Schools across the country take precautions every day to make sure their students are safe in the classroom.

But last week at Berkshire Middle School, there was a murder -- and no one even blinked an eye.

Hundreds of English students worked Aug. 17 to solve a crime scene staged with a purpose at the school, 2689 S. 3 B's and K Road.

For the first time, the school's entire eighth-grade class will take part in the unit, integrated English instructor Scott Dills said.

The purpose is to get students thinking about how to frame an argument and defend their position using facts. As part of the unit, students work in teams and must write rationales for their case theories.

"The science teacher has a skeleton. We dress the skeleton up, and I've got a tarp and fake blood. We plant evidence -- fingerprints and blood -- all over the library," Dills said. "There's not too much guidance; we want them to struggle a little bit. We let them run the investigation themselves, and we have them come back in their groups and digest what they found."

There is more to the story than meets the eye; after students examine the library crime scene, they must spend additional class days weighing mountains of evidence.

Dills developed this year's whodunit with fellow English teachers Amy McKibben and Meredith Ward.

"We really have to make sure that our ducks are in a row -- even aligning the time stamps on text messages to the time frame that we're trying to create," McKibben said. "The biggest challenge was coming up with a story that was plausible -- we had to create a story and think through what the possibilities were with that story. And that's what we want our kids to do when writing narratives."

The mystery has become almost a schoolwide project.

"I have 12 teachers who volunteered to be a part of our murder scene," Dills said. "We write this complex mystery, and we get all the teachers to provide testimony and it sort of looks like an interrogation. Then we have other evidence like fake financial documents, text messages, and each suspect or witness has a profile with blood tests and fingerprints."

Students saw the crime scene Aug. 17 -- just three days into the new school year.

"We facilitate it for them, but I almost think of it as an escape room. We are not going to intervene until we see that they need a push," McKibben said. "I'm interested to see how they come together and work and who does what."

Dills plays a police commissioner and student teams must convince him they've got the right suspect for the right reasons. The unit will wrap up today and Friday, Aug. 23-24, when teams make their cases to Dills.

He said if no one solves the crime, he'll reveal the truth -- but he expects them all to land on the right answer.

"Every eighth-grade student will be working on it, which is really cool because it'll be a shared experience," Dills said. "Most of the time they get the right call. Our kids are really intelligent and I'm not nearly the Agatha Christie that I think I am."

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