IF YOU TEACH HISTORY, YOU TEACH WRITING

Anita K. Ravi, BHP Expert
California, U.S.A.

Tableta_con_trillo

Limestone tablet from Kish (Sumer) with pictographic writing, 3500 BC; may be the earliest known writing. Ashmolean Museum. Public Domain.

Have you ever had those days (or weeks) when you think to yourself, “When did I become the writing teacher? When can I go back to just teaching history?” The longer we teach history, the more we realize that we are indeed teachers of reading and writing as much as we are teachers of history. This is because the acts of reading, writing, and reasoning are central to the discipline of history. They are the three main vehicles used by historians to make sense of the past and to construct viable, believable narratives about the past. Writing in history is a constructivist act, involving making a claim or argument, and then effectively supporting that claim with evidence while relating the evidence to the overall claim. However, moving from reading and discussion to writing can be challenging. We know from research on learning that discussion is a critical step toward writing because it allows students to try out ideas out loud before committing them to the page. Well-structured, text-based discussions engage students in connecting their claims or theories about something to the evidence at hand. Second, students need practice with writing every day. At the beginning, during, or at the end of class, students need opportunities to try out historical reasoning in writing. When writing becomes a daily routine, rather than a rare event, students are more likely to be engaged, not intimidated, when asked to write essays in history class.

By now, you’ve noticed that the units in the Big History Project course and the Investigations at the end of each unit are organized around big driving questions that are typically “why” or “how” types of questions, such as “Was farming an improvement over foraging?” (Unit 7). These Investigations require students to read, analyze, and question multiple sources in order to produce a claim or an argument in response to the framing question. The first step into an Investigation is to really unpack the question with students: What is this question really asking? Is it a comparison question? Is it a causation question, which would require me to talk about causes and effects? Is it a change-over-time question, which would require me to organize my response chronologically? Breaking down the Investigation question will help students understand both the structure for their writing and the purpose for writing. Establishing this up front will help students begin their source analysis with the end goal in mind.

The task of forming an answer to a historical question means we have to have a claim, or a working answer, to that question in mind as we examine various sources. As we work through each piece of evidence, we have to measure what we learn about that source against our working claim. So in our example of farming versus foraging, our working claim may be yes, farming was indeed an improvement over foraging. As we come to analyze evidence, we will need to ask: Does this source confirm my theory? Why or why not? What else does it tell me about the life of early humans and how they fed themselves? This is why—in each Investigation—the BHP course materials provide a set of questions alongside each source under “things to think about.” This helps students engage in the process of interrogating and analyzing the evidence against their working theory in order to make sense of what may seem like a messy set of artifacts from the past.

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