Start Your New School Year with Rigor and Relevance

start the school year
start the school year

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 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.

By week two, I got around to passing out the textbooks. But by then I had already introduced them to what was most important about my class.

Image credit: flickr/

14 Replies to “Start Your New School Year with Rigor and Relevance”

  1. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for posting your material. It looks awesome!

    I was wondering what grades you teach. I am an 8th grade science teacher in a fairly rural school district and am wondering if my students would struggle with the clues. Considering your experience with using these mysteries, do you have any thoughts on whether 8th graders are old enough to be the detectives with these clues?

    I’d appreciate any advice you can give. Thanks!

  2. Hi Paul,

    I taught high school, but also directed a program to assist at-risk MS students transition to high school. These clues have been used successfully with 8th graders.

    You could give them the clues to try it out. If they had trouble, you could always step in and offer some organizing around one of the variables – for example, ask them to create a timeline of the clues.

    Best of luck,

  3. Peter,
    Thanks for sharing this wonderful idea! I’ve translated the bank robbery mystery into Spanish for use with my AP Spanish classes. It worked beautifully. I’ve also recommended your site to my AP Spanish listserv. Everyone wants my translation of your mystery. Would you be willing to allow us to post the translation on our group site, with credit given to you of course? It’s a great way to spark communication.

  4. Andrea,

    Glad it was such a hit! Feel free to post on your list serve. Also, why don’t you send me copy of the translation and I’ll post it on my site with your credit and a link back to you!


    1. We had 50 min classes. I would introduce the lesson and they would get to a solution within one class. We also had time to begin to process the activity. (though we continued processing the next day). I also left some time at the end to see if I could demonstrate that I had learned their names. (for at least that day)

  5. Does this activity work for any subject matter? I teach chemistry in a room without a lab, so the traditional “first day demos” are not an option for me.

    1. Hi Diane,
      Good question. My goal was to break the monotony of opening day procedurals and to get the students engaged collaboratively in problem solving. It worked. If you share those goals, then I think it should work for you. You might extend the activity by exploring how elements fo the “scientific method” assisted in solving the mystery.
      Best of luck and have a great school year,

  6. Hello-
    I have done many skill builders and this looks like it will work well with my mantra “Everyone Gives Information” and “Discuss and Decide” as well as “Make a Plan”
    My question is: on the one set of instructions it states, “whether all five answers are right or wrong.”
    Is there somewhere that states what the questions are they are answering?

  7. Dear Peter,

    I have used your lesson ideas on solving a murder case in the Netherlands! All my students loved it. I could see that they were committed to the task they were given. While they were putting the clues together, I indeed had the chance to go around in class and learn their names. I was able to see their approach and how they kept communication in their group going.

    Thank you for your ideas.

    Maud Leunissen

    Teacher of English
    Grotius College
    The Netherlands

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