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Letters To The Next President: Gearing Up To Teach About The Election

July 8, 2016 / by Christina Cantrill

Steve Masson, a high school teacher connected to the Hudson Valley Writing Project, spent the last three weeks of school working with his juniors and seniors on a #WhatsMyIssue video project in connection with Letters to the Next President 2.0. Letters to the Next President 2.0 (L2P 2.0) is an initiative that empowers young people, 13-18, to voice their opinions and ideas on the issues that matter to them in the coming U.S. Presidential election.

For something like this to work, Masson shared in a recent National Writing Project (NWP) Radio interview, you have to create an atmosphere of trust in the classroom. "Trust that if you ask them what's their issue, you'll respect what it is and help them to think about it in a different way."

Letters to the Next President 2.0

Letters to the Next President 2.0 is built on this foundation of trust. Trust that youth care deeply about a range of issues and topics and can effectively express themselves and their ideas to public audiences. Trust that educators can create supportive contexts where youth can engage across their differences and discuss a diversity of topics together, bridging both traditional ideological divides as well as opening up their own thinking. Trust that public media and educational partners can come together and amplify the work of students and their teachers.

Supporting Teachers

L2P 2.0 is designed by teachers for teachers and their students. Beginning in August and running through the November election, letters2president.org opens as a publishing platform for youth to post written pieces, images, videos, and audio files that capture their voice on the election issues that matter to them. L2P 2.0 will focus on the content -- the ideas -- from the youth writers and will display them next to thousands of others around the U.S., highlighting the diversity of ideas and opinions.

L2P 2.0 supports teachers and students to get ready to publish by providing a range of free resources and opportunities curated by public media and educational partners, including Teaching Channel. Instead of creating a required curriculum, L2P 2.0 creates a participatory space where teachers can invite students to choose their own topics and issues, allowing the work involved in writing a letter to be built into lessons and activities across specific content areas and interests.

Masson, for example, used the opportunity of L2P 2.0 to work with juniors and seniors on their videos in his public speaking class at the the end of the last school year. They brainstormed a list of issues that they cared about, then developed and pitched ideas for shared storytelling. They utilized a range of resources, from L2P 2.0 partners KQED and PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs. Masson says he will reconnect his students to the project in the fall.

Hearing From The Students

Mikayla, an 8th grade student from Kannapolis, North Carolina, wrote a piece about women's reproductive rights as part of L2P 2.0 for an editorial contest led by The New York Times Learning Network. During the same NWP Radio broadcast, she described the importance of being able to express her opinion about significant and compelling topics.

"Doing this created a different way of learning and a new environment that you usually aren't a part of in a classroom or even at home," she said. "It helped us in class because we were able to hear what other people had to say about the issues and why it was important to them."

In Fulton's class, students repurposed their editorial writing to support themselves in creating related video letters and political art on the topics they had become so knowledgeable and passionate about. Mikayla took her research, for example, and worked with her classmate Will on a video where they looked across their topics and focused in on gender equality, bringing together her interest in women's rights and Will's interest in equity for LGBTQ people.

"You wouldn't expect 13-15 year olds to have their own political views," Mikayla said. "It's good that we are learning stuff so we can come up with our own political views and understand what's going on in politics, and to put our ideas on politics in a public space." She said she had even begun to talk about these ideas at home, engaging with her parents in new ways through this work and her research.

Letters to the Next President 2.0 seeks to engage all students -- 13-18 -- across the country. We therefore invite all teachers to participate and imagine ways that we can work together to support student voice. Sign up now at letters2president.org to receive a bi-weekly bulletin with more information about this project, including details about how you can register your students to publish to the youth site when it's live. Note that the publishing site will be open for young people to publish throughout the campaign season, allowing teachers to work with students right up to Election Day.

Here are a few resources that might be useful in planning for the fall:

If you want to get started letter writing right away, here are a few timely resources focused on summer learning and engaging:

Topics: Engagement, Social Studies, Educating for Democracy, Civic Engagement

Christina Cantrill

Written by Christina Cantrill

Christina Cantrill works at the National Writing Project (NWP) where she focuses on digital media and connected learning through the NWP Educator Innovator Initiative. She has been a teacher fangirl since the early 90s, when she began working alongside Writing Project educators and exploring the emerging possibilities of the Internet and networked technology. She is affiliated with the Philadelphia Writing Project and currently teaches core courses in a new Connected Learning Certificate program at Arcadia University. Connect with Christina on Twitter: @seecantrill.

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