Reading and Writing in Social Studies


Reading and Writing in Social Studies


When I was an undergraduate, my educational psychology professor said something to me that I have carried into my professional and personal life. He said, “Drew, sometimes you don’t know what you think until you write it down and see what you have to say.” This resonated with me on many different levels. I have been fascinated by and have studied Abraham Lincoln my entire life, and it reminded me of what he used to do when faced with a challenging situation. He would write about it. For example, when George Gordon Meade abandoned his pursuit of Robert E. Lee after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln was furious. He felt as though Meade had let the end of the war slip through his fingertips. Lincoln sat down and pinned a harsh letter to General Meade offering a scathing critique of his performance. He took that letter, put it in an envelope, and he filed it away in his desk next to other letters in which he had taken the same action. Perhaps Lincoln filed it away because he was running short of qualified leaders to lead the army of the Potomac, or perhaps after writing the letter he began to see the other side of the argument in which Meade had just lost a good chunk of his army in the greatest battle in the history of the western hemisphere and couldn’t afford any further pursuits of Lee. Perhaps by the end of his writing he began to sympathize with the complex decision Meade had to make in real-time. Hearing of these criticisms Meade offered Lincoln his resignation. However, Lincoln rejected it and reaffirmed that Meade was his general at least for the time being. Perhaps through his writing, he began to understand the situation better. Undoubtedly to my wife's dismay, when my she asks me to determine my next course of action when facing a challenging situation, I typically respond to her by saying, "I’ll have to Lincoln it." This same metacognitive approach can be taken instructionally to allow our students to discover, analyze, and to understand their own thoughts specifically when examining controversial issues in history. They have to dive into the primary sources themselves. It can give them an opportunity to defend their findings and engage them in the process of history.  Unfortunately, it took me five years to adopt such an instructional practice in my own classroom as a young educator due to institutional pressures to do things how they had always been done. 


Throughout the course of my post-secondary education, I have written hundreds of argumentative essays. So much so that the style of writing has become the most natural to me. As I have explained to students, I can’t count the number of times that I have started to write an argument only to have my perspective be flipped entirely on it’s head as the research discovered nullifies all previous understanding. When exploring the historical record, reading serves as our input and writing serves as our output necessary for us to thoroughly process events. If you want to get your students thinking, then get them writing. It's how we best come to understand any situation by processing facts, dispelling fiction, formulating our thoughts, and structuring them into a sound argument. In a history class, it is the difference between absorbing the history and doing history. Throughout the 20th century, history to many students in secondary school has been about memorizing as much information as they can about the historical content. The instructional approach described below engages students in the process of history. They must develop their own understanding of events based on the historical record. They must sift through and understand primary source documents. They must determine the authors' bias. They must understand the historiography of the topic being studied. They must look at all sides of the historical event to draw their own conclusions. 


After spending much of the first quarter helping teachers with tech integration practices as well as remote learning instructional strategies, I was excited to get started with old fashioned instructional coaching. Ms. Wynne discussed with myself and our administrators at the beginning of the year her goal to get students writing in social studies. I felt passionate about taking the following approach. We decided to take a look at a major and controversial event in the history of America: The Boston Massacre. 


Let's go through the process. The entire unit was prepared as a self-paced grid. However, with this being Ms. Wynne’s first time deploying it, my first time going through this process with a junior high social studies class, and most likely the students’ first essay outside of an ELA class we did the entire unit step-by-step together and at a very slow pace. Perhaps slower than Ms. Wynne or I would have liked at times, but we also feel that the foundation is laid for future work now as well. The grid is structured to be able to easily change between controversial points in history. 


Website for the grid: Topic: Boston Massacre

Each assignment is directly linked to the Google Classroom assignment so students don’t have to bounce between the grid and the classroom page. 

Primary Source Reads: 

·         Letter from Captain Thomas Preston to King George III

·         The Colonists case as reported by the Boston Gazette and Country Journal


Step 1: Provide Historical Background on the incident. This was done through direct instruction about events leading up to the incident (i.e the stamp act and other approaching events) as well as a video depicting the massacre and some in-class discussion. Students also read the play together in class and remotely, with the play stopping at the point when Captain Preston (the British officer) goes to trial. The student then understood they would be taking over the role from the perspective of the prosecution or the defense in the case of Boston citizens V Captain Thomas Preston and soldiers. 


Step 2: We begin to look at the case of the colonists as reported by the Boston Gazette. In class, we did a think pair share activity with the content vocabulary needed to understand the complexity of a text written in 1750. Then we dove into the primary source document. The document is broken down into sections to provide scaffolding for students to understand the read at large. Students are asked to discover claims, provide textual evidence that shows proof of those claims, then to analyze the textual evidence for bias


Step 3: We repeat the same process from step 2; however, this time we examine Captain Thomas Preston’s letter back to England and learn from his perspective. Again, we look for claims he’s making, textual evidence of those claims, and examine for bias. 


Step 4: In step 4 we get a feel for how students are thinking. At this point, we’d like to get a gauge for what side of the fence the students are on. They are asked to write a journal to get their thoughts out on paper in paragraph form. This short journal will become the basis for their introductory paragraph and the development of their thesis statement. 


Step 5: At this point, we need the students to examine the purpose of an argument. We pair students off and ask them to examine the list of questions on the purpose of an argument and how to make an argument successfully. After which we compile student responses to make a student driven guide for developing a successful argument. 


Step 6: In step 6, they need to know what their arguments are going to be about. They need to pick a side and develop the arguments they are going to use in their papers. If they have compiled their evidence sheets correctly, many of these thoughts will come directly from that earlier work. Once they have identified their 4 claims, they then will identify the top 4 claims someone opposed to their argument would potentially use to develop their preventive strikes. They’re asked, “what are the other side’s four best arguments, and explain how they are wrong.” 


Step 7: Students will take their first journal response from step 4 and begin to modify it to become their first paragraph using the claims they developed in step 6. Their first step is to develop a thesis statement. The page has tips on how to write their thesis statement as well as explanations on how to avoid logical fallacies. They will then take the claims they developed and add them to their paragraphs, or revise what they have already written to include their claims. Then, write a closing sentence to their first paragraph that wraps everything up for their thesis. Students are given an example to help scaffold their thinking on how to structure their paragraphs. Before moving on to the next lesson on the grid, students will modify their wording to not use the word “I”, but instead to use words like “it is clear,” or “it is obvious.” This will be the standard practice for the remainder of the paper. 


Step 8: Build your outline. Now that the intro paragraph has been written, we can begin to build their outline. The topic of each paragraph will be the same as the 4 claims they came up with within their introductions, simply restated. Then they will come up with three supporting details for that claim. Their textual evidence sheets from step 2 and 3 are helpful in this process. These sentences should come from their brain and be in the students’ own words. Then for each paragraph, they should find at least one direct quote to support their arguments and the details they’ve provided. 


Step 9: This is the most difficult step for students and the one that requires the most thought, creativity, and work. They will now take their outline and transform it into a working paragraph. This step provides students with an example outline transformed into an example paragraph. It also previews the entire structure of the paper, showing how each claim in the introductory is reflected in separate paragraphs with supporting details in the body of the paper. The examples are color-coded for students to see the structure. All this work will be done on the same page they started working on at the beginning of the unit. 


Step 10: In step 10, students have to be fully finished with their paragraphs. Students will plug in what they believe the other side’s arguments will be concerning what they have written. Then, they will explain why the other side is wrong and if possible provide supporting textual evidence in the form of a quote to support their position. Again they will continue working on the same documents they have been writing on thus far. 


Step 11: This step is to ensure students have a strong argument supported by textual evidence. They will use their evidence sheet to provide quotes in their papers if they haven’t done so already. Students will polish up these quotes and make sure that the reader knows where they are coming from. For example, they could write: According to Thomas Preston, “insert a quote.” This step is designed for students to look through their arguments as well as a partner from the other perspective’s arguments to help strengthen their work. 


Step 12: Students will write their conclusion in their documents. Students will begin by restating their claims and re-emphasizing their thesis statement. This page contains an instructional video on how to write a great conclusion to an argumentative essay. 


Step 13: Content Revisions: This step is focused purely on the arguments being generated by students. This step is for students to examine each other’s arguments and to allow them to point out where arguments are weak or non-existent. It gives students and teachers a chance to review their arguments and make sure they relate to their thesis statement and subsequent claims. 


Step 14: Convention Revisions: This is about students’ cleaning up their work. Capitalizing pronouns and sentences when needed. Correcting run-on sentences or sentence fragments. The point of it is so that the structure of their writing doesn’t take away from its readability or its strength. While I’m not as critical of their conventions as I would be in an ELA class, we do peer reviews and checks on student work to help tidy up their work. 


Step 15: Time to Publish. We aren’t writing this for ourselves. We want people to see our thoughts, understand our arguments, and perhaps change someone’s perspective. To do that, we must publish. Their final task is to develop the following list and then act upon one of them: 


It's time to publish. Publishing is finding ways to attract an audience to experience what you have created. List three ideas you have on how to get people to experience what you have written. These ideas should include ways to get people to read your work outside of the classroom, or even better, outside of our school. Let’s see what you come up with. 


I’d like to thank Ms. Wynne for allowing me to be part of this new project she has taken on with her. I truly enjoyed working in a social studies classroom again. Her instructional strategies used to engage students in the process were essential to student success. I respect the challenge she has taken head-on as well as putting herself out there as a teacher and a professional to try something new in her classroom. Many content area teachers shy away from writing across the curriculum. I think students really know what they think now after writing it down and exploring what they had to say. 


Thank you, Ms. Wynne. 


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