Philadelphia Writing Project

Supporting Civically Engaged Argument Writing with Primary Sources

For millennia, people around the world have looked toward the heavens with wonder and curiosity. In our modern attempts to learn about—and even commercialize—space, various countries and companies have launched objects and people into space. These efforts have influenced global politics, sparked technological advancements, and contributed to our understanding of the universe. 

Modern space activities have altered the environment just beyond our atmosphere, adding more and more orbiting objects each year. What should we do (if anything) about the growing number of objects, both large and very small, that circle the Earth? Students can develop arguments about:

As governments, space agencies, and companies make plans for space, students can help shape this future.



S.447 - ORBITS Act of 2023. (Library of Congress).


Cosmic concerns as more satellites are launched into orbit. 2019. (PBS NewsHour, American Archive of Public Broadcasting).



Noticing and Wondering to Launch an Inquiry

In Trey Smith's grade 5 digital literacy classes, students began learning about the issue of “space junk” or orbital debris by analyzing images from a recent news article about the topic. The images provided a little bit of mystery about the topic initially and invited speculation about what the class would be learning about. This routine served as an entryway to analyzing additional texts as students wanted to know more about the issue.

Space Junk: Introducing the Issue — Trey Smith, Philadelphia Writing Project — Spring 2023



Creating a Culture of Argument

Librarian Javaha Ross designed this unit to support grade 3 students in reading intervention class. In their other classes, students were already studying space. Ms. Ross sought to build on their experiences in class by helping students consider complex questions about space, science, and government. In introducing texts and taking up questions that arose from their readings of texts, Ms. Ross was attempting to position her students as citizens who should have a say in a democracy. She encouraged oral as well as written arguments about single and collections of texts. In doing all these things, she was drawing upon resources and rationales for creating a culture of argument in a classroom provided by NWP's College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP).

One question students took up was, "How should NASA spend their public funding?" Ms. Ross encouraged discussion and incorporated bar graphs to help students visualize the amount of money that Congress annually allocated to NASA. As students considered the kinds of things NASA might do with their budget, Ms. Ross then introduced the issue of space junk. She found that students were intrigued (and sometimes incensed) about the increasing amount of debris in Earth's orbit. Students eagerly brainstormed ways to safely remove the space junk.

Space Junk — Javaha Ross, Philadelphia Writing Project — Fall 2022



Introduce the Issue

Teachers may introduce the topic using one or more of the texts below. Instead of asking students their opinions up front, teachers should encourage students to identify the multiple perspectives of others on the issue.

Informational article for students about orbital debris with images that can be used for noticing and wondering. “Space junk.” (TIME for Kids, 2020).

Informational article providing brief overview of the history of space travel. “History of space travel.”  (National Geographic Kids).

Informational webpage about what space junk is made of. “What is space junk?” (Kids Earth, 2022).

Go Deeper

Students may use these texts—or excerpts from these texts—to identify additional perspectives on the issue. This unit could expand to teach students a fuller history of NASA and the many people who contributed to NASA's work. Students should also consider how space exploration have influenced our technologies. Space travel isn't just for exploration: it's becoming a tourism industry as well.

Informational webpage about the unusual items that are left space by humankind. “Space junk! 20 strange things you'll find in space.” (National Geographic Kids).

Informational webpage with images of space junk from NASA’s Earth Observatory website. “Space debris.” (NASA 2009).

News article about how the problem of space junk is only increasing. “Space junk is a huge problem and it's only getting bigger.” (National Geographic, 2009).

Informational webpage about orbital debris from the ARES-Orbital Debris Program Office. “ARES NASA FAQs.” (NASA)



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 orbital debris may address each pursuit in these ways:



Unpacking Texts with "Board Meetings"

In Mr. Smith's grade 5 digital literacy classes, students continued learning about the issue of orbital debris by analyzing images from another informational articles about the topic. They summarized things they surprised them on small whiteboards and shared them in a class "board meeting."

Also, after discussing who might be able to take responsibility for cleaning up the space junk, Mr. Smith explained that Congress often sets priorities for what different government agencies should do and how much money they would need to do it. Mr. Smith showed them how to search and look for legislation that senators and representatives have proposed or passed. Mr. Smith selected a bipartisan bill and students summarized things they learned about space junk from an excerpt from the bill.

Space Junk: Unpacking Texts with Jigsaws and Board Meetings — Trey Smith, Philadelphia Writing Project — Spring 2023



Writing Letters to Senators

Creating texts for audiences outside of school is one of the important features of civically engaged argument writing. NWP's College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP) provides rationales and resources for supporting students in "Writing to an Audience to Urge Action."

In Mr. Smith's grade 5 digital literacy classes, students wrote letters to the U.S. Senators. Some of the letters encouraged Senators to do things like learning more about existing bipartisan bills that they could join as co-sponsors. Students practiced connecting evidence to their claims and hyperlinked some of the texts we had read as a class. Students decided whether they wanted to send the letters or not.

Space Junk: Writing Letters to Senators — Trey Smith, Philadelphia Writing Project — Spring 2023



Making Space for Choice and Voice

When Trey Smith taught a mini unit on space junk in his grade 5 digital literacy classes, one of his goals was to support students in writing letters to a legislator. To do this, students would need to use digital tools for research, writing, and revising. Additionally, part of the mini unit involved figuring out together just which legislators might be able to help with the issue. Some students initially suggested the city’s mayor or the state’s governor. These suggestions from students provided an entryway into learning about levels and branches of government, as well as legislative processes.

While the work of deciding exactly who might be the recipient of a letter was at least partially driven by students, the initial topic selection and letter writing goal was still Mr. Smith’s. Similarly, he had selected “space explorations” as the theme for grade 5, and students had already completed projects such as building and coding robots to complete a pretend Mars rover mission and coding space-themed animations in Scratch. There was some level of choice within those projects as students decided how exactly to build and code their rovers and what kinds of characters and actions they might code in their animations. However, a key tension arose with the space junk letters-to-legislators project. In the middle of the project, Mr. Smith began to feel that he had kind of “stacked the deck” for students to feel like the issue of space junk was even worth writing about in the first place.

What if, after studying space junk, some students felt like the issue was not pressing and/or that legislators should attend to other issues instead? What kinds of letters might they write? Before they began writing letters, he did tell students that they could choose another topic for their letters. Also, since the class had researched space junk together, it was easier for students to write a letter that referenced evidence and that took into account multiple perspectives. But students who chose another topic would need to research a new topic altogether. While no students selected that path during the first year of the project in Mr. Smith’s class, he is continuing to reflect on what it could look like to support students who choose a different topic and who need additional support in finding new texts and unpacking perspectives on their chosen issue.

This particular tension has spurred Mr. Smith to think about all topics in this way. Potentially any topic that students unpack as a class may not seem as pressing to some students. So, he has to plan ways for students to pursue different pathways while also ensuring that students engage with particular skills (e.g., letter writing, connecting evidence to claims), content (e.g., human exploration of space, levels and branches of government), and issues (e.g., space junk) that are part of the planned curriculum.


Additional Planning Resources

Lesson Planning Resources

Organizing evidence and space debris text set. College, Career, and Community Writers Program. (National Writing Project, 2019).

Informational Text

A Math Star: Katherine Johnson (Scholastic News)

News Video

What Matters: Katherine Johnson: NASA pioneer and “computer.” (American Archive of Public Broadcasting).

Picture Book

What Miss Mitchell Saw (Simon & Schuster, 2019)

Primary Source

Mars peopled by vast living vegetable. The Salt Lake Tribune [UT]. 13 October 1912. (Chronicling America, Library of Congress).

Primary Source Set

Martians: Topics in Chronicling America. (Library of Congress).

Teacher Blog Post

Don’t believe everything you hear or read. (Library of Congress).

Teacher Blog Post

300 years of imaginary space ships: 1630-1920. (Library of Congress, 2013).

Professional Development Resources

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

Primary Source

National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. (National Archives and Records Administration).

News Video

Behind the Wings: The Apollo Program. (American Archive of Public Broadcasting, 2020).


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.