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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63 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


    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


    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.


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

    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!

  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.


  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
    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
    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
    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
    29/10/2012 at 12:35 am Permalink

    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
    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,

  21. peter
    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,

  23. peter
    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?


  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
    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

    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

  27. peter
    Christine Daniel
    09/01/2015 at 1:41 pm Permalink

    Hello — I just stumbled upon your website while looking for some simplified murder mysteries to do. I work with the elderly as an Activities Director in an Assisted Living (and have previously worked in nursing homes). I often find when looking for resources for a program, resources created for teachers are the most helpful for creating programs for this population. So many program resources out there for the elderly are on the “childish” side — oversimplified, and insulting to their intelligence — and I LOVE to find programs that can be meaningful for them, fun, and appreciate their intellect! But it’s tricky to navigate sometimes with memory issues, etc. Finding lesson plans meant for one class works out extremely well — and I wanted to tell you, I’m definitely going to utilize your Murder Mysteries for future programs! Thank you so much for your blog posts. And I can’t wait to check out what else your blog has to offer as well! 🙂 I’ll bet you didn’t realize the scope of your blog posts reached farther and wider than the population you intended it for!

  28. peter
    Peter Pappas
    09/01/2015 at 1:46 pm Permalink

    Christine, A very imaginative use of the lesson. Clearly all the same problem solving and organizational skills can benefit any age group. Now I’m wondering if I should send to my mom?

  29. peter
    16/02/2015 at 8:41 am Permalink


    I stumbled upon your website and would like to use this with my students. My question is what 5 questions are the students answering?

  30. peter
    Peter Pappas
    16/02/2015 at 10:37 am Permalink

    Students must find the murderer, the weapon, the time of the murder, the place of the murder, and the motive.

  31. peter
    Lynda Lisabeth
    20/02/2015 at 6:49 am Permalink

    I am wondering how long this would take adults (college students) to complete on average?


  32. peter
    Peter Pappas
    20/02/2015 at 1:28 pm Permalink

    I’m guessing 20 – 25 mins of problem solving. Have fun

  33. peter
    27/07/2015 at 1:53 pm Permalink

    Hi Peter. I love this activity and am planning on using it this year. You mentioned discussing relevant vs. irrelevant information, higher-order thinking, etc. Do you have an outline or specific activity for this or is it more of a discussion? Thanks!

  34. peter
    Peter Pappas
    27/07/2015 at 2:24 pm Permalink

    Hi Laura,
    Glad you like it – it was an informal discussion. Asked them to catalogue the clues that were important to solving the case and those that were not. Then worked our way backwards into definitions of the terms.

  35. peter
    01/08/2015 at 10:40 am Permalink

    Thank you for sharing this idea. I will be using it on the first day of school this year. Do you have a website with other ideas/lessons?

  36. peter
    Peter Pappas
    01/08/2015 at 11:10 am Permalink

    Hi Lucy,
    Glad you like the lesson. I have lots of activities posted on this blog that you are free to use. You might start here – where I have a collection of literacy activities.

  37. peter
    12/08/2015 at 2:03 pm Permalink

    I used this lesson today and it was a huge success! This was the best 1st Day of School that I’ve had in a long time! It was much more fun than beginning the year looking at a boring syllabus 🙂 I’m even thinking about having Murder Mystery Mondays every so often!

  38. peter
    Peter Pappas
    12/08/2015 at 8:07 pm Permalink

    Thanks for taking the time to share the fun. Murder Mystery Mondays – I love it. If you Google Minute Mysteries you’ll find links to many collections of short mysteries.
    Have a great school year!

  39. peter
    brooke Jones
    13/08/2015 at 11:14 am Permalink

    I understand they aren’t to show each other their clues, only share them verbally. But are they allowed a place to write stuff down? or must everything be verbal?

  40. peter
    Peter Pappas
    13/08/2015 at 1:37 pm Permalink

    The focus if to get them all contributing. That’w why they verbally share their clues. Note-taking is fine, as long as one or two students don’t begin to dominate the problem solving

  41. peter
    14/08/2015 at 4:43 am Permalink

    I love this idea and am going to use it. You mention at one point that if they come to you they must have all 5 answers correct and if not you won’t tell them which is wrong. What question/answers are you referring to? Thanks.

  42. peter
    Peter Pappas
    14/08/2015 at 8:49 am Permalink

    Task: Mr. Kelley was murdered. Students must find the murderer, the weapon, the time of the murder, the place of the murder, and the motive.

    Have fun!

  43. peter
    Courtney Utz
    23/08/2015 at 6:45 pm Permalink

    How is the gunshot wound superficial if a bullet from Mr.Jones’ gun is found in Mr. Kelley’s leg?

  44. peter
    Peter Pappas
    23/08/2015 at 9:20 pm Permalink

    Hi Courtney, the clues are meant to be ambiguous. That gives the students a chance to discuss their reliability. Let them decide if it’s important. Have fun with the lesson.
    ~ Peter

  45. peter
    25/08/2015 at 7:39 pm Permalink

    Any recommendations for modifying this activity for ELA? I am looking for a first day of school activity that allows students to read closely and begin to understand how they interact with one another to set a classroom culture of collaboration and critical thinking. I love the idea of giving them a challenge of

  46. peter
    Peter Pappas
    26/08/2015 at 5:40 am Permalink

    Hi Emily,
    Why not use the same content / process? I don’t see why that needs to be modified. In a follow up discussion you could analyze the clues from the perspective of a narrative.
    Have fun – Peter

  47. peter
    07/09/2015 at 6:07 pm Permalink

    I am so excited to try this with my 8th graders. I know you have answered the question about the 5 questions for the murder mystery, but what would the 5 questions be for the bank robbery? Thank you!

  48. peter
    Peter Pappas
    07/09/2015 at 7:43 pm Permalink

    Glad you like it. It’s a “who dunnit.” Have them figure out who robbed the bank.

  49. peter
    Lois Mandell
    15/09/2015 at 7:24 pm Permalink

    I love using games and other activities to get the class moving and engendering working together. Question- I am a Special Education teacher and teach 8th grade Life Skills, but the class is split up where students come on alternate days (3 on one day, another 3 on the next day, and so on)

    How can we structure these mystery games with such a small group? Any thoughts to modifications? (students receive special education services)

    Any help appreciated.

    Thank you!

  50. peter
    Peter Pappas
    20/09/2015 at 3:59 pm Permalink

    Hi Lois,
    You might use the basic concept – dividing information into separate slips – and present the students with a simpler mystery. Google “minute mysteries” and you’ll find lots of them

  51. peter
    26/02/2016 at 5:30 am Permalink

    Hi! I found your website and used your mystery games with my high school students while teaching logic – induction and deduction…They LOVED it! Great idea! Thanks!!!

  52. peter
    11/05/2016 at 4:50 pm Permalink

    I used these clues to write witness statements for each of the characters and then gave them out one by one to my year 8 English class. They used them to figure out the murderer and the method and practised using evidence and making inferences. They also practised understanding characterisation and tone. It worked really well! And they keep asking me to make another. It was a week that I was away and the relief/substitute teacher loved it too! She asked me for copies and said the students were engaged and eager to work, well-behaved, and had great discussions. They are also much better at giving evidence for their statements and at explaining how the evidence leads them to those conclusions. Love it when the lesson teaches itself.
    Thanks for the clues!

  53. peter
    Peter Pappas
    11/05/2016 at 5:08 pm Permalink

    Donna, thanks so much for taking the time to report back on the lesson. Glad it went so well.
    ~ Cheers, Peter

  54. peter
    11/07/2016 at 5:43 pm Permalink

    I’m so glad I stumbled across your post today. Since every other teacher will be going over expectations and procedures the 1st day, I really want to utilize a thinking activity to set the tone but also have fun. This seems perfect! AND it ties in really well with the way I teach argumentative writing. I teach 8 th grade ELA and use mysteries to teach students how to cite evidence from text and pictures. This will be such a great introductory activity and I really appreciate your making it available for free. (Hopefully students 7th grade teachers haven’t already found this and used it last year)
    Thanks again!

  55. peter
    Peter Pappas
    11/07/2016 at 5:58 pm Permalink

    Jen, enjoy. I think it’s so much better than passing out books and talking about rules. Helps set a tone – inquiry and critical thinking.

  56. peter
    Spencer Smith
    11/08/2016 at 6:57 am Permalink

    This is my new favorite exercise. After teaching “Why” history is important and that it is very important to ask “Why” to discover, this activity relates to it perfectly! we know the facts, but have to discover why and how!

  57. peter
    Peter Pappas
    11/08/2016 at 11:08 am Permalink

    Thanks for the feedback – I think the process cold be modified to teach historical content as well with primary docs.

  58. peter
    19/08/2016 at 2:01 pm Permalink

    What are the five questions you have the students answer for the bank robbery mystery?

    Thanks in advance!

  59. peter
    Peter Pappas
    20/08/2016 at 8:06 am Permalink

    I think that 5 questions language was originally written regarding the murder mystery. So with the bank robbery, the task is simply to solve the case.

  60. peter
    24/08/2016 at 1:01 am Permalink

    Thank you for this post! I am a first year English teacher and I think I’m going to try this with my ninth graders. (Perhaps even use it to lead into some Sherlock Holmes 🙂 ) About how long did it take for your students to solve one mystery?


  61. peter
    Peter Pappas
    24/08/2016 at 1:52 pm Permalink

    Hi Molly,
    My typical class of high schoolers finish in about 45 mins.

  62. peter
    Mrs. Rorie
    05/09/2016 at 12:49 am Permalink

    Thanks for sharing ideas. It stimulated my thought process.

  63. peter
    Mrs. Rorie
    05/09/2016 at 12:50 am Permalink

    Appreciate your sharing.

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