We knew from test results and our own observations that we needed to focus school-wide on building critical thinking skills. As principal, I wanted to play an active role in that effort. I wanted to model excitement for critical thinking that would be contagious.
Our staff decided -- based on test scores -- that we needed to do some work on building our students' critical thinking skills. I also knew that I, as principal, wanted to find a way to play an active role in building those skills. But how could I engage all students with higher-level thinking in a way that would be educational and fun? That was my challenge
I daydreamed for days about how to do accomplish that goal. Then it hit me! I was thinking about how puzzles build thinking skills. And so do riddles. Riddles -- that's it! I had a direction. Figuring out -- and creating -- riddles requires critical thinking. And I know how much kids love riddles and pondering possible answers to them. I knew I was onto something. It might not be too difficult to be part of this effort after all.
The first thing I did was to get hold of some riddle books. Every bookstore has them, and so do school book fairs. I emptied the shelves!
The next step was to determine the logistics of getting kids involved. We have students do our beginning-of-the-day and end-of-day announcements. When student announcers were done with morning announcements, I would get on the PA and introduce the "Riddle of the Day." I encouraged kids to think creatively to come up with answers that were different -- even better -- than the actual answer in the riddle book.
The revised Bloom's Taxonomy indicates that the highest level of thinking is Create. Engaging kids with creating answers to the Riddle of the Day is a great way to model that "Create" stage for an entire school.
I introduced the Riddle of the Day at the start of the school year. It worked like a dream. Throughout the day kids stopped me to give their answer to the riddle and to ask if their responses were the "right ones." I would never say yes or no. I simply encouraged their thinking.
After student announcers finished their end-of-day announcements, I got on the PA again. I repeated the riddle and then gave the answer from the book. At that time I always told the kids that I hoped they came up with more clever or creative answers than the actual answer.
Every couple weeks I presented what I called a Riddle Challenge. I announced the Challenge during the morning announcements. Then I read the Riddle of the Day. The only difference was that on Riddle Challenge Day I asked students to submit, in writing by 2:30 p.m., a creative answer to the riddle. Students wrote their replies, their names, and their teacher's name on slips of paper and dropped them in a box outside my office. Frequently, I got over 90 replies to the Riddle Challenge.
At the end of Riddle Challenge Day, I took time to go over all the answers I received. I created a "Winners Pile"; any creative or out-of-the-box reply went in the pile. Then, during the afternoon announcements, I repeated the riddle and shared the winning answers and the names of the students and classes from which the answers came. The student winners earned ice cream for their entire class!
At our school, our parent-teacher association paid for that treat. That might happen in your school too. Or perhaps you can use discretionary money in your budget to supply Riddle Challenge treats.
I was always amazed at the terrific, creative, out-of-the-box winning answers. Many times, kids who submitted winning answers were those who did not normally receive accolades. You can imagine how their winning answers -- which resulted in ice cream for the entire class -- immediately raised their status in class.
Some examples of riddles I used appear below (with answers from the book):
Q: What happens to grapes that worry too much?
A: They get wrinkled and turn into raisins.
Q: What grows on trees and can lift tremendous weights?
Q: How do Martians drink their tea?
A: From flying saucers.
Q: What cheese does a cow like?
The impact of our Riddle of the Day program has been amazing. Kids from all grades (K-6) are constantly writing their own riddles and submitting them to me. Every day of the week I get at least a few. We share many of those throughout the year, and we always name the student as author.
Riddle of the Day actively engages kids in deep and critical thinking throughout the day. As they Create different answers to the riddles, they are working at the highest level of Bloom's Taxonomy.
Parents get excited about the Riddle of the Day too. Sometimes a parent will drop off their child at the start of the day, hear the riddle, and come into the office literally begging to know the answer since they won't see their child until later that night. We never reveal the answer, even to parents, but we do encourage them to come up with a clever response to the riddle.
Another side benefit of Riddle of the Day is that it makes good dinnertime conversation for families. Kids can ask the riddle question at the start of the meal and hold off giving the "book response" until after family members have had some fun with it.
The best part of all, however, is that kids and teachers get to laugh a little while they are think, think, thinking about answers during the day. The joy of thinking and learning is alive and well in our school all day long!
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The How I Handled series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. How I Handled team members are anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.