Drafting an Historical Argument

History | Grades 6-12

This is the seventh in a series of eight resources on historical argumentation written especially for the Lesson Study Group at Mills College by educator Stan Pesick. These resources are designed to be used individually to help define inquiry questions for use in Lesson Study cycles or in sequence for background research in the Study phase of a cycle. An ordered list of the sequence can be found in part one.

Overview and Key Questions

The following evaluative questions (adapted from Oakland Unified School District) illustrate some of the key aspects of historical writing necessary for constructing an essay that draws upon students’ thinking and writing skills, and the historical information and evidence they’ve gathered.  

  1. Claims – Does the student make a reasonable claim (thesis) that responds to the inquiry question they’ve been assigned or that they’ve developed themselves? Does the student appropriately address opposing claims?
  2. Evidence – Does the student use and cite historical sources in support of the claim/thesis?  
  3. Analysis & Elaboration of Evidence – Does the student show logical reasoning? Does the student use information gathered from sourcing to analyze meaning, perspective, and reliability? Does the student appropriately address conflicting evidence?
  4. Historical Content – Does the student use historical content to contextualize the evidence and argument, while using discipline and content specific language?
  5. Organization – Does the student write a coherent…
    • Claim/Thesis
    • Set of Body Paragraphs
    • Conclusion

Previous resources were designed to help students, and the readers of their essays, answer yes to the first four questions. This resource addresses the final piece of the puzzle: supporting students to organize their ideas and evidence into coherent, thoughtful, and well-written argumentative essays.  This focus on the structure of the essay is essential if students are to make the most of the work put into researching, reading, and analyzing historical sources and background information.

An Initial Challenge: The Introductory Paragraph

The immediate challenge students face in drafting an essay is ensuring it includes a clear, easy-to-follow argument . The role of the introductory paragraph in this work cannot be overstated. Many students have great difficulty constructing introductions that let the reader know what to expect to while reading. Not providing the reader with this information often  means the student hasn’t determined how all the information and evidence fit together, and this in turn means that students have difficulty articulating a coherent argument. There is a vast difference between students who essentially use their first paragraph to state a position and those who use it to frame and outline their essay. Typically, a weak essay has an introductory paragraph that would read something like this:

“Was American expansion ever justified in the 19th and early 20th centuries or even today? I don’t think it was. America tried to push their ways onto others and that is never justified. I will prove this with the facts I have gathered to show you this.”

In this example (taken from actual student work), the student takes a strong moral stance, but he doesn’t identify the historical instances, or the context of those events, that led him to conclude American expansion wasn’t justified. As a result, the paper that followed lacked a coherent organization that weakened its argument.

In contrast, the following example illustrates a more successful (if still imperfect) attempt to frame and introduce an historical argument. This essay responds to the question “Were the gains of the industrial revolution in England from 1780-1850 worth the pain that was caused, particularly to the working people of the country?”  In it, the student writes,

In the mid 18th century, many places around the world changed from primarily agriculture based societies to industrialized ones. The Industrial Revolution was symbolized by the factories that mass produced products in a building with hundreds of workers. Also significant was the use of coal, which was a better fuel than wood and it led to the creation of countless coal mines all around Europe. There were many gains during this time, particularly the advancements in technology leading to better transportation and affordability of products. However, the gains from 1780-1850 were not nearly enough to compensate for the pain that was caused to the millions of workers, miners, and others of the lower class who had to suffer immensely during this time.

This is not a perfect example, but it has two significant strengths. First, it provides the historical context. The writer explains that the Industrial Revolution occurred worldwide, not just in England, and establishes the significance of moving from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Second, this paragraph has a clear claim linked to a concessionary statement. The writer admits that there were gains that came from the Industrial Revolution between 1780-1850, including better transportation and affordability of products, but concludes that these gains were not enough to offset the pain caused workers. The reader then knows that the essay isn’t a diatribe but rather a thoughtful argument that weighs the evidence on both sides. It also let the reader know that the writer understands that an historical argument is always in conversation with another position,  that students and historians can work with the same body of information and evidence and come to different positions.

A Common Misstep

Still, the example introductory paragraph does illustrate a significant misstep for many students: confusing a big idea with a specific piece of information or evidence. Take, for example, this sentence: “Also significant was the use of coal, which was a better fuel than wood and it led to the creation of countless coal mines all around Europe.”  What purpose does this sentence serve? It’s not clear why the writer chose to include this piece of information in the introduction and how it connects to the claim being made. This piece of information about coal mines would be better placed within a paragraph that further illuminates the ideas of changes and gains contrasted with pains, as the writing introduces. Its inclusion as a specific piece of information in the introduction makes organizing a coherent argument more difficult.  

A Standard Essay Format?

These two examples illustrate how important it is for students to have a command of  basic essay structure. In many classrooms, this means having command of the five-paragraph essay. However, this standard essay format has for good reasons been seen as too limiting to good writers. Concerned teachers and educators have argued that no professional writer relies on this format and that the writing that comes out of it is often stilted. Nevertheless, many students benefit greatly from an understanding of this basic structure. The structure encourages thinking about how the information and evidence presented support the position being argued, and how the essay’s organization must support its basic purpose of developing a convincing argument. Once students understand this structure, they should be encouraged to expand it, to modify it, and to play with the conventions. This is an additional skill in which reading and working with writing models can be very helpful.

Categorizing Evidence

Students have an easier time organizing their essays once they understand that the questions they address often contain analytical categories that they can use to organize their writing. For example, consider the prompt “Was Indian independence a success? In answering this question consider economic, social, and political factors.” In responding,  a student would have to decide into which analytical category—economic, social, or political—they would place information and evidence as they organize the argument in support of the thesis. An important understanding for students to develop is that often they will be able to determine the organizational categories for their essay by analyzing the demands of the prompt before they begin to write.

Sometimes, though, a prompt will have few organizational clues, or you may ask students to develop their own essay or research topics. In this case students will independently have to create, identify, and develop analytical categories to help organize their piece of writing.

Discussion Questions

After reading this resource, let the following questions guide your thinking as a team:

  1. What ideas about teaching and learning with professional models of historical writing strike you as important in your setting?
  2. How does your curriculum currently support students in developing understanding how to construct an historical argument?
  3. What experiences have your students had in developing and drafting historical arguments?
  4. What opportunities do students have to raise and get responses to their questions as they grapple with historical evidence and content?  

About the Author

Stan Pesick taught U.S. History and American Government/Economics in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Oakland, CA, for eighteen years (1976 – 1994). Between 2001 and 2011, he co-directed OUSD’s history/social studies department and directed three federally funded Teaching American History (TAH) projects. Between 2011 and 2014 he co-directed the Oakland Unified School District/Mills College History-English Language Arts (ELA) Collaborative on Writing the Argumentative Essay. Since 2014 he’s worked as a curriculum consultant to the National Japanese American Historical Society and National Park Service. He currently works with both the Bay Area and National Writing Projects.