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Michael Yell on Developing a Climate of Engagement

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Jan 18 2011 Photo, Lining up for yearbooks, April 19, 2009, Lee Bennett, Flickr

As teachers of history, we know that there are the curricular realities of textbooks, common assessments, district outcomes, and state standards to meet. But as teachers of history, we can regularly experience the motivating effects of having students think historically, wrestle with primary sources, and interact while they explore events, issues, ideas, and people of the past. We can do this while still meeting those curriculum targets that, at times, make it seem as though we must take our students on the deadly content coverage march.

How can we as elementary and secondary teachers set a climate for exploration?

I teach 7th-grade world history at the Hudson Middle School in Hudson, WI, and have taught every social science discipline, world history, American history, and state history in every secondary grade over a career of (so far) 37 years. As a classroom teacher I have found that in order to meet those curricular timelines and standards while engaging students in the study of history it is important to:

  1. develop a climate of engagement, interaction, and activity; and
  2. develop a repertoire of engaging thoughtful teaching strategies that will engage students in the study of history.

How can we as elementary and secondary teachers set a climate for exploration? How can we engage our students in historical thinking while meeting the expectations for curriculum coverage that we must? In this blog, I will write about creating that climate and those teaching strategies that I have found are unsurpassed in having students engaged in the study of history.

Setting a Tone for Engagement

Many years ago, my family was sitting around the dinner table after the first day of school. We were talking about that first day when I asked my youngest, who was just entering in middle school, what he did in his class. His reply was we did the first thing we always do on the first day of school: we talked about rules. The two older children, one then in middle school and one in high school, chimed in that in addition to rules, we got to listen to course descriptions, just like every first day. That was an "ah ha" moment for me. What they, and probably most students, experience on the first day is basically a matter of routine and it is not setting a tone for engagement.

I love history and want to engage my students in its exploration. Setting the climate for this begins day one.

I love history and want to engage my students in its exploration. Setting the climate for this begins day one. Although there are certainly many ways to initiate your students into a climate of engagement and discovery, I would like to share mine which, with continual tweaks, I have been using ever since that dinner table conversation about 10 years ago.

When the students come into my room on the first day of school, they find desks formed into groups of four. They seat themselves, and as soon as the bell rings, I give them a challenge: students are to make a class timeline by standing along the walls of the room in order of their birth. The rules are that they cannot talk and they cannot write.

Of course, they realize very quickly that the only way to do this is to use sign language—so many fingers for the month and then the day once they have found others born in the same month. After a few minutes of positioning and repositioning, from the first in line to the last, students announce their birthdays.

From that point, students are formed into groups of four and we talk briefly about the class. I start by asking them about their attitudes toward history and then give them my three guarantees. Regarding their attitudes I always seem to find that roughly a quarter of my students like history, another quarter dislike history, and the rest are ambivalent. It is then time for my three guarantees:

  1. this year we will explore a lot of history (I emphasize the word explore);
  2. this year you will enjoy learning history; and
  3. this year you will never, never do a worksheet.

We then spend the remainder of the period playing a team-building game called Whatzits.

Fulfilling Expectations

The goal on this first day is not to set up the rules for the class, to give my students a syllabus, or even to begin engaging them in historical thinking (that will come). My goal is that when students leave the class, they will have a sense that this history class is going to be different from what they may be accustomed to. I use the birthday line-up, my guarantees, and a team-building exercise to set the tone for my classes. As fellow teachers of history, you may find other methods, but I strongly recommend you get students up and moving, and engage them in activities that will set those expectations of engagement.

What is the next step that must be made in fulfilling those expectations? Simple; the next step is to hit ’em with your best shot. Immediately.

Discrepent Event Inquiry

To carry through with a tone and climate of engagement, it is necessary to use engaging and thoughtful teaching strategies in your teaching immediately. My best shot, i.e. the strategy that I have found most motivates my students and excites them about the upcoming unit, is a strategy called Discrepant Event Inquiry.

Imagine that students have just come into your American history class. The bell rings, and you tell your students that they are going to solve a mystery. The first thing they must figure out is what has happened in this story:

A young boy named John lived on a farm in a beautiful, mountainous, wooded area in Eastern Tennessee in 1837. His family planted corn and raised animals for meat, milk, and eggs. John had four brothers and three sisters. The family appeared happy and prosperous. In 1839 the family moved to a treeless, dry, flat prairie. During the journey, two of John’s brothers and one of his sisters died. When they arrived at their new home, the family could not grow enough to feed themselves. John’s father became a member of the legislature and his mother helped publish the local newspaper. John missed his brothers and sister, and his beautiful home in the mountains.

When the short tale is complete you say to your students: what you must figure out is why John’s family would leave their beautiful farm for a difficult life in this flat dry prairie.

A timer is set and immediately students begin to question you. But these are all a particular type of questions—questions posed to you must be answerable with only a yes or a no. No open-ended questions allowed—students must figure this story out on their own.

The questions and answers begin:

  • Did the family know where they were going?
  • Yes.
  • Did they want to leave Tennessee?
  • No.
  • Why did they leave?
  • I can’t answer that—remember, only yes or no questions.
  • Did they have to leave?
  • Yes.

Questions build upon questions and answers build upon answers as students probe and analyze the problem and develop hypotheses. After a few minutes, the timer is paused and students briefly discuss what they have learned and what they still must discover. Then the timer starts again, as do the questions, until time runs out (I give students five minutes) or a student has developed the correct hypotheses.

I have learned in using discrepant event inquiries that the motivational qualities of this strategy are just as strong, perhaps stronger, if a class does not figure it out. If the time runs out and they have not solved the mystery, they are ready to move into the inquiry more deeply and learn about it. If they do figure it out, they are happy and ready to move on to further inquiry into the subject.

The Steps of Discrepant Event Inquiry

There are four steps in conducting a Discrepant Event Inquiry:

  1. A puzzling story or statement is told to students as well as a statement of what they must figure out in order to solve it.
  2. Students analyze the puzzle by asking the teacher questions that can be answered with a "yes" or a "no."
  3. The teacher pauses during the inquiry in order to give students the opportunity to engage in small-group discussion to enrich their thinking and help them form hypotheses.
  4. The inquiry is followed with the development of questions that students wish to answer during the unit/lesson.
  5. Developing the puzzling story or statement requires a bit of imagination, but anything that can be stated in a puzzling way or stories that can be told about the subject leaving important pieces of information out are ripe for the inquiry.

    By the way, John and his family were Cherokees forced from their homes in the Trail of Tears. Students are now eager to make further inquiries into this tragic period in American history. Two exemplary strategies that the history teacher can use to further engage them in their inquiry are Response Groups and Mystery, which I will examine in future blog entries.


The discrepant event inquiry on the Trail of Tears is adapted from William C. and Jean K. Bruce, Mindtronics, Home Tree Media, 2009.

For more information 

For a complete explanation of strategies for developing Discrepent Event Inquiry stories, and many other strategies, see Yell and Scheurman, A Link to the Past: Engaging Students in the Study of History, National Council for the Social Studies, 2004.

Nice job, Mike. Keep up the

Nice job, Mike. Keep up the good fight! SueB

Thanks Sue, I enjoy writing.

Thanks Sue, I enjoy writing. Love "Discrepant Event Inquiry," its my students' favorite; in fact a student in my third period class asked me today when we are going to do the next one.

Excellent job, Mike! Should

Excellent job, Mike! Should be required reading!

I appreciate your work in

I appreciate your work in this area Mike. The issue of student engagement in history classes can be an ongoing struggle. This post has brought up some excellent ideas of which I will definitely implement in the upcoming school year. Discrepant Event inquiry seems like a great way to foster the historical inquiry process.


Thank you for your comment

Thank you for your comment Chris. If I can be of any help as you work to implement inquiry feel free to contact me at yellmm@hudson.k12.wi.us.

Love it! I willl use this

Love it! I willl use this thought!!! Great way to engage and ignite inquiry!

great ideas. I teach

great ideas. I teach American History to 5th graders, and I spent a week in an intensive training institute in Williamsburg Virginia several years ago. Since then, most of our activities in social studies are hands on, and engaging. They love it! I also try to show a slide show of my trip on the 1st day of school to peak their interest. I love teaching Colonial History, and my students love learning it. Can you explain Whatzits?
On the first day, we play Find Someone Who......They each have a bingo sheet, and they all have to ask each other questions such as do you have a pet? etc. Gets them out of their seats, and learning about one another. I would love to know any other ideas that you may have, especially for the first day. Thank you/

Great ideas. Please explain

Great ideas. Please explain Whatzits. Thank you

Your methods are helpful and

Your methods are helpful and this article is timely! Thanks for passing along the wisdom; have a great school year. One question: do you have any plans for the tenth anniversary of 9-11?

Mike: I really enjoyed your

Mike: I really enjoyed your strategies. I will use the strategy of "lining against the wall without speaking,........" loved it, as well as others. I'm very much interested in trying to obtain national certification as a sixth grade ancient world history teacher or American history. May I communicate with you further on this? Thank you, Jo Ann, teacher in southern California

Thanks for your blog. I

Thanks for your blog. I taught 4th grade last year and these strategies would have been a great jumping off point but I'll be teaching 1st grade this year and I already know how I will tweak the birthday timeline. You are right that students need immediate engagement right on the first day of school to make that day the best 1st day of the rest of that year. Stella

Great engagement strategy!

Great engagement strategy! What is your teambuilding game "Whatitz"?

I'll echo that! I thoroughly

I'll echo that! I thoroughly enjoyed your article and will also hit 'em the first day! I was the teacher with the syllabus, rules etc...

Mike B.

I teach in an urban school

I teach in an urban school system where discipline problems are systemic. Everyone urges new teachers to establish procedures rules, consequences and rewards immediately. I would love to try these strategies but I am afraid the class would become uncontrollable. Does anyone have experience with a school system similar to mine? Any advice?

Some great ideas Mike, thank

Some great ideas Mike, thank you for sharing.
Terry C.

Instructions for

Instructions for Whatzits?
Thanks for the article it was fantastic! One question though, could you explain "Whatzits", how it is played and that sort of thing. I have searched on the web and I can find no information on a teambuilding game of that name.

Chase Austin

I teach in "higher

I teach in "higher education." Engagement is arguably more important than ever at this level. I can certainly benefit from these ideas, and I suspect my students haven't outgrown them either.

Wow! What a great piece of

Wow! What a great piece of information. This looks like a lot of fun. I'm going to give it a try and keep reading your blog. I really needed this article. Thank You! Karri from Nebraska

I love these ideas and I will

I love these ideas and I will use them, but I am afraid I will have exhausted them in a short time. I wish someone like you who is out there trying to engage students everyday like the rest of us, would write a US History curriculum full of these types of ideas for student engagement and publish it. I am ordering your book in hopes that it will give me many, many more ideas. Thank you for the inspiration!

This is great information! I

This is great information! I will definitely be using these strategies. I found online that Whatzit? a.k.a Dingbats are puzzle-like word phrases... I also know them as a rebus... But how do you team build with this... I love the idea but just need clarification as to how you go about this.
Thanks again!!

Michael Great idea for the

Great idea for the first day. Being that I teach 8th graders, myself and my fellow 8th grade US History teacher decided to also right into setting the tone for the class. No discussion of rules or procedures. We had the students in groups trying to interpret pictures and documents related to George Washington. It set the tone for the class and did not bore the students with the usual class rules. We continued this for three days. Students were actively engaged.


Hi, Sorry I am late with

Sorry I am late with this; I now have learned to look back on the blog to see if I have any questions.

Whatzits are also called wordsters and can be found in many newspaper entertainment sections. They are word puzzles that when figure out usually are a common phrase. For example the word LONG above a line with a line and the word WEAR beneath the line is "long underwear." Here is a good site on them http://www.amuniversal.com/ups/features/whatzit/index.htm.


Hi JoAnn, I am sorry that I

Hi JoAnn,
I am sorry that I did not view this earlier, but please feel free to contact me. My school address is yellmm@hudson.k12.wi.us


Thank you very much for your

Thank you very much for your nice comment. Made my day!


Hi, Whatzits are word puzzles

Whatzits are word puzzles that when figure out usually are a common phrase. For example the word LONG above a line with a line and the word WEAR beneath the line is "long underwear." Here is a good site on them http://www.amuniversal.com/ups/features/whatzit/index.htm.


Excellent question; I did

Excellent question; I did teach in a rural school with a high poverty rate but that I quite different than your situation.However, I have a number of acquaintances in urban schools and will talk to them and post a reply.

Sorry for being late in responding but I wrote this blog last fall and have not looked at it for some time.


BTW, I often use

BTW, I often use "Fin~Someone~Who" as a review. Works great!

Hi Chase, Whatzits are also

Hi Chase,
Whatzits are also called wordsters and can be found in many newspaper entertainment sections. They are word puzzles that when figure out usually are a common phrase. For example the word LONG above a line with a line and the word WEAR beneath the line is "long underwear." Here is a good site on them http://www.amuniversal.com/ups/features/whatzit/index.htm.


Thank you for your comment. I

Thank you for your comment. I have a good friend who is a professor of Ed Psych and Social Studies methods (we often write together and conduct workshops on teaching strategies). His university is quite close and he brings his Methods students over several times a year. I spend several hours with them teaching and having them experience different strategies to engage students when they go out and student teach. They do benefit from seeing ways to get students thinking and interacting, and enjoying their learning.

My professor friend, Geoff Scheurman, also utilizes many different strategies in his teaching at the university level and his students love it!

Thank you Karri! BTW, I have

Thank you Karri! BTW, I have to tell you that I do have a book of strategies called "Link to the Past: Strategies for Engaging Students in the Study of History available through NCSS (socialstudies.org). I love writing almost as much as teaching!

Thank you for you nice

Thank you for you nice comment! You made my millennium!! I actually am planning to write that type of curriculm. both for world and US, but it will have to wait until I retire (another five years)

Again, many thanks!

Have a great year Chris!

Have a great year Chris!

Hi Jennifer, I have formed

Hi Jennifer,
I have formed groups after my b-day lineup, give them my guarantees, and then we play the game. I make it a group competition so each groups huddles together to discuss their ideas and answers quietly. My daughter made la dozen posters each with a different whatzit. I use 12. I use to hold up the posters but now that we have Smartboard I have use that. There are four other teachers in my house and I have 12 slides with each teacher holding up three different puzzles.


Hi, Sorry I go tot this late;

Sorry I go tot this late; I wrote it last Sept and did not look at it lately.

Actually I just bulked up what I usually do on 9/11 or the nearest day). I read an incredible book called "Last Man Down: A Firefighters Story of Escape and Survival in the World Trade Center" around 2004. I excerpted the first part of the book from the beginning to the realization that he was buried alive. I have a "slide show" behind me on my Smartboard as I read it. Of course this year I also added pics of the memorial, what it looked like last summer when I was in NYC, and an artist's rendition of the completed Freedom Tower.

Again, sorry I am late on this,

Hi Joann, Sorry I did not get

Hi Joann,
Sorry I did not get right back to you; I've got to learn to keep checking my blogs to see if there are questions. You certainly can contact me at any time! yellmm@hudson.k12.wi.us.

Hi, Sorry for a reply nearly

Hi, Sorry for a reply nearly a year late; after a while I stop checking the older blogs. Here is a great site to explain whatzits (I quess they are more commonly called Wuzzels).

Hello Jennifer, After my line

Hello Jennifer,
After my line up and a brief discussion about class, this is my first team activity; so in their first groups, students work together to solve the whatzits/wuzzels/ rubus.

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