Basic History Through Play

Post date: Jul 21, 2017 5:10:35 PM

If you ask a student coming out of elementary school what a historian does I think they'd answer:

-Make vocab flashcards

-Color maps

-Build missions out of sugar cubes

If you asked the same student after high school they'd likely answer:

-Make vocab flashcards

-Color maps

-Take multiple choice quizzes

But what does a historian really do? They:

-Gather information

-Analyze the information to form conclusions

-Share their conclusions in writing or verbally

That's what I want my incoming middle schoolers to think of from the very beginning of my class. And, while GAS, would be a great acronym to use with 12 year olds we instead use the 3Cs (which I made before the C3!).




All year long that's what my kids will be doing so I want to introduce it right away. I do it through three days of play each focused on one of the Cs. I've had these labs for awhile now but realize they need more explaining. So, here we go!

What do Historians Do?: Collect

I start with the simple claim that truth exists. Something happened in the past. We may not be able to be 100% what that was, but it still happened. As historians, we need to support our view of the truth. That is the core of my classroom.

I then go into an analogy comparing a historian to the legal system. The Collect step is the police officer at the scene. He takes pictures, asks for testimony and gets any relevant documents. He may do some minor analysis of those things but ultimately his job is "just the facts ma'am."

The first activity is Crush. Students imagine a scenario most experienced on day 1 already - there's a really cute person they want to learn about. They brainstorm ideas of how to do so without talking to the person (because they are so gorgeous you're afraid you'll drool on yourself if you try!) Inevitably they make a list including asking others about them, searching for them online, and observing (stalking) them. I excitedly exclaim "that's exactly what we historians get to do! We stalk dead people!" I then go over how we can do that.

Activity 2 gets into how we collect his information starting with archaeology. In this part each student is given 2 toothpicks, a rainbow chip cookie and a plate. They are given 3-5 minutes to "dig" (with the toothpicks) out as many of the "artifacts" (colored chips) from the "dirt" (cookie) as they can without breaking them. Of course, at the end they get to eat whatever is left. Some end up eating nothing but cookie dust. This leads to a discussion of why so little historical information is available to us today from antiquity. It teaches students to have an appreciation for the primary sources that are available. Also, it's fun.

Activities 3 and 4 are much less fun. In these I teach students how we do close reading and marking the text in my class. I made sure to pick a relevant but interesting reading. They need to know that reading is a key skill for any successful historian.

Activity 5 is a simple race using Google search. I've found that most kids have no idea how to do a search quickly. This simple game lets me teach them simple tricks (like, you know, not typing the ENTIRE question into the search field...) to get them going.

What do Historians Do?: Consider

The Consider step in our law analogy is the detective. He cross-references witness statements with physical evidence to build an idea of what happened. He is building off the work of the police officer.

Activity 1 is a class jigsaw puzzle. Each student is given 10-15 pieces of a 500 piece puzzle. Using their pieces and by looking at those around them they are to try to decide what the puzzle is. I ask very detailed questions about the scene such as "What time is it?" "Is the sun rising or setting?" "Is that a river, ocean or stream?" depending on the puzzle. At first the kids think it is impossible. They get frustrated that none of their pieces fit together. Yet, they always get really close to the actual puzzle once they talk about it. Analysis is powerful, even when we don't have all the pieces just like our broken historical record.

Activity 2 continues Crush. In this I ask them to imagine they've gotten hold of the person's backpack. They dig inside and pull out 3 items. They need to decide what each item individually, and then all 3 in concert, tell them about the person. I follow this up with the clip from the Little Mermaid where Ariel brings Scuttle the "human stuff" that he has to analyze.

Activity 3 is a series of scenarios where students must explain the motivation behind what a person is saying. This is our introduction to bias.

Activity 4 starts with a still frame from a video clip. Students must write what caused it and then what happened after. I show the clip and ask how close we were.

Activity 5 is an introduction to picture analysis using a technique where a picture is analyzed piece by piece instead of all at once.

What do Historians Do? Communicate

Our legal analogue here is the lawyer. She takes the information from the detective and communicates it to the jury in a way they will understand.

Activity 1 is a simple drawing exercise. Students draw a random object in the room. This is to show that writing is not the only form of communication.

Activity 2 involves sharing your drawing with a partner to see if they can guess what it is. Communication requires sharing your information. This also shows that we can communicate verbally.

Activity 3 outlines our process for writing an argumentative paragraph in history. We start with a simple argument that anyone can understand: Cats vs. dogs.

Activity 4 wraps up the Crush. In it students write a note professing their deep admiration for this person based on the conclusions drawn from the artifacts. The essentially write the boring, sterile love note in history. It's a great cap to the week!

These activities for a memorable base for my students. Throughout the year I say things like "remember when you dug into the cookie?" or "remember the crush?" and they get it. The connections work. My students go from having no idea what a historian does to being mini-historians in just a few days and they love it. It is a great way to spend some time in your first couple weeks!