What the teacher did: I briefly shared some news updates with students.
I shared this satirical video from last week’s Saturday Night Live: https://slate.com/culture/2018/03/watch-charles-barkley-fight-insect-infestations-the-nra-way-giving-semiautomatic-rifles-to-cockroaches.html
I explained that a letter to a lawmaker has distinct characteristics. I then passed out the following mentor text letter to them:
March 6, 2018
The Honorable Susan Doe
2222 Rayburn House Office Building
United States House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
Re: Cutting the education budget
Dear Representative Susan Doe:
As a teacher and a constituent, I am concerned about the potential impact of calls to cut $1.7 billion in education. I am writing to urge you to vote “No” on this bill.
My school and many others are already struggling to cut back. My school district is expecting our enrollment to continue to increase by 4-6 percent annually over the next five years. Combined with the proposed federal budget cuts, we will likely have to make cuts to our academic, athletic, and arts programs. For teachers like me, this means money out of our own pockets as we try to keep our classroom activities up to par. If you keep squeezing teachers, more of them will leave the profession, already adding to the high percentage of teachers who quit.
Another negative effect of this bill is the complete lack of funding for public preschool programs. Studies from The Education Trust continue to show that those who attend preschool demonstrate improvement in long-term test scores and important development in language, literacy, mathematics and social skills. Low-income families and communities, in particular, benefit from these preschool programs. They provide a free, safe and education-oriented place for children to learn while their parents can work more hours.
Finally, the Title I Portability clause takes money from the school districts that need it most and transfers it to optional private and charter schools. Title I was intended to help schools with low-income students, which very often suffer from low local funding. This Portability clause leaves the public schools that are already hurting the most in a more serious financial bind. This is unconscionable.
I have heard the argument that all areas of the budget need to be cut in these difficult economic times, but cutting school budgets is short-sighted. According to the Los Angeles Times, every dollar invested in schools ends up in the long run adding almost two dollars to the economy. Yes, education is expensive, but not nearly as expensive as ignorance. An investment in schools is an investment in the future. We can pay a little bit now, or we will end up paying a lot later.
Thank you for your consideration. When this bill comes up to vote, I urge you as a concerned teacher on the ground to vote “No.” If we truly want our students be successful, we need to avoid or reduce these drastic cuts.
123 Main Street
Anytown, State 98887
This letter, of course, is fake, and I purposefully avoided writing about guns because I did not want my students to copy me. Students were asked to read the letter and to mark “key” characteristics. I modeled one for them (For example, when we address lawmakers, we refer to them as “The Honorable___________”).
What the students did: Students read quietly for five minutes, marking the “moves” found in this kind of writing.
What the teacher did: Asked students to share their findings with other members at their tables.
I then directed a whole-class conversation so that all students could mark their letters. Here are some of the elements they noticed:
· The use of the colon in the salutation.
· The introduction served two purposes: (1) it identified the letter writer and (2) it called for action on a specific issue.
· The next three paragraphs introduced arguments in favor of the writer’s stance, along with support. This support had to be more than the thinking off the top of the writer’s head. In the mentor text for example, I refer to The Education Trust and the Los Angeles Times as sources that support my thinking.
· We paid close attention to the transition words between paragraphs (“Another,” “Finally”) and what purpose these words served.
· In paragraph four, we noticed how a counterargument was introduced, and how the argument was refuted. We noticed how on two different occasions the word “but” in that paragraph helped to pivot the argument.
· We noticed that the conclusion also served two purposes: (1) to adopt the right tone by thanking the lawmaker, and (2) to revisit the call to action— one last plea to do something.
I then had the students revisit the argument notes they had already assembled. These notes, I told them, might serve as the “bones” of their letters.
What the students did: The students took out their argument notes and read them again. Then they began drafting their argument letters.
Some reflections on the lesson:
- Writing a letter to a lawmaker is a practice in economy. I was actually a congressional intern when I was in college, and I read a lot of the incoming mail. Letters that were long were often not read. With this in mind, I asked my students to try to keep their letters to a single typed page (single spaced)—like the model I gave them.
- I am not searching for an exact number of “big” reasons to support one’s argument. In other words, I am not looking for a 5-paragraph essay. I told the students they might support their arguments with three reasons, or two, or four. They might only have one reason—but it is a really good reason that they can support really well. I also told them that they could ignore my mentor text and write in any way they think will persuade a politician. There is no formula.