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An Integrated Who-Done-It Mystery for 7th Graders

By Charlene Roberts, Tim Rose, & Daniel Corrigan
An Integrated Who-Done-It Mystery for 7th Graders

Deciphering clues takes teamwork (photo: ISK).
What do you get when you combine a dynamic grade-level team of teachers, a clearly defined middle school, a standards-based curriculum, a supportive administration, and a commitment to offer cross-curricular and interdisciplinary lessons? For one, you get a recipe for a creative interdisciplinary teaching unit that engages everyone!
On April 16-17, 2014, seventh-grade students at the International School of Kenya (ISK) set out to solve the Great Explorer Mystery (G.E.M.). Planning the two-day, fully integrated, mystery mini-unit required about three months of weekly meetings. Designed to lead into an upcoming seventh-grade humanities unit on exploration, the G.E.M. project sought to get students working collaboratively in their core subject areas on specific standards.
In P.E., participants completed a variety of physical exercises to obtain clues to the mystery; in Science, they used their chemistry knowledge to read evidence in forensics investigations (from chromatography tests on a ransom note, to pH and glucose tests on food, to fingerprint analysis); in Math, students calculated the size of the storage decks of ships, and figured the degrees of the turns the vessels made; in French and Spanish, students translated explorers’ primary source documents; in Humanities, students were given a crash course on the histories of longitude and latitude and then provided several mystery coordinates. Students entered these into Google Tour Builder, analyzed the routes, identified the explorer and created a tour, complete with pictures and videos to share with the class.
The event owed its success to a well-executed, collaborative planning process among seventh-grade teachers, who first brainstormed on the benefits of an interdisciplinary unit before settling on a unifying them: exploration. We then created a plot, or mystery, that would pique the interest of our students: two ancient explorers time travel to the present to steal rare artifacts and an ancient and precious navigation map, all on display in the ISK school library. They achieve this feat in collusion with a seventh-grade teacher.
Once the theme and plot were established, teachers took on the practical side of unit design by creating a planning “wheel,” which served as the central planning tool, as well as the student scheduler. As the unit became increasingly specific and refined, so did the planning wheel, by incorporating subject standards and detailing the many logistics involved in implementing a complex interdisciplinary mini-unit, as well as the clues to solving the mystery, Without it, chaos may well have reigned in planning and in executing the actual event.
The event kicked off with a “CCT” video of a disguised seventh-grade teacher (wearing a full lion costume—the ISK mascot) meeting with two time-traveling explorers on our school field, then stealing the valuable artifacts from our library. The students worked together in advisory groups to uncover the identity of the two explorers, and that of the teacher.
The clues were intentionally challenging, but one of the six groups managed to solve the entire mystery. Students were evaluated and wrote reflections on the project’s value. Teachers were very gratified to hear comments such as: “That was so much fun, it didn’t even seem like school”; “Why don’t we do this all of the time?”; “Wow! You guys must have worked really hard on this, thanks!”
After processing both teacher and student feedback, we have decided that next year we would like to include all subject areas (Music, Art, Drama, I.T.) in the unit. Despite the challenge, we definitely intend to do this again!

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