Common Core writing standards require History/Social Science teachers to become writing teachers. Yet many are uncomfortable in this role, they are more accustomed to being experts in their content area and K-12 writing is a foreign language reserved for ELA teachers with their own glossary of terms and acronyms. This post will demonstrate how History teachers can continue delivering content while coaching good writing skills and creating positive classroom attitudes toward writing.
This argumentative writing task on eugenics tested students in three ways: (1) interpreting and gathering evidence; (2) developing a thesis, and (3) supporting their thesis. After listening to a lecture on eugenics, students did a quick write where they took a position on whether eugenics was positive or negative, then they conducted a gallery walk where they collected evidence that supported their argument. I was looking to see if any of them changed their position after learning about eugenics research on criminal behavior, ideal families, immigrants, and people with hereditary disorders and mental illness. Lastly, students were asked to take their evidence (notes) back to their desk and explain their rationale to an elbow partner. I have found that having students talk to a partner before beginning their writing gives them more confidence in the subject and lowers the resistance to writing an in-class essay.
My students were asked to complete a Vee diagram, which provides structure for developing an argument. Students write the central question, collect evidence that supports, or argues against it, then they summarize their argument in a thesis sentence at the bottom of the document. I encouraged students to collect six pieces of evidence, so they could include a robust set of claims and counter-claims in their essay. The level of effort they put into the gallery walk was evident in their papers. While only 142 out of 197 or 72% of my students completed this task. These students wrote an average of 292 words with 2.7 claims and 1.6 counter claims.
When using goal-setting strategies to motivate students and develop positive attitudes about writing, it is important to give students attainable goals. I told them that I expected 300-400 words, three claims, and two counter-claims. Most of the students met this bar. Unfortunately, this assignment coincided with a tragedy where a student at our school was killed in a traffic accident walking home. The students who knew him were devastated and unable to focus on this assignment, so for grading purposes, I awarded points to all the students who completed the task, but did not penalize students who performed at a sub-par level or did not complete the assignment. As History teachers increase the number of writing assignments in their classrooms, many of these assignments need to be low-stakes, skill-builders. Teachers cannot read and provide quality feedback on 200 essays per week.
The following video showcases a high-level example and a low-level example, plus a paragraph that I asked students to repair (revise) and share with an elbow partner. While many Social Studies teachers object to taking instructional time away from delivering content, the Common Core standards tell teachers stop sprinting through the history standards on the coverage model treadmill and explicitly teach writing skills to our students. Districts and schools need to implement professional development seminars that help teachers shift out of their comfort zones as content-delivery experts into new ones as writing coaches.