters revealed that many student’s used their own experiences with injustice rhetorically in their letters. For example, many students, in arguing for police reform, leveraged their own experiences with the police to argue their position.
How did students write?
In examining writing patterns, researchers noted wide variation in the ways students made rhetorical appeals and used evidence. They noted that logical appeals and cause and effect were used more frequently than ethical or emotional appeals. The appeals students made also varied by context and school sites.
In examining the use of evidence to support claims in students’ letters, researchers found many students used a combination of evidence in their writing, including sourced data (cited), unsourced data, and personal experience. Overall, 80% of letters featured evidence to support claims, though the types and uses varied by school sites. Some schools featured letters that infrequently cited evidence while letters from other school sites sourced data consistently. This finding again reflects differences in teachers and schools to what counts as evidence and how evidence can be used to make arguments more credible.
The use of evidence was also associated with different appeals. For example, a student might talk about their personal experience with racism, cite a study examining racial bias in police shootings. They may make an appeal to emotions and make ethical appeals, referencing how discrimination undermines American ideals and national identity.
Of particular relevance to the historical moment of today’s writers and teachers, Garcia and colleagues noted that:
“These letters speak to new demands on political structures in the United States and challenge a status quo that historically disempowers youth of color and working-class individuals. For example, Black Lives Matter, as an organizing movement, describes its efforts as ‘'working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise’."
Such a finding speaks to the capacity for students to use literacy to advocate for change, a capacity we hope curriculum and instruction will emphasize. We will discuss the implications of these findings and how educators might foster such writing in their own classrooms in our next blog post.
We eagerly anticipate Antero Garcia’s (@anterobot) workshop this fall hosted by the WRITE Center (@WRITE_Center) and co-sponsored by the UC Irvine School of Education and the National Writing Project. Be sure to register for this free webinar to learn about civic writing.
Garcia, Antero, Amber Maria Levinson, and Emma Carene Gargroetzi. "“Dear Future President of the United States”: Analyzing Youth Civic Writing Within the 2016 Letters to the Next President Project." American Educational Research Journal (2020): 0002831219870129.
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