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this is a false dichotomy and believe teachers can use writing tasks to help students gain a deeper understanding of historical content, thus, the rationale for this blog and MOOC.


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.

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