Certainly, with the education atmosphere rife with new standards and expectations calling for increased writing across the day, how to embed more writing in social studies has become a hot topic. Social studies is a subject area that lends itself well to all three major writing genres: opinion, information, and narrative writing.
Following are a few different kinds of writing you might channel your students to do during social studies or history class that will not only help them practice their writing in all three genres but will also bolster their content understanding. For each kind of writing, I offer a quick list of characteristics of the writing, which could easily be turned into teaching points. My hope is that these quick lists spark your imagination and help set a vision of what is possible for writing during social studies time.
One note, any of these kinds of writing would lend themselves well to an entire writing unit. Whether you teach both language arts and social studies or you are a history teacher and a language arts teacher planning to work together, I strongly recommend starting the writing unit after students have been studying a history topic for at least a couple of weeks. That way, students will have some content to fuel their writing right at the start.
- Has roots in personal narrative/small moment stories. First-person voice is often used.
- Is made up of short, fictionalized entries: one moment in someone’s life.
- Supports students in really thinking about the details of daily life.
- Could be planned out using sketches. Doing this might help the writer to see all of the details and to decide how much time will progress from entry to entry.
- Has roots in realistic fiction. Third-person voice is often used.
- Has many wonderful mentor texts, such as Out of the Dust, Number the Stars, The Watsons go to Birmingham.
- Often contains characters with struggles to which the writer can relate (for example, a boy whose parents won’t let him venture out too far into the neighborhood on his own could be relatable to a student today, and could fit in a historical fiction story).
- Could be planned with two story arcs – the character’s personal journey and the historical events that transpire during the story.
- Like realistic fiction, is often best contained within a relatively short span of time.
- Should be used as a thinking tool, not just a way to copy facts.
- Is only useful the note-taker uses the notes. It helps to go back and annotate important parts.
- Can be done using a variety of organizational structures as a way to support different kinds of thinking, including: boxes and bullets, sketches, and timelines.
- Are often made up of a variety of forms (all-about, narrative, essay), but their main purpose is to teach some information.
- Are best begun once the writer has done a good deal of research and note-taking.
- Can be started by teaching others about a topic or writing long from a set of notes.
- Have nonfiction picture books as mentors, particularly those that are lively and full of voice, like books by Jean Fritz and Seymour Simon.
- Are best written on one slice of a topic, not the entire topic (The Boston Tea Party, not the entire American Revolution).
- Could be planned by thinking about different ways the report could be organized (what the chapters/sub-topics will be, will it be chronological, etc.). Plan a few different ways the report could go, and pick the best one.
- Are a way for writers to capture big ideas they are growing about information they are learning.
- Should be based on information from more than one source.
- Should be organized with a logical structure: big idea/thesis and bullets/supports.
- Usually can be done quickly, in a class period or two, as a way to grow thinking, prepare for debate, or demonstrate what the writer has learned about a topic.
Do you channel your students to do other kinds of writing in social studies or history class? Please share!
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).