Using Historical Writing for Inquiry

History | Grades 6-12

This is the sixth 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.


In this resource, we discuss working with historical writing to help students develop engaging inquiry questions and provide students with models for thinking and writing. In this context, historical writing includes narratives, explanations, interpretations, and evidence-based arguments. We highlight important aspects of teaching students to read and analyze these writing types by using models that illustrate the kinds of thinking and writing we want to encourage in our students.    

The Reading-Writing Connection and The Challenge of the History Textbook

In history/social studies classrooms, students can be asked to write about history in a variety of ways, including narratives, explanations, interpretations, and evidence- based arguments. But students often don’t get a chance to actually read the kinds of writing they are asked to produce.

A common activity in history classes has students working with primary source documents and brief background pieces, including a textbook excerpt, that provide some context about the time and place the sources were created. None of this provides students with an example of written history.  A source document is just a piece of the past to be analyzed and interpreted, and background pieces or textbook excerpts are most often not a good example of well-written history. That a textbook or encyclopedia entries are often the only model students read has implications for the kinds of historical writing they produce. It is, most often, not the kind of historical writing we might read for pleasure and enjoyment.

For example, consider how the abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke are covered in an 8th grade textbook and then how the historian Carol Berkin discusses them.

Excerpt from the textbook:

(On abolitionist work)  

Angelina and Sarah Grimke, two white southern women, were antislavery activists of the 1830s. They came from a South Carolina slaveholding family but disagreed with their parents’ support of slavery. Angelina Grimke tried to recruit other white southern women in a pamphlet called Appeal to the Christian Women of the South in 1836.

“I know you do not make the laws, but…if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow slavery you are greatly mistaken…Try to persuade your husband, brothers, and sons that slavery is a crime against God and man.”

– Angelina Grimke, quoted in the Grimke Sisters from South Carolina, edited by Gerda Lerner

This essay was very popular in the North.  In 1839 the Grimke sisters wrote American Slavery As It Is.  The book was one of the most important antislavery works of its time.

Excerpt from the historian Carol Berkin:

What made Angelina and her sister Sarah unique within abolitionist circles was neither their oratorical and literary talents nor their energetic commitment to the causes of racial and gender equality. What made them exceptional was their first-hand experience with the institution of slavery and with its daily horrors and injustices. Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of The Liberator, and Theodore Weld, who Angelina married in 1838, could give stirring speeches about the need to abolish slavery, but they could not testify to its impact on African Americans or on their masters from personal knowledge…


In the world around her, Angelina witnessed suffering that disturbed her: a young slave boy who walked with difficulty due to the whip-mark scars on his back and legs; family slaves who were mistreated and abused; and screams of pain from the nearby workhouse, where slaves were dragged on a treadmill, suspended by their arms.


It was not in Angelina’s character to remain silent about these injustices. Under the guidance of a tiny local congregation of Quakers, she renounced materialism and its comforts and began a regime of austerity and moral and religious introspection. But Angelina was not content to pursue her own salvation quietly. Having reformed herself, she set out to reform her family, eager to change the views of her mother, sisters, and brothers, and anxious to enlighten them as she believed herself to be enlightened. Compelled to speak out, she antagonized her family by criticizing their love of finery, their idleness, and above all, their acceptance of slavery. Perhaps to her surprise, she could not win over her mother or her siblings. “I am much tried at times at the manner in which I am obliged to live here.”  


In November of 1829, Angelina moved to Philadelphia, where Sarah had already settled…

The textbook excerpt—written entirely in declarative sentences—is a brief report of who the sisters were, where they came from, and what they tried to do. If we compare it to the excerpt from the Berkin essay, it is easy to see what’s lacking. In Berkin’s piece the sisters begin to come to life.  They are part of a family, they have a specific moral character that fuels their actions, they meet and deal with resistance, and they make decisions without knowing what the future will bring. They are people we want to know more about. This comparison also illustrates the idea that while history has a narrative foundation, just reporting something happened is not enough. Historical writing requires an explanation of the why, and an analysis of significance. Why is this person or event worth reading and writing about?

This comparison is but one example, but it illustrates the idea that students need to read, analyze, and discuss well-written examples of the kind of thinking and writing we asking them to produce. We need to make visible what we have in our heads about what constitutes thoughtful and engaging historical thinking and writing. For students to understand how to construct an historical account, they need the opportunity to work with and appreciate well-written history.   

Working with Models

This quick comparison of the two texts raises a key instructional question: how might reading and annotating an historical text like Berkin’s help students better understand how to write history?

This sample guide for annotating historical essays directs readers to consider the key elements of historical thinking and writing. Readers consider and grapple with specific words and terms, the whys, the significance of what happened, and the thinking and reasoning that underlies this analysis.

Working with Historical Essays and other Argumentative Texts

Identify, comment on, or question the words and ideas that:

  • You don’t understand, trouble you, or you disagree with;
  • Provide information on who created the text and when it was written;
  • Illustrate the writer’s main idea or argument about the person, event, or issue being addressed;
  • Narrate or explain how and why something happened;
  • Provide insight into the kind(s) of reasoning the writer uses to develop the argument of explanation, i.e. cause and effect; cost-benefit analysis, multiple causation, etc.
  • Identify the evidence (and sources) used by the writer to support their explanation of argument
  • Help you understand why the writer believes his/her subject is a significant person, event, or issue.

Let’s look at how this annotation guide can be used to support understanding of the Berkin excerpt:

Introduction – In this passage, the historian Carol Berkin explains how Angelina Grimke, a women who grew up as the daughter of a South Carolina slaveowner, became one of the leading abolitionists of her day.

Annotations and the Importance of Student-Generated Questions

Preparing models of historical writing for students can be a challenge. Many are long and require a good deal of background knowledge and reading skill to understand. Indeed, the Grimke excerpt, which students worked with in an 8th grade Oakland classroom, was a shortened version of the essay as posted online.  

But it is also possible to identify and prepare essays for use with students if we look closely at the historical writing we might read to prepare for teaching a topic.   Often a piece of writing that begins an historical text or chapter of a book is a good model of how an historian engages a reader. Look closely at historical texts you read and see if a brief piece can be excerpted for use with an historical topic you teach. Over time, this will yield a library of historical models that engage and inform students, illustrating that history can be an exciting subject to read and write.

In addition, there are many history websites that include historical essays and writing. The modest list below can help you find essays that, when excerpted or modified,  can be used successfully with students.

History Now – The Gilda Lehrman Institute of American History

Articles connected the American Experience – PBS Series of History Documentaries

Constitutional Rights Foundation resources on World History – includes historical essays

We should not expect students to fully understand all of these texts, but the annotation guide provides a good starting place for this work by helping students explore concepts they do not understand or disagree with.

Below are a number of questions asked by a class of 8th grade U.S. History students in Oakland while annotating the Berkin text.  The questions illustrate three instructional paths teachers can use to help student engagement and understanding.

A first grouping highlights questions that illustrate what some of the students didn’t understand, even though the answer might have been addressed directly in the text:  

  • What do anti-slavery agents do?
  • Did the Grimke sisters change their family’s point of view?
  • How did Angelina and Sarah come to think that slavery was wrong?
  • How did Angelina’s family respond with her attempts to reform them?
  • Did their family persuade them not to be abolitionists?
  • What made the Grimke sisters think slavery was wrong?

It is key for teachers to address these questions with their classes to ensure that all students have a basic understanding of the key people and events in the text.

A second grouping of questions highlights ideas from the text the students want to learn more about. These are researchable questions that lead the reader beyond the text. These student questions include:  

  • What did other whites think when the sisters wanted to stop slavery?
  • How did the Charleston, South Carolina, community react to Angelina and Sarah’s abolitionist actions?
  • How many slaves did the Grimke family own?
  • Did people get hurt during the violence in Boston?
  • What did the sisters do to stop slavery? Did they accomplish it or not?

A third grouping of questions highlights historical puzzles or wonderings about the ideas and people discussed in the text. These student questions include:  

  • Why would Angelina have chosen to focus on getting rid of slavery when she could have had a better life?
  • Why were Angelina and her sister abolitionists even though their father was a slave owner?
  • Why would the daughters go against their own father?

In the second and third group of questions we see students engaged with and thinking with an historical text. We often ask ourselves how we might know if students are engaging with a particular reading, topic, or issue. One key way to understand student engagement is through the questions they ask. The questions above demonstrate students’ desire to clarify and then go beyond the text, illustrating the kinds of thinking that well-written history elicits in its readers.

Using Textbooks Strategically

In addition to having students annotate and question models of historical writing, it also possible use this strategy with the history textbook, moving it from a position as the final word about an historical topic to a position as a “point-of-departure” for historical inquiry. Rather than ask students to answer the questions contained in the text, or teacher-developed questions, simply ask them to react to a textbook excerpt by recording questions they have about what they’ve read. Below are examples of 11th grade student questions asked in response to a chapter that focused on Westward Expansion. The questions illustrate how even a textbook might be used to generate questions worth investigating if students are reading closely and thinking deeply about the history they encounter.

  • Why couldn’t Supreme Court Justice John Marshall enforce his ruling?
  • Why did the Cherokees abandon their ideas and change their lifestyle?
  • Why were the settlers so inclined to leave where they were from? Did something happen to them? Why did they want to leave?
  • The U.S. didn’t want their land (or rights) taken by the British. They knew what it was like to be threatened. Why would they threaten someone else?
  • If the U.S. government took the time to protect the Native Americans in the Northwest Ordinance (1787) why didn’t they follow through with it?

The Importance of Moving toward Inquiry

These questions weren’t the only ones students asked; there were many that asked for clarification of content and vocabulary. What sets these questions above apart are that they can only be answered with further study and discussion. These questions suggest an engagement in the material that would either be invisible or absent if the students were simply required to answer the textbook questions that often end discussion. Such questions only ask students to identify information contained in the text. These types of questions don’t lead students to believe there is more to know, nor do they suggest that there may be different ways to interpret the events and actions of individuals in the narrative. In contrast, the students in our example often went beyond simply asking for factual knowledge. To answer these questions requires engaging in historical inquiry and going beyond the information required in this one text.

What the students asked illustrates how opening up a text to inquiry pushed them beyond the limits of the text’s narrative. Students wanted to know more about historical events, and they wondered about broader historical issues, like freedom, justice, and equality. If teachers are to model how questions turn into inquiry, it is important to take seriously the task of helping students answer these questions by conducting research and finding sources. Indeed, if students don’t get responses to these questions when they are encouraged to frame them, they will probably stop asking, and chances to identify good starting points for individual research might be lost.

For more on this topic see my article “Building a Conversation between Textbooks, Students, and Teachers.”

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 this appreciation for history and historical writing?
  3. What experiences have your students had in working with historical writing?
  4. How might we begin to identify good models of historical writing and build a library of these resources?
  5. What opportunities do students have to raise questions and receive  responses as they grapple with historical evidence and content? What role do student questions play in your day-to-day instruction?

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.