The Coolest Unit I Teach All Year - "Who Killed Vinnie?"

It’s three days after the conclusion of state testing and three weeks until the end of the school year. While the teachers have done their best to get back to learning following the yearly buzzkill that is standardized testing, the students are reluctant to challenge themselves with new material. They know the last week of school brings awards assemblies, field trips, field days, locker cleanout and other activities that signal the end of learning and the start of summer vacation. Teachers are similarly disinterested in new material that will need to be planned, taught, assessed, re-taught and re-assessed.

This sounds like the perfect opportunity for a very non-traditional, less structured and surprisingly simple unit of instruction – one that year after year provides some of our most exciting and most engaging learning of the school year.  

The Reveal

It’s first hour and just as students are settling into their core classes the principal begins knocking on classroom doors. She’s accompanied by local law enforcement along with the Superintendent. Students and teachers are asked to report to the Math teacher’s classroom, the biggest and most suitable to house a “class meeting”  with all 8th grade students present. Students look surprised and confused as teachers explain they have no idea what’s going on, but we should do as the principal asks.

Once all students and teachers are present, the Superintendent asks for their attention, which he quickly gets – partially because of his positional authority but largely because of the novelty and unique circumstances surrounding this morning.  He is joined at the front by local law enforcement and the principal, along with our Science teacher, Mrs. River, who appears to be crying. The students appear distraught.

The Superintendent explains that last night a crime was committed in our school building and that the Sherriff’s Department will be on hand today conducting an investigation into the disappearance of Mrs. River’s class pet, her beloved guinea pig Vinnie, and that we will be aiding them in any way we can. Some students laugh at the notion that she is this upset over a guinea pig, others appear genuinely concerned that Mrs. River is this upset.  Imagine their surprise however, when during the Sherriff’s plea for help in this investigation another teacher begins arguing with them belligerently. “All of this fuss over a stupid guinea pig? We’re seriously interrupting class time for THIS!?” The police officer responds unkindly and asks the teacher to show more respect. The two trade barbs as Mrs. River sobs. A student begins crying, unsure what to make of this situation and struggling to determine what is real and what isn’t.fakecrimescene2Our most recent crime scene, with the "murder" having taken place in the girls locker room. Notice the arrow stuck in the bench and on the floor, as well as the fake blood trail. Various hairs and fibers were placed around as well.

Grouping and Investigation

As the police and administration file out of the room, another teacher then explains to students that for the next two weeks, they will not be going to their regular core classes. Instead, students will be divided into groups with each being sponsored by one of the core teachers. These groups will be responsible for investigating, prosecuting, defending and reporting on the alleged incident in what has become known as our annual “C.S.I.” Unit.  Students are briefed on the importance of collaboration and confidentiality, since failure to work together or sharing information at inappropriate times during the investigation can both derail the unit in a hurry. They are then given instructions about each of the groups and allowed to choose where they will be working for the next several days.  Students are also pre-taught about the responsibilities associated with potentially interrupting other teachers classrooms to question them about what they may have witnessed and the behavioral expectations associated with this unit.

                The investigative team, which tends to be our largest group, is eventually divided into sub groups of detectives, forensic scientists, medical examiners and occasionally “video technicians” if we have surveillance footage that needs attention.  Our science teacher leads students through various activities, beginning with the photography of the crime scene and moving on to finger printing, handwriting analysis, comparing hair and clothing samples found at the scene, evidence collection and whatever other sorts of labs and experiments we can conjure up. This is by far the most difficult aspect of this unit from a teacher’s perspective, trying to find ways to plant evidence that students can reasonably discover, test and process. Typically after the first day or two, student’s findings are sent “off to the lab” where our science teacher (Mrs. River, who is doubling as a victim at this point) develops a “lab report” on the cause of death of Vinnie. 

Groups of detectives begin working diligently to interview any potential witnesses and suspects. Prior to the unit, all adults in our building who wish to participate in the unit are given “scripts” of what they may have seen relative to our case. Adults who choose not to participate are given the magic phrase “I’m not playing” which they tell to any investigators who may attempt to question them. Students know this phrase means the adult is not a part of the unit and we should thank them and apologize for disturbing them. (As a side note, the first year we had only three or four teachers who wished to participate in the unit, by the third year we had no one who was unwilling to participate).

Fortunately our students and teachers do not undertake this initially on their own. Local police officers donate their time to work with our students and help them collect and process evidence as well as develop their theories. Some years we’ve had forensic scientists, crime scene investigators, medical examiners and coroners come and speak with students as well, either right before or right after “the reveal” of the crime.

The investigators work “against a clock” so to speak, knowing that in a matter of days the local law enforcement will return to aid them in arresting the individual they feel committed the crime.

As our investigative team begins to discover evidence and develop theories of the crime, they are required to document everything. All evidence is handled with gloves and appropriately labeled. Reports are filed on every piece of evidence. In the event that their investigation should lead them to needing a subpoena or search-warrant, our students must work with legal team to prove probable cause for this warrant.

Legal Team – Students interested in the “law” part of our Law & Order may choose to participate in the Legal team. Things tend to be a little slow at the beginning of the unit for this group as they really don’t get too many details of the crime initially. After all, how many prosecuting attorney’s show up at the crime scene the day it’s discovered? And what is the need for defense attorney’s when we don’t yet have a suspect? Instead, our young lawyers have a lot of learning to do to prepare for their upcoming trial.

Last year this work began with a fantastic presentation from our local prosecuting attorney, who came in on his day off to talk with our kids about his role in the legal system and what the day to day responsibilities are associated with his profession. Having discussed ahead of time with our Social Studies teacher (me) what would be expected of our lawyers, he was able to give our students a very good handle on probable cause, reasonable doubt, the trial process, determining what charges to file, obtaining search warrants and subpoenas and how he works with law enforcement to apprehend the bad guys and administer justice. We also spent a significant amount of time discussing the constitutional rights of the victim as well as those of the accused – what they could and couldn’t do as prosecutors.

Students also spend a great deal of time learning about courtroom procedure in preparation for the mock trial they will be participating in later. This includes explanations of opening and closing arguments, how to properly question witnesses and some of the rules of the courtroom. It turns out that teaching students about some common courtroom objections is a FANTASTIC way to reinforce the ideas of how to appropriately write a research paper. For more on that, click HERE.

For the first several days of our unit, all lawyers are essentially “trained” as prosecutors. They work together with law enforcement to discuss what evidence has been discovered and what they still need to piece together. Before law enforcement can obtain search warrants, they must first convince our prosecutors they have probable cause in order to protect the rights of the accused. This is a sensational learning opportunity for these students! Our lawyers take this very seriously and at times frustrate our detectives! When both lawyers and detectives are convinced they have probable cause, they work together to fill out a search warrant and petition. Once this task is completed, the students take the appropriate paperwork to our principal who serves as our “judge” and determines whether the students do in fact have probable cause (she also always calls and asks one of the teachers whether we’re ready for the students to actually discover this piece of evidence yet!).

 As the investigators solve elements of the crime and keep the legal team informed, the lawyers begin working researching state statutes and try and determine what charges are appropriate to bring against the alleged perpetrator. For the purposes of making the trial a little more dramatic, we treat Vinnie as if he were a human, not a guinea pig.fakecrimescene1After Vinnie survived being shot with the first arrow he crawled to a corner of the locker room before being executed at point blank range. This caused the pool of fake blood near where his body was discovered. Notice the chalk outline of his body? Also, look carefully and you can see the barefoot prints of our assailant. Police officers helped our students determine the approximate height and gender of the culprit using these footprints, which led outside toward the parking lot.

Media – Students who are not interested in investigating our crime or participating in the trial have the option of becoming a member of the media. The media is in a unique position – unless a member of the investigation team or the legal team leaks information to the press they have no real way of knowing anything about the crime, crime scene or suspects. To give them a unique feeling of what it might be like to work in the media, we hold “press conferences” sometimes two or three times a day in which members of the investigative team brief the entire 8th grade on some of the things they’ve recently discovered. Members of the media ask questions (even when they’re told “no questions!”) and write newspaper articles and produce television snippets for the whole school to watch. Often times our 6th and 7th grade classes will follow along through these news pieces.

Like traditional media, some of our news outlets are a bit more reputable than others. The media students are divided into different groups with some focusing on television, some focusing on print media and some producing crazy, off the wall stories that could not possibly be true (we call them our tabloid groups, great for getting reluctant learners interested in writing as they weave in fiction and non-fiction elements together).

Members of our media have been known to go digging for information. We’ve had to put rules in place as students have gone so far as to plant recording devices in the classrooms where the lawyers or detectives were working! The investigator groups usually post “officers” who take turns guarding the entrances to the “crime lab” or the “crime scene” in an effort to prevent the press from gaining access. Typically we always have at least one boy with a crush on a girl in the press corps, and as a result the whole story gets leaked prior to the arrest. In that case, we’ve also been known to have detectives intentionally “leak” false information to the press, just to keep them working. J 

 The Arrest

                Usually we will spend about 2-3 days investigating the crime. At the end of day three, local law enforcement returns to help our detectives “arrest” the person they feel committed the crime, assuming they’re able to produce enough probable cause that this person did something illegal.

                Over the three plus years we’ve been doing this unit, we’ve arrested a variety of teachers who’ve served as the criminal. The first year it was the 6th grade social studies teacher whose finger prints and DNA turned up at the scene after students recovered some of his “blood”. It doesn’t hurt that the 8th grade Social Studies teacher turned on him during the investigation and cut a deal to avoid prosecution. J

                The second year the school librarian was arrested for attempted murder after her elaborate plot to kill Vinnie was foiled by the school custodian. Vinnie subsequently died while in the custodian’s care, but students elected to go for the evil doer instead of the innocent janitor in the wrong-place at the wrong-time.

                Most recently, our 8th Grade Math teacher was charged with Murder in the First Degree, Kidnapping and Armed Criminal Action. This was the first time the lawyers elected to bring multiple charges at trial.

                The first year we “arrested” a teacher there was some real concern. We had to take steps to ensure that his sixth grade students understood this was part of a school project when the local sheriff walked into his classroom with some 8th graders and placed handcuffs on their beloved teacher. Our media filmed it as our teacher did his best to keep a straight face as the “lead detective” (who was about two feet shorter than the teacher) read him his Miranda rights. Since then, we’ve turned this into something more of a school event, with the suspect making a “perp walk” down the hallway lined with 8th graders on both sides taunting and jeering them as they’re escorted out in cuffs and led to a police car outside (which goes around the block and drops the teacher off again, “out on bail”).

We’ve had to take steps to communicate this with our community. The first year of the unit, a concerned community member called the media when she saw a cop car outside of the school. Imagine the surprise of the local news crew when they arrived to find the Sherriff giving a presentation to a group of 8th graders. Coincidentally, the real media has never bothered to cover our unit despite multiple invites, with the exception of an article every year in the local paper.

We’ve even gone so far as to ask student to turn in their cell phones to the teachers before allowing them to watch “the arrest”. We don’t want any out of context footage of teachers in handcuffs with cheering kids ending up immortalized on YouTube. Still, despite these concerns, the CSI unit brings so much excitement to the school annually, it’s worth the work it takes to publicize it and prevent any misunderstandings.

The Trial

                Our CSI unit culminates in a mock trial, which takes place at our local court house and is presided over by our local circuit judge, who does a SENSATIONAL job of encouraging and teaching the students while still acting as “in character” as possible.  Once an arrest is made, our lawyer team divides into two groups, those interested in serving as defense attorney’s and those working for the prosecution. They’ll spend about two days prepping for trial, practicing interviewing material witnesses including other teachers who may be playing a role and student investigators who represent the various groups they were working with. During this time, students who are not participating in the trial begin working on presentations that they will give to the homeroom classes of the 6th and 7th grade regarding what they have learned from this project and what it was about.

The trial day is a fun day as the whole 8th grade makes the field trip the court house and members of the community and school administration as well as parents and school board members join us. Members of the various civic organizations that have helped out in the process like to show up and watch as well, including the local police officers and prosecuting attorney.

                In the three years we’ve done this unit, the students have never once “arrested” the wrong person. The first two years they essentially could have arrested one of two people, in both cases they elected to go after the one who committed the “worse” crime in their mind. The first year the actual script called for two teachers working “in concert” with each other and the teacher was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after his compatriot (me) flipped on him and testified against him at trial. The second year the librarian was acquitted of attempted murder when the judge ruled prosecutors had not met their burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

                Most recently, at the judge’s urging, we included a jury for our trial. The jury consisted of four 7th graders who will get to participate in the unit next year, six high school students who formerly served as lawyers in the unit and two adults (one chosen at random from the gallery, the other being our school counselor). While the jury was “deliberating” after the trial, the teachers, students and judge discussed the case in the courtroom. It was decided since the kids really wanted to hear the judges ruling, there would be two verdicts in the case. In her ruling, our judge found the 8th grade Math teacher guilty on all counts (to the cheers of many in the room) and explained to students why she felt that way and why the teacher may have elected to testify in her own defense in a real case (she didn’t in our mock trial, at her lawyers advice). Interestingly enough, when the “jury” returned with a verdict, after ten minutes of deliberation they were unanimous that the teacher was NOT guilty on all counts. They explained their logic – it seemed as if the phrase “reasonable doubt” means different things to a group of teenagers compared to a sitting judge.  I will admit, I was more surprised by the judges ruling than the students even though in our actual plot the math teacher had in fact murdered Vinnie.

Reflection & Celebration

                Like pretty much everything else that we do, we include a significant opportunity for students to reflect on the learning they’ve done. We give them questionnaires, ask for input on how to improve the unit, even take ideas for next year’s plot. We encourage students to reflect on what they would do differently if they could do it again and in some cases have them write letters to next year’s participants. Typically students will suggest that next year we do “something different” rather than kill Vinnie, but for us it’s a way to keep the unit relatively simple to plan even though the plot changes every year. Plus for me it’s starting develop a South Park sort of feel. Every year, Vinnie dies and I keep waiting on somebody to shout out “Holy crap! You killed Vinnie! You bastard!”

                We also include an opportunity for students to celebrate their success. We take lots of pictures on the court house steps with them holding goofy signs about “who did it” and “justice being served”. We have a huge “de-briefing” session in which we talk with them about parts of the case they figured out, parts they didn’t, and the mistakes we made as teachers along the way that we had to try and cover up (such as Vinnie the Guinea Pig showing up on one of the surveillance cameras after he was supposed to be dead).

This unit is without a doubt the best interdisciplinary learning I’ve ever been a part of and is annually the coolest thing I do every year as a teacher. The students learn about real world applications for research, reading and writing, problem solving, critical thinking and the application of knowledge. They get the opportunity to learn from local agencies who are always eager to help out – ensuring great public relations for us and them. Our students learn about the positives and negatives of our judicial system as well as the media. They have a lot of fun with the real work of this unit, but they also enjoy some of the ancillary activities like developing bussiness cards or ID badges and introducing themselves as “Detective” or “Prosecutor”. They answer the classroom phones by saying “Legal” or “Crime Lab” and laugh every time.  Above all else, they learn to work together and get to have a really great time at school while doing it.

 

 


 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on all this so if you have any comments or questions, please feel free to comment below. I know this is just a synopsis of a very involved unit that takes weeks of planning to execute, but if you have any questions or would like more information about how you might start a project like this at your school, please drop me a line on Facebook or Twitter, or email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . I’ll gladly send you all the resources I have for this unit and answer whatever questions you may have. If I can’t answer your questions, I’ll gladly put you in contact with our Science teacher, Mrs. River, who really is the brain child of this whole endeavor whether she’ll admit it or not. Hope to hear from you and thanks for reading.{jcomments on}