The Power of Student Voice in First-Person Commentaries

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It’s easy to have an opinion these days. But getting someone to see the world from your point of view — that takes a little more skill.

Enter the first-person commentary.

From newspaper op-eds to radio perspectives, there’s a growing market for content grounded in one person’s individual lived experience. Done well, commentaries can inform, persuade, and build empathy — making them powerful tools for civic engagement and fostering deeper community conversation.

This lesson on commentary writing comes to you from Youth Radio, an award-winning national network of next-generation storytellers.

About This Lesson

Youth Radio’s Senior Digital Producer and former classroom teacher Teresa Chin, works with a group of students on the basics of coming up with a story idea and forming it into a two-minute piece that could air on one of Youth Radio’s partner outlets — which include NPRThe New York TimesTeen Vogue, and local public and commercial stations — or appear on Youth Radio‘s site and social feeds.

How Can You Use the First-Person Commentary in Your Classroom?

The first-person commentary is a great way to help young people connect their lived experiences to social issues that directly affect them and their communities. In other words, it can be a powerful vehicle for young people to express civic voice and exert agency in these digital times, where personal narratives can spark some of our most substantive conversations about issues affecting the public sphere.

Tools for Teachers & Students

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Youth Radio’s Archive

Youth Radio’s archive of commentaries explore themes including immigration, juvenile justice, racial equity, foster care, politics, gender identities and rights, and pretty much any other topic in which young people have a great deal at stake. We encourage you to use this lesson to engage your own students in commentary writing.

And be sure to check out these civics-themed commentaries as inspiration or as an example of what your students can do!

Youth & Community

Critical Media Consumption and Political Awareness

Civil Rights Through Oral Histories

Social Change

Political Expression & Participation

Race & Immigration


* These commentaries are featured in the video for Youth Radio‘s Writing Commentaries: The Power of Student Voice

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About Youth Radio

Youth Radio is a media education organization and professional production company with headquarters in Oakland, California. Youth Radio content comes from a network of youth correspondents from across urban, suburban, and rural America.

Young people enter Youth Radio’s free, after-school Oakland program for surrounding schools, where they can learn the basics of multimedia production and have the opportunity to specialize in one area of primary interest.

They are supported by deep dives into critical media literacy as well as academic, health, and career support services. Once their coursework is complete, they are eligible to apply for paid internships across the organization where they work as peer educators, reporters, commentators, music producers, engineers, and key members of digital publishing, marketing, art and design, events, and communications teams.

In addition to young people who participate in Youth Radio’s on-site Oakland programs, correspondents from diverse regions and demographics across the United States — some recruited via social media, others connected through local youth organizations or national networks — contribute their personal stories and multimedia reporting to Youth Radio’s own platforms, as well as digital, broadcast, and mobile partners.

Add Youth Radio to Your Teacher Toolbelt

Why would classroom teachers want to pay attention to what’s happening at Youth Radio?

First off, we share your students’ work! And we aim to build on the amazing teaching you do every day inside your classrooms, by extending those lessons and opportunities into the out-of-school hours.

We’re here to help spread wisdom, analysis, and reporting from young people across the United States, so we hope you’ll share stories from your students that advance public understanding of their worlds and ours.

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The learning environments across Youth Radio and its national network center on production as our guiding principle. From day one, the teens who enter the on-site program know they’ll be responsible for a weekly radio show, Youth Radio Raw, and no matter where they land across the organization as they move through its range of departments, they know their job is to make something out of their ideas, convictions, concerns, and challenges.

Sometimes that something is a radio story. But it’s as likely to be a hashtag campaign, clickable infographic, web-based interactive, dynamic map, mobile app, written post, photo essay, gif, mixtape, video, community event, or digitally-enabled live conversation. In fact, among their first tasks is to determine and make the case for why the project they have in mind fits the specific media format they propose.

Please let Youth Radio know if you come up with stories you’d like us to consider for sharing with a wider audience. We want to hear what your students have to say!

How are you using the power of student voice to engage your students? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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Teresa Chin is a Senior Digital Producer at Youth Radio. She works with young people to create audio, visual, and print stories for a variety of national outlets. Her work has appeared in numerous media outlets, including National Public Radio, Teen Vogue, and The New York Times. Prior to becoming a journalist, she worked as a high school math and science teacher, a public health professional, an associate Photoshop professor, and a freelance science writer. She has two masters degrees — both from UC Berkeley — in journalism and public health. Connect with Teresa on Twitter: @TeresaLChin or @youthradio‏.

Elisabeth (Lissa) Soep is Senior Editor and Innovation Lab Founding Director at Youth Radio, the youth-driven production company and national network of next-generation journalism from across urban, suburban, and rural America. The Youth Radio stories Lissa has produced and/or edited have been recognized with honors, including two Peabody Awards, three Murrow Awards, an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, the Third Coast International Audio Festival Impact Award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. Outlets for these stories include NPR, The New York Times, and Teen Vogue. With a Ph.D. from Stanford University’s School of Education, Lissa has written about digital media and learning for academic journals (Harvard Ed Review), popular outlets (NPR, Boing Boing), and books including Youthscapes (with Maira, UPenn Press), Drop that Knowledge (with Chávez, UC Press), and Participatory Politics (MIT Press). With Asha Richardson, she co-founded Youth Radio’s Innovation Lab, now an NSF-backed partnership with MIT and Cornell Tech. In 2011, she became one of six members of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, which explores how young people are using digital and social media to express civic voice and agency. For more than ten years, Lissa served on the Board of Directors of the United States’ premier youth poetry organization, Youth Speaks (HBO series, 2009 & 2010). Connect with Lissa on Twitter: @lissasoep or @youthradio‏.


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