Some of the most successful and engaging activities I’ve used this year have been classroom “meet and greets.” These activities have served as exciting introductions into new historical units, and each time, students have been excited to learn more and to dive deeper into the upcoming unit. The creation of these “meet and greets” was inspired by some amazing work done by the Zinn Education Project, specifically the abolitionist activity, “Who Freed the Slaves?”
In Texas, the social studies standards are largely tied to a long list of “heroes” for students to learn about. This is a pretty typical approach to elementary social studies, and because of this, students often leave social studies classes with the idea that change is made by heroic individuals, rather than by thousands of ordinary people working together to upset power structures.
When students learn about history through the lens of heroes, they are likely to not see themselves as part of the story. For example, when learning about the civil rights movement, many students are taught a narrative built solely upon the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. While these are indeed wonderful and important individuals, many students walk away from these lessons with the understanding that they will never do something as great as these prolific figures. By painting a broader picture for our students, including a diverse array of figures, students are more likely to see themselves as potential changemakers.
The shortcomings of the heroes approach to elementary social studies is what led me to create these next four activities. While the set up of each is slightly different, the approach is the same. In each activity, students are assigned the role of an individual from the time period. The individuals included are not the typical heroes included in historical units (i.e., the civil rights activity does not include MLK and Rosa Parks). Each student reads their informational card and then takes on the persona of that person. Students then walk throughout the classroom “meeting” each other and collecting signatures and stories from fellow changemakers.
Check out some photos of these fifth grade changemakers engaging in a Holocaust resistance meet and greet.
The following are three different meet and greet activities that I have created, centering around The Civil Rights Movement, the Holocaust, and the Harlem Renaissance.
1. Civil Rights Find Someone Who
This “find someone who” activity exposes students to seventeen key figures and groups during the civil rights movement whose stories are usually not included. Students each take on the role of an activist, and walk around the room to meet each other and sign their “find someone who” cards.
2. Interview with a Resistor (Holocaust Resistance)
This activity includes nine different figures who each engaged in resistance against the Nazis and liberation for Jewish people in different ways. Because there are only nine figures, students may work in partners, or there may be two of each person.
Students complete their “autographs from resistors” page, and then engage in two in depth interviews with other students.
3. A Stroll Through Sugar Hill (Harlem Renaissance)
I love teaching the Harlem Renaissance, and I also find it incredibly important. Far too often, the stories of men and women of color are relegated into specific months, and labeled “Black History,” or “LatinX History,” instead allowing these narratives to disrupt our understanding American (white) history. By teaching units like the Harlem Renaissance, students of color see themselves as playing a powerful, joyful, and creative role in the US narrative, instead of just in positions of oppression. This meet and greet activity exposes students to a world of joy, art, and creativity.
To begin, I always read the story book, Sugar Hill, by Carole Boston Weatherford. Afterwards, I tell students that we will be going on our own “stroll through Sugar Hill.” Students are assigned different people who lived in this historic Black neighborhood in Harlem, and then walk throughout the classroom meeting each other.
Creating these meet and greets is so fun, but also labor intensive. I have plans to create more of these activities, specifically for the abolitionist movement, and will share these new resources as they are created.