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Using public documents


This lesson takes students through the steps of gathering and using public documents to report a story and to cover a public meeting. To familiarize them with the process, students will conduct an online public records search. Students also will request an agenda for a public meeting and write an advance story from the agenda. Advanced students will make a formal request for public records and write a story from the records received.

Before this lesson, students should have been taught the basics of open records and open meeting laws.


  • Students will request, access and analyze available local, state or national public documents.
  • Advanced students will do research, plan questions, conduct interviews and write an article based on information in publicly available documents.
  • Students will obtain an agenda for an upcoming public meeting, identify a topic of interest, conduct research and interviews, and write an advance on the meeting.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.


1 – 5 class periods of 50 minutes, depending on options chosen.


Internet access

News writing rubric or News package rubric for broadcast

Property records search form

Lesson step-by-step

(Most of the contents of this lesson are provided courtesy of Wayne S. Garcia, University of South Florida in Tampa)

Step 1: Online public records search (1 class period)

1. Tap prior knowledge:

Ask students what records they know of that are open/available in your community. Answers might include police reports, animal control records, property records, campaign donations, meeting agendas, transcripts and more.

Explain that some records are available to search online while others require a public records request. Today students will research public records online, using property records in your city, county or community. Students will research the ownership, value, sales history etc. of the property where they live.

2. Property records search

Pass out the “Property records search form.” Students will complete this handout as they learn to use a basic database records search for information.

You can generally find online property records by county in most states.

Using their phones or computers in your classroom, ask student to Google “[county and state name] property [and] appraiser or tax records” to find the online presence of your government official in charge of assessing property taxes or setting property values for taxation. Many such sites have searchable databases that allow for a search by address or owner name. Note: Some states exempt the property records of some individuals, generally those owned by law enforcement or judicial officials.

Alternative assignment for beginners/ ESE/ communities where records are not online:

If your local property records are not online, or just for fun, students can search a database for a community that is online, selecting a property at random or searching for celebrities who own property.

A good site: New York City’s property database. Search for Woody Allen to find his 320 Central Park West co-op apartment. Search Mary Kate Olsen to find the 5.5 million condo she and her sister own west of NYU. (Careful. The address on the mortgage document is their LA home, not the New York apartment. Students not looking carefully may find a wrong address!) Try other New York-based celebrities. Don’t forget that many celebs use stage names. See: Madonna (Ciccone). The New York Times story on the sale of one of her properties is a great example of how public records result in news stories.

To find out how much money is owed in property taxes on a condo in New York City, students must write down the block and lot number, then go here to enter it.

3. Discuss
Were the students surprised or disturbed by the amount of public information they were able to find? What valid public purpose is served by this information being public? (Answer: Among many other reasons, property sales and ownership information helps prevent bank mortgage fraud and other manipulations of property values by criminals through “false sales” of property at artificially high prices, inflating the value of land.)

4. Assess

Collect the handout. Grade on completion. Check for basic accuracy.

For beginners or less-advanced students, you can skip to the lesson on Public Meetings (see Step Three below).

Step 2: Requesting a public record (recommended for advanced/honors students.) One full class period plus parts of others over a two-week to one month period

1. Review

Review slides 22-25 of the slideshow with the FoI lesson in the law and ethics module

Explain that today students will create a request for a public record they are interested in seeing.

  • Students may make request one of the records suggested in the FoI slideshow (slides 26-34) or any other school record they are interested in.
  • As an alternative, animal-loving students may be interested in finding out what percentage of dogs and cats are euthanized in your community’s animal shelter. In most states, public animal control divisions are required to maintain records of the numbers of animal intakes, adoptions and euthanasias. (Teachers: You may want to do some quick research on the animal control law in your state before suggesting this assignment.) Some animal shelters also record the breed of dog and information about animals other than cats and dogs that they take in.

Give students a moment to ask questions and decide what record they want to request.

2. Activity – Write a records request

Using their phones, tablets or computers in your classroom, have students access the SPLC’s public records letter generator.

Go through this page with your students, explaining the instructions and making sure that students understand what information they will need before they can fill out this letter. Explain that they will use this letter generator, but not before they have collected and written out all of the information they will need for the form.

Students must find the correct address of the agency and clearly write what records they are requesting.

When all information is accurate and clearly written, have students fill in the letter generator and print or save the letter that is generated for their own records, using whatever process you use in your classroom. Have them send their requests.

3. Assess

Student editors or team leaders can check the information before it is entered into the letter generator, or you may have students turn in the drafts of their record requests for a daily grade.

Part 2 of Step 2: Writing/ broadcasting a story based on public records

Research activity:

While waiting for the public records to arrive, have students research their topic using articles databases, online news sites and other background sources. Students should identify sources they will want to interview about the findings in the records and begin to formulate questions for their stories.

When most of the public records have arrived, usually within a week or two from the request date, have students examine the records they have received for anything newsworthy.

Students should plan and request interviews with key sources, write questions and conduct interviews using skills taught in the Interviewing lessons within this module.


Students should write a story or create a video broadcast based on the information contained in the record they requested.


Use the “News writing rubric” or “News package rubric” to assess the news story or news package produced.

Alternate assessment: Students may turn in research sources, questions and interview notes based on their public records. Grade holistically based on completion.

Step 3 – Public meetings (two class periods plus time to write stories)

Students will use public records from their local School Board/District to write a story in advance of their board’s next meeting. In many districts, an agenda for a public meeting is available online, but if it is not, students or the teacher can obtain a copy via a telephone or email request.

Activity, Day 1:

Using that agenda, students will choose an issue to be discussed. Beginning classes should choose one or two items of broad interest. One student or the teacher should request any additional “backup” materials that are normally distributed to elected officials as part of their agenda, while other students conduct background research about the issue. Advanced students should choose their own issue or item and request their own back-up information.

Students should write questions and prepare for an interview with the appropriate official.

Closure, Assess, Day 1:

Have students hand in an exit card with the issue or item chosen and one question for the official.

Activity, Day 2:

Option 1, for beginners: Invite a school board member or a district official come to the class to answer questions “news conference”-style to avoid having dozens of students trying to obtain the same interviews separately. In larger districts, a news media relations director or specialist may be willing to come to your class to speak on several issues, including how to cover the school board.

Option 2, for advanced and honors students: Students should identify the key source for information on their issue or item and contact that person for a formal interview. Students should also identify other sources with a different perspective and interview them as well.

All, post-interview, discuss:

What did the students learn from the agenda and back up? What did the interviews add to their stories? Could they have told this story without public records? Without the interviews?


All students at all levels should write a short (300 word) advance to the meeting explaining their issue, its importance and what will be discussed or voted upon. Use the “News writing rubric” or, if broadcast, the “News package rubric” for a final assessment.


This lesson offers alternatives for beginners and advanced students. ESE and ESOL students may use either the beginner activities or the advanced activities, depending on the level of accommodation needed.