Students become detectives

Exeter Summer students learn that listening and observation are keys to great writing.

Cassandra Barnhart
July 24, 2019
Exeter Summer students work on projects in Detective Fiction class.

With limited time and equipment, students work in small groups to crack codes and find clues.

“You have forty-five minutes to find the antidote and save the world,” says the teacher. “Go!”

Students scatter around the classroom searching for clues. With nothing but a box of paper clips, an envelope of papers and a couple of locked boxes, they must find a way to save humanity from an airborne zombie virus.

This activity, called a “breakout box,” brings all the urgency and intrigue of an escape room to the Harkness table, challenging students to think critically about the clues before them. Instructor Courtney Marshall watches it all from her desk. Even when the students are missing big clues or losing themselves in their journey toward a dead end, she makes them lean on each other to solve the problem at hand.

Though this activity may be unconventional, the collaboration and open ears required for the task are all hallmarks of a typical day in an Exeter classroom. This summer Marshall, an instructor in Exeter’s English Department during the regular school year, is teaching “Detective Fiction,” one course in the cluster titled “Exeter CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which also includes “Forensic Science” and “Digital Photography.”

Exeter Summer students working on a project in Detective Fiction.

As the clock winds down, the students try everything. Two stand at the chalkboard deconstructing chemical equations from one of the sheets of paper. Another ponders brute force as he meddles with a locked box. Sitting and watching, a girl simply comments, “I think we’re overthinking it.” When they finally ask Marshall for one of their two allotted clues, the girl discovers she was correct: to crack the first lock they simply had to count some paper clips.

The ensuing burst of confidence is short-lived as a new set of problems arises. Nevertheless, they continue to work it out. With another push from Marshall the students pull out their laptops and type in a secret link. Pretty soon, locks are flying off of the box, and the students triumphantly declare themselves winners.

The students succeed in finding the virus antidote, and Marshall’s teaching doesn’t stop there. She encourages them to notice the places where there is room for improvement. Perhaps a classmate’s recommendation could have prompted a faster solution or a touch more collaboration could have shaved some time off their successful run. “Remember what I said about detective fiction,” she notes, “be observant and listen to everyone.” As the class ends, students take turns noting who helped them succeed, whether they were cracking big clues or entering a combination.

For Marshall, the challenge isn’t just teaching students to write and analyze, it’s helping them see that everyone brings something different and equally valuable to the table. “If they can start to listen to each other and praise each other, I’m happy,” she says, “I want them to know that they matter.”

Exeter CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is one of ten clusters offered at ACCESS EXETER, a five-week summer program for rising eighth and ninth graders. Find more information about Exeter Summer.