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

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. (Think of a fortune cookie).  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.

Two different mysteries you can use:

Murder Mystery 104KB pdf

Bank Robbery 109KB pdf

My instructions to students:

“Today we are going to play another game that will help improve your discussion skills. Each of the pieces of paper I am holding contains one clue that will help you solve a mystery. If you put all the facts together, you will be able to solve the mystery. Any time you think you know the answers and the group agrees on the guess, you may tell me. I will only tell you whether everything is correct or not.  If parts of your answers are incorrect, I will not tell you which answers are wrong.

You may organize yourselves in any way you like. You may not, however, pass your clues around or show them to anyone else, and you may not leave your seats to walk around the group. All sharing of clues and ideas must be done verbally.”

Discussion Guide

  1. How were decisions made in your group?
  2. Was a leader needed?
  3. Was time lost getting organized?
  4. Was it ineffective for everyone to talk at once?
  5. Did problems arise because some people didn’t present their clues?
  6. Did any members ignore the clues of others?
  7. Were attempts made to encourage the participation of all members?
  8. Did anyone monopolize the discussion? Was this productive for the group?
  9. How did you organize the information to solve the mystery – time, person, location, etc?
  10. Could you have organized the information more efficiently?

Follow up:

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 the second mystery to see if their group process and problem solving skills improved.


Want more mysteries? The teacher can easily write clues for a mystery of his own creation, simply making sure that not every clue is relevant to the task. Some of the clues can serve as distractors, but these must be contradicted by other clues. The group might wish to attempt transferring their new skills to a subject-matter problem, one in which all students are in command of the basic information needed for solving it. Students can be supplied with units of information and use the same technique to organize and evaluate data and to draw conclusions. In some cases they can be assigned the task of simply organizing the information into categories. Or students could be assigned the task of organizing the material and then developing conclusions or hypotheses. Material can be drawn from a variety of primary or secondary sources, or you may wish to assign students the task of assembling their own information.

~ Updated from an older post from August 27, 2008 ~

Photo credit: Flickr / walknboston

101 Replies to “First Day of School? Here’s How to Get Students Thinking”

  1. 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!)

    1. I love this activity and I appreciate the opportunity to use it. I am a Spanish teacher so I decided to translate the clues into Spanish. The only thing that I am trying to work out is the actual sequence of events…is there a sequence that you have that follow the clues? I can sort of work it out but would appreciate a clarification if there is a particular sequence that fits the clues exactly. Thanks!

      1. I used this game today with EL 6th graders and modified it by organizing it a little for my students. I used my whiteboard and asked to list all the people, then I drew a timeline. They took it from there and there is your sequence! 🙂

        Additionally, I highlighted the clues (yellow = murderer, pink = time, etc). When students got stuck, I hinted the colors. I did not use highlighted version with my 8th graders, but 6th graders needed that extra support. 🙂

        Great resource! THANK YOU Peter!!!

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

    1. Do you have the organizer you gave the students to help organize information? I would love to have it if possible. We are doing this now and my students are struggling!

    2. Great Job Charles! Awesome. Then in the same time I feel a bit sorry for the students did not take anything as a reward, but a nice high five from the teacher.
      I would have prepared a cake or something, I don’t know 🙂 , I am from Morocco and this is my thinking and also students expectations haha

  4. 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!

  5. 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.


  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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?

    1. 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,

  12. 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?


  13. 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!

  14. 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!

    1. 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?

  15. Hello,

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

  16. 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!

    1. 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.

  17. 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?

    1. 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.

  18. 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!

    1. Jennifer,
      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!

  19. 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?

    1. 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

  20. 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.

    1. 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

  21. 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

  22. 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

  23. 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!

  24. 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!

  25. 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

  26. 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!!!

  27. 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!

    1. Donna,

      Can I ask how you rewrote the clues into witness statements? Would you be willing to share those with me for my classroom? Thanks!

  28. Hi!
    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!

  29. 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!

  30. Peter,
    What are the five questions you have the students answer for the bank robbery mystery?

    Thanks in advance!

  31. 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?


  32. Hi There,

    I ended up using this activity with a class of students when our internet crashed and my plan for the day had relied on working in the computer lab online. My students loved it and I can see why it would be such a fun activity to start the school year off with. So thank you! I just had one small critique. I work in an urban high school in Boston and found the third clue – “The incident occurred in an urban neighborhood, the type where many violent acts occur” – to be a little bit inappropriate and insensitive. While many students in many schools would probably not think about it twice, I know that some of my students would see this as a generalization of their experiences as urban residents. While there may be some truth to the statement, no one wants to feel their home or family stereotyped as violent because of the “urban” setting they live in. I know that there was no harmful intent behind it, and understand why the clue was there in terms of the mystery, but don’t think it is a necessary one to include.

    Thank you again for the wonderful lesson.

    1. Hi Rebecca, You make a very good point (and I live in a funky, but safe urban neighborhood). This was adapted from another source (from 1969) and that clue is clearly outdated. It’s located in an old legacy site that I don’t have easy access to. So it will take a bit of effort to make the change. But I will edit that clue to make it more appropriate.
      Thanks for pointing that out – Peter

    2. Hi Rebecca, I finally got time to update the material. Thanks for your suggestions – that language was a relic from the 60s’ that sounded like it came from Trump.

  33. I stumbled upon your blog as I was searching for activities for the 1st few days of school. I am so glad I did! I love this idea and am going to use it with my 7th grade classes in August. I’m an experienced teacher moving from lower elementary to middle school this coming school year and all my “tried and true” activities would definitely not work. I was looking for something unique, meaningful, and purposeful. This activity aligns so nicely with collaborative conversations, which is an integral part of our ELA instruction. I plan on following up the discussion with creating an anchor chart with collaborative conversation sentence stems. Thank you for sharing this great lesson.

  34. hmm, this sets me to thinking. I am a new, second-career art teacher who definitely loves to live and teach “outside” the box. Perhaps i can write one as a “stolen art” mystery….. thank you for the ideas!

  35. Great activity. I want to do this, but I am wondering how to prevent students from just reading their clue to the group?

    1. Also, do you hand out all the clues that you have provided or just the amount for the size of the groups? Do all the groups have different clues?

      1. Let’s assume you are doing the murder mystery. Figure that each group of about 4-5 students will need a complete set of clues. Photocopy as many sets of the clues as you need to give each group it’s own complete set of clues. Cut up sheet of clues into individual piece of paper (like Fortune Cookies) – each person in the group will have multiple clues to share with the group

    2. Students should read their clues to the small group. What you want to avoid is students passing around their clues for others to read. You want to be sure that every student has a reason to speak.

  36. This is awesome!! I am a first year High School forensic science teacher and am definitely considering doing this on the first day! My big question is, when do you introduce yourself and class expectations/syllabus if this takes up about 45 minutes??

    1. You have the entire semester to introduce yourself and class expectations/syllabus. An engaging problem-solving activity is a very novel way to “introduce yourself.” (Cool teacher who started the 1st day totally unlike all the rest of classes.) And the only students who care about class expectations/syllabus are just sucking up for a grade. Just sayin’…. Cool that you’re teaching forensic science. You could be immersed in #PBL. Wow.

  37. Thank you so much for this. I am from South Africa and I am planning on using it to expand my kids’ ss skills in piecing together information using evidence and clues. Although it is not the beginning of the year for us (in fact we are more than half way through) its a wonderful activity to give them a break from their other academics. Thank you again.

  38. Hi Peter – this activity looks really interesting. One of my classes is 12th Civics. Would this work to introduce the idea of community building, leadership, organizing for change, etc?

      1. Thank you! Our first day has been shortened to 42 minutes for logistical reasons. Do you think that’s enough time?

  39. Hi Peter- I am a Forensics teacher starting second semester with a new group, and this is exactly the type of activity I was looking for. Quick question, do you give the small group of students all of the clues at one time in the beginning? Do you give it in increments?

    Also, did I interpret previous responses correctly that you cut the pieces up and divy up the slips evenly to every member in the group so they can share? Thanks!

    1. Hi Brian, Seems like a perfect fit for your course. I make multiple sets of the complete clue set. Cut each set into strips – with one clue on each. Then give each group a full set of clues. I found groups of 5 or 6 students work well – each with about same number of clues. Have fun, Peter

  40. You may or may not see this in time to give me any suggestions, but I’ve done this activity for the past 5 years, on the first day of school, and have had lots of success. Now we’re starting the year remotely, and I would hate to be the teacher that goes over her syllabus again. Any idea as to how to make this work online? I don’t want my kids to just Google search and find the answer, and I don’t want them to have to do some super complicated tech stuff the first day, either (Teams is already complicated enough).

    1. I’m still teaching and thinking all the time about adaptations to remote. Honestly, still working on this one. The point of original, is to get everyone to verbally contribute the first day. From info passed out on strips of paper. But I think there’s ways to leverage technology to accomplish virtually. Let’s see what we can come up with.

      1. I adapted the murder mystery to online teaching with my English Class in Portugal and the students enjoyed it. Assigned the clues to four different students who communicated through break-out rooms.

  41. I’m considering using this as a teambuilding exercise for a group of college interns at my company. 12-13 people would participate. Do you think if I gave everyone two clues each, they would be able to collaborate and solve the mystery within 20-25 minutes?

    1. I think it’s possible. Although, you might be prepared to spend a bit more time or offer some hints if it slows down. I’ve not tried it with a group that large. I’d be concerned that not everyone would be “heard” and thus some key clues might not come to forefront. One option would to split into two groups – each getting a full set of clues. I’ve found 5-6 person groups works well with the exercise. It also creates some “friendly competition,” that might incentivize them to move it along. Anyway you run it – a fun exercise and great team building potential.

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