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Tip of the Week: Seven Social Studies Strategies for Back to School

(When you’re done here, head over to the updated version of Back to School ideas. You’ll find some sweet Geo Goodness, memes, scavenger hunts, art as history, and a handy Bootcamp unit.)

Yup. It’s that time of year already. The annual Back to School Ideas in a Social Studies Classroom post. And I know some are already back in the classroom but most of you crank up this week or next.

So. Here ya go.

Use what you can. Adapt what you can’t. Add your own ideas in the comments.

What not to do

Before we get going with what we know works, it’s probably a good idea to think about what doesn’t. Fourteen Things You Should Never Do on the First Day of School is a great reminder of what it looks like when we’re doing it wrong. Mark Barnes suggest that our goal is a simple one during the first few days of school:

You have many days to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses. You have months to discuss high stakes testing and standards. You’ll spend weeks probing the textbook.

The first day of school should be dedicated to rapport-building and to joy.

Your goal should be that students go home that night and tell their parents: “I’m going to love history class because Mr. Wiebe is awesome!”

History Mysteries

Our history and social studies classes need to be structured around the central idea that we’ll be using evidence to solve problems all year long. Encourage this idea from the very first day with a variety of mysteries and problems to mess with.

One of the simplest ways to do this is called 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 does this person value? 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.

Kevin Roughton adapts the History in a Bag idea with his own Personal Artifacts. Why?

Harry Wong led me astray. After reading The First Days of School and having it drilled into my head that his methods were the be all, end all of classroom management I made myself into a clone. My first couple years I spent a ton of time the first few days practicing routines, reviewing procedures and explaining rules.

In other words, I spent the first few days doing everything I hated when I was a student.

I love this! So cool. Supports problem solving while encouraging a learning partnership between teacher and student rather than an adversarial one focused on rules and control.

Peter Pappas suggests something he calls The Detective Game. Same idea – the activity encourages working together to solve problems.

Use the SHEG

The focus of the Stanford History Education Group Reading Like a Historian curriculum is on US and World History. But. Wait for it . . . they also have a great set of intro lessons that help kids use evidence to solve everyday sorts of problems. Altercations in the lunchroom. Using evidence.

So even if you’re not US or World focused, you can still use the intro lessons to support critical thinking.

Smithsonian Learning Labs

The brand new Smithsonian Learning Lab will change how you and your kids collect, organize, share, and analyze primary evidence. It is seriously that good.

The Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access created the Smithsonian Learning Lab to inspire the discovery and creative use of its rich digital materials – more than 1.3 million images, recordings, and texts. It is easy to find something of interest because search results display pictures rather than lists.

Add your own notes and tags, incorporate discussion questions, save, then share. By encouraging users to create and share personalized collections of both Smithsonian assets and user-generated resources, the Learning Lab hopes to build a global community of learners.

So during your first week, plan on contributing to the community. Create your own account and begin adding kids to your online classes. Then ask your students to create a collection with a specific focus. This could be as simple as “create a collection of ten resources that describe America.” Or maybe “find and organize five images that describe you.” Or “find and annotate one artifact that is the most important artifact in American history.”

Maps Over Time

This idea perhaps works best for world history and geography folks but you could adapt it in a variety of ways. Start by providing students with a large piece of drawing paper. Ask your kids to draw a map of the world and label as many countries and bodies of water as possible. Let your students know that this is just a starting point and that you’ll be repeating the activity throughout the year. Collect the maps and put them away. Then every quarter or end of a unit, repeat the activity and ask students to compare / contrast their different maps. It’s a great way to help kids see and measure personal progress.

Adaptions? Just the US. Or just your state. Or just your city or school. Maybe just bodies of water. Or just major cities. Maybe a focus on some sort of economics.

Art History as History

Works of art have been around for thousands of years in just about every time period and culture your kids will be learning about. Art is a reflection of the time period and culture it is created in, so any introduction to art is an introduction to history. So start by highlighting paintings and sculptures from your different instructional units and ask kids to make inferences about the culture.  Even younger kids can draw conclusions about different clothing and what that might mean in terms of weather and geography. Ask students to think about hobbies and interests and about values.

Take advantage of ideas from the Smithsonian here. This post has multiple resources for connecting social studies and art. And be sure to chat with the art teacher to find additional resources.

Video & Board Games

I’m a big believer in all sorts of games. We know that play is good for the brain. So why not play a little (or a lot) during the first week? I’ve written before about my new favorite board game called Timeline – a perfect way to have fun while getting some formative assessment data about students’ prior knowledge.

The ReadWriteThink folks have a nice piece on using board games to support technical reading and writing. Some examples?

Need a few places to find even more? Start with the Center for Gaming and Learning and their list to kickstart your thinking. Then head over to the Genosee Valley Educational Partnership. Use their search filter to find games specific to your grade and content.

There are also some quick and easy online games your kids can play during the first few days of school that focus on problem solving and collaboration:

And don’t forget about tools such as Kahoot and Quizzez. Both are very sweet little formative assessment tools that recreate the kind of timed bar trivia game that always catches my attention in Buffalo Wild Wings. It’s also a great way to engage kids in content, take surveys, and quickly get feedback on all types of questions.

Maybe use Kahoot to discover students’ tech access outside of school or measure prior knowledge. Play the team version. Embed some of the mystery stuff we’ve already talked about by posting images or videos into your questions – forcing student groups to not just solve mysteries but post solutions in a more visible way.

Create some social media

The election is heating up. One way to create a little buzz the first week of school and start kids thinking about political connections is to ask students to mashup current social media tools with past events. If current social media tools were available to historical presidential campaigns, what would the branding look like?

What platform would people of the past have used? What would they say? Could kids take speeches, letters, photos, from past elections and create messages for social media? I think the answer is yes.

It needs to be crafted and structured well but asking kids to use primary source evidence wrapped inside modern tools could be a way to help them think a bit more deeply about the messages contained within that evidence.

One tool that could be use for this is something Recite. Recite is a quick and easy tool that lets you and students create visual products that can be used in both current and historical social media posts. No account creation needed. Easy to use. Easy to share.

Simply type in a message, select a style, and click Create. Easy peasy. Take a screenshot or share via traditional social media options and you’re good to go.

recite 3

Have fun!

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. I enjoy using art to teach history. History Scene Investigations using paintings from the period of study helps get children involved by allowing them to ponder what they are looking at, and connect in some why to the people (if any) that are shown in the scene. The teacher guides their focus and paces them, but they are left to use their imagination and try to personalize what they are seeing. Anything to help make it matter to them and spark their interest so they will want to learn more to satisfy their own curiosity, not just because they have to.

    August 16, 2016
    • glennw #


      I had forgotten about the HSI – love that site. Thanks for the reminder! Art and artifacts are so much like poems in creating and building emotion. Will go back and review the HSI!


      August 16, 2016
      • Oh, I did not even know its a site. My district uses their method and the kids love it. I will also be taking a look to see what else they have.

        August 16, 2016
  2. Lynne #

    I loved that you started your post with a “what not to do” and emphasized that building relationships should be the priority. I feel the same way. Students will go above and beyond for teachers they connect with, feel comfortable with, and trust. I have seen so many students become risk-takers (in a positive way) during classes where it was obvious that they had formed a solid relationship with the teacher. We need students to push themselves to grow and having a solid foundation to start the year makes that possible in the classroom. I am so lucky this year because I just started at a new school and the principal actually told us that he doesn’t care if we don’t begin our actual curriculum until 2 weeks into school. The focus at this school is to build a community of trust, where all learners are important and valued. This district strives to build relationships so that our students achieve. We are just finishing up a great first week where students were excited to come to class and see their teachers because they already know we care about them. It was so thrilling to see some of my last period students in the hall and here them say they were excited for social studies because I was “the best.” Who knows if this feeling will last, but we’ve already started to form a positive relationship to carry us into the “hard stuff.”

    Thanks for all the great suggestions. I’;m going to do the History in a Bag with my students, but I think I might try having them do it with bags that I fill up so they get to know me better as a person and they can still use the items to think about who they could represent. Some of the other sites and ideas I am putting on the back burner, but I do love consulting the Read Like a Historian site. Its pulled up at least once per week so I can help my students be better historians in my class. I can’t wait to try some of the other ideas this year. Please keep them coming!

    September 2, 2016
    • glennw #


      Your building sounds like such an awesome place to teach! And I can’t agree more – the relationship that learners have with one another (And I include the teachers as part of the learner group!) is so important. Jill Weber, the teacher I highlight in another post ( was sharing today with some tech instructional coaches and it’s obvious that she has that special relationship with her kids. One of the tech coaches observed that “her students want to do well for her.”

      I love your comment about the “hard stuff!” You’re so right – kids need to know that we’re in the canoe right there with them when they’re going through the rapids.

      Thanks for sharing. Have a great weekend!


      September 2, 2016
      • Lynne #

        I am so encouraged that others in the education world feel as I do. I am new to the whole idea of blogs and their educational value, but in the short time I have invested myself in them I am not only impressed with the ideas that the educational community come up with, but I also appreciate how the collaboration makes me feel more sure of myself as a teacher. I am “right in the canoe” with my students paddling along through the year, learning each day from them and the people around me.

        September 2, 2016
      • glennw #

        There definitely is a community of people who are always working to get better and who want to help each other. And your presence makes it stronger! Your next step? Start hanging out on Twitter and the hashtag #sschat – a group of people who always help me walk away smarter.

        Have a great week!


        September 7, 2016

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