Mikva Challenge, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has launched the Argumentative Writing Project to channel the power of Mikva’s student engagement strategies to boost middle school students’ writing skills and writing confidence. This project will develop a new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum, using aspects of Issues to Action and Project Soapbox curriculum, with an emphasis on argumentative writing on authentic topics built around Mikva’s Action Civics pedagogy and practice.

Critical to this work has been our Teacher Advisory Board and a Student Advisory Board who have informed the key decisions around customizing the Mikva model for the 8th grade ELA classroom and how best to integrate and align this work to needs and interests of middle school students.

This is a long term strategy that we are building in partnership with our veteran Mikva teachers and student leaders as core advisors,” says Jill Bass, Mikva’s Chief Education Officer.  “We want to build and test these new strategies in the upcoming school year, refine and improve our efforts, and then scale the effort to middle schools where Mikva works across the country.

Mikva Challenge’s Project Soapbox – a curriculum and program that helps students “get on their Soapbox” and deliver call to action speeches – will serve as the backbone of the Argumentative Writing Project. While oral presentations will be central to Project Soapbox, Mikva will scaffold writing skill development lessons and units into the curricula and lead professional learning efforts to help teachers build their students’ argumentative writing skills.

The Argumentative Writing Project builds on evidence from evaluations that demonstrate Mikva programs have positive impacts on students’ overall academic performance and social emotional learning.  The latter is critical for the Argumentative Writing Project theory of change.  Research is showing more clearly the link between schools that value and foster social emotional learning and students long term academic success (2020 – U Chicago Linking social-emotional learning to long term student success). 

The Argumentative Writing Project is a multi-year initiative and Mikva will receive guidance and support from The National Writing Project and Mathematica.  

For more information on this initiative or to be added to updates on the project, please contact Robyn Lingo at robyn@mikvachallenge.org


Meet the young people who served on our Student Advisory Board and using their lived experience to inform the Argumentative Writing Project curriculum:


Reem Alwan – Ann Arbor, MI
Khalil Battle – Waldorf, MD
Quincy Byas – St. Louis, MO
Kareem Elwawi – Anaheim, CA
Jaiden Ford – Burien, WA
Malachi Hill – Washington, D.C.
SirDavid Jones – Kent, WA
Clara McHugh – Concord, NH
Lazaro Mederos – Washington, D.C.
Rajan Naidoo – St. Louis, MO
Evelyn Ramirez – Salinas, CA
Jaxon Reid – Plantation, FL
Ali Rizvi – Washington, D.C.
Julee Stigers – St. Louis, MO
Stephenie Tirado – Chicago, IL
Arrington Ward Jr. – Washington, D.C.
Delaney Williams – Washington, D.C.
Johnathan Williams – Chicago, IL


Learn more about the educators on our Teacher Advisory Board who helped shape the content and structure of the Argumentative Writing Project based on their classroom expertise:  


NiLa Austin is a Social Justice researcher, practitioner, and advocate, who partners with students, teachers, and leadership teams to enhance their institutional practices. After spending nearly a decade working in the urban education sector, NiLa has served in a variety of roles including Dean of culture, guidance counselor, special educator, literacy instructor, academic coach, and curriculum specialist. NiLa not only understands but teaches about the importance of a holistic educational approach. She believes that both students and educators are empowered when they have been allotted the opportunity to co-create both the content and climate of their learning environment.  NiLa holds a B.A. in Psychology and an M.A. in Applied Developmental Psychology from George Mason University. She is also a fourth-year Ph.D. doctoral candidate and her dissertation research is focused on racial prejudices about the career aspirations of Black students.



Maggie Champlin Dixon is wrapping up her 10th year teaching 8th grade Literacy and Social Science in Chicago Public Schools. She is passionate about helping students find their voice using both literature and teaching tolerance and empathy through a well-rounded social science curriculum. IShe has used Project Soapbox in her classroom for the past three years. And is still impressed by her students every time they step on their Soapbox. Maggie is excited to be a part of this next step in Mikva Challenge’s mission to support student voice and set them on the path to be powerful Civic Actors.



Susanne Cramer, Ed.S is the Executive Director of Academic Recovery & School Improvement in Omaha Public Schools. Previously, she served as the Middle School Literacy Lead for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, KY. Susanne started her career as a teacher of English Learners and has taught 11th grade English, AP Literature, and Middle School Reading/Writing. Susanne is passionate about rhetorical analysis and authentic argumentation to foster civic engagement, dialogical protocols for democratizing classroom spaces, and literacy as a driver for school improvement.



Duane Davis has been an educator in Chicago for over 25 years.  After completing his undergraduate degree in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Duane also completed a Master’s in English at Loyola University Chicago.  He taught for several years in the Chicago Public School system, and left for a tenure track position at City Colleges of Chicago. Duane has spent the last 20 years since teaching, leading, coaching and consulting at a variety of schools and organizations in Chicago and nationally. He is currently the Executive Director of K12 Education Initiatives at the University of Chicago and writing his dissertation for a Ph.D in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a focus on early career teachers.



Maria Shay Griffith is Co-Founder of and a Teacher Development Coach for the Chicago Literacy Group. She has been a literacy coach and staff developer since 2001. Maria worked closely with Chicago Public School teachers, literacy coaches, principals, and Area Instruction Officers at both The University of Chicago’s Center for Urban School Improvement (now the Urban Education Institute, or UEI) and with the Chicago New Teacher Center before co-founding the Chicago Literacy Group with Carissa Finn in 2008. At UEI, Ms. Griffith participated in a literacy inquiry group with Pat Scharer of the Literacy Collaborative at Ohio State University and developed and facilitated trainings around UEI’s STEP literacy assessment. She also served as adjunct course instructor in writing methods for graduate students enrolled in UEI’s Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP). Ms. Griffith brings eleven years of teaching in London, England; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago Public Schools to her work.  She is an alumna of The University of Michigan and received her Master of Education in Reading and Language Development from Harvard University.



Russell Helsabeck currently teaches 7th grade Language and Literature at Alice Deal Middle School in DC. He is a 10-year DC Public School educator who has spent eight of those years teaching 7th and 8th grade English/Language Arts and two of them developing curriculum as a member of the Secondary ELA team at DCPS Central Office. He received a Master’s in Secondary ELA Education from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in 2012, and his professional interests include educational technology and culturally responsive pedagogy. He has worked with the Mikvaro team in the past to infuse the Soapbox Challenge curriculum into a DCPS Cornerstone project.



Marybeth Jines has been teaching middle school  English and Social Studies in the NYC Public School System for the past 15 years. During that time she has been selected a grade lead, NYC Showcase teacher, and mentor. Most importantly, Marybeth was instrumental in bringing the Civics for All program to her school. She worked to create a virtual Soapbox Competition (one of the first in NYC), where two of her students were selected to attend the Soapbox NYC Competition. Additionally, this year Marybeth was a co-faculty creator in the Rho Kappa Junior History Honor Society. Marybeth also was a grant writer for her school, and recently worked with a group to receive the Facing History Grant for the 2021-2022 school year.



Karen Lee has a passion for education and young people. She has been teaching high school social studies in southeast DC for the past 17 years. When Karen moved to Washington, DC nineteen years ago from Idaho, she worked as a social worker focusing on housing and educational placements for homeless, runaway and at-risk youth. After hearing young people’s frustrations with failing schools and their discontent with their education, she decided to transition back into the classroom. Since then she’s worked to help students feel more empowered to take ownership of their education and become change makers in their community. Today she teaches US Government and AP US Government at Thurgood Marshall Academy PCHS. Karen is the faculty advisor for the student led activist group, Pathways 2 Power.  She is also the Social Studies Department Chair and helps to support teachers and students as they work toward the mission of being prepared for college and to actively engage in our democratic society. Karen was awarded the Distinguished Fulbright Award in Teaching in 2012 and spent eight months in Finland studying the role of choice on student motivation. She also has been awarded the Mikva Challenge DC Inspiring Educator Award and DC Teacher of the Year Runner-Up in 2019. She has a BS in Secondary Education and a Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction.



Erik Peterson has taught in Santa Ana for the past 10 years, nine of which were spent teaching seventh and eighth grade history at Santiago K-8. In this time, many of his students have competed at the state and national level for National History Day. He also enjoys engaging students in civic learning and community service projects, having worked with Mikva Challenge and its curriculum for the past seven years. Because of his work in history and civics, Mr. Peterson has received multiple teaching awards at the local and state levels. His goal is to create a better, more equitable society through meaningful educational experiences for all students. Eril earned a BA in Economics and Sociology and MA in Teaching at University of CA Irvine.



Marypat Robertson has been teaching in the the Chicago Public Schools for over 25 years.  She earned her BA in Special Education at St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, MN and an MA in Education at Concordia University in Illinois.  For several years she taught Middle School at Ray School in Hyde Park.  She transitioned to a coaching/mentoring position with the Chicago New Teacher Center and coached first and second-year teachers in high-needs areas. Currently, she teaches Humanities at Suder Montessori.



Jeanette Rocuant is proud to be a seventh and eighth grade teacher at William P. Gray School where she has taught for 17 years.  She received a Bachelor’s Degree in Education and Philosophy from Northeastern Illinois University, and has a Masters work in Literacy Education.  She is endorsed to teach Elementary Education, Science and Middle School. Jeanette has a true passion for teaching a love of Civics and empowering future leaders to find their place in the world.  She strives to create a rich and engaging curriculum that brings stories, history and creativity to her classroom every single day.



Kate Schultz is a veteran classroom teacher and instructional leader in the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin. She is a proud Badger, University of Wisconsin alum, and has a Master’s of Science in Curriculum and Instruction. She currently teaches English at LaFollette High School, serves as the leader of her grade level instructional team, and is a member of her School Improvement Planning Team. Prior to making the switch to high school, she taught for 14 years as an 8th-grade teacher at Sherman Middle School, also in Madison. Kate has served on MMSD’s site-based leadership teams, the superintendent’s advisory group, and district-level literacy leadership teams. She is an educator for equity and social justice advocate committed to anti-racist work and empowering students by elevating their voices. Kate strives to design curricula that is student-driven, standards-based, and engaging. She has incorporated Issues to Action & Project Soapbox in her middle and high school teaching to foster student voice and civic engagement and is excited to participate in Mikva’s continued work to inspire democratic education and ignite the spark of activism in our amazing youth.



Kim Smolen, a middle school English Language Arts and Social Science teacher at Lenart RGC in Chicago, guides eighth graders on civil engagement and speech writing. Her 8th graders then hone their public speaking skills to compete in Mikva Challenge’s Annual Citywide Project Soapbox every year since 2017. In addition to their involvement with Project Soapbox, her 8th graders participate in Mikva’s Issues to Action Showcase. Ms. Smolen instructs her 6th and 7th graders on historical research to create a National History Day project. Her students have earned Illinois State Ribbons every year since 2018. This year, Ms. Smolen was nominated for the Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year award in the junior division of the National History Day National Contest in Illinois. In addition to teaching, Ms. Smolen serves on Facing History’s Chicago Teacher Leadership Team and as an advisor for Lenart’s student council and yearbook staff.



Deanna Vaughan is a
9th/10th grade English teacher in the International Academy at Roosevelt High School. She has over ten years serving as a Middle School ELA teacher. Deanna graduated from Towson University in 2007 with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in English. Her course work and participation in the Ready to Teach program at Howard University concluded with a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction.

Deanna has a strong determination to engage and enrich students with the written and spoken word as a means to increase student achievement and literacy skills.

We anticipate that this initiative will lead to a set of best practices, a strong curricula and training process, and an overall model for catalyzing students’ argumentative writing via Action Civics whole child strategies. The learning and innovations created from this effort will inform educators, districts, and youth serving organizations on how best to use Action Civics and culturally relevant pedagogy to improve academic and whole child outcomes. In addition, this initiative will help provide guidelines to school districts and external partners on how best to scale Action Civics practice.