I teach each year in themed units, and my first unit of the year is always survival. Considering I teach in a sixth grade only school, just about everyone in the building is in survival mode for the first few weeks, so it's a pretty appropriate way to begin the year.
Each of my units includes a PBL (more about that in a future post) and an Independent Novel Study. Before we get started with that, however, I have the students begin thinking about the unit theme in different ways.
For my survival unit, I ask students to define and illustrate what they think it means to survive. My CP students write a definition, and my Honors students are asked to use a simile or metaphor to define survival. It always results in some pretty amazing thinking, and I can then use the students' work to create a display that will stay up for the entire unit.