Capturing Student Interest: Problem-Solving on the First Day of School

by Tricia Ebner, M.Ed. & NBCT

Take a moment to think about this: what do most students experience on their first day of school in your school building? What is the first day of school in your classroom like for them? After years of spending that first day going over the classroom rules, expectations, and procedures, I decided it was time for a change. I needed to do something to liven up the experience and make it more engaging for my students and me.

I’ve turned my first day of school into a problem-solving activity. I’ve tried to find different ways of doing this. For example, last year my family and I took a cross-country trip. As we traveled, I purchased postcards at various locations, and I took a few minutes to write welcome postcards to my incoming sixth graders. Along with a welcoming message, I asked them to bring the postcards to the first day of school. To increase the percentage of students bringing postcards, I posted a note on my classroom door, reminding students to bring postcards, so that when they toured the building at schedule pick-up, they and their parents would see the reminder. I  also bought a few extra postcards, so that those who forgot could still be involved in the activity.8.6.17 blog post graphic

On the first day of school, I had a map of the United States hanging on my board. After checking the roster and making a quick run through names, I gave students their challenge: they needed to take their postcards, and using any information they had on those post cards, they needed to figure out where I had been, and when, with a goal of identifying my travel route. I didn’t give them any other instructions.

It was fascinating to watch the students work on the challenge. At first there wasn’t much organization. Some just sat and read the postcard again. Others approached classmates to see where their postcards were from. Eventually, the class began to organize itself. Students got into groups based upon where their postcards were from. Then they began to notice other thing about the post cards, such as the postmarks. From this, they began to sort out travel dates.

Ultimately the class needed a little bit of help, but they figured out the travel route. They gained some time interacting with each other, using their reading, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. I gained a wealth of knowledge about my students. Observing them showed me the leaders in the class, and those who were content to sit back and let someone else take their postcards and solve the challenge. I saw how they handled disagreements. I also saw who could work well together, and who quickly moved off-topic when working together. The knowledge I gained in the first day was valuable as I began to organize the class for a project-based learning activity. My students were engaged in the work, and a couple even commented that the class period had flown by far more quickly than they would have expected of a 70-minute class period.

As you begin thinking about ways to launch your year with your students, I challenge you to consider this: what kind of hands-on, problem-solving activity could you use? What could you challenge them to do that will show you their communication and critical thinking skills? Try it out! See what you might learn, and how it might set the tone for the year ahead.

Need ideas for problem-solving situations you might use? Consider taking a “mystery” approach, whether it’s to share something about yourself or your class.


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