What Is History? 1st Day of School

  • A lot of people have asked what I do on the first day of school. Do I go over rituals and routines? Not really. Do I go over content? Sort of. Do I do team building and relationship building? In a way.

    Here is a VERY detailed look at how I do my first day of class.


    I start class by inviting students to sit wherever they feel they would be most comfortable. I don't like to use a seating chart for numerous reasons, which I could go into at another time.
    Within the first 2 minutes of class, I tell them that we are going to have our first test of the year. At this point, you can see the nervousness as their bodies coil up into a ball of tense stress. Their shoulders rise, their eyes look bigger than a deer staring at a pair of headlights barreling down at them at 70 mph. I quickly reassure them that this "test" is not the same sort of assessment that they may be used to from other classes. In fact, it is a very low stakes test, but requires them to take out their notebook.
    I ask them to take a moment and think about the question I put up on the board. I ask them not to talk about it with someone sitting next to the, don't blurt out loud, and don't look at their neighbors paper. I just ask them to think for about 30 seconds about what they are about to see. 

    What is History?

    Immediately, a few students will start writing. I calmly ask them to stop writing and just think. Realy ponder. 
    After another 20 seconds or so have passed, I ask them to write down their response, and when they are done, just to calming wait for their classmates to finish too. I put on some soft piano music, or a calming movie soundtrack.
    When they are done I ask if someone will be brave enough, bold enough to share their definition. After the deafening silence of a few seconds, which feels like 5 minutes, a hand or two usually timidly shoot up. They read their answer, which usually sounds something like this; "History is something that has happened in the past" or "History is a an event in the past that leads into other events...which bring us to this day."
    First, I compliment them on being brave and bold, as sharing their answers in front of their peers can often times be a difficult if not courageous thing to do.
    Then, I ask if anyone else wrote that. Usually, a few hands go up. I say "Let me redefine my question.... did anyone have EXACTLY that? word for word? All the hands go down. I follow up with a few more student definitions, thanking them each for sharing, letting them know different portions of their responses that I think are unique, intriguing, etc. 
    I tell them that I asked people on Twitter to share their thoughts with us, using the hashtags #CHCougars and #WhatIsHistory. We scroll through a few of them and see some detailed answers, some that say history repeats itself, some that say "a boring class in school" I tell them I hope that this year will be anything but boring. The final response is one from my little brother. It says "History is channel 49 or 692 in HD" This usually brings about a few chuckles. I let them know that everyone has a slightly different version of what history is...but tell them that we will get into that later.
    Then I ask them if they would like to hear my definition.
    I tell them "History in interpretation of people, places, things or events told from a certain perspective which forms the way we view things."

    I ask how many people agree, and a few hands go up. I ask them why they agreed, but that I am even more curious about why some might disagree.
    At this point, I remind them about the test. They don't freak out as much this time, but usually a few people say "I thought we already took it!"
    I tell them that I want them to close their notebooks and their mouths and just watch what is going to happen. I stress how important it is not to talk, not even make a sound. Just watch.
    I tell them that their observation will start when I say "begin" and will end when I give them the next instruction.
    This is where things get a little... odd.
    After saying "begin, I slam my foot onto a chair as loudly as I can. I take my other foot and slam it on top of a table and stand up. I pull a pen from my pants pocket and show the pen off, before poking the ceiling with it. I show the pen again, before stabilizing and jumping to the floor before yelling "Tada!" 
    At this point I quickly tell them to write down what they saw. No talking, no looking at a neighbors writing, just write what they observed. I tell them that they will have 6 minutes to do this. I turn on the soft piano music or calming soundtrack again, to break up the eery silence that often comes from a teacher telling everyone to be quiet.
    I walk around the room and observe what students are writing. It's always interesting to see what they write, and what they don't. It also provides me with the first inkling of their writing skills and possible processing. 
    I pay special attention to a a student or two that might have written something similar to "you stood on a desk and poked the ceiling. You jumped off the desk..." for reasons you will see soon. I also look for a person or two that writes something very detailed and intricate. Throughout the process, I take a few pictures of what they are writing, and quietly let them know I will fill them in shortly on why I am doing it (To post different responses so the outside world can interact with our class using the hashtag #CHCougars.
    As their time is winding down, I remind ask a few individuals if they would share, or if I could read their responses. Usually, students opt for me to read their responses rather than sharing out loud. So, I grab one of the notebooks, walk about 10 feet away and point to a student and say loudly, "YOU stood on a chair." They look at me like I am crazy. I turn around and read it again and point to another student, "YOU stood on a chair." After looks of bewilderment, I say something like "Wait, it wasn't YOU, or YOU, or YOU?" But that is what this paper says. 
    At this point, you can see numerous students editing their own work to change the wording. I don't bring this up yet, but it builds into another lesson about revising or adding to our collective history.
    Inevitably at least one student will raise their hand and want to share their writings. This time, the student usually has more detail, but more times than not, they are missing key elements... and a classmate is more than happy to fill in the gaps... After hearing a few more pieces of their history, I tell them that I find their responses fascinating. After all, they all saw the exact same event, about it, from slightly different perspectives, based on where they were sitting in the classroom. Nonetheless, they all saw the same thing, and what they chose to write about, or leave out is intriguing.
    Then I ask them which history is right. It is at this point, that they appear dumbfounded. I just told them that they all saw the same thing, and that ALL of their histories were different. Does that make any of them more or less right?
    Then I walk around to a student that has not spoken yet...but a student whose paper I made sure to read as they were writing it. I ask if I could borrow it. Cautiously they say ok. I then take that notebook and put it in a learning trunk or a safe that is in the class. You can almost see the puzzled looks on the students faces as they are trying to figure out what I am doing next.
    I tell them that I am going to preserve this piece of history and send it to the Minnesota Historical Society, so future generations will know what we did in this classroom. No pressure, right?!? So, I quickly read it, or portions of it out loud. Other students usually offer to preserve their notebooks at this time, while others quickly say "no way! to having their notebooks preserved.
    In the final few minutes of class, I ask if they would like my interpretation of the event that they saw, told from my perspective.
    I reenact the entire event, describing out loud every single detail I can remember....

    "Mr. Westpfahl, standing in the front of his new 7th grade class at 12:35pm on Tuesday, September 5th, 2017, stomped his size 12 brown hiking show on the new wooden bench that he purchased over the summer for his classroom renovation." I exhaustingly describe every detail of what I am wearing, the type of pen and more.... and of course, describe how when I cautiously stabilized myself on the edge of the desk, it is because when I did this several years ago, the desk gave way and I fell on the ground to the astonishment to my horrified students!
    I ask how my interpretation was different, and someone usually suggests it was because I had done it before and knew what to say. I lead them to saying that I orally portrayed the events, which allowed me to say more in the same amount of time as it took them to write. I let them know we will explore more about oral history in the near future. 
    Just before the bell rings, I remind them that "History in interpretation of people, places, things or events told from a certain perspective which forms the way we view things."
    I smile, and ask how many are excited to come back to see where class goes tomorrow and nearly every hand shoots up. I ask how many are a bit nervous about coming back tomorrow and a few hands come up. That too, is telling.
    Day one of curiosity and exploration is in the books!