Teaching Social Studies = Argument (but not that kind…)

I have been thinking a lot about argument this week. No, not that kind. I am getting along fine with parents, spouse, children neighbors, co-workers…at least, as far as I know. I am thinking about how we teach students to create and write arguments based on evidence from text. Using evidence to write an argument is all over the placed once you start looking for it: the C3 Framework, the NYS Social Studies Framework, the NYS Toolkit Inquiry Design Model and, course the Common Core Learning Standards for Literacy. I am also trying to include the idea of argument writing in the class I teach at SUNY Cortland (AED 310 Writing in Social Studies). The thing is – I was never explicitly taught how to do this. Ever. So my personal understanding of writing argument is inadequate, if not downright meager. So as I prepare for upcoming workshops and social studies curriculum work in the summer, I have started gathering resources that will help me think about not just what a good written argument, but how we teach our students a complex and demanding process.

This week I have been digging in to the book Reading. Thinking and Writing About History: Teaching Argument Writing to Diverse Learners in the Common Core Classroom, Grades 6-12 (Monte-Sano, De La Paz and Felton 2014). The book is based on research by the authors to develop curriculum and teaching strategies that would improve students’ ability to read sources, evaluate evidence, develop claims and then write arguments that present their thinking supported be evidence from the sources. Not too shabby. I have read other work by Monte-Sano and found that she is able to cut right to the heart of understanding of historical thinking, teaching and learning.

This book lays out a teaching plan for six “Historical Investigations” along with teaching tools for disciplinary literacy practices. Caveat emptor: this book is not easy. It looks easy, but it’s not. It is a lot of information packed in a deceptively slim volume. But, I am learning A LOT about writing argument and how to scaffold the reading and writing process for students. As a literacy specialist, I appreciate the disciplinary literacy tools for reading, annotating and analyzing text and for planning and writing an argument essay. I also appreciate the models of annotation and essays as well as the samples of student work. The investigations are based on U.S. History, but the process and templates could be adapted to any grade of topic. I’m thinking Toolkit Inquiries here folks!

Here are some selected excerpts from the book that have caught my eye so far, and my thinking in a double entry journal format:

“Three concepts form the foundation for integrating literacy and history into the curriculum: Historical interpretation or argument is a central aim in studying history; analyzing and questioning historical sources and artifacts are crucial to historical learning; and in studying history, reading, thinking, and writing are interconnected.” (6) Studying history and social studies is ALL about reading and writing! I appreciate the importance the authors placed on the explicit teaching of kids how to read, write and think.
“By offering debatable questions and conflicting sources, the study of history is framed as a process of inquiry and analysis rather than recording and reporting fixed knowledge…Our emphasis on inquiry is intended to shift the conventional focus of history classroom, not dismiss it entirely.” (9-10) I am thinking about Grant Wiggins’ post about what he sees as the overuse of in social studies classrooms. Lecturing is can definitely be a teaching tool, but it is not the only one. Building knowledge through inquiry, modeling, and group work have an important place in the classroom. I am interested to see how this will work in the Toolkit Inquiries.
“In thinking about the central question and practicing literacy strategies, they [students] begin to realize that each strategy is not an end in itself, but a part of a process leading to an evidence-based argument.” (94) Awesome! Literacy strategies should always be a means to an end – the end being comprehension and critical thinking.
“…we deliberately framed questions in an either/or format in order to present developmentally appropriate tasks. In working with struggling middle-schoolers…we realized that interpreting history and making argument are slippery concepts. Since open-ended “why” questions get students to ponder what’s being asked , but offer no clues for how to frame a response, students tend to fall back on their default mechanism of reporting information. Instead, closed either/or questions will lead students toward posing an argument; as they respond directly to the prompt, the prompt itself gives them the language to make the claim.” (105) This has come up in discussions about the Inquiry Design Model (the official name of the Toolkit Inquiry process) and why the Compelling Questions seem to be yes/no questions. This is different from what I know about “Essential Questions” and it makes sense to me. Maybe open-ended questions are too open for novice learners.

I haven’t finished reading yet – two more investigations to go and a chapter on assessing students’ historical thinking – but so far, I think that this will be a go-to resource in the coming weeks and months. Look for it at a workshop near you!


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