The Role of Journal Writing in Historical Thinking
D. Antonio Cantu, September 2000
"I think of writing as a way of seeing. It's a way of bringing out the specialness of ordinary things."
Nearly a decade ago, as a high-school history teacher, I was asked to participate in a "writing across the curriculum" grant. I entered the process quite confident in my ability to challenge my students through a variety of thinking and assessment activities that focused on the art of writing. Needless to say, I was very naïve. Once I came to this realization, I was ready to learn. Through my experience in this grant and my interaction with English and literature teachers, I adopted a number of new teaching strategies that focused on student writing.
The format with which I have had the most success is journal writing. For me, journal writing seems an ideal instructional tool for taking students to higher order cognitive learning levels and for achieving many of the affective learning goals I have identified as requisite to deeper understanding. I have also found journal writing to be a very effective means for integrating all of the elements of historical thinking into my curriculum. When I speak of historical thinking, I am referring to the definition outlined in the National Standards for History, which includes the following components:
- Historical Comprehension
- Historical Analysis and Interpretation
- Historical Research Capabilities
- Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making1
I never want to sacrifice content for process, and journal writing does not require that of those who choose to utilize it in the classroom. Another benefit of journal writing for me has been the tremendous flexibility inherent in its design. Journal writing activities can be assigned on a daily, weekly and/or semester basis and can be worked out in various formats: notebooks, index cards, typed documents, 3.5" computer disks, protected/secure web pages, and e-mail messages.
I am well aware that we are all instructional and curricular gatekeepers, and therefore not all teaching and learning activities will see the light of day in our classroom. I would have it no other way. As you examine the various forms of journal writing activities and implementation strategies, however, my hope is that all readers derive some benefit from this discussion, in accordance with the axiom, put forth by the Bradley Commission on History in Schools, that "variety is the spice of learning, just as it is of life."2
Journal writing may be integrated into the history curriculum in myriad ways, I will provide an overview framed by the National Standards definition.
1. Text Review Journal
The authors of the National Standards for History call chronological thinking the "heart of historical reasoning."3 One way for students to identify the role and importance of temporal order, historical causation, as well as change and continuity is for history instructors to build this mental scaffolding. The type of journal assignment that appears best suited for this task is a text review. Text review journal writing encourages students to use the chronological timeline in the textbook as a baseline for other primary and secondary source materials they encounter in their readings, research, and class lectures. Students should place the items they come across in these other sources on the timeline. This allows them to establish temporal order and to compare and
contrast the varying historical accounts and interpretations they encounter during the course of their research and classroom discussion. For example, students can respond to journal prompts or assignments that ask them to
- identify the temporal order of the text's narrative;
- identify the interpretation of historical causation, events, and individuals in the text;
- compare historical interpretations in the text with those presented in class lectures/discussions;
- compare historical interpretations in the text with those presented in other course readings;
- compare historical interpretations in the text with those presented in research sources;
- place historical individuals, events, and movements encountered in other sources on the chronological timeline presented in the text's narrative; and
- discuss contradictions or inconsistencies between the text's chronological timeline and that of other sources.
2. Dialogue Journal
The Bradley Commission Report on History Teaching argues that one of history's "habits of the mind" is for students to develop an understanding of the "significance of the past to their own lives, both private and public, and to their society."4 For this to occur, they must develop a degree of historical comprehension necessary to appreciate historical perspectives and avoid present-mindedness. To achieve this goal students must be provided with opportunities to discuss historical issues and general learning concerns. As we all know, some students utilize office hours, those moments before and after class, as well as voice, electronic, and snail mail to address these issues and concerns. Most, however, do not. Dialogue journal writing provides a medium for discussing these issues in a manner integrated into the curriculum. Students might be asked to
- note general observations about course material;
- make suggestions or recommendations that might enhance student understanding;
- identify "lessons learned" thus far, including application to their own life and present society;
- list those lessons or topics they would like to learn more about;
- discuss individual learning progress, both positive and negative features;
- identify learning obstacles, including areas of concern, confusion or misunderstanding; and
- propose possible courses of action to overcome these barriers to learning and understanding.
3. Primary Document Analysis Journal
Analysis, the authors of the National Standards for History argue, "obliges the student to assess the evidence on which the historian has drawn and determine the soundness of interpretations created from that evidence."5 Such analysis and interpretation is possible only when students are allowed the opportunity to analyze, evaluate, compare, and contrast numerous primary source materials. As noted by some of the authors of the National Standards for History, "innumerable, and memorable, insights are to be gained from longer, closer looks at selected episodes, and all the more so by the deft use of primary sources."6 Journal writing provides students with a means for recording their observations and conclusions in a comprehensive and systematic manner, thereby bringing a greater degree of consistency and authenticity to the learning process. For example, in their primary document analysis journals, students may be asked to:
- identify the historical context in which the document was written;
- discuss the attitudes, beliefs, and values which are held by the author(s) of the document;
- determine the ideas, principles, beliefs, and values that are reflected in the document;
- identify the impact and legacy of the document, in particular causal relationship with other events or documents;
- compare and contrast historians' interpretations, similar documents, and other historical perspectives; and
- evaluate the role of the document in our nation's history.
4. Research Journal
The authors of the National Standards for History best summarize the sentiments of most history educators by noting that, "perhaps no aspect of historical thinking is as exciting to students or as productive of their growth in historical thinking as 'doing history'."7 As with the other historical thinking skills, historical inquiry can also benefit from student journal writing, though in a much different manner. Students can benefit at every step of the inquiry process by maintaining a companion research journal, to record their thought and decision making processes. A research journal provides students with a designated space to
- formulate historical questions and a thesis statement;
- list primary and secondary historical data sources;
- evaluate historical source materials; and
- record researcher's reflective thoughts and observations throughout the research process.
5. Classroom Discussion Journal
One of the most engaging forms of journal writing is that which literally takes place in the classroom. When integrated into the history curriculum, classroom discussion journals have the potential to develop what certain architects of the National Standards for History have referred to as "perhaps the surest path to engagement and thereby to acquiring other habits of critical thought and perspective," historical empathy.8 Well-structured
journal writing prompts can spark the type of thought and reflection that allows students to develop both a deeper understanding and historical empathy. Journal writing activities may be introduced at various strategic points in the classroom discussion, including prior to instruction, as a transition technique, to check for student understanding, or as a summary activity. These journal prompts may also be designed to teach a number of historical facts, concepts, themes, or issues, as well as to facilitate the development of a variety of historical thinking skills. For example, classroom journal writing can encourage students to
- identify salient issues relevant to understanding of historical events and movements;
- relate these historical issues to current societal concerns;
- discuss the problems and dilemmas which confronted individuals in history;
- discuss the role of historical context and antecedent circumstances;
- determine the alternative courses of action available to individuals during specific events in history;
- identify the beliefs, attitudes, and values that played a role in the decision making process of individuals in history; and
- evaluate decisions made by individuals in history.
I am well aware there are no panaceas in education. I also recognize, though, that the educational pendulum has a propensity to swing with more ease, velocity, and stride than any other profession, in search of one. What I can attest to, with certainty, is that journal writing has helped my students gain deeper historical understanding and provided them an opportunity to demonstrate their proficiency in the essential skills that comprise historical thinking. While journal writing represents but one pedagogical tool or means to assist in achieving this goal, it is one I recommend.
—D. Antonio Cantu is assistant professor of history at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where he also serves as editor of the International Journal of Social Education.
1. National Center for History in the Schools, National Standards for History: Basic Edition (Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, 1996).
2. Bradley Commission on History in Schools, Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools (Westlake, Ohio: National Council for History Education, 1995), 24.
3. National Standards for History, 62.
4. Paul Gagnon and the Bradley Commission on History in Schools, eds., Historical Literacy: The Case for History in
American Education (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 25.
5. National Standards for History, 65.
6. Charlotte Crabtree et al., eds., Lessons From History: Essential Understandings and Historical Perspectives Students Should Acquire (Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, 1992), 18.
7. National Standards for History, 67.
8. Charlotte Crabtree et al., 153.
9. Bradley Commission on History in Schools, 24.