We had only six weeks left in the school year. Through activities, assignments, and discussions that connected our personal experiences to the class content, my students and I had built solid relationships of trust. But even after students poured their hearts into their work— perhaps through a story about losing a loved one to violence or an epiphany about the importance of community justice—I found myself left with the same question: What are we doing to address the pain and trauma behind those powerful stories?
With this in mind, I thought it was especially important for the 9th graders in my English classes to end the year sharing stories of survival, resilience, and hope. I wanted them to reflect on the painful histories of injustice that we had discussed in class, and to use research and writing as a way to heal. So, for our final project, I decided to transform the usually apolitical standards of research and persuasive writing.
The unit I planned focused on the following guiding questions: How can we create more dialogue around injustice in our community? How can we use inquiry to examine these injustices and create change in our community? I would ask students to choose a community issue to focus on (e.g., police brutality, domestic and gang violence, undocumented students’ needs), analyze and synthesize several research sources, craft a persuasive letter to either a perpetrator or survivor of injustice, and present their findings to community members at a final showcase.
We began by watching video clips of two specific moments of injustice: the beating of an undocumented immigrant, Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, by the border patrol, and campus police brutality against college students protesting budget cuts at UC Davis. Both incidents had been the impetus for specific individuals to write letters advocating for change and could show students the inherent connection between literacy and empowerment. These contemporary examples were also a fitting transition from the unit we had just completed, analyzing Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 to look at the legacies of the Rodney King verdict and rebellion.
“How would you respond to this injustice if you were close to these victims?” I asked students after each of the shocking clips. Already familiar with police brutality in their own community, students sighed and exclaimed that the police deserved to get “beat down.”
“Why do they think they can just do that?” one student asked the class.
I paused before responding, looking around at various emotions on students’ faces: shaking heads in dismay, blank looks of apathy, and furrowed eyebrows. “Well, we saw in our last unit that this is not a new problem. And, like we saw in 1992, there are different ways to show our anger and name our pain. But we have a responsibility to understand the sources of our pain, to hold perpetrators—like the police or border patrol—responsible. We can also reach out to other survivors for healing. Let’s channel all of these different emotions we have into our own research and writing. And let’s share these ideas with the community, so we can be heard.”
We spent the rest of the week analyzing two letters: one written by Maria Puga, the widow of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, gathering support to protest the brutal murder of her husband; and the other an open letter from Assistant Professor Nathan Brown, holding the chancellor of UC Davis accountable for police brutality against students on campus. We read, annotated, and discussed the writers’ positions for rhetorical craft and as impassioned calls for change.