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Murder in Virginia: A Creative Conspiracy


The year is 1830, and an old woman is reminiscing about a murderous event that occurred more than 60 years before. As the story unfolds, however, we slowly learn the truth. The mystery is not the woman's story at all. It's actually being told by more than 26 authors -- and each author is a clever and cunning high school student! Included: Thirteen activities to help your students connect the crime to the curriculum.

"Fetch it! Now, I say!" The voice was shrill and demanding. "Why did you throw that marble into the boxwood, Elinor? You know, with the troubles, we cannot soon get another from England. How shall we properly play Nine Men Morris without it?" "The game does not please me," Elinor responded sulkily as she smoothed the folds of her long cambric overdress. "Prudence can fetch it. She is our servant." "Aye, 'tis true, but she will spend much time looking for what a better temper would have spared." Elinor ignored her sister's gentle reproof. "Let's find the others, Lizzie! It's almost time for our dancing lesson to begin."

What manner of writing is this, that combines historical authenticity with such literary style? It's a mystery -- a collaborative, cross-curricular, online murder mystery -- cleverly crafted from Virginia's past. And who is plotting the dastardly deed? A creative cabal of teenage writers and their cunning ringleader (deceptively named "Laws") -- aided and abetted by Virginia 4-H and Education World.


The year is 1830. An old woman reminisces about a murderous event in her youth. But her story isn't told in a single voice. The mystery is uncovered in 26 separate episodes, by more than 26 different authors -- each a clever and creative high school student!

The story, aka Virginia's Colonial Online Murder Mystery (COMM), began to unfold in early March. Every day since, a new episode has appeared. And every episode has entangled a rapt audience in a Web of lies and intrigue, littered with clues culled from the history, geography, and culture of colonial Virginia. The clues indicate that this conspiracy of words will continue to grow until March 31, when the killer is finally revealed! If the killer is ever revealed!

"Actually, we'll probably have multiple ending variants," COMM organizer Peter Laws revealed to Education World. Multiple ending variants? It's bound to happen in a mystery created by committee -- when hypertext is available. What else will happen is anybody's guess!


The sun filtered through the small boxwood leaves, making a pattern on the ground that looked like the delicate lace on Mistress Smythe's dress. She spotted the marble almost at once, and a scratched, green glass button as well. Prudence carefully placed both in the pocket that was tied around her waist. She had never owned a button. How careless of someone to lose such a treasure!
One part of the project that isn't a mystery is its purpose.

"I started the COMM project because I was frustrated at how passive the World Wide Web can be," said Laws, a 4-H technology specialist with the Cooperative Extension At Virginia Tech. "Is it really better than television? Where's the interaction?

"This project, in which each individual student or small group of students writes one two- to four-page episode of a fictional murder mystery, encourages students to build on what they know and use their abilities in creative ways," Laws added. "A participant who's interested in sailing ships or Revolutionary War history, for example, can build that interest into his or her episode."

According to Laws, "the structure of the project allows students to contribute on a high level and to build trust with their electronic collaborators that the novel will meet its deadlines, finish on time, and result in a quality product."

Noting that students participating in the COMM project use e-mail to collaborate with one another on structure and plot, to submit their episodes to the 4-H Webmasters, and to participate in the project's listserv, Laws added, "E-mail is the great success story of the Internet. We have to think to write e-mail, we have to compose our thoughts, engage the respondent, and elicit a considered reply. Using e-mail to develop the ability to write can be a much better key to success than knowing how to surf the Web or download files. As project organizer, I can also use e-mail to send topical messages, reaching the teens at teachable moments."

Teachers interested in following the mystery are encouraged to join [email protected], a mailing list established by the COMM project to discuss the history and language of the colonial period. E-mail [email protected] details.


Prudence found Lizzie on the portico. The sisters were blowing bubbles through hollow reeds. They watched the other children, who were visiting with their parents, play battledore and shuttlecock. As the breeze carried the iridescent bubbles to the lawn, the visitors began to use the battledore to hit the bubbles instead. The cork stuck with feathers was forgotten.

Who are these teen writers, and why have they have plunged so eagerly into a life of creative crime? Most of the primary writers are high school-aged members of a Virginia 4-H computer club. Others are high school students from around the state and around the country.

"I see this project as a creative way to combine liberal arts writing with technology," Beverly, a 12th grade student at Patrick County High School in Stuart, Virginia, told Education World. "I love to write, and I am fully committed to staying active in the Virginia 4-H Tech Team. This is a terrific opportunity to combine two interests into one project."

"I think it will be interesting to see where everyone takes the story and how the plot turns out," revealed Anna, an 11th grader at Blacksburg (Virginia) High School. "I especially enjoy the group discussions, because hearing other people's opinions helps expand my own. The hands-on nature of this project maintains my interest and makes the information more relevant."

"I think the project, which is helping us learn to utilize the Internet to write and to interact with other students, will create a previously unrealized online learning environment," added Justin, a senior at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "I wanted to be part of something revolutionary, something new. This is also a way I can begin to use the Internet as an interactive educational tool, for something beyond entertainment and idle browsing."

Karli, the author of the "Button in the Boxwood" episode excerpted in this article, is a ninth grade student at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Not all the students are participating individually. In Shawsville, Virginia, the 18 students in Donna Duff's 11th-grade American literature class are working in small groups to write an entire week's worth of episodes. "This year, we're reading The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible," Duff told Education World. "I felt that this project would extend student learning of those novels and at the same time expose them to something new and different."

Duff added, "One of our standards requires us to correlate history, literature, and culture. This project is great for meeting that objective. Plus it helps us meet our technology goals!"


Neither does the plot lack co-conspirators. Thirty high school students from New York City's Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers are creating a parallel novel involving some of the same characters!

Ted Nellen and Laurie Roper, co-teachers of a tenth-grade inclusion class participating in the activities, turned to a life of crime to provide their students with a catalyst for working in teams and collaborating online. The Work Of The Bergtraum Scholars will be posted on their school's Web site.

"The Web-based classroom is a promising new environment for students who may not have succeeded in traditional or teacher-centered classrooms," said Nellen, an experienced Internet educator and the creator of Cyber English. "This kind of project puts the onus on the students and for some, it's the first time they have had to interact and actually 'do.'"

Nellen added, "When that happens, learning happens. For our students, collaboration, accomplishment, success, and increased self-esteem are key outcomes of the project."

If your students are interested in participating in Virginia's Colonial Online Murder Mystery as writers or illustrators, e-mail [email protected] for details. (Quick!)


"Good day, mistress," the girl said as she dropped a small curtsy. "Mistress? Not I!" Prudence laughed. "I'm Prudence, one of the servants. My family lives outside of town, near Middle Run on the Yorktown Road by the tulip poplar grove. Do you know it?"

"Many high school students lack adequate writing, history, and geography skills," Laws, an instructor in the College of Human Resources and Education at Virginia Tech, told Education World. "The COMM project addresses that by helping them develop an appreciation for history and geography. The American colonial period was rich in the contributions of women, African Americans, and people of diverse heritage, and this project examines and celebrates those roles."

"I believe that interdisciplinary projects are more engaging in general, are more likely to engage teens who have a variety of different interests, and better prepare students for teamwork in subsequent projects than do activities centered on a single discipline," Laws said.


Suddenly, Jane came running, out of breath. She looked frightened.

"Prudence! Prudence!" she said, when she could breathe again. "A dead man! I saw him! He was at the edge of the Fair. He was dead!" she repeated.

"Who, Jane? Who is dead?" Prudence asked.

"The dancing master!" Jane replied. "I heard them talking. The dancing master is dead!"

You'll have to wait until at least midnight on March 31, to find out who murdered the dancing master. But you don't have to wait until then to join the investigation! Read the completed episodes of Virginia's Colonial Online Murder Mystery today -- then visit some of these sites to help your students connect the crime to the curriculum:

*Editor's note: Excerpts are from the "Button in the Boxwood" episode of the Colonial Online Murder Mystery and are used with permission of the author.


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Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World