Writing for Justice

By Mark Hansen

Illustrator: Bec Young

Illustration: Bec Young

A principal once remarked to me, “Whenever I come into your classroom, you’re on the carpet, talking.” I took it as a compliment because it has always been a point of pride for me as a teacher how much time I set aside for my students to share their lives. Much of the most profound and memorable learning and teaching I’ve been a part of started with a student’s remark—either joyous or troubling. We do spend a fair amount of time simply sharing news from our lives, but I also try to push their reaction to the “news” in a more editorial direction.

One year, my 3rd graders were incensed that some of the parents of students from our school had been detained by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers after a raid on the local Del Monte factory. The students wrote letters to the mayor and to ICE, and created a petition that they had the whole school sign. Another class was both excited and nervous about the redevelopment of the public housing where some of our class lived. After exploring the proposed plans and meeting some of the officials and architects, they submitted their own plans for what the community should look like.

Recently, during one of our weekly current events conversations, I showed footage of the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill. Later, Kaylee came across pictures of environmental catastrophes around the world while doing her own research on her grandma’s computer. She and her grandma were both shocked by the enormous garbage patch, much of it plastic water bottles, in the North Pacific Gyre. Kaylee brought her concern, along with some printed photos of the garbage floating in the ocean, to a class meeting. Her passion was palpable, and other children caught her energy. I asked the students to discuss their reactions with a neighbor, and the room exploded with talk. Then I asked them to think about what could be done.

“We should stop using water bottles,” said Antonio, “and just use the fountain.”

Kaylee agreed. “We could also make posters to tell people about this.”

A week later, they’d done more research, drawn posters, and placed them around the school. It was a great example of meaningful social justice and academic work growing from discussing what matters.

So it started to feel odd that my intentional teaching of persuasive writing was yielding relatively rote and flat results. For example, assigning my writers a persuasive letter on a given topic, like asking the principal to make school different—usually more recess—may have taught them some effective ways to make an argument and back it up with evidence and analysis, but it went nowhere, either with the principal or with the learning. It was an exercise , not a learning opportunity. Because both reader and writer perceived it as an empty gesture, there was a sad hidden lesson that writing is not an effective way to advocate or to make change.

I asked myself how I could shift my students from rote work on persuasive pieces to actually writing to persuade. How could I strike a balance between the passion of their concerns, the difficulty of writing well, and their fragile sense of power in the world? How could I juggle my goals for their growth as writers and as citizens? I wanted them to think about the change they wanted and to explore the best way to address it.

Who Has Influenced You?

For students, careful modeling is the linchpin of any new learning. So, to begin a unit on persuasive writing, I asked my students to think about how they came to their beliefs and to explore the strategies others have used in working for justice.

I started by telling a story from my life that illustrated what I wanted them to do. I told them that my mom worked at my high school and my friend Amina was her student aide. “Amina was my friend from 4th grade, and we still keep in touch. She is Muslim and chose to start covering her head with a scarf our senior year. As we got ready for graduation, the principal told her that she would not be able to march if she had anything else covering her head besides her mortarboard. My mom was furious and dashed off a letter to the principal. This led to some big arguments, but in the end Amina was left to choose how she wanted to participate. This experience taught me that you have to take a stand when people are being treated unfairly.”

I then put the question to my students: “When have you learned a lesson like that from somebody else—about what you should do when you face a problem?”

Divonne talked about how her dad had helped her feel better about a problem with a friend by joking around. I said: “Great example. I’m going to start a list on chart paper with these examples to help us remember.” I wrote, “Divonne learned to laugh at her problems from her dad.”

Veronica said her brother had shown her a new way to do division and also taught her to breathe deeply when she felt stressed. We added that to the list. Some students could not think of an example right away, but as their friends shared their ideas, the lightbulbs started to go on.

Shelby asked: “So does it count if I learned something from school? I learned that reading helps me understand the world.”

“I think it’s a great idea to list how you use your school learning in the rest of your life,” I said, adding her idea to the list.

Over the next week we returned to the chart during class meetings, adding new ideas. Not all of the ideas were earth-shattering political awakenings. In fact, many were simple things like “I learned to tie my shoes from my cousin.” I included every idea, though, because I wanted students to take pride in all of the ways they had learned from the people they cared about. I wanted them to situate themselves within a community of learning and influence.

This is important because I often find myself pushing my students to a level of insight or critical thinking that is beyond their grasp developmentally. When the insight doesn’t come, I feel like my lesson has failed or I haven’t tried hard enough. What I’ve discovered, though, is that patience is key. I can’t will a conversation to go deeper—it just takes time. Often, my students are offering something they think is acceptable to the group or pleasing to me. And as their teacher, I’m happy they feel safe sharing the tenderly specific experiences that are emotionally resonant for them as children.

Usually, these first ideas are not just a way to get on the list; there is often a deeper idea hiding behind the first thing that comes to mind. For Michael, learning to tie his shoes needed to go on the list because his cousin had moved away, and he missed her.

As homework, I asked my class to talk to their families and think of what else they might add to the list. The next morning, as they trickled to their seats, I asked them if they had thought of anything else to add to our chart. Michael grabbed a sticky note and a marker from his supply tub and wrote, “I learned that it is important to call people you miss on the phone, like my cousins.” When I asked him where his idea came from, he said, “Well, I talked to my sister and she said we should call them and it felt good to talk to them.”

“That’s great, Michael. How could we turn that into a lesson that everyone could use in their life?”

He puzzled for a moment. Veronica offered, “We should stay in touch with the people we love so we have good connections.”

Michael agreed that was an important thing he had learned. As a teacher with a concern for justice, I know the conversation needs to go deeper. But if I drag them along, stressed by the pace of our go-go-go curriculum, my teaching about persuasion becomes yet another assignment, herding them into a flat “correct” idea. Small first ideas have a way of becoming smarter second or third ideas when they have a chance to breathe and live in a community of influence.

To keep their ideas dancing and to start to prioritize their lessons learned, I asked everyone to collect their thoughts on a graphic organizer.

What Shapes Who We Are?

Next, I wanted them to see how the lessons I learned had prompted me to take a stand at different times in my life. I also wanted to demystify the process by which people decide to act for fairness—to help them see that standing up is not just something that exceptional, heroic people do. I wanted them to see that the courage to act often springs from awareness. So, again, I shared stories from my life, but this time about occasions when I had acted for fairness. “In 5th grade my friend Mary was excluded from an ‘all boys’ football game,” I told them. “After the teachers blew off her concerns, she asked me to practice th rowing with her instead of playing with the boys. I wanted to keep playing with the boys. But after I thought about it, I realized that she was right to feel left out, so I joined her. Soon enough, other boys and girls joined us and we had our own game.”

Students shared their own stories of being left out of games at school. Kevin told a story of helping some younger students who didn’t know how to join a game: “They were just standing there, so I asked them if they wanted to play kickball. Then I told everyone to let them play.”

To expand the scope of influence we were thinking about, we spent a few days re-reading some of the justice fighter biographies and memoirs we’d read at the beginning of the year. Using picture books such as César Chávez: Champion and Voice of Farmworkers , by Suzanne Slade, we talked about what we could learn from people who had acted for justice. I asked students what lessons we could learn from César Chávez. There were perplexed looks. I tried another tack. “Well, what did he do that was important?”

“He helped farmworkers!” Lidia said.

“How? Can you find a page in the book that shows that?” I asked, handing the book to Lidia. She turned to the middle of the book. “Right here it says he started the union to get the farmers to listen to the workers.”

“So what can we learn from that, everybody?”

After a number of attempts to get a good phrasing, we agreed that a lesson we could take from him was that “if you stick together and support each other, then people will listen to you.” We looked further into the book and talked about how he fasted and went to jail. From this my students decided that “sometimes you need to take a risk and do something brave to make a change.”

What I Learned’ Poems

For a writing lesson, this was a lot of talking and thinking, which is crucial, but it’s not a lot of writing. So to help students organize their thoughts around the question of influences and life lessons, and to keep the pencils moving, I asked them to share what they had learned in a poem. To prepare, I gathered the class on the floor and asked them which of the life lessons on the chart they thought were the most important ones. Edwin said, “I think it was important that Ariana showed Divonne how to use her lunch card in the cafeteria, but I think it was more important what she learned from her dad.” When I asked him why, he said, “The lunch card is just about how to do something that you only do in one place. What her dad taught her is something that she can use anytime in her life.”

Taking up his smart idea, I reworded the question: “What are the lessons up here that we could use anywhere? That shape who you are?” I asked the students to share the lessons they thought fit those criteria with a neighbor, and then asked them to write the list in their writing notebooks. Some students found only one or two from the long list on the chart, but most had a good list of “learnings.” I told them to keep this list in mind because they were going to use it to write a poem.

I gave an example to work from by creating a repeating line poem on the projector. I used this pattern: “From ________, I learned ________,” using details from our chart to build the lines. I started, “From my mom, I learned that sometimes you have to speak up if you’re going to do what’s right.” Then I asked them to help me add a few lines, based on our biography studies. Finally, they wrote their own poems. Here is Divonne’s:

What I Learned
by Divonne

From Wilma Rudolph I learned to keep on trying, even when you’re tired.

From my dad I learned to laugh at your problems like they’re silly.

From Harriet Tubman I learned to leave no one behind.

From my brother I learned to play just enough.

From Ar’Nea I learned that a smile tells you that you aren’t alone and that time is tickin’ and we better get this poem done.

From my teachers I learned to read and write, which is everything.

What Do You Want to Teach?

For their persuasive writing pieces, I wanted them to tackle a big issue or idea. After sorting through what they believe and who they look to for guidance, it was time to flip the focus, to turn to the question of how influence becomes inspiration, how learning becomes action. I wanted them to use this grounding to articulate what they thought was important, what they thought should change. Still I had to guide students in identifying issues that matter—that matter to them and will matter to a lot of people. This is a delicate balance, moving beyond their own sphere of knowledge and concern while claiming their place in the world around them.

“Now it is time for you to think about what you want to teach people. You can take a turn telling the world how things should be.” I asked them to think about things they wish were different about the world, things they wish people would do and things they wish people would stop doing. Some students struggled here, so I prompted them to think about what they talked about in their “What I Learned” poem.

Some students needed guidance honing in on an idea that was neither unique to their experience nor out of the realm of their expertise. I asked questions: “Is this an issue that affects a lot of people or just a few?” and “How much do you know about this topic? Would you have a lot of smart ideas to share about this or just a few?” Many students were worried about pollution, some wanted to address health risks like smoking or drugs, and many wanted to change what schooling is like.

Pre-Write Posters

From teacher-writer Stephanie Parsons’ book Second-Grade Writers , I got the idea of having students make posters to clarify their thinking before they write their persuasive letter or essay. She has students pick a topic to explore and create a poster that explains their thinking. This becomes a rudimentary thesis, or central argument. The crux is that they create a message on the poster explaining what they want people to do. After looking at images of posters from different political and health campaigns, we talked about what elements they noticed in the posters.

“They all had some way of getting our attention,” said Max, “like the way the words were big or there was a picture that looked interesting.”

Sarah added, “A lot of them were silly or scary to make you really focus on the idea.” We discussed how in every one, the message was clear.

“Right! You have to make sure everyone can understand what you’re trying to say,” I said. Using copier paper, the students created first drafts, then revised, edited, and finally moved to bigger sheets of paper to make a version for public display.

Martin wrote: “Be smart, make art. Don’t spend too much time watching TV!” His two-panel picture showed a child with a TV for a face in one, and a girl making art with smiling family members behind her in the other. Juan drew a zombielike class of students and a furious-looking teacher underneath: “Parents, make sure your kids get a good night’s sleep. Their teacher will thank you.” Ari’s poster showed a smiling tree around whose branches was written “Compost! Starve a landfill! Feed a tree!”

Putting It All Together: Persuasive Essays

Now we had a great launching pad for creating a written piece. I told them that they were now going to back up the message on their posters with a longer written message. Some of my students jumped right into it, using what they remembered from working on a personal essay to structure a persuasive essay.

Many of my writers needed some careful guidance. I gathered small groups at our group table with their posters, markers, and sentence strips. Using D’Andre’s poster about pollution in the ocean as a model, we brainstormed arguments that would back up his message: “The ocean is filling with plastic bottles. Use a water bottle or drink from the tap!” I asked them what we could say that would help people understand the problem. D’Andre said, “Well, fish and birds are dying from all the plastic pieces.” I wrote that down on a sentence strip. “There’s a huge island of trash in the Pacific,” he continued, and I wrote that down, too. We went on for a bit, stacking up arguments. Not all of them were very sound, but I took them all in anticipation of weeding out the weak ones later. Then I asked students to work with a partner to develop supporting sentences of their own.

The next day we met again and I helped them arrange the sentence strips with their posters. Then I reiterated that we wanted to take all their ideas and turn them into a written message that would help people understand what they were trying to say. Using D’Andre’s ideas again, I pointed out that each sentence could grow into part of a persuasive essay if we explained the evidence even further.

I asked him to go back to a newspaper article we’d read together earlier in the year. He found a part that described the garbage island and read it to the group.

I asked: “So how can you use that to say more? Can you use that information to back up your argument here?” He grabbed a marker and started adding to his first sentence:

There’s a huge island in the Pacific Ocean. It is mostly plastic trash that floats on the water. Some scientists say it is as big as Texas. Chemicals from the trash get into the ocean and it’s poisonous to living things. Some of the trash is from boats but most is from land.

We watched him write, erase, cross out, and circle back to find the best phrasing. I said, “D’Andre made such smart moves when he was writing, didn’t he? He kept reading that section again and again, turning it over in his head to make the ideas his own. What did you see him doing?” They described what I had seen him doing: grabbing information from the article, thinking about it, and then wording it so that it suited his argument.

“He had to keep going back to the article and to his own writing,” said Veronica.

“It’s kind of like drawing or building,” said D’Andre. “When I got to the last sentence, I realized I needed to change something from the beginning.”

I was glad that they could see that the process did not proceed from top to bottom in a single pass, but came out of many attempts. I hope that my students, especially the ones for whom writing is hard, know that good arguments don’t usually spring out of your mind fully formed—that they often emerge from revision. With some conferencing and help from partners, most students developed their evidence into a handful of paragraphs. I held special lunchtime revision sessions to help small groups grow their ideas and asked some students to finish their writing as homework. Some students ended up with only one or two developed paragraphs, but they satisfied my requirement—that they have a clear message, backed up with evidence and explanation.

A few weeks after everyone had finished their pieces, we were back on the carpet in a circle. They had their persuasive pieces in front of them, ready for a final read-around. Before we started, I asked them what they’d learned in this unit. Martin spoke up first. “I learned a lot about my friends from this, like who is important in their lives and what they’ve learned from those people.”

Jessica picked up on his thought. “I think I learned most about everyone’s opinions, like what they want to change.”

I tried to get them to talk about what they had learned about writing, and they had some teacher-pleasing things to say about arguments and evidence. They wanted to talk about each other, though, and how they had been influenced. To accompany their writing in the hall display we added this statement: “We’re not just writing to change the world. We’re writing to change each other and ourselves. It’s about writing to change who we are in the world.

RESOURCES My Influences Worksheet
I Wish We Could Change…Worksheet

Mark Hansen ( Contact Me) is a 3rd- and 4th-grade teacher in Portland, Ore. He is on the steering committee of Portland Area Rethinking Schools and co-director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College.