“RULE #26 … Written material deemed inappropriate will be destroyed?” inquisitively asks Rafe Katchadourian as he sits in Principal Dwight’s clutches, after his notebook of prize drawings, “that means everything” to him has been confiscated. “ Bring the yellow bucket …” (of toxic sludge) orders the ruthless Principal Dwight, as the trailer for the hilarious comedy Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life,  shifts into cartoon mode. We then see Principal Dwight handing down discipline, which from Rafe’s point of view, feels like drowning as the entire creative contents of his prize notebook dissolves, and Rafe’s confidence right along with it. Rafe is hopelessly reminded by Principal Dwight that “creativity has no place in this school!”  To the contrary, Principal Dwight, teachers know that creativity is exactly what is needed in every classroom and school in order to take on the problem known as standardization.

The demands placed on teachers, and subsequently students, often can make all of us feel that creativity is being stripped from the learning process. What I’ve found is the best way to foster creative thinking is to provide a structure that simplifies that hard stuff, providing plenty of space to motivate student critical thinking. A formulaic approach to essay writing, beginning with mnemonic devices and acronyms, promises to help learners of every ability level, especially our special needs learners.

But before we begin discussing how to apply a writing analysis formula, first let’s do some SPECulaTinG! Using the Social Studies Reference Table, which I discussed in a previous post, has students use the SPECulaTinG concept to organize their thoughts in order to begin formatting the essay writing process.

Students can be SPECulaTinG SPECulaToRs whether they are working on a document analysis task or are beginning written practice. To begin the process, students write the formula(s) and SPECulaTinG at the top of their papers. If you have students repeat this process before beginning any assigned task, it will begin to feel automatic and familiar. By repeating the process, we help students create an automatic strategy for essay writing (Richards, 2008). Ideally, we want students to automatically think about the different analytical and writing components, even after they leave our classroom.

After writing the acronym, students become speculators. Two tables of the Social Studies Reference Table remind students to always be aSPECulaToR or to do some SPECulaTinG when working with social studies related themes and concepts. By this point, students have been introduced to the term speculation, meaning “the forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence” (Mirriam-Webster Dictionary,2018). The acronyms stand for the social science disciplines of Social, Political, Economic, Cultural, Technological and either Geographic or Religious, depending on the nature of the activity. These acronyms remind students of the lens through which they view their assigned task or question. Then, as a class, we discuss the components (social, political, economic, cultural, technological or geographic) that make each of these social science categories both enduring issue and social studies related themes.

The purpose of this is to frame their thinking from the very beginning within social studies disciplinary thinking.

After considering how they will speculate, students will again review the enduring themes of social studies on the Social Studies Reference Table in Table A. Students don’t need to memorize them, but rather become familiar.


SAMPLE A: J.Ingold Authentic Materials: Self-guided note taking utilizing Social Studies Reference Table practice: SPECulaTinG

STEP 1: Students are given a “Compelling Aim” question before they begin assessing the document and/or activity task. Sample A below illustrates this open ended inquiry-based question concept by considering how Southern culture & lifestyle presented barriers to America’s Reconstruction through a social, political, economic, cultural or geographic critical lens (or combination, in this case) – each having its own implications for the task at hand. Students also begin to see how the various social science/enduring issues categories begin to develop and fit together.

For example, students are given a question: “ What types of barriers did Southern culture & lifestyle create to America’s Reconstruction?”

SAMPLE B: J.Ingold Authentic Materials: Self-guided note taking utilizing Social Studies Reference Table practice: SPECulaTinG

  • Students hypothesize which categories presented the greatest barriers to Reconstruction by circling social, political, economic, cultural or geographic or any combination of categories.
  • On the “brick wall” chart provided, students list their 3 chosen categories in the boxes provided on the left, along with one specific example or piece of evidence from their knowledge of social studies thus far to supporting their hypothesis in the corresponding boxes on the right.

STEP 2: Students complete a researched-based, evidence collection activity examining both primary and secondary sources (SAMPLE C below). Students are asked to compare and contrast the various cultural viewpoints, through recording evidence in the spaces provided in their packet, in order to further determine which social studies discipline(s) most affected American culture and society during the Reconstruction period. Students will record their findings on the answer sheet(s) provided:

J.Ingold Authentic Materials: Self-guided HyperDoc utilizing Social Studies Reference Table practice: SPECulaTinG: Inset Evidence collection notes sheet

STEP 3: After the evidence collection process has been completed, students are then asked to revisit their hypothetical aim in order to their see if their SPECulaTinG theory has been proven or if the evidence collected has taken them in another direction. Students will fill in the blanks using their SPECulaTinG terms: Social, Political, Economic, Cultural, Technological or Geographic. Student analysis of their AIM is then turned into an evidence-based CLAIM for which they will support using their two best pieces of evidence (SAMPLE D below).

SAMPLE D: J.Ingold Authentic Materials: AIM to CLAIM SPECulaTinG Evidence-based Compelling Closure Activity

After students have been introduced to the “Art of being a SPECulaTinG SPECulaToR”, teachers can ask students to write the acronym on the tops of their papers before beginning any document or written analysis based activity as a part of their routine moving forward. Having students practice writing “SPECulaToR and/or SPECulaTinG” on the top of their papers reinforces the different analytical lenses through which students can scrutinize questions and sources. This process promotes stronger focus and structure on how they are thinking along with helping to increase historical literacy. By returning over and over to a speculation process, young writers are repeatedly reminded to demonstrate deeper understanding of their topic through providing supporting evidence for their viewpoint.

Teaching students to utilize the acronyms SPECulaTinG and SPECulaToR will help establish thinking parameters essential for student understanding of social studies discipline’s and further student success. Establishing parameters to students’ analytical thinking, instead of allowing them free reign, helps empower students to think intentionally and deeply within and outside the classroom. For teachers, we need to establish creative parameters, which allow students to think both implicitly and explicitly about the social studies disciplines’ processes. It is important that we think creatively about the guidelines we use in order to promote rigorous student thinking and, ultimately, empower them with a structure that is relatable and that they can easily apply to interpreting their world.

Reference: Richards, R. (2008). Memory Strategies for Students: The Value of Strategies.