First Day of School? Here’s How to Get Students Thinking

» 09 August 2010 » In How To, Strategies »

Walkn-3526522573 As a social studies high school teacher, I faced over 25 years of the first day of school. When I first began teaching, I did usual thing – working through the class list (“do you prefer Patrick, or Pat?), a dry recitation of the class rules, passing out the textbooks. Blah, blah, blah – think of the message it sent to my students.

As my teaching style evolved from the lecture / work sheet model into a more engaged learning environment, I redefined how I wanted to introduce my students to my course. I also came to understand that it was imperative that I get all my students to contribute a few comments to the class during those first few days. Very quickly classes learn which students are the talkers and non-talkers. Once those roles are locked in – it’s very difficult for student for break out of them.

So I didn't waste the opening week of school introducing the course – my students solved murder mysteries. I took simplified mysteries and split them into 25-30 clues, each on a single strip of paper. You can download one of the mysteries and a set of rules from my website.  I used a random count off to get the kids away from their buddies and into groups of 5-6 students. Each group got a complete set of clues for the mystery. Each student in the group got 4-5 clues that they could not pass around to the other students. They had to share the clues verbally in the group and that guaranteed that every student is a talker on day one.

While the students worked to solve the mystery – I concentrated on learning the student names. After I introduced the mystery, I bet them that by the end of the first class, I could go around the room and recite their names. While they worked on the mystery, I circulated getting to know students and their names. Another message – in this class, we’re all learners.

Over the next few days we would process their problem solving skills, group dynamics, differences between relevant and irrelevant information and introduce the idea of higher-order thinking like analysis, evaluation and creating. We might even have time to try another mystery to see if they got better.   ~ Originally posted August 27, 2008 ~

Photo credit: Flickr / walknboston

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28 Comments on "First Day of School? Here’s How to Get Students Thinking"

  1. peter
    annie pettit
    19/08/2010 at 7:42 pm Permalink

    Interesting idea but that still wouldn’t have got me to speak beyond what was forced. Are you able to get the really shy kids to speak willingly?

  2. peter
    Peter Pappas
    19/08/2010 at 11:54 pm Permalink

    Hi Annie,

    My experience in the classroom was that a pattern of “talker” and “non-talkers” gets established very early. In this activity, students are given a limited number of clues and must share them verbally (rather than pass them to a “leader”). It gives the shy kids a chance to contribute and breaks the mold of “non-talker.”

    If you do enough activities like this early in the course it establishes a more balance level of contributions from all students. Not perfect, but headed in the right direction. It sure beats passing out books and reading the class rules.

    PS. I trust you conquered your shyness (I was a stutterer – you wouldn’t have heard much from me!)

  3. peter
    Keishla Ceaser-Jones
    29/08/2010 at 10:43 pm Permalink

    Peter,

    I want to thank you again for your mystery idea. Last year I took the idea, and I created a campus specific mystery for my students. We have an AP on our campus that loves t talk on his megaphone/bullhorn. So they solved the mystery of the missing megaphone which involved suspects from our campus staff. You are right…it is definitely a break from what they normally do in other classes, and it gets them talking and thinking. On day two, I did a debriefing on group dynamics and problem solving skills that I segued into the 3 Story Intellect. It went perfectly. We had a great discussion about postive/negative group characteristics and what’s good and challenging about working in groups. It let the students know right away that this class was about THEM and not ME!

    Thanks again!

  4. peter
    Peter Pappas
    30/08/2010 at 12:55 pm Permalink

    Keishla,

    Its inspiring to see how you took the “foundation” of my lesson idea and built so many great learning experience upon it. Most importantly, your students were provided with a engaging introduction to your course. Keep up the great work and say hi to friends in Cy-Fair!

  5. peter
    Charles Herzog
    09/09/2010 at 2:08 pm Permalink

    Thanks for the lesson. I just finished it with my 6th graders. Check this out.

    There are more “reveals” at the website linked below.

    http://vimeo.com/14832417

    Charlie
    @PJ_Vermont
    http://fbus6.weebly.com

  6. peter
    Peter Pappas
    10/09/2010 at 1:13 pm Permalink

    Charles,
    Thanks for sharing the links to your videos. I hope some of my readers check them out. The kids are great! I spent some time on your website and it’s clear you have an engaged bunch of kids. Have a great school year!
    Peter

  7. peter
    Delonna Halliday
    30/06/2012 at 2:03 pm Permalink

    I love this idea! Before I start to create my own, anyone else have suggestions or plan for younger students?
    I think I’ll have them create tableus of the story so we can move into a conversation about rising action, conflict and resolution.

    Delonna

  8. peter
    Peter Pappas
    30/06/2012 at 3:12 pm Permalink

    Hi Delonna, Great idea about students creating their own. If it goes well, let me know – you might share with a guest post?
    Cheers ~ Peter

  9. peter
    Jan Alderson
    04/07/2012 at 1:00 pm Permalink

    I have the students alphabetize themselves as they come in, then seat themselves. In science, we need every day for we don’t have enough time to cover all units, let alone essential learning so I could not use as many days as suggested. I watch as they seat themselves, therefore, have a preliminary idea of behavior, leadership, etc. They seat themselves. I seat them differently each quarter based on gender, behavior, and ability. This seems to work well overall.

  10. peter
    Peter Pappas
    04/07/2012 at 1:12 pm Permalink

    Jan, thanks for adding an idea. This time of year lots of teachers are thinking about starting the year right.
    ~cheers, Peter

  11. peter
    Cicele
    03/08/2012 at 12:04 pm Permalink

    This is such a great idea! I was dreading the first day routine of rules, syllabus, and me talking. Thanks for inspiring me to think outside the box!

  12. peter
    Peter Pappas
    03/08/2012 at 4:09 pm Permalink

    Cicele, I always had more fun teaching outside the box. Have a great school year!

  13. peter
    Judi
    06/08/2012 at 6:54 pm Permalink

    Hi Peter,
    I really love this idea, and I think that middle schoolers would eat it up. I teach in Colorado, and I wondered if you think the murder mystery would be a little much right now since we live near the Aurora Theater shootings. What are your thoughts?

    Thank you for sharing your materials.

  14. peter
    Peter Pappas
    06/08/2012 at 7:34 pm Permalink

    That “close to home” might pose a problem.

    You could try the “bank robbery” mystery. Or find another simple mystery and cut up the clues. It’s the discussion, problem solving and collaboration that help get the school year off to a good start.

  15. peter
    Becky
    14/08/2012 at 3:53 pm Permalink

    I absolutely love this idea. I teach high school and just dread the first day and going over the syllabus and rules. I am curious, though, as to how to write my own mystery. For now, I will plan to use yours since we are starting this upcoming Monday, but I’d love to know the process for creating one that is unique to my school community.

  16. peter
    Peter Pappas
    14/08/2012 at 7:20 pm Permalink

    Hi Becky, Glad you like the format.

    Here’s some sources:
    5 minute Mysteries You can sign up and have access to lots of mysteries.

    Or as an alternative – use audio from old time radio here.

  17. peter
    adnama
    29/10/2012 at 12:35 am Permalink

    Hi,
    I just wanted to say thank you for your blog – I am a starting teacher and want my classroom to be like this. Thanks for the great ideas!

  18. peter
    Peter Pappas
    29/10/2012 at 4:30 am Permalink

    You’re very welcome. Best of luck in a great profession!

  19. peter
    Jackie
    20/08/2013 at 5:55 pm Permalink

    I don’t know if you will see this, but I hope you. I am looking for a little clarification. Maybe I’m reading incorrectly or just thinking too much. But do you have the small groups of 5-6 try to solve the mystery on their own? So several small groups are working on the same mystery at the same time, just in their small groups. OR is the WHOLE CLASS of 25 or so student working to figure out one solution to the problem?

  20. peter
    Peter Pappas
    20/08/2013 at 6:24 pm Permalink

    Hi Jackie,

    Your first guess is right – they are working in small groups (but separately) on the same problem. Too hard for 25 to collaborate.

    Have fun,
    Peter

  21. peter
    Christie
    24/09/2013 at 8:23 pm Permalink

    Any ideas for p.e. introduction for 45+ students?

  22. peter
    Peter Pappas
    25/09/2013 at 10:39 am Permalink

    Hi Christie,
    Why not use the same activity – it’s all about cooperation and coordination. Attributes that are useful in p. e. as well.
    Or perhaps use the format – and write your own (more athletic) mystery?
    ~ Cheers,
    Peter

  23. peter
    Kim
    07/12/2013 at 9:25 am Permalink

    Love this problem solving idea! I’m just starting a unit with my 10th graders on collaboration and communication.

    Question: How long did this activity take? How much time do you suggest I allot for this activity?

    Thanks!

  24. peter
    Peter Pappas
    07/12/2013 at 10:21 am Permalink

    Kim, We were able to complete in one class period. 50 mins. But we also did follow up discussions in later classes.
    Have fun with it ~ Peter

  25. peter
    Madalyn
    02/02/2014 at 3:55 pm Permalink

    Peter, my professor at Northwestern had us do your murder mystery game as a whole class of 10. It is was a secondary teacher education course, and we were learning how have high school students work in groups, so this exercise got us thinking.

    I begin student teaching a Groups & Organization unit for a sociology course this week, and I am going to start off the unit with groups of 4 or 5, as you recommend, working on the murder mystery or the bank robbery mystery. Hopefully the experience get the students thinking about group dynamics including group leadership and other roles.

    Thank you so much for sharing your ideas!

  26. peter
    Peter Pappas
    02/02/2014 at 5:20 pm Permalink

    Madalyn,
    Glad you liked the exercise. Have fun with it in your placement. Let me know how it went.

    If you haven’t seen this post you might like this activity as well Prisoner’s Dilemma – A Game Theory Simulation

    You might also find some useful resources at my Ed Methods website.

    Cheers – Peter

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