Sí, Se Puede: Making a Difference, One Letter at a Time
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In this lesson, students read the book ¡Si, Se Puede!/Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A., and discuss unions, strikes, and organizing for change. Students then develop questions and interview a staff member in their school to learn about their daily work life. Students determine the criteria for effective letters and write letters to the editor advocating for fair wages and working environments (or another local, contemporary work-related issue). Students draft their letters, then peer review and revise them. Finally, they publish their letters using an online tool, and mail a copy to the newspaper, if desired.
Note: This lesson is based on the idea of fair wages and working environments, but can be adapted to examine other social justice topics that are important to students themselves and that are real issues in local communities.
|Letter Generator: This online tool helps students learn the parts of a letter while publishing their own.|
From Theory to Practice
In their article "Critical Literacy," Leland and Harste argue: "Teachers who want to reimagine [the read-aloud] as an opportunity to engage children in critical conversations about power and social justice can help them begin to understand that every text is written from someone's perspective." (468) The use of picture books, which are a quick read, allows students to explore multiple perspectives around the theme of social bridges and barriers. Picture books can invite students to engage in critical discussion of complex issues of race, class, and gender. They "show how people can begin to take action on important social issues . . . and help us question why certain groups are positioned as 'others'" (Harste, 2000, p. 507). Read alouds enable students to engage in dialogue as they consider the narratives in terms of historical contexts, the nature of the implied barriers, and how individuals can take action to promote social justice and equity.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
- 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- ¡Si, Se Puede!/Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A by Diana Cohn
- Chart paper/white board and markers
- Computers with Internet access (for each student, if possible)
- Letter to the Editor from local or national newspaper of your choosoing (make an overhead transparency, or you may project the letter from online)
This website, from FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting), provides uselful information on writing to and communicating with newspapers through letters to the editor or opinion pieces.
This site, from the American Civil Liberties Union, provides helpful hints and ideas for writers writing letters to the editor.
This resource, from the National Council of Teachers of English, provides information on writing letters to the editor or opinion pieces as a means of advocacy.
- Locate ¡Si, Se Puede!/Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A. in your classroom library, your local library, or a bookseller. Familiarize yourself with the content and the images within the book.
- Arrange for current issues of local, regional, or national newspapers for the classroom. Each student should have a newspaper for this activity. You may ask each student to bring a newspaper from home. If computer access allows, you can also use online newspaper sites. In addition to local newspaper sites, you can use resources from the Newseum collection of Today's Front Pages. Students will need to be able to print articles from online newspapers or to return to those pages throughout this lesson.
- Print copies of the Persuasion Map Planning Sheet, Letter to the Editor Peer Review Questions, Invisible Questions (Option 1), and Invisible Questions (Option 2).
- Make overhead transparencies of the Persuasion Map Planning Sheet and Possible Interview Questions, and a letter to the editor of your choice (that discusses/supports a current issue).
- Notify staff members in your school that they may be asked for an interview, and remind them that they are welcome to decline the invitation if necessary.
- Review the following guidelines for composing letters to the editor and determine which are appropriate for your class:
- How to Communicate with Journalists, from FAIR
- Tips on Writing Letters to the Editor, from the ACLU
- Write an Opinion Piece or a Letter to the Editor for Your Local Newspaper, from NCTE
- Test the Letter Generator and Persuasion Map on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tools and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.
- discuss what constitutes fair wages and working environments of different professions in our country.
- create interview questions to research the daily life of a professional in the school community.
- review persuasive writing structure and business letter format.
- determine the criteria for effective letters.
- explore the ways that purpose and audience influence a message.
- develop arguments and support ideas with evidence.
- Begin the session with a class discussion about unions and strikes to activate prior knowledge. Ask the students what they know about both unions and strikes in our country, and ask them to provide as many details as possible (this may be information about a national newsworthy union or strike, or could even be about a local plumbers union or teachers’ strike). Allow students to voice their opinions about the topic and, as they do, write keywords or big ideas on the board or chart paper for the class to see. If students need additional information on what a union or a strike is, share information and examples with them.
- Read the book ¡Si, Se Puede!/Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A. aloud to the class. Follow the reading with a class discussion about the feelings of the janitors and the other characters in the book. Allow students to share personal experiences that may relate to the book.
- Ask students to think about a time when they felt “invisible” like the janitors in the book. Give each student a copy of the Invisible Questions (Option 1) and ask them to reflect on a time when they had these feelings. If students do not have a time when they felt invisible, they can answer the questions on Invisible Questions (Option 2) about a time when someone that was “invisible” to them became “visible.”
- Discuss students’ answers to the questions and allow them to elaborate on how their feelings relate to the feelings of the janitors in the book. Explain to students that they will use their feelings about invisibility to create interview questions about the work life of others.
- Review the message of the book from the previous session and allow students to discuss any more feelings they have about the inequalities and unfair practices that they saw in the book.
- Have students identify the different people who work in a school and list them on the board or chart paper (i.e. principal, assistant principal, librarian, teachers, custodians, playground supervisors, secretaries, counselors, etc.). Explain to students that in order to find out more about these jobs and the daily work lives of the people who keep the school running, they will be developing questions and carrying out interviews. (If this lesson is being taught in a small school with limited employees, consider allowing groups to interview alternate adults such as school volunteers, parents, or family friends).
- As a class, have a discussion about the types of questions students might like to ask these people to learn more about them and their professions. List these possibilities for questions or information on the board or chart paper. You may also choose to share with students the Possible Interview Questions printout (or the transparency you created). Students may wish to use some of these questions as a basis for their interview, but these questions are only meant to be a guide for appropriate questions, and students will need to write more specific questions in regards to the interviewee’s job, as well.
- Form groups of 3-4 students and ask each group to identify a different person or role (from within the school or district) that they would like to interview. Give students approximately 15 minutes within their groups to write their possible interview questions on a piece of chart paper.
- After students have completed their group questions, have one student from each group read their questions aloud to the class, and allow the other students to give feedback on each group’s questions.
- Before the next session, the teacher should review all of the groups’ questions for appropriateness and comment on/modify them as needed.
- At the beginning of the session, return each group’s chart paper with their questions and feedback. Allow the groups a few minutes to make any changes necessary and rewrite their questions on their own paper.
- Each group should make an appointment with the person that they have chosen to interview (this may take place during class or outside of this session, such as at lunch, recess, or study hall). While conducting the interview, have the group members take turns being the Interviewer and Note Taker. Encourage group members to carry on a conversation with the interviewee and gain as much information as possible.
- After completing their interview with their person of interest, each student should compile notes about key things that they learned about this person’s work life and working conditions. They will use this information to write a persuasive letter to a newspaper editor advocating for fair wages and positive working environments for people in such professions.
- Have students read some letters to the editor in their copy of the newspaper (if students do not have physical copies of the newspaper, you may provide them with links to local and national papers that have letters to the editor online). Ask students to pay attention to the characteristics which the letters have in common and which features make a letter successful.
- Ask the class to share characteristics and features that they noticed as they read the letters to editor. Record their responses on the board or on chart paper.
- If necessary, ask questions such as the following to guide students' observations:
- What did you notice about the organization of the letters?
- What is the writer advocating for?
- What is the writer’s argument?
- How were details used in the letters?
- What kind of details were used?
- How do the letters persuade their readers?
- Which letters seemed best?
- What is the difference between an acceptable letter and a great letter?
- Once the list is fairly complete, review the items, and make any additions or corrections.
- Ask students to suggest general categories that fit the characteristics (e.g., formatting issues, structure, ideas). Arrange the characteristics into these general categories and, as a class, create a checklist or rubric for students' letters. This rubric will later be used to assess students' letters.
- Pass out copies of the Persuasion Map Planning Sheet, and use the information to analyze a letter to the editor from one of the newspapers (on the Persuasion Map Planning Sheet transparency that you created).
- Allow time for students to plan and write their letters. Encourage students to integrate new vocabulary and ideas (strike, union, fair wages, working environment, etc.) into their letters.
- As students work, circulate through the room, providing feedback and support.
- If desired, point students to one or more of the guidelines for composing letters to the editor listed in the websites section. You may also choose to print out this information for students to read.
- Ask students to compose a first draft of their letters prior to the next session. Explain that the letters will be exchanged for peer review during the next session.
- Review the criteria for effective letters to the editor that students created during the previous session, and answer any questions that students have about the project or their drafts.
- Pass out copies of the Letter to the Editor Peer Review Questions.
- Arrange students in pairs, and ask partners to exchange and read one another's drafts.
- After reading the drafts, have them fill out the Letter to the Editor Peer Review Questions to provide feedback.
- After students have shared and received feedback, ask students to revise their drafts, based on the feedback that they have received. Remind students to also refer to the class-created checklist/rubric to make sure all of the requirements have been addressed.
- Focus students' attention on reading their drafts for minor errors before students move to type their letters.
- Demonstrate the Letter Generator, which students will use to publish their letters. If internet accessibility is a problem, you may choose to have students use a word processing program to type their letters.
- Allow the rest of the session for students to type and print their letters.
- Collect students' letters, printouts, and drafts at the end of the session.
- If desired, ask students to print two copies of their letter, and mail one copy to the newspaper to which they chose to write.
- Have students interview their parents/family members about their work conditions and report back to the class about their findings.
- As a book report alternative, have students write letters to the editor from the perspective of a character in a book they have read.
- After writing their letters, have students conduct research on the issues that they have chosen. The letters can serve as students' preliminary thoughts on the issue. Challenge each student to find at least 3 library resources on the issue and use those resources to expand the letter into a more formal proposal for changes that readers should consider making or actions that they should consider taking.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Check drafts and worksheets for completion and effort. Look in particular for indications of improvement over the series of drafts that students complete for the assignment, especially those made after the peer feedback was given.
- Assess students’ final drafts using the criteria for effective letters to the editor checklist/rubric that students created during the second session of the lesson. If you prefer a more formal rubric, use the Persuasion Rubric.