Episode 17: Being Heard: Students Presenting Live to State Senators on Local Issues

November 2, 2020

The Husker Writers Program brings high school and college students together to research local issues and present advocacy writing to local legislators. In this episode, UNL assistant professor Rachael Shah and North Star high school teacher Jessica Meyer discuss this approach to argument writing, and we get to listen in on their students' presentations to state senator Adam Morfeld.

Plainstate: The Podcast, sponsored by the Department of English, is a podcast about the humanities on the Great Plains and beyond featuring interviews, stories, people, and places.

Transcript

ROBERT LIPSCOMB, HOST:

Thank you for listening to the Plainstate Podcast, a production of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. This special episode was produced by the Nebraska Writing Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT BROOKE, NEBRASKA WRITING PROJECT DIRECTORY:

You are listening to NWP radio, a production of the National Writing Project. This podcast episode was produced by the Nebraska Writing Project and made possible with a grant from the National Writing Project-National Parks Service partnership: supporting place-based learning and collaboration between National Writing Project sites and our nation's National Parks.

MACKENZIE GONZALEZ, CO-HOST:

On December 3rd, 2019, Nebraska students assembled at the state capitol to express their concerns and proposals about pressing issues facing many students in the state. In addition to listening to and addressing many of their concerns, state senator Adam Morfeld ultimately proposed a piece of legislation. But first, we will hear from the two advisors to these Nebraska students.

RACHAEL SHAH:

Hi. I'm Rachael Shah, a professor of English at University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

JESSICA MEYER:

Hello. I'm Jessica Meyer. I teach English at North Star High School in Lincoln, Nebraska.

SHAH: We are with the Nebraska Writing Project and today we're going to talk a little bit about a project that involved our students in researching local issues and presenting them live to a state senator at the Nebraska State Capitol. This project actually led to a state senator inviting one of our students to collaborate on legislation.

Our project was part of the Husker Writers Program—a program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that invites high school and college English teachers to plan joint curriculum and then bring their classes together for public writing projects. So, this semester, through Husker Writers, I worked with Jess at North Star High School.

MEYER: I'll give some background about North Star High School. The school has been open for 17 years and we're one of six schools in Lincoln, Nebraska—six high schools in Lincoln, Nebraska. Over half of our population qualifies for free and reduced lunch, and our students speak around 27 different languages. We are also one of three high schools in Lincoln to offer ELL classes. The composition class that we worked with—Rachael's class at UNL—is made up of juniors. It's designed as college prep, but a lot of the students struggle with the added rigor and higher expectations since they've never taken a writing-centered class beforehand. The students were all, this semester, diverse in ethnicity. There was also a handful of students who qualified for special education.

SHAH: In my class at the university is a group of pre-service teachers through the English Education program at UNL. They are juniors, but it's their very first class once they are officially in the English Education cohort. My class is a class on composition pedagogy and practice, so we read a lot of different books—a lot by National Writing Project teachers—on how to teach writing. We do a lot of writing ourselves, and then we have this partnership with North Star High School which gives students a chance to practice writing pedagogy ideas in practice with local students.

We have a partnership with North Star High School that's been going on for several years and this is the first year I had an opportunity to work with Jess. I remember when we started working together, prompted by Robert Brooke, who is the site director—here at UNL—of the Nebraska Writing Project. He was challenging me to think of ways that we could have our cohort students write for a real audience. When Jess and I sat down to start to plan our partnership, I remember asking her “Jess, is there any way you could think of that we could have our students write for someone beyond us and beyond each other?”

MEYER: I had just read the book 180 Days by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, and in it they talked about their students writing letters to the candidates of the 2016 election, but they also talked about the disappointment of how they didn't receive responses back. And so I thought: what if they were to write letters to political figureheads, but not necessarily Washington D.C.—where I'm sure they get lost in the mail anyway—and maybe not even send them to some random office at the State Capitol? What if we could make this an assignment where they would write to their actual representative for the state of Nebraska, or even their district?

SHAH: I got excited about that idea because I've worked in the past with Civic Nebraska, which is a nonpartisan civic literacy organization here in Lincoln. Traditionally, they've worked with social studies classes, but as a writing teacher I see so many links between what Civic Nebraska is doing and the kinds of things we're hoping our students learn about approaching different perspectives and using sources and argument. I approached Civic Nebraska and asked if we could do what they call a “Capitol Experience Day”—a “Cap Day”—where we bring our students to the Capitol. Traditionally, Cap Days involve students meeting with local representatives, but the students kind of listen while the representatives give a presentation, and they ask questions at the end. My idea was: what if we flipped it based off of Jess's idea of researching and writing to state senators? What if the state senators listened, and our students were the ones presenting?

 

MEYER: When we finally settled on what we were going to do, we had to think about how we were going to scaffold it for our students. When it came to my students at North Star, I introduced some articles or videos that were just found on the internet about students actually becoming more politically active, especially through letter writing. For example, there was a group of students in Oregon who advocated for a mental health day to be approved for students, and my students really liked that idea.

I was able to infuse mini-lessons set up from the College, Career and Community Writers Program, which is argument curriculum set out by the National Writing Project. We took several days to brainstorm, to research, to draft, revise, and draft some more. The partnership with Rachael's class was extremely powerful in helping the students to craft their best work because they had plenty of one-on-one feedback and we were able to take it slowly throughout the semester rather than have the time constraints of this huge deadline that oftentimes doesn't lead to the best types of writing.

SHAH: We embedded this project into our partnership. My students came to North Star High School—I think, seven times—and met with Jess's students during their normal class. We were able to do that because Robert, who teaches the reading class in the English Education program, has class is scheduled back-to-back with mine. We bring our classes to North Star during the time period where both our classes would normally meet, and then they meet with Jess's writing class and also a reading class here at North Star. So, we were able to spend quite a bit of time together and work through the writing process in terms of brainstorming and drafting and researching and things like that.

For my students, I also wanted to scaffold for them the larger picture of what we were trying to accomplish.  I had them read part of the book What Kind of Citizen, which explores citizenship education in our schools and talks about how too often, citizenship education just means teaching personal responsibility. You know, put your shopping cart back, pay your bills on time, vote, and donate to the food drive. But there's also participatory citizenship education, which is focused on leading or coordinating different kinds of projects like this. A participatory citizen would organize a food drive instead of donating to it. Then there's the social justice-oriented citizen, which is a citizen that—instead of just donating to the food drive or organizing one—asks why there is hunger in our community and what we could potentially do to solve it.

I wanted my students to think about the different ways that their education had linked up with citizenship education and the ways that we can think intentionally about what kind of citizen we are preparing our students to be. As the authors of that book point out, in totalitarian nations, citizenship education is quite important, but it means following rules—you know, practicing the golden rule, just being a nice person. We're after something different, which is participating and thinking more deeply about where these issues come from. So, that helped them think about what we were doing as we worked with the North Star students on some pretty tough issues, including police brutality, mental illness, and the cost of college.

 

MEYER: Also, when we think about a tie-in for place-based education, when it comes to this whole unit and this whole project that we addressed, I've always thought that place-based education was really difficult to write from a suburban perspective. I grew up in a rural community, and so it was very easy for me to write about my surroundings, having come from a family of farmers. But most, if not all, of my students do not have that, and several of my students come from other countries, so they don't necessarily have a place to write about. So, I was thinking, well, what is your place here? And one of the major issues that a lot of my students wrote about was mental health. I think about how wherever you are, that's your place, and your mental health is with you. And I felt that was pretty important to continue with.

I also think about too that when it comes to citizenship and just being active in your community. You're not necessarily working directly with the land, but I guess you are planting ideas that you want to see grow in your environment. That’s how I approached it, too: if you have issues with Lincoln, what can we do to make it better?

SHAH: I know that Jess has worked with the concept of place-based education through her graduate work, especially through work with Robert Brooke, who teaches a place-based education class and has a book on suburban place-based education. It was interesting to see how she was able to take that perspective and put it into our project.

One thing that's especially important—and a reason why I think that legislative advocacy is especially appropriate to our place here in Nebraska—is that Nebraska is a unicameral, which means we only have one state house of representatives instead of two. One thing that Civic Nebraska tries to really mail home is this idea that the people are supposed to be the second house. Whenever there's a bill, or an issue, the idea is that people are supposed to come testify—there's a public hearing on every bill—and to weigh in. And that will allow the people of Nebraska to be more involved. We went to the State Capitol at the end of the semester, and Civic Nebraska and our representative Bridgette actually talked about this question.

After we had a presentation by Civic Nebraska about the importance of being involved, and how to be involved, we had our students get together and practice their letters; and then they actually read their letters live to state senator Adam Morfeld, who is the senator for both North Star and UNL. We did our letters as a choral reading and had half the students for each letter, and they, together, read their letters to him in the room.

MACKENZIE GONZALEZ:

What you're going to hear next are the two choral readings by the students made specifically for this podcast. After each reading, Senator Morfeld gives his response to the students.

(RECORDING OF CHORAL READING BEGINS. Editor’s note: each unmarked paragraph is spoken by a different student. Lines spoken by the whole group are marked ‘ALL.’)

STUDENTS:

Lincoln North Star High School juniors, together with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Education students, work once a week in a seven-week partnership to create letters to you about the issues that matter most to them.

Two themes emerged across many of the letters, and we want to talk to you about these issues today. These stories, thoughts, and calls to action come directly from the students in this room, although students may not read their own words due to the sensitive nature of the topics. Here we present a multi-voice depiction of common struggles and our hopes for the future of Nebraska.

Our first letter focuses on the mental health issue.

Dear senator: first,

ALL:  Our stories.

I started receiving texts.

You're ugly. No one likes you. I don't know why you even bother. We don't want to be your friend. You’re fat. You shouldn't be eating. The messages kept coming, soon accompanied by verbal and physical bullying. I stopped eating, sitting at the end of the long table as “Throw grapes at Haley day” commenced almost every day and messages about how I didn't deserve the food in my lunch bag filled my phone. I thought they were right. Every day, I would dump the contents of my bag into the trash on my way out. Eventually the messages turn darker, and why don't you just kill yourself became a regular notification. One day in eighth grade, with the handicapped stall door locked, I tried to.

After four hours of not knowing what time it is, or where I was, I was leaving the emergency room, confused on how one panic attack can make you scared of everything—can make you think you are dying—think you are watching your life through glass—think you are dead. How your own thoughts can do this much damage. But the crazy thing is, this is just my story; my one story of the two-to-three percent of Americans that experience panic attacks.

My family and I immigrated to the united states about five years ago. We came here with nothing but our luggage and started from zero point. As we left everything behind and worked at a minimum paying job, we found resources to help us get food and shelter, but never found the source to help our mental health.

I suffer from clinical depression. My sophomore year, I felt like there was no help. I felt that I was the child that my parents were never going to mention when talking to other adults because they'd be embarrassed. Mainly, just the simple fact that if I wasn't the perfect student, no college would want me.

Feeling hopeless, I decided to seek professional help. After going through two sessions with my wonderful new therapist, I got an email saying that my insurance did not go through; so, on top of everything else I was struggling with, I also had a $300 bill land on my doorstep for two therapy sessions. This is a month's rent for me. Financially, my life fell apart, because my insurance decided the mental health was not important enough to cover.

And this isn't just us. It affects people all across Nebraska.

ALL:  Here are the facts.

Right now, Nebraska's suicide rate is 26 percent higher than the national average.

The Lincoln community is suffering from suicide. In 2015, five youths 19 or younger died from suicide. 66 attempts of suicide were made within the age range of 13 to 19. I ask you now to think of someone you love who is between the age of 13 and 19. Can you imagine your life without them? I hope you never have to.

In the spring 2016, there was 48 suicidal on-campus students hospitalized—triple the number of that fall in 2011. That doesn't include 30 more on-campus students who were sent back from the hospital to the care of university housing staff. I would like for you to stop and think about that for a moment. It can be easy to brush off that number; but three years ago, less than a mile from where you are sitting, almost 50 young students tried to end their own lives. These are real stories, and this is actually happening.

Why has our attention not turned towards providing students with resources in schools? Changes like this could have prevented tragedies such as the death of Lincoln East student Anthony Kirkpatrick, who jumped off the Q Place parking garage in 2014.

These ideas and stories are not uncommon.

ALL:  So where do we go from here?

The state requires only one hour of suicide prevention training for the whole year. Teachers should be required to take a longer and more in-depth suicide training.

Nebraska Revised Statute 79-2137 requires that schools develop and adopt bullying prevention and education policies. This statute should be expanded to include harassment via electronic devices and cyberbullying.

We are advocating for mental health screenings at the start of every academic year, and funds to assign more licensed medic mental health professionals to schools.

Finally,

ALL:  It's time to take this seriously.

I am always hearing that the Nebraskan government is looking for ways to keep young people in Nebraska. I have an idea, and it starts with keeping young people in Nebraska alive.

Sincerely,

HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS: North Star Gators.

COLLEGE STUDENTS: And UNL Huskers.

--

SENATOR ADAM MORFELD:

First off—really powerful. This is recording, I’m assuming—I hope that I have the opportunity to be able to share this with my colleagues. We obviously have email—a senators’ listserv—I'd like to send it out to them and then also post on social media if that's appropriate. If it's not, that's fine too.

Second, a few different things. I think you mentioned it; I'll introduce that legislation, so just follow up with me after that and we'll get it drafted so we can get started.

I completely agree with you guys on the mental health issues. That's why I introduced a bill last year that would require mental health first aid in our schools. I'm actually meeting with the education committee chair right after this meeting to talk about using some of our lottery funds next year to be able to provide that training. It wouldn't be mandatory. I would like it to be mandatory. Anytime we do try to do something mandatory like that, we get about 50 different school associations and everybody coming in saying “Don't tell us exactly what we need to do”—local control. Then we respond with “Well, we won't tell you what to do if you're doing it right and doing it well, but you're not.” So that's kind of the back-and-forth, and give-and-take.

On mental health first aid training: that would help provide much more robust resources to teachers beyond just the hour required training that we have right now—teachers and administrators—to be able to identify these mental health needs and be able to get them to the right resources. That then leads into making sure that we have the right resources, right?

I think one of you brought up that you went and got the mental health resources that you needed. But if you got essentially a surprise bill—I have two bills that would address that right now—is making sure that when people go in and get resources, they have to be notified by the practitioner whether they're in-network or out-of-network. If they're not notified, then the bill's not on them; it's on the practitioner, so that people can make decisions accordingly, right, and not have to decide between rent and paying a bill, and then being dragged into court because they couldn't pay a bill. So, surprise billing.

In addition, we have got to get Medicaid expansion. It's already been passed in the law but we've got to get the governor to stop with holding Medicaid expansion from people because that would cover 90,000 people—families, young people, you name it—that should have access to mental health care, should have access to health care, that are currently within the gap. I helped lead the ballot initiative for that. We got it passed. The governor is—in my opinion—illegally blocking it, but I'm working hard with Nebraska Appleseed right now to get that 90,000 people the care that they need and the coverage that they need because they fall within that gap. They’re not poor enough to get Medicaid as it currently is, but they're not financially stable enough to be able to get beyond the healthcare exchange and be able to afford that.

All this stuff really resonates with me. And in addition to that legislation, if you guys have other ideas for legislation, I'm happy to look at that and consider introducing it like I will that legislation. But please—this is great!—continue to reach out to me; you don't have to wait until an opportunity like this. So thank you.

--

(CHORAL READING BEGINS)

Our second letter discusses the rising cost of post-secondary education.

Dear Senator: first,

ALL:  Our stories.

One of the reasons why I am not going to college is because of the cost of college. No matter how much I start saving now, I will not have enough to even pay for one semester with the minimum wage job I currently work.

I am a junior in high school already worried about how I'm going to pay for college, and I should be worried about how my upcoming project that is due soon. My parents both have good jobs, and I have a job of my own, but just because my parents make enough to pay for all their bills, doctors’ appointments, and more, it doesn't mean they will have enough to pay for my college. Who even said that they have to pay? Why should it be put on them? Since they make enough money, I won't be able to receive grants, just because we have a lot of money. There are scholarships, but that's not a guarantee.

Ever since I started college, I've had trouble balancing my three lives: academic, personal, and work. From the beginning I've worked two jobs to make ends meet as tuition bills, books, and extra costs that are necessary on campus have demanded nearly all of my paychecks. What's worse is I have no assistance from my parents. It's all me. But the FAFSA is based off my parents’ income, so I'm not receiving the benefits I could be should they take my actual situation into account.

I am extremely nervous for my future debt. My parents collectively make about $50,000 and are not able to pay for my college. I have taken about $30,000 out in loans. I should not have been able to go into tens of thousands of dollars into debt at 17 years old when I did not know what that meant for my future.

Being a fully independent first-generation college student money, is always on my mind. Will I have enough funds to get through the semester? Do I eat dinner, or pay for my books?

And this isn't just us it affects people all across Nebraska.

ALL:  Here are the facts.

The average annual cost to go to UNL is about $24,000. The average annual salary for first-year teachers in Nebraska is about $34,000. I'll have $96,000 to pay off after I graduate. The cost of my education should not be more than an entire year of my salary.

Current UNL in-state tuition is $9,522. That doesn't sound like a lot, but consider what it takes to pay it. Divide that number by 12 months, and the price for just tuition is $783.50. The average weekly allowance for a student worker is 20. 20 hours. 20 hours at the $9 an hour minimum wage gives the student $810 a month, give or take. Do you know how much that leaves the student? $16.50. $16.50 to pay for fees, supplies, transportation, shelter, and food.

ALL:  $16.50.

It takes an average of 21 years to pay off all student loans that you use to help you continue one semester in a university environment.

In the past 10 years, the state has reduced financial support for college tuition by 7%, which in turn has increased tuition costs for students.

Finally, it is time to take this seriously. The more educated we are, the better our country is, but so many students are opting out of college entirely because they can't afford it.

It's classist to keep raising tuition rates. It limits the opportunity of lower-class individuals to further their education. It's just another way to separate the poor from the rich

My opinion on the education system is that it's becoming a privilege, not a right.

Sincerely,

HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS: North Star class of 2021

COLLEGE STUDENTS: and UNL class of 2021.

--

MORFELD: Just this morning, I opened up my email and I got my income-based repayment plan; because they do it every year, you have to update it. It’s something you all have to look forward to, unfortunately. My monthly payment on my student loans now is more than my mortgage. I tell people I've got 140,000 reasons why higher education is way too expensive; that's my student loan debt. My mortgage is $180,000; that's how much my house is worth. I'm fortunate enough to have gotten a first-time homeowner loan and done all that, but my interest on my student loan payments is 6%. The interest on my mortgage payment is 3%. I'm actually paying more on a monthly basis for my student loans. I tell people I'm in a fortunate position where my fiancé and I have a combined student loan debt of about $200,000, but we're fortunate enough where we can pay that off. We don't have other debt. And not everybody's in that position.

My father graduated from college about two months before me, so I was close to being first-generation. He was in the military and slowly doing it himself. So these issues really resonated with me. I was getting chills as you guys were talking because I've experienced those same things.

When I came to the legislature, reducing the cost of college was going to be one of my top priorities—and it still is—but I've also realized that it's such a mess. I feel like I'm lecturing now—I'm sorry!—but this is just my experience, based on your guys' experience that you're telling. On one hand, I would have never been able to go to college without federally subsidized loans, right. I had those things. On the other hand, the federally subsidized loans make it so that state legislatures and colleges and universities don't have to worry about keeping the cost of education affordable because everybody has access.

But what does that access mean? It comes at a cost. It comes at a price. You can take out $140,000 in subsidized loans, but then you're chained to those loans for the rest of your life, right, or close to it. And so, on one hand, it makes it accessible; on the other hand, nobody gets turned away because of cost then, and nobody down here sees a problem. Why? Because the average age of a state senator down here is 60 and they're not thinking too much about cost of higher education. Their kids, their grandkids, are still going—they're still able to get in. Getting the legislature to wake up and realize that this is an issue has been near impossible despite a lot of efforts on some folks’ part.

And then also trying to get the Board of Regents and the university to realize that, hey listen, yeah, we're one of the lowest-cost public education [institutions] in the entire country but that just means that we're really bad—as compared to people who are really, really bad, you know? Stop saying “We’re the best deal” when an average family could never afford to send their child there. They’re creating a narrative that makes it hard for me to make the case to fund the university more because they're running around saying “We're the best deal in the entire country” when we're still completely unaffordable for any average person. It's been one of the more frustrating issues that I've worked on down here.

But what I would love, one, is if you guys have some policy solutions that I haven't thought of, which I’d love to hear. Two, I would love for you guys to come and do this same thing—but I could bring our two members of the Board of Regents that represent the University of Nebraska-Lincoln area and Lincoln-Lancaster County, and then also the current interim president—maybe the future president—of the university. If I can get the four of us in here, I'm wondering if I can get all of you in here to do the same thing that you just did with me, because it's falling on deaf ears with them. Is that something we can do?

MEYER: Yeah.

MORFELD: Okay. Yeah. Because I think that that would be— Hey listen. You sold me. Like, I live and breathe; every day I see that I'm paying $30 in interest every day on my student loans. That's just the interest. It's not even principal. You've got me sold.

But the people at the university administration, and particularly some of the legislative actors, they don't get it. They don't understand it. And part of it is, I think, they don't want to understand it because they've got it. They’ve got other priorities. And the other part of it is, I don't think they fully understand the reality which you guys have laid out here pretty poignantly.

(RECORDING ENDS.)

--

JESSICA MEYER:

After the students read their synthesized pieces and did the choral reading, we gave them the opportunity to hand deliver their letters some students wanted to directly deliver to Senator Morfeld's office. Unfortunately, he was in a meeting, but the secretary in his office was really nice and I still think that made it a real-world experience to think about: Oh, you know, here's this bigwig who has an assistant!

A few students went to senator Ernie Chambers, who is a legend in the state of Nebraska, and he was very welcoming to the students. He talked with them about you wouldn't believe my age and even did some push-ups for them—but he gave a few inspirational words, too, and the students left with smiles on their faces. It was really cool to be able to tell the students, with their different topics, which senators they should try and go to touch base with. It was neat to see that they understood this wasn't just one senator—this was plenty that they could go to. I think they understood even if it wasn't their state representative directly from their district, that these senators still represented them.

RACHAEL SHAH:

We reflected a little bit with the students after delivering their letters over lunch. They had a lot of things to say about the different things they got out of the project and the different ways that their topics connected to their passions and interests.

NOLAN THIMGAN, STUDENT:

All right. My name is Nolan Thimgan at Lincoln North Star High School. I wrote about the cost of college tuition; how it's affecting college students, how it's putting a lot of stress on them, and how a lot of people are neglecting colleges and not putting that first, then going into a trade school or going to the military because it costs so much money. They don't have enough support for it. So that's why I wrote about it.

And I wrote about it because it was affecting me and my choice for my future. I wanted to be in IT and just go into a big company and work for them and stuff like that, but I realized I didn't have enough to go to college. So, I chose to go into the military, and now that's kind of like my path of destination.

My thought on the project was I'm glad I got my voice heard to a senator or representative of my state. It was nice to know that they're actually listening instead of—I just post a comment online and then they kind of just read it and ignore it, you know. It's nice to have this whole thing to be heard by everybody.

MYA COGDILL, STUDENT:

My name is Mya. I go to Lincoln North Star as well. I wrote about the cost of college and how it's taking a toll on people that are going into debt and people that just can't afford college—how some people could probably do big things, but the cost of college is making them not want to go. This project has made me realize that my family makes a lot of money, but that money goes to stuff like bills for the house and hospital bills and stuff like that, so they're not going to use that money to send me to college.

To write it with the college students—they had they told me how their income is and how they're not able to pay for some of that stuff, too. And that made me realize that this is much more big of a deal that people are making it.

ARIANA ALMAZAN, STUDENT:

My name's Ariana. I go to North Star, and I wrote about suicide and youth. I chose this topic because it's increased a lot since past years, and it's something I really do have a strong passion for. I thought it was a good experience because a lot of people just see us as reckless teenagers, that don't really have input about anything or don't really care. We’re also not allowed to vote, so we don't really have an input yet. But it's also kind of a good thing that our voice can be heard so people can see that we actually do see the bad things that are happening in our state.  It's something that we can also help change or make a change in—but it's also a good thing so we can help other people and other families too.

RUAA OSMAN, STUDENT:

My name is Ruaa, and I'm a junior currently attending North Star High School. When we wrote the letter to the government, I didn't think it was going to be as big, because previous to that, when we usually write letters in English classes about problems that we believe in, nothing happens. You're writing it to a teacher to get a good grade. But this one actually meant something—and delivering it to the Capitol. I delivered my letter to Ernie Chambers. He was a really nice guy (laughter), and he was really funny. That made me feel like I can be a part of a change, and even as a junior, I can do something—and that my letter will mean something.

My letter was about police brutality. This really affected me, especially being a part of a minority that's affected by it. And this letter was really important to me because there's so many issues surrounding this. It's been happening for quite a while now. and there needs to be more awareness and laws about it to protect citizens.

JESSICA MEYER:

As we were finishing this project I was personally pretty excited about everything but of course as a teacher you always think what more could we have done? What would we change?

I know that Rachael and I discussed—so that everybody's writing was in the synthesized pieces, if that's how we were to present them again—that maybe we, as classes, agree upon one or two issues to write about; try to find that common ground. Also, a lot of the students had said that they wished they would have understood who their audience was beforehand, because some of them were feeling I guess a little bit of regret. For example, some of them wrote about potholes in Lincoln because they were like oh, those annoy me. But then, when they saw that Senator Morfeld is a real person, and Senator Chambers is a real person, and these are people who work for the state of Nebraska, they realized they could have written about bigger issues that were important to them or to anybody else that they knew, and they didn't necessarily have to just go with the first thing off the top of their head. So perhaps we would visit the Capitol beforehand so they get an understanding of the audience and just how relevant this is to their life.

RACHAEL SHAH:

We're continuing to tinker with this approach. I'm using it in my class this semester—for a 200-level English class—and we're building the whole semester around this legislative project. We're headed to the Capitol tomorrow to do our first visit, to get to meet Senator Morfeld and see the State Capitol space. Then we'll continue at the end of the semester and go back and read our letters.

As teachers, we always think of new ways to approach this, but I think overall we were excited about the ways that this project allowed our students to connect both to place and to each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT LIPSCOMB, HOST:

Plainstate is produced by Robert Lipscomb. Post-production by Stephen Ramsay. Music by Shadows on a River. On behalf of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, thank you for listening to the Plainstate Podcast. Tagline forthcoming.