We had only six weeks left in the school year. Through activities, assignments, and discussions that connected our personal experiences to the class content, my students and I had built solid relationships of trust. But even after students poured their hearts into their work—perhaps through a story about losing a loved one to violence or an epiphany about the importance of community justice—I found myself left with the same question: What are we doing to address the pain and trauma behind those powerful stories?
With this in mind, I thought it was especially important for the 9th graders in my English classes to end the year sharing stories of survival, resilience, and hope. I wanted them to reflect on the painful histories of injustice that we had discussed in class, and to use research and writing as a way to heal. So, for our final project, I decided to transform the usually apolitical standards of research and persuasive writing.
The unit I planned focused on the following guiding questions: How can we create more dialogue around injustice in our community? How can we use inquiry to examine these injustices and create change in our community? I would ask students to choose a community issue to focus on (e.g., police brutality, domestic and gang violence, undocumented students’ needs), analyze and synthesize several research sources, craft a persuasive letter to either a perpetrator or survivor of injustice, and present their findings to community members at a final showcase.
We began by watching video clips of two specific moments of injustice: the beating of an undocumented immigrant, Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, by the border patrol, and campus police brutality against college students protesting budget cuts at UC Davis. Both incidents had been the impetus for specific individuals to write letters advocating for change and could show students the inherent connection between literacy and empowerment. These contemporary examples were also a fitting transition from the unit we had just completed, analyzing Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 to look at the legacies of the Rodney King verdict and rebellion.
“How would you respond to this injustice if you were close to these victims?” I asked students after each of the shocking clips. Already familiar with police brutality in their own community, students sighed and exclaimed that the police deserved to get “beat down.”
“Why do they think they can just do that?” one student asked the class.
I paused before responding, looking around at various emotions on students’ faces: shaking heads in dismay, blank looks of apathy, and furrowed eyebrows. “Well, we saw in our last unit that this is not a new problem. And, like we saw in 1992, there are different ways to show our anger and name our pain. But we have a responsibility to understand the sources of our pain, to hold perpetrators—like the police or border patrol—responsible. We can also reach out to other survivors for healing. Let’s channel all of these different emotions we have into our own research and writing. And let’s share these ideas with the community, so we can be heard.”
What Makes a Persuasive Letter Work?
We spent the rest of the week analyzing two letters: one written by Maria Puga, the widow of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, gathering support to protest the brutal murder of her husband; and the other an open letter from Assistant Professor Nathan Brown, holding the chancellor of UC Davis accountable for police brutality against students on campus. We read, annotated, and discussed the writers’ positions for rhetorical craft and as impassioned calls for change.
We started with Puga’s letter. “Let’s create a PAPA Square in our notebooks,” I directed students as I drew a square on the board (see Resources). Above the square I wrote Purpose. To the left of the square, Audience. To the right, Argument, and underneath, Persona. “As we read, look for and underline text that helps us figure out each of these important elements. As we underline them, we will be labeling them in the text and then adding ideas to our PAPA Square.”
As we read the letter aloud (see Resources), I paused at pivotal moments, for example: “My children and I want to know the truth, and we want justice for Anastasio and all of the family members that have lost loved ones at the hands of the border patrol.” I asked: “Which elements in our PAPA Square does this line help us understand?”
After students linked this line to the intended audience (the families of other victims of border patrol violence), I also pushed them to link it to the author’s persona and purpose: Puga is painting a portrait of herself as a grieving mother and eliciting emotion from the audience to achieve her purpose of gaining justice. As the ideas flew, the class wrote them down in their PAPA Squares and drew arrows to show the connections between them.
After going through the PAPA elements, I asked students to choose a significant quote and write it in the middle of the square. I told them to choose a quote that related to one or more of the elements: persona, purpose, argument, and audience. One student chose Puga’s line: “We are human beings and our immigrant lives are just as important as any other life.”
“Why did you choose that line?” I asked.
“It brings together her persona as an immigrant with her purpose of seeking justice for all immigrants.”
“It’s part of her argument,” another added, “that her husband’s murder was a violation of human rights.”
Then we did the same kind of analysis with Brown’s letter about the violence against students at UC Davis. I began by asking students about the audience: “What do we notice about who Professor Brown is speaking to in this letter? And why is this important?”
After a slight pause for reading, one student answered: “He’s writing directly to the chancellor. He’s saying she’s responsible and needs to go away.”
I prompted students to compare this audience with Maria Puga’s letter, which was directed at potential supporters, and asked how it affected the purpose.
Ysenia responded: “Well, you’re going to write it differently depending on who your audience is. The UC Davis guy is a lot meaner in his letter because he’s criticizing the chancellor. Maria, on the other hand, wants your sympathy, so she’s going to be a lot nicer.”
“Yes!” I affirmed. “And this is what you want to think about for the letters that you will be writing. Who will your audience be? How will that impact your tone, the kind of language you use? If you’re writing to, say, gang members to think about the consequences of their violent actions, it’s going to look very different from a letter written to the survivors of gang violence. In one, you might be more up front about the impact of violence; in the other, you probably want to be gentler and talk more about healing.”
Research from the Inside Out
Then it was time for students to pick a topic. I told them: “This is your last assignment in this class. Take what you’ve learned throughout this year—in reading, writing, analyzing, crafting arguments—and use those skills just as these individuals have done, in service of their community.” I explained the assignment: Students would choose a specific injustice, research it, and craft a letter addressing the injustice.
“Pick a topic that’s important to you and important to the community,” I said. “You need to focus on a specific injustice, but it’s up to you if you want to choose an injustice that has affected you personally or one that has affected others.”
I gave them the choice of working individually or in groups of up to four students. With sensitive topics like domestic violence and the treatment of undocumented students, I purposefully gave a range of options in case some students chose a topic that was intimately connected to them or their families and needed their own safe space to develop their research. Some students felt comfortable sharing their own experiences with others and worked in groups, although others chose to work individually.
Knowing that students might have anxiety about sharing their work at our community showcase at the end of the unit, I took time to talk about the significance of letters being “open” to a larger audience and the impact their work could have on others. I did not want to pressure students to open up about issues that they were not emotionally prepared to make public. At the same time, I hoped that the relationships we had built over the year and the themes we had engaged would inspire students to use this research project as a space to heal from some of their own pain.
One student, excited about her topic on the impact of gang violence, suddenly became anxious at the thought of presenting her findings. Because her brother’s murder was the centerpiece of her inquiry, she worried that she wouldn’t be ready to share this intimate work. “Do we really have to share this stuff?” she asked me quietly during independent work.
She reminded me that I needed to bring a sense of genuine purpose home for the students by participating in the inquiry project with them. I had experienced my own loss that school year when I had a miscarriage a few months prior. I had taken time off to physically recover, sit with the emotional pain, and begin to heal. The injustice I decided to address in my inquiry project was a moment when two doctors failed to treat me with empathy and compassion at such a vulnerable time. I had experienced waves of feelings as I processed the tremendous loss. I wasn’t equating my loss to that of students in my classrooms, but I did hope that sharing that experience with students could help them gather the honesty and strength necessary to participate in a personal kind of research project.
I showed the students my transcribed interviews of other women who suffered miscarriages, but who had doctors who took the time to humanize their healing process. We read and annotated my persuasive letter draft the same way we had read the other two models. This time, I shared the recurring obstacles I faced—I wasn’t sure if I was emotionally ready to write such a piece, it hurt to relive painful moments—and the emotional “skills” I needed to overcome them—I deserved to be angry, I knew I had a right to hold people accountable for my pain. I told the students that for me healing, like writing, was a tediously slow but rewarding process. Sharing such a fresh wound with five classes, five different times, was not easy; it involved tears, a shaking voice, and draining energy.
In one class, a couple of students responded with awkward laughs. Perhaps they didn’t have the skills to handle such a heavy discussion about loss, or perhaps they didn’t understand what a miscarriage was. As I was about to explain further, one student spoke up, “Dude, it’s not fucking funny—she lost her baby and she’s opening up so we can, too.”
Later, I talked individually with the girl who was afraid to share her work on the murder of her brother, and she decided that doing the work about her brother’s death was important to her. “This decision is totally up to you,” I told her. “There is no right answer. But if you decide you want to share it with us, we can learn from you.”
I had one-on-one conversations with numerous students. There were a few students who started with very personal topics but changed their minds because they recognized it was too much for them to reflect on pain so close to their hearts. Of course, I respected and validated their decisions. It was my hope that my own vulnerability and constant encouragement would open up in students a new resolve to examine and share their own pain, or to try to understand the pain of others in their community. I watched as they began to develop a sense of purpose and urgency in their research and persuasive letters.
For example, Jaslyn conducted research about family communication and healing as she struggled with her parents’ divorce. Over the course of the year, she had often showed up for class dazed from lack of sleep because she had internalized the guilt of “not being able to keep her parents together.” Jaslyn interviewed other students who cut themselves in order to cope with the stress of familial strife, and researched the emotional impact of divorce and how parents can better support their children through this challenging time. She also interviewed our school psychologist about strategies for managing stress. Synthesizing her research with themes we had learned throughout the year, Jaslyn wrote an open letter to parents about communication:
This is an experience that made me feel so frustrated, lonely, and worthless. My family broke down in front of my eyes; my mom and dad weren’t there for me to explain why this happened. . . . After the divorce and even now, all they could do is put each other down. It’s a shame to see how both the people I love the most can’t stand the look of each other. This should make you realize the need to resolve your problems and not put each other down in front of your children. Have self-control and think before you speak or act. Or just stay quiet so you can keep your children out of it.
Other groups linked their family’s experiences with broader research about police brutality, deportation, domestic violence, and educational inequities.
Taking It to the Community
Inspired by Jerica’s community exhibition (see “Storytelling as Resistance,” p. 22), I wanted my students to have the opportunity to share their understandings with a small, supportive audience. So, in addition to their open letters, I asked them to create multimedia presentations using digital posters, poetry, short films, powerpoints, and/or three-dimensional art.
We invited faculty, family members, and friends to the showcase. When the day arrived, a group of students began with a short introduction to the final project. They explained the guidelines, which we projected on a screen, so that audience members could focus on students’ purpose, audience, research, and call for change. Audience members were invited to walk up to the groups stationed throughout the multipurpose room and engage in dialogue about their projects.
For an hour, the room bustled with excited, nervous students presenting their ideas on creating a more just world. Jaslyn had painted a portrait to represent her conclusions. She described the young girl in her painting, covered in bruises and tears:
Well, the bruises and the cuts symbolize family problems, because children end up bruised—maybe not physically, but emotionally they’re there. They allow things to get to them, and they don’t have trust for other people because they didn’t find that kind of love with their parents. They didn’t find love or the support they needed from their parents, so now, they don’t view the world as a safe place. They have a distrust for the world when they cut themselves, because it’s a way to deal with things when their parents aren’t there.
She went on to describe a group of words hovering over the girl, pointing toward a beaming sun:
These are some of the words that should be used to create healthy families: “love,” parents should “empower,” “humanize,” and “respect” their kids. We can relate family problems to the LA riots, which we learned about this year, because there wasn’t dialogue. The community just got tired of the abuse, and bam, that’s how there was so much violence. . . . When there is a problem in your family or your community, we should have dialogue when something is wrong, because this is a way to actually find a solution.
One parent later commented: “I learned to listen to my children, give them a voice, and be an advocate for them.” A student said: “I learned about police brutality and domestic violence and how it affects my community, and how we need to step up and take action with dialogue.”
Learning to Think and Feel Together
This final unit brought home for me the need to put healing at the center of teaching literacy. At times, I questioned whether I was putting too much of myself into the curriculum by sharing such personal loss with students. But when we make ourselves vulnerable to our students and connect the dots between the emotional work and the thinking work, our students respond in powerful ways. Some students will place themselves intimately in their work, while others may not be ready to. And that is OK. The power is in using writing and dialogue to work through injustice and face these challenges together.
- Puga, Maria (undated). “Tell the Department of Justice to Investigate the Death of Anastasio.” Available at presente.org/campaign/anastasio/original_email.
- Brown, Nathan. Nov. 18, 2011. “Open Letter to Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi.” Available at bicyclebarricade.wordpress.com/2011/11/19/open-letter-to-chancellor-linda-p-b-katehi.
- PAPA Square is adapted from Hairston, Maxine. 1986. Contemporary Composition. Houghton Mifflin. Available at teacherweb.com/CA/GreatOak/MsWoelke/PAPA_Square_Directions.PDF.