If I had to show off  only one thing that I do as a history teacher it would probably be History Mystery. While I love Choose Your Own Adventure and think it ought to be used far more often in education it doesn't offer the depth that the History Mystery labs do. I get tons of questions on the various labs so I decided to post how I run them in my class - complete with pictures of today's Cold Case: Rome lab in action.


Set Up

Start early. Set up takes quite awhile on these labs - especially if you haven't done it before. I print out one color version of each exhibit and 5-6 black and white copies for students to use. I put the color copy in a frame and the b & w copies into plastic page protectors. I then print out simple title strips for each exhibit. I also print out copies of the introduction sheet (most labs have one) and the Investigator's Guide (all labs have one) for the students. A class set of the intro sheets is sufficient but each student needs a guide. Lastly, I set up a Powerpoint that includes the basic instructions for the lab (don't move exhibits, you have x minutes, etc.) and any video clips that will be needed for the lab (in this case the intro and exhibit h.)

The color copies (in frames) are posted around the room. If you use double-sided hanging tape it works very well. Masking tape works in a pinch but I've had more than a few frames drop and leave broken glass on my floor. I place one desk near each exhibit and place the copies there. For labs like Caesar's that include an autopsy report I mark off a section of the room with caution tape and draw a chalk outline of a body. This may seem like a good step to skip to save time but this serves as a hook unlike any other and I would absolutely not cut corners here.

I do not put the exhibits up in any kind of order. I just put them where they fit. If something requires electricity I place it near an outlet. If it is very visual I try to put in the front of the room. If I requires a lot of reading I make sure it has plenty of space for kids to sit down. Just go with what works - order doesn't matter.



Lastly, I place a copy of the introduction sheet on each desk before students come in.

Starting Class

On the board is a message that says "Copy today's agenda then silently read the sheet on your desk. Ignore the dead guy."

When I'm ready (which is as close to the bell as possible if not immediately) I kill the lights and start the intro video without saying a word. Any stragglers are quickly engaged by the music and images. The intro video sets up the case and builds interest very quickly. As soon as it ends I read the intro sheet aloud. I go over the basic lab instructions, pass out the Investigator's Guide and ask for any questions. I review the instructions one last time and explain to students that once the exhibit floor is open they can go to any exhibit in any order. They may work with others or alone. I am trusting them to be proper scholars and detectives and work without my guidance. I ask one last time for questions then open the exhibit floor.

During the Lab

I use the time during the lab to work directly with those students who need the most help. I ask them questions that may help them think about the exhibits in a different way. Sometimes I have to point out where in the guide they should be answering their questions... I also like to get involved with some of the higher students and ask them things like "Can you believe he said that?!" to really help sell the interest. Listening in on their discussions of the exhibits is one of the highlights of the activity for me.  I call out time reminders every 5 minutes or so and will say something like "you should be on your 3rd exhibit by now" as appropriate.


After the exhibit time is up I turn off half the lights and tell students they have 60 seconds to wrap up whatever exhibit they are on. Many (sometimes most) students will not complete all the exhibits in time. These labs were originally developed for 65 minute periods. Instead of dropping exhibits I simply accept that they will not finish and build in a few minutes for them to discuss missed exhibits with others. I do not share this info before I put them to work. I want them to try to finish even if I know they wont. After 60 seconds I turn off the other light and give them 10 seconds to sit down. 

I then have them read the questions to whatever video exhibits there may be before playing the clip. I point out that this information will not be repeated so listen carefully. After playing the video I give them about 30 seconds to finish the questions and then explain how to complete the indictment on the back of their guide. I encourage them to check with the people around them before making their final conclusion. I remind them that I will not accept their argument without 3 pieces of supporting evidence from the exhibits.



Debrief and Tear Down

I try to leave at least 5 minutes for debrief although 10 is far more ideal. I, at the very least, pick a couple supporters of each conclusions and have them share their reasons for supporting that point. The debrief should probably be given much more time and consideration than I give it in all honestly. The content of the labs isn't particularly vital so I feel like cutting time on the debrief is okay here if not ideal.

When it's done I take everything down and store it in a binder (page protectors make this easy) and put it away for a year.

I won't lie - these labs are exhausting. The set up and constant interaction with students keeps you busy all day long. The discussions you hear and the high levels of engagement make it more than worthwhile though. It is wonderful to see even lower achieving students truly interested in defending their conclusions. This lets them do it in a low-stress but high-interest environment. Give it a try.

One Final Thought

I'm often asked how I come up with these. There is no single answer. Most of them are based on various history channel shows I've seen like Investigating History. Some start off as stations activities that I've found online. In any case the process is the same. 

1. Decide which mystery you want to investigate.
2. Come up with 6-8 pieces of information that support a variety of conclusions to that mystery (History Channel is great here, also an Amazon search for books on the topic works wonders.)
3. Write those pieces up as basic text.
4. Turn each text document into an exhibit by making it "real." Either dress up the text to look like a real document or replace it completely with artifacts, posters, videos or whatever else might convey the information.


5. Find colleagues who will help with step 4 as it is the most difficult and time-consuming.

Enjoy!