Most influential people of all time (US version)

A recent Time magazine article lists what it calls the 20 most influential Americans of all time. It’s an interesting list. Four presidents, two social activists, two women, assorted scientists and inventors, a couple of explorers, and an athlete and musician thrown in for good measure. Many famous, a few not so much.

And like the 100 most important American documents, open for debate. Why Steve Jobs and not that Microsoft guy? Why only two women? A boxer? Really?

But what a great way to start a school year. Or end one for that matter.

A week or so ago, I spent a day talking about ways to integrate the Common Core ELA literacy standards into Social Studies instruction. The basic idea? Give kids intriguing and difficult problems to solve rather than the answers to Friday’s multiple choice quiz. And the list seems like one of those very cool problems that can engage emotions and create great arguments / debates among your students.

Maybe start with this list as a hook. Then tailor it more specifically to your class and grade level. World History? Obviously include folks from Asia, South America, Africa, and Europe. Kansas or local history? Well, you got some pretty interesting people from Kansas. Who would be the most important?

Or take the list and rank it from most important to least important rather than chronologically as the Time people did. Assign groups to research certain people on the list. The groups than have to argue for their person, perhaps earning extra credit for how high their person rises on the list. (See Josh Hoekstra’s great idea for merging March Madness with historical figures.)

You could obviously start from scratch and have kids create their own list. I think you could use this sort of thing throughout your course, with lists driving the discussion and research. The lists could be most important inventions, ideas, leaders, events, documents, really just about anything.

Heck. Do the whole thing. Who are the most influential people of all time?

I once watched a middle school teacher herd his kids through a great center-based end of the year discussion about which events of the 1800s have had the most impact on the US and their lives specifically. Lots of yelling, arguing, researching, thinking, campaigning, discussing, politicking, writing, reading . . . you know, what a good social studies classroom should sound and look like.

How would I change the list?

Subtract Ali, Watson, and Bell. Add Cesar Chavez, Thurgood Marshall, and Marc Andreesen.

Go ahead, prove me wrong.

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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