Scaffolding the History Essay
A MiddleWeb Blog
“Was the Revolutionary War justified?”
Often a classroom debate over a question like the one above will convince a teacher that they have succeeded in promoting critical analysis in their classroom. With the teacher acting as referee and coach, students raise salient points and support them with evidence from a variety of texts.
Afterward, the instructor will feel that getting students to commit their ideas to paper in the form of an organized essay is merely a formality. Instead, we educators are reminded that “pride cometh before the fall.”
Writing a thesis-driven essay using evidence from a variety of texts is a challenge for most middle school students, regardless of their background. The problem may be more acute at schools like my own, where most of the students read significantly below grade level, but it is only a matter of degree.
Some of what I have discovered works for my students may be redundant for those whose students do not struggle with reading or suffer from a dearth of background knowledge, but any student who struggles with writing an evaluative piece can benefit from a structured writing assignment.
Narrow the Focus
Posed in a college seminar, a question about the ultimate causes of the Civil War could spark a two-hour debate pitting the concept of popular sovereignty against ideas about universal human rights. Some might eschew this false dichotomy altogether to propose that it was ultimately the attempt of each branch of the federal government to assert its dominance over the other two that eventually led to impasse and dissolution.
As a history student, these debates are invigorating. As a middle level history teacher, such thinking can be counter-productive. We must remember that most of our students often have a limited store of discrete knowledge about the content being evaluated. Additionally, writing using textual evidence is usually new to middle school students as well. Asking students to assimilate new knowledge and then immediately reassemble it into an unfamiliar format is already daunting. We can make the essay itself less daunting by providing structured choices for the students.
For my students, this choice is always binary. Every unit is centered on an essential question for which I provide a simple dichotomy:
- “Who were the good guys during the American Revolution?” (British/American Colonists)
- “Why was the United States Constitution written?” (To control us/To promote justice)
- “How should Americans feel about Manifest Destiny?” (Like/Dislike)
As college-educated adults, we understand these questions have more complex answers. However, my students struggle with reading comprehension, so locating evidence alone presents a challenge. When I provide the possible viewpoints up front, students can focus their energy looking for specific evidence to support one case or another. Even if they pick their point of view at random, they are still learning to seek evidence to support a thesis statement.
A few of these students will even change their minds if they feel like they cannot find sufficient evidence to support their original claim. Students learn to view historical texts as bodies of evidence supporting a particular point of view, rather than factual narratives to be taken at face value. Changing the dominant student view of history as a litany of irrefutable facts is an essential step in promoting evaluative skills in students.
Teach the Controversy
To successfully introduce the idea that history is a series of arguments supported by evidence, students must be able to recognize and locate evidence on their own. Because the skill is new to many students, I make certain that the available evidence is in discrete, easy to find chunks.
When I write texts for my students (download two examples above: Monroe Doctrine and US/Mexico), I make a point of including an equal amount of specific evidence to support both of the possible views. If students read texts I have not written, I use excerpts from more than one author.
Every assignment involving a text requires students to locate specific facts or ideas and decide how they feel about each element individually. In my unit on Manifest Destiny, students must “like” or “dislike” different aspects of American Expansion. By the time the students are working on the essay assignment, they have expressed nearly a dozen opinions based on specific evidence found in various texts. For the students who struggle with writing and analysis, the thesis can basically come down to counting up the total “likes” and “dislikes,” and going with the greater number.
The purpose of this scaffolding is not to stultify the creative or analytical potential of my students. Limiting the scope of a historical argument allows students to think deeply about why they support a particular answer to the essential question.
Requiring students to take a side forces them to carefully evaluate their reactions to texts and lectures throughout the unit. If only two choices are available, students who have failed to thoroughly consider their opinions will find obvious inconsistencies in their arguments. This reinforces the idea that historical narratives should be actively interpreted rather than passively accepted.
There is always at least one student who looks at the available choices and rejects them both. He or she will express a more nuanced opinion about the historical material being considered and support this idea with a sophisticated understanding of the evidence. What is the best course of action when confronted with this student? Do a jig. Give the student a high five. Congratulate the parents for doing such a fine job. Then, with careful guidance, allow the student to construct her or his own thesis.
If the student gets bogged down, encourage them to take on a simplified thesis, and then help them build toward complexity from there. Ideally, more than one student is prepared to write their own thesis after being exposed to several structured writing assignments. The idea is not to leave any student completely behind as each comes to their own conclusions about the subjects under investigation.
Even those students who never quite make the leap to creating their own theses in your class will be more analytical when reading and thinking about history. The goal is to get the students moving in the direction of evaluation and allow them to continue in that direction at their own pace.