3 Reasons to Use Writing Workshop in a Social Studies Classroom

Well hello, everyone. It’s great to be here. 

Writing this post feels a lot like writing an acceptance speech. I’ve been working across the hall from Rebekah O’Dell for approximately 1800 days now, and she just asked me to write for the blog. On the one hand, I am, obviously, offended. She should have known, upon seeing the quiet desperation in my eyes when we met, that I would be an excellent contributor (or at least an earnest one).

On the other hand, watching Moving Writers evolve from 3 yards away over the last 43,000 hours, makes the reward of finally being asked that much sweeter. It also helps that I finally have something to write about.

Since it seems like I’m locked into this series for the next few months (as long as I don’t get fired), I want to tell you something important: I am not an English teacher. It’s true. I’m not. And aside from a nasty habit of buying books at full market price and an unhealthy interest in Colin Firth, I really didn’t think I had that much in common with you all– at least not in a pedagogical sense. 

From the very beginning of my career, English class felt like the Wild West of secondary education. Certainly, there were a couple of sheriffs in town– Common Core and the ELA teacher themselves– but almost any topic of study that served the students seemed permissible. An in-depth examination of Macbeth and Hamilton? Sure. Writing personal essays and protest poetry? Why not? I observed what was happening in English classes, and I was jealous. I didn’t think I could bring the same kind of student-centric learning into the social studies classroom, where we were pinned in by content-based, chronological boundaries. 

Then, Rebekah introduced me to writing workshop. 

Writing workshop is a student-centered method of writing instruction that uses real-world writing as models for students to create their own pieces of writing. 

I was immediately intrigued; I had long been trying to work on writing skills with my students, but found it difficult. 

  • Essays were boring and only taught them how to do one thing well. 
  • My students’ ability levels varied within course sections.
  • Writing anything other than an essay took too much time away from the content.

The first time I watched Rebekah walk a class of middle schoolers through a writing workshop (do I sound like a stalker yet?), it was like watching the aurora borealis while being as high as a kite. It was beautiful and awe-inspiring, but also overwhelming. I had no idea what I was actually looking at or, more importantly, how to contain it for social studies. 

So, I’ve spent the last few years trying to do just that. I have come to the conclusion that writing workshop not only can be used in the history classroom, it must be used in the history classroom. 

Here’s Why:

#1 Writing workshop a vessel for content.

The social studies classroom is content-based. There’s no way around it. If you’re a social studies teacher, you know that one of the biggest challenges we face is keeping up with the content in our classes. Yet, we somehow manage to do this and foster historical-thinking skills all with the spirit and vigor of a 22-year-old cruise director named Christy.

Before I started using the workshop model, writing in my classroom was largely relegated to on-demand essays. I thought this was the best way to get my students to work on their basic writing skills and to reinforce the content we were learning. I thought we didn’t have time to do something like a writing workshop. 

What I learned after much experimentation is that there is a way to incorporate writing workshop into a content-based classroom and not only fit it into the content, but reinforce that content and extend it to students’ own interests. By following a linear ideation process…

and cyclical writing system…

writing workshop adapts to your classroom’s needs in terms of content, time, and skill development.

#2 Writing workshop is inquiry-motivated.

Social studies students are historians.

Historians are…people who seek to know what happened in the past and why it did so and to present that knowledge in other formats

Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History, James M. Banner

Good historians are curious. 

A thousand years ago, when I was in a high school science class, I recall being told to create a hypothesis prior to conducting an experiment. Historians do not begin their research with an educated guess, but with an educated question. We look at history and ask, “why? how? and, with what army?”  

Inquiry– the deliberate choice of wanting to know more– is the driving force of writing workshop. It holds a place in every step of the writing process, from ideation to research to revision. And in this way, the writing process promotes critical thinking through curiosity.

#3 Writing workshop breeds authenticity.

Let’s be honest: writing on demand is boring. It’s the Kenny G of writing– it’s not totally useless, but it’s certainly not going to get anyone excited.

I want writing instruction that is dynamic, powerful, and creative. I want Beyonce, baby! 

The only way to attain any level of Bey-ness in writing instruction is to bring some sort of authenticity to the table, or rather, desk. Writing workshop does this in two ways: it allows you to vary what students will write and encourages them to write like actual historians. 

Editorial cartoons, articles, documentaries, radio transmissions, podcasts, websites, museum exhibits– these are the mentor texts that we will use for writing workshop in social studies classrooms, not a five-paragraph essay or even a DBQ. Asking students to create authentic products like these increases the value and variety of their writing, giving them space to flex their historical muscles and understand that writing can be kinetic. 


Over the next few months, I’ll be breaking down specific strategies for how to bring writing workshop to your social studies or humanities classroom. Together, we’ll teach the historians under our care how to write like historians, which I guarantee will empower them to Run the World (get it?) like nothing else can.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on the writing workshop. The way you captured the ideas of the writing workshop helped deepen my understanding of it.

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