Using Connected Learning to Empower Student Agency

May 11, 2017
Educator Innovator Blog,
National Writing Project
By Rusty Barnes

From video chats to charity basketball games, educators are empowering youth civic engagement by connecting politics to interest-driven learning as a means for teaching argument writing.

Steve Fulton, an eighth grade language arts teacher in North Carolina and a teacher-consultant with the UNC Charlotte Writing Project, introduced his students to the Flint water crisis through a critical thinking exercise on current events in the media. But when he was ready to transition to a new current event after a week, his students resisted.

“At the end of the week, they were like, ‘Well, are we going to go onto something else and let this go? There are these people that have these problems. We need to do something to help them,’ ” he said.

Fulton spoke to the school principal, who happened to have a connection with a teacher in the Flint school district and arranged for a video chat between their classes.

“We decided we were going to use our time to take what we’ve learned, connect with some people from this school who are students our age, ask them questions, get their perspective, think about how their perspective might be different from the ones that we were seeing in the news, and then take action,” Fulton said.

But the student’s interest did not stop there. Last spring, they mobilized their school and coordinated a charity basketball game in order to raise money for their peers in Flint. The event, which raised several thousand dollars, was so successful that the students brought it back in the fall to raise money for a peer whose family was affected by gun violence.

Fulton said, in general, his students do not care about politics. But they do care about issues that affect them directly, and putting relatable faces to the Flint water crisis helped create a personal connection to the topic.

This way of engaging and taking action around important issues and topics that matter to youth was also evident this past summer. While the media and presidential candidates focused on issues that mattered to voters in the 2017 election season, teachers across the country empowered students to concentrate on issues that mattered to them—the next generation of voters—with Letters to the Next President 2.0 (L2P2).

Hosted by the National Writing Project and KQED, together with Educator Innovator partners, L2P2 began as an online collection of resources for educators, who sought to support youth civic participation by teaching argumentative writing in the classroom.

Two months before Election Day, L2P2 transformed into a publishing site, where youth researched and wrote nearly 13,000 letters to the presidential candidates, spanning more than 2,000 issues that youth deemed a priority.

L2P2 drew on the six principles of connected learning and leverages the advancements of the digital age to connect academics to student interests, and learners to inspiring peers and mentors. And educators across the country found creative ways to put their own twist on this model.

On an NWP Radio show, Sarah Beverly, a teacher at Lee Middle School in Philadelphia and a teacher-consultant of the Philadelphia Writing Project talked about the ways she integrated mini-units from NWP’s College Ready-Writing Program (CRWP) into her curriculum around L2P2.

Listen to the Show

Recognizing that her students come from diverse backgrounds, Beverly divided her class into teams of three to four and gave each group a piece of chart paper that was divided into four sections: my neighborhood, Philadelphia, my country, and the world. She had them brainstorm issues that affected each area of their life.

“Not only was Letters to the Next President a wonderful opportunity for students to talk about the issues they see in their community, but also brainstorm with each other, how do issues that they are seeing in their communities translate into the larger picture,” said Beverly.

After brainstorming, students did a gallery walk to see what their peers had identified as important to them. Each student was given sticky notes to add to another group’s chart paper. What Beverly noticed is how her students focused on local issues.

Beverly’s class theme was that “changemakers learn to read and write so that together we can change the world.” But before she allowed her students to pick a topic and write a letter to the next president, she picked a single debate topic on which the class read a series of articles.

“This is an example of how we really pulled in the mini-units and resources from CRWP and talked about whether or not police should wear body cameras, using articles from the New York Times ROOM for DEBATE website and Junior Scholastic to inform our work,” she said. “As we went through as a class, how we build an argument, how we can effectively cite evidence, what makes a credible source or a non-credible source, the students then wrote an argument letter based on that topic.

“I used one of CRWP’s formative assessment tools called ‘Using Sources,’ and with my colleagues, we went through their argument writing and really diagnosed their letters to see what mini-units we need to teach next.”

Beverly complemented this exercise with a reading assignment, The March, which chronicles the experiences of U.S. Representative John Lewis (GA-5) during the civil rights era.

“That then is a springboard into our letters to the next president because students will now have brainstormed issues they are passionate about locally and then nationally, and then we will have gone through an argument writing piece where they can see how we read multiple articles and become informed about an issue, create a claim, and cite evidence on that,” she said. “And then reading The March by John Lewis, see how changemakers have historically worked for civil rights and worked to reduce some of these challenges, both locally and nationally.

Our final step then is for students to pick a topic they are passionate about and use this topic in their letter to the next president.”

Fulton and Beverly are just two examples of educators who are demonstrating that interests foster a learner’s drive to gain knowledge and expertise, enabling them to achieve a much higher-order learning outcome. In allowing their students to take control of a classroom experience by producing writing in an academically oriented, peer supported, and openly networked manner, Fulton and Beverly have successfully empowered youth civic engagement by creating a shared educational purpose.

And we at Educator Innovator are excited for what is yet to come.

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