Philadelphia Writing Project

Supporting Civically Engaged Argument Writing with Primary Sources

Over the years, transportation has changed dramatically. From the horseless carriage of the past to self-driving cars today, the rules of who and what is allowed to use city streets have always been debated. In many cities, including Philadelphia, people are discussing the use of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and dirt bikes on city streets. 

Pennsylvania state law requires drivers be at least 16 to drive an ATV. In 2012, Philadelphia officials banned the driving of ATVs or dirt bikes on city streets, with violations resulting in hefty fines and confiscation of the vehicle. Currently, Bald Eagle State Forest is the only public trail in Pennsylvania where riding an ATV or dirt bike is legal, located three hours away from Philadelphia. Students can join the ongoing conversation about the rules of our roads and the use of ATVs and dirt bikes in urban areas.



Street scene, Philadelphia, PA. c1897. (Library of Congress).


Madison Square, New York. 1902. (Library of Congress).



Joining a Conversation in Progress

When she taught at a summer enrichment program that combined social studies and ELA for middle school students in West Philadelphia, Javaha Ross's students analyzed news articles, videos, and photographs that focused on the ATV/dirt bike culture in Philadelphia. They were exploring the question, "What should Philadelphia do about the use of ATVs on city streets?"

Students were joining a conversation in progress. Drawing upon resources from the National Writing Project's College, Career, and Community Writers Program (NWP C3WP), Ms. Ross asked students to create an Atwoodian Table to represent the many viewpoints on who or what should be allowed on city streets. (The Atwoodian Table is named for its creator, NWP teacher consultant Dr. Robin Atwood, and is inspired by the Burkean parlor metaphor).

Students wrote down the viewpoints from the news stories as they read in Atwoodian tables. Next, students engaged in a "classroom mingle" where they shared their Atwoodian tables and revised their speech bubbles. Then, students added their own viewpoints to a table to represent the class's viewpoints.

Road Rules: Who Owns the Streets of Philadelphia? — Javaha Ross, Philadelphia Writing Project — March 2023



Primary Source Analysis

One way to introduce issues related to "rules of the road" is through historical photos and videos of city streets. Use the Primary Source Analysis Tool from the Library of Congress to support students in analyzing a photo like the 1897 example from Philadelphia in this curriculum collection. Encourage students to reflect:

After an initial analysis, share the bibliographic record of the photo. Discuss with students which questions they now have answers to and what new questions they have. Layer on additional texts and background information as needed.

This photo (and historical primary sources) can invite reflection on how our community's streets and roads may look similar and different today, particularly in terms of how we use them. This inquiry trajectory might lead to questions about how and why these changes occurred and what alternative possibilities might exist.

Analyzing a Photo of a Philadelphia Street — Trey Smith, Philadelphia Writing Project — Spring 2024



Introduce the Issue

Teachers may introduce the topic using one or more of the texts below. Teachers outside of Philadelphia might search for local news stories on this topic to create their own set.

Instead of asking students their opinions up front, teachers should encourage students to identify the multiple perspectives of others on the issue. Before jumping into a conversation in progress it's often important to first understand what others have said.

Introducing the issue would also be a great time to introduce historical primary sources like the 1865 photograph of Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. Students could reflect on how our roads are used and how rules of the road have changed over time.

News article that explains some of the concerns of drivers and police about ATVs and dirt bikes on city streets. “Hundreds of ATVs, dirt bikes swarm Pa. streets to menace drivers, but police sound helpless.” (Penn Live, 2022).

News article gives insight on who owns and is responsible for Philadelphia streets. “Who owns the streets of Philadelphia? It’s complicated…” (WHYY, 2015).

News article describing the growth of dirt bike culture and the need for spaces to drive. “Philly dirt bike culture is stronger than ever, but riders have nowhere to go.” (Billy Penn, 2019).

Go Deeper

Students may use these texts—or excerpts from these texts—to identify additional perspectives on the issue.

Teachers may introduce students to a range of people, both past and present, who have developed identities and communities around driving various vehicles, from cars to motorcycles to ATVs. For instance, students might read about Bessie Stringfield, an African American woman who road her motorcycle across the United States.

Opinion article that argues for building a park for dirt bikes. “Don’t criminalize Philly’s dirt bike culture — build a park so it can thrive.” (WHYY, 2020).

News video and article about legislative efforts to control dirt bikes on city streets. “Pa. state lawmakers aim to stop use of illegal ATVs, dirt bikes on city streets.” (6ABC Action News, 2022).

News video with interviews with young people about the benefits of dirt bike culture. “How dirt bikes in the city build community, culture.” (WHYY, 2021).

News article presenting multiple perspectives on dirt biking in cities. “The war on urban dirt biking.” (Vice, 2021).



Culturally & Historically Relevant Literacies: 5 Pursuits

In Cultivating Genius (2020) and Unearthing Joy (2023), Gholdy Muhammad introduced a Culturally and Historically Relevant Literacies framework. The framework encourages teachers to plan units using five pursuits that were central to the work and learning of Black literary societies. A unit on ATVs on city streets may address each pursuit in these ways:



Creating a Text Set

This curriculum collection brings 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. Teachers may use text sets for a variety of purposes to support civic argument writing:

Teachers in the National Writing Project's College, Career, and Community Writers Program (NWP C3WP) have developed strategies and tips for developing text sets for supporting argument writing. Additionally, the Library of Congress has developed resources to help teachers with selecting primary sources.

In a 2022 webinar, Javaha Ross and Trey Smith drew upon NWP and Library of Congress resources to offer recommendations for developing text sets. Check out the video recording and make a copy of the "Planning a text set" tool.

In this video, Ms. Ross and Mr. Smith share recommendations for creating a text set

Text Set Planning Tool — NCSS 2023 Conference — Supporting Civically Engaged Argument Writing — Philadelphia Writing Project

Text Set Planning Tool


Self-Driving Vehicles

Communities are also discussing the rules of the road for self-driving vehicles. During the 2020-21 school year, Mr. Smith opened up discussion about this issue with high school students in his introduction to computer science class. He based the mini unit on resources from the National Writing Project's College, Career, and Community Writers Program (NWP C3WP).

Students engaged with a range of texts (videos, infographics, news articles, Op-Eds) that discussed the issue. At the end of the mini unit, students crafted Op-Eds on the issue.

C3WP resources include the Using Sources Tool, which students and teachers can use to analyze students' arguments. Based on what teachers learn about student writing using the UST, they can plan instruction. The UST is a formative assessment tool intended for collaborative use, not to evaluate teachers or students.

Example 1: Self-Driving Car Op-Ed

Student work example


Additional Planning Resources

Picture Book

Bessie the Motorcycle Queen. (Orchard Books, 2022).

Informational Article

Bessie Stringfield. (National Motorcycle Museum, 1996)

Unit Planning Resource

Making the case in an Op-Ed and self driving cars text set. College, Career, and Community Writers Program. (National Writing Project, 2019).

Primary Source

Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago. 1897. (Library of Congress)

Primary Source

A trip down Market Street before the fire. 1906. (Library of Congress).

Teacher Blog Post

A mystery sparked by a century old film. (Library of Congress, 2015).

Teacher Blog Post

Exploring actuality films in the classroom. (Library of Congress, 2015).

Primary Source

Junior Chamber of Commerce warns against jaywalking. 1953. (Temple University Libraries)

Primary Source

Watch your step or pay a fine: Jaywalking law goes into effect today. 1 June 1945. The Daily Bulletin [Dayton, OH]. (Chronicling America, Library of Congress).

Professional Development Resources

Teaching with primary sources: Technology's impact on American history: History on wheels. (National Council for History Education, 2022).

Primary Source

Good bye, horses: Wagons may now be run by electricity. St. Paul Daily Globe, p. 5. 11 August 1892. (Chronicling America, Library of Congress).

Teacher Blog Post

Electric cars, energy, and engineering. (Library of Congress, 2016).


About This Page

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.