Academic journal article Social Education

Creative Writing in the Social Studies Classroom: Promoting Literacy and Content Learning

Academic journal article Social Education

Creative Writing in the Social Studies Classroom: Promoting Literacy and Content Learning

Article excerpt

When asked in a recent Gallup Poll survey to describe how they felt about school, most middle- and high-school students said they felt "bored." (1) If we consider students' average day, this response is hardly surprising. All too often, teenagers drift through their school days in a fog of passive receptivity. They are told when to go to class, when to go to lunch, when to take out their notebooks, and when to circle in bubbles with a Number 2 pencil. When a bell rings, they pick up backpacks stuffed with textbooks weighing 15 pounds or more, and move to the next class. They sit, they take notes, and they take tests. On occasion, they might be asked to participate in a discussion, but most often the class is over before topics can be explored in real depth.

Teachers do the best they can within a system that moves students through on an assembly line of learning. They try to engage students in the content, and they try to promote literacy, but there is so little time and so much information to cover. Meanwhile, the end-of-course tests cast a shadow over the classroom, because so much rests on ensuring that students perform well on mandated examinations.

In all this, students exert very little control. They learn about the Civil War because it's the next chapter in the book, not because they are interested in this pivotal event in American history. They learn about geometry because it's the next math subject in the sequence, not because geometric patterns are found throughout the natural world and can help us understand our world better. They tend to learn about sentence structure, not so they can be better communicators, but so they can get through the statewide writing assessment. In all this, students act as passive receptacles, as sponges. Is it any wonder that they are bored?

Writing: A Tool for Connecting with the Content

The desire to generate something new, something unique, is inherent in every human being. Most high-school students' notebooks are filled with doodles, drawings, song lyrics, poetry, or random words that have meaning only for the writer. Among adolescents, the urge to create is strong. However, today's test-centered curriculum tends to beat that urge to submission. As educators, we must encourage students' creative energies and enable them to engage with content in new and stimulating ways.

One way to help students really learn about the concepts inherent in the social studies is to have them write. We must ask them to interact with ideas, to play with them, to explore them and to use them to generate something new, something creative. When you integrate creative writing into your classroom, you help students develop important literacy skills, and you help them learn to see concepts in new and unique ways.

If given a blank sheet of paper, many of us would find it difficult to generate something creative. But if that sheet of paper included the directions "Write down everything you think of when you think of the word 'sorrow,'" we could probably come up with a word or two. This same guidance can transform a unit on the Civil War, with the teacher asking students to: "Imagine you are a Confederate soldier who has just seen his or her best friend killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. Write a brief letter to your friend's parents, telling them about the battle." If the students were then asked to combine their letter with a partner's, they would generate an entire page. In essence, even the stodgiest of us can be creative, but we need direction; we need something to write about. Luckily, the social studies subjects we teach in middle and high schools are filled with grist for creative writing. But the writing isn't an end unto itself. Rather, it's a means by which students can interact with ideas and information, a tool by which they can explore the content by creating something new and unique.

A typical Civil War unit, for example, offers a range of possible creative writing activities:

* Letters home from soldiers on both sides

* Letters to soldiers from those left behind (parents, girlfriends)

* Handbills advocating one position or another

* Military recruitment posters

* Abolitionist tracts

* Letters to the editor supporting or decrying specific events

* Speeches to be delivered by notable figures (e. …

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