CIVIC ENGAGEMENT FOR YOUTH: Finding a Topic and Researching the Conversation (Lessons 12-17)

CIVIC ENGAGEMENT FOR YOUTH: Finding a Topic and Researching the Conversation (Lessons 12-17)

SESSION 12: Exploring Topic Options

Writing into the Session: Creating a Community Topic List (10-12 minutes)

  • Students turn to a new page in their notebooks.
  • Students write “Topic List” at the top of this page.
  • Teacher directs students to take part in a listing activity to identify topics of interest to the community. Remind students to review the writings and discussions from the past sessions and use the prompt below to stimulate thinking:
    • “What issues can you think of that we are facing in our country right now? What is something that you think needs to be fixed in our country? What issues have you heard your parents talking about? What have your heard others discussing?”
  • For 3-4 minutes, students share in groups of 2-3, making sure no one is left out. Students read what they have written. As students share, they may add topics from others’ topic lists to their own.
  • Teacher calls on 3-4 students to share what they know, or what they have heard or seen. These are first thoughts about issues, so students can express opinions without evidence, tell stories, relate experiences and make connections. It’s a chance for students to get feelings and assumptions out in the open before we proceed.

Examining Model Texts

  • Teacher distributes a text packet to every student consisting of a combination of these four (4) student sample letters.  When choosing which of the letter samples they would like to distribute to their class, the teacher may want to consider which of the following topics would be of interest to their own students and how much time they would like their class to spend reading these letters:
  • Students read and discuss what they notice in the letters from the text packet. What kinds of issues did the students cover? What positions did they take on those issues? How did they go about arguing those positions? What evidence did they include? How would one go about gathering that kind of evidence.

SESSION 13: Leveraging Your Experience and Beliefs

Writing into the Session: Quicklist Strategy (7-10 minutes)
The teacher encourages students to add to their list of possible topics by using the “Hands” graphic organizer from the Quicklist strategy from Gretchen Bernabei.  Be sure to share the completed model with students.

A Deeper Dive into Connecting Your Life to Important Issues (40-45 minutes)

  • As students learned in the “Writing into the Session,” mot really engaging pieces of writing have something from personal experiences and from beliefs. Teacher will distribute the graphic organizer “Connecting Life Experiences to Life Truths” from the Quicklist strategy from Gretch Bernabei.  
  • Teacher should model completing the first couple of rows by thinking out loud and filling in the boxes to help students understand the process.
  • Teacher should encourage students to work independently, but not be afraid to seek a thinking partner to talk things through with if students get stuck. Teacher should be circulating and conferencing with students as they work on completing the graphic organizer.
    Invite students to add anything from this sessions activities to the “Community Topic List” started in the previous session.

SESSION 14: Identifying Your Topic

Writing into the Session: Narrowing Your List (3-5 minutes)
Teacher instructs students to evaluate their “Community Topic List” and circle their top 5 choices to research and write about.

Narrowing Down Your Options

  • After gathering a list of possible topics, the teacher distributes the graphic organizer “Guiding Questions for Narrowing Your Topic.”  The teacher models how to use the questions to narrow the original topic list to three possible topics for writing.
  • Students complete the graphic for each of the five chosen topics.
  • Students narrow their original list down to three possibilities.
  • As a final step for this session, students complete Writing Sprints for their three topics.
  • Teacher instructs students to turn to a clean page in their notebooks and write the number 1 on the top line of the paper.  Tell students to write their favorite topic on this line.
  • Instruct students that they will have 90 seconds to write as much as they can about their top choice.  Students will start writing when you say go and stop immediately when you say stop.
  • Repeat the above process for students’ second and third options.
  • Although this writing does not have to be long, it allows students to see which topic has the most interest for them and which topic they want to spend more time developing.
  • Wrap up the writing with students naming the topic they are choosing and explaining why they are choosing it.  This explanation may contain a first claim which will be refined later.

SESSION 15: Developing Researchable Questions

Writing into the Session: Brainstorming (4-7 minutes)
Teacher instructs students to turn to a new page in their notebook and write as many questions as they can about the topic they have chosen. Students can review the “Guiding Questions for Narrowing Your Topic” graphic organizer if they need a jumpstart.

Finding Sources by Asking Researchable Questions

  • A first instinct in research is to google the topic.  However, that type of search is often too broad and overwhelming for student writers.  This step supports students in asking specific, researchable questions.
  • The teacher should model asking researchable questions by taking the general questions from “Guiding Questions for Narrowing Your Topic,” and making them more specific.  For example, if a student chooses the issue of school testing, rather than simply googling “testing,” students might ask specific questions such as “How much has school testing grown over ten years?” and the general questions of “What are the different perspectives on this issue? becomes “What are the pros and cons of school testing?”
General Questions Specific and Researchable Questions
Why does this issue matter to you?

Who else might care about or is affected by the issue?

What are the causes and effects of this issue?

What can be done in response to this issue?

What are the different perspectives on this issue?

What do you already know and what do you need to research?

How much has school testing grown in the past ten years?

Who chooses what tests students take?

What are the effects of school testing on students?

What are the pros and cons of school testing?

How did school testing start?

  • On a new page in their notebooks, students will create specific and researchable questions from their guiding questions and their list of brainstormed questions from earlier.
  • Teacher should circulate among the students and provide guidance and directions to help students complete this task.

SESSION 16: Gathering Information

Before diving deep into their research, it is important for students to understand how to conduct online research efficiently and effectively, while avoiding the common pitfalls associated with online research.

Writing into the Session (3-5 minutes)
Student will turn to a new page in their notebook and respond to the following prompt:

  • What research projects have you done in the past? What struggles did you have with past research projects? What have you learned from previous research projects.
  • Teacher will facilitate a whole group discussion and create a list of common experiences and struggles.

Effective Online Research (35-40 minutes)

  • Students will watch a short video entitled “Online Research: Tips for Effective Search Strategies”. Teacher should instruct students to listen carefully and take notes of key points and strategies.
  • Teacher should have reviewed the video and plan to stop and discuss key points relative to “Writing into the Session” discussion.  This will also ensure students are capturing the relevant key points from the video.
  • Once students have conducted a search, it is still necessary to evaluate whether the article, paper, video, etc. is valid and true.  Students will watch the Online Verification Skills developed by Michael Caufield, the director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, and head of the Digital Polarization Initiative of the American Democracy Project, a multi-school pilot to change the way that online media literacy is taught. Teacher should stop and discuss at the end of each video to ensure student understanding.
  • Teacher and students will create an anchor chart of important strategies and skills gleaned from the videos and discussion that be used while gathering information about their topics.

SESSION 17: Mining Your Local Resources

Teacher can say to students: “The internet is a great place to start, however it is going to be essential to your project to conduct local, primary research to get at the heart of your issue. The people within a community often understand an issue better than anyone. Local museums, schools, service organizations and government agencies also may be a treasure trove of information.”

Writing into the Day: Brainstorming a List of Local Resources

  • Teacher will instruct students to turn notebooks to a clean page and brainstorm a list of people, businesses, government offices and schools that may be able to provide information about their chosen topic.  Allow students 3-4 minutes to complete this task.
  • Instruct students to categorize their list by putting an “I” next to individuals on their list and an “BGS” next to businesses, government agencies and service organization on their list.
  • Next, instruct students to prioritize each list by creating a T-chart and listing the identified resources from best to worst.
   Individuals                BGS


Avenues of Primary Research

Primary research should be used to fill in the holes in your research and gain local perspective on the identified topic. There are several ways to conduct primary research and the topic choice will inform the most effective avenue for you to use.

  • Personal Interviews
  • Consult Local Businesses
  • Visit Museums
  • Talk to Service Organizations


  • CCR Anchor Standards:
    • Reading Standards for Informational Text (6-12)
      • 1, 2, 6, 7, & 8
    • Writing (6-12)
      • 1, 4, 5, 6, 9 & 10
    • Speaking & Listening (6-12)
      • 1, 2, 3 & 6
  • History/Social-Science CLIC Frameworks
    • Literacy, Inquiry and Civic Engagement
  • Aligned with NGSS Cross-cutting Concepts
  • Social-Emotional Learning Standards
    • 1A, 1B, 1C
    • 2A, 2B, 2C
    • 3A, 3B, 3C