With her pen poised and an easel of blank white paper behind her, OpEd Project moderator Courtney Martin had a few questions for the dozen-plus Upper School students who gathered on a recent Saturday morning.
“Evidenced-based, value-driven argument—what comes to mind when you hear that phrase?” Martin asked. “What does value-driven mean to you?”
“That someone’s inserted their personal opinion or values into their argument,” one student responded. “And that there’s evidence beyond why they think their ideas are correct.”
“It’s also helping to influence others or give knowledge,” another student commented.
The exchange was just part of a special Saturday workshop hosted by Spence history teacher Dr. Sandra Smith and featuring the OpEd Project, an organization fostering stronger opinion and editorial page voices among women.
“My inspiration has been the Spence motto, ‘Not for school but for life we learn,’” Smith explained. “Teachers across disciplines support the girls in finding their own voice. The OpEd Project offers students concrete tools for both claiming their role as a member of the public sphere and articulating their opinion within it.”
An initiative to expand public debate, the OpEd Project targets and trains women experts in all fields to write for the op-ed pages of major print and online forums of public discourse. At present, an estimated 85 percent of all op-ed pieces in the US are submitted by men.
While the OpEd Project has focused on professional and academic women, Smith took the initiative to suggest a seminar targeting juniors and seniors. Spence is the first school nationwide to host this program for Upper School students.
Facilitator Courtney Martin worked both with individuals and the group to encourage students to pare down to core messages, focus on strengths and use facts and numbers to bolster positions. After students refine their work in the coming month, Martin will return to Spence to meet again with the writers and provide concrete support in the op-ed placement process. An author, speaker and blogger, Martin has written widely on social justice and activism and has just published her fifth book, Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors.
Following a morning spent in a free exchange of ideas on the impact an op-ed can have, what constitutes an expert and the difference between being right and being effective, students began looking at hypothetical examples and crafting their own arguments.
“If you give yourself credibility, then more people will give you credibility,” one student offered as the discussion continued.
“If I can’t convey the value of what I know myself,” Martin advised the students. “I won’t be a part of the conversation.”
Martin pointed to the basis for the very formation of the OpEd Project. “There is a deep sense of anxiety about owning what you know in a public way,” she said. “Why write an op-ed? Could you start a revolution? Is that possible?”
“Potentially,” one student said.
“Absolutely,” added another.
This piece was posted on The Spence School website on November 18, 2011. The Mission of The Spence School is to educate girls and young women to the highest academic and personal standards necessary for responsible, effective citizenship and for the successful pursuit of higher education. To check out the full post click here.