First of all, I want to apologize! I’m over two weeks overdue with a new installment of “Murder at Dungarees.” For the most part, I say that work has been the cause of the delay. The last two weeks have seen us reach the final moments of the craziest spring semester of my teaching career. Two and half months online! I could write about that for days! But at last, the final project is performed, the final paper corrected. (I say this, but actually my advanced performance group is still in the throes of creation, and their mini-musicals will come out later this summer. Good things come to he who waits.) I will get the next chapter out – and maybe even finish this damn creation of mine – in due course, I do solemnly swear. Meanwhile, however . . .
As I have written before, once or twice, every spring in my drama classes I take it upon myself to corrupt enrich young minds with what I call The Classic Mystery Project. The goal: create an original GAD-style mystery, write it up in script form, rehearse it and perform it. The bonus is that the whole project takes the form of a contest: the group that creates a truly fair-play mystery and fools the most students in their class wins a prize, a fresh new Agatha Christie novel for each participant.
The pluses of this assignment are manifold: first, I get to talk about GAD mysteries to my heart’s content. Second, I inculcate my students in the charms of classic crime novels and films, thus ensuring that at least .0000037 of them will maintain a passion for the genre for the rest of their lives. Three, for about seven weeks, I get to brainstorm, examine, critique, amend and improve a half dozen mystery plots, each of them set in a different historical year (that’s a rule).
True, all of those plusses benefit me, for the most part. Sometimes, it is a real chore to drag a group through the maze of alibis, clues, and weapons to get to the denouement. At least two thirds of the groups always want to make the detective the killer, not because they’ve read a certain Christie novel but because they’re all a bunch of cynics. (I just say no. Well, actually, I laugh and say, “How funny – Jessica’s group wanted to do the same thing.”)
By the end, however, we usually have a few good – and sometimes one or two great – mystery plays to baffle and entertain us. And I get a real kick out of handing those books out at the very end of school. This has been my traditional final project for many a year, and the spring of 2020 was no exception . . . . . until a killer of a different sort turned each of my students into a closed circle of one.
For the past two and a half months, our students, like so many around the world, have been distance learning. It has been . . . an experience. When it started, I think most of us in every part of the school community were somewhat in shock. It didn’t take long, however, for teachers to realize that the challenges they faced imparting curriculum and connecting with students online were myriad and daunting, and for parents to realize that home schooling was anything but a cakewalk. For all too many students, the first several weeks seemed like a holiday: they slept in, they ignored school e-mails and assignments, they snuck off to deserted playgrounds and met up with their friends.
At least, the lucky ones did. Some students were roped in to child care and home schooling their younger siblings while their parents tremblingly made their way to the front lines to continue work. Families suffered from crowded homes or over-exposure to each other, while single folk suffered from loneliness. And everyone, no matter their economic status, had to deal with overloaded wifi in every neighborhood: we froze up in Zoom rooms or got perpetually kicked. Some swore that this had to end, that we had to “get back to normal.” But normal was long gone . . .
Before we left on March 13, I had already shown my classes the film Death on the Nile and gone through extensive analysis, both of the film, and of the genre. I had the kids on the same wavelength as me about the set-up of a mystery in a special location that created a closed circle, the dramatic build of tensions as some loathsome person racked up motives from everyone around them, the murder itself, the investigation by a competent and, hopefully, fascinating sleuth, the parsing together of clues, and the solution delivered with panache.
The kids had been sorted into groups and were well on their way to creating a series of diverse mysteries:
- There was the 1926 New Orleans speakeasy, where a gangster, his confederate, a seemingly upstanding businessman, a jazz musician of color, and a dishonest bartender do battle until the discovery of a dead body stuffed under the men’s room toilet;
- There was the movie set in 1941, where a gorgeous but obnoxious leading man with pro-Nazi sympathies laid waste to everyone around him . . . until someone yelled “cut!” to his life;
- There was the nod to John Hughes with a mystery called “Pretty in Red” about a serial killer targeting high school students, and the group who dashes off to a Cabin in the Woods for safety. Why don’t the nerd, the pretty girl, the jock and the goth ever learn that banding together is a recipe for disaster?
- The 80’s also figured in a sort of homage to Footloose, when a small town rollerblading competition turns deadly.
We landed in our homes and I thought: well, why not just continue? They can write their scripts on shared Google docs, and I’ll be free with help and suggestions. By the time we go back, they’ll be ready to put the script on its feet . . . . . Of course, we never went back. So I amended the plan: I told them to think of these as radio plays, to focus on faces and voices, add sound effects, wave props in the air. Be creative and we’ll get things done.
Except . . . the plays didn’t get written. They barely got started. Groups didn’t meet, or, if they did, it would be one or two members at a time. Some kids disappeared for weeks. It was our mission to treat these MIA kids as potentially struggling with inadequate technology, family crises, depression, even – God forbid – COVID-19. And some students dis struggle with one or more of these things. A whole lot of other students played video games for two, three, six weeks. It was frustrating.
And so I went back to the drawing board – again – and amended the assignment again. I had told them to look at their scripts as potential radio plays. Since there were no scripts, I managed to locate some actual classic radio mystery scripts and gave the students the option of switching out and focusing now on putting a virtual performance on its imaginary feet.
Thus, the 3rd period New Orleans speakeasy and the 6th period rollerblade contest both gave way to an episode of the little remembered (and justifiably so) “Adventures of Hercule Poirot.” This premiere episode, “The Case of the Vanishing Corpse” got pretty much everything wrong about Poirot’s character except his vanity, transplanting him to New York and reducing the level of clueing to a suspect who wears one red sock and one green sock. (Raise your hand if you wonder why, I dare you.) And the 3rd period movie set and 6th period John Hughes remake were replaced by an episode of “Ellery Queen,” which truly was a good series. This adventure, “The Case of the Circus Train” was not one of the strongest entries, but it had a wealth of fun characters and even a couple of great commercials for Bromo-Seltzer.
For several more weeks, we met and rehearsed on Zoom. And in some ways, it was a lot like regular school, where it felt like pulling teeth with some groups even as others made decent headway week by week. In the end, the final products ran the scale of quality, as might be expected. In both the Poirot groups, my sleuth dressed up: in 3rd period, Abe did a complete transformation of costume, added a curly moustache, and worked hard on his Gallic accent. In the other class, the role of Poirot was split between a boy and a girl, and I couldn’t help wondering why their moustaches were different colors.
In the end, all four of these groups got through the project. Only one student bailed, and he had good reason: both he and his mom had come down with the virus. (They’re both doing well, now, but recovery takes a long time. Stay home, people!) Some of them even showed flashes of wit and skill through the morass of dubious internet connectivity. I should be proud, but I will settle for relieved, under the circumstances. Perhaps the worst aspect of all is that, aside from not giving out my Christie paperback awards, I can’t imagine that I have made GAD converts of anybody in these four groups. As a few of you may understand, that is the hardest blow.
Except . . . . . . .
I haven’t told you about Group Number Five.
When it came time to make the offer to switch to a pre-written radio play, they said, in unison: “No, thank you. We will continue to write our own.” And that is exactly what Chloe, Jessica, Lindsey, Alex, Anthony, Ashman, and Rivaan did. Inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, they created The Fall of the Jatsby, a 1920 pastiche about a venomous millionaire who has made a fortune in rancid business deals and running bootleg establishments. The police are in Jatsby’s pocket. He has two business partners, a man and a woman. He and the woman cheat the man, only to have the man reveal to the woman that she has been cheated out of her profits as well. At home, Jatsby pours attention on his lovely wife, Lily – and on her sensuous sister Janice. And when Emilio, his devoted lifelong manservant, comes upon Jatsby in the middle of a dalliance, Jatsby decides to fire the loyal butler and his son, James, who really wants to go into show business and needs money from his father.
It all culminates after a madcap party at Jatsby’s house, when the host is found poisoned to death in his bedroom. What is that strange plant growing in the greenhouse behind Jatsby’s brownstone mansion? Which of the suspects will eat the poisoned muffin and become the second victim? Can Myron the detective piece the clues together and solve this insidious double homicide???
They worked and worked and came up with a script. And then they worked and worked and delivered a performance. I wish I had filmed it. On the day of their “performance,” I entered their Zoom room to find that they had all changed their screen names to that of their character. They were all in costume. They had arranged props so that once person would pull out a contract, hand it offscreen, and another character would “pull it into their screen,” so to speak. When wife Lily overheard her husband having his way with her sister, the actress placed a book across half the screen, making it look like she was eavesdropping from around the corner of the door.
The second murder was both dramatic and full of pathos, and the actor fell to the floor (pulling his laptop with him) and writhed in agony. The pathos came because the good fortune of the second victim had been the motive for the first. Myron gathered the suspects together and went over the case, clue by clue. In the end, the killer went down in a blaze of gunfire.
It was all pretty freaking glorious. And it affected me on several levels. I had managed to eke out a final project for every student. And even in these most dire of circumstances, 20% of my kids took the project and ran with it, creating something better than the sum of its parts. If we could face each other, I would hand them each their own Christie, and say, “Magnificent job, mes amis!”
So there you have it: The 2020 Mystery Project. Not a total flop, as I had feared. Many rose to the occasion, and in at least one case, excelled. Who can say what the situation will be at this time next year? If I make it that far, it will be my final year as a public school teacher. The question of whether this assignment will see the light of day once more, perhaps inspiring a whole new generation of kids to pick up And Then There Were None and give it a read, cannot be answered yet.
It remains . . . a mystery.
5 thoughts on “THE 2020 MYSTERY PROJECT . . . . SORT OF”
Well, this sounds wonderful — aren’t young people amazing when they get enthusiastic about something?
And I’m assuming the socks were due to colourblindness…
Wonderful to hear about the students of that fifth project! Getting students involved has been a huge challenge, even at Ivy League universities where student horsepower and the quality of their internet connections are well above average.
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I consider myself a lifelong learner, and I love taking classes in things that interest me. Up to now, however, I have resisted taking online courses because half the fun is the dynamic and interplay in the classroom, between students and between teacher and students. My perception is that modern students in general do not find the same pleasure in that interaction that I have always found. They are more comfortable in front of a screen, preferably on their phones.
Thus, it is a shock to learn how badly kids did with online learning. True, they were distracted by their new duties as caregivers to their siblings while parents worked and to the gift-that-became-a-curse of all the sleeping in and free time. But it seems that more kids like/need/crave that person-to-person interaction that I thought they found annoying.
The trouble is, this puts pressure on schools here to “get back to normal.” As far as I can tell, we won’t be able to do that for a long time. The interaction that is expected of us as teachers – which I seldom experienced as an undergrad at Berkeley – is simply not safe to practice until we have systematic testing, copious amounts of PPE, much more training in distance teaching, and effective treatments for COVID, plus the guarantee of a vaccine on the horizon.
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I think classes that focus on ‘technical’ content (math, statistics and data analysis, physics, some kinds of engineering, computer science, … ) are probably easier to move online than those that focus on problem framing and sensitivity development.
The challenge is probably even larger in the US than in Europe or East Asia, because the US educational system conditions people to want to discuss everything.
Having a project with deliverables helps to focus the mind and to motivate and engage people, but as your experience illustrates, it is far from guaranteeing engagement. Flipping the class room will also help, I expect, but also is far from a guaranteed road to success as online chat rooms are far inferior to in person face to face interaction.
And, yes, moving things safely back to in situ education will be very difficult to accomplish as long as there is no effective treatment or vaccine. School and college buildings are simply not designed for social distancing.
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What a triumph! Every teacher’s dream. Well done, Brad!
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