By Jacob Steiss
In our last blog, we highlighted research by Antero Garcia and his colleagues that analyzed thousands of letters written by secondary students to the next president of the United States. The corpus of letters showed the capacity of students to use their literacy skills to advocate for social and political changes they see as significant. We believe their research demonstrates a way to engage students in civic writing today, though educators will have to be flexible and responsive to their own students’ interests, cultural backgrounds, and writing skills. In this blog, we share considerations and guidelines for engaging in civic writing in your own classroom.
Why write civically?
We often expect students to be civically competent and engaged when they leave school, but opportunities to practice civic writing or dialogue is not widely present in U.S. schools. In their article, Garcia (@anterobot), Levinson, and Gargroetzi see civic-oriented writing as important to help students develop critical dispositions towards social issues, civic agency, and communicative skills to participate in democracy. Such writing activities also respond to recent calls for civic literacy practices in schools by the National Assessment Governing Board and the National Writing Project (@WritingProject).
Therefore, such writing not only offers an opportunity to prepare for civic life but also an opportunity for students to authentically express their concerns and viewpoints. The study describes the letters as “evidence of [youth’s] verbal empowerment, democratic knowledge, and participatory readiness.”
How to write civically?
When implementing a civic writing activity in your classroom, we see two important concerns that need to be addressed; 1) students’ communication/writing skills and 2) genuine opportunities to participate in civic literacy.
As described here, the letters to the next president showed that students used a variety of rhetorical appeals and types of evidence. Further, different school sites featured different writing patterns which suggest the role of teachers and school leaders is writing development is key. Specifically, the researchers note that the stance of teachers and schools to what counts as evidence and how evidence can be used to make arguments more credible and effective appears to be a major area for further explorations.
Given these observations, we see three evidence-based practices as facilitating the skills and competencies students need for effective writing:
Explicitly teaching writing strategies is an evidence-based practice shown to improve students writing (read more about it here). Given the task of advocating for social and political policies in a letter to those in power, teachers may explicitly teach the following skills: 1) how to make an effective and clear claim, how to use evidence to support a claim, and how to make ethical, logical, and emotional appeals.
Use mentor texts
The site features thousands of authentic letters written to the next president by secondary students. Some letters feature multimodal elements that could be analyzed alongside the appeals students make, the way they use evidence to support a claim, and how they address their audience. Though student choice is important, we suggest educators first read and select letters before incorporating into instruction with a concern for how the content of the letters may affect your students.
Use formative assessment cycles
The use of formative assessment to drive instruction is another evidence-based practice to improve student writing. A number of key resources can be found here. While much feedback in the classroom comes from teachers, we see civic-oriented writing as developing and flourishing in a community of writers. Thus feedback from writers workshops would be helpful to young writers. Garcia and his colleagues note that sharing forums with other youth writers and actors is a crucial component of civic literacy and “instruction must focus on authentic writing for clearly articulated communities.” As seen on the Letters to the Next President website, such a community does not have to be rooted in time and space.
Authentic opportunities for writing
We encourage educators to challenge the status quo of students writing for the teacher and/or for a grade. Instead, teachers can help students realize their potential as agents for advocacy and change and that their words have real, concrete implications in their communities.
We see writing in digital environments, to communities of their peers, would provide a space in which their arguments and advocacy have authenticity. An example of such work can be in the research of Mirra, Morrell, & Filipiak. These researchers and educators created a virtual platform for students to speak out about issues affecting their communities:
Lastly, be sure to register for our free webinars this September to learn more 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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