National Writing Project

Letters to the Next President: A Real-World Purpose for Student Writing

Date: October 2008

Summary: Teachers who participated in the Letters to the Next President project, cosponsored by the NWP and Google, said that their students were motivated by having a real-world purpose for their writing, and the project engaged them in this year’s political process.

 

An authentic purpose for writing.

Over and over again, that is what participating teachers are saying drew them to the Letters to the Next President project. Their students had things to say about the state of our country, and Letters to the Next President provided a website where they could voice those opinions using rhetorical strategies to make their words compelling.

“There was a real-world reason for writing,” explained Ellen Shelton, a high school English teacher from Tupelo, Mississippi, and the director of the University of Mississippi Writing Project. “There was a larger context for their work.  They really had a voice in this discussion. Someone outside of a teacher, someone on the national level, wanted to know what they were thinking about.”

Cathie English, who teaches English at Aurora High School in Nebraska, said she always begins the year by working with her students on the skills of argument. Having her students craft persuasive pieces related to the presidential campaign fit right in with her curricular objectives.

She talked with her students about the ways in which they could compose pieces that appealed to readers in a variety of manners. English told her students to “appeal to their hearts, appeal to their minds, appeal to their ethics.” And her students made sure to use those appeals in their letters to the candidates. “It was a perfect first assignment,” English said.

Analyzing the Language of Politics

Similarly, Shelton said she was able to encourage her students to examine the rhetoric involved in the vice presidential and presidential debates as part of the process of developing their pieces for the website.

They came to class saying, 'We still don't know what they think about energy.'

“My kids came back really excited. How many 16- and 17-year-olds do you hear screaming after a presidential debate, ‘They didn’t answer the questions!’ and ‘That’s such a debate answer!’ They came to class saying, ‘We still don’t know what they think about energy. They talked about change, but we don’t know what change means to them.’"

Chris Sloan, teacher of English and Media at Judge Memorial High School in Utah, used the project to help his students consider the language of politics. His seniors are reading unSpun by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson—which focuses on deciphering political hyperbole—and Orwell’s 1984.

“To connect politics and the English language, from Orwell to what is going on now, was great for what I’m doing with curriculum,” Sloan says. “It was a perfect storm. There’s a groundswell of interest in the election this year.”

Writing in a Digital World

Sloan also used this project as a means to discuss with his students the significance of composing in a digital environment.

“I’m still one foot pre–21st century and one foot 21st century,” Sloan explained. “We still read books on paper and we actually write with pens in writers’ notebooks pretty regularly. I used this as an opportunity to talk about the difference between digital writing and traditional writing. That led to pretty interesting conversations.”

From Sloan’s perspective, the project’s use of Google Docs, an online collaborative writing tool, proved immensely useful in allowing his students to work with one another as peer editors, and to automatically share their documents with him as their teacher.

Shelton, too, found the experience of using Google Docs with students—in her case, for the first time—illuminating.

“I had one student who, when he found out I was online and could get into his document while he was writing, went offline to Word because, he said, ‘I don’t like someone reading my writing as I’m writing it.’  For other kids, I left little messages and notes in their Google documents.”

In the end, English says, the act of writing for this project has had a profound effect on her students.

“It gave them a chance to say ‘I matter.’ It gave them a chance to say ‘I have a voice.’”

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