My students are different than I was in middle school. They’re connected, informed, and passionate about the presidential election. They want to learn about the candidates, political process, and issues that affect their lives. What’s most impressive is that these learners want to talk about it – what it all means, where they fit in, and how they can make a difference – they want to contribute. Using Letters to the Next President 2.0 (L2NP) has given me the opportunity to promote student inquiry and foster a classroom environment of civic participation and digital literacy.
Below, I’ve used my own messy lesson planning and exploratory classroom experiences to provide insight into how to integrate Letters to the Next President 2.0 into your curriculum. I’ve broken it into manageable steps and narrowed down the resources necessary to help you tackle L2NP before November 8th. Don’t worry, it’s doable!
Step 1: Choose an Issue
I started off the project with KQED’s Do Now, “Should Athletes Use Their Public Platform to Make Political Statements?” This was a great way to pique student interest in the power of taking a stand, and the influence of youth voice. It also got students thinking about national, state and local problems that needed to be addressed.
We followed up the activity by examining the L2NP site – reading over letters, watching videos, and reviewing media from peers nationwide. I reiterated the importance of selecting a topic compelling enough to investigate and write a thoughtful letter (i.e. essay) about. We brainstormed as a class, and generated a six-page list of societal, political and economic concerns. I was astounded by their collective effort! Though, as it turns out, coming up with a list of problems is the easy part. Knowing why the problems exist and how they can be resolved, is much more complex for middle school students (and the rest of us).
Step 2: Research the Problem
I emphasized that conducting quality research was essential to writing informed letters. I had students follow the CARS model, which stresses that research adhere to standards of credibility, accuracy, reasonableness, and support. I advised students to be wary of bias when analyzing texts, but didn’t expect their narrative letters to be entirely objective.
I provided students with the following Research Worksheet to create a structure for gathering and analyzing sources. The instructions directed writers to websites such as Newsela and ProCon, where they could find reliable and up-to-date information about their topic. Most students needed guidance in identifying key steps toward solving their problem. Understandably, this was a challenging task. Most writers took on huge systematic issues that don’t have a simple solution. Nevertheless, this project is about identifying areas for growth in America, and their input is valid!
Step 3: Write About It
I spoke with an English teacher on my team to learn more about the writing strategy the department uses. My school uses the RACE method, but you may find that yours uses AXES or some other style of paragraph and essay development. I learned that it really benefitted students to apply a practice they’re already familiar with. If I were to do it again, I would collaborate cross curricularly with the ELA department throughout the letter-writing and revisions process.
LDC Coretools provides a series of mini-tasks that helped me create a framework for letter-writing. I had students use this Draft Sheet to begin initial outlining, but found that few actually used the scaffolded template. Perhaps it was because writing a relatively informal letter took some of the pressure off, as opposed to telling students to write a five-paragraph essay (which it really still was).
It was important to me that the primary focus of each letter was its argument. Writers were asked to bring forth an issue, take a stance (exemplary letters also addressed counter arguments), support their viewpoint with evidence, and then call the president to action in a persuasive conclusion.
Step 4: Fix It Up
In retrospect, I should have come up with a better system (or really, any system at all) for revising student work and providing feedback. Far too much time was consumed proofreading, when I would have prefered to focus my attention on helping students develop strong claims and supportive evidence.
Students needed clearer expectations to guide them through edits and revisions. I mistakenly assumed all writers were prepared to revise their work and provide constructive feedback to their peers. One of my students commented, “The most difficult thing was probably writing and editing my letter. I felt like it had it be perfect, but I was clueless. Like, ‘What do I edit?’” Those words resonated with me, and prompted me to re-evaluate the peer review procedure.
Step 5: Make It
Most students said the creative component of the L2NP project was by far their favorite. Writers were freed from the confines of text, and given the liberty to choose a medium best suited to their topic.The goal of making media was to integrate visual information in order to strengthen students’ written arguments. The article, “5 Tips for Making Media that Matters to Students,” describes the value of student expression, art, and choice in relation to the L2NP campaign.
I provided each student with a Maker Menu that asked them to choose as many “makes” as needed to get to a total of 30 points. Project options included: artwork, memes, videos, podcasts, 3D objects, infographics, comics, and many others. I was looking for effort, not artistry. I tried to convey that I was more concerned with thoughtfulness than with a student’s natural artistic ability or talent.
Creating a classroom Makerspace that fostered ingenuity and productive mess making was probably my favorite part of the whole project. I offered up boxes of remnants and scraps for student use and encouraged them to scavenge for goodies at home. This portion of the project beautifully tapped into everyone’s unique learning modality. All learners were tuned in and actively using their imaginations to represent their thoughts in an aesthetic way.
Step 6: Preparing to Publish
Finally, it was time to publish! After using EasyBib to help writers compose automated bibliographies, we registered on L2NP, and began uploading everyone’s materials. Oddly enough, we agreed this was one of the toughest parts of the project! The variety of “media makes” posed a challenge. It would have been more effective to group students by their type of “make” during this publishing phase, enabling us to troubleshoot more efficiently and collaboratively.
But we did it! Just like that, my students were published authors and artists. I literally jumped up and down in every single class period out of pure joy, pride, and satisfaction. It was a crazy, chaotic, and oh-so gratifying enterprising! You better believe I’ll be doing it again in four years.
This generation of students is yearning to participate in the political process in a meaningful way. They’re eager to share their thoughts and opinions, engage in national dialogue, and bring about change.
While most of our students cannot yet vote, they can use Letters to the Next President 2.0 to make their voices heard and bring awareness to the issues that matter most to them!