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Simple Questions on the First Day of School that Teach Purpose

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Post Image- First Day of School Activity PurposeBy the end of the first day of school, I need index cards with each of my students' names on them. I'll use these to randomly call on students throughout the year during Think-Pair-Shares, doing everything in my power to ensure that every student speaks, every day, and I'll use them as a quick seating chart rearrangement tool, placing them randomly on desks for the first few weeks so that I can see how my students work in different social groupings.

But these index cards also offer me a simple opportunity on Day 1: the opportunity to teach Purpose.

Purpose: a “north star” for student motivation

Before I try explaining the purpose of my class, I want my students to take a crack at defining some purpose of their own. Granted, most of them are jacked up on nerves because it's their first day of high school, but it doesn't matter — without purpose, they'll struggle to focus all year long.

When we have a purpose — and when I use that word, I'm referring to it in the Dr. Bill Damon of Stanford sense; if you haven't read his work, start with this article and graduate to this book —  we're driven by something larger than us. Our actions each day are oriented toward some future goal or some desire to serve the greater good.

And this isn't pie in the sky stuff — it's a motivational fusion reactor. When driven by purpose, our students don't need us to repeatedly explain the answer to “When will I ever use this?” Purpose, then, gets us closer to what Dr. David Conley has led me to believe is the holy grail of education: student ownership of learning.

Sadly, purpose-driven students are a tiny minority — one of Damon's studies (2008) found that only 20% of students were “approaching their studies with a clear sense of purpose.” [1]

Simple questions for developing purpose and getting those index cards completed

I've written about this activity elsewhere, so I'll just summarize it here. On the students' index cards, their names should be on one side, and on the other side, they need to respond to these questions:

  • What kind of person do you want to be?
  • What kind of impact do you want to have? [2]

Notice how much this teaches you about a child — so much more than the “Tell me something about yourself” questions I used to have students respond to on their index cards.

But in addition to giving me some fascinating, insightful reading on the afternoon after the first day of school, these index cards have also served a much larger goal: they've introduced my students to the idea that purpose is ultimately an inside job — it will only serve to motivate them when they seek to make it central to their lives.

And that, dear reader, is something I'll be teaching toward all year.


  1. Damon, W. (2008). The path to purpose: How young people find their calling in life. New York: The Free Press.
  2. I've used questions like this in the past, but they resurfaced for me while browsing CharacterLab.org's page on Purpose, which you can access here.

Thank you to the hard-working, purpose-driven folks at Character Lab for the inspiration for today's post, and to Dr. Bill Damon for his thought-provoking work around purpose in education.

7 Responses to Simple Questions on the First Day of School that Teach Purpose

  1. emmakatetsai August 7, 2015 at 9:22 am #

    What kinds of things do the students say? Do you find they get into it or that it helps their motivation compared to years when you didn’t ask those questions?

  2. Teaching Is My Jam August 7, 2015 at 12:49 pm #

    Great post. 🙂 I’ll definitely be incorporating these questions into a beginning-of-the-year letter writing assignment I’ll be having my sophomores and juniors participate in.

  3. Billie Donegan August 9, 2015 at 11:26 pm #

    As usual, got inspired by this one. Here’s an idea — have students put two items on the back of the index card with their name on it: “What they want to be when they grow up” and “What they enjoy spending spare time on” — then when you call on them, you can also get them to make connections. “So Gabriel, can you think of any instance where a sports agent would use this?” “Gina, is _________ (perseverance, grit, geometric angles) important to a dancer?” A quick glance at back of card as you call on them can spur some cool ideas.

  4. Billie Donegan August 9, 2015 at 11:32 pm #

    … oops, hit send before finishing. Loved making those connections but CONNECTING WITH PURPOSE is even more exciting. i am always blown away about how willing 14 year olds are to talk about making a difference and giving back to the world.

  5. Jo Nolan August 28, 2015 at 8:49 pm #

    Gave out the new index cards to my new 8th graders today and just marveled at their responses…

    “Someday I want to be a gleeful, happy person that holds eveything dear to them peacefully in their heart.”

    “I want to be a helpful, useful, caring man that’s physically, mentally, and morally a great person.”

    “I would like to be someone who can be helpful to society. Be myself with people and enjoy life with friends and family. Someone who is known for being the kind of person people feel lucky to know.”

    “I want to be a caring and kind person and a mom.”

    “I want to be a loving husband and father.”

    “I want to show people and teach them that being sad is a choice and you have the power to make yourself happy.”

    “I want to never be someone that always quits.”

    “I want to be a guy with a big personality.”

    Best 10 minutes I’ve ever spent in my class in 15 years.

  6. Jackie July 26, 2016 at 8:31 pm #

    There is a great picture book to add to this lesson called the North Star. It would be great to incorporate and use to introduce the idea of finding your ‘North Star’/ goal.

    • davestuartjr July 26, 2016 at 8:38 pm #

      Jackie! I’m going to check that out — one of my administrators and I use that North Start terminology quite a bit. So perfect!

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