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August 21, 2009

First Day of School? Don't Pass Out Books - Problem Solve!

mystery-photo I first published this post at the start of the 08-09 school year. It proved to be very popular and I've had thousands of downloads of the Kelley Murder mystery students were asked to solve. I've added a second mystery - a bank robbery - and republished my original post below. Enjoy!

~ Originally published August 27, 2008 ~

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 did not 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.


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I used the bank robbery mystery today in my AP Spanish class. It worked beautifully! I translated all the clues to Spanish. All the students spoke Spanish and worked together for the entire class period. That's exactly what I want to see all year. Thanks!


I define creativity as "a new combination of existing materials." That's exactly what you did! Glad you were able to foster the interaction - hopefully that will continue!

You might take a look at this simple decision-making model. It generates loads of discussion - I bet it would work well in Spanish.


I have seen another simple version of this type of things. Thanks for sharing!
Here it is:-
1. The health centre, including the dentist’s surgery, is ten minutes’ walk from the school.
2. Phil Pockets was with the Head from 13.13 to 14.15.
3. The robbery was discovered during the afternoon break.
4. The takings for Friday are normally around 25€
5. The tuck shop is open during all breaks and during the lunch hour.
6. Nick Toften left to go to the dentist during afternoon registration.
7. Mr Mortar, one of the home room teachers, was ten minutes late for afternoon registration.
8. Lunch hour ends at 13.30
9. The tuck shop is next to the office.
10. Phil Pockets was seen in the local cafe at lunchtime, treating his friends.
11. Nick’s father picked him up in the car at 13.25 and brought him back at 15.00
12. Phil Pockets was absent during the morning.
13. Fred is in Mr Mortar’s registration group.
14. The dentist re-opens after lunch at 13.30.
15. There was one 5€ note left in the cashbox at the start of the afternoon break.
16. Mr Mortar is often unpunctual.
17. Afternoon break is between 14.15 and 14.30.
18. It was Phil’s birthday; he has been given 15€
19. Fred collected the register from the school office as the bell went at 13.30.
20. Phil Pockets was sent out of class at 13.30 for misbehaviour.

Thanks for sharing this Lisa. Is there any other "set up" information that a teacher would need to use this with a class? Or how about the answer? You're making me think!! ;-)

Here's the set up:
Who stole the tuck shop takings?
When and how was it done?
Approximately how much money was taken?

And Answer:
Nick Toften stole 20€ sometime before 13.25

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