The advanced English conversation class I teach at my uni here in Korea is progressing wonderfully! We recently finished another of my favorite lessons: a murder mystery.
I’m a diehard mystery aficionado, so each year I literally count the weeks until I can use this lesson. I wrote this two-round murder mystery specifically to complement our textbook’s lesson on the past progressive; if there’s a more interesting and appropriate context for past progressive, I haven’t found it. The mystery is set on our campus and takes into account realistic distances and locations. Students I taught several years ago still remind me about this lesson—and the final “whodunit” reveal.
Round 1: Using the past progressive to establish and probe alibis
First, I give students the set-up: “This past Sunday, one of your classmates was murdered. Did you hear about it?” I try to look serious, but I usually crack a smile pretty quickly; too often, at least one student looks horrified and asks, “Really?”—and then I feel a modicum of guilt, and dispel his/her concern with a wink and a grin.
Then I add the rest: “Someone in this room killed her! Ten of you were on campus on Sunday afternoon. They found her body in the Student Union Building at 4:45 p.m. The last outgoing call from her cell phone was placed at 4:23 p.m., so she was alive at that time. Your job is to find out who killed her, when, and why.”
I distribute character cards: ten students are suspects, and the remaining students are detectives. The first round, the suspects find out what they were doing around the time of the murder, but no one knows who the murderer is—not even the murderer, him/herself. This round just establishes who was where at what time and begins to give hints about motivation. The suspects write their names on the board next to their suspect numbers, and the first round officially begins.
It takes about ten minutes for the detectives to interview the suspects, preferably using the past progressive to inquire about their whereabouts. Throughout the game, suspects can’t lie about where they were, but they can mislead the detectives about their reasons for being there. As this round winds down, the detectives begin to compare notes as I slip the second round of clues to the suspects.
Round 2: What’s the motivation?
It has been said there are three basic motives for murder: money, love, and revenge. In this game, we have a little of each!
The second round reveals that nearly every suspect had a motive for murder: they fought with the victim recently; they were seen kissing her boyfriend; they bought a lottery ticket with her; she found out about a secret indiscretion. A few of the suspects don’t have an obvious motive but are suspicious merely because their alibi doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny.
During this round, the murderer finds out who he/she is, and… well, there are actually two murderers, two suspects who worked in tandem to murder the victim. During this round the two of them generally coordinate a story to explain why they were seen hurrying away from the scene of the crime, and they either keep their heads down and mostly remove themselves from the boiling frenzy of accusations, or they gather incriminating information about the other suspects and spread it with vigor. It’s always fascinating to see what different pairs choose to do!
The closing: the final reveal
During the last twenty minutes of class, everyone is given a few minutes to share their suspicions and conclusions with their group members, and then the accusations begin. We open the floor to guesses, and together we consider each guess one by one, starting with what the suspect was doing at the time of the murder and ending with what his/her motivation could have been. Finally, I ask him or her, “Did you do it?” He or she replies honestly.
The actual murderers are rarely accused until all the other suspects have been cleared; they have no obvious motives. In fact, their clue cards explain what they did and how, but not why! It’s interesting to see if anyone can piece together their motivation based on what the other suspects say. The information is all there; it’s just a matter of putting it together and adding a little creative—and macabre—thinking.
I love this game for so many reasons. The students—even the more squeamish ones—love it; it’s set in and around our university, so it’s easy for participants to get sutured into the fiction; and it’s delightful to see how creative the students can be in their misdirections. I also love that it offers the perfect opportunity to use the past progressive as it was intended: to explain what was happening at a given point in time.
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