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March 4, 2021

Engaging Youth in Civic Action Through Writing

Can writing be a civic action?

Our answer is an emphatic, “Yes!”

In today’s digital, interconnected world, youth participate in public debates and dialogue through writing. Writing in all its forms — text, memes, infographics, video, and the like — provides a vehicle for making arguments about issues that matter to them and their communities.

To develop the Civically Engaged Writing Analysis Continuum (CEWAC), a rubric for assessing civic writing, we analyzed high school writing crafted for public audiences. Examples include:

This writing aims to serve civic purposes:

  • Raise Awareness
  • Engage Community Debates
  • Propose Solutions to Problems
  • Mobilize for Dialogue and Action
  • Articulate Writers’ Concerns, Hopes, and Dreams
  • Establish Public Voices

How does civic writing differ from academic writing?

A Google search for “argumentative writing rubric” leads to scores of rubrics. Most identify four attributes of argumentative writing: use of evidence, quality of reasoning, soundness of the claim, and quality of organization. These critical academic skills form the foundation for developing and supporting positions about public issues.

Civically engaged writing lays two additional building blocks onto this foundation. Civic writing, which is by definition public, requires youth to develop a voice that engages with an audience beyond the intimate circles of classroom community, family, and friends. Civic writing also focuses on action and engagement.

What matters in civic writing?

As we developed CEWAC, we defined three attributes that can guide both instruction and the evaluation of civic writing.

Employs a Public Voice

The first attribute, Employs a Public Voice, focuses writers’ attention on the intended public audience and their purposes for writing. This attribute focuses on how tone, style, and rhetoric can help or hinder audience engagement. And it emphasizes the importance of the writer establishing credibility. One letter to the next president, Campus Sexual Assault Needs to Stop, illustrates what an inclusive and open tone about a charged issue can look like (“I think we need to do more.”). This writer effectively establishes her credibility through thoughtfully chosen statistics and the retelling of a well-known case.

Advocates Civic Engagement or Action

The second attribute, Advocates Civic Engagement or Action, identifies two large goals for civically engaged writing. Youth might raise awareness, as the writer of Campus Sexual Assault Needs to Stop does. When appropriate, they might also propose a solution to a public issue, taking into consideration the proposal’s reasonableness and feasibility. One Columbus, Montana student advocated creating an Emergency Services District in his letter to the editor. Ultimately, Stillwater County residents voted to raise taxes to pay for this vital community service.

Argues a Position Based on Reasoning and Evidence

The third attribute, Argues a Position with Reasoning and Evidence, includes important argument skills with two important additions.

  • First, it highlights the importance of personal experience in providing context and evidence for supporting an argument. The ACLU of Northern California published a series of personal narratives about youths’ experiences fighting for their first amendment rights in school. For example, in I Sued My School for Censorship and Won, Taylor Victor articulates how she won the right to wear a “Nobody Knows I’m a Lesbian” t-shirt and argues for the importance of students knowing their rights.
  • Second, it emphasizes that all civic writing and reasoning is guided by a value structure. In How My Chinese Grandmother Found Her American Dream, published on Youth Radio, a writer illustrates this point. “I know my dream will be much different from my grandmother’s because I will not have to breathe air polluted by thousands. I will not have to go to sleep hungry at night. I will not have to live in a world where work is all I know and have to think about.” This reflective conclusion shows how coming to understand the challenges her immigrant grandmother faced has helped the writer appreciate how hard work and family — values connected to a notion of the American Dream — have motivated immigrants.

How can CEWAC inform the move from inquiry to publishing?

Teachers from diverse subjects — English, history, social studies, science — already ask students to study and respond to important civic issues. CEWAC supports these educators in taking the next step: helping students thoughtfully engage with audiences beyond the classroom. Some questions to consider include:

  • Who is my audience and what is my purpose?
  • How do I establish my voice as one worth listening to and engaging with?
  • What choices in language are appropriate for my intended audience and purposes?
  • How do I establish the issue’s importance?
  • How do I articulate why the civic change I advocate is reasonable and feasible?
  • What evidence, stories, and reasoning most effectively support my position?

The development of the Civically Engaged Writing Analysis Continuum (CEWAC) was generously supported by the Spencer Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. In addition to Friedrich and Pesick, the CEWAC working group includes: Janelle Quintans Bence, New Tech High, Coppell, Texas; Young Whan Choi, Oakland Unified School District; Cathy Cohen, University of Chicago; Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, NWP; Allen Louis Linton, III, University of Chicago; Rachel Roberson, KQED; Denise Sauerteig, KQED; Scott Strother, WestEd; Carl Whithaus, University of California, Davis; Jah-Yee Woo, Oakland Tech High School, Oakland, California.

This post is part of a series of blog posts on civic assessment. Read these related blog posts for more ideas about civic engagement, including how to channel student energy into action and tips for assessing civic learning.

For more lesson ideas on writing for a civic purpose, watch this video on writing commentaries from Youth Radio.

You can also find more ideas and resources related to civic learning in the Educating for Democracy Deep Dive.


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