Not the Usual Suspects: Alternative Writing Assignments for US History (Part 2)

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Since the launch of the Common Core State Standards in 2010, I have placed a number of fairly standard writing assignments (DBQ’s, LEQ, and SAQ’s) before my students. But I didn’t stop there. I also placed before my students an ever-increasing number of alternative writing assignments. They included:

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

In Part 1 of this post, I described each of these writing assignments and included samples of student work. I also explained why I assigned this kind of work.

Here in Part 2, I will describe the challenges I faced in placing these writing assignments before my students. I will also describe the alternative writing assignments I plan to assign my students next year. And I will describe the alternative writing assignments that U.S. History teachers elsewhere have placed before their students.

The Challenges I Faced

By far, the biggest challenge I faced was finding the time to grade all of the work. The truth is that I really struggled in this regard.

Several other major challenges I faced:

  1. Finding myself in the position of having to teach students how to write.
  2. Getting criticized for not spending enough time teaching the content.
  3. Getting criticized for calling upon my students to write historical fiction. Now and then, I heard the cry that I should only call upon my students to produce “academic writing” (aka the kind of writing that colleges will assign and that continually calls for students to offer up a claim, evidence, and analysis.).

What I Will Do Differently Next Year

Next year, I will try to find someone in the community—ideally a retired English teacher, writer and/or editor—who would be willing to help me grade the writing. I will also search for a local college student willing to provide the needed support. If the Common Core State Standards expect me to assign more writing, I’m going to need some help grading it.


I will also heed the advice of fellow high school social studies teacher Scott Petri to:

One other thing I will do differently next year - I will call upon my students to respond to an even greater number of ‘alternative' writing assignments, with each of these assignments described below.

(This past semester, I asked a few students to field-test these assignments. The results of these field-tests also appear below.)

The Local History Blog Post

This writing assignment will call upon students to create a 700-1000 word blog post that reveals something about local history and that relates to something the students learned about in their U.S. History class textbook. Some examples:

Click here to view other very good Local History Blog Posts.

The Textbook Motivated Travel Log

Next year, right after school starts in the fall, I will ask my students to let me know if, at any point in the year, they plan to travel somewhere (regardless of the distance to be traveled).

Once the students have informed me of their travel plans, I will ask them if there is something in the textbook that relates to their travel plans. If so, I will then encourage them to tour/visit that “something” and describe both the section of the textbook that relates to their travel plans and whatever they toured/visited in a 500-750 word “travel log.”  Some examples:

The Letter to the Next President

I believe that a great way to teach U.S. History is for a teacher to try, whenever possible, to connect learning about the past to something significant in the present.

One way for a teacher to do this is by providing his/her students with an opportunity to write a letter to the next president about a current event that connects to some topic that had just been taught.

After I taught my students about the Bill of Rights at the start of the year, one of my students responded with a very strong desire to write the next president a letter in regards to the issue of control. Some examples:

  1. Letter to the Next President — Speak Out Against the Lack of Gun Control. (by Michael B.)
  2. Letter to the Next President - Speak out Against those Calling for Congress to Grant Statehood to Puerto Rico

Other US History Teachers and Their Alternative Writing Assignments

I recently asked thousands of U.S. History teachers the extent to which they place 'alternative writing assignments’ before their students. Some of the more interesting responses were:

  • When I was a student, nothing helped me become more skilled at writing history than learning about journalism -- news reporting, in particular. I, therefore, teach news writing to teach history. Click here for details.”
  • “I have my students respond to one or more of the high-quality prompts found on the PBS Writing in U.S. History website. There, one can find six interactive, self-paced lessons for high school students. Each lesson provides an immersive look at a key topic in U.S. history integrated with tools to develop writing skills. The website also includes lively illustrated lectures by historian Ben Weber, with these lectures supplemented by a range of primary source materials, including historical documents, photographs, cartoons, and artifacts.”
  • “I have my students write letters to President Wilson trying to convince him to join the allies in WWI.”
  • “I have my students do a critical book reflection of The Jungle. I also have them write a critical book review for a book of their choosing that describes some period of American history.”
  • “I have my students write a eulogy for Lincoln (with the eulogy written from the perspective of an assigned person.)”
  • “I have my students construct their own DBQ’s”
  • “I have my students participate in the National History Day Contest.”


If you are a history teacher and have placed before your students' alternative writing assignment that you wish would have been mentioned in this article, please describe these assignments in the comment section below. I am especially interested in learning about assignments that students have produced digitally and are likely to impress college and university admissions officers.