Last year I piloted an “escape room’ type exam with my PBL/Inquiry based Modern World History class. This year, I have two sections. One wanted an escape room, so I recreated that experience with pretty much the same format I used last year and blogged about before. The other section suggested a murder mystery. Because I am always up for a challenge, and think anything is possible if it’s far enough away, I said yes.
Then, I had to figure out how to create it so that the class could solve the mystery in the two hour exam slot. First decision – the content. I like to use experience based exams to move forward with content, rather than review what we have done. With the next unit being Atlantic Revolutions, I decided to set the murder mystery in colonial/revolutionary America. I knew that I needed something to work from, so I looked through my resources and found a book Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775-1776. It’s part of the Reacting to the Past Series, a role-playing based curriculum. I loved the idea of the simulation outlined in the book, but I could never figure out how to compress what it meant to take several weeks in a college class to a short unit in a high school survey. For this activity, it was perfect. It gave me the history of New York at the time, as well as a set of characters who were real people. New York, like much of America, was divided into factions at that point so it was the perfect setting.
In terms of preparation for the students, I showed them clips from the PBS series Liberty and had them read some background materials on New York in the Revolutionary era in the two classes leading up to the exam. They did not need to study, just sleep well and come ready to think.
I had decided that the person murdered was going to be the governor of New York, William Tryon, who was not murdered in real life but did end up fleeing the city for the safety of a boat in the harbor due to the danger he faced. I wanted something plausible but not actual, so that I could have the flexibility in creating the scene and the suspects. So, going into the weekend before the exam I had the suspect list and the victim.
It felt rather ironic that I spent my weekend consumed with preparing for this exam, while my students were able to rest (and work on other exams, no doubt). I researched in journals, online, and in a book I had bought on Amazon. I put together information about Governor Tryon and the others so that students would be able to see who had relationships, who had grudges, who might have wanted him dead. The last piece of the puzzle was deciding who would be the murderer. I decided it would be one person who would try to frame another. I created a list of “physical clues” that were supposedly found at the scene which implicated the murderer, although one clue was meant to be the clue planted to frame someone else.
On the day of the exam, I welcomed each student with a name tag with their identity for the next two hours. I set the scene – they had been rounded up by the British Army on a tip that the murderer had fled to either a tavern or coffeehouse, which they had been in at the time. They were told they had two hours to figure out the killer or the Army would charge them all. I placed information sheets around the room that would help them begin to figure out who they were and who might have had a motive. They were allowed to use their chromebooks if they wanted to try to find any additional information. There was no way for them to cheat since the answer was in my head (and on a small scrap of paper in my wallet).
They came in wanting to solve it quickly, so I needed to slow them down and have them think it through. I withheld the information about the physical evidence that had been found at the scene until at least halfway through, so that they would have to create a short list before they could narrow further. After they had read the information around the room, they put the tables in a circle in the room, so they could talk it through. I was unable to stay the whole time because I was also monitoring my other section in the escape room next door.
In the end, they figured it out, with a little nudging from me; I believe I affirmed the idea of someone being framed for the crime and talked a bit about contradictory clues/red herrings. I also told them they were wrong when they came up with a guess that was wrong, albeit well-reasoned. When I debriefed with them today, they thought it was a good experience. They said it was harder than they expected, but that was good. We talked about how they had to use skills historians use in doing the detective work. They had to read, analyze, hypothesize, test out their theories. They had to take the background knowledge of the time period and place the specific circumstances in it. They also had to work together to reason through and make sense of the evidence. It was a ton of work for me, but I can say it was worth it. It was a true test of many of the skills we have been working on this semester. After two years of creating alternative, experience-based exams, I have come to really value them for testing the students’ ability to apply what they have learned.