Skip to content

Need some social studies strategies for back to school? How about seven?

After the last few years, there’s not much that surprises me anymore. It’s been such a weird two and a half years of school. (And for classroom teachers, an incredibly challenging and difficult time.)

But I’m always just a little bit shocked when I hear about districts that crank up during the first week in August. As in . . . next week. Seriously? I’m just now starting to figure out the Delaware beach system and you’re going back to school?

But maybe you’re in that same boat, shoving off with kids already in seven days. If you are, this post may be a little too late. But I’m hoping that for most of you, you’ve got at least one or two more weekends before your first student contact day.

To help energize your first awesome week with kids, here are seven great ways to kick off the school year. Use what you can. Adapt what you can’t. Ignore the rest.

What not to do

But before we get too far along 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 few days 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!”

So what should we be doing the first week?

Start with these basics:

  • Talk less
  • Do more

Beyond that, kids need to be in groups. They need to be solving problems. They need to get a taste of some social studies and play with some social studies tools. They need to know that it’s okay to fail. They should practice a few critical thinking skills. And maybe a little tech here and there.

The specifics:

History Mysteries

Your class needs to be about using evidence to solve problems. So start your kids off by encouraging this idea with a variety of mysteries and problems to mess with.

We’ve probably all done the simple activity called History in a Bag. (Never? Well . . . you can’t get a better idea of how to do it than by following the example of Jill Weber here and here.)

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! Using personal artifacts supports the idea of problem solving while encouraging a learning partnership between teacher and student rather than an adversarial one focused on rules and control.

But I also like the idea of using artifacts from the Library of Congress to generate curiosity and what I call “academic discomfort.”

Try a digital scavenger hunt

I love the idea of using a #FlipHunt to engage your kids. Divide students into groups and use Flipgrid to create a digital scavenger hunt. You come up with a series of Tasks to challenge them to show what they know using video responses. Learn more about what this might look like and get some Task ideas from the #FlipHunt inventor, Kathi Kersznowski.

Not super comfortable with Flipgrid? Try the free Goose Chase app. Each GooseChase game that you develop has a list of missions for participants to complete. You can create your mission list using their bank of 100+ tested missions or by designing your own from scratch. Text & GPS missions are also possible.

Play with some art (and social media)

Start by dividing your kids into groups of three. (Or two per group depending on your odds or evens.) Each group needs an internet-friendly device. Direct them to the very fun Quick Draw from Google

Quick Draw gives the group an object or idea and asks that someone in the group draw it using a trackpad, stylus, or mouse depending on your device. (iPads or touch screens work best, just saying.) You have 20 seconds to draw it in such a way that another part of Quick Draw can guess what it is. (Trust me. It makes sense once you do it.) If you can’t draw the object in 20 seconds, it automatically jumps to the next one.

You’re given a total of six things to draw.

I’m sure you’re starting to see where this is going. You’ve got teams of kids. A contest. With tech. Let the fun begin.

The group members can alternate drawing objects so everyone gets a chance to show off their artistic abilities. (Good luck drawing animal migration in 20 seconds. Just saying that came up a couple of weeks ago.) Maybe give them a practice round before you start eliminating groups in your bracket. You are making a bracket, right?

The point to this is to get them thinking about art in the social studies. And not just traditional art. Start thinking more 2022 types of art. As in, social media art. You may not be able to use actual social media platforms in your building. But that doesn’t mean you can’t steal some of their templates and ideas. Why not create Instagram profiles of historical characters? Or Amazon and Yelp reviews of current famous people? Maybe Snapchat updates of current events or TikTok videos of past ones like these.

And if you still are looking for the traditional, then dig into more cool art options here.

Things That Suck

Okay. Depending on where and who you teach, you may need to change the title of this activity. But it still works great. Get the full skinny here but the basic idea is simple. Throw a statement or topic out to your kids and they have to decide whether that thing sucks or not. If it sucks, kids move to this side of the room. If it doesn’t? The other side.

Spend five minutes arguing . . . uh, discussing. Allow kids to move back and forth based on the arguments . . . uh, discussion. Then move on.

Start with stuff that’s easy:

  • Pancakes (Doesn’t suck)
  • Pizza with black olives (Sucks)
  • Kansas City Chiefs (Doesn’t suck)
  • Vladamir Putin (Sucks)

Then work your way up the cognitive ladder by asking kids to think about more serious stuff. It might be a way to introduce a new topic:

  • Nixon impeachment

or review

  • 100 Years War from English perspective

Geo Goodness

I love Google Earth and all of the things you can create using it. But sometimes you just want GE to do all of the work. So if you’re working middle school kids or the littles, explore some of the different games under the Voyager tab in GE. Who doesn’t love Carmen Sandiego?

Or check out the classic version of the online Geoguessr. The game drops you into a Google StreetView and you have to use contextual clues to figure out where you are. (They’re always changing how the free and paid versions work, so poke around to get the latest options.) Or explore the Geo Guessr knockoff called City Guesser. Same idea but free with more options and games. I’ve also heard good things about Hide and Seek World and Zoomtastic. All are fun and (somewhat) educational geo games. Making them perfect for the first week of school.

Play Some Games

Speaking of games . . . we know how powerful the concept of play can be in the learning process. We also know how packed with data and information the first week back always is. So why not play some games to break up some of that info overload?

My new fave? GimKit. It’s basically a trivia game but it’s so much more than just another form of Kahoot. You get lots of ways to deploy it in your room and there’s a super easy to use free version or an option to upgrade for more goodies.

I’ve been a fan of Michael Matera forever. He’s a huge gamification guru who along with John Meehan has created Engaging at the Speed of Life. EMC2Learning has all sorts of resources perfect for the first week of school (and all year!). You can get a free account but the paid memberships are totally worth it. And they just came out with an awesome new book called Fully Engaged: Playful Pedagogy for Real Results. (Psst . . . we’re doing a remote book study this fall. You know you want a piece of that.)

Need even more online games and tools? Scroll down to the middle of this page to browse a few other gaming options and resources.

And your gameplay shouldn’t be just digital. There are tons of board and card games out there as well. Head over to the Genesee Valley Game Library where you can search by grade and content to find all sorts of game options.  

Timeline Challenge

Print out 10-12 photos from the time period or topic that you’ll be starting with later in the month. Or even better, maybe start with the movie posters from the last 15 Marvel movies and Disney+ miniseries. Or photos of rock bands. Or video game covers. 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 into small groups, giving each group the same set of photos and have the groups create “competing” timelines. Let them argue for the correct order and work to convince students in the opposing groups 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 the other group.

Another option here? There’s actually a card game called Timeline and it’s awesome.

No matter when you start back – have a great first day!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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.

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 )

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: