An Inspiring Summer Camp on Student Advocacy Writing

Introduction: Mark Dziedzic, Director of the Greater Madison Writing Project (based at the University of Wisconsin — Madison) has been telling me about a summer camp on advocacy writing that teachers with the Project organized last summer. Not only is the story uplifting, it offers a powerful model for promoting thoughtful and skillful student social advocacy in locations across the country. Educators everywhere need to hear about this. So to do my part for the next few weeks, the Civic Action in Schools blog will feature pieces written by teachers who facilitated the camp. Here’s the first installment, by Gwyneth Hughes. You can read it here, but it doesn’t hurt to check out her blog as well.

- — — — — — — — —

Last summer, hope came in the form of a bag of buttons. Shiny and colorful, the buttons displayed stances on everything from promoting kindness to workers’ rights. These buttons were not from big charities or advocacy groups; they were lovingly designed by the students in the Rise Up and Write summer camp.

For two weeks in July, fifteen students came together to engage in advocacy writing, specifically around human rights. As one of the five facilitating adults, I had the privilege of working with the students to develop their writing. Seven months later, I’m still reflecting on this incredible experience. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how camp structures for developing and framing the written pieces might be useful to educators engaging students in advocacy writing.

Rise up and Write is a collaboration between UW-Madison Education Outreach and Partnerships, the Greater Madison Writing Project, and the National Writing Project. Bryn Orum, a former high school English teacher and administrator, is the camp’s director at the Madison site. Based on her experience in writing, she designed a writing camp that was both fun and ambitious. Students each selected and researched a human rights issue and wrote three advocacy pieces to different audiences: 1) a social media campaign to engage their peers in the issue, 2) a community piece meant to educate and activate support, and 3) a letter to a change-maker — someone who could affect policy. These pieces were then put out into the world through social media, local papers, and direct contact in the case of the change-makers.

In developing the camp we had to think about framing argument writing within the context of human rights. Argumentative writing in school often takes on the structure of presenting two sides of an issue and making a case for one or the other. But in this context we did not necessarily think it would be productive for students to engage with viewpoints that deny the very humanity of certain populations. Just by living their lives, many of our students were already confronting such opinions daily. Other students were frustrated by false equivalencies in the media and politics where civil rights advocates and hate groups have sometimes been characterized as two sides of the same coin. While we wanted students to delve deeply into their topics and understand different policy approaches, we did not want to put them in the position of defending their own (or even others’) right to exist. For example, one can debate the best ways to address homophobia in schools. But we weren’t going to ask students to give hypothetical arguments for homophobia.

So, how does one teach thoughtful argumentation without the “pro-con” dichotomy? Two ways in which we engaged students in considering, rather than countering, different viewpoints were examining intersectionality and addressing multiple audiences.

In order to examine their chosen issues, students did a root cause analysis, identifying the deep societal reasons for the targeting of a specific group’s human rights. This mapping across several different issues revealed how human rights attacks were fundamentally underlain by the consistent themes of fear, control, and greed in the forms racism, toxic masculinity, and exploitation. From homophobia to attacks on women’s health to discrimination against immigrants to exploitation of workers, we began to see how similar lines of thinking and societal structures lead to attacks on human rights from different angles. Looking at intersections within the root causes gave us a way to investigate and anticipate viewpoints without giving them a platform. In recognizing intersectionality, we could also examine how successful tactics from one movement could be used in others, while simultaneously appreciating the nuances of each specific issue.

By pressing students to consider peers, community, and changemakers, students had to reframe their thinking about the topic from different perspectives. This presented a way to examine issues deeply without falling into false equivalency. In considering their peers, Rise Up and Write students had to think about what people their age could contribute to the movement. We pressed them to go beyond awareness raising and ask their peers to take action — writing a legislator, speaking out against a hateful term, or even wearing a button. In thinking about writing to their larger community, students had to define their issue in a way that would resonate more generally and develop a vision for a world in which their particular issue was no longer a problem. Finally in writing to a change-makers, students were pressed to consider what larger mechanisms could address the problem and who might be able to put those into place. At each stage, students had to grapple with their issue from a different angle and take into consideration the needs and abilities of different groups.

While not the main focus of the camp, the buttons came to symbolize the students’ issues and their messaging across different audiences. With their common structure but beautifully unique artwork and messages, the buttons tied campers together while celebrating their different interests. In some cases they even became a central part of the advocacy movement, such as Zoewei Wyse’s IFeelSaferWhen campaign. They also reminded us of the overlap between all these human rights campaigns — the celebration of the human spirit and the fight against oppression. The five buttons I was able to keep are proudly displayed on my desk and serve as a reminder of what young people, hope, and some good instructional tools can create.