Thursday, August 19, 2021

Day 1: Historical Thinking Boot Camp - High School Edition

I taught for 13 years at the middle school level. One of the best things I ended up adding to the start of my year was a "Historical Thinking Boot Camp" which spent some dedicated time with my 7th graders going through all the skills needed to think historically. I wrote a blog post that can be see HERE detailing it. And to this day it is one of my most popular blogs. 

But like all good needs an update. This update really was for me. 3 years ago I made the jump to high school.  It only took 4 semesters and teaching in a pandemic for me to finally work out a version of the boot camp for my US History classes to try out. 

I am dividing this into 4 different blog posts in order to be able to go into details for each day and then provide a reflection and any modifications I may do the next time in the final post. 

  1. Day 1: Discussion Expectations - Employability Skills - Historical Thinking
  2. Day 2: Skills for Thinking Historically 
  3. Day 3: Stations - Sourcing Strengths and Limitations
  4. Day 4: Follow-up, Reflection and Modifications

***I provide resources to my lessons and activities for free at the conclusion of this post, all I ask is that if you use it you don't claim it as your own and it doesn't end up on TPT*** 

For reference we run a 4x4 block schedule (85ish minute class periods). I see my classes each day for a semester and then start over with a new group of kids in January. While my middle school version of the boot camp took 5-7 days, I don't have the luxury of that much time at the HS level with our schedule. So this is designed to be completed in 3ish days, which includes the first day of school "stuff". 

Day 1: (First day of the semester)

I try to come out like a freight train full of energy and do my best to get kids engaged at the "get-go". One of my favorite phrases I say to my classes is... 

And I mean it. Almost as soon as I say that we talk about what good discussions look like. I explain (and model) my expectations for good quality discussions. What I, as the teacher walking around the room, expect to SEE and HEAR. We talk about body language and how that can convey a persons attitude and level of participation. My basic expectations for discussions in class...

I make it clear that these are the expectations whenever we have a discussion, and I go through those expectations EVERY TIME for the first two weeks. After that I simply have to say "remember our discussion expectations of what I should SEE and HEAR".

Now we practice. 4 short discussion questions to demonstrate those expectations. This also gives me a chance to walk around become a part of the conversations. I get to know what they wish teachers did in class, what they hate that teachers do, and the skills they wish school would teach them. These are great and powerful conversations. On day one. 

Now Jill, what does this have to do with Historical Thinking? 
Everything we do to start the year is training my students to "take it to the next level." This lesson is providing students the training they need with questions that are low-pressure and tend to be of interest to many kids (and rarely are they asked about it). This sets the tone so that when we have discussion topics that are more controversial and/or difficult topics, we have already established the norms for civil discourse. I find that when I am crystal clear about my expectations, they tend to be met.

The discussion (specifically that last two slides) leads perfectly into Activity #2: Employability skills. 

I went into detail on this activity with a blog post you can check out by clicking here. To summarize students identify employability skills that THEY want to leave high school having practiced and get better at. Students work together in the class to select 5 skills they want me to incorporate in the daily lessons, activities, and projects. I post them in the classroom as a daily reminder to us all. 

Activity #3: An Introduction to Historical Thinking
I have been a part of a professional learning community for 10 years or so made up of amazing Kansas Social Studies teachers around our state. A couple of years ago there was a presenter to talked about "untold stories" of history. This was the first time I was introduced to the photo of the "Orphans of the Abyss."

 I explain that when studying the past, historians ask a series of questions in order to examine the evidence they have. So we're going to practice. I tell them to discuss what they see in the photo on the next slide. 

And let me tell you...the conversation is amazing. The details students pull out from the photo, their reasoning...they are thinking like historians and they don't even realize it. They THINK they're just pointing out details in a photo. I love this moment so much. I walk around and nudge them for more information "What does that tell you?" or "Why do you think that is?"

We discuss their observations as a class and I go on to explain that historians are limited to the evidence they have. The more evidence that they can corroborate the more accurate their inferences are. Every now and then new evidence from past events comes up, and provides a more clear picture of what really happened. 

Then I show the next slide (which has a slight addition to the photo). 

Ohhhs and Ahhhhs fill the room. It sounds corny but I'm serious. We talk about what inferences they made that were correct and which ones were wrong.

And then I tell the story of the "Orphans of the Abyss" (Click here for the amazing story

There are always mouths open with surprise, and this moment always hits within the last 5 minutes of class. I end with this... 

History is MORE than dates and events in a textbook or vocabulary presented in a lecture. History is the story or REAL people who lived and experienced events of a nation and a world. History is ever changing and history is found in the stories. In my class we will study the stories from the people who lived during extraordinary times. We will compare their stories from multiple perspectives and ask questions in order to gain larger answers. 

And tomorrow we will find out just how we're going to "think like historians." 

Day 2 and Day 3 posts are coming soon! 


  1. Your lessons are great and I am looking forward to seeing what happens with the Day 3 plan. I am curious about the four conversations on Day 1. Do you do those as large class conversations or divide your students into teams? Your comment about walking around the room made me unsure and I am debating how I would do it in my classes.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful ideas.

    John Raby

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