Social Education 58(1), 1994, pp. 39-40, ©1994 National Council for the Social Studies

Using Formal and Informal Writing in Middle School Social Studies

Kim O'Day
"Would it be okay if I do a quick prewrite on the back of this test before I begin?" Something had finally clicked in class that morning. After I nodded yes to Ryan, several other students flipped their papers over, while others jotted what they knew in rough form before tackling the test questions. When Ryan wrote before taking a test, he understood the connection between writing and thinking, between writing and learning. He concentrated upon his knowledge for himself as audience.
Teachers can combine such informal writing with formal writing to deepen student learning and to demonstrate the relationship between writing and social studies. Historians report; geographers and anthropologists record observations; and psychologists develop statements or analyses based upon data they have logged. Students use writing to prepare for a test or discussion, to explore their knowledge or feelings, to log what they know, or to create a historical narrative. In this way, students experience the importance of writing in social studies.

Using Writing to Encourage Thinking
Since I have worked in small-school settings with limited staffs, I have often taught several or all subjects to the same middle school students. I teach the writing process in language arts. Then, I make use of aspects of the writing process, for example, peer conferencing, to build student confidence and interest in the content areas.

Too often, class discussions involve a teacher and mainly three or four dominant students. However, if the teacher provides a few minutes for students to gather ideas in their notebooks before a discussion, the number of willing participants and the depth and level of detail will increase. In this case, prewriting has functioned as prethinking. In my classes, more passive students who rarely entered discussions in the past usually now, through a prewrite, have the time and ability to carefully think out a concept or question.

Frequently, students write for the instructor only. In such cases, students must learn the intricacies of text development. Too often this can become an exercise in artful plagiarism if the student has not practiced with writing as a tool for thinking. Informal, ungraded writing can provide such practice. This sort of writing turns a notebook in any discipline into a learning log that goes beyond lecture notes and chapter review questions. Individuals or small groups can rephrase dif&Mac222;cult concepts or content into a passage directed at an imagined third-grade audience, as seen in Figure 1. This process of creating a simpli&Mac222;ed version increases student comprehension and retention. It can also promote comparing history to current events. A simplified version of the concept of Manifest Destiny, for example, could lead to a comparison/contrast with the conßict in the former Yugoslavia.

Geographers, psychologists, and other specialists in social studies must constantly update their knowledge. Students face the same challenge. Information quickly becomes obsolete in today's world. The learner then must passively accept or independently replace the outdated subject matter. By joining thinking and writing, the teacher helps turn the responsibility of learning over to the students.

Writing Encourages Independent Learning
Writing also provides a tool for the outcome of independent learning. When a student lists what he or she knows before reading about a new topic, this student-generated list bridges the unfamiliar with the familiar. In one example, students first wrote what they knew about the Mexican-American War. After the teacher read aloud two paragraphs from the encyclopedia, this student was able to extend her list and also to define what she needed to learn. Prewrites and drafts exploring the Mexican perspective before and during the Mexican-American War also broadened the student's perspective on that episode. In this way, the learner can identify underlying causes and effects of the war that also apply to other conflicts in the history of America's growth.

Purpose and audience will help determine how much time and care need to go into any writing. Not everything must become a &Mac222;nished essay (to the student's delight) or a graded piece of writing (to the teacher's relief). My students may jot notes in a cluster or webbed list to compare an older encyclopedia or text's language choices with a current entry while studying the Boston Massacre. See Figure 2 for an example.

Through their own reading and writing, students can learn to find evidence of author bias. They then use these notes as a springboard to create similarly slanted language to present a point of view in opposition to the author's. Their understanding of history increases when students explore the role of attitudes or feelings in historical events. Students can read about the event easily enough; writing, whether it is critical, narrative, or interpretive, propels them into also analyzing the event.

Teachers can use lists or focused writing to help students identify for themselves what they have just learned. These techniques, when designed to promote critical thinking, build fluency in writing and depth in thought because the writing and thinking processes are parallel. Such practice in writing and thinking eases the transition to formal assignments. Prewrites or prethinks can become drafts, which then develop into final pieces. Students can refine understanding of subject matter through various formats1:

If a class attempts a new mode of writing (such as a biopoem), rehearsal will lessen the sting. The entire class could generate a prewrite and then a draft for a biopoem of a particular figure (with the teacher's guidance). (See Figure 3.) In another class session, if necessary, small groups could create biopoems for different figures of history or current events. In his biopoem on John Brown, Aaron still needs to correct the spelling, but he certainly has captured the essence of the man (Figure 4).

Raising Teachers' Comfort Level
The quality or quantity of student writing too often relies upon the presence or absence of a teacher's inhibitions about writing. For many of us who teach, our writing as students involved 100 lines of a punishment sentence or an essay decorated with red marks to show errors in spelling or grammar. We can ease the pressure of writing for ourselves and our students by starting with familiar topics that students working in groups of three or four can tackle quickly. Complexity of thinking and writing can increase gradually. Instead of assigning only specific grades, teachers can evaluate many writings on a pass/rewrite basis with a brief comment appended.

In many subject areas, teachers may feel apprehensive about including writing in their instruction. As instructors, our previous training seldom effectively or sufficiently dealt with any method of written composition. Many teachers, in fact, dread having to evaluate finished pieces. But just as we emphasize collaborative learning today, we should embrace collaborative teaching. Content area instructors can use what the language arts instructor teaches, but this can go further. Communication between the disciplines leads to sharing and benefitting from problems and successes. An English teacher and a social studies teacher, for example, could develop beginning criteria for evaluating written assignments. Perhaps one grade could be given for what is said and another for how it is said.

It is challenging to alter one's view of oneself as an instructor. The traditional function of transmitting information has expanded into using subject matter to help the student develop into a critical and independent learner. For this to happen, teachers, like students, need to become comfortable with writing. Students may gain confidence through rehearsal of a concept or a writing mode; the same is true for any instructor. Teachers can also start out small and build their use of writing gradually.

Writing, whether informal or formal, acts as a tool or partner of learning, improving the student's ability to work and think. The instructor can design writing activities to reflect the real-life use of writing in various fields of social studies. Finally, writing can build a learner's independence, showing the student how to assist in his or her own learning.

1 See "Writing to Learn History," as well as the glossary, in Roots in the Sawdust (Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1985).

Beaman, Bruce. "Writing to Learn Social Studies." In Roots in the Sawdust, edited by Ann Ruggles Gere. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1985.Fulwiler, Toby. "The Argument for Writing Across the Curriculum." In Writing Across the Disciplines: Research into Practice, edited by Art Young and Toby Fulwiler. Upper Montclair, N.J.: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 1986.Graves, Donald H. "Balance the Basics: Let Them Write." In Papers on Research About Learning. New York: Ford Foundation, 1978.Watson, Tom. "Writing to Learn History." In Roots in the Sawdust, edited by Ann Ruggles Gere. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1985.Kim O'Day is an eighth grade teacher at a parochial school in Florence, Kentucky. She has been involved in curriculum development and teacher training for writing across the curriculum.