American History Project Assignments

A MiddleWeb Blog

“Your children’s books should be understandable by a second or third grader,” I tell my eighth grade history students, “but do not necessarily need to be appropriate for a child that age.”

In the way of all teacher jokes, this line usually elicits a smattering of uncertain laughter from the class. This is perfectly acceptable, as the remark is intended to serve a pragmatic end, not launch my career in comedy.

Regardless of how funny or unfunny they find my jest, students are now aware that the primary goal is to distill what we have learned into clear, simple language. As we move forward with the project, I regularly remind them that this is our primary goal: to make the content comprehensible for a seven year old.

As you read my account here, keep in mind that I developed this children’s book project with the particular needs of my students in mind. While I believe the project can be adapted to any classroom, the scaffolds are intended to support students who struggle with literacy and knowledge retention. In my inner-city middle school, that’s the norm.


The description of the project itself is straightforward: students work in groups to create a children’s book based on the content of our current unit.

I usually assign the project in the last quarter of the school year, as the process of researching, planning, writing and constructing the book gives students a chance to practice many of the skills they have developed in my class. This year my students worked on books that address the causes of the American Civil War.

When I conceived of this project a few years ago, it suffered from a lack of purpose and structure. It was a project for project’s sake, and I did not anticipate the myriad difficulties my students encountered. Among other things, I assumed (incorrectly) that “creative” was synonymous with “easy.”

The notion was that an art project with few constraints would miraculously help students comprehend complex texts. However, when the projects were completed, it was clear that many students struggled with both the content as well as the writing process itself.

Despite these challenges, the project had value for my students. They developed teamwork, summarizing and time-management skills. Many students were also motivated throughout the process and were excited to see the final product.

The Project Now

I have since restructured the project to include additional scaffolds and a clearer sense of purpose. Students begin, as with most of my units, by reading and annotating secondary sources (many of them summary texts I have written for them myself). I then introduce the project, and ask each team of 2-4 students to select a person, event or idea about which they want to write their children’s book. Students are encouraged to select something or someone that they find personally interesting, as they will be focusing on that subject for several weeks.

Once students have selected their focus, each team is presented with a selection of possible texts that can be used to conduct additional research on their subjects. Student groups are instructed to select two texts and read the pertinent sections. Students then complete a handout (I use an I-chart) that helps them identify similarities and differences between the texts.

While it is tempting to turn this into a full-blown research project, I found that to be counter-productive in classrooms where the majority of the students are struggling with the reading comprehension alone. I have tried to find a comfortable middle ground; I provide students with a choice and ask them to compare the perspectives of the authors. These are fundamental elements of research with which many of my students need practice.

Students then use the I-chart to complete a few constructed responses (long answers to questions that include citations from the text) that help them to narrow the focus for their children’s book. The idea is to get students to identify:

  • What is the most important
  • What is the most interesting
  • Which text they had an easier time understanding

The last of these responses is the most important for most of my students. I work with children who, if asked whether or not they understood what they just read will ALWAYS say yes. If, as a follow-up, I ask them to explain a particular part of the text, most will immediately admit they do not know the answer. This is not prevarication. My students literally do not know when they have failed to understand a text, and many do not even grasp that the goal of most (if not all) reading is comprehension.

Analyzing which text was easier to understand forces students to reflect on what they did or did not understand and is a step toward metacognitive awareness of their own learning. For the purposes of the project, I tell students that this question is to help them write simple prose for the intended audience of the children’s book.

The importance of storyboarding

After completing their constructed responses, students work together to create a storyboard. Again, this is not merely intended to help them with the book. The storyboard is an opportunity to teach or review concepts like chronology or cause-and-effect.

In early iterations of this project, skipping this step meant that many of the books were a random assortment of pictures and words copied from different parts of a history textbook. The storyboard is when the students first begin thinking of the book as a narrative, which is an important conceptual framework for students to develop in history class.

Regardless of the quality of previous teachers, many students continue to see history as an amorphous mass of disjointed facts. The storyboard drives home the way people and events in history have affected one another, and can even bring events to life that had previously seemed dull or meaningless.

A student shares his history children’s book

Finally, once I have personally approved the storyboard and seen that all other elements of preparation are completed, students can gather up supplies and begin working on the book. At this point, the project moves forward like many others. I set out basic expectations about group work and have students periodically reflect on their progress as they move forward.

For the most part, however, I try to fade into the background during the final stages of the project. This is my opportunity to let students succeed and fail on their own terms, and to see which skills they have mastered, and which will need reinforcing after the books are turned in.

Final Thoughts

The average quality of the children’s books I received this year is markedly better than those of previous years. I am fairly confident that this is the result of the structured activities that preceded the creative portion of the project. From a pedagogical standpoint, I had to think of this assignment as synthesis and assessment, rather than treating it as a content-teaching tool.

The remarkable thing for me was watching students become so invested in the project that the content became second-nature, with some students re-teaching others about certain concepts and events in order to make certain they could contribute to the creation of the book.

To a lesser degree, I enjoyed listening to my dorky joke repeated numerous times, as children debated just how graphic to make their books, given that they are intended for children.

From the editor: As our thoughts turn back to teaching, Not Even Past turns back to some of our posts from 2013-14 about new and best teaching experiences. (JN, August 15, 2014)

As the school year comes to a close, we end our series of monthly features on teaching history with a creative assignment devised by one of our US History professors. Instead of assigning only written or oral work, Robert Olwell was one of a handful of History faculty who asked their students to make video essays on specific topics related to the course. On this page, Olwell tells us about the assignment and we include some of the best of the videos his students created. Below we link to the instructions Olwell gave to the students. And throughout the month of May, we will post video essays our students produced in other History Department courses. (JN, May 1, 2014)

by Robert Olwell

In the fall of 2013 I taught the first half of the US history survey course (HIS 315K), which offers a treatment of the major themes of American History from 1492-1865. There was nothing unusual in this. I have taught 315K at least once a year (and often twice) since I came to UT twenty years ago. The course is designed as a lecture course, with assigned readings, and four in-class essay exams. The enrollment is generally 320 students. This time however, my enrollment was capped at only 160. The relatively small number allowed me to conduct a pedagogical experiment. In addition to their individual written essay exams, I assigned each of my students the task of working with three classmates to create a short “video essay.” Their task might fairly be described as a producing a brief research report in which they present their findings not on paper but on the screen. My hope was to enlist students’ familiarity and fascination with digital media in the cause of history and pedagogy.

In order to keep control of the project, I made several command decisions. First, I divided the class into forty teams of four students each. I allowed students no choice of partners but simply used the class roll and the alphabet to make the groups (hence team members’ last names often start with the same letter). Second, I gave the groups no choice as to their topic. I created a list of forty topics that I deemed suitable (i.e., could easily be presented in a four-five minute video) and assigned one topic to each group.

Communicating important news with ringing bell and wall newspapers. From the animated video essay, New Amsterdam.

As the rubric that I posted for the assignment indicates, by far the most important part of their task was the first one: writing the “script.” In late October, my Teaching Assistants and I poured over the forty, ten-page- long scripts. (Each TA looked at ten scripts and I looked at all of them.) Our aim was to offer historical critiques and suggestions, and to make sure the students were on the right track as regards sources, bibliography, and so on. We acted more as “historical consultants” to their projects than as producers. Having never made or posted a video myself, I could offer them little or no assistance in that regard. Instead, I relied on the students’ own facility with visual and digital media to carry them through. (Having watched my two teen-aged daughters produce videos both as school projects and for fun, I rightly suspected my students would be more than capable of fulfilling this part of the assignment on their own.)

From the video essay, The Book of Negroes, about colonial slaves of African descent who fought for the British in return for freedom.

Overall, I would judge the “video essay” project to have been a great success. In their peer evaluations most students agreed; some wrote that it was the most interesting thing they had ever done in a history class. The standard of the finished videos was quite high (the average grade was a B+). There were some difficulties, of course. Some of the groups did not work well together and some students did not pull their weight. The final part of the assignment, peer evaluation, was included to address this possibility. However, most groups did cooperate effectively and I used the peer evaluations as often to reward those students acknowledged by their teammates to have been project leaders, as to punish the slackers.

Would I do it again? Yes, but. Next time, I would probably make the project optional (perhaps replacing one of the written exams), and allow students to make their own teams and choose their own projects.

Here is the assignment sheet and rubric  that I handed out to the students.

And here are the six video essays that I deemed the best of the forty produced by my students last fall.

by Valerie Salina, Jeffrey A. Sendejar, Victor Seth, and Sharmin Sharif

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (1863-65)
by Madeline Christensen, Nathan Cliett, Rebecca Coughlin, and Corbin Cruz

Anne Hutchinson
by Justin Gardner, Rishi Garg, Yanni Georghiades, and Rachelle Gerstner

The Book Of Negroes
by Will Wood, Anfernee Young, Qin Zhang, and Sally Zhang

Dr. Josiah Nott
by Salina Rosales, Felipe Rubin, and Hunter Ruffin

New Amsterdam
by Evan Taylor-Adair, Oliver Thompson, Kimberly Tobias, and Reynaldo Torres Arellano


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