Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Teaching Literacy with the Law in Mind - PROJECT BASED LITERACY Activates Students as Alert Engaged Citizens… Now!

Guest Article by Dr. Rose Reissman:


Like other citizens, I often find myself appalled by things I bear witness to in the media.  Most recently, in addition to the proposed policies of our nation’s most prominent business heavyweight turned political star to keep immigrants and foreigners out of our country, a former child star has announced her intention to seek the Presidency. Doesn’t Mr. Trump know that singling out members of specific ethnic groups this way directly violates our country’s Bill of Rights, and is Ms. Lohan so ignorant of our Constitution that she doesn’t know that because she isn’t 30 years old yet she cannot run?  Is it a comfort to know that Kanye West is of age to run and may well get substantial voter interest in polls and primaries?  What does this say about American citizens’ knowledge of the constitution and their engagement in social issues?  Let’s not even go there.

In ascribing responsibility for this situation, among the guilty, our educational system certainly has to share in the blame. When you add common sentiment about things like gun control, freedom of speech issues, freedom of religion news, government seizure of phone records, and so much more that continually dominates the flow of content in our media, one understands that our schools really need to do more to give students actual training, background, and citizenship experiences on which they can formulate quality opinions about the issues that shape their lives.

While we teachers may not be able to educate the uninformed, misinformed, and apathetic public that has already graduated about these issues, we can prepare the current generation of students we are now working with to handle them. We are mandated to teach them literacy, and college prep and career skills and over the years, as a literacy specialist and Law Related Education teacher/curriculum writer associated with a great many k-12 schools, I’ve successfully managed to tap instruction directed at teaching these skills and expand its purpose and reach to include Law and Social Issues effectively. My approach is to employ something I’ve come to call Project Based Literacy, in which students grapple with important current issues as they create exciting exit products.

In developing, producing, and presenting these products, students do literacy tasks that require research, reflective reading, deep discussion, writing, integration of graphics, and use of digital resources.  All of these are key elements of contemporary literacy instruction and combined with deep focus on social issues that affect students, make literacy come alive as they activate students as citizens now.


Interestingly, while I find that many literacy educators are still unsure what significant advantages the integration of technology might bring, in all of these projects it is technology that enables the students to produce professional looking products, to publish them in the true sense of having a real presence in the world, and to truly reach an actual audience, one that often includes adults and professionals who are not directly part of the school community. Such contact with, and impact on, non-school stakeholder audiences assures that my students feel that their projects are important and relevant, so much so that while working on them they are highly motivated, thoroughly engaged, and often walk away from the experience capable of discussing important social issues in a way that we all would love to see the adults they share their world with demonstrate, as well.

Here are a few examples of projects that accomplish this:

1)  ‘Kids in the News’ involves students in going online to do short research on and track (as part of a portfolio), news items in which students are the focus.  These items often include: students arrested for a crime, students whose rights in the United States or internationally are challenged, and students who lead as young citizens.  For each item students create a short summary and take a position on the social/legal issue and perhaps create a graphic or interview an adult with expertise (i.e. School Dean, local police, local official).  Literacy tasks include: reading a range of texts, research into a social issue or connected legal issue, discussion, short informational writing, interviewing, and perhaps argument writing.  The materials that students produce are often shared with adults through a web site or blog that provides opportunities for readers (peers, adults, and experts, both members of and outsiders to the school community) to comment.

2)  ‘Hot Topic - Citizens Now’ guides students in creating their own podcasts that convene a panel of students, stakeholders in local issues (e.g. police, safety officers, deans, community leaders, and local business people) with a student moderator that detail an issue that affects their community or the country as a whole.  Such issues might include: alleged police excessive use of force in arresting young minority offenders, gun control laws and background checks, school suspensions and their actual impact on school violence, use of specialized high school admissions tests which seem to lead to a small percentage of minority admits, and mandatory public school vaccination requirements. The podcasts require student research, development of interview questions, ability to converse and to respond/react appropriately to panel comments, and ability to argue/advocate a position with reference to 1-3 details that support the position.  The podcast, which of course hones speaking and listening skills and word use, is posted on the school web site or shared otherwise as a link or an audio file for listener feedback.

3) ‘Functional Documents - Student Oversight’: Many adults cannot or do not read small (or even large) print on coupons, ads, nutrition labels, over the counter prescription drugs, merchandise receipts, and instruction manuals for equipment they acquire. Students collect from their own kitchen shelves and bathroom cabinets, as well as school cafeteria discards, packaging as well as labels and advertising circulars which offer opportunities to focus on word use details such as danger warnings, (deceptive or verifiable) claims for efficacy, side effects notices, dosage limits, etc.  Students create a print guide for citizens that alternatively clarifies and provides improved factual healthy use requirements, limits for over counter drugs, and details the false, misleading, or commonly misunderstood advertising and (questionable) claims on labels, coupons and circulars on which they choose to focus.  This print guide can be posted on line and expanded throughout the year by a team of student oversight observers.  This fosters authentic research, text engagement, reading for real use of functional documents, and analysis of purpose, topic, and actual use of products.  Developing a guide to post online is an immediate citizen-consumer proactive action that contextualizes students as community resources and contributing citizens.


If today’s students in our K-12 literacy classrooms were to begin to actually apply their literacy skills to important issues and needs in the world in which they live as described in the Project Based Literacy examples given above, we’d likely have fewer tabloid candidates running for high offices with the support of masses of uniformed and apathetic citizens and more American teens following in the digital footsteps of Malala, the Pakistani girl who stood up for her right to be educated and who has become a global symbol of the importance and impact of youth activism . 

That would certainly be a literacy-driven, Common Sense approach for teaching citizenship now, one that Thomas Paine would recognize and applaud.  Through Project Based Literacy we literacy educators can make it so.

Dr. Rose Reissman is the co-author of Project Based Literacy:
Fun Literacy Projects for Powerful Common Core Learning
(Information Age Publishers, 2015). She is the founder of the Writing Institute, which has served 134 schools. Dr. Reissman developed the projects cited in this article in collaboration with Ditmas Middle School teachers Angelo Carideo, Michael Downes, David Liotta, and Amanda Xavier.