Leveraging Social and Political Issues to Promote Student Engagement, Improve Writing Skills

leveraging social issues

“Your students are failing because you are failing them.” These words can cut to the core of any professional educator who strives for excellence in teaching and learning. However, hidden within that criticism is a more useful message: “To help them succeed, you must inspire their imaginations and capture their attention through meaningful and creative engagement within the classroom.”

As English composition instructors, we are tasked with teaching students how to effectively express themselves through writing as well as understand why that’s such an important skill. Oftentimes this is executed by teaching out of a required textbook that addresses the various functions of writing. However, to make the writing assignments more interesting, teachers should consider allowing students to choose topics or, at the very least, assigning ones that hold current relevance.

The incorporation of social and political issues into English composition courses, for example, is a powerful instructional tool that can facilitate an environment that helps students articulate their ideas with ease and confidence. Class discussions to generate potential topics to pursue is an empowering first step in developing a well-written assignment.

Many traditional students today navigate their lives through increasingly robust social media and 24/7 news streaming platforms which can fill their new feeds with social and political issues and commentary. While some students don’t consider how these issues may affect their everyday lives, others are paying attention and frequently contribute to dialogues concerning local, national, and global issues through Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and vlogs.

The passion we have for our students to advance in their writing can sometimes be eclipsed by their lack of interest for reading and writing. A remedy for this imbalance is to incorporate issues that pique their interests. When students see a direct correlation between current issues and their own lives, they are able to eradicate the sterility in their written work, thus bringing a liveliness to assignments by becoming organically involved in their creation. The work of Stroup et al. supports this framework, which was empirically demonstrated when political issues were incorporated in a writing curriculum. The outcome of the study indicated greater awareness and interests among students. When students are indifferent toward their writing topics, it can lead them to conclude they are not capable of articulating their ideas through writing.

The following strategies have been used to stimulate student interest and engagement, thus creating a pathway toward better writing.

  1. Screen a current film in class and use it as a launchpad for discussion. For example, the Netflix documentary “13th” provides a compelling commentary on the criminalization and mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States. The documentary affords students an opportunity to view contemporary social, political, and economic issues that often marginalize minority populations juxtaposed with the tenets of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. After watching the film, students are able to discuss the facts presented and connect how the decisions of the government concerning this topic directly affects their lives. The next step is for students to develop an argumentative essay that allows them to defend their beliefs about this issue and prepare for the development of a final research essay.
  1. Examine presidential speeches or State of the Union addresses as a way of teaching expository essays. Because an expository essay critiques a piece of work or a speech, this assignment gives students practice in assessing a speech that speaks directly to impending change that will occur. Further, since many presidential speeches appeal to pathos, students are able to identify the use of rhetoric, a skill that further prepares them for more advanced English composition courses and other discipline-specific writing.
  1. Afford students the freedom to choose their own social and political topics. Writing about something that genuinely interests them is paramount to their self-efficacy, and this autonomy will only benefit their writing. Incorporating social and political issues into the curriculum and discussing how these issues directly affect them gives students permission to articulate their perspectives and showcase their composition abilities—further empowering them to share something that they feel others need to hear.

Providing students with opportunities to write about topics that interest them will not only help them focus their thoughts and learn how to present information for others to understand, but it also helps them realize that higher education is not about professors creating clones of themselves. Another positive result noted in the Stroup study was that “…students…were significantly more comfortable entering discussions and then deploying empathetic techniques…” (p. 123). This supports the notion that options such as using political and social issues in a writing curriculum can assist in eradicating anxiety, which in turn makes writing profoundly easier.

Finally, a word of caution. Social and political issues are often hot button topics that have the potential to derail class discussions. A class of 25 to 30 students with strong opinions about trending topics could easily become unmanageable. To mitigate this, establish the ground rules first. Involving students in this process will make them more apt to respect and abide by them. As the instructor, always build in time during the class to bring the conversation back to the goals, objectives, and requirements of the particular writing assignment.

Stroup, John T., et al. “Promoting a Deliberative and Active Citizenry: Developing Traditional First Year College Student Political Engagement.” College Teaching, vol. 61, pp. 117–126.

Jamie L. Butler is a lecturer of English, Division of Humanities and Fine Arts at Atlanta Metropolitan State College. Curtis L. Todd is an associate professor in the Division of Social Sciences at Atlanta Metropolitan State College.