5 ways to start the year

first day of school

I hate to be the one to bring this up but . . . mmm . . . school starts soon. I know many of you are going back to classrooms next week with kids making their appearance soon after. And it’s always nice to have a few tips and tricks in your backpack to start off the school year. What discipline-specific activities work best for kicking off the year?

So today? The fifth annual Five Ways to Start the School Year in a Social Studies Classroom post. Use what you can. Adapt what you can’t. Add your own ideas in the comments.

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

or a formative assessment:

  • Three branches of government

Extra resources:


It’s fourteen years into the 21st century. Sending a paper and pencil note home to parents or giving students a xeroxed reminder about an upcoming test is . . . well, quaint. Old-fashioned. Done to death. Out of date.

Okay. That paper stuff stills works and maybe, in some situations, works the best. But one of the things you need to do during the first week of school is set up a Remind account and get your kids signed up. What is Remind?

It’s a safe way for teachers to text message students and stay in touch with parents for free. You usehttp://www.remind.com, the Android app, or the iOS app to send texts to students and parents phones without ever having to share their own phone number. Students and parents also never have to share their phone number with teachers. Ever.

Use it for field trip reminders, motivational messages, homework, exam reminders, schedule changes, fun facts, and trivia. It’s a great way to communicate information to students and parents safely. Add your Remind messages to your class website or blog with the simple, embeddable, and beautifully designed Remind widget. You can also pre-schedule all your messages to be sent at a later date or time.


Think Socrative or Infuse Learning and you’re starting to get the idea. Kahoot takes the idea of the assessment clickers perfected by Socrative / Infuse Learning and adds gaming components.

Using a simple drag and drop tool, educators create and manage “Kahoots” in the form of quizzes, surveys or polls related to the topics they’re teaching; either asking quick questions to get feedback or opinion, or more in depth questions for formative assessment.

One of the big differences between Socrative and Kahoot! is that the questions are projected on a screen in front of students – much like the video bar trivia game we all know and love. Your kids use any smart device and browser – phone, tablet, or computer – to join your Kahoot using a specific PIN number. You provide the question and possible answers.  The kids see the answers on their device and select the answer they think is correct. This is the other difference between Kahoot! and other student response systems – it’s not an app, so it’s device neutral making it perfect for BYOD schools or for classrooms with a variety of devices.

Use Kahoot to build community during the first week. Measure prior knowledge about topics. Survey kids about tech access. Hook students into your first unit.

History in a Bag

I’ve been suggesting History in a Bag as a first week activity for years. It works great to encourage and explain historical thinking and how we know what we know.

Purchase or find enough brown paper bags for all of your students. Write a number on each bag and give one to every kid. Ask them to place five personal items into the bag, close it and to remember the number (for identification later). These items can be anything in their pockets, backpack, etc. Place all of the bags in a pile and have the students select one at random.

Provide a series of questions that they will answer as they attempt to decipher these “artifacts.” Is this person male or female? What do they think is important? How old is this person? Where do they live? The questions aren’t so important as the rationale used to answer the question. You want kids to start thinking about how we know what we know, to start to understand the historical process.

Have students get into groups of two or three to explain their answers. As a large group, ask kids to identify the owners of their bag’s artifacts. Lead a discussion about historical process and how we know what we know.

There are lots of different ways you can do this. Michael Milton has a great post describing his version and so does Joe Taraborrelli.

History Couples

A quick way to group students, activate prior knowledge, or encourage kids to mingle is to use History Couples.

Create a list of historically related items that can be matched together. These could be people, events, places or even ideas. The items could be completely random or specific to your class content and time period. Preview one of my lists to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

I use Word to arrange them so that they can be printed on Avery mailing labels and then stuck on note cards. Randomly distribute to your students and ask them to find their partners.

Once kids find their match, you can have them do a variety of things.

  • Discuss why their match makes sense.
  • Find another group of two so that all four items make sense in a group.
  • Arrange themselves chronologically.
  • Brainstorm four more items that could be added to their group.
  • Find another group that is completely opposite of their own.

Bonus ideas?

Head over to the web site titled 101 Things You Can Do During the First Three Weeks of School. It’s written from a higher ed perspective but has some insight and ideas for dealing with students. One of my new favorites is to take lots of pictures early on and post them around the room and online. It’s a quick and easy way to generate a “family” feel in your room.

Need some ideas of what not to do? Twenty-one Bad Ways to Start Your School Year is great for reminding us of what it looks like when we don’t know what we’re doing. So just do the opposite.

About Glenn Wiebe

I work as a social studies specialist at ESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas. Before coming to ESSDACK, I taught middle school US History and higher ed social science classes.

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