First Person

Voices: Giving students the right to write

Retired teacher Kathy King-Dickman says students can be encouraged to find real-world meaning in the written word through persuasive writing. (A similar version of this article appeared in the DSC Way Blog and portions of it appeared in The California Reader.)

“Mrs. D., it’s not fair that we only have three minutes between passing periods!”

EdNews file photo

“I agree. Write a persuasive letter about that and you can send it to the school board.”

“Mrs. D., it’s not fair that they called off our middle school ball game so the high school could play.”

“I agree. Why don’t you write a letter to the athletic director about that?”

“Mrs. D., it’s not fair that you let Emily turn in her assignment late and no one else.”

“Oh Laura, you are so right. I think you have finally found your topic for your persuasive essay!”

Many days my writing class began with the sounds of middle school students complaining about their lot in life and my response to write about it, so it wasn’t surprising when our principal brought us the following letter the day after school began in 2010:

Dear Mrs. Hashbarger:

I’m writing this letter to tell you how bad this first day of middle school felt to me. I felt like all I did today was listen to the teachers give us rules upon rules, and the strange thing was they didn’t feel like rules; they felt like threats. Let me tell you what I heard all day:

  • If  I talk in class, I’ll get blue slips and warnings
  • If  I’m even a few minutes late for class once, I immediately have to go to a 30 minute detention
  • If  I laugh about anything not school related, it’s back to blue slips and warnings

I hoped that today would be a fun day seeing friends and getting ready to start the school year. My friends at OMS had a barbecue that the teachers put on for them and what did we have? Our teachers threatening us to follow the rules, and they didn’t just do this for an hour or so, they did it for the whole day.

This letter closed with a powerful ending, convincing our entire staff to back off from the rules that we had been so determined to implement. This was from a seventh-grader who earned an outstanding score on the Colorado state mandated writing test.

Recently, I was delighted to read this passage in Pathways to the Common Core:

Think of any cause that matters to you. Is it global warming? The growing gap between the rich and the poor? Or violence in video games? Whatever the cause, you probably believe that the world would be a better place if people who care about that cause had the courage and the literacy skills to make their views heard. If young people grow up learning to participate in logical, reasoned, evidenced-based arguments, this will mean that they are given a voice. Our democracy is dependent on educated, concerned citizenry, exercising the right to be heard.

It seems that the Common Core State Standards have seen the power in argument writing to instill a voice in writers of all ages – calling it “opinion writing” in kindergarten through fifth grade and “argument” thereafter (CCSS writing standard one).  Persuasive essays are one way in which students can express their voices while meeting standard one.

Whether it comes from a second-grader pleading for a later bed time or a ninth-grader asking the world to not pollute, students feel the power in exercising their right to write.

Donald Graves and Penny Kittle (2005) say that essays “…convince the reader he’d better get off his butt and get busy doing what the writer wants.” Adolescents  love learning that writing is one way in which they can appropriately do what Graves and Kittle suggest.

However, if we want students to invest fully in this genre of writing, we need to encourage them to write about topics that matter dearly to them and not those chosen by their teachers. Two years ago I heard a student named Marley shout, “Yes. I have been waiting all year!” amidst the cheers of his peers when I announced that it was time to start our persuasive unit. I do not remember ever feeling excited about writing an essay in all of my years of school. Do you?

Not only did this type of writing motivate students to write, it helped the entire Moffat Middle school earn the Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Award for 2010 and 2012 as well as a  Center of Excellence Award in 2011.

What’s not fair? Neglecting to teach students how to exercise their powerful voices in argumentative writing. That, my fellow teachers, is not fair.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.