When students learn to write about history, they are learning so much else. This kind of writing is complex and multi-layered. To write well about history, writers must be knowledgable about a time period, have a good grasp on how to organize information in writing, and understand how to weave information together from various sources. The good news is, with some careful preparation, you can guide your students to do their best writing about history yet. Here are some ideas to help.
Prerequisite Reading and Writing Work
If your students have had experience with the following, their history writing is much more likely to be successful.
Information writing about personal topics
Because the main work of history writing is to weave together information from various sources in a way that is coherent and well-developed, it helps so much if students already understand the basic principles of good information writing. They should have a mainly internalized sense that good information writing: is organized into categories, has different kinds of examples, and often is evidenced with information from credible sources.
Learning these principles without the pressure of heavy research is key to setting your students up for success. If they don’t have experience with information writing, consider guiding them to write about topics of personal interest first.
Students’ writing about history will be most successful if they come to the unit with some knowledge of the historical time period. It becomes overwhelming and slows down the writing process if students are just beginning to learn about a time period as they begin a big writing project about it. Most teachers have found that giving students about 2-4 weeks to read and research about a topic before writing about it is optimal.
That’s not to say students won’t research at all as they write. They will! So, it helps if students have plenty of experience with the nonfiction reading skills they will need for the quick, midst-of-writing research they’ll do as they write about history. Ideally your students will understand how to efficiently summarize texts into main ideas, how to use features of nonfiction texts to quickly locate information, how to analyze texts for their structure, and how to differentiate facts from the author’s opinion.
So much of information writing is laden with the author’s slant or perspective. At the highest levels of writing, persuasive writing and information writing are often nearly indistinguishable from each other. It’s important that your students have had some experience supporting their opinions with reasons and evidence, so that they can include their own ideas about the information they are researching when they write about history.
There is so much power in teaching students to take the kind of notes that show they are really learning information and not just copying the text. If your students are taking notes in various forms: boxes and bullets, timelines, flow charts, and sketches, that means they are really thinking about the best way to structure and capture each snippet of information.
Coming to a writing about history unit with notes such as these means two things: first, it means that students have a breadth of understanding about the time period and about research practices, and second, it means that students understand various ways of modeling information, which will come in handy when they prepare to create text features for their own texts.
Classroom Organization and Set-Up
If your students have already engaged in nonfiction reading about the time period they will write about, your classroom library will be stocked with materials they will need to support any additional research they’ll do as they write. As they choose focused topics related to the time period, it helps to create new bins in the classroom library to match their focused topics. (For example, if your class time period is The Dust Bowl, students might write about: Oakies, Woody Guthrie, Government Programs, and so on, and the classroom library could have bins to match these.)
Additionally, it helps to add some new information to these bins, such as short articles, or even song lyrics, or poems, or images upon which students could draw.
If students can get online in your classroom, it helps to bookmark sites and search engines that might help fuel their quick research as they write. See this post for more tips on Internet research.
Mentor and Demonstration Texts
Because information writing has so many different forms, it helps to imagine what kind of text your students will create before you begin the unit. Your students might write traditional research reports, or perhaps you’ll channel them to create websites, or to make mini-versions of the trade books that they use to research.
Whatever the form, take the time to create your own text before the unit begins. This will be invaluable as you demonstrate strategies, confer, and show students how to work through tricky parts.
Of course, the more great examples the better, so gather other examples of the kind of text students will be making as well, either from published sources or from past years’ students, if possible.
Note: Many of the ideas in the post stem from the book I co-wrote with Lucy Calkins, Bringing History to Life. This book further details ways to set up and execute great writing about history, using the American Revolution as a case in point.
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).