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Fourth-grade classroom becomes crime-solvers HQ

Grandville — Harlan Russ opened the door of his fourth-grade classroom at West Elementary one Monday morning and nothing was the same. 

The overhead lights were off and black lights glowed in their place. Caution tape encircled parts of the classroom and signs announcing a “crime scene” were posted in strategic locations. Desks were out of place, with highlighters on each one. 

Soon, Harlan discovered his assignment for the week: to solve the crimes. 

“It was kind of surprising to see,” said Harlan of the dark, glowing classroom. “Kind of like a roller coaster, when your stomach kind of falls, like, ‘whoa, am I in a dream or something?’ But it was really cool and really fun.” 

Fourth-grade teacher Stacey Byl had turned her classroom into a crime-solver’s headquarters as part of a classroom immersion experience. Once every month or two, she surprises her students by transforming the room into a specific real-world setting, and all their class work that week is related in some way to that environment. 

“What you do is just try to take all of the content that you’re supposed to be teaching — science, reading, writing and math — and make it more like the real world,” Byl said. “My goal is always to cover the previous six- to nine-weeks’ content in three or four days, just a good, hard review to know that they have it before we move to the next thing.” 

Solving Crimes With Core Subjects

In their week as crime solvers, the fourth-graders had several cases to tackle, including “Who kidnapped our principal?” and “Who stole the donuts that morning?” Clues were scattered around the black-lit room, but the students could only figure out the perpetrators’ identities and move on to the next challenge by using their reading, math or science skills. 

‘We did math for, like, two hours, but it only felt like we were having fun.’

— Fourth-grader Joi Glenn

In one spot, Grayson Arnett was conducting a science experiment with popsicle sticks and liquid droppers. The crime solvers had discovered a mysterious powder on the floor, and Grayson had to figure out what it was. 

“We put the powder into a cup, and then we dropped some vinegar into the cup to see what happens,” he explained. “If (the powder) sizzled, then it is baking powder. And it sizzled! So that told me that whoever did this (stole the donuts) was a science-y person.” 

At another clue station, classmate Joi Glenn was examining a lipstick print on a coffee cup that her fellow detectives found near the scene of the crime. 

“You have to look at the lip prints, and one of them was smeared and one of them had lines in it but not super smeared,” she described while pointing out the differences in an evidence notebook. “I like being an agent to figure out which teacher took the donuts.” 

Stacey Byl’s fourth-graders see their transformed classroom for the first time (courtesy)

Excited to Do the Work

The best part of the week: Byl said it’s watching her students learn without realizing it.

“Math word problems are definitely a standard our kids need to accomplish in fourth grade, but kids can be very reluctant to do them,” she said. “But when each math station looks like some sort of evidence from a crime scene, with black lights and highlighters, all of a sudden they’re doing math problems for two hours. 

“For reading and writing, (the concept of) inference is a huge piece of fourth grade (curriculum). So, we talked about how to write fact versus opinion. You might think you know who the culprit is, but what are the facts, and how do you write that without putting in your opinion?”

Byl also plans to turn her classroom into a restaurant, a hospital, a construction scene and even Jurassic Park over the course of the year. She received a grant in 2019 from the Grandville Education Foundation for the immersive classroom materials, but this is the first school year where she’ll get to do a full year of immersions in person. 

“It’s super fun to come back to doing it again, and to tie it as much to the real world as we can,” Byl said. “For the restaurant (week), I’ll have someone who owns a local restaurant come in and talk about how you come up with an idea for a restaurant and things like that. We want the kids to see, this is not just school for school’s sake — this actually does happen in the real world.

“And the kids are laser focused all week — I mean, their behavior was just exceptional because they were so motivated. That’s really what it’s about, is having them be motivated and excited to come to school and do the work.”

In a separate conversation, without prompting, Joi chimed in with her thoughts on the week: “We did math for, like, two hours, but it only felt like we were having fun.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is associate editor, reporter and copy editor. She is an award-winning journalist who got her professional start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate and proud former Chimes editor, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio


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