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Grade: Middle

#4407. Mystery Writing Lesson Plans

Reading/Writing, level: Middle
Posted Thu Jun 3 07:48:36 PDT 2010 by Marianna Heusler (Marianna Heusler).
Buried in Betsys Closet
The Hewitt School,
Materials Required: None
Activity Time: 45 minutes per lesson
Concepts Taught: Learn how to write a mystery in ten steps

First lesson plan -

Review vocabulary.
Explain what a mystery should contain by defining the following words:

A puzzle -- a mystery worth solving. It may or may not involve a crime.
Suspects -- People who might be involved in the crime or the puzzle
Detective/Sleuth -- The person who solves the mystery
Motivation -- Why the suspects might have committed the crime. The reason they did what they did
Alibis -- Where everyone was when the crime took place
Clues -- What was left at the scene of the crime
Evidence - This is more concrete than clues and can be used to make an arrest because it points to a specific person.
Red Herring -- A false clue planted in order to confuse the reader.
Hook - A sentence at the beginning which intrigues the reader and makes her want to read on.

Pass out rubics which will be used in the final judging.
Read "A Lethal Lesson" to become acquainted with the mystery format.



ELEMENTS OF A STORY (Possible score -- 4)
Suspects Alibis

STORY STRUCTURE (Possible score -- 4)
Developed Suspense
Characters who are Believable
Logical Conclusion supported by evidence and clues
Red herrings included
Story flows and is focused

ORIGINALITY OF IDEA (Possible score -- 4)
Story idea is unique and not based on a book or movie

PRESENTATION (Possible score -- 4)
Speaking voice is clear and audible
Pauses in the right places
Reads with expression
Speaker makes eye contact


Marianna Heusler
304 East 65th Street #8B
New York, New York 10021

Marianna Heusler

When Niki Randall walked into botany class without her homework, she knew that she was in deep trouble.
There was a very good reason why Niki didn't have her assignment. Instead of grabbing her own black backpack, as she stuffed a toaster pop into her mouth, she had taken her mother's. Her mother was always copying her. Her mother, who was forty-five, hoping to look like fifteen. Her mother, on heart medication, was still trying to keep up with teenage daughter.
But Mrs. Flatiron, Niki's botany teacher, was not the sort of woman who listened to excuses, no matter how valid they might be.
And, as though to add insult to injury, while trying to navigate to her seat, Niki's elbow inadvertently hit Mrs. Flatiron's coffee cup. Several drops of the hot brown liquid splattered on Mrs. Flatiron's flowery desk calendar.
"Stop being so clumsy," Mrs. Flatiron hissed, her narrow, pointy face turning purple with rage.
And then, being rather clumsy herself, Mrs. Flatiron, whose desk was littered with various fresh plants and flowers, knocked over a vase of oleander, splashing water everywhere.
All of this spilling did nothing to put Mrs. Flatiron in a good mood (although Mrs. Flatiron was hardly ever in a good mood). Niki thought it might have something to do with her hairdo. Her thinning shoe polish black hair was yanked back with a plastic white headband. The band sprouted little teeth, which cut into Mrs. Flatiron's scalp. While Niki was surmising that the hair band could be responsible for Mrs. Flatiron's chronic pained expression, Mrs. Flatiron was glaring furiously at Niki.
The students filed in quietly, morose, wary. They did not like to cross Mrs. Flatiron.
Niki sat down meekly, trying to avoid Mrs. Flatiron's stare. But still she was rather nervous, and when she opened her mother's backpack, hoping to find some sort of writing utensil, the contents tumbled on the floor. Rolling out came a broken pencil, a make-up case, a bottle of pills, a floral chiffon scarf, an address book, a dozen used tissues, and a bright pair of purple gloves.
Niki wanted to shout to her classmates that this was not her backpack; she would never wear a lilac scarf or purple gloves, but instead she gathered the contents, threw everything back into her mother's bag, and wondered who could lend her a pen.
Some teachers collected the homework and checked it later, giving the students a brief respite. But not Mrs. Flatiron. She went over question after question, calling on the students at random, hoping to catch the unprepared.
"Marcy Simmons. What is belladonna and where it is found?" Mrs. Flatiron took a sip from her coffee. (Teachers were not supposed to have refreshments in front of the students, but Mrs. Flatiron paid no attention to this rule.)
"The Belladonna is a drug plant and it is often found in the waste places of the eastern United States," Marcy announced in her confident, annoying voice.
"Ashley Witter. What can you tell us about the Star of Bethlehem?"
"It's also called the Summer Snowflake," Ashley mumbled. "It is found in warmer climates and has white star like flowers."
"I can't hear you, Miss Witter," Miss Flatiron bellowed.
Ashley repeated the information in a slightly louder tone. Miss Flatiron did not acknowledge the correctness of the answer. Instead she continued, relentlessly.
"Niki Randall, please tell us the properties of oleander."
Even with a multitude of time, which Niki clearly did not have, there was no possible way she could have remembered what she had written down on her homework paper. She looked at her friend Marissa for reassurance, but Marissa's eyes were downcast.
Well, that was okay. Marissa wasn't so smart, anyway.
"Miss Randall?" Mrs. Flatiron repeated in that annoying, whiny voice.
"I don't know," Niki confessed.
There wasn't a sound in the classroom.
"And why don't you know?" Mrs. Flatiron was walking up the aisle, her large toad-like body maneuvering around the students' desks.
"I forgot my homework."
"You forgot to do your homework?"
"I left my homework at home."
For one terrifying moment Niki was afraid that Mrs. Flatiron was going to slap her. Mrs. Flatiron's eyes, magnified by her owlish glasses, popped out of her head. Niki felt her heart hammer, as she tried desperately to catch her breath.
And then something totally unexpected happened.
Mrs. Flatiron fainted dead away. One moment she was standing straight and tall -- the very next moment she fell awkwardly, first bumping her head on the corner of Niki's desk, then collapsing on the floor with a deadening crash.
The entire class gasped in astonishment, and then Ashley Witter rose and shouted at Niki. "You killed her."
Niki couldn't imagine what prompted that horrible remark; she hadn't touched Mrs. Flatiron. And furthermore, what made Ashley think that Mrs. Flatiron had actually passed away?
But dead she was.

At first it was believed that poor Mrs. Flatiron's death (suddenly Mrs. Flatiron had become an object of pity) was due to a heart attack induced by extreme stress. But certainly Niki could not be the cause of that stress, since she was hardly the first student to forget her homework. And if Mrs. Flatiron allowed herself to get so hysterical, Niki reasoned, over such a trite matter, sooner or later she was bound to drop dead of rage.
But all of Niki's rationalizations went up in smoke, when wild rumors became to fly around the school like malevolent witches on broomsticks. Evidently Mrs. Flatiron never did have a heart problem (in fact a recent physical confirmed her to be in the peak of health), and when an autopsy was performed (insisted upon by her elderly mother, whom Mrs. Flatiron supported), it was discovered that Mrs. Flatiron had died from an overdose of digitalis.
And that digitalis had been dropped into her morning coffee.
When Niki heard this news, she thought surly she would drop dead of a heart attack. Everyone in the class had seen her bump Mrs. Flatiron's coffee cup, but what if there were some question about it being an accident? What if the police thought Niki was a psycho who poisoned teachers just because her excuses for missing homework had run a little thin?
But the police could not be so stupid, so desperate, Niki convinced herself, to even consider such a flimsy motive.
And that is precisely why Niki was absolutely horrified when two police officers showed up on her doorstep, the evening after Mrs. Flatiron met her untimely end.

Mrs. Randall (who herself did not hold up well under stress and did have a legitimate heart problem) almost keeled over as she admitted the two grim men into the living room. Shaking visibly, she invited them to sit down and even suggested that she make a fresh pot of coffee.
The policemen declined both offers and turned their attention to Niki.
"We'd like to go over some details with you concerning Mrs. Flatiron's death," Officer Rupert announced in a deadpan voice.
"Are you questioning all the students?" Mrs. Randall interrupted him.
"No, we're not," Officer Winters snapped. "But it seems that Niki had an altercation with her teacher shortly before her death."
"I forgot my homework," Niki spoke rapidly. "By mistake I took my mother's backpack -- they're identical, our backpacks, I mean."
"That's true," Mrs. Randall nodded vigorously. "And I had hers, which really was most inconvenient for me when I went to work. I needed --"
Officer Winters promptly interrupted Mrs. Randall. "I understand, Niki, that you passed Miss Flatiron's desk and spilled her coffee."
"It was an accident," Niki said nervously.
"Did you have any drugs on you that day?" Office Winters snapped at her.
Mrs. Randall jumped up from the sofa in protest. "My daughter is not on drugs," she said in a shrill, piercing voice. "And I very much resent that implication."
"But you did have medication on you on that particular day, didn't you?" Officer Rupert asked smoothly.
Niki couldn't answer. Suddenly her entire body went numb with fear.
"When you dropped your backpack," Officer Rupert continued to probe.
"My backpack," Mrs. Randall corrected him.
"Several students saw a bottle of pills tumble out," Officer Winters added.
Niki and Mrs. Randall stared at each other in astonishment
"I have a heart problem," Mrs. Randall stammered. "Those were my pills. We just explained to you about the mixed up with the backpacks."
"So you're on medication?" Officer Winters asked Mrs. Randall in an accusing tone.
"Why yes, I am. And I have been for some time."
Mrs. Randall did not answer. She didn't have to respond. The growing perplexity in her expression had changed to terror. It was obvious to both Mrs. Randall and to Niki where this conversation was leading to.
Twenty-five to life.
"Niki, didn't you just admit," Officer Travis almost lunged at her, "that purely by accident, quoting you now, you took your Mrs. Randall's backpack instead of your own?"
"If you're asking me whether or not her medication was there," Niki spoke audaciously in spite of her thumping heart, "it was."
"And that medication was digitalis?"
"It was."
Mrs. Randall slumped down on the sofa again and began fanning herself with the TV Guide.
"But I didn't drop any pills in her coffee!" Niki said gulped.
"Well, maybe you did," Officer Travis suggested. "Purely by accident."
"She did not!" Mrs. Randall piped in
"Maybe you did it on a dare," Officer Crutcher challenged her.
"I didn't do it at all," Niki said firmly.
No one spoke. The only sound in the room were little squeals coming from Mrs. Randall.
"That is ridiculous," Mrs. Randall bellowed and popped up again. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave my house immediately."
"We'll go," Officer Travis agreed. "But next time we come, we'll have to take Niki down to the station. And we would advise your daughter to have a lawyer with her."
Mrs. Randall released a loud gasp.
"Mrs. Randall, let's look at the situation, shall we? One moment Mrs. Flatiron is alive and well. She gets into an altercation with your daughter. Niki just happens to bump into Mrs. Flatiron's coffee. The next moment Mrs. Flatiron is dead, poisoned by an overdose of digitalis, which Niki just happened to have in her backpack. Now what are we to think?"
"I didn't kill Mrs. Flatiron," Niki said, feeling as though at any moment, she might burst into tears.
"Then you better come up with another explanation for her sudden death," Officer Crutcher said, as he opened the front door. "Or your problems with missing homework are over. Your next problem will be whether or not you're going to be tried as an adult."

"This is too horrible," Marissa sank down on Niki's bed. "I can't believe what's happening to you. It's like a bad dream."
"Tell me about it," Niki said. "You have no idea how scared I am."
"My mother says I shouldn't hang around with someone suspected of murder," Elizabeth said as she chewed on a handful of cheese doodles.
"Then go home," Marissa snapped.
"If only I hadn't taken the wrong backpack," Niki moaned as she eyed her own backpack in the corner of the room.
"Now it seems to me," Marissa said (who considered herself to be a amateur detective), "that what we need to do in order to save Niki from a lethal injection -"
Niki stiffened. Elizabeth frowned as though the entire incident was just some sort of horrible inconvenience. She continued to munch with a great deal of noise.
"What we need to do," Marissa continued with vigor, "is to figure out who else could have had the motive, means, or opportunity to do poor Mrs. Flatiron in."
"Any student would have had the motive," Niki said glumly as she unzipped her backpack. Her mouth was so dry she could barely swallow. She began to search for her Altoid mints. She wondered if they allowed you to have candy in jail.
"But you were the only one with the means and the opportunity," Elizabeth reminded her.
"I was not the only one who walked by the desk," Niki snapped, as she dumped everything on the bed. "And other students could have had digitalis on them."
"Although I think that's rather unlikely," Marissa admitted.
Niki caught sight of her wrinkled homework paper "I wonder," she said, " if I hadn't forgotten my homework, would things have turned out differently?"
"How?" Elizabeth asked.
"Well, maybe I wouldn't have been so nervous, maybe I wouldn't have bumped her coffee. And if I had my own backpack, I wouldn't have had that digitalis on me."
"You would have known the answer to that question about oleander and maybe she wouldn't have come marching up the aisle," Marissa said. "So maybe when she did drop dead, she wouldn't have done it at your feet."
"Oleander," Niki said thoughtfully, as she looked down at the third question and read the answer slowly.
"Oh my God!" she exclaimed.
"What's the matter?" Elizabeth sprang up, spilling cheese doodles everywhere. "Are you having a heart attack too?"
"Maybe," Niki put her hand on her hammering heart, "because I just found out why poor Mrs. Flatiron died."

"I would really advise your niece to have a lawyer present," Officer Travis said
"I don't need a lawyer," Niki insisted.
"You're a minor," Officer Crutcher snapped. "It's for your mother to decide."
Mrs. Randall sat on the couch, white faced and terrified. She didn't look as if she could decide anything.
"Mrs. Flatiron asked me a question," Niki said, "a question we had for homework. She asked me about the properties of oleander. And although I had written down the answer, I didn't know what to say. But I found my homework." She produced the crumpled piece of paper and her botany book, while Officer Travis drew an exasperated breath.
"We don't care whether or not you did your homework, Miss Randall," he said. "Our concern is what Mrs. Flatiron believed and how angry you were at her."
"I know the answer to the question now. And I'm quoting from the textbook. All parts of the oleander plant are poisonous, even the water in which the flower has been placed. Its toxicity level is 6. We were studying toxic plants in biology -- did you know that?"
"Well, that's interesting" Officer Travis admitted.
"It's more than interesting. I knocked over Mrs. Flatiron's coffee by accident. But when she went to wipe up the stain, she knocked over the vase of oleander. The water splattered everywhere. Even in her coffee."
"But she didn't die from oleander poisoning," Officer Crutcher argued. "She died from a overdose of digitalis."
"Let me quote again." Niki read from her biology book. "The reaction time is immediate. The symptoms are unconsciousness, respiratory paralysis and death. The poison is a cardiac stimulator and can be mistaken for an overdose of digitalis."
Officer Crutcher looked like he himself had been poisoned. He stood there dumbfounded. Niki handed him her homework.
"I'm sure that you took pictures of the crime scene," she said. "You'll see the plant on her desk, the wet papers, and if you analyzed the coffee, you might even find fragments from the flower."
"I suppose it's possible," Officer Crutcher conceded.
"It certainly is possible," Mrs. Randall piped in. "And it makes a lot more sense than Niki killing a teacher over a homework assignment!"
"We owe you an apology," Officer Travis said.
"And someone owes me an A in botany," Niki responded.