Writing Across the Curriculum
You know writing across the curriculum is important. Here's how to make it a reality.
Analyzing History through Multiple Perspectives
By the time students finish a social studies course, what skills should they have gained?
Beyond knowing about important events and figures in history, students should understand why events transpired. They should be able to evaluate evidence, investigate history through multiple documents and perspectives, and measure the impacts of events on modern society.
By scrutinizing claims and evidence – a process core to the argumentative writing process – students learn how to assess the causes and effects of historical events, and thus draw conclusions about issues or events with various interpretations. Social sciences like history can help students learn lessons from the past and apply their learnings to a better future.
Unfortunately, as students learn about history, it can be easy to view it through one lens.
“Students often believe that history is comprised of predetermined facts that form a finished story,” notes Chauncey Monte-Sano, associate professor at University of Michigan and a leading expert on argumentation in social studies. “They may sift through contradictory evidence by simply deciding that one account is true and another false, rather than questioning accounts or offering contradictory evidence.”
By writing arguments in social studies, however, students go through a process that explicitly requires consideration of multiple perspectives and evaluation of evidence.
Through the CERCA method, you can see how students are coached to gather valid evidence and investigate counterarguments – rather than simply dismiss contrary interpretations as simply “false.”
- State a CLAIM – Instead of just describing an issue or event, students take a position on it.
- Evaluate EVIDENCE – When students research evidence to support a claim, they must also take into account the validity of certain evidence. How reliable is it?
- Explain REASONING – Students must also explain why they’ve taken a position, and do so by explaining how the validated evidence supports their claim.
- Consider COUNTERARGUMENTS – Any historical event will have multiple perspectives. What do other points of view state? Students must acknowledge and understand these opposing viewpoints, and explain why their claim holds up nonetheless.
- Use AUDIENCE-appropriate language – Just as students examine the audience of historical texts, so must they keep their audience in mind when writing an argument. Who is the piece intended for? What language speaks to them?
Through this argumentative writing process, students evaluate multiple perspectives and evidence, which they can use to draw informed conclusions.
Preparing Students for Civic Life
By practicing literacy skills – like analysis and communication – through writing, students also hone the abilities that will help them to become truly engaged members of society.
American students, Chauncey Monte-Sano notes,
“Face a complex, global society in which they will face such questions as how the United States should handle international conflicts or whom they should vote for in the next presidential election. Such questions imply a need for analytical thinking in which citizens consider evidence and come to reasoned conclusions. Learning to write supports the preparation of citizens who are capable of disciplined inquiry. In particular, written argument allows the chance to examine the nexus between claim and evidence, which can often be elusive in speech.”
Writing in social studies helps students develop the analytical skills needed to make informed decisions as citizens. This connection between literacy and civic engagement is emphasized by the National Council for the Social Studies, which developed the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards.
“Reading, writing, speaking and listening and language skills are critically important for building disciplinary literacy and the skills needed for college, career, and civic life,” the C3 writers note. The four dimensions of the C3 Framework are aligned to literacy skills:
- Developing Questions and Planning Inquiries
- Applying Disciplinary Tools and Concepts
- Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence
- Communicating Conclusions and Taking Informed Action
The C3 team notes, based on Monte-Sano’s research, that when students encounter complex historical questions – such as questions involving multiple perspectives and contradictory statements – "students who write about their historical understandings and are coached on how to gradually build sound evidence-based arguments demonstrate a deeper grasp of how to address the questions posed."
In an interconnected world, with many policy decisions rooted in historical context, students need practice building evidence-based arguments to make informed civic decisions.
“Learning to write historically is inextricably bound to issues of social justice,” notes Monte-Sano. “Without this capacity, the doors of opportunity often remain closed: Children will not make it to college or flourish once they get there if they cannot write or argue effectively.”
Ideas and Activities to Practice Writing in Social Studies
- Ask students to annotate historical documents. Why was it written? Who was it written for? What was happening at the time? What do other texts from the time show? After one class critically analyzed historical texts, it “paved the way for them to argue and write,” Monte-Sano notes.
- Use the Inquiry Design Model to help students approach social studies through questioning. C3 Writers developed the Inquiry Design Model (with abundant resources available online) to help social studies classes engage with material through the lens of compelling and supporting questions. By framing discussions around inquiry, students can dig into evidence, claims, and multiple perspectives.
- Assign short, informal writing prompts and encourage students to focus on evidence and context. Then, discuss the document as a whole class, and call attention to evidence referenced by students. When a class followed this process, Monte-Sano writes, the “reading, discussion, and informal writing led to more formal writing assignments in which [the teacher] asked students to synthesize and interpret ideas across documents.”
- Choose a figure from history. Have students come up with adjectives that are often used to describe that figure. Then, have them dig into source material to determine whether those descriptors are valid. As UNC Charlotte Professor Bruce VanSledright describes, a teacher who asked her students to analyze the characterizations of Abraham Lincoln was able to use the activity to “[assess] the students primarily on their capacity to build an evidence-based account and demonstrate budding prowess in citing sources” in preparation for more in-depth assignments to come.
- Ask students to respond to a claim using two or more sources that take opposing stances on an issue. Doing so “presents history as evidence-based interpretation and gives students an opportunity to learn about the topic through questioning and analysis,” note C3 writers Monte-Sano, De La Paz, and Mark K. Felton.
Social Studies Writing Prompts
- Is total free speech necessary for a functional democracy? [Assign in ThinkCERCA]
- Was the greed and violence Columbus inflicted an inevitable outcome of the Old World meeting the New World? Why or why not? [Assign in ThinkCERCA]
- What New Deal policy lessons should the U.S. government adopt from the Great Depression? [Assign in ThinkCERCA]
- What is the most significant way that the aftermath of WWI still impacts modern geopolitical relations? [Assign in ThinkCERCA]
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