BHP Teacher, Washington, USA
BHP investigations are incredibly useful in teaching students how to write like historians. With freshman, it often takes a while to teach them how to write effectively in a social studies class. We’ve got a few of our own strategies that might come in handy as you teach your own students how to write. At Mt. Si, we’ve broken the process down into three steps:
Step 1: Basic writing skills and norms for historical writing
Step 2: Conducting research through document analysis
Step 3: Constructing an argumentative essay
Typically, we find that even great writers don’t yet have an understanding of how to write like a historian. So, first we establish the basics. Before diving into the essay, we thoroughly review and discuss the prompt with students, emphasizing the need for an argumentative thesis. Next, we review, as a class, exemplar historical and argumentative essays from past students. Here’s a student example. I often have students grade the sample essay based on my grading rubric. This gives students a feel for how their own essay will be assessed (and they just love criticizing other students’ work, so it goes over well). Big History provides a writing rubric. Here’s my writing rubric.
Once students are familiar with what a good argumentative essay looks like, we move on to analyzing historical texts. The goal is to identify the main point and any relevant evidence that will answer the prompt. Fortunately, when it comes to Step 2, students have all the documents they need in the investigation. These texts can be very challenging for students. So, we scaffold the reading process. First we tackle one document as a class and practice annotating the document, highlighting pertinent information, summarizing key points in the margins, and connecting it back to the Investigation prompt. Then the kids try on their own or in small groups. BHP provides some resources that can guide the analysis process, like this document analysis outline from Investigation 2. We’ve also created some of our own resources that are a little more detailed to help guide students through the analysis of complex source material.
Finally, students are ready to answer the Investigation prompt. We find that even after mastering Step 2, they have a difficult time organizing the information into a cohesive argument. So, once again, we break this process down into steps. First, we teach them how to write an outline. Here’s an outline template we’ve developed at our school to help guide this process. Using the Jane Schaffer method, we teach students to group two “CD”s, or concrete details, from the documents, together with a “CM”, or piece of commentary, to support their thesis with evidence and thoughtful explanation. We also use a more generic outline, such as this one for Investigation 2.
Getting the outline right allows students to transition more easily to constructing an argumentative thesis and, ultimately, a coherent essay. If possible, I highly recommend carving out time to read through each student’s thesis statement before they begin writing their essays. Often, we find that the thesis statements are too broad, too specific, or don’t address the prompt at all. We try and catch these early, avoiding essay catastrophes later on.
Tips and Tricks
Write the essay in class: Have students write their final essays in class. This enables them to become efficient writers and allows us to guide them through the process.
Turnitin.com: Have students upload the final essay to Turnitin.com. This online tool helps kids cite and use quotation marks properly, without succumbing to plagiarism. It has been a lifesaver for us as we teach kids the difference between using facts and stealing intellectual property.
Break down the rubric: This year, we started gradually adding focus points to the writing rubric throughout the year. We found that if you give the students a full rubric with all of your expectations at the beginning of the year, they just get overwhelmed. Instead, we gradually add in requirements each time they write an investigation. This gives the students the chance to master each skill.
I hope this quick guide will help you and your students with the investigations. They are challenging, but well worth your time.
Not yet a Big History teacher? Register for a free account on the Big History Project website to access the entire curriculum.