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Tip of the Week – 5 Back to School Ideas for Social Studies Teachers

(There’s an updated 2018 version! Find it here.)


I know that some of you are already on the ground with kids, doing point of the spear stuff. But for many, school starts next week. And you may already have your entire week planned out, ready to go.

But if you’re still struggling with what to do or maybe just looking for a few fresh ideas, here’s five great activities that you can use right away without a lot of prep time.

History in a Bag

Purchase or find enough brown paper bags for all of your students. Write a number on each bag and give one to every kid. Ask them to place five personal items into the bag, close it and to remember the number (for identification later). These items can be anything in their pockets, backpack, etc. Place all of the bags in a pile and have the students select one at random.

Provide a series of questions that they will answer as they attempt to decipher these “artifacts.” Is this person male or female? What do they think is important? How old is this person? Where do they live? The questions aren’t so important as the rationale used to answer the question. You want kids to start thinking about how we know what we know, to start to understand the historical process.

Have students get into groups of two or three to explain their answers. As a large group, ask kids to identify the owners of their bag’s artifacts. Lead a discussion about historical process and how we know what we know.

Fence Sitter

One of the best things about being a social studies teacher is that we get to discuss and argue all of these great questions.

Should we have dropped the bomb? Is it ever okay to violate the Bill of Rights? What really happened during the Gulf of Tonkin incident? Is it legal for law enforcement to search student lockers? Why did the South lose the Civil War?

The problem, of course, is finding a structure that ensures that everyone gets involved. I’ve run across a great way to encourage participation and keep the focus on content.

It’s called the Fence Sitter activity and I’ve used it with elementary kids all the up to college age. It works every time! And you can set it up to work with just about any question or problem that has two opposing sides. Get all the details here.

Time Line Challenge

Print 10-12 photos from the time period you will be studying. Mix up the photographs and distribute them to random students in the classroom. Have the kids with photos head to the front and hold up their photo. Ask the rest of the class to work with those standing to correctly arrange the photos chronologically. Lead a discussion that allows kids to explain their order and to introduce future content.

It also works great to divide your class in half, give each group the same set of photos and have the two groups create “competing” timelines. Let them argue for the correct order and work to convince students in the opposing group to change sides. You might give extra credit to the group with the largest number of students. Provide the correct order and subtract points for any mistakes made by the “winning” group. Give those points to other group.

Learn more about tech usage

Create a short tech survey for kids to complete. The quickest way to gather data would be to use a Google Form to create an online survey but paper and pencil work too. This gives you data that can help you plan instruction. Questions should include such things as:

  • do you have a computer at home?
  • do you have a cell phone?
  • what is your text plan?
  • other mobile devices?
  • internet speed at home?
  • printer?
  • digital camera?

History Couples

A quick way to group students, activate prior knowledge or encourage kids to mingle is to use History Couples.

Create a list of historically related items that can be matched together. These could be people, events, places or even ideas. The items could be completely random or specific to your class content and time period. Preview one of my lists to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

I use Word to arrange them so that they can be printed on Avery mailing labels and then stuck on note cards. Randomly distribute to your students and ask them to find their partners.

Once kids find their match, you can have them do a variety of things.

  • Discuss why their match makes sense.
  • Find another group of two so that all four items make sense in a group.
  • Arrange themselves chronologically.
  • Brainstorm four more items that could be added to their group.
  • Find another group that is completely opposite of their own.

Good luck as the school starts.

Be sure to have fun!

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Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Speaking and Consulting page.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great ideas ! For a french history and geography teacher too 🙂 ! Thanks !

    September 2, 2011
    • glennw #

      Glad you found them useful.

      Have a great weekend!


      September 2, 2011
  2. Mayas Ali #

    HI, I just found your information on Google, and I am hired as a new social study teacher for middle and high. I have no background experience in teaching, my credentials in psychology and master in education. I will be starting very soon my first day, I am nervous any ideas???or advise on what to do on the first day of school???

    August 18, 2013

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