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Whiteboards. The old fashioned dry erase kind. And . . . yes, they still work.

I am a huge fan of Google Jamboard. There are so many cool ways we can use a digital whiteboard software like Jamboard to engage kids in solving problems, for messing around with primary sources, and to capture student thinking.

But I was reminded recently by a middle school teacher that not every classroom has access to digital devices or Google tools. And he shared some great ideas of how he uses the old fashioned dry erase whiteboards – you know, the kind you use markers with and old rags to wipe clean – to do some pretty cool stuff too. So I started asking around and there apparently are a lot of you who love using the old fashioned dry erase whiteboards. There are also apparently a lot of ways to use those whiteboards in a social studies classroom.

So today you get five super simple but powerful activities that all work to encourage critical thinking, gather new information, or activate prior knowledge. And the cool thing is that while they work great with traditional dry erase boards, they can quickly be adapted to those new fangled internet-based whiteboards as well.

First things first.

If you don’t already have some laying around, get yourself a classroom set of dry erase boards. This may be a lot easier than you think. Definitely ask around. I can almost guarantee that somewhere in your building is a set of boards in a closet or shelf that someone ordered years ago and isn’t being used anymore. And if you’re not in a K-5 building, absolutely check with someone in a grade school. Dry erase boards are everywhere at that level and if you ask nice, you should be able to cobble together a set.

(If you strike out, you can find a wide variety of boards online for around $30-40 per 25 boards. Hit your admin up for some of their Covid ESSER fund money to help pay for this.)

Get your hands on a few dry erase markers and some old socks / rags / hand towels for the erasing part of the process. You’re good to go. Now we just need to figure out what to do with them.

1. Start with what I call simplified Hexagonal Thinking. We’ve talked about Hexagonal Thinking before. It’s a great way to have kids make and justify connections between pieces of foundational content like people, places, ideas, and events. In the full blown version, you might give kids 15-25 things to connect. In the dry erase version, you share two things and then ask kids to use their markers to create a phrase that makes a connection between the two.

This might be a Think Pair Share process. Or you might have kids work in small groups. But definitely have kids share their connections with others. You might have students do this standing up with kids roaming around to compare / contrast their connections with each other. You might even have whole group conversations around which connections make the most sense, asking that student or group to support their connection with evidence.

Some examples of two things you might share:

  • 1783 Treaty of Paris and the Treaty of Ghent
  • 13th amendment and Voting Rights Act of 1965
  • 1868 Japanese Meiji Restoration and the rise of European merchant guilds in 1300s
  • Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis
  • New Deal FDIC and 2008 Great Recession

Want to amp up the rigor? Share three things for them to connect.

2. Move on to a Timeline activity. Pretty basic. Share a series of events in random order. Ask you students to arrange them correctly. But don’t stop with events, Move beyond the basic timeline idea and ask kids to do the same thing but with images or primary sources or a images of artifacts or actual artifacts or political cartoons or . . . you get the idea. We want kids to solve a problem using evidence and the sorting forces them to make choices. Again ask kids to share out their final answers.

3. I really like Agree Disagree Support. Share a statement. Ask students to agree or disagree with the statement and to write a phrase that supports their answer. Again . . . we’re building historical thinking skills here so use your classroom management skills to create conversations around both student answers and evidence.


  • “The rise of terrorist groups such as the KKK in former confederate states during the 1870s is similar to the rise of Islamic terrorists groups around the world after 1980.”
  • “NCAA Name Image and Likeness policies that allow college athletes to earn income owe are an example of state and federal legislative overreach.”
  • “The Judicial Branch of the US government is the most powerful branch of the three.”

4. Act as an Archivist. One of the tasks of an archivist is to catalog and organize information so that later users can easily find and use that information. This work often involves creating captions. So show kids an image, primary source, artifact, or political cartoon. Ask kids to create a caption that describes that source so that future researchers can find what they’re looking for. This is more difficult than it sounds. It will require kids to analyze the primary source and identify source and context. The Stanford History Education Group tools are perfect for helping with this activity. I like that this could ask kids to examine a primary source new to them or be used as a review activity.

5. Rank the importance. This works great as a review or summative activity. You share out multiple primary sources around a particular topic or event, maybe just three. (But drive deeper conversations with five or more.) Then ask kids to rank those sources from most important to least important how they best tell the story of that topic or event. They should include a short phrase explaining their thinking. Increase the difficulty by asking kids to add a source that you missed and should have included.

Here’s the thing. You’re probably already using these sorts of assessment activities in a variety of ways. But using them with dry erase boards changes the dynamic enough to encourage student engagement and gives you the chance to quickly collect data on what kids know and can do. So free to adapt them in whatever way makes the most sense for you.

And don’t forget . . . you can integrate all of these on your digital whiteboard tools as well.

(A quick digital whiteboard tip. Check out a newer tool called Recently purchased by the people who bring you Kahoot, a session automatically creates individual student whiteboards for each kids. So just like the individual dry erase boards, you can monitor and assess the work each kid is doing. Find out more.)

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