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this is a false dichotomy and believe teachers can use writing tasks to help students gain a deeper understanding of historical content, thus, the rationale for this blog and MOOC.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

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.


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

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.”

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?


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: (Found August 11, 2014)


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