This is a hands-on CSI classroom activity where students take on the role of forensics expert to solve a mystery murder case that happened in the classroom. CSI is an English language activity that aims at developing collaborative work and critical thinking skills.
This activity is suited best during Halloween season or for developing vocabulary about crimes and teaching past tenses and news writing.
Becoming Private Detectives
I introduce our mystery-themed unit by doing Detective Activity where students are being recruited by a mystery guy to become private investigators.
In this activity, students create their own detective ID cards. They also answer fun personality test questions to find out what kind of detectives they are such as spy, police officer, chief detective, fighter or hacker.
They also answer a short quiz to figure out their skills level which are stealth, agility, courage and resourcefulness. (Disclaimer: the test and quiz are just for fun and are not based on research).
In groups, students create their own detective agency and make their own logo which they present in class.
Now, students are ready to take on some detective works!
How to Prepare Your Own CSI Classroom Activity
- Stage a crime scene by simply drawing an outline of a human body on the floor.
- Scatter some things found in the classroom such as papers, books, etc. You can add footprints and other details to make it more realistic which depends on your staged story.
- Surround the crime scene with a red masking tape and note such as “Crime Scene: Do Not Enter”.
- Optional props that you may use are face masks and gloves which students wear before entering the crime scene so that they won’t “spoil” the evidence.
- Plant some evidence to be examined by the students. You can leave some clues on the floor and put some inside an evidence box.
The Mysterious Death of Ben Johnson
Here’s an example scenario which I projected on screen using PowerPoint with music and pictures:
Ben Johnson, a foreign English teacher, was killed while he was doing his lesson plan alone in his room.
Time and place: September 2, around 10 pm at School, Room 2
Suspects: David Kim – Ben’s colleague | Faith Hill – Ben’s girlfriend | Minh Quan Nguyen – the security guard
There was a witness who saw them at the school gate around the 9:30 pm on the same day.
Much of the success of a CSI Classroom Activity depends greatly on the staged crime story and the scene of the crime. The evidence should stir speculations or disagreement even, among students!
In my case, I try to set up a soap opera-ish scenario which you can see in my evidence box above. I give them three suspects whose fingerprints are all found in the crime scene. The catch is that all evidence and clues are conclusive of each suspect and everyone can be guilty (but you don’t want your students to know that). It all depends on their reasoning and critical analyses. They have to come up with a plausible report.
For example, if students choose the girlfriend as the killer, they have the following as evidence: her fingerprint in the jam (which they think as poisoned), a torn letter that says “Thank you for all the love but…”, etc; if they choose the colleague, they have his fingerprint in the paper knife with blood, a usb, a plane ticket to another country, etc; and if the choose the security guard, they have his fingerprint on the paint spray and a wallet.
This is how it gets more interesting: I make it clear that if they choose one person as a killer, they should be able to explain why the other suspects’ fingerprints are also in the crime scene. They need to prove the other suspects’ innocence. I am always surprised how they can make pretty good alibis!
So who is/are the real killer/s? I don’t really know. But my students can make very impressive stories!
Collaboration and Reporting. In groups of 5 or 6, students will examine the crime scene to gather clues and take down notes. After which, allow them to collaborate and share with each other the evidence they found and theory they have. You may give each group a mini-whiteboard so they could write down their ideas and/or draw a crime map. They will present their initial report in class.
Individual Writing Activity. This is a really good activity to develop writing fluency so in other cases, I give students ample time to think about the mystery murder case and write the story at home. For lower proficiency level kids, some guidelines for writing is advisable.
Newspaper Project. I ask my students to write a news article on an A3 paper about the death of the victim including an update of the progress of the investigation. You can ask them to use the target grammar points such simple past in writing the news.
GUIDE for Writing:
-Who killed Ben? Was it David, Faith or Minh Quan?
-How did he die? What evidence shows the way he was killed?
-What was the motive (the reason) for killing him?
A colleague pointed out to me once though that newspapers are not relevant anymore. I kind of agree. What activity can you suggest in lieu of this one, if there’s any?
And here is an example of an unedited (ESL) student’s response:
“My opinion, I think Faith Hill and David Kim are the perpetrator who killed Ben. Faith and David motive was adultery, Ben discovers and quarreled with Faith. Fear of being seen as unfaithful, Faith said David set out plans to kill Ben. On September 2, 2015, around 9:30 to 10:00 pm, Ben is marking in the classroom and he heard footsteps, after a time, he see Faith appear. Faith walked up to Ben and asked Ben to give her a chance to atone but Ben refused and walked away, take advantage of opportunities, Faith pick the scissors on the table and stabbed Ben. Then Faith creating robbery scene and fled. Hearing the noise, security guard of the school is Ming Quan Nguyen ran upstairs and saw a matted bloody scene. Fear of being suspected as the culprit, Minh Quan Nguyen has cleaned the scene, scented spray for the room and lock the door. That is my reasoning on the case.” -Mary, Grade 7
CSI classroom activity is a fun way to engage students in the lesson, develop collaborative work and critical thinking and provide content for writing. This is always a class favorite every year! And they never forget about poor Ben Johnson!