Civically-Engaged Connected Learning

The Great American Teach-In: Students Find Voice, Collaborate, and Make a Difference


Teacher consultant Janelle Bence shares her experience supporting her students in composing and sharing Declarations of Education about what they value in education. Originally published on July 24, 2011

Sometimes, the planets seem to align, the clouds part, the sun shines, and a learning opportunity presents itself, a learning opportunity that is so rich, so engaging, and so relevant, that right away, you know it is right for your students. The Great American Teach-In wasn’t only a teachable moment, it was an essential moment to share with my English Language Learners.

After all is said and done, what should students learn? After progressing in academic writing, reading more independently, analyzing fiction and non-fiction, is there something else? Once students have a successful year, what steps can be taken to help support future achievement?

What about students in urban settings? Those who attend schools labeled as “academically unacceptable” or supposed “drop-out factories”? How do we stop that cycle of incompletion? What will motivate students at these campuses to stop being passive consumers of curriculum that may or may not speak to them and become active producers in a learning context that truly engages them? To become learners who co-create solutions to problems that are meaningful to them? What will help these young people understand that instead of “Waiting for Superman”, they each have the power of agency within themselves?

Students are successful when they see worth in education. With this value, they feel invested in their own educations and are more likely to excel. When learners identify themselves as members of a learning community, they feel accountable to contribute to the group to reach the learning objective. A community shares values and goals that motivate them to work together. Classroom tasks should support and drive the community of learners.

Composing Declarations of Education refocuses students on what they value in education. It encourages discussion of not only what needs to be changed by teachers, administration, district and state staff, but also, what he students are responsible in an academic environment. Working together, students recapture what is important to them, who can help improve education, and what potential there is in future learning.

Textual Analysis and Improving Academic Writing

Students engage in a quick write: Why is education important? This short piece helps to bring the students’ values to the forefront, helping them to stay focused on the academic context of this piece.

What is a declaration? Using the Declaration of Independence as a mentor text, students identify what the historical document says. What is the purpose of the document? Who is its audience? How does the structure support its purpose? What do you notice about the language of the piece? Are there devices used to help achieve the text’s purpose?

Students annotated the text, pulling out responses to the questions. Finding several important points:

  • the declaration was about making changes
  • it was directed to King George III
  • they had tried to work within the system
  • they realized they needed to take action
  • the repetition of words helped the meaning and emphasized how important this message was
  • it was what many people wanted

This close text study scaffolded the composing of Declarations of Education. Groups of students worked together to create documents that reflected their ideas of value, reform, and personal accountability. They used elements of language from the Declaration of Independence to persuade their audience that these changes were crucial. Here are excerpts from my students’ Declarations of Education.

We value education:

“We demand changes in order for us to succeed because education is the key to be successful in life. Also, education contributes to create a healthy society. A healthy society could mean both economically and educationally.  These aspects help the structure of society, to join a very healthy country.” (5th Period-Group 1)

“It is important  to understand that education is the base of who we are and how we are going to be. Moreover, it is essential because from education the best life, the best future, the best generation, and the best way to see life is born. Therefore, it is crucial because this is where dreams start to be clarified, creating advances in your mind to represent who you are.

“We think it is significant for us students because there are many things in life that you want to be and do, but to go through all of that, you need education. To us, education helps us experience things and gives you opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise know, and it helps you motivate yourself and others.” (3rd Period Group 1)

We want change:

“If we want to change the way they teach us and the way the teachers are, we also have to pay attention and not argue when they correct our mistakes. Maybe that’s why they react with a negative mood with us.” (3rd Period Group 2)

“We, the students from North Dallas High School, demand that the school does not waste our time with things that will not help us in life. We want to learn how life works not how fantasy works.” (5th Period Group 2)

We know we have a responsibility to make reform happen:

“If we want to change the way they teach us and the way the teachers are, we also have to pay attention and not argue when they correct our mistakes. Maybe that’s why they react with a negative mood with us.” (3rd Period Group 2)

“We, the students from North Dallas High School, demand that the school does not waste our time with things that will not help us in life. We want to learn how life works not how fantasy works.” (5th Period Group 2)

We use powerful language to persuade people to make these changes happen:

“For some students the problem are their parents. The education starts at home. The education from our parents is the base of everything. It is like a building where each day we add a piece of brick until the building is done. We have to notice  that we are just getting started, and a good beginning has a god end.” (5th Period-Group 1)

“To ensure that this Declaration of Education is realized, we have to fight, not with weapons but with ideas.” (3rd Period Group 1)

“We know that because we believe in us, we believe in our teachers, we believe in our dreams, we can make our dreams come true trying to do the best as a team, as a school, as a family.” (5th Period Group 3)

“Our future is what they are teaching us. It’s what they are telling us. It’s what they are showing us.” (5th Period Group 3)

Collaboration: Real Time and Virtually

When brainstorming ideas and analyzing the mentor text, students worked in groups of three or four. At their desks, students designated who would compose various parts of the document. After drafting individually, students reunited to share what they had written. Ideas were revised, deleted, elaborated, and crafted.

When writers felt they had a strong draft, they each went to the computer to work on a Google Doc of their Declaration. Students had never used this platform before. They were amazed that they could type at the same time. It helped them revise and edit each other’s work while still trying to maintain a fluid voice throughout the piece.

The students revised their work numerous times. They prompted each to look at the structure of the mentor text. I made comments on the documents to praise and suggest revisions.

The ability to confer face to face and virtually motivated students. They were also aware I could view their work for added support.

Building Solidarity

Learners need to feel comfortable with one another to learn, but for a true sense of community, values must be communicated and if possible, shared by members of the community.

As students composed their Declarations of Education, they realized that they weren’t only telling their teachers and administrators what was important in education, they were also sharing these ideas with one another.

“It’s not only for the teachers, it’s for the students, too.”

“I’m not the only one with these problems.”

“I’m not the only one who thinks this.”

Common values. Common problems. Common solutions. Consistent goals that will assist in coming closer to achievement.

Collaboratively creating the declarations allowed students the opportunity to discover intrinsic beliefs that would bond them and poise them for agency.