First Day of School

For the vast majority of us, this week or next week will include the first day of school (Ed’s already been there AND blogged about it). Already my Facebook feed and email inbox include adorable groupings of nieces, nephews and children of my friends in their first-day best, grinning (or weeping, as the case may be).

What do you do on the first day, besides the ritual public recitation of the syllabus’s contents?

Since I have much smaller classes than my co-bloggers (usually between 30 and 35 students per section), I have a standard first-day activity I usually conduct. I print the names of about 40 events from 1865 to now (but no dates) on name-badge sized stickers and hand them out randomly and have the students wear them. About halfway through my standard first lecture (“…History is not the past. History is an argument about the past…” etc), I ask them to stand up and put themselves in chronological order as a living timeline. This usually begins with a slightly stunned silence.

Bonuses: it gets them out of their seats and forces them to collaborate and talk to each other. They have to reach consensus on what happened first, next, and so on.

Do they get it “right”? Hardly ever. But it does lead to a good conversation. Usually while they’re still standing there, I have them look to their right and left, and see if they can identify a connection with the event they’re wearing and the one that preceded or followed it. And being wrong is okay. I’ve gotten some creative connections!

After they sit back down, I explain that being able to sort events in time and see them in relation to each other is not the endpoint of the course, although I promise them they would be able to do it faster and more accurately by the end. Rather, it’s the necessary basics they will need in order to understand history and fit in the new information they will be getting in this semester.

By the way, total aside – does anyone else find that making timelines, or putting events in order, is massively difficult for your students? This is something mine consistently struggle with. Consequently, I have them practice often (to their great chagrin). Again, not for the sake of memorizing dates or orders of events, but because there’s obviously something cognitively complex going on when they do.

Sometimes I have my students fill out an index card of information about themselves (including why they’re taking the class – that’s always enlightening) and write their first name in big letters on the back. Then I have them hold it up in front of themselves, police-blotter style, and I take a digital photo. I assure them (and this is entirely true) that the photos are only for me to learn names. At one place I previously taught, the student ID photos appeared next to their names when faculty called up a class roster on the computer screen, which is helpful only to the extent that their student ID photos resemble the students… but at my current institution, I’m on my own. So photos help. The name badges help. The index cards help. Even in a small class, learning everyone’s name can take a while. If anyone has tips, I’m all ears.

In the methods class, my first-day activity has been to divide them into groups and give each group a set of primary sources with no contextual information and have them figure out: who made these? when? why? and what could historians do with them? The Library of Congress TPS Program has some similar suggestions about kicking off the year with primary-source investigation as a teaser or, for college-level learners, as a way to raise some of the methodological or epistemological issues that can be foregrounded even at the intro level.

One assignment I used to use was to send my survey students to the Chicago Historical Society’s website about Mary Todd Lincoln’s opera cloak, “Wet with Blood” as a first homework assignment, because it deals with historical controversy, artifacts-as-sources, and responsible digital history online all in one. They would then write a short response paper identifying an old object (like, older than 50 yrs) which would tell a historian about them or their families, and I got some really moving papers from that. Our survey is now 1877-present, so it’s a stretch to start with Lincoln’s assassination, but it was an initial activity I liked a lot.

So – please dish. What’s the first day like in your history classrooms, or what are the first things you ask your students to do?

One thought on “First Day of School

  1. I change a lot of things about my survey year after year, but I’ve kept my first-day routine for over a decade. After going through the syllabus, I divide the students into groups and give them three tasks. Everyone must learn the names plus one additional fact about their group members, the group must pick the best summer movie, and they get to decide on one question to ask me. Groups introduce themselves to the class as a whole, I tally up the movie votes, and I answer their questions. Then they debate as a class on whatever tied. For example, today the Dark Knight swept #1, so the class argued on whether the Avengers, Ted, or Magic Mike should come in second. People heatedly argued the virtues of Marky Mark vs. Flash Gordon. Finally we vote as a class and I ask them the point of the exercise. They usually figure out that they are comfortable talking and arguing about movies, and they should be able to do the same about history. It’s kind of goofy, but works well to break the ice, establish ground rules for respectful disagreement, and get them thinking about how to back up an argument. (You say superheroes rule, why?) Additionally I get a go-to pop culture reference point for the rest of the semester. I have high hope for making Dark Knight analogies for ethical issues and invidual vs. community, like the Alien and Sedition Acts. It’s got to be better than the dark days when American Pie ruled the top spot.
    Michelle Kuhl
    University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

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