Letters to the Next President (L2P) began as an activity sponsored by the National Writing Project and Google during the 2008 presidential election. At that time, Google Docs was the newest way for teachers and students to share writing across the internet and revise in real time. This project allowed students to publish their opinions to a global audience through a well-publicized forum.
The next iteration of L2P is ready for the 2016 election. L2P 2.0, indicating both its second version and its reflection of our 2.0 communication world, allows students to voice their opinions about the issues surrounding their lives. As adults, we might assume that because students don't talk about politics in front of us, they must not be interested in the subject and are disengaged from the process as a whole. Nothing could be further from the truth. Students are very interested in political discussions but may not have the background on subjects to speak with authority. Thus, they often feel that no one wants to hear their voices. Writing a letter to the next president, whomever she or he might be, allows students the space to demonstrate the power of words, facts, and argument in a democratic society. Once they feel like they have a voice, they're more likely to become involved in the political process.
Creating a Safe Space
A classroom consists of diverse students from every background. As teachers, we don't want politics itself to become the focus; rather, we want student discussions to focus on the issues. Teenagers are impressionable, and teachers need to encourage students to take a step back from the heated rhetoric and really analyze the issues.
The cardinal rule of writing classrooms is building a community so that all writers feel safe to explore openly and creatively, and share their work in a supportive environment. This community must be established early in the year, if not during the first class meeting. For any political discussions to be successful, teachers must create a class culture that welcomes all political beliefs. They can establish a Purple Party, a safe zone in which no one is red and no one is blue. The focus needs to be on language only, not judgments of which side is correct. Classroom debates should focus on the strength of arguments and the use of evidence to support a claim. One evening's campaign speech can become the text for the next day's classroom study. Once the students understand the value of the individual voice in the open community space, amazing discussions will take place. Students will realize that it's OK to debate and question beliefs, especially those learned in home environments.
Strategies for Entering the Discussion
To help support their own Purple Party, teachers can encourage students to analyze speeches using the Say, Mean, Matter strategy:
- What is the speaker saying?
- What does it mean?
- Why does it matter to the larger claim in the speech?
Students can color code speeches by using different highlighters to uncover claims and locate evidence supporting the assertions made. After this analysis, students often realize that speakers make bold assertions with little supporting evidence. Students also discover that multiple groups with differing views might use the same statistics, spinning data to support their argument. A class might divide the perspectives on an issue and research the data and discussions. Teachers can support students as they examine both primary and secondary sources by explaining the difference between the two and why we need to analyze the secondary sources for bias.
The teacher can encourage students to begin thinking about issues by introducing local topics that affect students (Does the community need a skatepark?) and then move to national issues. KQED's Do Now resources for teachers help students think both locally and globally. As teachers, we must give students the tools to find evidence that will support their opinions. In 2008, our tools were a little more old school, but now teachers can direct students to FactCheck.org at the Annenberg Classroom or ProCon.org. If classroom space is large enough, an extra whiteboard or chart paper can help students crowd-source research across multiple sections of a class. The National Writing Project is preparing resources on teaching argument writing as well as mini-units that will be part of the L2P 2.0 resources available on the website.
Even with resources for thinking, students might struggle with forming an opinion on a topic. Teachers can have them write into the day as a bellringer activity, responding to a point in a speech. At the end of a class, students can write out the day with a reflection on their stance regarding a point made in the speech. These strategies help students process the arguments and identify where they stand on the issues being debated. Once the they begin composing, they'll realize that writing about one or two interrelated points can produce a stronger letter than trying to cover three or four issues. The best letters will be developed organically from classroom discussions and student-led research.
Our goal as teachers is to have the students realize that these larger political issues do have an impact on their lives. We want these emerging citizens to think and debate. Their discussions and the writing are part of the process. It's thrilling to watch them discover their place in the larger political context. As students begin solidifying their opinions, they'll discover that they do have something to say. In 2008, when people began responding to their online postings, my students realized that they had a place in the larger democracy. L2P ranks as one of my favorite experiences as a classroom teacher.
Letters to the Next President 2.0 starts by supporting teachers and mentors who are thinking about how to engage the young people they work with in the coming election. Throughout spring and summer 2016, L2P 2.0 will gather a wide range of partners to provide resources, host live conversations, and point educators toward technology tools. Educators of 13- to 18-year-olds are encouraged to sign up for semi-regular bulletin updates. Subscribers will also be the first to know about how to register youth for the forthcoming publishing site. L2P 2.0 welcomes contributions to the community discussions on social media using the hashtag #2nextprez.
In late July, Letters to the Next President 2.0 will launch a large-scale publishing site where young people will be invited to publish their writing or multimedia work for readers from around the country. This site will be open for publication by youth up until Election Day, and will remain open to promote and highlight youth voice and work into the inaugural year.