Magazine article Social Studies Review

Exploring Disciplinary Literacy: Academic Writing in History Classes

Magazine article Social Studies Review

Exploring Disciplinary Literacy: Academic Writing in History Classes

Article excerpt

In my role as a teacher-consultant of the Great Valley Writing Project (GVWP), I was involved in beginning implementation of the Common Core State Standards English Language Arts (CCSS ELA) for Literacy in History (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) soon after their release. But driving home with a history colleague after attending an Improving Students Academic Writing (ISAW) meeting sponsored by the California Writing Project, we said, a bit disappointed, "That was pretty 'Eng- lish-y,' don't you think?" While the CCSS ELA respected our disciplinary literacy, we weren't sure our English Language Arts colleagues even knew about it - and worse yet, we weren't sure we could explain it to them.

That's why, using what I learned from my work with UC Davis History Project and with the support of my writing project director, I began to combine my experiences with both projects to advocate for two notions: 1 ) history has its own literacy practices that we must learn and teach others to know and respect; and 2) history teachers need to take responsibility for developing the disciplinary literacy practices of their students.

Working with a small group of like-minded history teachers at Merrill F. West High School in Tracy, we began to explore "disciplinary literacy practices in history." In 2012, our group received a Teacher-Based Reform (T-BAR) professional development grant to focus on teaching writing in history (California State University, Chico, 2013). We used most of the funds to buy the time of teacher-consultants from the writing project and the history project to guide us in reading research, learning teaching strategies, planning lessons and units, and studying students' writing. History project consultants worked with us to implement methods teaching students to think, read, and write like historians. Our writing project colleagues gave us ideas for constructing arguments and practicing writing daily, as a way of thinking. Taken together, these practices created the foundation of our approach to teaching our students academic writing in history.

Year One

In this piece, you'll get a look into our work with students in the first year of the grant, the challeng- es we faced, and what we learned and changed for year two. I'll use the examples of four focal students' work in a lesson I taught about Kennedy's support of civil rights, based on documents from the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). These students were in an 11 th grade U.S. history course; three students were English Language Learners, one was English Only. All considered themselves to be college-bound, but only one was on track for graduation.

Lesson #1: Reading Like an Historian is Really Important

On the first day of our grant-funded activities, we read excerpts from a study of history writing in high school (Monte-Sano, 2008). We realized we were asking students to write (compose information) before we had given them enough time and support to read (gather and understand information). From that moment, we changed the plan for the first year of our two-year grant. We couldn't ask students to write without focusing first on reading. We resolved to spend much more time the first year teaching students to read historical documents. We framed reading documents with three procedures: sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization. (Wineburg, 1991)

We knew from our formative assessments and observations that students read cursorily and un- derstood little from the documents. They jumped straight from this reading to telling us what they felt and believed about the topic, but did not think about what the creator of the document was trying to say. So we started from scratch. We prepared lessons in which students could practice reading skills, understand content, and learn language all at the same time. We taught students to read, re-read, persist, annotate, re-read, summarize, paraphrase, re-read, deconstruct, and interpret what they read. …

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