Writing Poetry in the Elementary Social Studies Classroom


George Maxim

Why should elementary school children write in the social studies? According to Shane Templeton, “Children do not learn to write by working exclusively on exercises in grammar texts; they primarily learn to write by writing.”1 If this is true, elementary teachers have a special responsibility—and an opportunity—to create diverse avenues for children to experience writing. The social studies curriculum offers one rich context for students to write frequently and for different purposes. It is an environment “as appropriate for writing as the gym is for basketball.”2


Common Forms of Writing in Elementary Classrooms

One of the most prevalent contexts for writing in the social studies is expository writing, which has been defined as “explanatory writing, the presentation of facts, ideas, or opinions, as in short forms like the [informational report, book report, or biography].”3 Teachers who think social studies writing should be primarily expository might answer the opening question by saying, “Children should write in social studies to record or report information about a particular topic under study. Writing is functiona#151;it enables students to organize or express what they have learned.”

Teachers appear to value expository writing over all other forms in the elementary social studies classroom.4 They use expository writing strategies because they are convinced that the essence of the scientific method is precise observation, accurate data collection, orderly analysis of data, and clear communication of relevant information. Because a major goal of social studies instruction is to help children examine information in the way social scientists do, writing about what they learn should be a very important part of the curriculum.

A second form of writing commonly observed in elementary social studies classrooms is expressive writing. Teachers who advocate its central role in the social studies might respond to the opening question by saying, “The way to encourage children to write is to have them write personal stories that arise from their learning experiences. They need to learn ways to make ideas grow from a background of topics they have been studying.”

Norton defines expressive writing as, “very close to speech and, consequently, very close to the writer. It is relaxed and intimate. It reveals the writer and verbalizes his or her
consciousness... Expressive writing is frequently characterized as thinking aloud on paper.”5 There are many forms of expressive writing employed in social studies programs, but those used most frequently are diaries and journals, learning logs, stories about personal experiences, biographies, historical fiction, realistic fiction, folktales, and letters to real and imaginary people. Some advocate that children’s earliest writing activity should be in the expressive genre and, from this starting point, move on to expository writing.6


Creative Writing in the Social Studies

Children also enjoy writing in purely imaginative ways, although this is seldom practiced in elementary social studies classrooms. Teachers who believe that the essential purpose of writing is to encourage higher-order thinking might respond to the opening question with a comment like, “Students write in the social studies to create ideas; the creative process rather than the written product itself is what makes writing a worthy activity in the social studies.”

Creative, or imaginative, writing is intended not only to communicate information, but also to express original ideas that are the personal product of the child’s experience and imagination. Murray states that creative writing “not only communicates information, it makes the reader care about the information, it makes him feel, it makes him experience, it gets under his skin.”7 Because the purpose of imaginative writing is often thought to be to delight or entertain, the process is primarily encouraged during language arts or literacy classes, where the mechanics of skillful writing are encouraged.

As important as these mechanics are, it should also be understood that children’s perceptions of the life around them and their discovery of meaning are an essential part of learning. The discoveries unearthed while engaged in social studies themes and topics can provide a rich content background for creative writing. Proett and Gill emphasize that the creative process is comprised of two major considerations:


Seen in one way, [the writing process] is the flowing of words onto the page, easily, naturally, rapidly. But it is also a time of making decisions, of choosing what to tell and what to leave out...of determining what order, what structure, what word works best. In some ways, these functions even seem contradictory; the first needs to be fluid and fast while the other calls for deliberation and reason. The teaching task is to help the writer coordinate these two functions.8


One of the most powerful methods for encouraging creative writing in the social studies is to involve children in poetry, a form of writing that allows individuals to concoct word pictures as they express ideas in highly original ways. “Poetry turns a unique lens on the world, making the ordinary special,” notes Templeton. “Appropriately presented, it can inspire in children special reflections on the way things are, on themselves, and on others.”9 Graves asserts that poetry “brings sound and sense together in words and lines, ordering them on the page in such a way that both the writer and reader get a different view of life.”10

Two forms of poetry are especially apt for the social studies classroom: free-form verse, in which children choose words freely to express their thoughts without concern for rhyme or a particular structure; and structured poetry, using such forms as haiku, tanka, senyru, diamante, or cinquain to help students convey ideas about the topics they are studying. The remainder of this article describes the use of cinquain in a fourth-grade thematic unit on the Southwestern United States.


Cinquains on the Life of a Vaquera

In this unit on the Southwest, the first stage of the writing process was exploring the topic. To help students begin, the teacher carefully prepared a variety of fact-finding experiences. The emphasis of the unit was on the land and its people, and one section dealt with early Spanish settlers and life on their ranchos (large cattle ranches). The focus of learning was on vaqueras (female cattle workers)11 and vaqueros (male cattle workers), expert riders who spent most of their day on horseback rounding up cattle. To help children learn about these rancho workers, the teacher chose a quality resource from children’s literature: Carlota by Scott O’Dell.12 As students collected information from the book, they organized it on an information-processing web titled “Life of a Vaquera.”

The second step in the writing process was brainstorming and organizing information into categories relevant to the final product. Since the form of expression chosen was the cinquain—a structured five-line poem—these categories of information needed to correspond to the basic pattern of cinquain. In fact, there are many cinquain patterns; the one used for this activity appears in Figure 1 and consists of:

n a first line with one word or short phrase naming the theme

n a second line with two words describing the theme

n a third line with three words denoting actions related to the theme

n a fourth line with four words naming things associated with the theme

n a fifth line that uses one word or short phrase to repeat the theme

In order to generate ideas for each line of the cinquain, the teacher divided the class into three groups to brainstorm ideas about the life of a vaquera. One group focused on words that describe vaqueras; another group generated action (doing) words related to vaqueras; and a third group listed things associated with these cattle workers. After ten minutes or so of enthusiastic deliberation, each group chose a representative to place its word inventory on a large sheet of chart paper. The contents of the charts were as follows:


Describing Words: expert rider, skillful, lonely, tired, hardworking, Spanish, and—in the case of the vaquera—woman cowboy

Doing Words: roping, herding, riding, camping out, tending cattle, branding, and rounding up

Vaquera Things: reata (rope), silla (saddle), chaparreras (chaps), rancho, blanket, horse, spurs, cattle, cattle drive, stampede, hat, and bandana


Students now had a rich word bank for selecting words for a cinquain.

Now the teacher made a switch, asking the “Vaquera Things” group to choose two words from the “Describing Words” chart, the “Describing Words” group to choose three words from the “Doing Words” chart, and the “Doing Words” group to choose four words from the “Vaquera Things” chart. Another lively discussion ensued as children argued strongly for their personal choices of words for the poem.

The third phase of the writing continuum—composing a group mode#151;began with the teacher posting a large sheet of chart paper showing the form of the cinquain. On the top line, the teacher wrote the word identifying the theme under study, “Vaquera.” Next came the two describing words that students chose: “hard working” and “expert rider.” The action words selected for line three were “roping,” “herding,” and “rounding up,” and the list of vaquera things consisted of “rancho,” “mustang,” “reata,” and “stampede.”

“Try to think of another word for vaquera for the last blank,” was the teacher’s last challenge. The class decided on “rancho worker” as the best term to define this role. The results of the group effort are shown in Figure 2.

During the fourth stage of the writing process—editing and rewriting—students read the cinquain together to determine whether any changes were appropriate. The class decided to add commas separating items, and to capitalize the first word in each line. After making these revisions, students again chorused their creation.

To prepare for the next stage of the writing process—individual writing—the teacher helped students to analyze the pattern of the group’s cinquain. “How many blank spaces do you see on each line?” “What kinds of words are used on each line?” “How do the words help paint a mental picture of what we have been learning about life in the Southwest?”

The final stage of the writing process was publishing. The teacher had already prepared a large bulletin board for a display titled “Poetry Roundup.” It had a picture of a vaquera twirling a rawhide reata above her head, and a herd of cartoon-like cattle large enough for each to hold a 4" x 5" piece of paper. After reading their cinquains to the class, students came forward to staple them to the sides of the cattle.

The instructional sequence for creative writing in the social studies is summarized in Figure 3.



Most elementary classrooms use expository and expressive writing as the two major forms of writing in the social studies. There is plenty or room to integrate creative writing strategies as well. By encouraging children to experiment with the written word in the context of themes in the social studies, we help them realize that language can be used to communicate knowledge clearly and to express ideas imaginatively. Creative writing should be accepted as a natural element of social studies instruction—a treasured tool for pleasurable learning. v




1. Shane Templeton, Teaching the Integrated Language Arts (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 230.

2. Donald Murray, in Nancie Atwell, In the Middle (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987), 54.

3. Northrup Frye, Sheridan Baker, and George Perkins, The Harper Handbook to Literature (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 184.

4. James Britton, Tony Burgess, Nancy Martin, Alex McLeod and Harold Rosen, The Development of Writing Abilities, Schools Council Research Studies (London: MacMillan, 1975), 11-18; Arthur N. Applebee, “Writing and Reasoning,” Review of Educational Research 54 (Winter 1984): 577-596.

5. Donna E. Norton, The Effective Teaching of Language Arts (Columbus, OH: Merrill/Prentice Hall, 1997), 499-500.

6. Britton et al.

7. Donald Murray, “The Listening Eye: Reflections on the Writing Conference,” College English 41 (1979), 253.

8. Jackie Proett and Kent Gill, The Writing Process in Action: A Handbook for Teachers (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1986), 11.

9. Templeton, 264.

10. Donald H. Graves, Explore Poetry (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992), 3.

11. In this article, the female form, vaquera, is used to refer to rancho workers of both sexes.

12. Scott O’Dell, Carlota (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).


George Maxim is professor of elementary education at West Chester University, West Chester, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Social Studies and the Elementary School Child, a textbook published by Prentice Hall.