Series: Preparing Youth for Civics & Politics in the Digital Age

Writing Commentaries: The Power of Youth Voice
Lesson Objective: Write a commentary about an issue
Grades 9-12 / Writing / Civic Engagement

Thought starters

  1. Why are commentaries powerful tools for civic engagement?
  2. How might you adapt this lesson for your classroom?
  3. How could you share your students' commentaries?

I like how you are letting young people share their stories. Education needs to let young people express their opinions instead of silencing them. Every student has a story to tell!  In the future, I want to introduce commentaries in my future classes of History and Ethnic Studies so students can learn each other stories.

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Commentaries are powerful tools for civic engagement because personal experiences address social situations which helps build stronger communities. By learning how to write a commentary it can build empathy and understanding of individual feelings and personal experiences. I could adapt this lesson for my classroom by having students share a personal experience. This could be used to teach students how to brainstorm and use examples to support their statements or feelings. Social skills would be strengthened by giving students an opportunity to learn how to talk and respect others who disagree with you. Before sharing students' commentaries, I would ask for suggestions on how they would like to share their experiences. Since these experiences are personal, I would want them to feel comfortable in the choice.
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It is interesting to hear these young people talk about how they feel. And there expectations. I agree confidentiality is so important to get people to really open up about their feelings.
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Good video.Tells a lot brainstorming at its best about.... commentary how it is different from an essay
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How can I down the vedio and share it to my collegues?
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  • Writing Commentaries: The Power of Youth Voice Transcript

    Teresa Chin: My name is Teresa Chin and I'm a Producer and Designer

    Writing Commentaries: The Power of Youth Voice Transcript

    Teresa Chin: My name is Teresa Chin and I'm a Producer and Designer at Youth Radio in Oakland, California.

    Youth Radio is a media production company that is driven by young people. So, we produce news, arts content and education content, all working with young people, high school age and collage age.

    Today we're gonna be covering one particular form of media, which is the first person commentary.

    The lesson's about a product that we make, we curate, it's an important product for Youth radio, which is big commentary.

    I think it's a great tool for a social engagement, for a civic engagement, because we often have a perspective we want to share and we want other people to empathize with us.

    So, my goal today is to really get them to think about how they might go about coming up with an idea for a commentary. That's a big challenge.

    I'm gonna hop right into some brainstorming about what stories we all carry with us that are worth telling and even if you've done ten commentaries, or zero, there's always a story that you have that is of interest and significance to other people. You'll see on the board over here, we're gonna be talking about three phrases that you are all going to answer, based on your personal experience. The first one is 'I Know', the next one is 'I Care About' and the last one is 'I Wish People Understood That'.

    People often say to me, 'but I don't have a story'. That's not true, everybody has a story. There's some really interesting things written up here, so, let's kinda get to know a little bit about the story behind some of the stuff that y'all wrote. Let me read 'em out loud.

    'I care about loyalty, I care about love, I care about making good art, I care about reforming the foster care system'. Yeah, Heaven?

    Heaven: I like that one because I was in the foster care system and I wanna know like, how would they reform, like what would he want them to reform about the foster care system?

    Teresa Chin: That's really important on day one to think that you'd be excited about producing a commentary.

    Let's go ask Noel. So, Noel you wrote that one. Tell us about ... why'd you write that?

    Noel: I wrote it because I was actually born and raised in foster care and school would be one ...

    Teresa Chin: Yeah.

    Noel: That I wanna change, just kinda the navigations through that - the biases that come with it - group homes, shelters even like juvenile hall.

    Teresa Chin: Yeah.

    Noel: I decided to come to Youth Radio because I wanted to get involved with media, because growing up I got a lot of comfort actually through technology surprisingly and I thought, what's a greater place than a radio station to be able to finally get my voice heard, coz I always saw a bigger vision. Radio's involved with media, media really gets content up there and I thought, perfect!

    Teresa Chin: Commentaries exist as op-eds in newspapers as animations, as videos, as radio pieces. All those things but, these elements are pretty universal. So, when you are stuck writing a commentary and you're like, 'I'm having a hard time', ask yourself like do I have an argument? Or, what's a scene that I can put in there to make it better.

    Once we get that brainstorm out, I'll spend time pulling out examples of stories and my goals to get young people to interact with each other, showing them that commentaries can be a tool to start a discussion.

    So, in the space of one minute and sixty seconds, this is a commentary by a young person named Charley and let's see how she did.

    Charley: People have gotten my name wrong since I was ten. I remember my fifth grade teacher telling me to dress like a child. I did dress like a child, I just didn't look like one. The creepy part is the attentions I get from older men.

    Teresa Chin: Let's open it up. Initial impressions of Charley's commentary. What do y'all think?

    Heaven: She like made a joke out of it, but she was also serious.

    Teresa Chin: Yeah, so I think that's interesting. Like the tone is something that you picked up on, right? Like when you hear the title of her commentary, which is 'The Downside of Looking Older', what tone could that have?

    Noel: Sad.

    Teresa Chin: Could be super sad, right? Could be ... super scary.

    Noel: Yeah.

    Teresa Chin: Yeah, so, that's just a reminder of that. You know, you have control over that. And what I want us to do is take a moment and think of what are some ideas for commentaries that we might write. So, I'm gonna have us split into pairs, coz that's always fun and come up with at least one idea that you wanna share with the group that might be a pitch.

    Break. Take 5 minutes.

    Heaven: Most people if you walk into the store, they'll follow you around the store because of the way you look and it's actually really hard to be that way because you can't help the way you look. It's just like color [inaudible 00:04:49] you can't trust the cops because of what they've done to people.

    Teresa Chin: Thank you for sharing in your pairs. Let's go round and kinda just talk about ideas that we can work with, or what we can write a commentary about.

    Heaven: People can't walk into stores or walk around the streets without people thinking that person's sketchy, that person is gonna do something or something like that.

    Teresa Chin: I think with that one, one question I have that would be the ground in your personal experience and also adding to the story. I think that the phenomenon of a person in a store following round a young person of color, coz they have biases about what the person might do. What you can bring is like, how does it feel as a young person when someone treats you like that? Because not everyone knows what the impact is. You're almost saying I wish people understood that and then you're giving the point, the argument you want, so I think there's a lot of power.

    Heaven: Yeah.

    Teresa Chin: And it is timely, which we talked about. Commentaries are a really powerful tool for civic engagement. Your story is how you can get people to build empathy and understanding and that can translate into op-eds for a newspaper. It can translate into the way you talk to somebody who disagrees with you, or comes from a different perspective, so keep in mind these things. This will make your perspective hit a little closer to home for people, so, thank you very much everybody.

    Heaven: Thank you.

    Teresa Chin: After the lesson, we had time to break off and work on commentaries and one of the students I had a chance to work with was named Heaven.

    You wanna be [inaudible 00:06:25] I just wanna get the sense for the flow and then I have some thoughts on it.

    Heaven: Yeah of course.

    Teresa Chin: Go ahead.

    Heaven: The whole thing?

    Teresa Chin: Yes.

    Heaven: I was never proud of being black because I was adopted into a white family.

    Teresa Chin: Heaven had been working on a commentary about being in a family where she was the only black young person. She was in a trans-racial adoption. And I had seen this commentary and thought, what a powerful story, let's take a look at where it is and how we can make it have an even greater impact.

    Heaven: Whenever we'd go places I felt like people treated me differently. I never told my mom about this, because I didn't want her to feel bad, because it wasn't her fault.

    Teresa Chin: I notice we have kind of 3 different arguments that I see, which is not a problem, but we might wanna lean into the one that's most important to you. When you say "Whenever I go places, I felt people treated me differently". Give me some examples of how people treated you differently.

    Heaven: People would stare at my mom and I when we went to stores.

    Teresa Chin: I think it's the power that this particular lesson can bring out. It can bring out stuff! That's so great and it's also something you have to be prepared for as an educator, because you are being entrusted with young people's really personal narratives. And they're looking to you to say, is this okay? And what you wanna message them is, not only is it okay, it's power and it's a tool and take it to the place where you wanna make the impact and run with it.

    Heaven: People have just got to know my experience of how I've felt and everything, and I feel like it's really a good learning experience for me, for myself and for other people too.

    Teresa Chin: So I think one of the key take aways that young people can have when working in digital civics, is that creating a commentary is different than creating other types of media. You only have a very small space for a commentary or an op-ad or an essay. You can't represent all of who you are and you have to almost decide what aspect of who you are and your identity would be most powerful to create the change or the conversation you wanna have.

    Whatever the medium, just make sure that young people know before they start writing their commentaries, because you don't want someone saying 'Oh, the whole school's gonna hear this. I do not want my peers to know about it'. Knowing control of where the story will go, will help them to make appropriate commentaries and then to feel good when those are shared back into the world. Think beyond just social media too. Go back to traditional journalism, because these are products that people really do want and can spread to make change.

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