Category Archives: Historical Writing

History Assessments of Thinking

Joel Breakstone wrote that two of the most readily available test item types, multiple-choice questions and document-based questions (DBQs), are poorly suited for formative assessment. Breakstone and his colleagues at SHEG have designed History Assessments of Thinking (HATs) that measure both content knowledge and historical thinking skills. HATs measure disciplinary skills through engagement with primary sources. Teachers using HATs must interpret student responses and enact curricular revisions using their pedagogical content knowledge, something that may prove difficult with new, or poorly-trained teachers.

SHEG

To use HATs, teachers must understand the question, be familiar with the historical content, evaluate student responses, diagnose student mistakes, develop remediation, and implement the intervention. Teachers must possess an understanding of what makes learning easy or difficult and ways of formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others. In designing HATs, Breakstone sought to collect data on cognitive validity, or the relationship between the constructs targeted by the assessments and the cognitive processes students use to answer them. This would help teachers interpret student responses and use that information to make curricular changes. Formative assessments in history depend on teachers being able to quickly diagnose student understanding. Assessments based on historical thinking represent a huge shift from the norm in history classrooms. For formative assessment to become routine, teachers will need extensive professional development and numerous other supports.

Sipress & Voelker (2011) write eloquently about the rise and fall of the coverage model in history instruction. This tension has been revitalized as educators eagerly anticipate which testing methodologies will be used for the “fewer, deeper” Common Core assessments and what I call the “Marv Alkin overkill method” of using at least four items to assess each content standard. This results in end of year history assessments that are 80 questions or more. Breadth vs. depth arguments have existed forever in education, Jay Mathews illustrates this by asking if teachers should focus on a few topics so students have time to absorb and comprehend the inner workings of the subject? Or should teachers cover every topic so students get a sense of the whole and can later pursue those parts that interest them most?

Something that may settle this debate is one of the more interesting developments in ed tech. The nexus of machine learning and student writing is a controversial and competitive market. Turnitin recently demonstrated that it is looking to move beyond plagiarism detection and into the automated writing feedback market with a recent acquisition. If my wife allowed me to gamble, I would bet that one of the testing consortiums, either Smarter Balanced or PARCC, will soon strike a deal with one of the eight automated essay grading vendors to grade open-ended questions on their standardized tests. Lightside Labs will pilot test their product with the Gates Foundation in 2015 and get it to market in 2016, just a little too late to be included in the first wave of Common Core assessments. I wonder if HAT assessments would be able to incorporate some automated scoring technology and settle the depth versus breadth debate in assessing history?

Writing Historical Narratives

storytelling-copy

The Common Core’s addition of narrative writing is likely to challenge many History/Social Science teachers that are unfamiliar with this type of writing. Students are now expected to write narratives that develop real or imagined experiences, and/or events using well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

Since only six percent of my class or eleven out of my 183 high school students chose to write a historical narrative on our last formative assessment, I created a task that would increase their storytelling abilities about the principles of Judaism. Instead of outlining, I asked them to cluster or bubble map the main ideas from the textbook chapter. We use the 2007 California edition of World History: The Modern World (pp. 28-32) by Pearson Prentice Hall. Most students had one to two pages of events and people that they could use to create their narrative. Prior to beginning their writing, they also had a full day of instruction on period-specific vocabulary. For homework the students also viewed the Crash Course video series segment on Judaism. Lastly, students viewed a short, online video on narrative writing tips and techniques. The video was played once in class and posted online so students could view it again from home.

The prompt and directions were:

You have a 53 minute class period to write a Historical narrative about the Jewish people. Use your cluster map to provide details. This task requires you to tell a story about a historical time period, blending facts with imagined characters and situations.

  • Use one person’s point of view (a central character)
  • Use chronological organization and transitions
  • Describe people who actually lived and events that actually happened. However, you may include fictional people and details.
  • Show you have an accurate understanding of historic events and details of actual places

I use word count as a proxy for student effort and as a goal-setting strategy. Thus, I always like to display the number of words each class period writes.  I then compare each class mean. I try to generate some competition between the classes. Why do you think period three wrote almost 150 more words than period 1?

Word Prod Means

The chart above compares the average number of words written by each of my five classes.
Number 6 is the average of all five means. A total of 176 essays were turned in.

The factors I looked for in these narratives were: 1) a creative title; 2) word count; 3) main character point of view. During my readings, I discovered that a small group of students had misunderstood the assignment and had made their historical characters into outlandish fictional people doing things that had no relevance to the historical period. In my debrief with the students, I will remind them that the purpose of the assignment was to show an accurate understanding of historic events and details of actual places.

The majority of my students picked a historical character and remained in that character for their entire writing assignment. One or two students misunderstood the assignment and wrote one or two paragraphs from the perspective of each Moses, Abraham, David, and Solomon. I attributed this to students not listening carefully enough to the directions. The charts below compare student performance on my last two writing tasks.

Word Prod Means by Period

Evaluating Intro Paragraphs

This post is the third in a series on how to assign student writing and provide feedback without infringing on instructional time. In my flipped classroom, I am able to put content lectures online and spend class time conferencing with my students on improving their writing. These samples are introductory paragraphs to informative and explanatory and historical narrative prompts I assigned students on the ancient Greek philosophers.

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.

SAMPLE A

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were three great philosophers. All three of them were connected in some sort of way. There lives were very different in many ways.

SAMPLE B

The three subjects I will talk about are Aristotle, Plato’s and Socartes. They are all greek philosophers. Aristotles, plato’s and Socartes are all very similar. They all play a part of the economic structure and culture like laws and citizenship.

SAMPLE C

One of these famous philosophers name was Socretes. He was a stone mason and philosopher. All the things we know about him comes from Plato. Plato was Socrates’s famous student. Socretes was also known for asking questions around Athens. But, the people of Athens got fed up and put him on trial when he was 70 years old. 280 people voted Socrates guilty and sentenced him to death. Socrates thought they should be paying him. But, unfortunately he died by drinking poison.

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.

SAMPLE A

When Socrates was 70 years old, he was put on trial. He was accused of corrupting the city’s youth and failing to respect the gods. In the jury there was 501 citizens. The jurors condemned him to death.

SAMPLE B

I am Socrates, I was an Athenian stonemason and philosopher. Most of what people know about me comes from my most famous student Plato. I didn’t write any books instead. I went to the marketplace and questioned citizens about their beliefs. I often ask the question “What is the greatest good?” To me this exam of questions was a way to help others seek truth and self knowledge, but to Athenians such questions threatened accepted traditions.

SAMPLE C

The year was 399, I had to stand in front of 500 of my fellow Athenians. I was trialed for supposedly “corrupting the youth.” How outrages! All I did was spread my thoughts and teachings! Anyways, I knew, if I were to be guilty, I might be given the death penalty. The trial took place in the heart of Athens. Many people knew who I was. I am 70 years old. I had many anti-democratic points of view, that might have brought me here.

As I conference with each student, I will employ rubrics from the Literacy Design Collaborative that evaluate argumentative, informative, and narrative writing. Students will assess themselves first, before I comment on their work. Adhering to Mike Schmoker’s advice from Write More, Grade Less – I will only provide feedback on improving introductory paragraphs and will ask them to revise and complete this assignment.

Evaluating Student Writing

Following up on my earlier post on Historical Writing Prompts, this article will describe the results of a formative assessment on the Ancient Greek Philosophers for a 9th/10th grade World History class. This population of students was able to choose which type of writing task they wanted to complete (argument, informative, or narrative). They wrote a total of 183 essays that ranged between 18 and 640 words, with an average of 255 words per essay. From the results, it is clear these students needed additional instruction on (1) titling their essays to indicate which prompt they had selected, (2) specific instruction on rephrasing the prompt in their first two sentences, and (3) assistance in writing an introductory paragraph that organizes their thoughts and contains a thesis statement.

In this post, I will provide three samples from the argumentative writing prompt and ask students to vote for the strongest piece of student writing. Student work is typed verbatim; typos, misspellings, grammatical errors, and factual mistakes are intentionally included.

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.

SAMPLE A

Aristotle and Plato have made many quotes and many historians and people argue for the meaning of these quotes. In this paper I will discuss these quotes and put in my opinion. There will be showing if they are positive or negative.

SAMPLE B

The 3 quotes I will be talking about were from 2 famous philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. I will be showing you how powerful these quotes are and what they mean to me. I will be deciding if each quote represents a positive or negative view of human nature. These quotes would never mean the same thing to other people because of their opinions, and how they see on there own perspective. The first quote will be on Aristotle.

SAMPLE C

The meaning of “A good and wise life is the wealth that brings happiness” To me a good and wise life is having money and having your dream job. Also having a wonderful family. And having to see them everyday and having no worries. And no crime in the world.

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