My murder mystery lesson is by far my students’ favorite – and for good reason! They get to be a part of the story, walk around and engage with classmates, and compete to see who can solve the mystery first! Here’s a link to my classroom mystery resources via TeachersPayTeachers, or read on to learn how to create your own.
Write (or find) a Mystery Plot Line
I actually don’t use a murder. To tone it down a bit I wrote out the background that Angela, a cheerleader and valedictorian, was pushed down a stairwell. She was conscious for a bit (long enough to name suspects) but was then put into a medically-induced coma.
I chose high school as a setting because that is what my students are familiar with most. Having students as characters helps as well because they often understand student motivations better than adult motivations.
My first attempt at this I found a free murder mystery party online that I adapted for my needs. There are plenty out there, but be aware they often include very adult content and situations.
Write out Characters
I included 15 characters in my story. I know many classes are larger than 15 students, but I have mine double up when that happens. You need at least 15 to obfuscate what really happened, but any more than that and it’s overwhelming to the students trying to keep everything straight.
Here’s a sample of one of my character cards I give to the students.
I break it down into different parts to help the students understand what is essential information for them to give out in order for the game to work. I also write out on each card if the person is or is not the assailant (or murderer depending on what you decide). The first time I only wrote out “You are the murderer” on the murderer’s sheet, and half the students asked me if they were the murderer or not. So now, I tell each student exactly where to look to know if they are the villain.
Include Lots of Red Herrings
Part of my objective in this lesson is to teach the students what a red herring is: misleading information that seems like an essential clue, but actually leads down the wrong path. So of course I pack a ton into my characters information cards.
For example, the character above claims to not know if Kelly was in the stairwell or not; hinting that maybe Kelly pushed Angela. She didn’t. When the student finds Kelly and asks her, Kelly says Summer saw her heading towards the stairwell (on the opposite side of the building where the incident occurred). When the student follows up with Summer, Summer’s information card corroborates the whole story. However, Summer doesn’t have a very good alibi…
Mine ends with one student having an alibi that clearly clashes with the others. It also has nothing to do with the relationship drama which is in itself a giant red herring.
Provide a Map
There are so many characters in so many places, I actually got confused when I was writing it! I ended up sketching a quick map and figured if I needed one the students surely would too. You can give a copy to each student so they can write clues and information on it, or just post one on the board for a reference.
I actually have another page as well since it is a two story building. It’s small and not to scale, but it helps for the visual learners.
Give Students Notes Sheets
All good detectives need to take notes. I give my students a very simple worksheet that asks for the character’s name, general information, possible motivation, and alibi/clues. I have students hand it in at the end as part of their assessment for the lesson. It shows me if they were able to ask the right questions, get all of the clues, and make inferences. For example, since Anna is on crutches and is on the first floor, she couldn’t have made it undetected upstairs to sneak up on Angela, push her down the stairs, and run off without being noticed.
Give Lots of Instructions
As soon as you give out the character cards, the students will no longer be listening to much in the way of instructions. Prior to giving out character cards, set the expectations and rules up front. Here are some guidelines I provide based on what I’ve seen in the past.
- Unless specifically paired together, no one should be working together. Everyone is a suspect!
- Do not give your character paper to anyone else for any reason. Guard it carefully.
- Take the first five minutes to study your character. Understand their motives, character traits, and personality.
- Take lots of notes. Something seemingly unimportant could turn out to be crucial information later.
- You cannot lie.
- Create your own details as long as it makes sense with your character and the story line.
- Do not reenact any scenes.
- Do not touch other students. (it’s amazing how often I have to say this)
- Go back and talk to people after you get new information about them.
When to Use This Lesson
So far I’ve used this game each year as an introduction to reading The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. It’s a quirky play, but my students love it. You could use it to introduce any other mystery text such as Sherlock Holmes or other Agatha Christie plays.
This works great for improv and drama classes or in-between-unit days for English classes. You could easily adapt this to an actual historical murder and give the students real suspects as part of a history lesson.