How a humanities teacher devised a captivating mystery for her students

This winter, humanities students at Peddie found themselves embroiled in a truly baffling mystery. Four of their teachers had vanished during the winter break, leaving only scant clues behind. Following the clues, and solving puzzles that challenged their skills, the intrepid students uncovered the theft of ancient artifacts, an occult conspiracy and a plot by teachers from Blair Academy to win Peddie-Blair Day ... forever.

The devious mastermind behind this game? None other than humanities teacher Meghan Kocar.

Last spring, while most Peddie teachers were taking their first steps into the world of distance learning, Kocar was on maternity leave. Eager to return to teaching at the top of her game, she spent her summer vacation taking Global Online Academy courses. “I wanted to hit the ground running,” Kocar said. 

A fall full of teaching in the hybrid model loomed ahead, but Kocar found herself looking beyond that, to our all-virtual start of the winter term. “I think our teachers are doing an amazing job meeting the challenge and finding fun and innovative ways to engage the kids,” said Kocar. “But it's hard. It's hard to sit all day in front of a computer. It's hard to participate. It's just a strange feeling.”

To keep the humanities students inspired during the cold winter months, Kocar developed the Mystery Game for the whole department. Part educational tool, part scavenger hunt, part logic puzzle, all virtual, the game would immerse students in an entertaining story while also testing their strengths. To unlock clues, students solved puzzles that demonstrated their excellence in key humanities skills like passage analysis, primary source analysis, chronologies, mapping, history IDs and even papyrology, the study of ancient papyri. 

"It felt like real detective stuff,” said Shane Patel '24. “Obviously, it wasn't, but it was still cool." And it was, Patel added, a great way to come back from break. “It's a nice way to ease back into the work of school while also reviewing a lot of stuff that we went over in the fall. Not only did we review stuff we’d already learned; we also learned a lot of new things.”

To help the game feel more like a return to school, Kocar populated it with familiar faces. The game is filled with video cameos from Peddie teachers, including fellow humanities teacher Marc Onion, science teacher Jen Morgan, writer-in-residence Paul Watkins, Head of School Peter Quinn and theater teacher Mark Cirnigliaro in an unforgettable turn as Thomas B. Peddie.

 

“If you're going to teach remotely, you should use the benefits of remote education,” said Kocar. “Teach kids to be independent, to do a project on their own that's self-paced, where they have to be accountable. I thought a good way to encourage them to take that step of actually accomplishing the task on their own is to try to make it fun.”

While the Mystery Game encouraged independence, it also inspired teamwork. With every humanities class tackling the Mystery Game together, students found that they could reach out to friends in other classes to collaborate on tasks. “It’s obviously hard when you’re going to school from home, communicating only through a screen,” Ella Chon '24 pointed out. “But I thought they did a great job of letting us work together. I worked with so many people.”

Because the Mystery Game is so deliberately designed for the virtual classroom, it may remain a one-of-a-kind learning experience. However, Kocar’s newfound knowledge of Peddie’s virtual tools and positive feedback from students have her rethinking the concept. “I’d like to create something similar, where the emphasis is on fun, over the summer for the new freshmen. They can get to know their humanities teachers and each other before they set foot on campus. The kids really enjoyed this, and that being the case, by all means, we should do something similar again.”

“I liked how they made learning fun,” Chon agreed. “And I liked that they made history, which can sometimes seem so far-removed from our lives today into something that’s really relevant now.”