A Fun Activity to Teach Historical Thinking Skills In the First Week of School!

how to teach historical thinking skills

An engaging activity for the first week of history class! 

There are so many things we try to accomplish the first couple weeks of school. Getting students excited for our class, practicing routines, connecting with students, building a community of learners, and squeezing in some content when we can.

But here is a free activity I encourage all history teachers from 6-12 grade to do with their students in the first couple of weeks because it will pay off all year long and takes almost no prep! 

This is how to teach historical thinking skills in the first weeks of school! 

The "Lunchroom Fight II" activity from SHEG (Stanford History Education Group) is a game-changer because it is the best way to start developing historical thinking skills for students!

Because if you want your classroom to be a place where students are not just learning history but doing history- not just memorizing content, but developing skills- this is how you start them along that path.

activity to teach historical thinking skills


So, here's the scoop: in the "Lunchroom Fight II" activity, students are transported to a fictional lunchroom fight, where they take on the role of the principal trying to sort out what happened and who is responsible. In this way, they’re learning what historians in order to make sense of the past.

A MAJOR TIP THAT I LEARNED THE HARD WAY: After completing the activity, make sure students fully understand that what they did as the principal is very similar to what historians have to do when trying to figure out what really happened in the past. If you don’t, students might be confused on just what the heck this lunch fight has to do with history!

The activity starts a brief reading of ‘background info. This acts as historical context. Its essential students start to understand that without knowing the context, its really hard to understand all the testimonials (sources) and what the evidence means. That's why anytime you read primary sources in class, students should always first ask themselves-, “What was the historical context from which this was made ”? 

That is such an important habitat of mind that students develop in our classes!

Next, students receive a series of testimonials from different people involved in the lunchroom fight – teachers, friends, peers, and more. Make sure students understand that the testimonials act as primary sources and that they realize each one offers its own unique perspective, bias, and might provide different evidence. 

But here's the kicker – just like the principal has to be skeptical of some of the sources, so do historians when they analyze historical documents! It's a chance to show your students the importance of questioning biases and critically examining evidence. 

This is a skill students really struggle with and thats why this activity is a great way to introduce this habitat of thinking to them!


I like to have students work in small groups carefully going through all the sources, and collecting the evidence as they fill out the worksheets. In the end, each group has to determine what they think really happened and write up their suspension report. 

first week activity for history class

To be successful, they have to corroborate the sources and evidence. This is the toughest part of this activity and history labs in general. Not just comparing the evidence but trying to piece together an accurate interpretation based on the different sources. 

And here is a way to make the activity close with a bang. Make sure to have a little debate or discussion after students write up their suspension report. You'll likely find different reports with different interpretations and conclusions, and that's where the magic happens! Connect this to history and how historians often have diverse interpretations of the same event. Tell students this makes history a little tricky, but that's also what makes it exciting – it's like detective work!


They don’t even know it, but they just completed their first history lab. Except it was with a fun, easy topic like a lunchroom fight! Still, this is historical thinking in action!

This activity is a perfect example of one of the most important tips I ever received as a new teacher. And that is, “Never teach a new skill while also teaching new content.” 

Trying to teach a new skill like corroborating evidence and critiquing sources while giving them new content to try to understand, will overwhelm many students. Guess how your most challenging and reluctant learners will respond? Yup, they’ll either shut down or act out.

Instead, when you use fun and familiar topics like a lunchroom fight, students are more likely to be able to have success in developing the skill. Then when you introduce your first real history lab where they have to read different primary sources that contradict each other to answer an inquiry question, they can approach it with confidence. This makes all the difference in the world for many of our students!

I hope you use this activity, or one like it, to get students to start building essential historical thinking skills while unleashing their inner historians!

How to do History Labs

If you are interested in learning more about history labs, you can read this blog here or check out my course, “Make History Engaging, Exciting, and Empowering.” Module 7 is all about making rigorous inquiry exciting with history labs! And the whole course is designed to get students excited about history while helping them develop essential skills all year long!

Get students doing history, not just learning history. 👊

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