As I’ve noted before I embarked on an American literacy themed class in the Fall of 2019 and built the work of my Writing I classes around the American Creed documentary and the National Writing Project’s Writing Our Future work. The first unit, or achievement, that my students completed focused on crafting their own American Creed essay in the style of a “This I Believe” essay. This essay is a simple personal argument which my students could have written on the first day of class with a fair amount of success, but my goal (as always) is to help my students think and write and talk with more nuance and to understand that more effective arguments come from engaging in complexity and considering the voices of others. Our work to help students engage in that complexity and expand the voices they consider when crafting their arguments involved engaging with three sets of texts.
Considering our personal values
I wrote about this activity in a previous blog post (Heralding in a new year by exploring personal values) but this process is familiar to many National Writing Project teachers who use a variety of tools to build community. Student writers spend time reflecting and writing about their past, present, and/or future with the goal of providing fodder for future writing assignments. As an NWP teacher I recognize the value and importance of this process and I handcrafted the process that I felt best served my class and my students. To support our future study of the values, symbols, and anthems that make up America’s story we introduced ourselves using that same structure in class with table tents inspired by heraldry and then online with snaps. I wanted my students to be able to articulate their personal creed before they embarked on the next steps in our process.
Considering American values
We began considering American values by first watching some video compilations of people answering one of these three questions: What does it mean to be an American? What is the American Dream? What makes an American an American? Students wrote in response to any of these questions or responses and then crafted a six word story.
Then we listened to an episode of the NPR podcast Throughline which discusses some American anthems including the Battle Hymn of the Republic and introduced the idea of alternative American anthems by exploring the playlist compiled by the NPR American Anthem series. Students were then asked to choose an alternative anthem and explain their choice.
We then spent some time learning about the official and unofficial symbols of American from Uncle Sam to the Statue of Liberty and students were asked to choose a symbol that they felt best embodied their definition of America and explain their choice.
Then we got more serious and studied America’s foundation and founding documents including the reminder that we were (and still are) a grand experiment. After a brief history lesson, most of the work focused on studying the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution (using the Interactive Constitution). Students reflected and wrote about whether they are an originalist or living constitutionalist; key ideas that are still making headlines today; argue what they believe is the most important function of these foundational documents; and argue the most important right protected by our founding documents.
The goal of this process was to help students understand how their personal values fit in with their view of American values as well as to see that there is not one single vision of America — and in fact never has been.
What we believe about America
After we spent all this time researching, reflecting, discussing, and writing about our values and American values, students began working on This I Believe essays focused on America. Our first step was actually to go old school and break out the crayons and markers. Class began with students drawing their beliefs about America. The prompt directed them that their drawing could be inspired by the natural world, man-made objects or machines, historical or mythical symbols, math, cartoons, etc. Only after they drew were they directed to write about how their drawing fit into the work that had come before.This method was inspired by my work with the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writer’s Program With these drawings and writings in mind, we then crafted compelling, debatable and defensible claims (another lesson learned from C3WP work) upon which to build those This I Believe essays.
Then we collaborated on standards, conducted a writing workshop for drafts, and the final product was evaluated as a part of their work on the whole unit during our grading conference. This lesson sequence is specific to our American Literacy work, but I follow a similar process or procedure for every unit as part of my writing ecosystem model. How much foundational work do you do with your students before they begin drafting? Do I do too much, too little, or just right? I love this layered approach to teaching, don’t you? I’m already thinking about how this unit will evolve in the fall in light of pandemic teaching and my goal to teach good faith arguments.