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Teaching for Civic Engagement: Petitions for Change

April 11, 2017 / by Matt Colley

See Matt’s Video on Teaching Channel: Encouraging Students to Take Action

A petition is a concise, direct, and powerful tool to teach the essentials of civic engagement.

After going through a few cycles of civic engagement projects in my classroom, I found that what distinguished effective projects from mediocre ones was the ability of the student group to articulate a clear and appropriate demand that was addressed to a specific target audience. To help students think about the criteria of an effective “ask” and its relationship to a target audience, I have all of my students write a petition as their first semester history final. The petition serves as a “trial run” for their civic engagement projects and as a checkpoint, midway through the year, to define and practice the fundamentals of civic engagement.

I didn’t come to the realization about the importance of a petition project in terms of teaching civic engagement on my own. This conclusion was the result of many conversations and an inquiry cycle that was supported by the history department, both at my school site and at the district level. I think this is crucial to point out because teaching for civic engagement depends on several supportive conditions, primary among them the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers. My teaching has grown tremendously through the conversations I’ve been able to have with my colleagues in the space created, and funded, by my school and district.

It was in an inquiry cycle during my first year of completing civic engagement projects that a colleague asked, “What do you think separated the effective projects from the not so effective ones?” This simple question helped me identify the differences between two specific projects.

I had two groups who focused on police brutality and they both chose to make posters. Their choice to make posters, along with many groups that first year, was an indication that I needed to provide more models and explicit instruction about tactics in future years. More instructive, however, was the way each group designed their poster, especially regarding the specificity of the demand, or "ask."

The first group simply made a poster raising awareness about police brutality and calling for it to stop.

M. Colley Petition Project Image

The other group, however, included a toll-free phone number and website to report police abuse. After analyzing the student work with my colleagues, it was clear that the second group was successful because they had a specific demand (report police brutality, instead of simply stop police brutality) and their ask was appropriate for their target audience, in this case their peers at school who would see the poster. From this conversation, I started to design a petition project for future years.

Collaboration is Key in Teaching for Civic Engagement

For three years now, I’ve been meeting regularly with a group of colleagues to discuss the various components of teaching for civic engagement. Each year, we choose an inquiry focus and meet on a monthly basis to share student work, discuss the strengths and areas of growth we see, and collaborate to create teaching practices that will help support our students be more effective agents of positive social change.

These spaces have been vital for me. They are places where I can ask questions, be vulnerable, discuss elements of my teaching that aren’t working, and carefully look at student work to specifically define what it is I’m hoping students will accomplish. I’d encourage teachers to advocate for these types of collaborative spaces at your schools and districts so you can work with your colleagues to develop curriculum and pedagogical practices that support students’ civic engagement.

When they're working on their final Taking Action Project at the end of the year, my students often ask me what my action project is. I tell them learning how to teach for civic engagement is my action project, because this work is fundamentally about how I can teach in a more equitable way and disrupt what Paulo Freire calls the “banking model” of education and engage, instead, in “problem-posing” education. Collaboration around teaching for civic engagement has helped me to do just that.

The Petition Project

Introduction

What I love about a petition as a teaching tool is that it distills civic engagement to its most essential elements: the ask, the target audience, and the justification of how the ask will actually address the larger problem. I introduce the Petition Project by explaining this to students so they understand that the petition is just a part of a larger process.

Analysis

We begin by analyzing sample petitions and identifying the key parts of each one. Students synthesize their understanding by boiling them down to two key sentences that capture the ask, target audience, and justification. This process of distilling sample petitions down to their essential elements helps students understand what those elements mean and how they work together. Once they understand the basics of a petition, they embark on their own research.

Research

I leave the topic of the petition wide open for students to choose. My only stipulation is that it be connected to an issue of social justice. In other words, the petition can’t be solely focused on improving some aspect of their own life (like asking for a later curfew) and it must address a larger inequity in our society. Some students choose to continue researching a topic they previously chose for their Contemporary Issue Speech, while other students choose a topic from our current unit (Income Inequality), while others branch out into new territory. I believe the element of student choice is crucial because it allows students to take ownership over their research and gain important experience researching and critically thinking through a problem they care about.

Community

Many students stumble at first because they think if they don’t have an ask or a target audience at the start, then they're doing something wrong. I try to constantly remind them that these elements will only emerge after they do the research. However, it can be difficult for students to have patience with this process so it’s important to have a number of opportunities for students to talk with their peers as they research. I often start or close class with a brief partner check-in where students can discuss what they've learned so far and what they're thinking about in terms of the ask and target audience.

Scope and Direction of the Problem

It’s also important to emphasize to students that their petition shouldn’t try and address the entire problem (this is impossible!), but to break their larger problem into smaller pieces and focus in on one of those smaller parts. Students can generally land on a specific ask by either zooming in on their problem or zooming out.

  • Zooming In: This year, one student was focusing on sexual harassment as the larger problem. She zoomed in on schools and learned that sexual harassment often goes unreported. This led her to dig deeper into the specific reporting procedures at our school. She learned that we have one Title IX coordinator in a district of 40,000 students who is responsible for handling all official sexual harassment claims. This discovery led to her final petition asking our superintendent to fund a Title IX coordinator at each school site.
  • Zooming Out: Another student was researching police brutality when he zoomed out to the larger causes of it. One thing he became interested in was the perpetuation of racism and the role of implicit bias. Then, in thinking about his sphere of influence, he settled on a petition demanding our school board mandate implicit bias training for all teachers and staff.

There are an infinite number of directions that a student can take her research. While this element of choice presents challenges in terms of scaffolding, ultimately, I think the freedom is more empowering for them. The process of developing a clear and specific ask is a constant process of refinement and, in addition to the peer-to-peer checkins, I’m also meeting with students on their research days to help them develop their ask.

Importance of Prior Knowledge

To help students identify a target audience, it’s helpful to have a basic civics background and an understanding of the layers and branches of government. I give the ubiquitous lecture about the different branches of government and how an idea becomes a law. This background helps them understand some terms that might come up in their research (federal vs. state law, what it means if a bill is stuck in committee) and identify their representatives at various levels of government. This civics background also helps students craft a more appropriate ask. For example, students shouldn’t demand that their senator pass a law, since that's outside of their jurisdiction, but they can petition their senator to introduce or support a specific bill.

Authentic Audience

After students have finished writing their petitions, we share them in class and choose one to “go live” and put up online. Students are very excited for this opportunity and it encourages them to work hard because they’re writing for an authentic audience. While we only choose one petition to focus our public attention on, I encourage all students to publish their petitions. This provides some safety in the middle of the year because students who are unsure of their petitions or who didn’t quite succeed aren’t required to share their work publicly. Likewise, students who are ready to go public can. With their final Taking Action Project in the spring, I remove this safety net and all students must go public and stand by their work.

You can find the criteria I use to evaluate and assess the final Taking Action Project in this rubric.

The Benefits

All in all, the Petition Project is a powerful step in pushing students to take action. While there are many valid critiques of the growth of online petitions (creating a group of so-called “couch activists”), I’ve found petitions to be a powerful teaching tool. They help students break down a large problem into a specific action step and they challenge students to write for an authentic audience, beyond their classroom walls. As a side benefit, the petitions can also bring about positive social change. A year before Governor Jerry Brown signed a law requiring all single-stall bathrooms in public places to be designated “all gender,” my school began changing bathrooms on campus to be more inclusive as a result of a petition from my class project.

I would love to hear more about how you use petitions in your teaching, as well as your thoughts on how to leverage petitions as a way to teach civic engagement.

Topics: Equity, Social Justice, Social Studies, Educating for Democracy, History, Civic Engagement

Matt Colley

Written by Matt Colley

Matt Colley is in his fifth year teaching ninth grade English and history at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, California. Before coming to teaching, he worked in youth leadership programs and for KQED public radio in San Francisco. He is passionate about preparing students to critically analyze the world we live in and to actively collaborate to help make our society more just and equitable. When he’s not in the classroom, Matt enjoys swimming, surfing, and hiking.

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