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Elementary, My Dear Teacher: Teaching with Mysteries

Kim Haynes

Elementary, My Dear Teacher: Teaching with Mysteries Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it can also peak the interest in your students and engage them in your lessons! 

If you didn’t catch the Sherlock Holmes movie over the break, you probably saw the commercials. The world’s greatest fictional detective lives again for a new generation of movie-goers. Why does Hollywood keep recycling him every few years? Because mysteries are universally appealing.

Here are some ways to take advantage of that appeal to keep your students’ attention:


Warm Up Their Brains

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There are many books and websites that offer “Five Minute Mysteries” or “Quickie Mysteries” – try Mystery Net or Scholastic’s U-Solve-It Mystery Club. These very short stories are designed to encourage careful reading (or listening) – a perfect way to corral wandering attention spans or wake up sleepy students.


Encourage Reading

There are mysteries for every level of reader. Choose a few for reluctant readers – anything from Nancy Drew to Encyclopedia Brown. Most mysteries follow a predictable pattern and a good one will keep a reader guessing and, therefore, reading. Or try short stories from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine or Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. In print, the Best Mystery Stories series offers an annual anthology of the year’s best.


Get Their Attention

Introducing a new topic? Find a way to make it mysterious.

Raise a question – why is this species becoming extinct? Who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Or use a real-life “unexplained event” – the Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle – to get them thinking. But be prepared – if you use an unsolved mystery, you may end up with frustrated students when you can’t explain what really happened.


Practice Math Skills

Visit the Math Maven for mysteries that ask students to use math skills to solve the puzzle. Mysteries are of various difficulty levels and cover topics from whole number operations to geometry and probability.


Teach Plot Structure

Many teachers struggle to explain the concepts of exposition, inciting incident, rising action, and so on. A mystery can be a big help, as most of them follow a pattern that is easily recognizable to students.


Add Content Knowledge

There are online mystery-based activities in almost every subject. Try for art, for history, or for science. Or try searching “mystery webquest” for more options. These activities offer a fun way to practice technology skills and increase content knowledge.


Introduce “Old-fashioned” Language

Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter are two classics of the mystery world, as are Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Both offer an easier entry point into Victorian language than Brontë or Austen, with a plot that will appeal to boys more than a love story, and fewer pages to intimidate reluctant readers.


Experience CSI: Classroom

Science and technology play an increasingly important role in solving real-life crimes, as any viewer of the CSI shows can attest. Take advantage of students’ natural fascination with forensic science by doing some Crime Scene Investigation activities like those available at


Build Writing Skills

Most mysteries follow an easily recognizable template – basic character types, basic sequence of events, and so on. Use for to help your students analyze mystery stories and write one of their own. You can also use mysteries to demonstrate setting, since many rely on stormy weather or creepy locations to establish a mood.


Practice Research

Mystery writers do a lot of research – everything from laws and medicine to unusual facts and historical details. Use that to help your students build research skills. Ask them to look up the information they need to write a mystery, or have them read a short story and then research whether or not the story is accurate. A word of warning, though – some mystery research can get pretty gory, so choose topics wisely and set guidelines for your students.


Supplement Content Knowledge

Looking for a fun extra credit assignment? Ask students to read a mystery novel that connects to your subject. Try the Periodic Table Mystery Series by Camille Minichino for science, Suzanne Adair’s Revolutionary War-era mysteries, or Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series for a view of life just after World War I. These authors make great efforts to ensure accuracy in their work, and their books can be a terrific way to give students a different perspective on the subject.


Give Kids a Break

Okay, it’s not a good idea to frequently show movies in class, but sometimes you need to – for a class party, a reward for hard work, or a way to fill time when you’re out sick. Carefully selected mysteries can be a perfect solution. The BBC has done outstanding versions of the Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie mysteries – some only one hour long and all reasonably free of violence, sex, and bad language. Or try an old classic Alfred Hitchcock – Rear Window, North by Northwest, or To Catch a Thief are all great fun films and unlikely to offend anyone with their content.


Mysteries are a tool that kids and teachers in almost any subject area or grade level can enjoy. Test your wits against Sherlock Holmes today and see if things really are “elementary.”

Do you use mystery in your classroom? Share how in the comments section!


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