Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reacting to Events Past and Present: An Activity Idea for the Classroom

By Nina Kendall

              History teachers work very hard to help students understand that events are experienced differently by different groups of people. An action that is success for one group may be bitter disappointment for another group. For students it can be a struggle to take a different perspective. Yet this skill is essential to broadening our understanding of the past.

                For teachers, the development of a lesson that helps students do this and is easy to assess is a challenge. One of my favorite activities for perspective taking is called What were they thinking?.  In this activity, students examine an event or speech and then imagine how a group or person would react to the event. They imagine and create the facial expression of a person after this event and write first person expressions of reactions to these events. Creating these faces and writing the “I” statements are an engaging and relatable activity for students. After a decade or more of reality television, students understand that people are going to show their feelings in words and actions. They have certainly discussed what someone was thinking after a major event in their lives or on television.

                I do this activity with high school students after studying the French and Indian War and the Treaty of Paris, 1763. Students choose to express the reaction of the Native Americans, Colonists, or the British. I provide a blank face upon which they draw the facial expression and write “I” statements to express the point of view they choose. This is a great writing and historical thinking activity. My students are focused and thoughtful in their interpretation of the events.

                While I do this with events in the past every year, it is an activity that can be used with current events. Students can read the speeches like the State of the Union delivered tonight and think about how different groups might react. You can ask students to choose from a short list of groups and identify how they would feel about the issues discussed. They would create a face that expressed the reaction of their group and write “I” statements  reacting to the speech  including a specific number of quotes. Here is an example of how to structure the task.

Task: Read the State of the Union address and show how one of the groups below would react to the speech. You should show their reaction on the face provided and write at least 5 “I” statements that explain their reaction and what they were thinking.  You must include at least 2 quotes from the speech.

Groups: Women, Small Business Owner,  Immigrant, Teacher, Democrat, Republican, Elected Official


  1. I love this idea. Getting students to think from another perspective and even (hopefully) empathize with another group is a great skill set to develop.

    I am curious to hear some stories of how this goes with, ahem...artistically challenged students! Do you have kids who struggle to draw that dislike the assessment?

    Alec Chambers (@chambersalec)

    1. Alec @chambersalec
      Kids who struggle to draw are initially resistant to the assessment because they lack prior experience and fear penalty for artistic skill. I reassure them that " I did not ask for a Picasso I am looking for their thinking." This reassurance helps. It also helps to work with a form like a face or a shirt. It makes it less unfamiliar. You are thinking drawing while they can think personalization.