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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘We Should Embrace Writing in Social Studies’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 09, 2019 13 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to integrate writing in social studies classes?

In Part One, Stan Pesick, Ben Alvord, Dawn Mitchell, Rachel Johnson, and Rebecca Testa-Ryan shared their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Stan, Ben, Dawn, and Rachel on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Martha Sevetson Rush, Andrew Miller, Melissa Miles, Donna L. Shrum, and Richard Byrne contribute their thoughts on the topic. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Martha Sevetson Rush

Martha Sevetson Rush, author of Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers (Stenhouse 2018) has taught high school social studies in Minnesota for 21 years. She was recognized as the John Morton High School Economics Teacher of the Year in 2013 and was a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Distinguished Adviser in 2005. She promotes active-learning strategies through her book, her blog, and her professional-development workshops for secondary teachers:

My students sometimes ask: “Why do we have to write in economics class?”

And I respond, “What do you think economists actually do?”

Professional economists research, collect data, analyze, apply models—and, of course, they write.

That’s true across the social sciences. Social studies without writing would be like math without equations or science without experiments. Writing is simply what we do, as social scientists.

I believe we should embrace writing in social studies with the same enthusiasm we show for primary-source documents, compare/contrast analyses, timelines, maps, debates, simulations, and deep reading.

All social studies teachers share a few core objectives:

  • Cultivate curiosity about people, our community, our nation, and the world;
  • Instill a passion for active citizenship, which includes learning to think critically; and
  • Train students in the quantitative and qualitative analytical tools of our respective disciplines, including primary-source research, data analysis, and yes, writing.

Writing is most likely to fall off that list, mainly because it is time-consuming and hard to assess. That’s why finding ways to integrate writing—and to train students in appropriate writing styles for the social sciences—is key.

The most popular form of writing in social studies classes is probably the research paper. In AP Microeconomics, which is a blended-learning class, I assign my students a team research paper (8-10 pages) on an economics topic of their choice, like “Should our city publicly finance a new soccer stadium?” or “How should our state manage declining fish populations?” Students include economic analysis and vocabulary in their papers, which gives them excellent practice at being economists.

I also assign argumentative essays in my AP Macro class, based on the Minneapolis Federal Reserve’s annual essay contest. This year, students argued passionately for or against raising the minimum wage to $15.

There are many additional best practices for implementing writing into social studies:

Journaling—In any class that includes current issues, we can ask students to respond to thought-provoking questions at the start of class each day. When I taught civil liberties, I frequently asked my students to write responses to questions like, “How can we best respond to hate speech?” or “Does freedom of religion protect the right to refuse medicine?” before we began discussions. Everyone had a chance to reflect and think through their ideas before anyone started talking.

Personal essays—In classes like psychology and sociology, it’s especially important to let students write essays that explore their own personalities, relationships, experiences, and subcultures. My AP Psychology students write essays using personality theories (Jung, Rogers, Freud, Adler, etc.) to explore why they think, feel, and behave the way they do. They find it interesting, and I learn a lot about them.

Character profiles—We often wonder how to assign grades for simulations. One way, especially for an elaborate simulation like a Constitutional Convention, is to ask each student to prepare a 1-2 paragraph profile on their role. The simulation is strengthened, and students gain practice with another form of writing.

Speeches—Another strategy to enrich simulations, including mock trials, mock political campaigns, and mock legislative hearings, is to have students write speeches for their roles. Speeches can of course be used as stand-alone assignments as well, giving students practice with presenting their views to an audience.

Interviews—In modern-history classes, students can learn a tremendous amount from adults in their communities who experienced events like the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, 9/11, and the Iraq War, to name just a few. Preparing interview questions, conducting interviews, and writing up results gives students excellent practice at being historians.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is currently an instructional coach at the Shanghai American School in China. He also serves on the National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD, where he consults on a variety of topics. He has worked with educators in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Dominican Republic:

Writing in social studies, as in any content area, must be authentic to the discipline, where students are “doing” history. This moves us past the traditional essay, where students are given authentic inquiry questions connected to content and given a written task that requires them to answer that question while also demanding them to cite primary sources—writing as a historian. These are the three main components of the Inquiry Design Model, created from the primary authors of the new College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework and Standards for Social Studies. Many schools are adopting and implementing the C3 Standards in their schools and district, and the IDM model is an excellent tool for teachers to embed writing in meaningful ways, no matter the content of social studies. These inquires work for history, psychology, religion, and other disciplines of the social studies, and for all grade levels.

Consider this example from the C3 Teachers website that provides tools to support creation of inquiries: Students are given the compelling question, “Should safety outweigh freedom?” and are required to read a variety of primary sources on related topics such as Japanese internment, civil liberties in wartime, communism, and 9/11. Students complete formative tasks to demonstrate knowledge and understanding to supporting questions connected to the larger compelling question, such as creating an infographic to address the question, “Was the limitation of personal right justified during the Cold War?” Students are required to critically think on meaningful questions connected to historical content. Finally, students construct a written argument to answer the compelling question and must cite historical evidence to support their ideas. Students are given voice in their answer, and the question and argument is engaging and interesting to students. There is a balance of student interest as well as clear ties to learner and critical thinking about social studies content. Social studies teachers can leverage this design process to create meaningful writing tasks for students in their classrooms

Response From Melissa Miles

Co-author of the upcoming books Rigor in the K-5 Language Arts and Social Studies Classroom and Rigor in the 6-12 Language Arts and Social Studies Classroom, Melissa Miles is currently back in the classroom teaching middle school language arts after she was the director of educational resources at a K-8 school. She is a national-board-certified teacher with over 15 years experience. She may be reached through her co-author’s website: www.barbarablackburnonline.com:

Writing in the social studies classroom should be integrated in a variety of ways. Obviously, there is value in expository writing to explain “what caused the Civil War,” or “what factors led to the Great Depression.” These types of assignments, most likely used to assess knowledge obtained, require structured organization of thoughts and inclusion of specific details. While it is crucial to explain one’s thoughts in a clear, well-thought-out response, teachers must also provide opportunities for students to play with analytical writing. Document-based questions ask students to analyze a primary- source document (or a series of documents) and connect it to what is known about the time period, location, or culture. Such responses require a different skill set, as students would need to use evidence-based thinking to make connections between print and nonprint text or various visuals.

By using critical-thinking skills to evaluate historical claims, students may answer in essay format or through quickwrites, which allow students to get their thoughts onto paper without focusing on mechanics and conventions. This strategy is helpful for reluctant writers, as it provides a “safe” option for them to show knowledge and critical thinking without being penalized for sentences structure, spelling, and the like. Finally, students need opportunities for creative writing in the social studies classroom. By taking on the voice of a colonist, a 5th grader can explain in first person how he struggled through the first winter at Plymouth or how Jamestown was quite nearly a complete failure. Students can also transform the text by creating a series of news articles, Instagram posts, speeches from different perspectives, or even poems chronicling the events of the Civil Rights’ movement.

In all of these examples, students must determine importance, consider style, employ appropriate tone, and maintain historical accuracy. Many writers will be much more engaged with the creative approach to writing as it allows for choice and voice. Likewise, no teacher should ask students to write the same way all year. Keep your social studies classroom fresh and full of surprises by asking students to write in various modes throughout the course.

Response From Donna L. Shrum

Donna L. Shrum is a writer, researcher, and educator in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Her specialty areas are history, language arts, and technology:

Writing in social studies can occur daily and doesn’t need to be an essay (note: hiSTORY). A government teacher gave me a favorite: creating analogies. “If Congress were a breakfast food, it would be __ because __. If Congress were a TV show, it would be __.” The National Writing Project hosts Letters to the Next President every writing cycle, but in off years, students can choose a letter from the site and write how that issue has played out in the meantime.

The Library of Congress offers a class on using its resources for writing. Their ephemera are available as prompts for diaries, news articles, or skits. From the LOC, I picked up “Zoom:" Place a photograph in a slideshow, cut out all but one corner. Write a prediction of what the photo is about and why. Each slide adds to the picture and more to the prediction. At the final reveal, write about their thinking and whether the final photo was a surprise or a logical conclusion.

Show video clips and ask students to write as one of the characters. View the pertinent section more than once. When I teach The Diary of Anne of Frank, I show a 10-minute clip from “The Winds of War” in which the characters enter Auschwitz and go through the selection. Ask students to write as someone arriving.

Many articles and books enrich a class, with students blogging, writing fiction based on the events, or creating entries on Amazon or Goodreads. Reflecting on learning provides formative information to the instructor.

Geography had an important impact on history. Road trip through pamphlets about sites or a diary entry that incorporates the geography’s importance or plan road trips using Google maps. Break down the four walls of your classroom, and time travel through writing.

Response From Richard Byrne

Richard Byrne is the president of Byrne Instructional Media, LLC. Byrne Instructional Media manages multiple websites and training programs for teachers. Richard is a former high school social studies teacher best known for developing the award-winning blog Free Technology for Teachers:

The obvious answers to this question center around writing reports and persuasive essays. I’d advocate for using writing as a component of using technology in your classroom. Writing should be done as a part of the process of having students create videos. If your students are creating multimedia timelines with a tool like Timeline JS, have them write detailed paragraphs and not just post links to additional information written by others. Have your students create audio interviews with elders. Before recording the interview, they should write detailed questions, anticipate answers, and write follow-up questions.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Martha, Andrew, Melissa, Donna, and Richard for their contributions!

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