Saturday, September 15, 2012

Ten Ideas for Historical Writing Assignments

Since I happen to have  a little girl that LOVES history so much that she gets frustrated when it isn't a history day, but who needs to practice her writing (and all the aspects that go with it like grammar and spelling as well as the physical formation of letters) I'm always thinking up ideas to get her writing in ways that relate to the history we study.  While writing still doesn't thrill her, it does help a little (along with this kind of patience and focus) to make the job easier than filling in blanks on a worksheet seems to be for her. 

Keep in mind that many of these ideas are equally well suited for older kids (or, in many cases, better suited for older kids).  Adjusting expectations in quantity as well as quality will make each of these ideas either more difficult or simpler.  For Alice, I usually ask for two to four sentences.  When she is well into second grade, I might not ask for more, but my expectations on quality will be higher.  Whereas when she is in fourth grade I will ask for more and still expect a higher quality than I do now.  Of course by the time high school comes along, a truly avid historian could be getting published if she really wanted to (Look up Sarah Vowel), but some of these ideas will even work in the highschool classroom too.

Another note, whenever I can, I give Alice two - three choices for how to demonstrate her newly found/gained knowledge.  Giving kids a little control can save a lot of grief down the road AND gives them practice with making choices.  I DO NOT suggest offering up every available choice to your kids, but I do recommend giving them some say in which genre they choose when you've chosen the topic, or giving them choice in which subject matter to choose when you've chosen the genre.  Which options you offer up to your kids/students, might depend on your writing objectives.  For example, if you simply want them to practice writing and then go back and edit for a few grammar skills they're working on any of these ideas will work well.  If you had an objective related to practicing note-taking or other research skills, a biography, journal entry or news article might be best suited.  Whereas, if your objective is about practicing developing characters, perhaps writing the story of a hero as a play, completing the dialog for an imaginary interview or expecting a historical fiction is the best option.

I hope these writing ideas will prove helpful or inspiring in some form with your kids/students as well.

Heroes and Martyrs:

This one is definitely best suited for older kids if they are actually writing the story.  However, every period in history has a hero or two and often those heroes are also martyrs or become heroes because they loved someone who became a martyr.  These riveting tales have been fodder for novels, movies and plays for centuries. 

Have your kids tell the tale.  You can even choose to let them tell the tale through playwriting, screenwriting, OR historical fiction styled essays loosely based on the events and people about whom they have learned.  You can also have them write a non-fiction biography for the page or the screen.  Ask your high school student to make sure they explore the darker side of their hero as well as the heroic side to add a layer of complixity that will stretch their developing cognitive skills.

Legends and Tall Tales:

Have your kids take a real-life historical figure about whom we know a lot and turn that person into the basis for a legendary tale or tall tale.  Look at characters like Robin Hood (who was probably really an amalgamation of many real-life people) or King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or more modern legends such as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill as examples and then let your kids imaginations run wild as they figure out how people would have exaggerated the characteristics of the well-known historical figure and his/her exploits in history.  A take on this assignment that would be great for you teen is to have them write a skit about the tall tale in keeping with the spirit of Saturday Night Live.

News Articles:

This idea is probably fairly self-explanatory.  To help your students keep focus in their news article, you may want to help them choose a very specific topic from the piece of history being studied to focus on.  One battle, or one speech made. . .

Letter to a Friend:

In this writing activity, the student pretends he/she is living during the historical events being studied and writing a letter about it to a distant relative or friend.  If you have older kids from whom you can expect a lot of detail, remind your students email was NOT an option before 1980 so it has to go snail mail and texting is an even more recent option.  Describe what that would have meant time wise for the people of the time and use that to explain to your students why they don't want to leave their reader wondering about anything.  It isn't like texting where a clarification be easily and quickly made.

Playwriting and Screenwriting:

Kids that enjoy drama might really enjoy figuring out how to depict a particular even or time in history in this media as well.  In this activity, kids might make up their own characters or use real-life ones, but the objective here is to fairly accurately depict EVENTS and how the people of the time generally seem to have felt about those events through the dialogue and setting they give in their writing.  If you have a group of kids that can work together, maybe they can each take on a role in producing a class rendition of the screenplay they vote as the one the class would like to do.  Throw a red carpet debut complete with popcorn and paparazzi.

Newspaper Ad:

If the objective for history was about daily living, have your kids write an add for an item that existed at the time, both a wanted ad or a "for sale" item would work.  They might also enjoy writing a job description: "Wanted: Apprentice.  Full time . . ."  Although this option is not conducive to practicing sentence structure, it certainly will help kids practice the art of being concise.

Travel Guide or Flier:

Here, kids "advertise" to their audience about the cool stuff to see in the society and place they're studying.  In a flier, it will be more of a practice in being concise while describing the sights and sounds of a particular location in history.  In a mini travel guide, the kids can include a lot of detail not only about a specific location, but about customs that will need to be followed, what clothes to wear and laws to adhere to.  Kids can even include things to avoid (like rats and their fleas so the visitor doesn't catch the "Black Death"). 


The obituary can be focused on a famous person in history, or it can depict a fictional "average" person of the time and be an opportunity for a student/child to connect a couple of decades and how a life would have been lived in the early 1100's for example.  Yes.  I know, newspapers weren't in circulation yet.  You are already pretending, just pretend that a printing press magically blinked into the era just long enough for your Obit to be printed.

Write a Speech:

Put your students in the shoes of the famous leaders that have walked before them.  Capture a moment in history when "the people" would have needed courage, encouragement, rallying, whatever. . . What would the student have said to the people at that time?  What does your student think Hannibal said to his men as they crossed the mountains headed for Rome? or Alexander in India?  What would they have said to the family members left standing at the end of the plague to reassure them and help them move past their grief into hope?  How might they have re-written words that were spoken?  What might they have said after Katrina or 9/11?  What might they have said after the Boston Massacre or to the monks who fought vikings off to preserve holy manuscripts?

Write an Interview:

After a study of a famous figure, your kids could interview that figure.  It can be an interview in print, or, they can write the dialog for a movie depiction of such an interview.

Anyway, variety is the spice of life and as your kids write more from a variety of styles, their skills will sharpen in more ways than one.  I hope this list is only the beginning and you will add more ideas that you use or were inspired to try in the comments.


We also keep an on-going notebook where for every history lesson she must write a little bit about what it is she has learned.  We used to do this in a composition book which we took the time to collage and personalize, but that was hard for her still because she couldn't figure out how to use the lines for her writing (still just not writing small enough).  I recently aquired a book binder, so I now have her do her entries on her handwriting paper and then simply bind them together at the end of each month (it is easy to re-open and add to an old binding too).  Because we are using a pre-ordained curriculum, I have not personally used "Story of the World" but a lot of homeschool families do and it does look intriguing.  It is written by one of the leading authors of books for those who use the "Classical" approach so it is also used in "Classical Schools".  If you happen to be using this curriculum, so did the woman who writes, this blog, you may find some of her articles helpful as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comments!