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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Thinking and Communicating Like a Historian

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Steve Lazar discusses how teaching his students the specific language of his discipline gives them the tools to better discuss and write about content.

Teacher: Steve Lazar

School: Harvest Collegiate High School, New York, NY

Grade: 10

Discipline: History/Social Studies

Lesson Topic: Writing about complicated things (“It’s Complicated”)

Lesson Month: March

Number of Students: 20

Other: Theme-based semester-long elective course in the history discipline. “It’s Complicated” focuses on current world issues. Content is 100 percent student inquiry-driven, topics are selected by students, and content is built by Mr. Lazar as they go.

Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:

  • Content objectives – Learn a skill that could be applied to writing about any historical content; be able to talk or write about cause and how it explicitly connects to conflict
  • Literacy/language objectives – Acquire and apply language that can be used to more precisely and insightfully discuss cause and effect and complexity in both writing and speaking
  • Engagement/interaction objectives – Be an active, intelligent, thoughtful historian and citizen of the world

Standards Addressed:

The C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • D2.His.14.9-12
    Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts

    Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
    Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
    Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Instruction Details:

The Unit
Students select all the topics in this course, and student inquiry drives the path of learning. Mr. Lazar said, “I have a map in my head of major, major, major historical content I know I need to make sure students learn in this course, but in terms of how we get there, it’s fun to take the route that the students … make as we go through.” The focus of this six-week unit was the current events happening in Crimea. The goal of this unit was to trace the causes of these events as far back in history as was possible. It was the second unit of the semester, and it followed a unit on the complicated events of Afghanistan. The lesson on writing about complicated topics through cause and effect came approximately two weeks into the unit, and was taught by Mr. Lazar in response to a need that he had identified in his students’ work.

Before the Video
Students spent a week learning about the current issues in the region to get a sense of what was going on and the ways in which the situation was complicated. They began by first identifying the questions they wanted to answer about the current situation in Crimea (using a question-generating technique from the Right Question Institute.) Students brainstormed, refined, and prioritized many possible questions. Mr. Lazar and the students then came up with a plan to answer them.

During the Video
Mr. Lazar began the lesson by having students answer two questions about cause and effect: What was an important moment in your life? How did it affect something else? He related the questions to students’ own lives so that they would be accessible for everyone, and so that students could better focus on learning the new skill. He provided writing prompts—lists of simple words and phrases that make cause and effect clear—and gave six examples of transitions. Students practiced writing using one prompt and then answered the two cause and effect questions. Next, Mr. Lazar discussed with students the topic of writing about how things are complicated. He provided a two-part list of complicated transitions—divided into contrast words (e.g., although, but) and addition words (e.g., also, besides). Again, Mr. Lazar gave an example and had students practice. Then, he asked them to think of a situation in their personal lives that was messy or complicated, make a list of ways that it was complicated, and write about it using the word prompts provided. With this experience under their belts, students moved on to answering two questions about the Crimea conflict—the first about cause and effect, and the second about how it was complicated.

After the Video
After this lesson, Mr. Lazar gave students a quiz in which they identified one cause of the conflict in Crimea and two groups involved with it and discussed the extent to which the conflict had been resolved. (The quiz was modeled on the state exam essay format.) Mr. Lazar included scaffolds of word prompts on the quiz. The following week, the class repeated the question-generating process to identify a new set of questions to research and answer, this time purely about Crimea’s history. They continued this process to explore the economics and political climate of Crimea (including exploring international organizations such as the G8 and NATO, the Cold War, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Putin, and the role of the European Union) and also researched and evaluated sources. By the end of the unit, students had done mini-research projects and presentations. Mr. Lazar helped students draw connections among the various topics researched and to explain the causal relationships between different aspects of Russian history.

Teacher Prep
Mr. Lazar identified the need for learning about cause and effect by looking at students’ work. He drew content from what students already know (themselves) rather than from new course content as a result of a lesson he had adapted a lesson from the book They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff.

Prior Knowledge
Because this is a skill-based lesson, there is no prior knowledge needed by students in order to participate.

Differentiated Instruction
Mr. Lazar’s students range greatly in their academic levels, so he enabled his students to move at their own pace throughout the year. When a student was ready to move on to the next step, he or she did. To accommodate this in this lesson, Mr. Lazar made sure to post the word prompts on a projector as well as distribute them in hard copy to each student. This allowed Mr. Lazar to change the projection to a later part of the lesson for those students who were moving faster. Mr. Lazar was also intentional with his one-on-one conversations during student writing—he began with the students he knew would have trouble and circled back to them to check in as often as possible. The lesson was highly scaffolded—writing prompts were available throughout as support.

Group Interaction
Throughout the year, Mr. Lazar’s students picked their own seat locations. For the beginning writing assignment on cause and effect, students had discussions with a partner before writing and shared with each other again after writing. A few students were called upon randomly to read their cause and effect essays aloud to the class. (Mr. Lazar chose to make the essays about a complicated situation private, as much of the topics written about were personal.)

Resources and Tools

  • They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein
  • Handout: Cause and Effect Transitions
  • Handout: Complicated Transitions
  • Handout: Cause and Effect Writing
  • Complicated: Crimea Study Guide
  • LCD projector


Formative Assessment
Throughout the lesson, Mr. Lazar checked on students frequently as they practiced writing with prompts and used the prompts to write about history throughout the rest of the class. Mr. Lazar conferenced with students before their second writing to talk about the content in more concrete and meaningful ways. He gave students more support when they needed it. As students were ready to advance, they did. Because the lesson was taught with a lot of scaffolding, Mr. Lazar was interested to see if students could apply what they had learned when writing about themselves to writing about the historical context of what they were learning, without the prompts. He noticed some students doing this by the end of the lesson, and many more the following day.

Student Self-Assessment
There was no student self-assessment for this lesson.

Summative Assessment
Mr. Lazar gave students a quiz with a four-point rubric. (1 = a right answer; 2 = a detailed answer; 3 = a complicated answer—this meets Mr. Lazar’s goal; 4 = a brilliant, intelligent, or insightful answer, or a new question). At the end of the unit was another writing assignment to assess whether students retained what they learned, a multiple-choice test (on factual information they could expect to encounter on the state exam), and an essay test (also based on the state exam) in which students explained how the situation in Crimea came to be.

Impact of Assessment
Mr. Lazar assesses students daily and builds his lessons based on previous student work. This lesson was developed in response to a previous assessment in which Mr. Lazar saw that students were missing the vocabulary they needed in their writing to explicitly show cause and effect.

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4