I am the director of the Sac State High School Equivalency (HEP) program, supporting seasonal agricultural workers (farm workers) to obtain their GED.Also, as an education professor, I teach every year about Cesar Chavez to my students. Below is a story that illustrates my connection to Cesar Chavez.
César Chávez Civics Lessons for Young Adults: The Power of Writing Persuasive Letters
On April 23, 1993, Mexican-American labor leader and civil rights activist, César Chávez, died. Chávez, who co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) with Dolores Huerta, had dedicated his life to grassroots organizing to persuade lawmakers to help improve the working conditions of migrant farm workers. Six months prior to his death, I had been teaching a civics unit to my 6th grade bilingual students in California about the environment and the cause and effects of harmful pesticides to farm workers in the fields. Many of my students had family members who were agricultural workers; hence, the topic was very relevant to them. This article describes the writing activity that was part of the unit and the events that followed almost 10 years later.
Writing to César Chávez
As we began the unit, I showed my students news clippings that described how consumers across the state of California were boycotting grapes and lettuce as a way to take a stand and support the farm workers’ cause. Perhaps because of the news, my students expressed an interest to get actively involved with the cause, La Causa. After much deliberation, the students decided to write letters directly to Chávez to persuade him to continue the fight, la lucha, and to not give up his fight until conditions had changed for the farm workers. It was clear that this issue was very personal to my students as they articulated their views, while asking César to please write back. We carried our letters to the local post office and mailed them to Delano, California where Chávez and the farm workers lived. This was a powerful civics lesson as it provided voice to these students who were passionate and eager to stand up for the rights of the oppressed farm workers.
Months after my students had written these letters, they periodically asked me if we had received a response from Chávez. I kept them informed about the boycott through our weekly current events activities, and the students learned that César had been fasting as a way to bring attention to the cause. Sadly, they would also learn that just months after writing their letters, their hero had passed away as the hunger strike had weakened him beyond reprieve. Even though the students had learned an important civics lesson, we assumed the letters were discarded. We were wrong.
A few years after his death, the César Chávez Foundation began to work with the California Department of Education to support the development of César Chávez Model Curriculum, a compilation of resources and standards-based social studies lessons designed for students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade. The curriculum was published in 1999, and on August 18, 2000, Senator Richard Polanco was instrumental in passing Senate Bill 984 which established César Chávez Day of Service and Learning. Provisions of the bill were inserted into the California Education Code Sections 37220-37223, requiring for K-12 public school teachers in California to teach about César Chávez on March 31st of each year, marking his birthday as a holiday.
In 2001, after having left the classroom to teach social studies methods in a multicultural, social-justice oriented credential program, I contacted a local elementary school to inquire if my pre-service credential students could come into the classrooms to teach a lesson they had planned for César Chávez Day of Service of Learning. The principal, teachers, and parents at the school site were very open to the idea, and, in fact, a group of parents from the school were so excited that they volunteered to come into the classroom to help and organize an assembly.
In planning for this event, I introduced my credential students to the César Chávez Model Curriculum and had them peruse the site to become familiar with the lessons and available resources. We found that each grade-level lesson was supported by the California K-12 History/Social Science Academic Content Standards; for example, the 6th grade lesson called Farming as a Way of Life was aligned to Standard 6.2.2, calling for students to “trace the development of agriculture techniques that permitted the production of economic surplus and the emergence of cities as centers of culture and power” (see http://chavez.cde.ca.gov/ModelCurriculum/Intro.aspx). When reading the lessons from the website, it brought back memories of the letters that my 6th grade students had written to César Chávez nine years prior. I told my pre-service students about that assignment, and one of them alerted me to one of the resource links on the César Chávez Model Curriculum page. To my amazement, the letters that my 6th grade students had written to César Chávez back in 1992 had been posted to this website that was established in 1999. I felt proud to show my university students these artifacts because even though César was not able to directly respond, his family and the foundation sent a message to the public that these letters were indeed important and valuable for all to read.
Writing persuasive letters is a powerful tool for getting students engaged in their communities and the world around them. According to the National Assessment Education Program Writing Report Card (2007):
Persuasive writing seeks to influence the reader to take some action or bring about change. It may contain factual information, such as reasons, examples, or comparisons; however, its main purpose is not to inform, but to persuade. The persuasive topics in the writing assessment ask students to write letters to friends, newspaper editors, or prospective employers, as well as to refute arguments or take sides in a debate.
I now require all of my pre-service students to write persuasive letters as part of their civics unit. We discuss how it develops critical thinking skills, empowers students to become active citizens, provides an authenticate audience, and develops persuasive literacy skills and civic participation. Plus, as my experience with 6th graders in 1992 showed, the impact of our letters may be felt in ways we never anticipate.
California Department of Education, California English Language Arts K-12 Standards, (Sacramento, CA, 1998).
California Department of Education, California History/Social Science Academic Content K-12 Standards, (Sacramento, CA, 1998).
California Education Code 37220.5-37220.6, (California Department of Education, 2001).
“César Chávez Model Curriculum,” (California Department of Education, 1999), http://chavez.cde.ca.gov/ModelCurriculum/Intro.aspx.
National Assessment Education Progress (NAEP) Writing Assessment (2007), http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/writing/whatmeasure.asp.
Richard Polanco, California Senate Bill 984, (Sacramento, CA, 2001).