In History Class, Writing Means Thinking

August 13th, 2015

Sarah Cooper is back this week with a post that examines how writing can help students clarify their thinking and bring them closer to the historical event they are writing about. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and has been a regular contributor to the Stenhouse Blog.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionIn History Class, Writing Means Thinking

By Sarah Cooper

This summer I’ve written ten response papers for two history graduate classes, a process that has sometimes felt like walking through molasses.

Here are some questions that ran through my head:

  • Do I care about the topic?
  • Is my thesis clear?
  • Am I supporting the thesis with evidence?
  • Am I paraphrasing enough not to plagiarize?
  • Do the topic sentences support the thesis?
  • Is this paragraph too long?
  • Is my writing any good?

Needless to say, I’ve become newly empathetic toward my students as writers.

I’ve remembered how difficult it can be to synthesize information, especially in anticipation of someone else reading and evaluating my writing. Is this argument original enough? Am I incorporating the information accurately, giving enough weight to each source?

I’ve realized that assignment length can dictate depth of thought. A paper with a maximum of 1,200 words required more sustained analysis than one of 800 words. The longer length also meant I could take byways that seemed less plausible in the shorter papers.

Writing these essays has also helped clarify my thinking. Reading through margin annotations to refresh my memory of a text is one thing, but pulling together these annotations into a cohesive argument is another.

What surprised me most, though, was something I knew long ago but had somehow forgotten:

The act of writing made the readings more interesting.

Here’s an example: In reading about John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy, I initially found the suspense of the Cuban Missile Crisis much more interesting than the disastrous missteps of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

But then I started creating a thesis about what the Bay of Pigs showed about the Kennedy presidency – and realized that the debacle could be considered a case study for how presidents learn on the job. For the importance of surrounding oneself with advisors who offer conflicting opinions. And for what strength can look like: admitting we are wrong and fixing our mistakes the next time.

Writing about the readings forced me to connect personally with them, to find a place where my interest in psychology and leadership coincided with historical events. And suddenly the history became more memorable.

Implications for Teaching

Especially for middle schoolers, engaging with history can mean an acrostic, pair-and-share presentation or diagram just as easily as it can mean a serious written piece.

In my desire to make history exciting for students, sometimes I think I’ve given short shrift to the power of writing to ignite such excitement. I certainly ask students to write – but I had forgotten that writing can be an example of Seymour Papert’s “hard fun.”

There’s an alchemy to putting words on the page, as UCLA history professor Lynn Hunt says in an excellent piece about writing and radishes: “Something ineffable happens when you write down a thought. You think something you did not know you could or would think and it leads you to another thought almost unbidden.”

This is the magic I’ve felt this summer, much as it made my brain hurt. And this is the magic I’d like my students to feel when writing about history.

How do you encourage your students to find the personal connection in their own analytical writing?

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