Thursday, March 31, 2011

Creative Writing in the History Classroom

It’s the end of a long March after a winter bombarded with snow-days and the forecast is predicting snow on the first of April. I, firstly, want to offer some encouragement and cheer to my fellow teachers who are on the front line defending Fort Sanity. I have found this true for myself, and hope it will be useful to you as well, that during this long and transitional time of year when we’re itching to say good-bye to Winter and Hello to Spring, it helps to remember to design lessons and activities that revive the excitement, interest, and creativity in teaching and learning. Creative writing strategies may provide the necessary ray of sunshine for your classroom, yes, your history classroom.

The Buzzards Bay Writing Project (BBWP) presented writing strategies for the history classroom at the History Connected December Seminar, War and Protest. They highlighted two forms of creative writing, RAFT and Found Poems. RAFT, an acronym for Role-Audience-Format-Topic, provides students with a unique way to analyze a primary source and make connections with a historical event. After selecting a primary source, teachers assign, or allow students to choose, their role, which can range from a specific person, to a general character, to an inanimate object; an audience, which can vary from personal, public, supportive, oppositional, or undecided; a format, which can be at any level of formality, from a postcard to a speech; and a topic that connects to the purpose of the lesson. Students develop valuable insight through considering the personality and point of view of their role and the word choice, tone, and purpose given their audience, format, and topic. BBWP modeled RAFT with two primary sources, Jackson’s defense of the removal policy (Role, Andrew Jackson; Audience, “aborigines;” Format, address to the tribes as they prepare to leave; and Topic, why this action is necessary) and a Memorial and Protest of the Cherokee Nation (Role, Cherokee Nation; Audience, people attending the “funeral” of the Cherokee Nation; Format, Eulogy; Topic, Our People). RAFT has the potential to deepen students’ understanding of an event and develop their historical thinking skills by prompting them to consider historical perspective and competing historical narratives.

Found Poem is a unique way for students to synthesize concepts from a primary source and organize them into a creative visual. You literally “find” a poem in a source…it’s easier than it sounds. Found Poem is broken down into manageable steps so that no “traditional” poetry writing skills are needed; students don’t necessarily need to know they are writing a poem! I’ve slightly modified/clarified BBWP’s procedure for Found Poem: 1. Teacher should share the idea of a found poem with the class, show a model or model the process. 2. Students read passage independently, highlighting key words or phrases that help to define the meaning of the passage. 3. Students may either work individually or in pairs or small groups to arrange words and phrases into a Found Poem. Encourage students to consider the use poetic devices such as imagery, personification, simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhythm, and rhyme, as well as the use of white space and writing words in a shape, size, and direction that reflects their meaning. 4. Students come together and share their poem. I really like Found Poem because of its effectiveness in exploring and evaluating key concepts within a source and because it requires students to express the meaning, tone, and significance in a format that’s easy for others to understand. Its accessible procedure and creative format encourages participation from different learning styles and learning abilities. BBWP modeled Found Poem with an 1838 letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson protesting the removal of the Cherokee Indians from the state of Georgia. Each group of teachers had a few paragraphs to read and from which to “find” a poem. Together, we collaborated on what phrases and ideas best represented our section as well as how to visually represent them. As each group presented, I learned about the entire document. Found Poem also leaves the teacher with excellent, content-rich wall décor that continues to teach long after the lesson. I used this with my world history class and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. One of my favorites has the poem written in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. It’s on my wall and we refer back to it whenever we need a refresher on the ideas of freedom that have shaped the world.

Two resources I’ve used to help add more writing, creativity, and thinking, without necessarily creating a lot of grading for myself, are

The Story in History: Writing your Way Into the American Experience by Margot Fortunato Galt and Content-Area Writing: Every Teacher’s Guide by Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke.

I’m interested to know what documents you’ve used or what documents you think would work well for RAFT or Found Poem. What other forms of creative writing do you use in your history classroom?


  1. Hi Pam:
    I used the RAFT activity soon after that workshop. It worked pretty well and the result was a podcast for my freshmen classes about Louis XIV of France. The parent response was pretty positive too! You can hear those podcasts at or I will definitely be using RAFT again in the future.

    I was less enthralled with the Found Poems methodology when we experienced it in the workshop. It's nice to know that it worked for you with content that I will be covering later in the year (the French Revolution). Maybe I'll give it a shot.

  2. I have found that the key to a "Found Poetry" exercise is to stress that students should remain true to the original author's tone, message and intent. I used this strategy with students for a "This I Believe" audio recording (we were studying a particular individual's biography). It worked as an activator and provided a seamless transition into a deeper discussion of that person's ideas and actions.

    I love the idea of using the found poetry strategy with an historical document that you plan to refer back to at different times in your course. I also value your students’ choice of a French symbol - better than the guillotine which was particularly symbolic of the time!