I have always been a firm believer in the value of writing well. I tell my students that though this is a history class, they will complete a fair amount of essays and in-class writing assignments. If they seem unhappy about this, I tell them that no matter what they end up doing with their lives, the ability to express themselves clearly and concisely in writing is a useful skill to have. Besides, the older I get, the more I appreciate good writing, which is another reason why I have started this blog. I am well aware of the fact that my writing is far from perfect, and this medium provides me an opportunity to hone my skills.
In the past, I have always had students write historical essays or reflect on prompts that have some kind of connection to history. This has worked well and I was most often very pleased with the result as students practiced critical thinking and good writing skills at the same time. The one thing that I sometimes felt was missing was creativity. To be sure, students had to use a certain amount of creativity when answering historical prompts, but I have been searching for a way to combine the practice of analytical and creative thinking. The more I think and read about this topic, the more convinced I am that if we can encourage students to think creatively, we will also sharpen their analytical skills.
With that in mind, I tried a little experiment in class last week. On Friday, I provided my students with a list of prompts. The first one was mandatory and typical of a writing prompt in a history class. The remaining seven prompts were wide-ranging in topic and the students had to select two. All of them forced the students to reflect on themselves and our society, but not all asked specific historical questions. (One example: if you could change one thing about your school, what would it be and why?)
Two interesting things happened. First of all, the great majority of students really enjoyed the more wide-ranging topics. I think that this in itself is important as it shows students that writing can be fun and it will hopefully encourage them to keep writing. Secondly, the fantastic responses I received illustrated how incredibly creative my students can be when given the chance. Not only that, but as they shared their responses, they engaged in animated discussions where they showcased both critical and analytical thinking. To some extent, the prompts were just means to get the analytical process started.
Of course, I will still stick with the more traditional prompts in my class; mine is a history class after all and not creative writing. But, I do think that I will on occasion allow my students more freedom in their writing. I am beginning to suspect that it can do great things for their critical thinking skills, and I am curious to see if at the end of this academic year, I will be able to notice a difference in their critical and analytical skills.