Philadelphia Writing Project

Supporting Civically Engaged Argument Writing with Primary Sources

Our Approach

Teachers in our Philadelphia Writing Project network are engaging in inquiries and creating curriculum resources to support civically engaged argument writing in grades 3-12 classrooms.

The curriculum collections we are developing draw upon:

In 2022 and 2023, we shared our works in progress in a webinar series, local summer institutes for teachers, national and local conference presentations, the TPS Teachers Network, and the NWP Teacher Studio.

What We Mean By Civic Argument Writing

Argument writing is a common topic in education discourse, curricula, and professional development. When someone talks about "argument" in education, they may be referencing specific genres of argument writing in a history class (e.g., crafting essays about the importance, impact, or causes of a historical event), a literature class (e.g., writing papers that encourage a reader to see specific themes in a novel or short story), a science class (e.g., creating explanatory models that can account for a range of related phenomena), and/or in standardized test preparation (e.g., crafting open-ended responses to assessment prompts).

How does our approach to argument writing differ? We aim to support students as they participate in ongoing, contemporary conversations about what we should do and value as communities. We call this "civic argument," and we believe it has its place in any classroom. 

While we do integrate historical primary sources into our resources, we are focused on contemporary civic discussions that can be found in news headlines. For instance, what should a city do about ATVs and dirt bikes on city streets, or what should we do (if anything) about the growing amount of orbital debris circling Earth? Certainly, historical events and interpretations will inform our civic arguments. While we might encourage students to research how rules of the road have changed with the proliferation of automobiles or how the Space Race shaped national space policies, the goal of these historical inquiries are to inform current civic arguments about what we should do today about an issue in our community.

In a civic argument writing unit, students can and should create texts for audiences outside of the classroom. In our curriculum resources on orbital debris or "space junk," students in a grade 5 classroom crafted letters to their senators. In our curriculum resources on monuments, memorials, and public memory, students created proposals for changing existing monuments and developing new monuments and murals. Many units call for students to draft Op-Eds for publication in local newspapers.

The resources on our site draw heavily from the National Writing Project's (NWP) College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP; Arshan & Park, 2021; Friedrich et al., 2018). NWP teacher consultants assembled resources for supporting routine argument writing, instructional resources with text sets that could be used to support students with particular argument writing skills, a formative assessment tool for teachers to collaboratively analyze student writing and plan next steps, and intensive professional development to support shifts in the teaching of argument writing. C3WP encourages teachers to use a mini unit on connecting claims with evidence based on formative assessments of student writing carried out in collaboration with a community of teachers. The C3WP mini units, then, are responsive to the particular needs of students in a class.We encourage visitors to our website to learn more about C3WP.

Our PhilWP team has organized the curriculum collections on this site by topic or issue (e.g., "Road Rules," "Space Junk"). As we created our resources, we found that organizing them by topic—rather than by skill as is done with C3WP resources—helped us demonstrate how historical primary sources can support civic argument writing. This means, though, that our resources may obscure that any instructional unit should ideally be grounded in skills students need to learn that teachers have identified through formative assessment.

Our Stances on Teaching Argument Writing

Our team of teacher consultants in Philadelphia developed the stances below based on our work with C3WP resources.

Arguments are all around us.

Our communities are full of arguments—debates, discussions, and conversations about how we should live together as members of a community. As teachers, we should cultivate a culture of argument in our classrooms and support students as they civically engage beyond the classroom.

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

While civic debates are often framed as having only two sides, our approach emphasizes that many issues are complex and participants may have nuanced perspectives. As students engaged with multiple perspectives, they can figure out what others have said in a civic conversation so far (Graff & Birkenstein, 2021; Harris, 2017), build empathy (Mirra, 2018), and imagine thoughtful ways forward. As teachers, we should be hesitant to present arguments as two-sided or binary; this could lead to an us-versus-them mentality in which students defend in-group identities rather than engage in good faith efforts to find solutions to problems. 

Argument writers make moves with claims and evidence.

Participants in any social activity (such as civic argument writing) develop, take up, and transform practices (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, 2003). Our work as teachers is to help cultivate civic argument writing practices for all students. Writers who construct civic arguments make public claims that they then support with evidence. Students should try out moves that other effective communicators use in an effort to strengthen their own arguments (Graff & Birkenstein, 2021; Harris, 2017). Teachers should collaborate with colleagues to determine what kinds of moves students may need to learn more about. As students try out these moves, students may make them their own.

Why and How We Create Text Sets

Teachers may use text sets for a variety of purposes to support civic argument writing:

Each of our curriculum collections includes a text set that can be used and modified for classroom use to support civic argument writing. Our team of teachers has combined three approaches for creating text sets:

With these three strands of work as guides, our teachers weave together current news articles and videos, informational texts and infographics, historical primary sources in a range of formats (e.g., photos, prints, legislation, maps), and other sources like picture books and even novels. In our text set on child labor, we include images and other primary sources from the Library of Congress that shed light on the history of child labor and laws. We combine these texts with recent news stories about recent changes to child labor laws across the country.

In this webinar recording, Philadelphia Writing Project teacher consultants Javaha Ross and Trey Smith describe a process for creating a text set that supports civic argument writing. Use this text set planning tool to get started.

What Primary Sources Can Add to Civic Argument Writing

Coming soon!

Our Stances on Teaching with Primary Sources

The Library of Congress describes primary sources as "the raw materials of history — original documents and objects that were created at the time under study." With this definition in mind, our team of teachers in Philadelphia developed stances on how we view primary sources for classroom learning.

How and Where We Search for Primary Sources

Coming soon!


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.

Freire, P. (1983). The importance of the act of reading. Journal of Education, 165(1), 5-11.

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.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

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

Muhammad, G. E. (2023). Unearthing joy: A guide to culturally and historically responsive teaching and learning. Scholastic.

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.

Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. Oxford University Press.


This website features resources created by educators affiliated with the Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP), supported by a Teaching with Primary Sources grant from the Library of Congress.