The Social Studies’ Dilemma: Integrating Writing Without Losing Focus

By Wayne D’Orio

Here’s an experiment to try with anyone you know who teaches social studies. Mention writing across the curriculum and the extinction of the five-paragraph essay and chances are they’ll be nodding up and down before you even complete your thought.

Yes, schools are demanding more writing from students and lots of that writing is expected to take place in social studies classes. What hasn’t changed is the amount of time social studies teachers have to correct papers, especially the longer assignments that call for a more detailed review. While this is a familiar conundrum, there really isn’t an easy answer, experts say.

“The nature of what writing looks like in social studies has changed in the past decade,” says Lawrence M. Paska, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. Most schools now want students to analyze multiple sources of information, draw a conclusion about a question and use documents to support their position, he adds.

Paska says teachers should give students feedback that is formative, immediate, and purposeful. But those are three hard goals to meet, says Thomas Birbeck, the instructional coach for California’s Fremont Unified School District.

“It’s incredibly time-consuming” to correct papers, says Birbeck, who taught social studies before becoming a coach in his district. “I used to assign one full-blown written paper a year, in addition to weekly writing assignments,” he remembers. With 150 students, he would face a mound of papers that took him an entire month to go through.

About 250 miles south of Fremont, Caren Ray is facing the same problem. “I wish I could do more writing in my class, but I just don’t have the time to give the type of feedback I need to give,” says Ray, a social studies teacher and department chair at Santa Maria High School in California. “Giving meaningful feedback quickly is a hindrance. It causes teachers to do less writing even though we’re being asked to do more.”

The hardest part of correcting papers is delivering feedback that is timely and can help students with their next assignment, Paska says. “You want students to be able to do something with your comments in their future work.”

“Immediate feedback is a key to teaching writing,” says Ray. For students to wait a week in between revisions “makes the writing process disjointed.”

Technology to the Rescue

While there’s no one answer to this problem, Paska says technology can help in a variety of ways by offering direct help to students and to teachers. “There’s a big possibility through technology to offer formative feedback right away,” he says. With many tools open source, such as Google Docs, students can work individually or collectively and teachers can see the work in real time, he says.

By using open-source tools such as Google, for instance, teachers can offer formative feedback before the student is finished with the project, Paska adds, something that can help students shift gears immediately if needed. This real-time monitoring can also help teachers adjust their teaching. “They can stop a lesson” and reteach something if everyone’s missing the point, he adds.

Birbeck, who has used Turnitin Revision Assistant, says the program’s immediacy “is much more in tune with video games,” so students respond well. “It gives them guidance and the help comes right back at them,” he says. The two-year-old program gives students feedback on a number of criteria, including claim, evidence, and organization, as well as supplying teachers and administrators with data on student writing progress.

Ray, who also uses Revision Assistant, says the program’s critique of writing can help her spend less time on the nuts and bolts of grammar and composition, which she isn’t trained for, and more time seeing if students are writing with purpose. Students understand the software’s intuitive design, she adds. “They understand how to improve themselves and their writing based on how the feedback actually works.”

Paska says other open source tools, such as online rubrics, can help teachers assess work quickly and thoroughly. Such rubrics can be attached to a piece of writing that teachers can use in real-time online.

Seeking Grading Consistency

But not all online tools are designed for students. Some, such as the Literacy Design Collaborative, were created to help schools and teachers both meet the need for more student writing and learn how to accurately assess this writing. The collaborative is teacher-created online system that ties together collaboration, content development, and professional learning together.

Like many districts, Daviess County Public Schools in Owensboro, Kentucky, has for years required students to write across the curriculum while also making sure its learners meet next-generation learning standards. Also, like many districts, its teachers—especially those in subjects outside of English—struggle to accurately grade student work, says Therese Payne, a teacher leader and the English department head for Daviess County High School.

By using the collection, Daviess teachers can grab writing prompts in a number of subjects (while adding their own prompts to the national library), but they also can see examples of student writing at three different levels, low, medium, and high. These levels offer guidance to teachers that can be applied to their own students’ work.

Grading consistency was also a problem for teachers in California’s Newport-Mesa Unified School District. “Grading writing can be challenging even for seasoned teachers,” says Dana Kahawai, a teacher in the district. “Doing it right takes a long time.”

Not only did the district find that teachers and schools would grade the same paper differently, it also discovered that teacher fatigue led to inconsistent scoring, she says. Without being able to ensure consistency from classroom to classroom and school site to school site, the student achievement data was compromised.

The district turned to Revision Assistant and soon found that the program’s algorithms produced normed scores that could be used district-wide. “We’re using this information to inform our practice and the decisions we make about our programs,” says Ann-Marie Krenik, a Newport-Mesa teacher.

“Writing is an essential act that demonstrates literacy,” says Paska. “We write in social studies to demonstrate our understanding of major topics, of aspects of human life that cut across subject areas. We need students to write more. We need to teach them how to write better. We want writing to be fun, to be inspiring and engaging.”

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Wayne D’Orio is an award-winning journalist who’s been writing about education for more than 15 years. He was the former Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Administrator.

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