Serious academic writing in middle school social studies

A couple years ago, Glenn Wiebe shared on his History Tech blog information from a conference presentation that I tucked away to follow up sometime.

Leslie Duhaylongsod, who at the time was teaching at the Winsor School in Boston, shared at the 2008 National Council for the Social Studies how she uses what she called argument writing with middle school students in her history classes. I’m not sure her students incorporated the refutation element that marks argument, but they clearly used thesis-and-support.

Duhaylongsod had students develop nonfiction thesis statements, find evidence for them, and explain how their evidence supports their thesis. From a writing teachers standpoint, it is useful to look at some thesis statements she shared at the conference:

  • The geography of Greece was an advantage of Ancient Greece.
  • The geography of Greece negatively impacted the lives of the Ancient Greeks.
  • Geography led to development of democracy.
  • Geography of Greece helped the ancient Greeks become powerful.

Wiebe reported that Duhaylongsod said the most difficult part of the work for her students was developing patience to deal with the frustration of writing on intellectually challenging topics.

Those of us who teach writing rather than history can learn from Duhaylongsod’s efforts. She  required serious intellectual work from middle school students. Granted, she taughts at a private school and didn’t have the hodgepodge of students that populate public school classrooms. However, that doesn’t mean the public school teachers shouldn’t be pushing their students for learning adequate only for blackening bubbles on multiple choice tests.

Also, instead of letting them choose any topic that interested them, Duhaylongsod required students to choose topics within her discipline. That kind of authentic writing rarely happens in the English classroom at any level from middle school through associate degree except for writing assignments about literature.

I believe Duhaylongsod is now in an education doctoral program at Harvard University. She has been presenting at various conferences this spring (NARST, AERA) on a team lead by Harvard Associate Professor of Education Tina Grotzer. The researchers are investigating how how children reason about the nature of causality.

Wiebe is a member of the Curriculum Development Team of ESSDACK (the Educational Services and Staff Development Association of Central Kansas).

[Broken links removed 2/26/2014; updated link 2/03/2016]