You can register students to vote but what’s going to get them out of bed to actually vote? You can register but if you don’t know why you’re voting, there’s no meaning behind it. … Let’s give them a reason to vote… and a way to support why they’re voting the way they want to.” 

Ross Hamilton, Social Studies Teacher, Building 21 Philadelphia

Ross Hamilton and Eric Hitchner pondered this question while planning their interdisciplinary approach to Senior English and Social Science at Building 21 Philadelphia for this year. Faced with remote instruction, they wanted to approach learning in a way that would motivate students to see the interconnectedness of their learning to the world around them and inspire engagement and action.

At Building 21, this approach is central to studio planning.

Teachers consider the impact their students will be able to have on their world, as they plan the culminating tasks and projects. Teachers ask themselves, How can students implement what they create and impact the world in a positive way? (Read more about Building 21’s studio design process here.)

This fall, leading up to the elections, Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Hitchner challenged their students, many of whom would vote for the first time in the 2020 elections, to learn more and share their positions and ideas with an authentic audience.

Students were tasked with researching a set of diverse political positions and creating a blog and podcast to share their reactions and views. Students examined at least three political parties to understand the party’s stance on economic, social, and political issues. Students then chose the party that best matched their personal beliefs and ideas and supported their choice in their writing and media production. Their podcasts allowed the students to tackle tough issues and voice their opinions on the issues. Mr. Hamilton reflects: “In doing just this, they were then able to really understand what it means to sign on to a political party.”

Following the elections, students once again engaged as active citizens in a Presidential letter writing challenge.

They submitted a letter to President Biden expressing their support or criticism for one of his cabinet nominees based on their research. They also identified a single issue and advocated for the department to prioritize this issue during the administration’s first 100 days.

Many chose to write letters in support of President Biden’s nominees in Homeland Security, Education, and HUD. They identified and prioritized issues important to them and their community, such as reopening schools, managing Covid-19 vaccinations, creating jobs, and supporting black-owned business. Students also proposed a solution to the issue and wrote about how they would connect funding and resources to improve the problem.

Before submitting their letters, the students engaged in a peer review process, assessing two of their peers on the required ELA and Social Studies competencies and submitting their own letter for review.

Mr. Hamilton reflected that this process not only improved the quality of the students’  final letters, but also helped the students develop a deeper understanding of the competencies: “You’ve got to own the competencies. So, if you’re critiquing your peer’s writing you need to know it.”

Featured ELA, Social Studies & NextGen Essential Competencies

Here are excerpts from the students’ final products:

“Today I am writing to you, in regards to Xavier Becerra’s position as a perfect choice as the Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services. … Becerra will not only save lives while being your President-Elect Secretary for Health and Human Services, but he will also stand by his word and do just as he said he is going to do: rescue before recovering. … Looking forward to this transformation, the main issue Xavier Becerra should be focused on is the lifespan of our American people from COVID-19 during the first 100 days of your Presidency. As of January 19, 2021, there have been approximately 6.8k new cases along with 406k deaths in America. To add on, with 96.2 million worldwide cases were found with an unfortunate amount of 2.06 million deaths worldwide. The Secretary of Health and Human Services cannot start or make changes to anything if they do not have an effective plan, which is currently, helping save the lives of the American people fighting to seek help from the virus. The Department of Health and Human Services must have that effective plan because this department plays a big role in having the willingness to protect the health of every American which includes providing very important human services, especially for those who are in desperate need of help.”

“Dear Mr. President, … I am a student at Building 21 High School. In this letter, I want to address your choice of Secretary of choice for the Department of Education, Miguel Cardona, which after researching him, I agree with your choice. … My research of Miguel Cardona has led me to find out about his past as a student and teacher of a public school and his work as Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education. It is to my understanding that he understands the inequality that many low income and minorities face within the education system, and I believe that having someone who has had those experiences with the education system and a person of color in such a position, allows them to further understand the issues they aim to solve. …An issue that I think the department should prioritize for the first 100 days of your presidency should be making schooling affordable for people from low-income and disadvantaged households to encourage students to pursue schooling after high school. … Because I am now in my last few months of high school and on my way to college, I have begun to see and experience the anxiety that many kids like me from low-income families feel when it comes to paying for college. And for some of us, a higher education after high school seems truly unreachable due to our financial situations that have kept us from creating generational wealth for generations.”

“Within the first 100 days I believe the Department of Education should focus on the issue of mental health, for students and parents. We need more money in areas of mental health because if the students are always stressed and in a bad mood, then they won’t enjoy learning. Also, students may not know how to handle themselves in most questionable situations, which will make them act out in ways that are unnecessary. Personally when I’m in a space where I can be mentally stable, I can learn a lot better. To solve this issue, money needs to be focused within the psychology field. Kids need to take a class about their mental thoughts, emotions and social life and I know Miguel will be able to bring that into our system. …Education is very important to me because students learn how to live in society, we learn how to bond and work together as a community. It’s hard to do that when students are stressed about work, tests and being judged 24/7. I’ve been there so many times and Building 21 (my high school) gave me so much inspiration. Through Building 21, I’ve become a better person, my character has been developed to how I like it.”

“An issue I think Marty Walsh should resolve is pretty obvious, WORK, WORK, WORK. This is very important, since covid has started, unemployment rates rose to 4.9% in 3 months, that’s 1.7 million people unemployed. Millions of people lost their ability to keep up with their bills due to them being fired or unable to find a job due to COVID. This is a serious issue that the Department of Labor should prioritize for the first 100 days of presidency. My first solution is, The Department of Labor should make an effort to get some more jobs available as well as try to open more jobs. This will limit the number of Americans who are unemployed due to Covid. … Another solution is, SUPPORT BLACK BUSINESS, my solution will solve the problems because since Covid first hit and before that billions of blacks have started black owned businesses that are very smart and eco friendly, but due to it being a black owned business,  hiring employees is hard because black owned businesses lacks the attention and funding it deserves. …Providing proper funding and proper attention to this Department will save the lives of countless Americans. ‘In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or step back into safety.’ -Abraham Maslow. I look forward to your response to this issue and thank you for your time and consideration.”

“President Biden, one important issue that we should focus on today is immigration. This is an issue the Department of Homeland Security should focus on within the 100 days of your presidency. Since secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has been through the experience of being an immigrant I know he will understand the struggles that some families have when coming to the United States. It’s sad to see many families being separated from each other during hard times just because they didn’t get the help they needed and this issue is something that has been going on for many years. To solve this issue the Department of Homeland Security should push to make a program like DACA (Deferred Actions for CHILD arrivals) for adults that have a clean background or trying to better themselves. Making a program like this will help adults that are coming here have an opportunity to stay in the U.S and have the American life.  One way to do this is to make sure all immigrants who are coming into the U.S records are clean with good intentions. Also, having people who are here as immigrants come forward and say who they are to make sure they can get the help and benefits from a program like DACA. The program should require adults who are 21 and older, within the program, there should be requirements such as having a stable job, making sure they are up to dates with things such as taxes or bills. President Biden, this will be the best way to solve this issue to make families feel much better and keep them safe.”

“I hope this finds you in super great health and spirits! I would like to send you a warm welcome and congratulations on making your mark as the 46th President of the United States! I hope that this presidency goes super successful for you and that history will continue to be made in a positive way. With that being said, I was reaching out in regards to your remarkable nomination of selecting the first ever black secretary for the Department of Defense in U.S. history, Former General, Lloyd J. Austin III. After vigilant analysis, I would like to touch on how I am in excessive commendation for you selecting this well knowledgeable, dedicated, and determined Former General to take on this position. I truly believe that Lloyd is definitely a great pick for this department because he has an extensive amount of education and experience within this field considering that he is a graduate of the infantry Officer Basic and Advanced courses, the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College, and the U.S. Army War College. Equally significant, he succored in the U.S. Military for 4 decades, striving through his career of becoming a West Point graduate to a booming leader of the U.S. Central command! This is undeniably a great insight of black excellence and I hope to see a continuous change of more African Americans taking the positions of being the secretary of departments in the cabinet because it gives me hope that a better future is ahead! … President Biden, as this country is currently facing the COVID-19 outbreak, I believe Lloyd Austin will have a great impact with supporting the Department of Defense as he chips in to tackle the issue of developing a clever COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Plan. This is an issue that the Department of Defense should take on within the first 100 days of your presidency so there could be an ideal development of the way vaccines are given out, who will receive it, and where the people in this department can most efficiently administer this vaccine. Considering that this deadly virus is spreading rapidly, Secretary Lloyd Austin should use his determination and wisdom to closely look into this matter and establish methods to get this issue solved immediately! The death toll for COVID-19 is increasing swiftly so this should unquestionably be the main spotlight of issues to be solved.”

These and many other letters were submitted to President Biden via whitehouse.gov – students took a screenshot of their confirmation message to share with Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Hitchner. Among the senior class, there is hope that President Biden will respond. (We’ll keep you posted!)

Most importantly, this approach to ELA and Social Studies led to students engaging in their learning in a meaningful way. Inspired by their teachers’ call to action, they produced a series of real-world, student-driven products that impacted their world. Mr. Hamilton told his students: “This is your opportunity to decide what speaks to you and then roll with it. You know everything you need to do. Find out what you’re passionate about and investigate it.” And they did. They created blogs, recorded podcasts, and wrote letters to meet the moment, learning why it’s important to be an active citizen and advocating for issues central to their lives.