Skip to content

Tip of the Week: 7 great social studies ideas for back to school

August Fourth!? Seriously? August already?

I had noticed that it had warmed up and that summer was in full swing. But already the start of school?

I spent a few days in Georgia leading some conversations around literacy in the social studies and they started with kids last week. So for them, this post is ten days too late. But I’m hoping that for most of you, there are a few days before your first contact day.

And to help jumpstart your first awesome week, here are seven great ways to kick off the year. Use what you can. Adapt what you can’t. And be sure to 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. I’ve mentioned Fourteen Things You Should Never Do on the First Day of School before but it’s still a great reminder of what it looks like when we’re doing it wrong. Mark Barnes suggest that your goal should be a very 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 my teacher is awesome!”

Boot Camp

Jill Weber teacher middle and high school social studies in Cheney Kansas and is the 2016 Gilder Lehrman History of the Year. Last year, she decided to kick off her year by holding a week-long social studies Boot Camp that focused on historical thinking skills, types of evidence, problem solving, and collaborative learning.

She wrote a guest post that highlights all of her stuff, including handouts and lesson plans. You know you want to jump in on this. Get all of the goodness here.

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. 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.

This is so cool! It 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.

You can also use the cool Lincoln’s Pockets artifact lesson plan as a great mystery activity. I’ve also used D-day artifacts and Otzi the Iceman artifacts in the same way.

Virtual Reality

I’ve been crowing about VR tools for the last few years. And I’m still convinced that using virtual reality is a great way to build engagement and empathy. Head over to my 3D History page to get tons of goodies.

Basic idea? Use an VR app together with a Google Cardboard viewer to explore a wide variety of places and historical locations.

How might you use the concept as a back to school activity? Use Google Expeditions to take kids to a variety of places around the world, using contextual clues students have to guess where they are. Use the Google Sheet of Expeditions to find places to explore.

Don’t have time to get this all set up before kids show up? Try the web-based game called Pursued that creates a similar location-based problem solving activity.

Would You Rather and writing prompts

Play the game Would You Rather. Start with generic kinds of questions and then move on to ones that are more history specific. Create your own questions that focus more on your specific grade level content. Have kids create their own questions as a way to gauge their prior knowledge level.

Have students vote with their feet by moving to one side or the other. Give extra credit to the group that gets the most votes – allow kids to debate best answer before voting. Have kids work in groups to create written or video responses (using Google Doc, Padlet, Adobe Post, Adobe Video, Voxer, etc) explaining their reasons.

Head over to these very cool writing prompts and have students respond in written or video formats.

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:

Autobiographical Maps

Students in Amy Getty’s sixth grade class start off the year by creating maps of islands that illustrate their lives. They first fill out an autobiographical survey and then use their creativity and knowledge of landforms and symbols to design their maps.

Choose Your Own Adventure using Google Forms

We’ve all heard about Choose Your Own Adventure activities – either the wildly popular books from the 80s and 90s or using Google Forms with logic branching or Google Slides with hyperlinks among slides. They’re fun and engaging for students, but there’s one problem with them. They are passive experiences. All students do are point and click. We need students to be problem solvers, with concrete reasons of why they’ve chosen their choices.

Learn how to make your own here, here, and here.   Have students go through your Adventure then have students create their own.

Have fun!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: