This current back-to-school season is no doubt marked in tangible ways by a contentious presidential election cycle. I find myself wondering how much this indubitable backdrop will play a role in the learning that actually takes place in many classrooms. How much do the real world concerns of the day become an opportunity to help students become critical thinkers who learn to listen to others? Research and school time devoted to civic issues that engage student interest and ignite student passion can certainly represent powerful learning experiences. But, we often fall short of this opportunity in fear of tipping certain scales of “balance” or political neutrality. Unfortunately, what is left by the wayside is the chance to have our students discover themselves as thoughtful stakeholders in their own communities.
We need to prepare our students to see themselves as active participants in the world they live in. And, we should make the connection between our academic efforts and the stakes of the real world more explicit. When it comes to typical writing assignments, it seems the system is still often stuck on academic exercises that preclude any opportunity to engage in civic advocacy. But, how can we effectively support the mission of schools to engage youth as productive and active citizens? The answer lies in inviting students to write for public purpose.
Writing for public purpose can take many forms in different kinds of learning environments. At the university level, I emphasize a public knowledge component in the design of my own graduate classes. How can we move the knowledge we co-produce in our courses back to our communities? By offering students the opportunity to design their own learning outcomes, an educator can open up a special space that allows for academic knowledge production to actually matter in the real world. I have written about the leap of faith involved in taking such academic risks, as well as the rewards that unfold when that leap is taken. These days, I make sure to build into each course design an element that allows my students’ diverse creativity and their shared purpose to emerge. All of my students are writers, thinkers, civic participants, makers, and artists. Their course work should always be a testament to who they are and who they are becoming. Here is an example (from my current course entitled “Writing Electronic Literature”) of an open collaborative project that also stands as a call to write for public purpose.
How can we envision this kind of work with younger writers? I wrote an earlier blog announcing the launch of Letters to the Next President 2.0. This initiative empowers young people from 13-18 years old to voice their opinions and ideas on issues that impact them. The next phase of that project is now underway — the #2NextPrez initiative has since converted to a massive open online publishing platform where any educator or youth mentor can make space for their students to voice their thinking. Through #2NextPrez, students now have the opportunity to write publicly about the issues that they believe the next president needs to address. The results thus far are astonishing. From thinking about homelessness in America, commenting on immigration, gun violence, and gun control, speaking out against Islamaphobia, appealing for more support for our veterans, expressing concern over border bodies, to advocating for unborn innocents, these annals of articulate young voices pay tribute to the investments and commitments of a working democracy. Each day, the platform fills up more and more with the hopes, vision, and pleas of America’s youth. I recommend a visit to the Letters to the Next President website — just hit the “surprise me” button. The original invitation to join still stands. Educators, students, and writers everywhere are encouraged to participate in the platform through Election Day 2016. There is clear guidance on the website walking you through participation: find instructional videos and process steps, plus definitions. For instructional and teaching resources, see #2NextPrez Resources and Opportunities. More information on the ongoing project can be found here:
Banner image credit: Mia C. Zamorra