Amber Sorensen, teacher librarian at Cherrybrook Technology High School, describes the evolution, benefits and cross curriculum connections behind her school's highly engaging 'Murder in the Library' program.
‘Miss, did someone really die?!’ was the question asked the day the body of the English Head Teacher was discovered in the library. A crime scene was soon established.
Collaboration with teachers and student engagement are at the heart of teacher librarianship. Since its inception in 2017, ‘Murder in the Library’ has provided opportunities for both. In the first year, the program used a study of the crime genre in Year 10 English as the anchor. I capitalised on my dual role as teacher librarian and English teacher and found an enthusiastic partner in crime in fellow English teacher, Gerry Brennan.
Two English classes worked together in the library for several lessons, interrogating the evidence in their files, questioning witnesses and orally presenting their theories, supported by evidence, on the identity and motive of the murderer. At the end of their presentations, the hapless murderer (me) was dragged away, loudly protesting and claiming innocence, by a very intimidating deputy principal.
Students enthusiastically devised some very interesting – and sometimes salacious –theories. Eagle-eyed students questioned why the teacher librarian was wearing a bandage across her wrist in the days after the murder and linked this to the coroner’s report which confirmed that skin samples had been found under the victim’s fingernails. Participants were engaged throughout the investigative process and thoroughly enjoyed it. Library visitors were similarly intrigued by the crime scene. Staff leveraged the opportunity to display both fiction and nonfiction crime books.
In 2018, we were joined by science teacher Magali Mello who introduced a forensic element to the program. This opportunity to introduce a cross curriculum component was exciting. Together with colleague Coni Halder, Gerry, Magali and I developed a new and more complicated storyline revolving around corruption. The most challenging aspect was working out which pieces of evidence would be best to use. We wanted to incorporate some red herrings yet ensure the plot was discoverable – but not obvious. Including forensic evidence, such as blood spatter on the ceiling, casts of the weapon, footprints and handwriting samples, made the experience immersive and so much richer.
The crime scene
In its second year, the program was more flexible as classes were able to visit whenever they pleased to examine the evidence in a specially designated forensics lab. As well as hardcopy files, digital material (all the paper evidence plus CCTV footage) was made available via our learning management system.
Students examine the evidence
Due to its popularity, the program was extended. Altogether, 3 English classes and 7 science classes participated, with requests to run the program again in Term 4 for science and legal studies. The plot was recalibrated using the existing evidence.
With large numbers of students participating, it was not feasible to arrange interviews of witnesses or suspects, although one of the key suspects was treated to a surprise interrogation when he wandered into the library. We created student support materials including a glossary of medical terms, an outline of the task, a student report template and an analysis of evidence template. The reveal came by video. We recorded an interview between the murderer and our police liaison officer, and released it at the end of the program.
Feedback from teachers about student engagement has been overwhelmingly positive. One teacher has shown me the depth and detail of work from some students that usually do little, including a portfolio with detailed annotations of the evidence.
This year, we plan to integrate a specific text into the program. It will be linked not only to a study of forensics in science and the crime genre in English, but also to an examination of text and context. There are many other possible opportunities to expand further, incorporating other key learning areas, such as HSIE and TAS. Fortunately there are plenty of volunteers ‘dying’ to be involved!
How to cite this article – Sorensen, A. (2019). Murder most foul. Scan, 38(2).