Not the Usual Suspects: Alternative Writing Assignments for US History (Part 1)

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Since the launch of the Common Core State Standards in 2010, high school social studies teachers have placed an ever-increasing number of DBQs, LEQ’s, and SAQ’s before their students.

  • The DBQ (document-based-question) is an essay question that calls upon students to develop and support an argument using provided historical source material (aka documents) as evidence. Click here to view a classic DBQ question.  
  • The LEQ (long-essay-question) is an essay question that calls upon students to develop and support an ‘argument’ without the aid of any provided historical source material as evidence. Click here to view some typical LEQ’s along with some very good responses.  
  • The SAQ (short-answer-question) calls upon students to answer three questions pertaining to the same topic, with each question to be answered briefly, specifically, and accurately and in far fewer sentences than a DBQ or LEQ.  Click here to view ten different SAQ prompts.

As the Common Core Standards rolled out, I too placed an ever-increasing number of DBQ’s, LEQ’s and SAQ's before my students. But I didn’t stop there. I also wanted my students to experience other types of U.S. History class writing assignments. They included:

  • The Historical Fiction Letter
  • The Historical Figure Twitter Parody Account
  • The Student Produced Kahoot
  • The Mini-BRIA

See below for a definition of each; samples of student work included. But first, let me explain:

Why I Did This?

I wanted my students to tackle these alternative writing assignments in order to help them:  

  • Acquire an in-depth understanding of history. I simply believe that a great way for students to do this is to write about it..
  • Develop a passion for writing about history.  I know few students who developed a passion for writing about history when only called upon to answer the typical DBQ, LAQ and/or SEQ. Those kinds of writing assignments, in fact, seem to cause students to lose interest in history. With my alternative writing assignments, I’m hoping to have the opposite effect.
  • Write something original rather than something copied off the internet, which is what typically happens with the DBQ, LEQ, or SAQ as the internet is flooded with answers to these kinds of questions.
  • Write about something that might actually have an impact on others, whether that’s someone in the community or a college/university admissions officer.
  • Make the learning of history more relevant and engaging.

I also did this because I found support for my alternative writing assignments in the Common Core State Standards. The standards  encourage the incorporation of writing assignments that call upon students to (1) write for a range of tasks, purposes, and audience, (2) develop real or imagined experiences or events, (3) make use of technology to produce, publish, and update their writings, and (4) work alone, (individually) and in groups (shared).

The Historical Fiction Letter

For this assignment, students were asked to write a letter to the class describing an important day in American history as told from the perspective of someone who was there to experience it, with the letter-writer assuming that he/she was between the age of 18-25 when the letter was written. Letter-writers also had to keep their letters between the 500-1000 word range. Some examples:

  • Dear Class - The Sinking of the USS St. Lo (Patrick M.) For this letter, Patrick assumed that he was a gunner’s mate (anti-aircraft gun operator) aboard the USS St. Lo on the day the St. Lo was sunk as a result of a kamikaze attack during the Battle off Samar (October 28, 1944.) Patrick further assumed that he was writing his letter after having been fished out of the water and while recovering aboard the USS Dennis, en route to San Francisco from Palaus.
  • Dear Class - The Tet Offensive (Mansi G.) For this letter, Mansi assumed that she was a US Marine stationed in Saigon at the U.S. Embassy during the winter of 1968. Mansi further assumed that she was writing her letter on February 2, 1968, the day after the start of the Tet Offensive, and while recovering from having taken a shot to the leg during the attack on the embassy.
  • Dear Class - The Berlin Airlift (Nick E.) For this letter, Nick assumed that he was a 25-year-old United States Air Force Second Lieutenant at the time of the Berlin Airlift. He further assumed that he was writing his letter on the morning of July 4, 1948, while sitting right seat in a plane that was flying back to Germany’s Rhein-Main Air Base shortly after having dropped off a load of supplies over the city of Berlin.

Many of my students said they liked working on this assignment. “It helped bring history to life,” said one. Regardless, I got some of the most creative--and accurate--writing of the year. And it was a lot more interesting to read than an essay.


Click here to view other very good Historical Fiction Letters.

The Historical Figure Twitter Parody Account

For this writing assignment, students needed to take on the persona of a famous and long-gone figure in American history who has come back to life in 2018. Students then needed to create a Twitter account in this person’s name, with the expectation that the students would only Tweet about things that revealed something important about their historical figure. Additionally, students were encouraged to include an image of some sort with every single Tweet. Tweets challenge students to summarize while also engaging their audience. Some examples:

Student reaction to this assignment was mixed. Some appeared to really enjoy the work. Others struggled with the call to develop this kind of imagined experience. In any event, I was impressed with how the students combined their ability to think creatively and critically to deliver all-important content.

Click here to view other very good Historical Figure Twitter Parody Accounts.

The Student Produced Kahoot

A Kahoot is a multiple-choice quiz created with the help of the web-based application program known as Kahoot. When completed, Kahoot quiz questions are projected onto a screen typically located at the front of the classroom, and the students in the class are then given an opportunity to individually answer the questions in real time from their smartphone, tablet or computer. The students’ answers are revealed on the screen as soon as they are submitted. I hoped this assignment would encourage my students to learn to ask questions about history, rather than simply searching for answers to questions about history. Some examples:

When all was said and done, I asked some of my students to answer the following question: “On a scale of 1 to 10, to what extent did you find this project interesting, informative and engaging (with a 10 being very interesting, informative and engaging, and a 1 being not at all interesting, informative and engaging)?”

On average, the students scored it a 7 and I was satisfied with this response. But anything less I would have found troubling.

From the outside looking in, I was particularly impressed with how they worked to come up with such well-thought-out and well-worded questions. I was even more impressed to hear them justify, in response to peer review questions, why they asked the questions that they did. And they all seemed to thoroughly enjoy playing the games produced by their fellow classmates.

Click here to view other very good Student Produced Kahoots.

The Mini-BRIA

A BRIA is a four-page document - produced by the Constitutional Rights Foundation - that provides high school students with a detailed description of a significant topic related to U.S History. I asked my students to write a mini-BRIA, a two-page document (modeled after the CRF’s four-page BRIA’s) that would thoroughly explain some topic related to U.S. History. By creating these mini-BRIAs, students are given an opportunity to write something that will be read by their peers in U.S. History classrooms throughout the country. Some examples:

Students liked working on this project. Many reported to me that they especially liked the ability to write about a topic of their choosing. Giving students this choice no doubt had a positive impact on student motivation. They surely worked many hours on this assignment and while in-class engaged in endless hours of reflection and revision.

Click here to view other very good Mini-BRIA’s.

Part II


In Part II of this post, I will describe the challenges I faced in placing these alternative writing assignments before my students. I will also describe the alternative writing assignments I plan to place before my students next year. And I will describe the alternative writing assignments that U.S. History teachers elsewhere (AP U.S. History teachers included) place before their students.