Getting Political in ESL Writing

Cathy Breitenfeld outlines a complete lesson plan for a politically oriented writing assignment on immigration policy. See Holli Schauber’s Portal article, "Motivational Aspects of Writing in Tandem," Essential Teacher, September 2007.

What do Levi Strauss, John Jay Audubon, and Yo Yo Ma have in common? They were all immigrants to the United States, and they have made important contributions to U.S. cultural life. Levi Strauss was born in Germany; John Jay Audubon, in Santo Domingo (now Haiti); and Yo Yo Ma, in France.

Lobbying to Learn

Recent events related to immigration in the United States inspired me to develop lessons designed to teach students to express their need for social protest through written communication. The audiences for these social justice lessons are multilingual/multicultural ninth- through twelfth-grade ESL learners.

In these lessons, each student chooses to lobby for or against an important topic related to immigration or a subject of the student’s choice. These lessons incorporate writing for social justice into the curriculum in English, Civics, History, and American Government classes and follow TESOL’s ESL standards (TESOL 1997). In addition, they include ideas and resources that supplement the tourist curriculum (see Sleeter and Grant 2003), meaning lesson plans that teach about only the food and holidays of a non-European culture rather than about how that culture has contributed to civilization.

Going Deeper Than the Tourist Curriculum

The lessons I have designed relate to various immigration topics, such as proposed changes in the federal immigration laws and in-state tuition for graduates of an accredited state high school who are out-of-status immigrants, commonly referred to as illegal aliens. The lesson includes lectures, movies, books and discussions. Students then write letters to their government representatives about one of these topics or some other issue of importance to them.

Background on the Issue

Students read two books. Redman wrote the classic The Dance of Legislation (1973/2001) from his viewpoint as a member of the staff of then-U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson from Washington State. The book details the process of drafting and promoting the passage of a piece of legislation that became a federal law. The other main reading text, MoveOn’s 50 Ways to Love Your Country (MoveOn 2004), discusses numerous effective ways citizens can lobby legislators and government officials.

On the first day of the unit, I distribute the books, instructing the students to start reading them, beginning with Redman’s. In addition, students watch The American President(Reiner 1995) (about a lobbyist who lobbies the U.S. Congress to urge passage of a new clean-air bill) as part of the introduction to the concepts of lobbying, persuasive communication, and the relationship between the legislative branch (Congress) and the executive branch (the White House).

I follow up with several lectures and discussions about how a bill becomes law in the U.S. system and the influence that both constituents and lobbyists have on the process. These points are explained in detail in Redman’s book, the MoveOn book, and our U.S. government textbook.

Viewpoints on Immigration and the Political Process

When the class begins to examine the issue of immigration in the United States, I use information from the following Web sources to illustrate the broad views about immigration and the in-state tuition debate:

The lectures emphasize that immigrants have had a positive impact on U.S. history. In addition, I tell students how an original, cogent, persuasively written letter from a constituent might have some influence on members of Congress and other government officials.

Next, students watch Amistad (Spielberg 1997), The Emigrants (Troell 1971), and Green Card (Weir 1991). Amistad tells the story of forced immigration due to slavery: after the 1839 mutiny on a Spanish slave ship, President John Quincy Adams defended the slaves in a U.S. Supreme Court case. The Emigrants is about a mid-nineteenth-century family’s struggles when a man forces his wife and children to emigrate from Sweden to a settlement in the territory of present-day Minnesota. Green Card discusses free-will immigration through a story about a French man who marries an American woman to obtain a green card.

After each movie, I lead a discussion focusing on the immigration theme in each movie, including information about each type of immigration. Students are required to write their thoughts about these viewings in a daily dialogic journal.

Writing Letters

Finally, students prepare letters to their legislators or government officials communicating their position on the issue and urging the officials to take a specific action. Each student presents his or her letter to the class before sending it. I have discovered two good rubrics for evaluating the students’ letters: "Message and Values Analysis Sheet" and "Persuasive Rubric," both available from Erb (2006, http://www.learningtogive.org/lessons/unit153/lesson2.html).

Sharing Thoughts with Decision Makers

This lesson teaches students effective ways to share their thoughts with decision makers. In teaching it, my hope is that the young people in my class will make a difference by using the power of the written word to effect change rather than marching in the streets.

References and Resources

Erb, S. 2006. Growing a citizen: Lesson 2. Participatory citizen or slacker--which one will you be? http://www.learningtogive.org/lessons/unit153/lesson2.html.

Krueger, C. 2006. In-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/61/00/6100.htm.

Lee, J., and R. Siemborski. n.d. The American immigration home page. http://www.bergen.org/aast/projects/immigration/.

MoveOn.org. 2004. MoveOn's 50 ways to love your country. San Francisco: Inner Ocean.

Redman, E. 2001. The dance of legislation. Seattle: University of Washington Press. (Orig. pub. 1973)

Reiner, R., director. 1995. The American president. DVD. Beverly Hills, CA: Castle Rock Entertainment.

Sleeter, C. E., and C. A. Grant. 2003. Making choices for multicultural education: Five approaches to race, class, and gender. 4th ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Spielberg, S., director. 1997. Amistad. DVD. Glendale, CA: Dreamworks SKG.

Troell, J., director. 1971. Utvandrarna [The Emigrants]. VHS. Stockholm: Svensk Filmindustri. Hollywood, CA: Warner Brothers.

TESOL. 1997. ESL standards for pre-K-12 students. Alexandria, VA: TESOL. 

Weir, J. 1991. Green card. DVD. Sydney: Australian Film Finance Corporation.

Cathy Breitenfeld (cathy.breitenfeld@gmail.com) teaches ESL in the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools, in the United States, and is a student in the ESL MEd program at George Mason University.