Civic Writing in Education for Democratic Citizenship.
by Stotsky, Sandra
A major component of education for democratic citizenship is the teaching
and learning of intellectual skills needed for effective and responsible
participation in civil society and government, such as skills in civic
writing. This Digest examines the concept of civic writing, identifies
its purposes in democratic citizenship, and discusses how to teach it.
WHAT IS CIVIC WRITING?
At first glance, civic literacy seems to refer only to a citizen's ability
to read what is necessary for informed voting. But the ability to convey
in writing one's ideas on matters relating to public life is equally critical
for the proper functioning of democratic self-government.
Participatory writing -- the unpaid writing that citizens do as part
of the process of democratic self-government -- is a necessary and inseparable
component of democratic self-government. The writing that citizens do for
civic or political purposes is also a far more salient aspect of our lives
than most people realize. This writing includes such formal legal writing
as speeches, petitions, and resolutions as well as such formal organizational
writing as minutes of meetings, agendas, memos, and newsletters for political
or civic groups. It also includes a great deal of informal and personal
writing, such as letters to friends, relatives, or neighbors supporting
or opposing candidates for public office.
Civic writing may be carefully planned in a legal or organizational
framework, as reports by citizens' committees or voters' guides are, or
it may emerge spontaneously, as letters to legislators and newspapers usually
do. It may be extensively revised through multiple drafts, as a constitution
usually is, or it may be sent off in first draft form, as many letters
to public officials requesting help seem to be. It may be written by isolated
individuals expressing unique perspectives, or it may be written by groups
of individuals trying to achieve a common goal.
WHAT ARE THE PURPOSES OF CIVIC WRITING?
While some kinds of civic writing can be identified by their forms,
many others can be identified only by their purposes and contexts. There
are five major purposes for civic writing.
The first purpose is to personalize civic relationships with public
officials and/or to express a civic identity with other citizens. For example,
citizens who thank a public official for assistance, congratulate a successful
candidate for public office, or console a defeated candidate are personalizing
civic relationships with actual or potential public officials. On the other
hand, when citizens wrote welcome-home letters to former Iranian hostages
in 1980 or letters of sympathy to the Kennedy family after the assassinations
of President Kennedy and his brother Robert, they were affirming the bonds
of citizenship, motivated by the perception of a sense of shared membership
in a national civic community.
The second purpose is to obtain information or assistance. Members of
civic or political organizations often send out questionnaires to gather
information for a voters' guide or to survey public opinion on an issue
of concern to a particular community. In addition, citizens frequently
write to public officials to request a service for themselves or they write
on behalf of others.
The third purpose is to provide public information or to offer a public
service. Citizens who are members of organized groups such as the League
of Women Voters or Parent Teacher Associations frequently provide impartial
information to other citizens on public issues. The written records of
these groups, such as minutes, newsletters, and agendas, are vital for
maintaining the continuity and democratic character of these civic organizations.
The fourth purpose is to evaluate public officials or services. Members
of civic boards are often required to write regular evaluations of their
public programs, services, or personnel. In addition to formal kinds of
evaluations, citizens informally evaluate public services or officials
as individuals or as groups by praising or criticizing services or individuals.
Their writings may be sent directly to officials or public bodies, or they
may be expressed indirectly through newspapers or other publications.
The fifth purpose is to advocate for people or causes. Advocacy writing
is indispensable for the protection of political rights in a democracy
and for the promotion of the common good. This kind of civic writing can
be clustered around five distinct types of political activities:
* Soliciting support for a civic or political organization. Americans
frequently form voluntary associations, and much of the writing done by
their members focuses on recruiting new members or requesting funds from
their members or the public at large.
* Supporting or opposing public officials or candidates. Citizens may
write to support or oppose candidates for public office at all levels of
government. They may also write to other citizens directly, to the media,
or to other public officials to support or oppose a public official in
a controversy. They may also seek removal of a public official by bringing
their complaints to the voters through a recall petition (allowed in 31
states in some form) or by writing to higher officials.
* Supporting, opposing, or modifying existing or proposed laws or policies.
The ability of citizens to make or influence the making of law, directly
or indirectly, lies at the heart of the democratic form of government;
they may do so through personal contacts, telephone calls, or in writing.
* Creating or removing laws. In some states, citizens can directly or
indirectly create laws, through the initiative petition or through their
representatives. In some states, they can also directly remove laws through
* Advocating new political structures or procedural rules. The most
fundamental purpose for which citizens in a democratic form of government
may write is to devise the very structures and procedures that shape their
participation in the governance of their society, through constitutions
HOW CAN CIVIC WRITING BE TAUGHT?
Because participatory writing is an essential component of citizenship
in a democracy, an important issue is how teachers may help students acquire
the confidence and rhetorical skills they need in order to engage as writers
in the civic process, while in school or later in adult life. When appropriate
occasions present themselves, students can be asked to engage in participatory
writing. "Civic Writing in the Classroom" (Stotsky 1987) describes a variety
of suitable occasions and teaching methods.
The best way for teachers to prepare their students for civic writing
is by asking students to read and analyze the participatory writing of
the average citizen in their home community (not so much the public discourse
of our most gifted orators or public figures). Such an examination might
help them think carefully and clearly about basic questions of purpose
and audience and appropriate ways to communicate in public. For example,
students could be asked to analyze a group of communications on one topic
in the letters to the editor section of their local newspaper, or a group
of letters sent to a public official on a controversial topic. The students
could then discuss who were the intended readers for each letter with respect
to attitudes and values, how other kinds of readers might have reacted
(or did react) to the letters, and how they themselves reacted to each
letter's content, tone, and explicit purpose.
Students might also be asked to judge how well the writers of these
communications displayed honesty; accuracy; fairness; consideration of
all important, relevant information; courtesy to the writer's actual or
potential critics and to opposing views; logical reasoning; and a concern
for the common good. There is no better preparation for our students' own
future participatory writing as adults than opportunities to critique the
strengths and limitations of the communications written by members of their
own civic community as judged by criteria developed in their classrooms
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES.
The following list of resources includes references used to prepare
this Digest. The items followed by an ED number are available in microfiche
and/or paper copies from the ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS).
For information about prices, contact EDRS, 7420 Fullerton Road, Suite
110, Springfield, Virginia 22153-2852; telephone numbers are (703) 440-1400
and (800) 443-3742. Entries followed by an EJ number, annotated monthly
in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION (CIJE), are not available through
EDRS. However, they can be located in the journal section of most larger
libraries by using the bibliographic information provided, requested through
Interlibrary Loan, or ordered from commercial reprint services.
Center for Civic Education. NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR CIVICS AND GOVERNMENT.
Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1994. ED 375 074.
Nader, Ralph. "Children: Toward Their Civic Skills and Civic Involvement."
SOCIAL EDUCATION 56 (April/May 1992): 212-214. EJ 450 807.
NAEP Civics Consensus Project. CIVICS FRAMEWORK FOR THE 1998 NATIONAL
ASSESSMENT OF EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS. Washington, DC: National Assessment
Governing Board, 1996. ED 407 355.
Sensenbaugh, Roger. WRITING ACROSS THE SOCIAL STUDIES CURRICULUM. Bloomington,
IN: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and ERIC Clearinghouse
for Social Studies/Social Science Education, 1989. ED 308 550.
Stotsky, Sandra. CIVIC WRITING IN THE CLASSROOM. Bloomington, IN: ERIC
Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education and the ERIC
Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills, 1987. ED 285 800.
Stotsky, Sandra. "Connecting Reading and Writing to Civic Education."
EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 47 (March 1990): 72-73. EJ 405 145.
Stotsky, Sandra. "Ethical Guidelines for Classroom Writing Assignments."
S. Totten and C. M. Hurlbert, Eds., SOCIAL ISSUES IN THE ENGLISH CLASSROOM.
Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1992.
Stotsky, Sandra. "Participatory Writing: Literacy for Civic Purposes."
In A. H. Dunn and C. J. Hansen, Eds., NONACADEMIC WRITING: SOCIAL THEORY
AND TECHNOLOGY. Mawah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996, 227-256.