Teaching and Learning Resources by Peter Pappas

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

78 thoughts on “First Day of School? Here’s How to Get Students Thinking

  1. Reply
    annie pettit - August 19, 2010

    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. Reply
    Peter Pappas - August 19, 2010

    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. Reply
      Shannon Clapp - April 11, 2018

      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. Reply
        Peter Pappas - April 11, 2018

        Hi Shannon, It’s been so long since I used this that I don’t have the sequence written anywhere. Sorry. But good luck with your idea!

  3. Reply
    Keishla Ceaser-Jones - August 29, 2010


    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. Reply
    Peter Pappas - August 30, 2010


    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. Reply
    Charles Herzog - September 9, 2010

    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. Reply
    Peter Pappas - September 10, 2010

    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. Reply
    Delonna Halliday - June 30, 2012

    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. Reply
    Peter Pappas - June 30, 2012

    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. Reply
    Jan Alderson - July 4, 2012

    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.

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - July 4, 2012

      Jan, thanks for adding an idea. This time of year lots of teachers are thinking about starting the year right.
      ~cheers, Peter

  10. Reply
    Cicele - August 3, 2012

    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!

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 3, 2012

      Cicele, I always had more fun teaching outside the box. Have a great school year!

  11. Reply
    Judi - August 6, 2012

    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. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 6, 2012

      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.

  12. Reply
    Becky - August 14, 2012

    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.

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 14, 2012

      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.

  13. Reply
    adnama - October 29, 2012

    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!

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - October 29, 2012

      You’re very welcome. Best of luck in a great profession!

  14. Reply
    Jackie - August 20, 2013

    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. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 20, 2013

      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,

  15. Reply
    Christie - September 24, 2013

    Any ideas for p.e. introduction for 45+ students?

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - September 25, 2013

      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,

  16. Reply
    Kim - December 7, 2013

    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?


    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - December 7, 2013

      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

  17. Reply
    Madalyn - February 2, 2014

    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!

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - February 2, 2014

      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

  18. Reply
    Christine Daniel - January 9, 2015

    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. Reply
      Peter Pappas - January 9, 2015

      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?

  19. Reply
    Tony - February 16, 2015


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

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - February 16, 2015

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

  20. Reply
    Lynda Lisabeth - February 20, 2015

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


    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - February 20, 2015

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

  21. Reply
    Laura - July 27, 2015

    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. Reply
      Peter Pappas - July 27, 2015

      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.

  22. Reply
    Lucy - August 1, 2015

    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. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 1, 2015

      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.

  23. Reply
    Jennifer - August 12, 2015

    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. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 12, 2015

      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!

  24. Reply
    brooke Jones - August 13, 2015

    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. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 13, 2015

      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

  25. Reply
    Tami - August 14, 2015

    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. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 14, 2015

      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!

  26. Reply
    Courtney Utz - August 23, 2015

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

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 23, 2015

      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

  27. Reply
    Emily - August 25, 2015

    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

  28. Reply
    Peter Pappas - August 26, 2015

    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

  29. Reply
    Cindy - September 7, 2015

    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!

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - September 7, 2015

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

  30. Reply
    Lois Mandell - September 15, 2015

    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!

  31. Reply
    Peter Pappas - September 20, 2015

    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

  32. Reply
    Tammy - February 26, 2016

    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!!!

  33. Reply
    Donna - May 11, 2016

    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. Reply
      Peter Pappas - May 11, 2016

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

    2. Reply
      Sarah Long - November 5, 2017


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

  34. Reply
    Jen - July 11, 2016

    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!

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - July 11, 2016

      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.

  35. Reply
    Spencer Smith - August 11, 2016

    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!

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 11, 2016

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

  36. Reply
    Christa - August 19, 2016

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

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 20, 2016

      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.

  37. Reply
    Molly - August 24, 2016

    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?


    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 24, 2016

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

  38. Reply
    Mrs. Rorie - September 5, 2016

    Thanks for sharing ideas. It stimulated my thought process.

  39. Reply
    Mrs. Rorie - September 5, 2016

    Appreciate your sharing.

  40. Reply
    Rebecca - January 13, 2017

    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. Reply
      Peter Pappas - January 13, 2017

      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. Reply
      Peter Pappas - March 9, 2017

      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.

  41. Reply
    Stephanie - June 29, 2017

    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.

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - June 30, 2017

      Thanks for taking the time to share your enthusiasm. Great idea for follow up. Cheers, Peter

  42. Reply
    Tina - August 12, 2017

    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!

    1. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 12, 2017

      Great idea. If you do, share it back and we can add to our mysteries.

  43. Reply
    Christopher Allen - August 29, 2017

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

    1. Reply
      Christopher Allen - August 29, 2017

      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. Reply
        Peter Pappas - August 29, 2017

        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. Reply
      Peter Pappas - August 29, 2017

      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.

  44. Reply
    Christopher Allen - August 30, 2017

    Got it. Thanks

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