Friday, July 10, 2015

How to use a mannequin in your classroom #13: Crime Scene Investigation!

As I write this post, I'm sitting by my swimming pool enjoying the month of July and reflecting on the past school year.  This lesson was one of my favorite lessons, and it was something I'd never tried before.  I think it's so important for teachers to continue to learn, grow, and adapt.  This lesson was born out of a desire to find a more effective and interesting way to introduce the correct use of the passé composé (compound past tense) & the imparfait (imperfect tense) when describing past events.  I used it in my French II class, which for me is the first time the concept is introduced.  The idea I came up with is something that I discovered that many elementary school teachers already use...I first saw the idea on Pinterest.  Here it is:  use a crime scene investigation to get students to recreate a past event.  Brilliant!!!  I have to say that I've learned a lot from elementary school teachers over the years! 

If you've been reading this blog, then you know that I have a classroom mannequin named Jacques.  I'm continually making up stories about his life to incorporate into my teaching, and my students absolutely love it.  Naturally, I decided to invent a story about a crime that happened to Jacques and his girlfriend, Suzette.  Here's what students saw when they entered my classroom that day:

I piqued their interest before they even entered the room by putting caution tape on the door.  When they came in, they said things like, "Is this for US?" (with excitement!)  I asked them to take a few minutes to observe the crime scene.  There were six clues:

1.  sunglasses
2.  footprints
3.  spilled cup of coffee with lipstick on the cup
4. a spilled purse
5. a bandanna, a mask & blood splatters
6. a shattered mannequin hand & blood splatters

Students went back to their seats and were given a paper with the following questions on it, in French of course: 

1.  What was the weather like?
2.  What time of day was it?
3.  How many people were there?
4.  What was Suzette (Jacques' girlfriend) doing?
5.  What was the bandit wearing?
5.  What did the bandit take?
6.  What did Jacques hit with his hand?

It was easy for students to figure out that I wanted them to answer the first question with "It was nice weather", and so on.  Once they had attempted to answer all of the questions, we reviewed the answers together, and then I asked students to notice what verb tenses were used in each question, and to try to figure out why.  This was how I introduced the rules that govern which tense to use when describing the past (students had already mastered how to form the two tenses).  Here are a few more photos:

As a side note, if you're wondering about the shattered mannequin may have noticed in previous photos that Jacques is missing a hand :).  The real reason for this is that I dropped it one day, and it shattered.  I've always meant to repair it, but haven't.  So it's been in my cupboard for years.  And students are always asking me what happened to his this was the perfect opportunity to make up a story about it!  He smashed his hand saving his girlfriend from a bandit!

This lesson was very successful.  100% of the class was interested and engaged.  Students used critical thinking skills and were able to tell me what the rules were for choosing between the two tenses.  And I think they actually enjoyed themselves in the process.  I know I did.

I'd like to thank author, teacher and presenter Dave Burgess for validating this approach to teaching.  I read his amazing book on the first day of summer vacation this year.  It's called Teach Like a Pirate, and if you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it!  He reminded me that engaging & exciting lessons like this are not less rigorous than those that include lengthy grammar exercises.  In fact, he reminded me of the importance of getting students to want to learn what we're trying to teach them.  It is essential to their success.  

I hope you'll consider trying a crime scene investigation lesson in your class next year!  Please feel free to email me if you'd like to see any of the documents I used.  I'd be more than happy to share them.

P.S.  I found the caution tape at a Halloween store, and I found the footprints, blood splatters and coffee stain via Google images.  Also, I am not compensated to promote Dave Burgess' book :).


  1. This is an awesome idea. I am doing PC/Imparfait in the next couple of months, so I will definitely work this in!!!

    1. I'm so glad to hear this, Laura! I hope your students will enjoy it as much as mine did. Bon courage! :)

  2. One of my school year resolutions is to try new things and this looks like a great opportunity! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Bonjour! I find that when I'm having fun teaching, my students enjoy learning even more & usually are motivated to learn the content. And I really had fun with this lesson! I hope you'll try it & enjoy it as much as I did. Let me know how it goes if you do! Thanks for commenting. Bonne Année!

  3. Hi.
    I love this crime scene idea. Could you please suggest me a few activities using this crime scene idea to match with verb to be lesson plan?
    Thank you.

    1. Bonjour! I'm glad to hear you like the idea. I don't think it is a lesson that would work well to teach the verb "to be". Students need to be able to communicate at a more advanced level for this lesson to work. For example, they need to be able to retell a short story in French. I hope this helps!

  4. Such a fun idea! I just found your blog yesterday and I'm excited to try some of your fun lessons :)

  5. Thank you, Tiffanie! I'm glad to hear you're excited to try new things. For me, trying new ideas gets me energized, and that's just what is needed at this time of the school year! Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Hi Renée,
    I found your blog to be very interesting and helpful. I am currently a student teacher and I am studying (in BC, Canada) to become a Core French elementary teacher (FSL teacher).
    I think the most important part about this whole activity, is that you made it student-centred, and made it about the students and their interests.They were engaged and were extremely interested, which is sometimes a tough thing to accomplish when teaching French as a second language.
    I agree with you, in that sometimes you need to go backwards in time, and think in a more "elementary" mind set to really access the minds of language learners.
    Thank you for sharing your ideas with fellow French teachers. I look forward to considering this great idea for teaching passé composé in the future!

    1. Salut Ashley,
      It's great to hear from you, thank you so much for commenting! I'm so glad you're finding helpful ideas here, because that's the purpose of this blog. I have found that an essential key to success in teaching high school is to be able to get students interested in what you're trying to teach them, as you've noted. Bonne chance to you as you finish your student teaching!

  7. Salut Renée,
    I have to commend you on your creative and detailed blog! I love how you’ve incorporated mannequins in your classroom and think it’s so fun that the students can practice their French by learning about Jacques and Suzette’s adventures, they must love that! I really appreciate all the thought you’ve put into creating this activity, as it promotes making inferences, collaborating with others, and thinking critically, all through a real life version of Clue. The questions you ask the students get them to apply their knowledge from a variety of units which is great vocabulary practice and gets them thinking about passé composé and the imparfait in a unique and engaging way. It’s easy to switch up the story line too with whatever props that are accessible and perhaps if a few teachers create their own “plots,” classes could swap stories with each other to get more practice describing past events.

    I agree with you that if our students are excited to learn, their learning process can be so much more enjoyable and successful, and activities like this do exactly that. I will look into Dave Burgess’ book, it sounds like he has some great ideas.

    Thanks for sharing this awesome lesson, I will definitely use this activity one day and look forward to reading more about Jacque and Suzette’s adventures!


    1. Merci beaucoup Shanelle! My students do enjoy the adventures of Jacques and Suzette so, so much. Sometimes I forget just how much they love it, and then one of them will do or say something to remind me of that, which is always an encouragment to me to keep on creating new lessons. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! :)

    2. Shanelle, I was observed during this particular lesson this year for my formal observation for the year. One particular student, who is not at the top of the class & has struggled a little bit, said upon entering, "Is this for us?" When I said yes, he said (within earshot of the principal) "Whew, because I was about to be sooooo disappointed if that wasn't for us!" I felt like that was the highest compliment, and the extra work required to set up the crime scene was totally worth it for that reaction!! As a bonus, who wouldn't want their principal to hear a student say that before you even started your lesson?

  8. Merci! C'est parfait! I typed in google "fun ways to introduce the p.c. vs. imparfait" and your blog popped up. Merci mille fois! I'm going to do this with my class tomorrow. Our maintenance crew even had some yellow caution tape!

    1. Madame G, you are so welcome! I would love to hear how your lesson went :). Thanks so much for stopping by my blog!



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