Inspiring high school students to write research-based papers can be challenging. In this interview conducted by Ellen Carillo, author of the forthcoming MLA Guide to Digital Literacy, Jessyca Mathews, a high school teacher in Flint, Michigan, talks about how she uses social justice projects in her classroom to get students engaged in what they read and write. She also discusses methods for teaching students to develop their voices, consider different points of view, identify bias in sources, prepare for college writing, and become good citizens in the world.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Ellen Carillo: Could you say a little bit about why you’ve chosen social justice as a framework for your writing courses as opposed to some other framework?

Jessyca Mathews: Well, I’m from Flint, Michigan, and the majority of my kids either live in the city or they are connected to someone in the city. After a while I started to realize that there were some major issues within our community, and I could start by making a change in my classroom. So about three years ago I started to make the change to the class, helping kids to figure out how to develop their voices. I mean literature is absolutely important, and we read literature, but the one thing that I’ve found is kids in this community are really confused about how to properly research what’s going on and to speak out about what’s going on. And so that’s when I made the shift that was needed for my community: teaching them how to effectively go about having a voice either on paper or orally, to get people to pay attention to what they had to say.

EC: You teach a course called Activism and Inquiry where students do a research project on social justice, on topics of their choosing. Can you give some examples of the topics that students have explored over the last few years?

JM: Every semester there are different ideas, which is cool. I love it. We did our big projects for last semester three weeks ago, and we had two kids who studied conversion therapy. It was very eye-opening. Other topics were sex trafficking in the state of Michigan, because the students found out Michigan is one of the top states with sex trafficking; colorism within the African American community; the importance of black teachers in the classroom for all students; problems with the medical system. The students come up with the best things you can imagine, because I’m not forcing them all to do one topic but a topic they may care about. That’s the key: if they care, they’re going to give one hundred percent in finding the topic and understanding it.

EC: And how do you deal with some of those really controversial topics and different viewpoints?

JM: It’s actually kind of fun. It’s scary sometimes, but the big thing that we say all the time is that we’re here to inform society. We’re not here to argue with one another. So if we take the attitude that we’re here to inform people and have really good educational conversations, it makes it a little easier. But they have picked some topics where, I’m like, whoa, that’s real big or that’s real controversial. But at least that way I can have conversations with them. I tell them my job is to be their editor and their cheerleader. I’m not here to force them one way or the other. I’m here to make sure their voices are heard the right way and to cheer them on in figuring out what they want to put out for the public to understand.

EC: Do you find that students have trouble just thinking about it in terms of informing and educating as opposed to arguing? Because I think so often we’re tempted to argue, and I think in a lot of writing classes argument is what is taught, but it sounds like you’re doing things a bit differently.

JM: I think we are such a debate society that we forget the importance of just having a conversation. So even when they’re doing their argumentative writing, they’re still trying to explain a conversation instead of saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong.” That’s just so one-sided, and we talk a lot about bias. Can we just open up the conversation to enlighten people? Or maybe just take something as food for thought or at least give credit to the other side. I don’t know why we have to fight on everything. I always like to use the phrase with the kids “living in the gray.” Isn’t it OK to just live in the gray for a little bit? You can feel what it’s like. We make everything so black-and-white.

EC: Could you say a little bit about the resources that students use to research these topics?

JM: There’s a great chart online, the Media Bias Chart, that shows the better sources that are kind of in the middle instead of being biased. We talk about traditional sources. We talk about books and articles because students like to always push more towards the nontraditional. So I want them to appreciate traditional sources. I spend a whole day with them on Google Scholar, and I talk about educational databases, but I also tell them to go interview someone. There’s such value in just sitting back and listening. I tell them, “Just listen to someone and ask them the right questions.” Those fat questions. I like to use thin and fat. Or thick. I used that this year. Thick questions just get more in there. We don’t want a thin sandwich. I use that all the time for the kids. Food always works. Sandwiches.

I also talk to them about Twitter. Twitter is a new thing that we need to embrace a little bit more, even though it does have bias. Which people should you follow, and what information do they put out there? Are they giving good educational sources? So it’s like a mixture of the old and the new. That way, you’re seeing that knowledge is everywhere.

EC: Can you say a little bit about particular websites you use and how they come into play in your classes?

JM: Letters to the Next President is awesome. When it’s an election year, your students can go on that website, make an account, and post what they would like to say to the president. The site is filled with writings from kids from middle to high school, and they post about different social injustice issues. The other cool thing is that they can respond to one another. So if you see a letter and you think, “You know what? I’m feeling the same thing,” you can have a conversation with the kids on the other side of the country. Same with Youth Voices. Youth Voices has an amazing setup where the kids have to make a post and put an image on it, which I think is kind of cool because they are always obsessed with images anyway. They need to pick an image that matches what they want to convey. And you can have different classmates from all around the country that you can link up with. They can comment to one another. They can create a top-twenty-five posts lists, and my kids get excited when they’re in the top twenty-five, and they’ll say, “Look, I’m one of the featured people.” Or they get excited because a kid from California will respond.

So it helps teach them the concept that the community is not just the teacher. That’s a huge mistake they make, thinking, “I write in high school for the teacher.” But they should be writing for a different audience and thinking a little bit more broadly. And if kids are stuck and don’t know what they care about, they should just look at the great resources that are out there. They can learn how to do a survey. They can go out and talk with members of the community and ask for their opinion. There are great resources for anyone who’s thinking about bringing activism into the classroom.

EC: So those are websites that you’ve vetted and know are good for students to use. How do you teach students how to determine whether other resources are credible? Do you offer them tools for doing so? How do you go about that in the classroom?

JM: When we first start doing anything, we talk about how easy it is for us to get caught in that trap of being biased. We talk about why we should care about both sides. Because most kids don’t. So before we even get into sources, we talk about bias. How do we identify it? I give them a little checklist of things to look for, checklists for doing research on the Internet: How do you know it’s a valid site and not a site by someone who just threw something together? I do a lot of work with C3WP [College, Career, and Community Writers Program], which is run by the National Writing Project. C3WP shows types of argument in writing and teaches students how to look at sources in different ways.

EC: Do you ever have students talk about their own biases in addition to the biases of the other sources? I imagine as they’re approaching the social justice projects, they need to be aware of their own biases and what they’re bringing to the sources.

JM: When you ask them to list their biases, they kind of laugh at themselves afterwards, because they swear they’re not biased. But when they actually sit back, they can see the biases that they have in everyday life, like with sports. They’ll say, “So-and-so is the greatest basketball player ever.” And I’ll ask, “Have you ever looked at statistics of other people?” One of the questions from C3WP is, What more do you want to know about your topic? Just because we’re not talking about the topic in the class anymore doesn’t mean that your inquiry stops. I want them to think of the other side. Constantly questioning is a good thing to do because at least they’ll have that aha moment of thinking, “Maybe I am a little biased. Let me think that through a little bit and maybe even restructure.” Also, when kids do research, they start to see the other side. Once they get comfortable with understanding bias, they start to at least give credit to others.

EC: Do you expect students to include in their writing those other viewpoints and those other perspectives?

JM: Yes. I tell them, “You are talking to the community. You have to find a way to at least know the other side, too.” If you actually study the other side, you can say, “I’m well-aware of this. Those are very valid points.” At least there’s respect.

EC: Do your students struggle with that? I find that my students think that if they address the other side or other viewpoints, it’s going to weaken their perspective.

JM: Yes. It’s the win-win mentality. “I must win this argument.” Why not take some time and hear the other side? Give ’em a little street cred. It is probably the hardest part for them—giving the other side a chance, trying to understand it.

EC: How do they learn to develop these more nuanced and complex discussions in their papers? What kinds of writing exercises do you have them do? What leads to the final piece?

JM: My kids write every single day. I follow a lot of Kelly Gallagher’s ideas. One thing that he does is “ten minutes, one page.” I will give kids pictures that connect with social injustice issues. It might be an infographic. It could be a photo. It could be a political cartoon. Whatever it may be, I put it up every single day. And that’s the first thing they do every day. As soon as they walk in, they know to get out their notebook. I say, “You have ten minutes; your goal is to write one page.” They go on rounds of ten but only get to choose one piece for me to grade. I say, “You need to choose your best piece,” and that at least gets them comfortable with writing. And then a lot of times I’ll ask, “Can we find a source that we can connect to that best piece? Can we find something that goes against the argument you have?” And so it’s just like building blocks, where they start to realize writing isn’t that scary. That’s the biggest thing. When they think about writing, especially research-based writing, they think, “Oh my God, that’s terrifying. I don’t want to do it.” And I say, “No, just write first.” We add in the research, and they start to develop their ideas from there, and by the end, they can write with no problem.

The other thing I would bring up is a cool chapter [in Bird by Bird] by Anne Lamott on bad first drafts. There’s this concept with these kids that has been drilled into them that you can’t have a terrible first draft. When they actually get a chance to sit back and think, “Oh my goodness, we’re supposed to write really badly,” it makes things so much easier. I say, “At least you put something down. What can we do to improve it?” And they just keep taking different steps and becoming more comfortable and then finally write their big research paper or project.

EC: So the other bit that research-based writing involves is obviously reading, when they’re finding these sources. How do you prepare them to read these sources, some of which, I imagine, might be difficult? What kinds of exercises or classwork do you do to prepare them, not just for the writing but for the reading part of research?

JM: The first part is just finding something that they actually enjoy reading. I have all these books in my room. I used to be that teacher who said, “These are the books we’re supposed to read, and these are the books that I’m going to force down your throat.” And that’s a huge mistake. Now I look at different books that are out there that people are hyping. I love Project Lit on Twitter. It’s awesome. I made an Amazon wish list, and people started sending books. I had one kid who drove me crazy. He said, “I don’t like books. How am I supposed to do a research paper if I don’t like to read?” And I said, “Have you read anything that you love?” I gave him All American Boys, and I said, “Read this. I bet you you’ll love it. It fits your personality. If you love this book, then I know you can take the next step and start looking at these academic journals.” And he did. And he said, “This is the first book I’ve finished.” And I said, “See, there’s stuff out there that you love to read. Now pick a topic you love to research and are passionate about. Then we can find the sources. You won’t love every source, but I’m sure there’s some source out there that you’ll like.”

So it’s just making reading and writing an everyday thing. My students do the “ten minutes, one page,” and they also have ten minutes of reading every day. So when it comes time to do the research where it seems like it’s just this monotonous pile, it’s really not that bad for them because they have already gotten used to it. They think, “I already read at least ten minutes every day anyway, so I can handle this.”

EC: How does this work prepare students for college writing? And also for being good citizens in the world?

JM: The final project for our classes is called Activism Day. It’s every kid’s favorite. We put on an event for the entire community, and they go out and share their work. They can share their written pieces, they can share what they learned about the topic, they can create different conversations. We literally take over our cafeteria, and every one of my seniors in that semester goes in there, and we have this huge event. The kids who are going to college have done research papers and are more than proud to share what they’re writing. They will have their papers laid out sometimes, or they might pull a paper up on a Chromebook and say, “Look at this, I wrote this,” which is awesome, because they’re not just writing the paper and then throwing it away. Those kids who are not going to go to college are still going to be good citizens because they know how to have a conversation, and they know how to look up information. They know how to do it. That’s what we need. We need for kids to go and read and be informed and be able to productively talk about it. All the kids love Activism Day. They really feel empowered and they feel like, “Yeah, for college, I can stand up and I can write a paper and I can read these things that I thought I’d never ever read.”

EC: It sounds like so much of what you do starts from a place of making sure that students want to do it and that they want to read what they’re reading, they want to write about what they’re writing about. We often forget that aspect of it. We don’t often start in that place of pleasure, and it’s just so refreshing to hear you talk about it in that way. It’s exciting, and students are doing wonderful work in the end, both for the school and for the community.

Is there anything else that you might want to mention that I haven’t touched on?

JM: Activism Day is what people are most interested in, but they’re also scared because you’re opening a door for kids not to agree with what your kids say. But that’s what the world has. We have people that are not going to agree with you.

I’d like to mention that the website Teaching Tolerance is an awesome place to go. It gives you things to help you figure out how you might integrate activities in the classroom. Also, there are grants you can apply for. I applied for a grant, and I got more money than I asked for.

EC: That never happens!

JM: I know, but they said, “We believe in this project.” So Teaching Tolerance is one of my first go-tos to start off things with the kids.

Photo of Ellen C. Carillo

Ellen C. Carillo

Ellen C. Carillo is professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of the MLA Guide to Digital Literacy.

Photo of Jessyca Mathews

Jessyca Mathews

Jessyca Mathews is a veteran English teacher at Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint, Michigan; the 2019–20 Region 5 Teacher of the Year; and the 2018 Michigan Secondary English Teacher of the Year.