Back to Blog

Teaching ELA Students Active Citizenship

Students learn through advocacy projectsAdvocacy has many benefits, including educational ones. In his 2005 English Journal article “Walking the Talk: Creating Engaged Citizens in English Class,” high school teacher Fred Barton explained that this is why he leads his ELA students every year through a political advocacy project:

From a strictly academic perspective, advocacy in the classroom has several benefits. It provides opportunities for students to do primary and secondary research; engages them in a process of discovery; and enables them to select, develop, and publish electronic and textual documents for specific audiences in an authentic rhetorical context. This fits almost perfectly with my pedagogical goals as their writing teacher. Because they buy into the project, I am able to focus the students’ attention on elements of style, structure, and impact.

Buy-in is a critical factor in any long-term classroom project, and to inspire that, Barton says it’s vital to start with a topic compelling enough to overcome a feeling of powerlessness common among those who are excluded from voting and are “unused to thinking of themselves as active participants in the democratic process.”

In one case, Barton’s class joined with a racing greyhound rescue group that advocates for ending greyhound racing and acts as an adoption agency for former racing dogs. He found this issue engaged students, as many had pets and could relate to the need for more humane treatment.

The students’ first step was to educate themselves on the issue:

We discussed the animal-human bond and shared stories. Because we were close to a college of veterinary medicine that had done a lot of work in the area of human-animal relations, we were able to have one of the veterinarians come to class and talk about research that has been done on the value of companion animals in human recovery from illness. We also read excerpts from Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and Matthew Scully’s Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.

Once they gathered information about greyhound racing, they decided where to share that information. They were in Michigan, where dog racing is uncommon. However, they knew of a large population of senior citizens who spent summer in Michigan but winter in Florida, America’s largest racing state. Students put together a PowerPoint presentation specifically geared toward these seniors, encouraging them to take action in Florida. Students also “created a press packet that was mailed to newspaper and television stations in the capital cities of racing states.”

Political activism, of course, always risks a negative reaction. Barton had thought they would be safe in a state without dog racing, but he quickly learned supporters of dog racing could cross state lines as effectively as his students could. When “the breeder’s association found out about us [the association] started bombarding my administrators with emails and phone calls.”

While this backlash was uncomfortable for the adults, it showed the students that they were far from helpless, as they could scare people in power. “As one of my students pointed out, ‘We don’t even know these people and they hate us already. Is that cool or what?’”

In the end, Barton and his school responded by inviting the breeders to come to the class and explain to these students why their concerns about animal welfare were unfounded. The breeders declined.

Read Fred Barton’s entire article “Walking the Talk: Creating Engaged Citizens in English Class.”