Social Sundays: Why I teach the Essay in Social Studies

While we do many creative projects and assessments, there are also several essays each year which require students either to do an essay on research they conducted or to write an argumentative (a.k.a. persuasive) essay.  Students learn how to write essays in English class.   This is how are system is set up.  Yet, I find that the essay writing skills that my students have learned elsewhere often don't get applied to papers in my class.  I haven't quite yet figured out why the organizational skills students develop in their English classes don't show up in Social Studies papers, but they often are absent.  Therefore, I have all my students complete an argumentative essay activity. 

Step 1: Five Points
In the weeks before this assignment, we play Five Points 2 or 3 times.  To start I set up five points in the room as "strongly agree", "agree", "neutral or no
opinion", "disagree", and  "strongly disagree."  You can put up actual signs or just tell the students at the beginning where each point is.  I like to place the "no opinion" in the middle of the room (NOTE: be sure to move desks, other flexible seating, etc. to the side of the room for maximum space to move around).  I read a statement such as "the president has the right to shut down any press organization that the president does not like."  Students go to the point they agree with.  I call on a couple of people to make their case.  The purpose of this is to get students thinking about taking a position on a topic and developing an argument in favor of that position.  I challenge students to think about research or other evidence rather than anecdotal stories to support their position.  We do 3 or 4 rounds each time we play.

Step 2: Forming an idea
We start again by taking a stance on a statement.  This time the statement relates to school start times for middle and high school students.  Students write their opinion either for or against later school start times and explain their opinion.

Step 3: Examining the evidence and re-examining one's stance
Now, I give students the evidence.  I have gathered research focused on what is known about student learning, sleep rhythms, later start times, academic performance and more.  I do the research for them here because the focus is on how to organize and compose the essay as well as select the evidence to support their thesis.  Later on in the year they will be doing their own research.  Students can examine a list of the evidence or individual cards.  The evidence is the same but some students prefer working with the cards.  Each student selects what works best for them.  After reading all the evidence, students can alter their stance if they like or keep what they already have.

Step 4: Organizing the evidence/Pre-write
Students now create a thesis statement and then develop 3 reasons to support the thesis.  For example, if the thesis is "Secondary schools should start later than they currently do" one supporting paragraph might discuss the sleep rhythms of teenagers and how it relates to when students are most likely to learn well.  Each reason is supported by multiple pieces of evidence.  We color code, sort, or mark in some other way the evidence being used to support each of the three reasons.  In this way students learn how to use their research in a logical format.

Step 5: The Introduction
We spend an entire class on the introduction.  We work on hooks, different structures of the introduction, and relating the introduction back to the reasons that will be given to support the thesis.  The introduction is like the beginning of the story.  We need to catch our reader's attention, invite them into the topic and then tell them are argument.

Step 6: Putting it all together
It's time for the first draft.  Students are often surprised at how fast this part goes.  They have done all the work.  It's merely a matter of putting all of their evidence from step 4 into sentences, adding in the introduction and conclusion, and then adding some transitions.  This can be an "aha" moment where students who have heard get organized finally see the value of outlines, graphic organizers and pre-writes. 

Step 7: Peer review, edit, final draft
I print each rough draft without names and pass them out to different students.  Each person peer reviews (not EDIT) 2 essays.  They are to focus on content, sentence structure, transitions, and clarity of argument.  This is not time to focus on the grammar and spelling.  My students are expected to do that part on their own.  After receiving the reviews, students write and edit final drafts.  

I know you are thinking that's a lot of time.  It is.  I decided that it is time well spent because:

  • Students write better papers than when I didn't do this activity.
  • Students learn how to write for content classes.
  • Social studies is not only about content.  It is also about skill development.
  • Writing well is a skill that will serve my students well when they are out arguing for a new policy (or some other lofty endeavor!)
If you want to try this in your classroom, you can download the five points activity for free here AND create your own essay topic/research or purchase everything you need here.

Social Sundays is a bi-weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message in the comments below or at the store in the question and answer section.  



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