Writing in social studies is more common than in many other content areas. Because you are studying about people and events, there are endless opportunities for students to “think things through” while writing.

Quick Writes

As previewing activities, social studies teachers ask students to

List as many names of people important in the Civil War as you can in thirty seconds.
Write down one question you have about our federal budget.
List three major inventions of the twentieth century.

To synthesize what was learned at the end of a class, ask students to

Define in your own words what a democracy is.
List two things that changed after the Brown v. The Board of Education ruling.
Use the words interest rates, inflation, and stock market to write a true sentence.

To help students self-assess understanding, attitudes, and so forth, offer these prompts:

What did you not understand about today’s lesson?
List one or more terms you cannot clearly define.
I have the feeling many of you are not “with me” on this topic. Write what you are feeling about what we are doing and if there is anything I could change to help you feel more involved and successful.

Journals

Journals call for more extended entries than quick writes and are most successful if used on a daily basis. Both high-structure and low-structure journals can be used in a social studies class. Here are some examples of high-structure journal prompts social studies teachers use:

We have been studying the controversial topic of our welfare system and the law which limits welfare benefits. Are you for or against this law? On balance, is it going to make us a better or worse society? If you could have voted on this issue, how would you have voted? List three reasons to justify your vote.

Arrange the following words into a web that shows their relationships.
Explain to a younger person (brother, sister, cousin) why it is important for everyone to understand the concept of global interdependence.

In addition to content-oriented journal entries such as these, many social studies teachers use “historical figure diaries” to help students relate to events often far away in time and space. While studying about the Vietnam War, students may become major players such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Henry Kissinger, Ho Chi Mihn, Ngo Dinh Diem, or “common people” such as a marine sent to Vietnam, a college student with a draft deferment, a soldier in the Viet Cong, a civilian living in North Vietnam, and the child of an American soldier left in Vietnam. Teachers may let students choose their character or have them pick a character “from a hat” so that all points of view are represented. As the unit continues, characters write each day “diary style” what they are doing and thinking. If two people have the same character, they can write separately or can collaborate on a joint entry. To make this more effective, have the “common people” characters name themselves and decide on their personal characteristics (age, occupation, family status, etc.) before beginning. From time to time, let characters share their diary entries with the whole class or in small groups.

Getting students involved in events that occurred long before their birth is not easy. Having students assume the role of a person in an historical setting promotes their use of the imaging and evaluating thinking processes. Keeping a diary is a real-world writing task. Anne Frank kept one, as did Richard Nixon! Incorporating historical figure diaries into your social studies routine increases student motivation and engagement and gives students a real purpose for writing.

Oral History Projects

Oral history projects use interviews with real people who have experienced an event as the primary source of information. They can be used anytime the event or phenomenon being studied is one that friends and relatives of the students have experienced. Many teachers use oral history projects when studying about immigration or societal changes. Often the oral history project begins in the middle of the unit when the students have enough background information to construct good questions. The first time this project is used, it is probably best to lead the class as a whole to construct the questions. As this format is incorporated into other units, students can work in small groups to construct questions and finally construct their own questions. Students may conduct the interviews individually or with a partner. After conducting the interview, students can report to the whole class about what they learned. In many classes, students write a book in which each interview is summarized and printed, perhaps with a picture of the person being interviewed.

Oral history projects make history come alive for students. Learning about the flood of immigrants that arrived after a particular war and the personal and societal upheaval that accompanies immigration takes on a whole different dimension when someone you actually know was one of these immigrants. Students develop new respect (and sometimes even awe!) for neighbors and relatives often previously ignored. Teachers of two-language children and newcomers find that incorporating oral history projects into their social studies classrooms is a way of involving and validating the experience of students struggling with English and with a new culture. Of course, personal involvement increases motivation and engagement, and writing becomes a tool for thinking as students write down the questions, write down the answers, and construct the written summary of what was learned. The name oral history refers to how the student gathers the information but, for the student, oral history projects involve a lot of purposeful, focused writing.

Writing Your School’s History

Beverly Fazio (1992) describes a wonderful social studies writing project in which U.S. history students began their study of history with their own school. Using old school yearbooks, newspapers, minutes of school board meetings, and interviews with community members, students studied the history of the 84-year-old school. One of the respondents to their advertisement in the local newspaper soliciting information from bygone days was a 1918 graduate who told the students that their high school in her day had three grades and three teachers—one for each grade. The building that housed the high school had neither electricity nor plumbing. Men who had left school in the 1940s to fight the war came forward to decry the fact that they couldn’t graduate and to explain the lack of a football team during the war years—not enough male students left in school! (The article describing this school history project gives many details about how to proceed, along with other fascinating tidbits.)

Doing the school’s history involved oral history along with lots of other research using primary sources. Writing was involved in all stages of this project, which culminated in the printing of a real book, eagerly bought by students past and present. History and how historians “do” history was directly experienced by these lucky students of American history.