Engaging Secondary Students with Crime Stories

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There is a reason why crime stories dominate tv and film. People love them! They are equal parts mysterious, suspenseful, horrifying, gruesome, and terrifying. These are the exact traits that draw us in as viewers, and these are the exact same reasons why crime stories are an excellent way to engage secondary students.

Here, you will find four projects that involve crime as a means of targeting essential skills for reading and writing. These projects are sure to capture student interest and engage them in practicing skills they might otherwise not deem important.

Infamous Criminals Research Project

The research process can be demotivating for students, which is why I created the Infamous Criminals Research Project to spark student interest and engagement all through the highly engaging topic of infamous criminals!

In this project, students will research the life of a famous criminal and compile a bibliographic research project to share with the class. Please note that I have included lists of criminals for students to choose from and have purposefully left out serial killers, terrorists, and mass shooters. You may choose to allow these at your own discretion. The criminals included in this project range from fraudsters to gangsters and from pirates to drug lords. There are plenty of options here to captivate the interest of secondary students.

After selecting a criminal, students will compile an annotated bibliography as they go through the research process while preparing to create their final projects. Students can choose from the following project options via the "Research Project Choice Board":



--Dramatic Play



--Traditional Research Paper

There are plenty of options here to allow students the opportunity to share their research in today's technologically connected world. After students complete their projects, they will share them with the entire class and then reflect back on the research process. Click here to find out more!

Jack the Ripper: A Case Study


Jack the Ripper. One of the most notorious serial killers of all time. And he was never caught. There are over 100 theories about his identity. If you're looking for a high-interest nonfiction topic to get your students interested in analyzing nonfiction, this is it

This activity has two parts. The first parts takes students through an exercise of identifying tone in a news article written about Jack the Ripper. There are four articles in this part of this lesson that all come from The London Times, late 1800s.

Each article is followed by a series of three multiple-choice questions written using Common Core question stems. These questions will help students understand the overall message of each article and encourage them to read critically. Students are then to record examples of tone from the articles and label the tone accordingly. Identifying tone will help with part two of this activity series in which students begin to analyze sources for bias.

In part two of this activity, students will assess a series of stories about Jack the Ripper all written on the exact same day, all about the exact same grisly discovery of two more female victims. By reading multiple sources on the same event, students will be able to compare/ contrast how each source represents the "truth." After assessing sources for bias, students will evaluate which source is more reliable and present their findings to the class.

I have also included FIVE extension activities to use with your students after completing this activity in order to keep your students engaged with nonfiction. Jack the Ripper is a topic that will keep your students intrigued from the very get-go! Click here to find out more!

Lizzie Borden: A Case Study

Lizzie Borden was tried and ultimately acquitted for the MURDER of her PARENTS in the 1890s. The trial was controversial. How could a WOMAN possibly hack her parents to death and why? How could this have happened while she was HOME if she didn't do it?

In this nonfiction unit, students will read articles about the case and then decide for themselves if they think Lizzie Borden is INNOCENT or GUILTY.

Students will complete the following activities:

1. Close reading of news stories, including text features (ten total)

2. 5 multiple-choice questions for EACH ARTICLE to prep for standardized testing

3. Debate the verdict in the trial

4. Close read the Prosector's Closing Arguments

5. Write a Closing Argument Speech

6. View a Documentary about the trial

This is a HIGH-INTEREST WAY to integrate nonfiction into your curriculum and get students interacting with nonfiction texts that they won't be able to put down!

Learning Objectives

• To determine how bias affects our perceptions of truth

• To persuade an audience using rhetorical devices + strategies

• To select strong and relevant evidence to support an argument

• To analyze the structure of non-fiction texts

• To evaluate sources for reliability

• To write a persuasive speech for a specific audience and purpose

• To close read a text for tone and central ideas

Essential Questions

• How does word choice affect tone?

• How does tone affect the perception of the truth?

• How are news stories structured? How does this structure affect the presentation of facts?

• How does context create meaning in a text?

• How does a writer create characterization in a text?

• How does rhetoric, structure, word choice, and evidence persuade a reader?

• How is a persuasive speech constructed effectively?

Click here to find out more!

Serial Season One: Podcast Listening Guide FREEBIE

The fastest podcast to ever hit 5 million subscribers, the Serial Podcast Season One explores the murder case of popular high school student Hae Min Lee who was found strangled. The podcast profiles the case, exploring new evidence as the producer Sarah Koenig learns more each week. Adnan Syed was ultimately found guilty for the murder, but not everyone believes he is guilty.

I have created a free listening guide to accompany Serial Season One. Students can use this listening guide to record their facts and findings on the case as they listen to each episode. After finishing season one, students can debate whether or not they think Adnan Syed is innocent or guilty.

Subscribe to the Bespoke ELA newsletter to gain access to the Bespoke ELA Freebie Library today where you can find this freebie and MORE!

About the Author

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Meredith is the founder and creator of TeachWriting.org and Bespoke ELA.  She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University.  She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas.  An avid tea drinker and anglophile, Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.