We decided to design a complex murder mystery project that would incorporate Common Core standards in mathematics and English language arts, as well as content from our state science standards. For nearly a month we toiled away on a shared Google document designing learning activities, writing testimonies and biographies of the suspects, and finding a way to connect everything. We created a fictional narrative and 8 learning activities that involved an initial murder followed by a second murder that occurs mid-day. The initial evidence pointed to the victim of the second murder, so students were going to be forced to reevaluate and revise the evidence.
Students were asked to create a short presentation of who they thought the killer was considering the evidence and motive in a clear, logical summation. We created two rubrics--one to use while students worked and a second for their final presentation. When the work time was over, students shared their presentation with multiple teachers to provide opportunities for revision. Teachers discussed the results and chose 5 groups to showcase at the end of the day who then presented to the entire group of 250+ students, 20+ teachers, schoolboard members, and local media.
I built a website to host and organize the activities and provide information that students would need throughout the day. The students were not given any direct instruction and only minimal guidance during our entry event. We invited a local police officer to interrupt the opening statement on a fake project about topsoil to trick the kids and grab their attention. The police officer came in yelling, "stop, stop, stop, I have to stop this project!". We divided 250+ students into four main areas with at least 2 teachers per area. The schedule for the day was completely loose and students worked through their lunchtime.
The nature of the project was unique. Its was meant to be instructional to students and teachers. We wanted to create an engaging, independent learning activity for students, but also a sound demonstration of a free-range, student centered approach to
I think it was a fantastic success, and I think everyone learned something. We had some major technology issues right at the beginning, which hurt our momentum. We tested all of the material on our students computers at our school, but for some reason almost everything was blocked at the school we were visiting. This was a great lesson to learn about technology--you must remain flexible and be able to improvise Create paper-backups for critical parts of the project in case technology fails. We also learned that if you are planning on having 250 students move around an area, there needs to be some traffic control to prevent groups of students from turning into herds. For this project, 4 students was probably too many in a group--as it usually is.
I felt like there was a stark difference between the kids who were accustomed to an independent/project-based environment and those who were not. Their use of technology also demonstrated this difference. Some of the students at the school who didn't have experience learning with computers used their array of borrowed laptops, personal tablets, and cell phones for games and other time-wasters. I only had to talk to 4 or 5 students all day about staying on task, but it shows that there is a learning curve to this style of learning and schools need to slowly foster a change in their overall culture.
Our 7th grade team took this opportunity to experiment with an open schedule. Students didn't go to "classes". We focussed on one project all day that was heavy in English and math. We would like to do this more often in 7th grade and focus on other subjects. We are working on other projects similar to this and discussing new daily schedule options. I will be sure to blog about it!