Here are some tips for helping students master key historical thinking and writing skills

Essay Writing

Writing Introductions: The Magical Camera

This year, when I asked students about the most important thing they learned in class, about half the students said it was to learn how to really write an introduction. My secret recipe is to show them how to do what most historians and historical writers do without realizing it. What I did was to "name" it, thereby making it real. It is called the "magical camera" technique. The magical camera technique asks writers to imagine the most powerful or gripping moment of any historical story they are writing about. If it is the French Revolution, it could be an execution during the Reign of Terror or the first shot of the Bastille. If it is the Holocaust, it could be the moment a Jewish mother is deciding to send her children away on the kindertransport. Imagine you were there, with a camera, and you took a picture. But this is a "magical camera" and it records every sense of the moment: sound, smell, taste, emotion, etc. Now, describe that moment and all the camera captures in minute detail in the third person focusing on the sensory detail, including even metaphorical description. Note: this does not work in the 1st or 2nd person, using "I" or "you"...it has to be about someone else, even if that someone else is imaginary. Here is an example of one student's magical camera introduction from a paper on Race and American Ballet. Notice the transition sentence in bold that moves from the magical camera "hook" to the larger topic and then thesis: It is 1955 and a young girl in a tutu stares at her reflection in a mirror. She smooths out the wrinkles in her white costume and greases back the fly-away hairs from her bun. Tears begin to well in her eyes as she takes one final glance at the one reflection with which she is familiar. She holds her breath and she picks up the sponge and powder sitting on her dresser. Layer by layer, she presses and plasters her skin with the color of snow. She becomes itchy and uncomfortable but knows that she must stand still in order for the powder settle on her dark skin. She looks in the mirror at the ghost standing before her. Blinking away the tears, she waits for her cue. From Jackie Robinson to Barack Obama, America has witnessed the historical rise of exceptional African Americans who have achieved success in their respective fields, but the contributions and efforts of African Americans who have made strides in American dance, like the Ballerina above, are often not recognized. Because our society values entertainment in various forms, it is important for us to recognize how history has shaped these art forms. Equally critical, we must acknowledge the hardships that black dancers experienced and still confront today as they struggle to take the stage alongside predominantly white dancers and largely white audiences. Although several influential figures such as Alvin Ailey promoted equality in dance through the creation of opportunities that embraced traditional African dance, other art forms such as ballet have been “resistant to evolve beyond its roots as an elite, rigidly European art form” (Woodard). Despite the fact that the number of black dancers in American dance companies is slowly increasing, many forms of dance -- ballet in particular -- are far from being accepting and inclusive of African Americans. Here is another example from a student's paper on WWI trench warfare: Powerful rain showers continue to flood trenches along the Western Front. The bare feet of soldiers are rooted to the swampy ground below, making any movement an elusive task. Explosions are heard coming from all directions, as the screams from wounded soldiers continue to intensify. While rats swim between soldiers legs, the powerful smell of rotting human flesh cause many to collapse. This description highlights only a small piece of what trenches were like during World War I. Beginning in 1914, an army’s infantry spent most of their time inside of these confined spaces. While there was variety to the trenches, all of them managed to share one common element: A nightmarish lifestyle. Although many outsiders claimed that the trenches were wonderfully built structures, elaborate enough to protect the soldiers within, little did they know of the many horrors that soldiers endured within their habitation. Although trenches were strategically structured, and provided limited safety during battle, life within them was essentially unimaginable; The weather was detrimental, vermin seized the living space, and powerful explosions gave soldiers shell-shock. A soldier who spent merely one month in the trenches inevitably went home changed forever; both their mind and body completely deteriorated. What aspects of trench life could have possibly caused so much physical and mental damage? The combination of miserable weather, intruding rodents, and the bombardment of weaponry, worked together to cause depression, disease, shell-shock, and death. These horrific effects on the soldiers’ well-being ultimately made life unbearable during WWI.

Writing Introductions: The Switcharoo

The Switcharoo is a newer strategy for me and I call it the Magical Camera's second cousin. Essentially, here the writer uses the magical camera to describe something in detail that appears to be about one topic, but then at the last moment creates the surprise switch and reveals that it is really about something else. For example, a writer on a paper about the Bengal Famine may begin by describing a terrible World War II epidemic of starvation and cruelty, in which parents tragically watch their children die in front of them. After 5-6 sentences, as the reader you believe it is about the Holocaust only to be told it is about the Bengal Famine. Here is an example from Ross Douthat of the New York Times as he makes us believe he is discussing China only to reveal he is talking about the USA.

Writing Conclusions: RICE

What makes a strong conclusion in historical writing? In my view, there are four main elements that may help develop a stronger conclusion. It is not necessary or even advantageous for a writer to do all of them; it is perhaps better to do one or two of them more thoughtfully. I believe it is perfectly fine for a writer to use the first person in the conclusion. Here are the steps: R - Restate the main argument and foundational reasons why you support the argument. I - Importance...why is this topic important and significant? Why was it important to the people at the time? Why is it important for understanding our world today? Why is it important morally? Why is important within the larger historical conversation? C - Connections...how does this topic and argument connect to other stories from the past? How does it connect to the world today? How does it connect to the author? E - Expanding...what else do you want to know? What questions are left for you to answer? Where would you go if you had more time to research and write?

Writing Historiography Paragraphs

Historiography is writing about the writing of history; or, in other words, it is about discussing the historical conversation and the sources that make up your work. Historiography paragraphs for students can be composed in a few ways: Traditional historiography: In this structure, the writer should discuss the most important historical works about a particular topic and the main argument of each author in about 2-3 sentences each. The writer should attempt to use compare/contrast statements "on the other hand" or "In the same vein" to place them in context with each other. Finally, it is particularly helpful if the writer adds in his or her own viewpoint into the conversation. Where does he or she fall in the historical debate? Sourcing historiography: When students do research papers, it is sometimes difficult for them to gather a large enough swath of historical works to do a real historiography. In that case, for research papers I have students "source" their sources. In other words, they choose their most important and helpful sources and discuss them. Who are the authors and what are their credentials? What type of information or understanding did the sources provide? What made them useful?

Writing Body Paragraphs: TIED

Some high school students no longer need scaffolding for a body paragraph and some scaffolding gets in the way of fluid, authentic writing. But many students could use a little organization support for a body paragraph. That's what TIED is for...cleaning up paragraphs. T - Topic I - Important background information E - Evidence D - Discussion of evidence, connecting back to topic and argument

Using quotations and citation information

There are a few key elements to using quotations as evidence in historical writing. First, make sure the quotations are relevant to the actual point you're trying to make. The quotation needs to be there for a reason, whether because the author says it in a particularly poignent way or because the author herself is such an expert that it is worth getting her words in there. The other main rule of using quotes is...don't "plop." A quote shouldn't get thrown in as a complete sentence. In the examples below, note that the end quotation mark comes first, then the citation (author's last name) and then the period at the end. If there is no author, use the first three words of the title of the source. One option is to begin a sentence and the quote flows in from there: After the fall of the Bastille, the people "marched up and down joyfully shouting" (Hibbert 83). Or you set-up the quote with information about the speaker. Here are four examples

  • According to Christopher Hibbert, an historian at Oxford University, the people "marched up and down joyfully shouting the news of the Bastille's fall" (Hibbert 83).
  • Christopher Hibbert, an historian at Oxford University, writes that the French people "marched up and down joyfully shouting the news of the Bastille's fall" (Hibbert 83).
  • In the book The Days of the French Revolution, Oxford historian Christopher Hibbert describes that the French people "marched up and down joyfully shouting the news of the Bastille's fall" (Hibbert 83)
  • Christopher Hibbert, an historian at Oxford University, states: "They marched up and down joyfully shouting the news of the Bastille's fall" (Hibbert 83).

Works Cited and Citations

The best online guide for making sure you're doing works cited and citations correcly is Purdue's OWL. Of course, it is also reasonable to use online works cited creators, such as easybib.

Writing Introductions: Club over the Head, Absurb statement, more

Club over the Head: knock the reader down with a really blunt, really straightforward, and often folksy statement. Here's Ross Douthat's version: Fair warning: This will be an entire column about a single paragraph. Here's one from Paul Kruman: O.K., they weren’t supposed to start the trade war until I got back from vacation. Here's Charles M. Blow: Saturday night I went to the opera. Here's David Sherrin: "I guess I talk kind of slow." Absurd or powerful quotation: start off with a really weird statement, particularly good if it comes from someone now or formally in power. Here's Paul Krugman: "I love the poorly education." So declared Donald Trump... Here's from Nicholas Kristoff: “I hereby sentence you to death.”The words of Judge Clifford B. Shepard filled the courtroom in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 27, 1976.

Research Papers

Step 1: Choosing your topic

Choosing your topic: Your topic should be of personal and intellectual interest to you. It may be something you’ve heard about in class or in life that sparked an interest or something you character from your country experienced. It may be related to a hobby of yours like soccer, something important to your identity (your religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), or something we touched on briefly in class that you’d like to explore further. Below are some ways you can go about choosing a topic. The suggested lenses below, when combined with many historical events or periods, help to give a focus and a question: 1. Fashion 2. Music 3. Leadership 4. Art and/or dance 5. Women or gender 6. Gay (LGBTQ) studies 7. Sports 8. Propaganda 9. Education 10. Religion 11. Film 12. Justice 13. Social Class 14. Race If you really can't decide, try The Sherrinator

Step 2: Finding Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources are descriptions of people and events that are encyclopedic in nature. Our database overviews are tertiary sources. They are not usually making an argument...they are just telling us the “what” and the “when.” We usually begin our research with tertiary sources to gain context for the topic and to understand what sub-topics we need to look into. WHERE CAN I FIND TERTIARY SOURCES? OPTION # 1: Scarsdale Library Databases -Use Scarsdale databases to conduct an initial background survey about your topic -Go to World History in Context and/or Biography in Context -Enter Search Terms (ex. Genghis Khan or Mongol Empire) -Focus first on Reference Articles and Biographies of key people. *Find one or more appropriate articles. Email them to yourself and/or print them out. Make sure tochoose “MLA” as your citation information and to include it in your works cited! OPTION # 2: GOOGLE SEARCH Tips for a better Search -Keep it simple. Describe what you want in as few terms as possible -Think of how you want the page to look. Use words that will likely appear on the page. -Use descriptive and specific words. -Make sure the website passes looks professional and authoritative. Check the “about” link to see if there is any important bias that needs to be considered. Check with me if you have doubts. 2) List of other strong internet sources PBS.com historychannel.com biography.com

Step 3: Determine your research question

Is the question engaging and interesting? Is this a real question that experts or thoughtful adults struggle with? Are there at least two possible answers to this question?

Step 4: Find your books

Use the high school library, the local public library, or Amazon to locate books related to your topic. Your books may be very specifically related to your question or larger overviews of the place or time to provide context. Amazon has a great search engine for finding books that may not immediately appear in your library's database. So once you've found a book on Amazon, go back and check to see if it is in the library. Once you've located what seems to be a good book, look for this information: Read the description. You want a book that is highly reviewed, has 4-5 stars in the reviews, is at an accessible reading level, and covers the topic. # pages (shoot for 150-400): _____________ Age level (Grade 9 and up): _____________ Reviews (Look for 4-5 stars and positive comments): _____________ Publisher (Look for a popular press rather than a university press): _____________ Author’s qualifications: _______________________________________

Step 6: Reading or Raiding a Book

Once you've found your books, you need to decide whether to "read" or to "raid" them. Reading a book means going from cover to cover, reading it all. Raiding a book means selectively looking for what might help you in your writing. Here are some clues: 1) The book is relatively short, accessible, and directly related to your question = READ 2) The book is a memoir, a story, something that isn't linear in its storytelling = READ 3) The book is extremely long = RAID 4) The book is HARD, with difficult academic wording = RAID 5) The book only somewhat relates to the question and topic = RAID How do you raid a book? 1) Look at the Table of Contents and choose one or a few chapters that seem relevant. 2) Read the introduction. Always read the introduction and focus on the author's argument. 3) Read the key chapters. If necessary, read only the first paragraph of the chapter and first sentences in the rest of the chapter. Read more fully a part that seems important. 4) Read the conclusion 5) Look in the index and search for an important keyword. Locate those pages and read them.

Step 5: Finding journal articles

Journal articles are academic texts written for an academic audience. Use the database JSTOR to locate journal articles. Note that when you cite or refer to the articles in your writing, JSTOR is not a journal...it is a database. Each article you find comes from a particular academic journal. JSTOR provides citation information for you.

Step 7: Find primary sources

To locate primary sources, try the following: -Google your topic PLUS "primary sources." Example: (1980 US Soviet Olympic hockey primary sources) -Google your topic PLUS a specific form of primary source. Example: (1980 US Soviet Olympic hockey newspaper) or (1980 US Soviet Olympic hockey interview) Examples of primary sources

  • Diaries
  • Government records (birth/death/marriage certificates, deeds, titles, licenses, passports)
  • Interviews with individuals who participated in the event you are studying
  • Manuscript collections (presidential papers, family letters, formal correspondence)
  • Newspaper/magazine from the era
  • Letters written at the time of your topic
  • Speeches
  • Film footage from the time-period (i.e. CNN or BBC film coverage)
  • Artifacts: pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings
  • Sound recordings from the time of your topic
  • Art or photographs created/taken during the time of your topic
  • Music written at the time of your topic

Step 8: Outlining and writing your research paper

If you need an outline templates, here are some great ones. Your research paper should be about 20-50% story and about 50-80% argument. Sometimes the story and argument are the same thing, essencially. If your topic is very well-known (i.e. the Holocaust) you need less background story than if it is about the Winter War. Story can advance an argument but sometimes you really just need to make your point clearly and persuasively. Here is one possible structure: Introduction Historiography paragraph Historical Background Historical Background Argument Argument Counterclaim? Conclusion Works Cited Here is another possible structure: Introduction Historiography paragraph History/argument History/argument History/argument History/argument Counterclaim? Conclusion Works Cited

Step 9: Works Cited and Citations

The best online guide for making sure you're doing works cited and citations correcly is Purdue's OWL. Of course, it is also reasonable to use online works cited creators, such as easybib.

Step 10: Read and Revise and Repeat

Your research paper is only ready to submit once you have read it multiple times, revised it, and agonized over the wording of each sentence countless times.

Discussion and Thinking

Discussion Protocols

The following discussion protocols are helpful for creating classrooms in which students talk to each other about texts and their meaning rather than a ping-pong discussion format in which the teacher asks a question and students answer. We want young people talking to each other, listening to each other, and learning from each other. If everything goes back to the teacher, students become to ignore each other and just "hear" the teacher. Some of these formats are standard in progressive schools, such as the "barometer" or the "four corners." One protocol I created is called the Something Protocol. It uses sentence starters to begin a deep reflective conversation between two or more students. Download the document with the icon on the right to see the prompts. Students can use the protocol in pairs or as part of a full-class discussion. One student begins talking with a sentence starter on the left-hand column. The other student listens, thinks for a moment, and then responds with one of the right-hand column responses. Students may build in continued responses until it is a true conversation or someone may make a new "comment" starter from the left-hand column. One protocol I love for getting students talking about a bunch of different questions is a famous one called Concentric Circles. To get students delving into the mind of one character in a story, whether fictional or a news article, consider using the hot seat. This allows for a role-play in which the student in the middle is that character and those on the outside get to interview her or him, asking questions to really dig into what is happening in the character's life and mind. Another protocol I developed is called Silent Inquiry Circles. This format works best in small groups of 4-5 students. Give each student a piece of paper and ask them to write down a big question about a text or concept. This works great as a response to a film or article. Make sure the students circle their question. Then, they pass around the paper to other members of the group. Each student should now write down their answers to the questions of other students as the papers get passed around. Students should get back their original paper with their question at the end. Afterwards, you can ask for share-outs to the larger class. Which question got you really thinking? What was your response? Which response did you find most helpful to your question? Was there a response you disagreed with? Why? Quotation Sensation is another one I developed. This works best with a text or video that includes powerful language so that you can select 4-5 great quotations. Print them out in big font and post them on separate sheets around the room. Ask students to stand by the quotation that most resonates with them and to discuss why. Close the discussion with a share-out from each group. What does the quotation mean? Why is it powerful? Do you agree or disagree with it? A fourth protocol of mine that I like is one I call Pictionation. This works best with a text or video that has powerful visual imagery or language. I ask students, perhaps in groups, to choose one line in the text that stands out to them and to draw a picture of it. Then, other students have to guess what the image represents (pictionary) and have a conversation (piction + ation) about its meaning and why the student chose it. A variation asks them to draw an emoji on the back that represents their viewpoint toward the text (angry, happy, confused, agree, disagree, etc.). Below are additional discussion protocols:

Something Protocol

Quotation Sensation


Four Corners


Probing Questions

Making Meaning

Save the Last Word

Flash Photography

Historical Thinking Skills​

Many thinkers and educators in recent years have added to the literature on "Historical Thinking Skills," especially those who come out of the SHEG orientation. Much of this work on historical thinking relates to how students engage with texts as historians.​

Some of my work has been geared towards translating historical thinking skills into how students actually think about and analyze events. What should we consider when we learn and think about a larger event like the French Revolution or a smaller event within that period like the Storming of the Bastille.

​I put together an "Historical Thinking Chart" to help students develop the habit of thinking like an historian. It asks them to consider the details of the event, but equally important the causes, effects, importance, and multiple perspectives surrounding that event. ​

Here's the chart for your use:

Templates PDF


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