Student Voices Count with ‘Letters to the Next President 2.0’

Photo credit: Letters to the Next President 2.0

Nothing feels normal this election season, and teaching the election is no different. Like all of us, students, especially teens, are flooded with competing soundbites and images, from attack ads to the latest political Tweetstorm.

“Teenage learners are beginning to really grasp a sense of the world outside of their immediate surroundings,” says Janelle Bence, an English/humanities high school teacher in Coppell, Texas. “They are also becoming burdened with what they see on the news and what comes across their feeds in social media. Many of them feel helpless in these daunting times.”

As schools open across the country, innovative teachers are looking for ways to combine students’ growing media savvy with their burgeoning political awareness. Many like Bence have already found Letters to the Next President 2.0, a national project hosted by the National Writing Project and KQED that gives teens a voice on issues that matter to them.

L2P2.0 invites middle and high school students to choose an issue and create a letter in text, video, audio, code or other multimedia formats. They can then post this letter to a national publishing platform, interact with letters from other learners across the country, and explore diverse viewpoints.

The platform also hosts a wealth of resources for teachers with ideas to help students create letters in a variety of formats, as well as links to election-related curriculum and information.

Casey Olsen, a high school English teacher in Columbus, Mont., is excited about the ways L2P2.0 connects students to a national conversation that will continue beyond Election Day.

“Growing up in rural Montana, my students often feel disconnected from larger conversations. They really yearn to make sense of the world though and to add their voices to that larger dialogue,” Olsen says. “I appreciate the opportunity for my students to take part in L2P2.0. President Barack Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan have both recently made appeals to their colleagues in government and to the American people to change American discourse. We must shift to a focus on issues and to conversations that are civil and respectful. L2P2.0 is an opportunity for teachers to affect that change, and it is an opportunity for students to lead that change.”

In addition to elevating the level of civic discourse, examining election issues also builds key research and writing skills along with boosting media literacy and critical thinking.

“L2P2.0 gives my (students) a natural outlet to share their nuanced views and showcase their argument writing skills,” Olsen says. “And whether we’re talking about L2P2.0 or letters to the editor of our local newspaper, I think it’s important to teach students these skills, build up their confidence, and encourage them to share what they see and think through letters to decision-makers. That’s how we raise up a generation of solution-oriented problem-solvers.”

For teachers still deciding if the project is for them, Christina Puntel, a high school teacher in Philadelphia, has this advice,

“Collaborate with your colleagues and see what happens! Use resources from partners like KQED, the National Writing Project, College Ready Writers, Mozilla and others. Take time to read letters from students who have already published on the website. I’ve gotten a great deal of inspiration and energy for the journey from those letters.”

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