Teaching Innovations

No Solo Venture: Essay Writing in History

Virginia S. Wilson, James A. Litle, and Gerald L. Wilson, February 1990

All too often essay writing is perceived by students in history classes as nothing more than boring, demanding busywork to be endured at best, dreaded at worst, and perhaps, above all, a solitary, even lonely process. The entire essay writing experience can be more profitable if changed from a solo venture to a supportive group process. Essay writing groups of four or six students, carefully and thoughtfully identified by the teacher, can maximize the potential for lively discussion, honest criticism, and mutual cooperation. An even number in each group assures that each student can have a partner within the supportive writing group. This essay writing group concept provides a context in which students assist others, and at the same time, help themselves. Likewise, the peer group approach relieves teachers of the solo burden of generating ideas for papers and reviewing drafts. Students and teachers benefit from the group writing process itself as well as a better finished product.

Fortunately, no setting is more naturally conducive to the development of writing skills than the history class. Natural resources abound. There is a richness of content unequaled by any other discipline. Using the content of history and the methods of historians, students learn to write and find that the act of writing itself reinforces content. When writing essays, students as "apprentice historians" come to grips with the material and crystallize their own thoughts.

Before each group takes on the writing task itself, these apprentice historians must undertake case study analyses of essays written by professional historians which the teacher has selected relevant to the content under discussion. For example, a teacher might consider selecting essays from American Heritage magazine or one of the recent books of readings on American history. As a homework assignment each student analyzes the selected historical essay. Following this individual reading and analysis, each group during the next regular class period discusses the selected essay. The teacher circulates among the groups to offer assistance as necessary. Incidentally, when the analysis taking place within the group is directed toward a professionally written essay or essays, members of the group tend to be more analytical and critical because no threat is posed to any one of them. This enables apprentice historians to get in the habit of viewing writing analytically.

In analyzing the professionally written essay, the group examines the components of introduction, the body, and the conclusion. From this examination guidelines emerge for each of these three sections of the essay. For example, in an introduction the group might decide that a time/place setting sentence or two defining the context is appropriate. If historians were writing on the Puritans, they would state who the Puritans were, where they lived, and identify the appropriate time period. A second element of an introduction is a statement of a thesis where the writer states the theme and the position being taken on this theme. The third element of an introduction is the identification of the major categories of evidence to be used in support of the thesis. Likewise, the students need to determine the appropriate organization of the body paragraphs and the conclusion. Either during the same class period in which the guidelines are developed by each individual group or the next class meeting, they will be presented to the class as a whole, and from this pool of guidelines those judged essential by the teacher and class members will be copied and placed in students' notebooks for reference as they write their own essays.

Having become familiar with historical essays through case studies, apprentice historians move from the position of critical observers to that of active participants as the group begins the research process. Each group is assigned by the teacher a separate topic based on the content of the current unit of study and asked to research this topic as a means of learning research techniques. For example, in the colonial period such topics as "religious revivalism," "British control of American trade," or the "move toward self-government" might be assigned to a group. Given one of these topics or a similar one, the students in the group in a brainstorming session both narrow the topic and formulate the questions which they hope to answer in their research. The group begins to work on the topic by generating "descriptors." Descriptors are words, events, or people and their synonyms, associated with a topic. If the topic assigned were "religious revivalism," descriptors might include religion, conversion experience, revival, Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, denominations, and United States colonial history. To aid in finding descriptors for any topic, students should consult the Library of Congress Subject Headings Catalogue, an ERIC Thesaurus, or the associated topics in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature.

Armed with these descriptors, each group meets separately with the librarian for assistance in locating potential resources. The librarian and the teacher explain the research techniques necessary to get maximum benefit from these resources. The group as a whole then prepares a working bibliography, takes notes from the sources and develops an outline. Approximately a week of class and homework time should be devoted to this research process. Since this is the initial research effort, the teacher may wish to have each group present to the class in oral form its research findings following the form of their outline. Just as was the case with evaluating essays written by professional historians, oral presentations often foster a cooperative rather than a competitive attitude within the group.

At this point, the apprentice historian has read and examined the historical essays, participated in the development of guidelines for essay writing, and explored the research process. In addition, essay writing group members have developed a sense of cohesion and comraderie through shared experiences and activities. However, for many students there is a quantum leap between preparation for writing and the actual writing of the essay itself. All members of the class write their first essay on a common topic selected by the teacher. Assuming that the class has moved beyond the colonial period to the period of protest and revolution, the teacher selects a topic such as British reactions to American protests of the Stamp Act. Apprentice historians, using the techniques previously acquired, spend two class periods and a week of homework time researching the topic thoroughly. Upon completing the research process, the individual class members for their homework write an essay introduction, using the already established guidelines. The following day each group combines the introductions written by individuals into a common group effort. Each group's introduction is presented on an overhead to the class for an evaluation. After reviewing each group's introductory paragraphs, the class as a whole writes one introduction.

When writing the body of the essay, a division of labor occurs. If, for example, there are three categories of support for the thesis and six or seven writing groups of four students each in the class, then two/three groups write the body paragraph dealing with the first category of support; two/three more work with the second category and so forth. As a homework assignment, individual members of each group write the appropriate assigned body paragraph. The next day in class every group develops one body paragraph by reworking the group members' individual paragraphs. The two/three groups working on the same category of support then blend their efforts into one clear paragraph to be presented on an overhead to the class. The class evaluates and revises as necessary each supporting paragraph to produce a final draft.

Once the supporting paragraphs are completed and placed in the sequence, the next step is to link them into one cohesive body. To accomplish this, every group as a group writes topic/transition sentences for all the paragraphs of support using connecting thoughts rather than merely connecting words. The teachers presents each group's topic/transition sentences on an overhead. The class discusses them and writes a reworked topic/transition sentence for each body paragraph.

The group process used in writing the introduction is also appropriate for the development of the essay conclusion with its restatement of the thesis, summary of the supporting evidence and explanation of the significance of the topic.

The teacher may wish for students as a group effort to write several essays on a common topic, but at some point, students will need to begin writing their own essays. At this time either a common designated topic may be assigned or students themselves may select topics of high interest to them appropriate to the time period under discussion. Though students are no longer actually writing the essay together, the group support process continues.

First, the group aids its members in generating ideas on topic descriptors, potential resources, tentative theses, and categories for the outline. Following this, students write a rough draft according to the guidelines for historical essays previously developed by the class. At this stage, students serve as critics of their own papers. They check for consistency of support for the stated thesis, accuracy of content, and clarity of expression.

Having completed the process of self-evaluation and rewriting, apprentice historians present their rough drafts to their fellow writing group members with specific written questions that they have on their own drafts. These questions encourage the other group members to take on active role in the evaluation process. The best format for this group feedback is for general responses to be given orally and specific criticisms to be written.

Taking into account the suggestions of the group, apprentice historians rethink their papers. Rewriting at this stage may involve more than just a change of words or corrections of grammar; often it may require a change in the organizational structure. After completing this rewrite, each individual group member trades papers with the assigned group partner. Partners comment on the rewritten sections and check the papers for spelling and mechanical errors. After reviewing the partner's comments, the apprentice historian prepares a final draft which is handed into the teacher along with their notes and rough drafts.

In evaluating a student's work, the teacher considers both the process and product, and in the same way that many teachers of mathematics do, gives credit for the steps correctly followed as well as the final result. The teacher may wish to use an evaluation sheet designed to mirror the class essay guidelines and common elements of style.

The goal of this essay writing process is not to create professional historians (although that could be a delightful by-product) but rather to sharpen essay writing skills so that these apprentice historians can communicate their thoughts more accurately and powerfully. An important part of this group writing process is the requirement of constant rewriting, revising, and editing. Since the process moves in stages over a period of time, the night-before-scissor-and-paste syndrome is eliminated. In addition, since the essay assignments are content-based and unit and topic specific, students actually learn more history in the process of refining their essay writing skills. The learning of history and the development of the craft of writing in a group setting can be exciting, rewarding, and perhaps, even fun.

—Virginia S. Wilson, is the head of the Department of Humanities and teaches history at the North Carolina School of Social Science and Mathematics, Durham, North Carolina. She also serves as a lecturer in the Duke University Program in Education. James A. Litle is an instructor of history and social sciences at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and teaches history and economics courses. Gerald L. Wilson, is the senior associate dean of Trinity College, Duke University and also teaches American history. A selected bibliography can be obtained by writing the authors at NCSSM, P.O. Box 2418, Durham, NC 27715.