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Tip of the Week: 5 Great Ways to Start School for Social Studies Teachers

I spent part of this week working with elementary and secondary social studies teachers as part of the pre-school activities. It’s always a good time because, well . . . it’s just me and social studies teachers. So we get to talk about the fun part of the core curriculum – history and social studies stuff.

But we always get sidetracked somewhere during the day because the conversation drifts over to the first couple days of school. What activities work best for kicking off the year? I stole some of their ideas, added a couple of my own, and pasted them below. (Be sure to add your suggestions to the comments!)

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.

Use Wordle

Have kids generate their own personal word clouds. Have them enter words that describe their physical traits, personality, hobbies, interests, books, video games . . . really anything that would help someone else get a clear picture of who they are. Don’t forget to create one of your own.

Later during the school year, have kids use Wordle to do the same thing by describing historical characters.

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.

Find out more about their tech usage

Create a short tech survey for kids to complete. The quickest way to gather data would be to use Google Forms 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?
  • any other mobile devices?
  • do you have internet access at home? Wireless? What is your internet speed?
  • 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.

Be sure to have fun!


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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Just to note that I will use the History in a Bag this semester with my graduate students in our Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis. Thanks so much. Great ideas for all educational levels.

    August 16, 2013
    • glennw #

      Cool beans! Good luck!


      August 16, 2013
  2. Great set of activities. I particularly enjoyed “History in a Bag.” I referenced your blog posting and expanded on the idea within my own blog post. Our district curriculum (Jeffco Schools, Colorado) is built around concepts that are elevated K-12, and one of those concepts is “historical process.” I tried to expand on your idea to show how it’s connected to “historical process.” From one curriculum specialist to another…THANKS!

    August 22, 2013
    • glennw #


      Glad you found some useful stuff!

      I write a lot of posts on historical thinking – here in Kansas, our new state standards document is focused on process rather than specific content. So we’re doing a lot of work on encouraging a different way to think about instructional practices.

      When you find some extra time, you might be interested in some of those posts:

      Will be spending some time exploring 2thinkis2learn! Thanks for sharing.


      August 25, 2013

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