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Ahern: Christ the King students enjoy murder mystery come alive

Christ King Elementary School student Max Vandeveld (from left) teacher Vicki Rocus students Jorie Hennigan Luke Lockard dress up participate

Christ the King Elementary School student Max Vandeveld (from left), teacher Vicki Rocus and students Jorie Hennigan and Luke Lockard dress up and participate in the school’s annual murder mystery that was set in the Old West. | Patti Ahern~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 5, 2014 6:12AM



The “murderous” eighth-grade students at Christ the King Elementary School in the Beverly community of Chicago “killed” their pastor for the third year in a row — all in the name of a good education.

The make-believe murder, as well as the subsequent investigations, are part of an elaborate lesson plan developed by eighth-grade teachers Vicki Rocus and Donna Gentile. Rocus, the author of the back story that accompanied the murder, staged this year’s event in the Old West, specifically Tombstone, Ariz., in the late 1800s.

Each of Christ the King’s 30 eighth graders played the part of a historical figure from the late 19th century. Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok were just a few of the characters involved in the murder investigation.

Rocus’ story, “Murder at the Gilded Lily Saloon,” centered on the life of Crazy Jack Statler, a saloon owner, and his mail-order bride, Jessica, a woman who was questionably widowed three times in five years. When Statler died in a suspicious fire, his widow made plans to create a fine drinking establishment and celebrated its grand opening with a poker tournament with a grand prize of a $10,000 gold nugget.

“This lesson plan, which is an effort to work to the Common Core (academic standard), focuses on science, research, math, writing and history,” Rocus said. “These are all historical figures, and the students researched all the characters.”

Rocus said participating in the poker tournament let the students practice their math and probability skills, and the story line focused on their literary development. The science came from experiments that students performed to determine the murderer.

Rocus developed her story around characters with any number of reasons for wanting to murder Brent “Two Feathers” McGovern, played by the Rev. Tom Conde.

Conde was a willing participant. Each year, he sprawls on the floor, trying not to giggle, as he waits for his body to be discovered by a piercing scream, delivered by Christ the King Principal Maureen Aspell.

“I’m here and they’re going to kill me,” Conde said prior to his demise. “I know there is a rope out there that they are knitting into a neck brace, and I have gold and cards planted on me.”

In prior years, Conde was poisoned and stabbed, but this year his end came about after he was smashed in the head with a beer bottle and then hanged. A parent volunteer tied a rope around Conde’s neck, and Gentile dabbed his head with fake blood.

Gentile, the school’s science teacher, explained that upon finding the body, students visited six learning stations where they looked at fingerprints, used facial recognition software or tested imitation blood for identification purposes.

Obviously, some of the forensic material the students used at the stations was not available in the 1800s, but Gentile laughed away the historical inconsistency.

“In my pretend world, I get a little license,” she said, laughing. “This isn’t easy, it’s a challenge, but I have had these kids from the sixth grade so they have the tools I taught them. Each year I have layered the level of difficulty, and so where we started out with baby steps, we now move on to authentic life applications.”

In the end, the murders were committed by Virgil Earp (student Matt McCormick) and Margaret Fox (student Celia Palzkill). In Rocus’ story, Fox, a famous spiritualist, was in danger of being exposed by McGovern. She’s the one to deliver the blow to McGovern’s head, and she also persuaded Earp to go along with her plan.

Matt McCormick wrote an email, detailing his thoughts about the lesson plan and calling it a “great experience.”

“Being a part of this event was a great way to test what we learned in class — reading skills, logical thinking and forensic science,” he wrote. “As the event continued on, the clues all began to fit together, and I began to realize that I was possibly the murderer.

“When we neared the end, everyone knew that all of the clues pointed to me. ... The best part of the event was getting to be the murderer, and that was what made the whole thing come to life.”

Fellow eighth grader Kamani Smith echoed Matt’s sentiments.

“If you asked me back in seventh grade to solve the mystery, I would have no clue what to do,” Kamani wrote. “The live mystery taught me that things we learn in school can actually help us succeed in our future school life and jobs. We did the things that the experts do to identify the suspects of crime. Now, learning about the criminal investigation system from this live mystery has even had me consider studying to be in the CSI one day.”

Rocus said one of the goals of the exercise was to drive home to the students the real-life applications of their lessons.

“Education in the 21st century is changing, and that is a good thing,” she said. “As teachers, we are moving away from being chained to our textbooks and are leading our students toward experiencing challenging, hands-on learning, with real-life applications. Our live mystery event works to meet this philosophy, and the excited, engaged attention in the faces of our students is proof that these objectives are happily being met.”

Christ the King School, 9240 S. Hoyne Ave., has nearly 300 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. For more information about the school, visit www.ck-school.org



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