Historical Writing Prompts

Many History teachers are reluctant to assign writing tasks because providing the necessary feedback slows down the pace of a course and reduces the amount of content one can cover. I think this is a false dichotomy and believe teachers can use writing tasks to help students gain a deeper understanding of historical content, thus, the rationale for this blog and MOOC.

Writing

Since state testing was suspended last year, I doubled down on the amount of writing I usually assign and my World History students wrote twelve argumentative essays, or DBQs. At the beginning of the year, my students (mostly 10th graders) wrote an average of 182 words per essay, by the end of the year, their word production grew 57% to 322 words per essay. These essays paraphrased, or explained an average of 3 documents (out of 6-8 document sets) and contained more three citations per essay.

This year, I will again assess students at the end of each unit with a historical writing task. However, I will center my focus on the Common Core writing standards, which demand increased emphasis on informative/explanatory writing and historical narrative. 

CC Inf Standard

I developed three essay prompts to assess the content knowledge of my students and provide differentiation. Instead of giving students all the same prompt, they will have three to choose from. This blog-space will report on the results and illustrate how History teachers can become writing instructors without skimping on content delivery. Subsequent posts will co-opt the format of the award-winning book, They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, in order to model how teachers can help students improve their historical writing.

PROMPT #1 Argue that Plato and Aristotle held an essentially positive (or negative) view of human nature. In a well-reasoned essay, support your position using at least three of the quotes below as evidence to support your position.

Greek Quotes

Prompt #2 Write an informative/explanatory essay about the lives of the big three Ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Include biographical facts as well as the contributions each philosopher made to Western political thought.

Prompt #3 Write a historical narrative retelling the Suicide of Socrates from one character’s point of view (Socrates, Apollodorus, or Crito). Tell the story of why Socrates was put on trial, what happened at the trial, and what happened at the end of the trial.

In my directions to students, I note that all essays should follow the five-paragraph format (skipping lines between paragraphs) with an introduction/background paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph. My next few posts will discuss the results of these assessments and include some tips on showing students how to improve their writing.

Twittercide of Socrates

The Suicide of Socrates – a rhyming tweetathon was inspired by Dan Krutka & Michael Milton’s terrific work, which is paraphrased, or heavily borrowed from below. If you would like to steal their great ideas, follow them on Twitter @dankrutka & @42ThinkDeep, respectively.

Even though young people are increasingly using social media in their everyday lives, educators have been slow to explore how they can extend the classroom online. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) reported that students face a “digital disconnect” as they walk into social studies classrooms and are forced to unplug from the online world where they spend most of their time and energy. Many schools and districts block popular social media sites and ask students to keep their cell phones turned off and put away while in class. These short-sighted policies most likely prevent contemporary educators from adding an essential ingredient crucial to student engagement – relevance.

Soc Tweets 3

Twitter is a microblogging service where users send “small bursts of information,” called “tweets,” to others. Using Twitter with students can provide an opportunity to model valuable skills and dispositions regarding digital citizenship and social media literacies. Informal online learning environments that many young people freely join may result in the creation of participatory cultures that represent ideal learning environments.

Soc Tweets 2

Krutka & Milton (2013) summarized an emerging body of research that has examined the use of Twitter in education. Most students voluntarily backchannel with Twitter and this increases the understanding of course concepts. Tweeting is useful for encouraging concise writing and has even be used with first and second grade students to scaffold writing for an authentic audience — their families. Other research suggests that tweeting encourages the informal learning, or background knowledge that helps students connect their schema to a course curriculum. Also, Twitter may increase metacognitive function by promoting succinct reflection.

With this foundation, I decided to try to make the suicide of Socrates more relevant to my 9th & 10th grade World History students by asking them to read a primary source, retell it in rhyme, and then we would vote on the best examples by retweeting and favoriting couplets of their work. I motivated students by showing a Dan Pink video – http://www.danpink.com/2013/06/how-to-pitch-better-the-rhyming-pitch. The primary source is located here: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/socrates.htm and the rhyming dictionary is here: http://www.rhymezone.com/. Students submitted their version of the story in at least 10 rhyming couplets. There was considerable variation in quality in the final products. The end results were highly entertaining. You can see the best couplets on Twitter by searching under the hashtag #PetriWH. Students were given a master list of the 20 best rhymes and were directed to cut the list down to 10 and properly sequence them with a beginning, middle, and end. Student engagement was high during this narrative writing exercise. This post publishes some of the better examples. We will see if this scaffolding exercise makes their formal essays better next week. A game-based formative assessment tool measured their knowledge in a fun and engaging fashion https://play.kahoot.it/#/k/16093094-257a-47c5-a48c-13c2377d8171. The big takeaway for me was that asking students to use Twitter as an educational tool was something they responded to positively. Thus, educators may be well-served to incorporate Twitter and other social media, in order to meet students in their digital world and provide 21st Century relevance to an age-old lesson. If you are not in a 1:1 classroom, your students don’t have access to Twitter, or you suffer from tech-phobia, feel free to use this template.

Soc Tweets 1

References

Krutka, D., & Milton, M. (2013). The Enlightenment meets Twitter: Using social media in the social studies classroom. Ohio Social Studies Review. Volume 50, Issue 12. Fall 2013.

Effective Writing Strategies for Students

When we read “in real life,” – as readers of novels, newspaper and magazine articles, Internet sites, poetry, and scholarly journals, we may often feel that good writing is like good art—we’re not sure exactly what goes into it, but we know it when we see it. It is a cliche, perhaps, but good writing persuades us, moves, us, inspires us, entertains us. Yet, as teachers, how often do we read good writing from our students? When we see a large stack of papers in front of us, do we sigh with pleasure, anticipating the delights of cleverly worded phrases and interesting insights—or do we groan under the weight of the effort (both our effort and our students)?

Writing has gained new prominence and importance for Social Sciences and History teachers in the Common Core. Social Sciences and History teachers are now  writing instructors, as well as History teachers. Teaching good writing skills is something many teachers struggle with, as teachers seek to balance instruction amongst multiple priorities—from good grammar to keen insight. Obviously, for the History instructor, the time able to be devoted to developing writing is necessarily limited. How can teachers choose from the many writing strategies that have been researched and developed and incorporate just those ones that will have the greatest impact in their own History classroom? Selfishly, how can we increase our own pleasure in reading what our students write, but teaching them to become better writers?  How can our students become invested in improving their writing?  What strategies really work?

Fortunately, Graham and Perin have already done much of the heavy lifting for us, in their seminal review of the effect sizes of various writing strategies. In “A Meta-analysis of Writing Instruction for Adolescent Students,” (2007) (well-known already to English teachers and other ambitious teachers determined to improve student writing), Graham and Perin reviewed the existing literature, using rigorous methodology, to determine which strategies definitely belong in your classroom. Here are a few of the strategies that will have a big effect on student writing in your classroom:

(1) Students need teachers. Students need teachers to give them specific strategies for planning, writing and revising. Those strategies where students learn to self-regulate these techniques are particularly potent.

(2) Students need to know the material. Learning effective strategies for summarizing reading material. This improves comprehension of the material AND their ability to write about it.

(3) Students need each other. Writing strategies where students work collaboratively to plan, draft and revise are very effective.

(4) Set Goals. Students need a purpose for writing (such as to persuade the reader) and to understand what persuading the reader, for instance, includes. Students with a clear understanding of purpose write more effectively overall: teaching students to respond to a DBQ, for example, is great for this.

(5) Get them to Ask Questions. Writers are curious. Teaching methods of inquiry is valuable skill for teaching historical interpretation, and is also an important aspect of producing good writing (and writers).

These are not the only high-impact methods Graham and Perin found: providing students with good models of great writing, encouraging students to use a word processing program, engaging in pre-writing activities, and having a teacher who engaged in high-quality professional development in writing are all additional items highly correlated with improved student writing.

Good research exists about which writing strategies will be the most worthwhile to introduce into your classroom, as you seek to improve the quality of your student’s writing in History and the Social Sciences.

References

Graham, S. and Perin, D. (2007). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for  adolescent students, Journal of Educational Psychology 99(3), pps. 445-476.

Canvas MOOC Date Announced

David Cutler interviewed historian, Eric Foner, in the Atlantic magazine. The entire interview is worth reading. The article is cleverly titled – You Have to Know History to Actually Teach It. Cutler asked Dr. Foner: Do you have other specific advice for what teachers can do to more effectively instruct history students?
The first thing I would say is that we have to get away from the idea that any old person can teach history. A lot of the history teachers in this country are actually athletic coaches. I mention this in class, and students always say, “Oh yeah, Coach Smith, he taught my history course.” Why? Well, Coach Smith is the football coach, and in the spring he’s not doing much, and they say, “Well, put him in the history course, he can do that.” They wouldn’t put him in a French course, or a physics course. The number-one thing is, you have to know history to actually teach it. That seems like an obvious point, but sometimes it’s ignored in schools. Even more than that, I think it’s important that people who are teaching history do have training in history. A lot of times people have education degrees, which have not actually provided them with a lot of training in the subject.
HelpHistTchUnder Common Core, all teachers need to be writing teachers. Unfortunately many History/Social Studies teachers have not had significant instruction and/or practice in historical writing. Worse, very few teacher professional development seminars focus on this topic. As a first step toward becoming writing teachers, Social Studies teachers can increase student literacy skills by inspiring their students to interpret history through documents.
These new standards call for teachers to emphasize argumentative, explanatory/informative, and narrative writing into History/Social Studies. Many teachers are unsure how to respond to these new standards. Should teachers stop delivery of subject content to explicitly teach spelling, vocabulary, and sentence construction? Should professional learning communities (PLCs) devote a specific amount of time to writing instruction in each subject? How many writing projects should be delivered in each subject? These questions are unlikely to be answered by Coach Smith. However, free professional development is available to History teachers looking to improve their writing instruction. https://www.canvas.net/courses/helping-history-teachers-become-writing-teachers
This website will curate many of the readings and resources for the course over the next six months. We are excited to connect and collaborate with History teachers around the globe. So far we have confirmed the following Guest Lecturers: Dr. Chris Schunm (Pitt) Implementing Peer Review; Dr. Darren Reid (Coventry U) Sourcing & Contextualizing Primary Sources – modeling teacher thinkalouds; Dr. Sherri Colby (Texas A&M, Commerce) Historical Narratives; and Will Fitzhugh (The Concord Review) Teaching with Examples. We are actively reaching out to others in the Historical Writing community. Please feel free to comment or email us any suggestions. We hope to see you in class on January 12, 2015.

References
http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/you-have-to-know-history-to-actually-teach-it/282957/2/

Which Tasks Improve Historical Reasoning?

Scholars do not know the influence of specific task structures on students’ writing or historical reasoning. Historical reasoning is defined as analyzing evidence, understanding the meaning of evidence, and using evidence to construct and explain historically plausible accounts of the past (p. 291).

Do all argumentative writing tasks provide students with the same opportunity to develop their historical thinking or writing? Are some ways of framing questions to promote historical thinking and writing better than others? Can the structure of a writing prompt influence student outcomes? This study suggests YES. The type of task explained 31% of the variance in the quality of students’ overall historical reasoning.

Much of the research on history writing has focused on how students draw on multiple sources in constructing essays. Some attention has been given to comparing argumentative writing in comparison with other genres such as narratives, summaries, and explanations. Almost zero research has been done on what we ask students to write and how that affects their thinking and writing.

In developing arguments, writing is often complicated by patterns of thinking and working with evidence. The use of evidence indicates aspects of disciplinary reasoning, including recognizing biases in sources, comparing evidence, situating evidence in its context, and taking into account different perspectives and multiple causes. Historical interpretations rely on the public display of evidence to substantiate claims – a claim cannot stand without evidence.

In defining approaches to historical texts, Sam Wineburg identified discipline-specific ways of reading and thinking. For historians, primary documents are regarded as excerpts of social interactions. They have to be reconstructed with context added to make the documents meaningful.

Providing writing prompts that require close reading and consideration of the author’s perspective supports historical thinking and greater understanding. So, perhaps the structure and focus of the writing prompt affects the quality of students’ historical reasoning? These researchers sought to find out how.

The authors created four reading and writing tasks using the same documents and randomly assigned one task to each student. Each task presented the same background information adapted from the social studies textbook. They worded each prompt differently to frame the issue of Cold War causes from a variety of historical angles. The situated prompt encouraged students to imagine they heard these speeches and write as though they were living in 1947. The sourcing prompt encouraged students to focus on the motivations of each author in making their respective speeches. The document analysis prompt encouraged students to identify similarities and differences in the documents. The causal prompt asked students why Churchill and Truman spoke out against the Soviet Union and communism directly. At the end of each prompt, the researchers asked students to write “M.E.A.L.” (main idea, evidence, analysis, and link to thesis) paragraphs.

The sourcing, document analysis, and causal prompts were associated with higher student scores. The situated prompt had the lowest mean score of all the tasks. Results indicated that the writing prompts centered on sourcing, corroboration of documents, and causation were more likely to focus attention on historical perspectives than prompts that asked students to imagine themselves as historical figures. Because so much of history relies on evidence-based thinking, prompts that focus students directly on sources may be more likely to promote historical reasoning.

Unfortunately, when most history teachers assign writing, the focus is on summarization. Because interpreting history relies on reconciling multiple sources of evidence, this focus inhibits historical reasoning. So, the key takeaway from this study is – how can high school history teachers create prompts that emphasize corroboration, sourcing, and causal analysis into their classroom practices?

Reference

Monte-Sano, C., & De La Paz, S. (2012). Using writing tasks to elicit adolescents’ historical reasoning. Journal of Literacy Research, 44(3), 273-299.

This week our discussion board will focus on developing prompts like these and integrating them with your lessons that are already in progress. Please describe the grade, level and subject you are teaching, the focus of your lesson, and identify an idea for an essay that could that emphasize corroboration, sourcing, and causal analysis. The community will chime in and suggest ideas for documents, scaffolding, and fine-tuning. Follow the rule, give one to get one.

Learn to Teach, Teach to Learn

by Dr. Strojny

Recently, Salon online magazine ran an article that touched on whether successful teaching is just a learned talent or a natural skill that some people have, and some don’t. The article touches on that author Elizabeth Green titles, The Myth of the Natural Born Teacher.”

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/09/secrets_of_amazing_teachers_what_both_sides_of_the_education_reform_debate_get_wrong_about_autonomy_and_accountability/

This type of myth-making—that some folks are just “born to teach,” and others will hopelessly bore (at best) or (at worst), mis-educate and harm the learning of our students, is surprisingly prevalent, Green asserts, on not only both sides of the political spectrum, but even in the Schools of Education of colleges and universities across the country. Yet considerable evidence exists, that, in fact, using particular skills and strategies result in increased levels of learning for students. This is fantastic news. Just as no one would want a “a natural born surgeon,” (as opposed to one who had spent years in medical school) and pro sports players don’t get paid the big bucks for potential, so too, teaching well is a learned skill, one that takes hard work, and willingness to adapt to new strategies.

For many teachers, the problem can be in sorting through the tremendous amounts of “noise” out there to find the best practices that will truly result in increased learning. In 2008, Dr. Monte-Sano compared two different types of teaching strategies for secondary Social Studies/History teachers. Specifically, Monte-Sano was looking for results the writing skills of history students based on type of instruction. In Monte-Sano’s work, both teachers engaged in a mix of lecture, regular reading and writing assignments and some use of textbook reading. (Monte-Sano, 2008). However, in other important ways, teacher practices differed. One teacher modeled active reading strategies, and encouraged students view history writing as an interpretive exercise, with the interpretation of historical documents as critical to creating meaningful and intelligent interpretations. The other teacher leaned towards teaching history more as serious of static factual events.

Monte-Sano found that those students whose teacher who relied more heavily on memorization of facts and assigned frequent essays, but provided limited feedback, had writing skills that stayed the same or even declined slightly over the course of the school year. However, students whose teacher gave consistent targeted feedback had students whose scores improved over the year. The teacher also engaged in traditional “English teacher” type reading comprehension and writing strategies, such as modeling, creating scaffolded opportunities for students to write, one-on-one conferencing and targeted feedback.

See: Monte-Sano, C. (2008). Qualities of effective writing instruction in history classrooms: A cross-case comparison of two teachers’ practices. American Educational Research Journal, 45 (4), 1045-1079. 

Nevertheless, many history teachers continue to maintain the first type of more “traditional” type of classroom, expending a lot of work on reading and frequent essay practices that may result in more limited in feedback for students. Why is this? In general, teachers work hard and most want to see the best possible results for their students.

Well, the teacher struggling to see gains in low-SES schools may be more amenable to trying something new, since they are can see clearly their student’s English language deficiencies. Many (certainly not all!) students in low-income schools may already be scoring at a low level on high stakes tests, and so teachers are willing to adopt a new strategy in an attempt to help their students.

In addition, students themselves are pre-disposed, as late as college, to view history as a single story, and less likely to view history through the complex lens of interpretative art (Monte-Sano, 2012). Students come in to class “expecting” to hear a story with names, dates, and events they have to memorize, and may be more challenged to adapt to class that offers a truly college preparatory vision of historical writing. If we ask students to write true historical interpretative essays, we are asking type of careful sifting of evidence and crafting of interpretation is some of the most sophisticated and complex writing students in all of their high school careers—and we are asking them to do it in History/Social Studies classes – not English classes! No wonder History and Social Studies teachers are feeling the heat.

So what types of strategies should History teachers focus on in teaching Historical writing to students? The research suggests they should focus on the same high-impact strategies English teachers use, but focused or adjusted appropriately for History/Social studies.

High Impact strategies for ALL students writing in History and Social Studies class include:

(1) Modeling reading strategies to help students navigate texts;

(2) Are taught to study history as evidence-based interpretation, as opposed to a single narrative;

(3) Are taught to read primary source documents, and to point to evidence from such sources to support their own ideas;

(4) Engage in frequent writing work, that includes not just formal essays, but informal writing opportunities;

(5) Receive targeted feedback that encourages them to look at History and Social Studies as a way of asking lots of questions, rather then memorizing a set series of answers.

These types of critical thinking skills are what will help our students to be successful readers and writers not only in high school, but in the collegiate and university setting and beyond. Just as true for us as teachers, as it is for our students: It’s not just WHO you are, but WHAT you do that will make a difference in student learning. Do we really want to teach our students any other lesson?

 Citations:

Monte-Sano, C. (2008). Qualities of effective writing instruction in history classrooms: A cross-case comparison of two teachers’ practices. American Educational Research Journal, 45 (4), 1045-1079. 

Monte-Sano, C. (2012). Toward disciplinary writing in history: Preparing the next generation. Perspectives on History, 50 (5). Available at: www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2012/1205/

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/09/secrets_of_amazing_teachers_what_both_sides_of_the_education_reform_debate_get_wrong_about_autonomy_and_accountability/ (Found August 11, 2014)

Preview:

For next time, I will look at some of the highest-impact writing strategies for English teachers, and see how they can be adapted for use by Social Studies teachers. If you can’t wait to get started, have a sneak peak at this important study for English teachers: A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students.

Graham, Steve; Perin, Dolores Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 99(3), Aug 2007, 445-476

Nurture vs Nature Ed Debate

by Dr Strojny

Recently, Salon online magazine ran an article that speculated whether successful teaching is a nurtured talent or a natural skill that some people have, and some don’t. The article was entitled “The Myth of the Natural Born Teacher” by Elizabeth Green.

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/09/secrets_of_amazing_teachers_what_both_sides_of_the_education_reform_debate_get_wrong_about_autonomy_and_accountability/

This type of myth-making—that some folks are just “born to teach,” and others will hopelessly bore (at best) or (at worst), harm the learning of our students, is surprisingly prevalent, Green asserts, on not only both sides of the political spectrum, but nationwide in schools of Education. Yet considerable evidence exists, that, in fact, using particular skills and strategies result in increased levels of learning for students. This is fantastic news. Just as no one would want a “natural born surgeon,” teaching well is a learned skill, one that takes hard work, and willingness to adopt new strategies.

For many teachers, the problem can be in sorting through the tremendous amounts of “noise” out there to find the best practices that will truly result in increased learning. In 2008, Monte-Sano compared two different types of teaching strategies for secondary Social Studies/History teachers. This research examined the writing skills of history students based on type of instruction. In this work, both teachers engaged in a mix of lecture, regular reading and writing assignments and some use of textbook reading. One teacher modeled active reading strategies, and encouraged students view history writing as an interpretive exercise, with the interpretation of historical documents as critical to creating meaningful and intelligent interpretations. The other teacher leaned toward teaching history as serious of static factual events.

Monte-Sano found that those students whose teacher who relied more heavily on memorization of facts and assigned frequent essays, but provided limited feedback, had writing skills that stayed the same or even declined slightly over the course of the school year. However, students whose teacher gave consistent targeted feedback had students whose scores improved over the year. The teacher also engaged in traditional “English teacher” type reading comprehension and writing strategies, such as modeling, creating scaffolded opportunities for students to write, one-on-one conferencing and targeted feedback.

In addition, students are pre-disposed to view history as a single story, and less likely to view history through the complex lens of interpretative art (Monte-Sano, 2012). Students come in to class “expecting” to hear a story with names, dates, and events they have to memorize, and may be more challenged to adapt to class that offers a truly college preparatory vision of historical writing. If we ask students to write interpretative essays, we are asking for a careful sifting of evidence and crafting of interpretation, which is some of the most complex writing required of students, and we are asking them to do it in History/Social Studies classes – not English classes! No wonder History and Social Studies teachers are feeling the heat.

So what types of strategies should History teachers focus on in teaching Historical writing to students? The research suggests they should focus on the same high-impact strategies English teachers use, but adjusted for History/Social Studies.

High Impact strategies for ALL students writing in History and Social Studies class include:

(1) Modeling reading strategies to help students navigate texts;

(2) Are taught to study history as evidence-based interpretation, as opposed to a single narrative;

(3) Are taught to read primary source documents, and to point to evidence from such sources to support their own ideas;

(4) Engage in frequent writing work, that includes not just formal essays, but informal writing opportunities;

(5) Receive targeted feedback that encourages them to look at History and Social Studies as a way of asking lots of questions, rather then memorizing a set series of answers.

These types of critical thinking skills are what will help our students to be successful readers and writers not only in high school, but in the  university setting and beyond. This is just as true for us as teachers, as it is for our students: It’s not just WHO you are, but WHAT you do that will make a difference in student learning. Do we really want to teach our students any other lesson?

 References

Monte-Sano, C. (2008). Qualities of effective writing instruction in history classrooms: A cross-case comparison of two teachers’ practices. American Educational Research Journal, 45 (4), 1045-1079.

Monte-Sano, C. (2012). Toward disciplinary writing in history: Preparing the next generation. Perspectives on History, 50 (5). Available at: www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2012/1205/

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/09/secrets_of_amazing_teachers_what_both_sides_of_the_education_reform_debate_get_wrong_about_autonomy_and_accountability/ (Found August 11, 2014)

Preview:

For next time, I will look at some of the highest-impact writing strategies for English teachers, and see how they can be adapted for use by Social Studies teachers. If you can’t wait to get started, have a sneak peak at this important study for English teachers: A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students.

Graham, Steve; Perin, Dolores Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 99(3), Aug 2007, 445-476