Fostering Civic Engagement in Students and Ourselves

The one thing that upset me the most about the election that just happened was how little reasonable debate there was about actual issues. Of course, this is nothing new, but it seems to be getting worse and worse. In thinking about this, I realized that I have personally done very little to engage in discussion with others about political issues, and now I am trying to figure out ways to do more of that, and also encourage my students to do more critical thinking, critical evaluation of the messages they hear around them, and engagement with others about political ideas.

I have a few ways of doing this, but I hope if you read this, fellow teachers, you will also share your ideas in this forum and other ones, about how to increase the amount of reasoning and discussion in our democratic society.

One way I have is probably rather old-fashioned. It involves writing letters to the editor of a newspaper. If you can still find a real, print newspaper somewhere, find the editorial page, and pick out a few letters to the editor. Analyzing them can be a good lesson in genre analysis - what is the tone that the author uses? Is it personal or impersonal, formal or informal, neutral or angry or passionate? What kind of adjectives and pronouns does the author use to create this tone? What is the format of the letter? Is there an introduction, or does the author jump right to the point? After asking and answering questions like this, have the student write his/her own letter to the editor, perhaps about a topic you have been studying in social studies or that you have read about together. Send it off and see if it gets published!

As far as authentic writing exercises go, I think this is a good one. In my experience, letters to the editor also have a good mix of precise terminology and catchy idioms or turns of phrase. These can be useful for students of English as a Second Language, as well anyone trying to get the hang of varying their tone and style in writing. Good luck, and may we all do better with civic engagement next time around!


I've found that college students often lack these critical thinking skills that their classes require. I think that part of it is that teachers and professors consider mentioning a hodge podge of related topics and ideas "deep thinking." The logic and reasoning skills taught to prepare students for proofs in high school geometry seem to comprise the closest thing to a formal education in argumentative skills. However, curricula often expect students to draw connections on their own, as in "Hey, this skill I'm learning in geometry applies to my persuasive paper in language arts." In my experience, even the brightest students fail to do so. I've used the "if/then" statements, syllogisms, deductive reasoning etc from geometry to help students with writing assignments, critical thinking skills, studying for the SAT and GRE, and learning how to interpret texts (like the editorial letters you have used). I've also had students I've homeschooled do assignments like the ones you have described to assess the quality of on-line sources. They use clues like tone to determine bias. The Harbrace Handbook (the 2001 edition I think), a grammar manual, has a great section that covers faulty reasoning, tools of rhetoric, and persuasive mechanisms. It provides several exercises that students can use to practice uncovering these elements in passages, letters, and speeches. After working through these, I then gave them a copy of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. and one by Malcom X so that they could try to figure out the arguments they made, the quality of their logic, and persuasive tools they used.
I agree, Julia, that letters to the editor -- or whatever their 21st century equivalents -- are both a great tool for learning and a cogent means by which our new citizens can engage the government and make demands. A long history going to Ambassador Benjamin Franklin and far beyond is made real and alive by anyone picking up a pen or an Ipad and scribing their civic perspective. I salute your lesson plan thoughts, your civic duty and your patriotism.
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