Sometimes students learn best by trial. And in a recent unit on suspense, Leah Sajdak’s eighth -grade language arts classroom took that concept very literally.
One of the assigned literary works for learning about suspense was “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. While everyone who has read the story likely assumes the narrator was a killer torturing himself with guilt, Sajdak’s students explored a larger question: If the narrator were to be put on trial, would he have been found guilty of murder?
The way they found out was to actually hold that trial. Students chose roles and went to work.
They explored questions like whether the narrator’s words could be trusted, or if he was too insane to commit a first-degree or intentional murder.
Read student suspense story excerpts written by Connor Bentley and Rae Gahagan.
“In this particular story we actually can learn a lot about the narrator and the author, like the fact he married his 13-year-old cousin and spent a lifetime battling addictions,” Sajdak said. “The students had to evaluate or think about things such as to how to convince others that he wasn’t insane.”
The class studied concepts involved in suspense writing, such as letting the reader know something in advance of the characters and how the narrator affects the way the reader feels about what is happening in the plot.
Students serving on the jury gained a unique understanding about the importance of the narrator, especially in suspense stories, and about their own judgment.
“I never realized how important the jury is,” said Abigail Monarrez. “They really are the deciding factor. Deciding he was guilty helped me understand the intrigue of the story.”
Some students said they learned about what it means to work in a courtroom in addition to learning about the narration of a suspense story. Bryce Scott said that he thought it was challenging to be a lawyer in the case.
“I had to try to find a good defense with a team of prosecutors on the other side,” Bryce said. “It was a good learning experience for me and not something a lot of kids get to do in school.”
“It was a really fun way to learn this,” said Jessie Alexander. “I think she (Sajdak) should do this with all of her classes.”
The courtroom drama did lend itself to a bit of suspense for some of the actors, especially in figuring out the guilt of the man on trial.
“Being a judge is harder than I thought,” said Logan Vandermark. “I thought he was guilty all the time, but I had to make sure I followed the court rules.”
Writing Their Own Stories
After reading a number of stories, poems and dramas filled with suspense and the unusual classroom trial, Sajdak’s students turned their attention to writing their own tales.
Their stories, built on principles they learned about how a writer can build suspense, had a variety of themes.
Blake Olney used his knowledge about farming to add to the intrigue. “There were two murders, but he made them seem like common farm accidents,” he said.
Abigail Monarrez set her suspense story in a “romantic night gone very wrong.”
Connor Bentley spends much of his time writing; in fact, he estimates he writes about six hours every evening. “I have been writing fantasy since I was about 7 or 8,” he said. He creates characters, domains and plots with online apps. “My mind can just go crazy thinking up plots and characters.”
While suspense hasn’t really been “his thing,” he found a way to turn the assignment into his favorite fantasy genre. As his five young characters explored caverns, “they happened upon a long lost temple before something stopped them,” he said.
On the final day of the unit, the classroom oozed with both intrigue and sweet snacks. The young authors brought food or drinks to share, and then as four or five students settled back with treats in hand, they read their suspenseful stories aloud.
“I was amazed when I read their stories,” said Sajdak. “Some of them were so good.”