Inquiry-based Start-of-School Meetings (that people actually love)

‘Walk the talk’ of inquiry with the following staff meeting ‘winners.’ Each experience is designed to reconnect staff, build reflection and questioning skills, and set everyone up with a support network for the year. They can be adapted with a little ingenuity for classrooms of all ages and subjects - and used on a regular basis (just switch out the prompts or add a twist). For more exercises, check out all 50 of them in our new book Experience Inquiry. Please let us know how it goes in the Comments section below. Enjoy and have a great year everyone. You got this!

I. Create Peer Support Systems: Five-Finger Letters

Try this simple and powerful team-building activity to get your staff actually hugging and smiling before they walk out the door and into their classrooms to prepare for the year.


• Ask everyone to trace their hand onto a blank piece of paper.

• Their name goes into the palm of their hand and then each finger has a prompt for them to answer onto each finger. Let them know in advance that others will be reading what they wrote.

• Have them fold in half and then collect them. Shuffle them up, fan them out like a deck of cards and then have each person choose another’s paper. I like to say “the paper chooses you,” like a tarot reading.


The person they choose will be their ‘buddy’; someone they check in on and support throughout the school year. Using the the clues from the five fingers, they then write their buddy a personalized letter (I give them about 15 minutes). In these support letters, teachers can share what they have in common and how they might be able to support improvement efforts. The most important part of the support letter is to send words of encouragement for the year ahead.

• Then, when the letters have been written; the great reveal! This is my favorite part and it never ceases to amaze me how much adults really love doing this. Ask teachers to hand-deliver their support letters to their ‘buddy’ and offer them with a hug or high five (that physical contact is key, so don’t skip this step). Teachers keep their ‘buddy’s’ hand so that throughout the school year they can refer back to what makes their buddy happy and surprise them with small gifts and notes (you can have one of the finger prompt a response on something that makes them happy, for example).

II. Build Empathy and Deep Listening Skills: Back-to-Back Listening

This powerful exercise comes from my brilliant colleague, Maggie Chumbley (thank you, Maggie)! I like to use a short piece of music, however, you can also opt for a piece of writing, a poem, or an image.

• Ask everyone to find a partner (ideally someone they don’t know well) and stand back-to-back, shoulders touching.

• Play a short piece of music and ask everyone to close their eyes (or look down) and as they listen. Ask that they observe the sensations, images, colors, emotions that come up for them . Some of my favorites tunes include: La Valse de Amelie, La Llorona (Coco), Papaoutai (Stromae).

• After the music ends, partners turn around and take turns sharing their personal experience listening to the music. Comments range from: “I pictured horses running through fields until that one part of the music that changed them into multi-colored carousel horses…”, ”I counted a 2/4 beat…”, or “Hearing the crash cymbal reminded me of playing air guitar in my basement…” Encourage each person to share for at least two minutes. This means that the other person may need to use questions to draw out more information, like “Tell me how you felt.” or “What happened next?” or “What did you see as you listened?”

• Partners go back-to-back again and listen to the same piece of music from the other person’s perspective. Debrief the experience as a group and ask how teachers might adapt this for their classrooms.

Photo credit: Edutopia (Summit Prep)

Photo credit: Edutopia (Summit Prep)

III. To Strengthen Relationships: Who Were Your Teachers?

Take a trip down memory road. Ask everyone to recall the teachers in their own life…yes, all of them. This takes people about 10-15 minutes (unless they were homeschooled, in which case they can take a coffee break). If they cannot remember a name, suggest they write down whatever they remember about that person or year. After 15 minutes, ask them to stop (the blank spaces say as much as the ones that are filled).

You can do many creative things at this point: ask them to circle the teacher who had the greatest impact on their life so far (positive and negative). Invite them to write a letter to that teacher. Ask what was it about that person that made them so memorable. What might your own students remember about you in X years?

Click here for a template.

IV. To Push Thinking and Challenge Assumptions: Provocative Statements Continuum

Come up with 5-7 statements that are provocative (i.e. they may seem reasonable at first but when interrogated further tend to bring up a host of questions and other perspectives). Ask teachers to indicate their level of agreement / disagreement with each (on a continuum of 1-10) and then arrange everyone in small groups to discuss (Which statement do you most / least agree with? Which statements had the greatest / least consensus in your group? After listening to others, did you change your mind?)

Below are a few examples to get the juices flowing. Click here for a template.

• Some cultures are better than others.

• Standardized tests should be abolished.

• Some people are naturally better at math.

• You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

V. To Develop Question-Asking Skills: Question Formulation Technique

This practice comes from The Right Question Institute. It’s a simple exercise to generate as many questions as possible while observing an image or text. After amassing a list of questions, you can do all sorts of things like ask people to label them as Closed (convergent) or Open (divergent), change Closed to Open and vv, or indicate the questions they are most authentically curious about. I usually pair people up for the generating part (putting a full 10 minutes on the clock), then bring people together in larger groups to share. For step-by-step instructions (and rules), please go straight to the source. Below is a photo I love using with teachers:

How many questions can you generate from this photo in 10 minutes?

How many questions can you generate from this photo in 10 minutes?