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Letters to the Next President: Literacy and Elections

By Chris Sloan
 | Feb 19, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-76945744_x300Although there is no single definition of literacy, most hold that literacy is not just a trait that resides solely in the individual—it requires and creates connections with others and leads to empowerment. Literate members of a society are capable of being active participants in their communities. If your goal as an educator includes preparing future citizens, then you might want to look into one project associated with the upcoming 2016 elections: Letters to the Next President 2.0.

The biggest differences between the educational activities offered now compared with 2008 (the last time we knew for sure that we’d have a new U.S. president) are the many ways students can have conversations online. During the 2008 presidential election, Facebook and Twitter were relative technological newcomers. Google Docs was also rather new in 2008, and it serves as a good case study for how things have developed since.

Google Docs was the central technology piece in the original Letters to the Next President in 2008, launched by Google and the National Writing Project. The website was the collecting point for the text of letters to whoever the next president was going to be, written by over 10,000 students. The project was innovative, and the well-designed site featured an interactive map with links to letters from students across the country, indexed by issues. What the site didn’t have was a way for youths to have conversations around those issues.

This year promises to be different. The activities around Letters to the Next President 2.0 will have a lot of opportunities for students to have conversations with one another while they research, write, and make media about issues that matter to them.

For example, will be organizing “annotatathons” where readers annotate political language together—debate transcripts, candidate websites, speeches, and op-ed pieces. To get more comfortable with social annotation as we introduced it to our own students, some educators and I experimented with synchronously annotating the 2016 State of the Union address, and it was an engaging experience with about 250 comments and replies made during the course of the speech. In February, there was a weeklong Presidents' Day annotatathon featuring great speeches from a diverse sampling of presidents such as Washington, Lincoln, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan; there will be another annotatathon beginning March 14 around President Obama’s 2008 “A More Perfect Union” campaign speech.

I’ve written before on this blog about different ways to annotate text and other media online, but one of the most intriguing aspects of an application like is that the comments are anchored to the text. In other words, when a user clicks on a highlighted part of the passage, the comment associated with that passage pops up; similarly, if a comment is selected, the part of the passage that it’s based on appears next to the highlighted text (see screenshot).

A number of other partners are involved in the Letters to the Next President project. KQED Education has already begun gathering Do Now resources to facilitate student discussions on political issues via Twitter or on their blog; KQED will also be providing support for classrooms to create and share multimedia responses like infographics and political art. The Lamp’s Media Breaker will engage students in conversations by remixing and annotating political videos. Some of the other partners for Letters to the Next President 2.0 include Mozilla, The New York Times Learning Network, and PBS NewsHour. To follow and add to the conversation use #2nextprez on Twitter.

The months leading up to November 2016 will provide some engaging learning for educators and students. Join the conversation.

Chris Sloan teaches high school English and media at Judge Memorial in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is a teacher consultant with the National Writing Project and KQED Education. In the summer, he is an instructor for the overseas cohort of Michigan State University’s Master’s in Educational Technology program.

This article is part of a series from the International Reading Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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