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Here’s a quiz for you: can you spot the fake news from the actual trending topics of today?

Of course you can- it would be big news, on multiple reputable outlets, if the beverage giant Coca-Cola was dealing with a parasitic worm problem. 

But for our students, this critical thinking and cross-referencing must be “taught”, not “caught”. We are daily bombarded with advertisements and clickbait “articles” that are deceptive or outright false.

When we teach writing, and especially when we teach our students how to cross-reference multiple sources and support their statements with facts (as the Common Core standards require), we are teaching them to be revolutionary.

A better tomorrow starts today with good thinkers and writers. 

Here are three ways to use the Common Core writing standards to teach your students how to be empowered citizens:

1. A Rising Tide Raises all Ships.…Writing with good grammar, fact-based statements, and clear communication can transform understanding in ALL subject areas

Here is an example unit plan from the University of Minnesota for 6-8th graders. Using a wide range of subject areas (and with the opportunity to expand and tweak to use even more), students broaden their knowledge base about human rights, explore a topic thoroughly, and finally:

“Make a Human Rights Booth: Direct students to gather all of their projects to create a booth that would tell the story of their project from beginning to end. Provide a checklist to help students plan what to include in their booth.

Example: My booth shows that I can…

___Communicate using human rights vocabulary in writing and speaking

___Describe, with examples, how human rights are upheld or withheld

___Gather, organize, and display data about a human rights topic

___Consider more than one perspective in collecting and making sense of data ___Draw my own conclusions based on the data I have collected

___Communicate human rights concepts in ways my audience can understand ___Create something appealing that will make people interested in finding out more about the human rights topic I chose”

This multi-disciplinary project involves research and encourages active citizenship, not only later, but now, as well. 

2. Let them Talk!….Build Knowledge through Content-Rich Nonfiction

Students cannot be prepared to be empowered and active members of society or participate today without practice. The classroom is the fertile ground for this practice, if it is established as a safe space. This verbal exploration lays the groundwork for writing clearly and forcefully. 

When discussing a topic of interest, probe the opinions with fact-based inquiry, like: 

Why do you believe that? 

What lead you to that conclusion? 

How do you know that for sure? 

Where can you show me evidence for that idea? 

Where can I see examples of what you describe? 

How could you describe your position a different way? 

Practicing debate, watching TED talks, and switching positions are all excellent ways to practice the skills that translate into good writing. Teaching your students to hone in on these practices now enables them to take strong positions for positive change. 

3. Embrace the Past with the Leaders of the Future….You draw a line in the sand when you teach your students to practice critical thinking and writing.

In this insightful Atlantic piece from 2012, the Staten Island High School of New Dorp transforms itself through an emphasis on writing- on careful, practiced, complex and varied writing.

The funny thing is, though, that the practices that structured the “writing revolution” weren’t radical or new:

“The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children do not have to “catch” a single thing.

They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so….

…In a profoundly hopeful irony, New Dorp’s re-emergence as a viable institution has hinged not on a radical new innovation but on an old idea done better.”

The citizens in our classrooms are going to have to know how to express themselves well no matter which subject they are discussing, tweeting, studying, or hashtagging. A solid foundation of fundamental writing skills will be the toolbelt they need.

Next Week: Why Those 5-Paragraph Essays Aren’t Working, and What to do Instead

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