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October 1, 2004
Vol. 62
No. 2

Speaking Out for Social Action

Teaching students to write to bring about social change shows them the power of writing—and of their own voice.

Speaking Out for Social Action- thumbnail
In today's education policy debates, the other two Rs sometimes overshadow writing. Yet even those who are most intense about the importance of reading and math in school cannot deny the importance of writing. Learning to write means learning to speak out, to make one's voice heard in the great human conversation. And by teaching students to raise their voices through writing on social issues that concern them, we teach them to participate actively in a democracy.
When I talk about speaking out and being heard, I am not talking merely about writing school compositions, or even about eventually writing reports and letters as part of a job. I mean writing as a way of changing one's world. Empowering students to project their voices into the world, for real purposes and to real effect, is the ultimate goal of both language arts and social studies. It seems that teachers rarely reach for that goal directly, by guiding students to do what we hope they will do as adults: use writing to work for positive change in real-life situations.
I believe it is both possible and necessary to fit writing for social change into the writing curriculum. Of course, this curriculum must also include many other elements: Students should learn to demonstrate their understanding of curricular content, write creatively, and reflect on their life experiences. Writing for social action and democratic participation must take its place among these diverse writing agendas. Just as most teachers plan units on writing poetry, writing about literature, and writing for tests, they should make writing for social action a unit of study during the school year. During this unit, students should use writing to accomplish something in the public, social world.
Social action-based writing should go beyond getting angry about an issue, writing a sharply worded letter, and then never engaging with that issue again. Students need to be guided toward more sustained, mature involvement with issues that matter to them. Here are some procedures for helping students write for social action.

The Writer's Notebook

Writing for social action is an ideal way to energize students, especially students who see school as pointless and dull. This unit of study is about the real world—about trying to address real-life problems that exist outside school. Around the third day of this unit, when it really sinks in for kids that their writing is supposed to make a difference, the lift in their spirits and interest level is palpable.
But before students begin writing for social action, they must determine what issue is of sufficient importance to them to warrant their efforts. We can help students learn to use writing as a way to notice and reflect on what is happening around them. I have my students, who range from 3rd grade to 12th grade, carry around a “writer's notebook” to record thoughts about what they observe—in school, in the news, at home, on the street—and look for issues that they believe people in the community should address. I urge them to interpret everyday events with an eye toward fairness and justice.
Writer's notebooks have two important purposes. First, they are a valuable source of topic ideas for students' social action projects. Second, and just as important, these notebooks teach students to reflect, observe, and think critically—to look at the world with enough love to believe that it might become better. We are teaching them not only about the writing process but also about how to think. For example, when a 9th grader, Lee, noticed a mother being overly stern with her child in a store, she wrote about the incident, pondering the idea of fairness. Lee was taking a step toward choosing a topic for her social action project, and she was also learning to look at everyday events through a social and political lens.
If students have kept writer's notebooks before beginning this unit of study, they can look back through previous entries to evaluate whether some of them connect to social issues. This process will help students choose topics that call to them to work for change in a sustained manner. For example, Shareesa, a 6th grade student, reviewed an emotional notebook entry she wrote after watching a movie about war. In a new entry, she took up the topic of war as a problem for social action. Fifth grader Janelle's journal entry on the problem of garbage pile-up led her to write a letter to a public official urging increased recycling (see “Samples of Student Writing for Social Action,” p. 36).

Coalitions and Action Plans

Social action is least effective when it is boxed into solitary efforts. To take action in a democracy, citizens must enlist others into caring about their issue and learn to negotiate people's diverse agendas to involve them in their projects. Once students have chosen topics that are important to them, I give them class time to find—or create—common ground with their peers, building coalitions to work together. One student might persuade a friend that her topic is more worthy; another student who feels uncommitted to his issue might give it up to join a more passionate group. Through this process, students form groups for their political writing, often giving themselves such impressive names as Women's Rights Association, Allies for Computers in Schools, and Texans Against War.
Young people in these groups may not necessarily know many facts about their chosen issue. They almost surely will not know who the decision makers and moneyholders are to whom they must appeal, or what groups have been successfully working on their topic for 50 years. Students should research their issues for a week or two to equip themselves with evidence, develop perspectives on that evidence, identify possible allies and audiences for their writing, and help focus their goals.
Students need not know a vast amount of information on their topics before they plan and execute some action, however. We do students a disservice when we expect them to juggle so many “facts” that they cannot find space for their own voices or perspectives. Beginning to plan their actions and to write, even with incomplete knowledge, will naturally lead students to questions that they need to research further.
I have student groups compose action plans, or written descriptions of what they plan to do and how their activities will fit together. Writing can be an excellent means of organizing personal action, but this kind of writing is seldom taught in school. A unit on writing for social action presents an opportunity for such teaching. Students may write their action plans individually as part of their ongoing reflection on their project or write as a coalition, creating a shared document so that members' plans and activities are coordinated. Action plans are a form of writing common to many fields, from business to the arts. Students will need guidance to write their action plans with enough detail to demonstrate true planning without trying to fully describe actions that have not yet occurred.

Keeping the Focus on Writing

Teachers often have students improve their community through hands-on service activities. Because I want to retain a place in the curriculum for writing for social action, I keep student activities as close as possible to the kinds of academic work people expect students to perform in school. That is, I favor research and writing on advocacy issues over service learning. Students do some service activities during the unit, but the focus of the project always remains on student writing.
Students produce many different kinds of writing for their social action projects, including posters, pamphlets, Web sites, letters to the editor, letters to congressional representatives, requests for information from government officials, editorials, opinion papers, press releases, surveys, and petitions. Because so many forms of writing are involved, such projects offer hundreds of possible topics for mini-lessons on writing skills.
The pieces students write in these varied genres go out to varied audiences, a fact that drives home the point to students that good writing must present the most effective combination of elements for each different audience and purpose. A student's goal for one piece of writing may be to make her peers as passionate as she is about her issue; another piece may be trying to spur the city mayor to take action. Students quickly realize that different writing styles and tones are appropriate for different audiences. A kid's first impulse may be to address the chief of police with considerably less politeness than he would use with his friends. But, of course, such a rhetorical strategy would backfire. The teacher and fellow group members are essential in helping students imagine the perspectives of the people they are addressing.
Students also learn about the writing process by reworking a set of facts that they have gathered into different kinds of texts for different purposes. A set of facts about skateboard injuries can work one way as part of a letter to a member of Congress and another way in a pamphlet distributed in front of the local skateboard shop. The facts remain the same, but their relative importance in the text and the way they are presented varies. The lesson that different language strategies can frame reality differently—and more effectively—for diverse audiences can be learned naturally through the process of writing for social action.

Conditions That Support Writing for Social Action

Astute educators will realize that the student activities outlined so far will not inspire powerful writing unless the class atmosphere encourages and respects students' voices. Before introducing these activities, teachers must have already given students plenty of opportunities to speak relatively freely (although respectfully) in class—on topics the students chose as well as those on the teacher's agenda.
The classroom must be a place where people comfortably discuss concepts central to social justice. By discussing social issues raised by studying literature and history, and talking about school events using such terms as freedom, equality, race, and labor, students come to understand terms that at first may seem overly abstract. Eventually, however, teachers must hand control of the whole process to students, or else students will just learn to follow the political impulses of others.
No teacher living in a state of perpetual fear—a state too common in schools these days—is going to lead a unit of study like the one I have described here. Certainly, there should be nothing to fear. Writing for social action contributes to public schools' mission of preparing students to be active in a democracy and teaches the kind of language skills that students will need to succeed in life. But teachers must feel supported to undertake a project like this, and principals and other administrators should be explicit and courageous in providing that support. The support should not end when a student writes a letter complaining about something the principal did, or when a parent insists she does not want her child advocating hybrid energy in automobiles.
The unit described here is not meant to be an isolated bit of curriculum that pigeonholes writing for social action into one time frame. Rather, it outlines one way a class can deliberately focus its attention on a kind of writing that will inform students' work in many ways throughout the school year.
Not many factors in the current education environment encourage teachers to make their students independent, engaged participants in a democracy. Quite the contrary: If educators care about guiding students to become critical voices in society, we will have to work against the trend of reducing the definition of literacy to discrete and trivial skills. But surely helping each student learn to speak out will be worth the effort.
End Notes

1 Bomer, R., & Bomer, K. (2001). For a better world: Reading and writing for social action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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