Giving students an interesting activity to start as they enter the room is vital for settling a class. A thought-provoking starter is created by giving students something to THINK about. I use the read-think-write format to do this.
First, the starter sheet (or overhead) has a THINK! question -- e.g. "Imagine that you have been imprisoned for a crime you did not do....."
I follw this with a short article about the question. I use free newspapers, internet articles, blogs, anything relevant for this part. As I teach lots of students with reading difficulties I try to pick something simple or I will pick two articles -- an easier and a hard one -- before letting students decide between them. Students must READ the article carefully.
Finally, I add questions that students answer in WRITING. The writing doesn't need to be long but it should be reasoned and in full sentences.
By going through this process students have a chance to think, read and write and we are only 5 minutes into the lesson. Whatever else happens between now and the bell at least we know we've achieved that much!