Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The first day: Why study history?

I am constantly amazed by the stories my own children tell me about the first day of school: time spent going over the rules, the teacher's grading system, labeling notebooks, filling out forms. When I ask them if such-and-such a teacher seems good, they tell me it is too early to tell.

And maybe that's true. Surely it isn't fair to "judge" a teacher after just one day.

But as a teacher, I would hate to think of my students going home and answering the question, "How was history class? How is Ms. Brown?" with an answer like "I dunno. Okay, I guess. Too early to tell." Or to the question, what did you do on the first day? an answer like, "I dunno. Nothing really. It's only the first day."

I want my class to stand out, and I want to inspire students from the beginning. Tweak their curiosity a bit. Why wait 'til the second day to do that?

So I eschew going over rules or my grading system. Consider the fact that if a student is a junior in high school when they take U.S. history, or a 7th or 8th grader, they have had many first days of schools. There is no 7th grader, let alone 11th grader that doesn't know how they are supposed to behave in school. That doesn't mean they will, of course. But going over the rules won't ensure compliance either. Now imagine that it is 8th period. Or the period right after lunch. Think about how many times they have heard a teacher explain the rules or a grading system already that day. How dull is that?

There are a gazillion ideas out there for what to do on the first day of class. The important thing, I think, is to do something that is inspiring and also gives students a sense of what YOU are like as a teacher, what you expect and what your class will be like. And I like to do that not by telling them (These are my classroom expectations, blah, blah, blah) but by showing them--by designing a lesson that lets them know I take my class seriously and have high standards, and that I love what I do and what I study.

How do I do that? Like many history teachers, I like to discuss with students why I think it is important to study history. And because I know many successful, creative and interesting adults who do not know anything about the Homestead Strike or why we fought World War I, I cannot tell students it is because it will be important to them as adults. And I know they will be still be able to get into college--even a good college--without getting an A in my class. So I think it is important to be candid about that.

Below are some links which can inspire you to create a first-day lesson about why one should study history. The topic has merit, I think, because if you don't have your own sense of why what you are teaching should matter, there is no way that your students will. And the number one question that all students have about every class...? The most essential of all essential questions? You know what is:

Why do we have to know this???

It really is a good question and warrants an answer. But it has to be your answer, not mine. So here are links to help you:

Click here for some quotations I compiled about history. These can be used as fodder for discussion and/or writing activities on the first day. Use all of them, use some of them, have students pick the ones they like best to discuss or vote. You could hand out a different one to each student in a group. Re-visit them on the last day of school. I'd love to hear other ideas....

For a bunch of other interesting quotes, (Quote or quotation?) check out this site: History is. . . or if you need more, click here.  Or if you’d prefer some quotations about the United States, try here or here.

If you’d like a longer reading, suitable for AP/honors students in high school or to give you ideas you can adapt for middle schoolers, try this reading I compiled for use with preservice history teachers. Also check out the responses given by historians William McNeill and Peter Stearns on the American Historical Association website. And, for a thoughtful answer to the broader issue of a liberal education, see historian William Cronon's essay, Only Connect.

For more ideas check out

Hope your year gets off to an inspiring start!

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