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Discourse in Uncertain Times: Using LDC to Teach Civic Skills

November 18th, 2016

Suzanne’s leadership work has focused on building sustainable equity across public educational systems in order to ensure parity of access for all teachers and students. Suzanne sets the vision and oversees the design, delivery, and quality of LDC’s resources, tools, and professional supports. She also works with the LDC Academic Advisory Board to establish and ensure LDC’s partnership in the most current and pressing issues facing the field today. Previously, Suzanne ran turnaround partnerships for American Reading Company and worked in both higher education and PK-12 systems.She holds a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. Suzanne sits on the Board of Trustees and the Pepper Council of the Free Library of Philadelphia, on Philadelphia’s Read by 4th Leadership Council, and on the boards of Scholar’s Promise and the Benjamin and Fredora K. Wolf Memorial Foundation. She is committed to the vision that all means all, and that every student can and should be well served through a commitment to equity. 

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.

We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream.

It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.

Ronald Reagan

An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.

Benjamin Franklin

The recent election has ushered in a period of uncertainty and turbulence for all, regardless of whom we each voted for individually. Cries for recognition of voice abound from all sides of the political spectrum as people struggle to be heard and to have their experiences and circumstances taken seriously by their leaders and by their fellow citizens. Grave warnings aside, what is clear is that many Americans feel that the state of collective discourse is fragile at best and absent at worst.

This, to me, is the greatest challenge we now have to face. The foundation of a strong democratic republic is constructive and productive discourse. Our role as citizens extends beyond acceptance of our rights and privileges to actively taking on the responsibilities of civic engagement, civic advocacy, and civic participation. To do this and to ensure the stability of our communities, we must engage in rich and critical conversations about the issues we care most about.

Education has always been the bedrock of the kind of preparation needed to engage in such conversations as citizens. Teachers are at the very heart of this work. It is in our schools with teachers that our children learn to listen to each other, to explore differences of thought and opinion, and to be friends with those they disagree with. President Ronald Reagan reminded us that “peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” In our schools, we learn to do just so, and in doing so, we learn to extend our peace.

The need for the Literacy Design Collaborative’s (LDC) tools and resources has never been more urgent. LDC provides instructional resources that strengthen and support the very fundamentals of democratic engagement—deep examination of ideas at their primary sources, critical discourse around those intellectual ideas, and practice in organizing and developing evidence-based arguments that explicate significant ideas.  

LDC’s tools allow teachers to explicitly teach the skills necessary for full civic participation. LDC gives teachers ways to teach students how to approach information with a critical eye, contextualized analysis, and consideration of multiple perspectives. The instructional cycle of preparing for a task, reading rich texts, synthesizing ideas, and writing teaches students how to approach an issue, how to examine evidence regarding the issue, how to separate objective information from opinion, how to talk and discuss those important issues, and finally, how to write thoroughly and comprehensively about them.  

This kind of thinking is what teachers and schools need to  be teaching everyday, not only on election day. Learning to articulate and advocate for one’s beliefs, learning to disagree and argue with depth and purpose, learning to live with the dissonance that results from dissension, and learning to engage through informed civic action—these are the fundamentals of democratic participation. The purpose and guarantee of a free and public education is to equip our children with the skills needed to accept the opportunities and responsibilities of civic discourse.

In the current political climate, we can easily see the dire need for nurturing our children’s abilities to not just understand what is happening in their communities and country, but to engage in furthering the discourse in productive ways. Coretta Scott King said that “struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won you earn it and win it in every generation.” It is our obligation to teach our students to fight and earn their freedoms—certainly for the sake of individuals and their communities, but also for the sake of our nation’s continuing investment in the power of productive democratic struggle.

LDC offers tools and resources that give teachers concrete means to teach the skills of critical discourse, academic argumentation, and deep informational analysis. Teachers can take and use these tools immediately in their classrooms—in every grade level, and in every discipline. At this moment in our history, it’s clear that teaching these skills can and must be the foremost priority for every parent, teacher, and citizen. Use LDC to do this teaching in your classroom, in your community, and in our country.

Direct Action Resources

LDC has many resources for teachers that will get students immediately active in different types of civic engagement.

  • LDC has partnered with the National Writing Project and Letters to the Next President 2.0 so teachers can help students write letters to presidential candidates and to the president. Young people (aged 13-18) research, write, and voice their opinions on issues that matter to them in the election. Letters can be written directly to the site to join over 12,000 students from more than 360 sites across the country in speaking directly to our leaders.

  • Do your students wish they could have voted in the election? Have them explore voting rights and prepare for the elections in which they can vote. Voting Rights for Teens is a short (6-8 hour) unit in which teens discuss whether or not they should be able to vote.
  • Explore civic issues through Civics Short Units on topics such as fracking, civil rights movement, women’s rights, nuclear arms, space exploration, economics, literature, the Cuban Missile Crisis, urbanization, or the FFA Creed.  
  • Explore presidents and presidential power through short units on the line-item veto, Reagan in Moscow, WWII atomic bombs, and FDR and Japan.

Discourse Lessons and Units

LDC instruction always includes a key step in teaching civic engagement. After researching crucial issues, students transition to writing through bridging conversation. In this conversation, students practice debate and discourse to synthesize ideas and evidence, to learn to communicate their knowledge, and to defend their knowledge from competing claims. Teachers use discussions, debates, or Socratic Seminars to structure these synthesizing discussions. Lesson plans, some with texts, are linked below.

  • Paideia SeminarPaideia Socratic Seminar short units for various disciplines and grades. Use a short unit tomorrow in the classroom to start building civic skills.
  • Debate lessons—Lessons that teach debating skills for various disciplines and grades can be used immediately.  
  • K-5 Discussion lessons—Elementary lessons that teach discussion skills for various disciplines.
  • 6-12 Discussion Lessons—Secondary lessons that teach discussion skills for various disciplines.
  • Short Socratic Seminar Template—Outline for a short unit that includes a Paideia Socratic Seminar. Fill in the blanks with your own texts, standards, and instruction.
  • Short Unit Examples & Templates—Outlines and examples of short units for any discipline or grade level—all include a transition to writing section that teaches discourse skills.

The time is always right to do what is right.


Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

I swear to the Lord, I still can't see, why Democracy means, everybody but me.

Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.

Langston Hughes

No, I’m not an American. I’m one of 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the … victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver – no, not I! I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare!

Malcolm X

But we’ll never be truly free
Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me

John Laurens from Hamilton: An American Musical

Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.  

Alexander Hamilton


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