First day thoughts: Ways to hook students and develop thematic learning

So the school year started for me last week, which means once a week I’m going to make this an education blog and report on ideas and possibilities for the social studies classroom.

Day One is an important day for a teacher. How you set up the classroom, what you choose to do with your students, will end up defining in many ways what your year will look like. You are not just giving books out, assigning seats, you are setting the tone for what you want the classroom to be. You yourself are getting back into the rhythm. And more than that you are demonstrating why your students should hang with you day in and day out during a long school year.
In history, in particular, day one is about hooking students on a subject many students are just not interested in. History is routinely ranked as one of the least popular subjects for students in schools. It’s rooted in memorization of topics that often seem to have little relevance to student’s own lives.

People study history for all sorts of reasons. The most common reason we all hear is so that we don’t repeat it. That’s certainly true, but it’s not the only reason. Sometimes we study history, just because we find it interesting. Sometimes to hear dramatic stories, sometimes to explore different and unique cultures. And sometimes just so that we understand our own selves. These are all ideas and topics that should be reflected in how we study this content. For day one I attempt to bring some of these myriad reasons to the floor by having students bring them up for me.

After we go through the syllabus, students take two to three sentences to identify a problem that they see in society and a general topic they find interesting in history. If your students are going to struggle with the second one, you can throw out some ideas. Luckily, enough, any topic can be made historical by its very nature.

The next step is to have students work together to turn those problems and topics into questions. This is, in fact, the essential work of historical research. Once we know what we want to study in general, we have to figure out what exactly we’re hoping to find out about that topic. For this first day, those questions do not have to be terribly complex, though you should certainly push for students to create analytical as opposed to fact-based questions. (It often helps for students to think in terms of “How” or “Why” questions.)

Once you’ve gone through all the questions and topics, as a teacher, you can condense these questions into ten questions or so and put them on a poster in the classroom. You can reference these questions throughout the year.
These questions effectively become the curriculum of the course. Questions such as “How can a society confront poverty?” can become one of the essential questions that we answer during the course. Any content can be placed in the context of questions students ask. You can even make an activity of answering each question when the year comes to an end. It could be a research paper or project.

In the wake of our current standardized testing craze, many teachers are still tied to a chronological race through history.  This can still be a useful tool for analyzing content in the minds of students. For teachers in more flexible environments, these questions can literally be organized as units of the course, and used to engage students in the material they find interesting while also teaching them essential skills of historical research and analysis.
Regardless the hook is set for the year. Some students have found this activity off the bat, though many were skeptical. The only way it becomes valuable is if you continue to go back to these questions throughout the year. That will make that first day meaningful.

None of this is perfect, by the way, and I would love for everyone to provide their suggestions or modifications of this sort of activity based on their own experiences as teachers or students.

Categories: Education | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “First day thoughts: Ways to hook students and develop thematic learning

  1. Tal

    As someone who also teaches a subject that many take reluctantly, I fully agree that the first day is your set up. “Physics is going to be so hard!” they say. “I’m so bad at science!”
    They enter defeated and think their previous years of schooling haven’t prepared them for a… dun dun dun… physics class!

    My first day I split them into groups of 3-4 and have every group build a Rube-Goldberg machine with some easy task – this year’s was to knock a Styrofoam cup off the table. They intentionally get different materials. The bulk is the same but some get tape, some get scissors, some get more string, some get more rubber bands, etc. They’re allowed to trade/borrow.

    As they’re building I walk around and probe questions about what their doing. But mostly I listen to what they say and write sentences (or fragments) on the board of exactly the words they say. I write them in three lists.
    At the end of the building period, we look at everyone’s project and then I draw their attention the the board. We read through the lists and come up with a common theme for each list that I’ve put up. The are:
    Physics terms/related terms (ramp, gravity, fall, lever, pendulum, etc)
    Scientific questions/engineering process (What’ll happen if… What if we try… That didn’t work…. We need to be able to….etc.) – here we also talk about how they tackled the project. Discuss first? Just dive in? Draw a sketch?
    Teamwork/Group work (What’s your name again? What do you think about… Thank you…. Can I borrow…etc.

    And then I bring in the kicker – we are not learning NEW things. Some of you may be scared, you may not like science, you may think you’re no good. But the FUN and GREAT thing about physics is that we live it! Even if you can’t see an electron, you know electricity is here because our lights are on. We feel gravity. You already know how to talk about physics – look at our list! We’re just going to expand upon that knowledge and but some new words and math to what you already know.
    You already know how to work collaboratively, but we’re going to build that skill.
    You already know how to ask scientific questions, and we’re going to improve that, too.
    It’s not scary. It’s what you live.

    While my list doesn’t go up for the rest of the year, I do reference it on occasion as a reminder for how much more they know. I don’t touch the syllabus until the second day at the earliest.

    In my new classroom the lab tables are so far away from the whiteboard that no one noticed I was writing things they said, while I was writing them (usually kids pick up on it). I’m trying to think how to remedy that for next term because it’s a way of them knowing that I’m paying attention while they build and not just walking aimlessly.

    Thanks for sharing your first day!

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