True Crime During Class Time: Engaging Writers Using a Crime Scene

Everyone is obsessed with true crime lately. 

True crime podcasts, true crime TV shows, true crime movies, true crime documentaries. I feel like every time I turn around, I see another preview for another true crime series on Netflix. 

And, here’s the thing, I’m totally down for it. 

My podcasts, my list on Netflix – completely full of true crime. 

I don’t know what it is about our society today, but we sit on the edge of our seats, waiting to see what is going to happen. We form groups and communities to discuss our hypotheses and what we’ve noticed from reading, listening, or watching something true crime. 

This is when it dawned on me. If I’m obsessed with true crime, maybe students would be also. 

When I was in the classroom, I was always looking for the next best, most engaging and innovative way to get my kids hooked on writing. Now that I’m an instructional coach at a campus with a high poverty rate (80%), I want to bring those research-based strategies to my teachers and see how they can engage their kids in writing.  

I wanted to bring this idea of incorporating true crime to our 7th grade ELAR PLC; however, they were already discussing how they could bring this concept into the classroom. I was so excited to help them figure out how to bring this idea into fruition. 

Planning the Crime Scene

The first unit in our district’s curriculum is designed to set the stage for meaningful reading and writing; to encourage students to question, engage, and infer related to a particular text and then write in response to it. The teacher team wanted to create a fun, engaging experience to hook the students into this type of writing, while also differentiating for all levels of students in their classroom. So they used the true-crime obsessed culture happening now and created a crime scene simulation. The crime scene contained a lot of visuals, which are great strategies to use for our ELL and lower reading level students. It also allowed for a lot of student discussion complete with excited idea-sharing and guessing on what happened in the scene. 

The goal was for students to interact with the scene to make inferences and question what happened to determine their interpretation of the outcome. After this, the students wrote a final analysis, complete with a story, of the crime, using their observations, descriptions, and inferences, that would include their conclusion (what they think happened), why, and how. 

7th grade English students reviewing the staged crime scene in the library. Image via Shawna Easton

As a teacher team, there were several items they needed to plan out before they could introduce this activity to the students. 

  1. What did they want the students to do? They wanted them to solve the crime but how exactly? Leave it open-ended or have them determine who was the murderer. The teachers thought it would be better to have a solution in mind and guide the students toward that solution. (This is one way to complete this activity, but if you wanted to extend it, you could leave it open-ended and have the students debate what happened in the crime scene.)
  1. How will the students work to complete this activity and piece of writing? The teachers decided to place students in groups and give each one of them a specific job to complete while examining the crime scene (due to space and time constraints, students were only allowed 10 minutes to view the crime scene).
    1. Head Detective – wrote down a description of the scene with as much detail as possible. 
    2. Crime Scene Illustrator – sketched the scene with all materials included and labeled
    3. Observation Specialist – made a list of all the items and materials in the scene
  1. How will the students show their thinking? -The teacher team used a document that listed the jobs with a description along with space for them to complete their assigned job. (They edited a document they found from a lesson on titled “What Happened Here?”.) They determined that after the students completed their job at the crime scene, they would return back to the classroom where the students would debrief their group, and then they would work together inferring what each item was used for and start making their hypotheses about what happened and to whom. They would then answer the following questions using their observations, descriptions, and inferences. 
    1. What details do we know about the killer?
    2. What details do we know about the victim? 
    3. What conclusions can we draw about the incident? 
  1. How will we assess their knowledge and mastery of the skills? After the crime scene viewing and group debrief, students in Erica Brown’s class worked together to complete their questions and writing piece, while she followed up with each group and questioned them on how and why they came up with that theory, trying to probe the students to really think about their thinking. While Ms. Brown was acting as the facilitator to each group, the other groups were still excitedly in discussion on what happened, why, and how. When the student groups had their inferences, observations, and story complete, each group shared their version of events. 

What the Students Thought

Being the observer in Mrs. Brown’s classroom and hearing the students’ discussions, there was no doubt of the level of engagement. The kids were just a buzz around this crime scene. They were in their groups, working and talking excitedly about what they thought happened and their theories. I saw other students rapidly writing down everything they saw while also participating in discussions about the scene.The kids loved this activity and were excited about writing their description and story. They couldn’t wait to reveal to the class their theory and why they thought they were correct. Just to be sure, though, I asked some students from Mrs. Brown’s class their thoughts and here were some of the responses I received. 

The staged crime scene. Image via Shawna Easton
  • “I loved this project because I could physically see it. This wasn’t a prompt, so I could guess and play around with my writing.” 
  • “We got to write as a group and collaborate and think things through a different perspective. When I write, I make a lot of independent decisions and during this project, I had to take others’ thoughts (into account).”
  • “This was more fun. We could guess what happened. There wasn’t a ‘true answer’ so we could figure out what happened. It wasn’t right or wrong as long as we explained.” 

From the mouth of the kids. As I made the move to instructional coach, I knew I would miss this. I would miss trying new things in my classroom, and I’m fortunate to work with teachers who let me live vicariously through them. This was a great way to teach these important skills that students need in class and life. 

– Shawna Easton

How do you use student interest and inquiry in your writing classroom? You can connect with me on Twitter @shawnaeaston03 or on Facebook at

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  1. I’m going to try this! I teach High School Special Education English and I think the kids will definitely enjoy getting up and out of their seats!

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