“I’m going to call my senator!” – the Nebraska Writing Project and Student Civic Action

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Mrs. Schmidt, did you know that the budget issues in the district stem from a bill in the Nebraska Legislature? I think I’m going to just call the senator who proposed that bill and see what exactly happened.” 

I stopped short. My ninth grade journalism student was  “just going to call the senator to see what happened.” That’s not something I would have done in high school, especially as a freshman. 

A few weeks before this moment, 50 of my journalism students participated in a Capitol Experience Day (CAP Day) at the Nebraska Capitol – a project that was funded and created thanks to the Nebraska Writing Project’s Husker Writers program. Students prepared through a Deep Maps Activity, where they drew maps of their communities as they personally experienced them. They added a transparent layer on top,  noting community issues they believed journalists should investigate. They then connected their issues to current legislation in Nebraska to eventually board a bus in their best business attire to visit the Capitol and hold press conferences with two senators. 

Before my first year advising journalism, I found myself a part of the Nebraska Writing Project (NeWP) summer workshop for Husker Writers, a program that formed partnerships between secondary and post secondary educators and focused on civic, public writing. I was completely enthralled with the idea of making my introductory students’ civic writing public. 

I mean, that is what journalism is all about  – writing about our world for an audience. Through Husker Writers, several teachers and I learned about these CAP Days organized by Civic Nebraska where students came to the state capitol building, engaged in a mock committee hearing of a bill and met with senators. 

As I sat in those slightly worn maroon chairs of the committee hearing room, the idea for this project was born. A journalism themed CAP day centered around student-selected in-depth reporting topics. A chance for my introduction to journalism students to interview senators and tell real stories. 

Students took those ideas from their community deep maps to their CAP day. When we arrived at the Capitol, students’ heads swiveled as they took in everything from the architecture to the sounds of bills being debated to the bustling of lawmakers throughout the hallways. Then, they engaged in real journalism and asked their senators their burning questions. 

That day, I remember obsessively running through my checklist: Each student should have 

  •  made it to the bus – check
  • received their piece of pizza – check
  • made it back to those maroon chairs of the committee room – check

While I worried about logistics, my students gleaned powerful moments I hadn’t expected. 

  • Raya and Natalie came rushing into the room to show me a photo of them with Ernie Chambers, a prominent senator from our district. 
  • Jayla moved seamlessly around the committee room taking photos of senators to use in her design when we returned. 
  • Neveah wrote about programs available to minority students in her building to pursue college degrees.

This all led to students creating a physical newspaper of their own work, which was not typical of our introductory course. 

Mostly, it led to agency. 

After we returned from the Capitol, my students displayed a new sense of accomplishment and confidence and sense of civic duty.

They continued that civic engagement as they moved on in journalism and began to inspire their peers to do the same. I witnessed them organize letters to senators on bills that mattered to them and worked to get them to committee hearings on bills that impacted them specifically. I don’t think a single issue of the newspaper is created without discussing one of my reporters contacting a lawmaker or other person of power. 

Many of the students who loaded the bus that day went on to be leaders in my program and their school. To be civically involved. 

  • Clare  became Editor-in-Chief of the yearbook and interviewed for a journalism scholarship at her prospective college. 
  • Hailey interviewed the first open LGBTQIA+ law maker in Nebraska when she ran for office to create a full-length feature in the newspaper. 
  • Jayla earned an award at the state contest in journalism. 
  • Talia completed the weekly broadcast that was sent to the entire school and thanked me for making that paper happen for her class. 

I felt confident to help my students with all of this because of the Nebraska Writing Project. I became a better teacher for my students because of it. 

So many of these moments for students are direct products of the opportunities that exist within the Nebraska Writing Project (NeWP). NeWP connected me to a network of teachers who advocated for themselves and for education while forming themselves as writers; NeWP pushed me to see I had the ability to do so, too.

NeWP opened pathways for me to be better for my students. It introduced me to Place-Based education where I learned about those deep maps, which have become a staple in my classroom. It brought me to C3WP to effectively teach argument writing. It connected me to the Husker Writers program that created that visit to the Capitol and other partnerships with college courses. It led me to my democratic education and educational policies courses that connected me directly with my students’ and colleagues’ context and provided me ways to make school a place they want to be. 

It led me to my master’s degree. 

To my desire to write again. 

To my confidence in making change for students.

To a classroom experience students want to hang on to, even after they leave my program.  Those stories that mean something to them four years later. Those times they were brave and called senators just to see what happened. 

I knew NeWP created these moments for my students when I talked to Clare, as a senior, about her career in journalism and she said something that stopped me short again.

“I still have my newspaper in my folder from freshman year. I had to save it.”

It is these moments – the ones students hold tightly to their memories of class – that show the power of the possibilities of NeWP. 

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