Thursday, June 4, 2009

School Mystery Success

As the school year draws to a close, I'd like to share a unique school visit experience. A writing friend, Kiri Jorgensen, who teaches gifted and talented students at the Monforton School (a relatively small K-8 school) approached me with a plan for the whole school to write a mystery.

I visited the school in the beginning of the year, and spent two days talking to all the grades about writing in general and writing mysteries in particular. In preparation, Kiri and I met to plan out some basic parameters for the school's mystery. Then she met with the students to brainstorm ideas. She settled on their idea that a sixth-grade class would take a camping trip for a week to Yellowstone Park, and one by one kids' Palm Pilots would disappear. Suspicion would fall on the main character, Phil, who felt a responsibility to his father to "keep the family name in good shape," and was therefore desperate to prove he wasn't the thief.

Kiri wrote the first chapter, to get the kids started, and we tweaked it together. When I visited the school, I worked with the students to brainstorm ways Phil could try to solve the mystery, obstacles that would make it hard for him, ways that clues could be hidden, and methods to create atmosphere and build tension. Following my visit, Kiri met with one grade each month, from third grade to eighth grade, to plot one chapter in the mystery. Then she worked with one gifted and talented student from that grade to write the chapter itself. The children in kindergarten, first and second grades illustrated the chapters.

Each chapter was posted online at The Monforton Mystery. I would read it and then post comments on a special school blog, suggesting ways that the students in the next month's grade might build on the plot development in that chapter. The project culminated in a contest: any student could write his or her own ending to the mystery. And write they did - even several second graders submitted contest entries! Kiri and I read the chapters, and both agreed on the winner, though on the spur of the moment we decided to also award an Honorable Mention for another chapter that we both thought came very close.

Last week I returned for an school-wide assembly where the students who had written each chapter were recognized. Then every student who had submitted a contest entry was awarded a journal and movie passes, and I gave the Honorable Mention writer an autographed copy of  my mystery, Ghost Soldier. I read the winning chapter aloud to the student body, who hung on every twist and turn of Phil's trap to catch the thief, and loved the ending. The winning writer also received Ghost Soldier, and a cash prize.

What a wonderful school-wide project! I was delighted to be a part of it, and to give the students the satisfaction of not just reading mysteries, and discovering how mysteries were crafted, but also the joy of writing and owning their own mystery book that is now published online, and also in print for them to check out in their school library. Kudos to Kiri Jorgensen for coming up with this terrific idea, and for giving her students such a wonderful experience. This is something it would be exciting for other schools to try, and I hope they do.


  1. That's an amazing project! As a school teacher and an aspiring writer I can totally appreciate it. It's a pity I'm leaving after this year, but maybe I could try this idea (if that's ok) at my English Language Center that I'm about to establish? I'd love to develop creative writing in my students and it would be a great way of learning language too. Thanks for sharing!

  2. That's exciting about your English Language Center idea! I'm sure Kiri would be delighted if you tried this idea. Be sure to let us know how it works with your students!

  3. Wow, Elaine. That's a fantastic project.

  4. Thanks - I thoroughly enjoyed being part of it.