Ideas for a Community-Based Interdisciplinary Writing Project for Grades 11-12


Thomas Hansen

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As constructivists, teachers can draw from a variety of sources to combine content and assemble purposes for authentic units of instruction (“Constructivist Teaching,” n.d., para. 1).  In this type of unit, we can draw upon a variety of national standards to frame a unit in which students search for a community problem, explore the issues, inquire within the community about concerns and possible solutions, use language to conduct the research, propose solutions, argue for their case. They will then report their findings and outcomes, documenting the entire process with a narrative version of the story that can be published in a student newspaper, community newspaper, or national bulletin.

The actual content to be covered and the problem at hand can be determined by students as they themselves decide what issue is most pressing within the community.  In this way, the students are constructivists also. They are also community members determining some of the content they feel they need to learn (Freire, 2000). Empowering students is one way to move them toward becoming college ready.

Some possible ideas for students to work on are the following, though they are simply possible issues needing attention in some communities:
  • finding funds to save a neighborhood park,
  • changing zoning of a building or lot,
  • starting a community garden,
  • saving a building or other local landmark,
  • halting the construction of a new highway
  • helping provide resources for the homeless.
To frame this unit, we as educators may use several different standards, benchmarks, and anchors (to reference current educational parlance) for the guidelines, parameters, basis, foundation, or outline for the lessons. The use of inquiry-based approaches comes from the standards for teaching science, especially, and we could refer specifically to college-readiness issues and rigorous inquiry-based ways of finding information and solutions. A firm understanding of how to use inquiry-based methods (Marshall, 2013) is important as students enter the community to speak with their neighbors about potential problems seeking solutions.

Writing is at the core of this project, since students will be providing a variety of documents. However, the project will touch upon all four language skills. Students will be reading about community issues, speaking to community members, listening to their responses, and recording those responses in their notes. The use of formal, academic, and technical vocabulary makes use of the Common Core Standards for English/Language Arts, specifically the grades 11-12 anchor for college readiness related to types of language (“English,” n.d.).

The use of written materials (e.g., newspaper articles) about problems or issues in the community and looking at ways the community is currently dealing with the problems or trying to advocate for solutions fits within the frame of the Common Core English and language arts goals related to social studies for grades 11-12 ("Social Studies," n.d.). Understanding social patterns, learning about community needs, and becoming successful at communicating using formal and technical language all apply to this frame.

Because we will be asking students to learn about their community and how to participate in it by becoming better citizens who can lend their voice and propose solutions, we are also framing their project with Theme 10 of the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Use of these standards is clear as “this theme enables students to learn about the rights and responsibilities of citizens of a democracy, and to appreciate the importance of active citizenship” (“Civic Ideals,” n.d., para. 10). We are, in effect, helping them to enter the community with an authentic purpose in mind: solving a problem that will impact not only them but others. This empowerment harks back to Freire (2000).

Because we will be helping students use language skills with a real-world context, we can also emphasize interdisciplinary connections through the environment, students could link their research, language, and argument to such possible themes as recycling, water quality, pollution, and community gardens.  Making use of science prepares students to explore a variety of career and personal interests when they later enter college.  Science topics also help students develop better problem-solving skills and research facility before entering college (“Science,” n.d., p. 5-6).

In communities where other languages are spoken, students may need to speak in Spanish, Hmong, Polish or other tongues to be able to get community input, provide information to neighbors, and In this case, a joint project with the world language department could be beneficial for students enrolled in those courses. We can frame our unit by using an additional set of national standards—namely those for world languages (formerly called “foreign languages”). Our unit touches on five “C’s” of the standards developed by the consortium led by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (“ACTFL Standards,” p.3, paras. 2, 4, 6). “Community” is covered because of the use of authentic language students will use outside and beyond the school building. “Connections” is covered because students will be connecting with Social Studies and with the standards related to English and language arts. “Communication” is covered because of the real-world use of four skills areas of speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

For beginning English language learners, there are many ways in which these students can participate, first as active listeners and note-takers, later as interviewers and authors.  Depending upon their level of language usage, English language learners (ELLs) in the community can learn from watching more conversational oral language usage take on more technical shapes and then blossom into the final products that are written in formal edited English.  These particular students learn the transition from the less formal oral language use to the more form written forms of language they must learn as they proceed to college and careers (“ELLs,” n.d., paras. 1, 3).

Once the students have collected their data from interviews, reading, discussion, brainstorming, and free-writing, they can begin their pre-writing and outlining activities. Each classroom teacher or curriculum designer has their own preferred ways of helping students prepare to write, just as all students have their own preferred learning styles and proclivities for communication (Gardner, 1993). Teaching the process of writing is essential—not just focusing on the final drafts (Tompkins, 2011).

Toward the end of the unit, and the last stages of the writing process, students will draft and edit a variety of arguments for the solution. The documents may take these forms: letters to the editor of the local newspaper, appeals to elected officials, flyers for homeowners, drafts of bills for legislation, talking points for audiovisual presentations about the problem and solution. These stages of the writing process are framed by the English Language Arts Standards for Writing, Grades 11-12 because they have to do with establishing reasonable and informed claims, considering other points of views, and arguing to show why the claims are preferred over the opposing ones (“Argument,” n.d.).

In summary, to frame a major interdisciplinary unit on writing for students in grades 11-12, we could use several different national standards such as those mentioned above. Teachers, as constructivists, will surely want to develop their own approaches to such a unit, based on local resources and community issues and needs.

ACTFL Standards. (n.d.) In National standards in foreign language education: Preparing for the 21st century. Retrieved from

Argument. (n.d.).  In Common core standards for English/language arts: Writing, grade 11-12.  Retrieved from

Civic Ideals. (n.d.). In National curriculum standards for social studies. Retrieved from
Constructivist teaching and learning models. (n.d.). North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.  Retrieved from

Cummins, J. (n.d.). BICS and CALP. In Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. Retrieved from

English. (n.d.). In Common core standards for English/language arts: Writing, grade 11-12. Retrieved from

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed, 30th anniversary edition. New York: Bloomsbury Academic. 

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.
Marshall, J. (2013). Succeeding with inquiry in science and math classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Science. (n.d.). In Next generation science standards. Retrieved from
Social Studies. (n.d.). In Common core standards for English/language arts: History/social studies, grade 11-12.  Retrieved from 

Tompkins, G. (2011). Teaching writing: Balancing process and product, 6th ed. New York: Pearson.

Thomas Hansen, Ph.D., is an Independent Consultant with a variety of roles in Education and Advocacy. 

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ITBE Link - Summer 2015 - Volume 43 Number 2