Supporting Civically Engaged Argument Writing with Primary Sources

2022 National Council for History Education (NCHE) Conference


  • Jen Freed, Grades 9 & 11 English Language Arts Teacher; PhilWP Teacher Consultant

  • Beth Patten, Grade 7 Social Studies Teacher; PhilWP Teacher Consultant

  • Javaha Ross, Grades 2-5 Literacy & Social Studies Teacher; PhilWP Teacher Consultant

  • Peggy Savage, Grade 5 Teacher; PhilWP Teacher Consultant

  • Trey Smith, Grades K-8 Digital Literacy Teacher; PhilWP Teacher Consultant

  • Lisa (Yuk Kuen) Yau, 邱玉娟, Grade 4 Teacher; PhilWP Teacher Consultant


Teachers in our Philadelphia Writing Project network are engaging in inquiries and creating curriculum resources to support civically engaged argument writing in K-12 classrooms.

Our emerging resources draw upon:

  1. primary sources from the Library of Congress;

  2. argument writing approaches from the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writers Program (Arshan & Park, 2021; Friedrich et al., 2018); and

  3. Gholdy Muhammad’s (2020, 2021) Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy Framework.

Argument Writing Stances

  1. Arguments are all around us.

Students should recognize the many conversations in our communities. Many are already contributing to these ongoing conversations. As teachers, we should cultivate a culture of argument in our classrooms and support students as they civically engage beyond the classroom.

  1. Arguments are not simply pro and con, for and against.

Often, there are multiple perspectives that students should engage with. Recognizing multiple perspectives can help students figure out what others have said in a civic conversation so far, build empathy (Mirra, 2018), and imagine thoughtful ways forward.

  1. Argument writing involves making moves with claims and evidence.

Students should try out moves that other communicators make in an effort to strengthen our own arguments (Graf & Birkenstein, 2021; Harris, 2017). As they try out these moves, students may make them their own.

Curriculum Snapshots

Below are snapshots of example sets of curriculum materials. Please note: The curriculum descriptions and resources shared are works in progress. For this poster presentation at NCHE, we are highlighting example:

  • Historical primary sources

  • Recent news articles

  • Routines for analysis and argument and/or student work examples

As we continue to build out our project, we will publish more robust curriculum collections that include text sets, teacher inquiry reflections, key routines, and examples of student work. Here's one complete collection.

We are also sharing our works in progress in a webinar series.

Ms. Ross's grade 3 class

Students discussed ideas that humans have had about space over the last 500 years, researched what kinds of things NASA does, and explored key moments in NASA’s history.

They are now (1) learning what Space Junk is and how that affects our environment and solar system and (2) collecting and analyzing to support their claim of how much public money we as a country should invest in space exploration. Students will create a slideshow and present their stance to share with their classmates.

Mr. Smith's grade 4 digital literacy class

Students are exploring environmental impact of clothing. They are entering the conversation about what to do about these impacts by (1) analyzing infographics and other sources with statistics about the fashion industry, (2) analyzing primary sources that highlight the ways that the marketing and making of clothing has changed over time, and (3) interviewing people in their lives about why clothing and fashion are important to them.

Students are conducting additional research and create podcasts about what to do about the environmental impacts of fashion.

Ms. Yau's grade 4 class

Students are discussing the politics of hair as a form of racial discrimination. Black hair is a controversial topic in our current national discourse of cultural appropriation, and policing at work and in school. America has a long history with the mindset that white hair is normal, and Black hair must be ironed, flattened, cut down and controlled. Hair is what the world looks at when trying to determine what race you are; it’s a public declaration of identity politics.

In community meetings and Socratic Seminars, students discussed the followings: Do you agree or disagree with the statement that hair define who you are? Why or why? Search for a set of photos and social media messages as evidences to support your political point of view about hair?

Students participated in a Gallery Walk activity: Write a 280-character tweet to serve as a caption to one of the selected photos, or draw a political cartoon to voice your argument about hair discrimination.

Ms. Savage's grade 5 class

Students are exploring the question: What should our communities do about mascots for sports teams that some members of our community find to be offensive? Often these mascots have long histories in our communities—and these histories are tied to anti-Indigineous racism. Some communities and organizations, from high schools to professional sports teams, have changed team names and/or logos. Others have not. Students are writing and revising claims as they explore multiple perspectives and take stances on these issues.

Ms. Patten's grade 7 social studies class

Students investigated the question, "Where should artifacts and the dead remain in the ground or in museums?" By actively engaging with the texts through illustration, annotation, and dialogue, students outlined the multiple perspectives of the argument. Students considered and evaluated claims surrounding issues of identity, nationalism, and colonialism embedded within primary source artifacts.

Students utilized formative assessment materials from the National Writing Projects College, Career, and Community Writing Program to conference with the teacher and peers to strengthen their writing through multiple forms of evidence.

Ms. Freed's grade 9 English language arts class

Students explored how safety, vulnerability, and privacy are understood in Martha Wells’ corporate-dominated, spacefaring futuristic novella All Systems Red. Students bridged conversations about their own textual connections and their current investigations of artificial intelligence, space colonization, technological advancements, and cloning.

As part of a subsequent persuasion unit, students generated sub-topics for debates by (1) exploring these themes through current research (primarily through their synthesis of scientific data: i.e. through infographics and statistical findings), (2) highlighting ethos, pathos, and logos in primary sources to identify the way an author or company’s rhetorical and graphic choices influence human beings’ actions, (3) taking a stance with evidence, and (4) tying their thematic analyses of/claims about Wells’ All Systems Red to their chosen topic.


NCHE 2022 Virtual Conference — Civically Engaged Argument Writing with Primary Sources


Arshan, N. L. & Park, C. J. (2021). Research brief: SRI finds positive effects of the College, Career, and Community Writer’s Program on student achievement. SRI International.

Friedrich, L., Bear, R., & Fox, T. (2018). For the sake of argument: An approach to teaching evidence-based writing. American Educator, 42(1), 18-40.

Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2021). They say, I say: The moves that matter in academic writing (5th ed.). W. W. Norton.

Harris, J. (2017). Rewriting: How to do things with texts. University Press of Colorado.

Mirra, N. (2018). Educating for empathy: Literacy learning and civic engagement. Teachers College Press.

Muhammad, G. (2021). 12 questions to ask when designing culturally and historically responsive curriculum. Association for Middle Level Education.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. Scholastic.