The First Week

At Courageous Creativity this summer I asked the Disney Imagineers if they had an advice on how to engage our students they way they engage their guests. The answer I got back was simple and powerful. "Treat every day like it's your first day." I've long said our first day with students should be our best day. So, if I followed the advice then every day would be my best day. I like the sound of that!

For my first week I call it the tutorial level of my class. There are 4 days of lessons designed to teach students the skills they will need to use to be a successful student in my history class. I'm not talking about rules and how to sharpen a pencil. I'm talking about how to think and act like a historian. It's tough. I'm basically starting from scratch. Some of my kids have some exposure to social studies but very little and they have none really in historical thinking. Science spends time teaching the scientific method, shouldn't we do the same?

The problem is the historical method isn't exactly exciting. Research, analyze and write do not quite measure up to doing experiments. So, I've worked hard to make introducing those skills engaging. I want those days to feel just as exciting as the first day and I think I'm getting there!

Tutorial Mission 1: Collect

Historians start by collecting information. They either get it from the field (archaeologists) or written sources (researchers.) Archaeologists are cool but despite trying for two years I've not been able to set up an archaeological dig on our campus. I still wanted to get across how meticulous archaeologists are about their work. I want my students to understand that the pieces we learn from are important and for them to see the care that goes into getting them. I came across an idea years ago called Chocolate Chip Archaeology. The idea is that a chocolate chip cookie becomes their dig site. Students use toothpicks to try to remove the chips from the cookie. I did it years ago and it was pretty fun. It needed more though, it needed some good ol' Disney plussing. I upgraded my cookies to rainbow chips. Now they weren't digging out chips. They were digging out rubies, emeralds, gold and fossilized dinosaur droppings! I also added a competitive layer where students were challenged to extract as many chips as possible without breaking them. This is a huge highlight that students talk about all throughout the year. It's short, simple and teaches the intended point perfectly. So far, so good!

Research was a quite a bit tougher to give the "first day" treatment. I came up with a scenario where students imagined a new student has arrived in school that they find to be very cute - so cute in fact that if they tried to talk to them they would just end up drooling all over themselves and look like a fool. I ask them to brainstorm the ways they could learn about that person without communicating with them directly (since, obviously, we can't talk to the people we learn about in medieval history.) They always end up with the three things I want from them: interviews (ask their friends), observation (follow them around), and artifacts (go through their backpack!). It's a ton of silly fun building our list. At the end I point out that we historians basically just stalk dead people all the time. That is WAY more interesting than just saying research!

The final part of the lab is teaching them how we mark the text when we read. Again, not particularly engaging or exciting. There's really nothing I can do to fix this one except to make sure the reading I choose is interesting. I've settled on a short passage debating Julius Caesar's legacy. It discusses both his support of the common people on Roman and his seemingly heartless treatment of his enemies in battle. Kids get way into the story and best of all it ends on a huge cliffhanger with his own friends threatening his life.

Tutorial Mission 2: Consider

The next step in the historical process is to analyze the collected information. Here we begin with a worthy-of-the-first-day activity involving a jigsaw puzzle. I divide a 500 piece puzzle among the students so each gets a random assortment of 10 to 15 pieces. I give them 5 minutes to try to arrange their pieces and determine what the full picture would be. They are allowed to share information with neighbors but cannot trade pieces. This simulates how historians work from incomplete information to form their conclusions. The kids invariably start by saying how impossible the task is but most end up very close to the correct image even with their limited numbers of pieces. It's amazing what a little analysis can do!

Next we go back to the Crush narrative from day 1. We imagine that we have stumbled upon their backpack and being the good person we are we have to find out who it belongs to, so we dig inside. I put different objects up on the screen and students write what they could learn about a person if they found those items in their backpack. One of the items looks like this:

Obviously everyone knows what that is. It's a dinglehopper of course. Which leads to a discussion on imposing modern ideas on historical objects and this video clip:

Next we do a short activity on detecting bias. I give students a scenario and they tell me the reason why the person involved would say what they did. For example, Charlie is found with chocolate all over his face. His mom asks "Charlie, did you eat my chocolate?" He replies "No mommy, I wuv you!" Kids get it real quick!

We close with a quick discussion of cause and effect. I then show them a still image from a video clip (any will do really, I like extremely exaggerated ones) and ask them what may have led to that moment and what likely happened next.

Tutorial Mission 3: Communicate

The primary method of communicating learning in my classroom is an argumentative paragraph we call a Rundown. Again, not exactly the most engaging concept. I start this final training mission with a simple drawing activity. Students draw any object in the room then try to get a partner to guess what it is. It's a quick and effective lesson on why writing is so important as sometimes their drawings are really hard to decipher.

I model the Rundown process (which is a very slightly modified Claim - Evidence - Reasoning structure) using such important topics as whether dogs or cats are a better pet and which fast food restaurant is the best.

This lesson is a perfect example of the importance of being an engaging presenter. This topic is boring even with the somewhat fun writing prompts. Learning a bunch of sentence frames just isn't a fun activity - period. I rely a whole lot on being funny and engaging at this point. I intentionally go way over the top in arguing that In N Out is the best fast food in the world. This is easily the least interesting part of the lesson and, honestly, one of the least interesting things all year but it has to be taught. When that happens (and it happens) personality can go a long way.

Tutorial Mission 4: Co-op

I close out the week with an idea I got from Dave Burgess' Teach Like a Pirate. I've mentioned the book before but seriously, read it. It is the best book about education out there (until I finish mine.) The activity revolves around students debating which of a number of stranded survivors should be saved when a rescue boat arrives. It is an awesome activity to teach how to work in teams.

Before it starts I talk about the concept of teamwork vs. group work and how in my class I will simply not allow team killers - video game speak for those who actively seek to destroy their own teammates for a laugh. Kids get it, fast. I put them into their teams and set them to work. I've made the characters quite ridiculous in some ways. One of them is obviously based on me though I play dumb and insist that our shared characteristics must just be a coincidence. I do make sure to point out that if a person like that did really exist he'd be really, really amazing.

The Island Presentation

The Island Bios

After 25 minutes we share out answers and debrief how the team work process went. It's a great fun way to wrap up our first week together.

5 days, all like the first day. Can I keep it up for 170 more? No. But I'll try!