Historical Thinking = Writing Critically about Historical Stuff

Remember August? Warmth and sunshine? Shorts and T-shirts? Iced tea on the porch? Now in the depths of winter cold and dark, let’s revisit and reframe some of those August ideas about the relationship between historical and critical thinking. I have been reading and synthesizing a lot of information about writing in different disciplines in preparation for some work with teachers on improving students’ writing in content-area classrooms. Through all of this reading and thinking, I have come to this conclusion:


So if historical thinking = critical thinking about historical stuff, then:


Our students need to think and wrestle with historical questions and problems and then communicate their thinking in writing. I wonder if one reason our students struggle with writing is that they have nothing important to say! I think sometimes we push our students to produce “finished” writing too quickly before they have the opportunity to grapple with their ideas. In his book Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom, John C. Bean says that we need to “help our students see that academic writing involves intellectual and often emotional struggle. The struggle is rooted in the writer’s awareness that a problem exists—often dimly felt, unclarified, and blurry—and the writer’s thesis must be a tentative, risky proposition in response to that problem…” (23-24). Your students should see writing as a way to construct meaning and express their thinking in writing. Whether that writing is exploratory journaling or a polished essay, the starting point is having something to say. Without something to say, our students write either what they think we want to hear or what they can copy from Wikipedia. Neither option makes for great reading.

TH-LogoHow can we help our students develop something to say? Here are two resources from teachinghistory.org that you should check out. Writing to Learn: Annotations and Mini-Writes provides an example of using text annotations and mini-writes as a preparation and practice for more extensive writing on a historical question.

The other resource, Stating Your Case: Writing Thesis Statements Effectively is a DBQ-based lesson designed to help students understand what a thesis is and develop a thesis based on a series of primary sources. Both of these resources are probably most appropriate for middle school or high school, but the activities could be modified to other grade levels and other content. The purpose is to scaffold students’ historical thinking so that they can put their thinking down on paper. Their writing becomes part of the historical and critical thinking process.

I’d love to hear how you are integrating writing into your social studies content. Let the historical thinking begin!!


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