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August 09, 2010

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

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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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?

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!)


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 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!


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!

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

There are more "reveals" at the website linked below.


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!

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