English Teacher Castigated for Teaching Mystery Writing

For the last five years, Rebecca Van Cuyk has taught a high school English course in Kaukauna Wisconsin called "History of the Mystery." Now’s she under fire in the local media for corrupting young minds… all because one parent has objected to the curriculum…a parent who believes the course will turn her child into a murderer.

In a letter to the Mystery Writers of America, Ms. Van Cuyk writes:

The class, and I personally, have been under attack (via letters to the editor, radio talk shows, and inaccurate news broadcasts) for approximately a month. Why? Because as a creative writing component of the course, the students were assigned to write their own murder mysteries. One parent objected and has since advertised to the media that I specifically assigned my students to "plot a murder." He has also suggested that "thoughts are the seeds of words and deeds" and the students, as a result, will be more likely to commit murders themselves. My life has been a living hell as a result

Here’s a sample of the grief she’s been getting from 105.7 WAPL radio:

We are proud to name as this week’s Rick and Len Weenie of the Week…. Kaukauna High School teacher Rebecca Van Cuyk who this week it was revealed that she assigned her English class to plan a murder as a writing project.


For replacing reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic with means, motive and opportunity

For instructing kids to plan a homicide which is the worst instruction given to anyone since someone instructed Anna Nicole Smith to wash down a hand full of Secanol with quart of cheap tequila before the American Music Awards.


For encouraging high school students to think about killing someone without realizing that the 5 hours they spend each week suffering through Algebra class is probably spent doing little else.

We are proud to name Kaukauna High School Teacher Rebecca Van Cuyk who assigned students the task of planning a murder as this week’s Rick and Len….. WEENIE OF THE WEEK!!!!

The person they should be ridiculing is the parent who objects to the course but, sadly, that isn’t the case.

Ms. Van Cuyk, in her letter to the MWA, is asking mystery writers for their support in her battle to keep her course from being axed over this ridiculous controversy.

The one parent who has a problem with the assignment (even though his daughter was offered an alternative assignment) is pursuing his agenda of having the Murder Mystery writing component ELIMINATED entirely from our curriculum. He will be presenting his "case" to our Curriculum and Instruction Committee and then the school board. This is where I would like to ask for your help.

As mystery writers, surely you understand that writing a mystery in which
a murder takes place will not make you a murderer. (If it did, I guess you would all be in prison as opposed to free citizens who belong to this organization.)

This seems to have become an issue of "morality," as if by writing about murder, the author is somehow glorifying or condoning the act, or again, be tempted to "try it" himself. I am concerned that the school board will agree to eliminate the assignment based on this erroneous "morality argument."

I am writing to ask if any of you, several of you, or even all of you, would consider writing a letter to our Curriculum and Instruction Committee and school board, addressing any of the following:

1. The "morality" issue
2. The fallacy that writing a murder mystery will create a murderer
3. The literary merit of constructing a well-thought out mystery
4. The skills that can be strengthened by writing a mystery
5. The purpose behind writing a mystery and/or the end result of the
mystery story (to restore order, see good triumph over evil, etc.)
6. Anything you see as relating to the importance/relevance of this
assignment, in specific

It has been suggested by our administrators that we change the assignment
to just be "any kind of mystery." (e.g. the kids can write about surprise birthday parties or searching for the holy grail) While I know that mysteries can effectively be written about anything if the author is skilled enough, that is not the point.

We study mystery authors all semester who write, specifically, about the solving of murders: Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, as well as several other lesser known authors. When the murder mystery assignment was created, its goal in part was to "test" the kids on what they had learned about the construction of a murder mystery, in specific.

As one of the teachers of this course, I do not see a benefit in changing the language in our curriculum to assign the students "any kind of mystery." (Please note: as an educator, I do not force students to do things with which they have personal issues. We have always offered an alternate assignment on a case-by-case basis and will continue to do so.)  The big deal here is that ONE parent wants to force us to change our curriculum. One parent, of the over 500 students who have taken this course in the last five years.

If you are inclined to help us retain the integrity (and EXISTENCE) of the murder mystery writing assignment, and willing to write a letter on behalf of the course and the assignment itself, I would appreciate it if you would address it to:

Kaukauna School District
Curriculum and Instruction Committee
112 Main Ave
Kaukauna, WI 54130


Kaukauna School District
School Board
112 Main Ave
Kaukauna, WI 54130

Thank you in advance for any help you would be willing to offer. If you have questions, or merely wish to contact me, please feel free to do so at: vancuykr@kaukauna.k12.wi.us.


Rebecca Van Cuyk
English Department
Kaukauna High School

If you are as outraged as I am, I hope you will consider writing a letter in support of this teacher and her program.

12 thoughts on “English Teacher Castigated for Teaching Mystery Writing”

  1. Wow. This is absolutely ridiculous. Teaching kids is all about engaging them in the subject matter. Kids are going to be engaged in murder mysteries and it’s going to make them think about their own writing. Why does this work for the plot and not that? They are NOT going to go out and kill someone because of it. The worst that could happen is their writing improves. Jesus, this ticks me off to no end. So much so that I can’t really formulate a thoughtful response.

  2. What a stunning development this recent rash of book banning stories is…could it be connected to a certain presidential election where conservatism ruled the day and crazed thumpers of certain other books had their views validated? This stuff sickens me to no end — especially when you consider that whack job in Alabama who wants to have all books with gay characters, ideas, or themes in them removed from public libraries. Somewhere, Karl Rove slowly pets a fluffy white cat and plans his next move…

  3. I’m sorry. I thought this was the 2000’s. I was under the impression I was born in the 60’s. Suddenly, I wake up and it’s the 1950’s, only with 500 channels, computers the size of a television set, and surround sound. And you know what? It sucks worse than the black and white version.
    To the parent, I say this: We’ll stop teaching kids how to write crime fiction, but you must agree to read Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451 and write a 2000=word essay on why it’s more appropriate for 2004 than it was when it was written. And you’re not allowed to use the words “Communist,” “heathen,” or “homosexual agenda” to prove your point.
    Actually, while I give the guy points for protecting his kid, I really have to question his fitness as a parent when he wants that kid so sheltered that s/he’s completely unaware of life’s seedier side. Guess what happens when said kid goes to college when so sheltered.
    Traumatic culture shock.

  4. Tod,
    I hate to say it, but the extremism goes both ways. I’m thinking of a public school banning the teaching of the constitution (or was it the Declaration off Independence?) simply because ithad the word “God” in it.
    Let’s everybody chill … on both sides of the aisle.

  5. Really, Tod, I resent your implications. I, a conservative Christian who voted for Bush and am darn proud of it (even worked for his campaign), am as outraged about this as you are.
    See, a good murder mystery is where the killer is caught. They are actually some of the most moral literature out there.
    Or did I just ruin the entire genre for you now.
    When I was in high school, there were a few assignments/books that I would have prefered not to read. And one I did opt out of (long story. Probably a good book, but I felt forced into it.) Anyway, I accepted the alternative assignment offered and that was that. Never even objected to the rest of the class reading the book. Yet, according to your standards and those of many liberals, I’m a book banner because I opted out of something and never said a word about the rest of the class reading it.

  6. Seeing that this is a state where creationism is being taught in biology classes–and, presumably, the flat earth theory’s being tacked on to geography lessons–I am dismayed but not surprised.
    And Mark, speaking as one of the liberals, I think saying “I don’t like X” is perfectly kosher. It’s saying “I don’t like X, therefore no one should” (and the optional extensions that “Therefore X should be destroyed, the ground on which X stood salted, all discussion of X prohibited, etc., etc.”) that raises hackles.

  7. When I was reading Lee Child’s KILLING FLOOR, my eight year old son became very concerned. He asked my wife, “Why does Dad read books about killing?” I have been talking to him about this, because I am writing a book where someone gets killed. I explained to him that these kinds of books are more about catching the bad people and protecting the good people. He’s almost convinced.
    Why didn’t the parent just ask to have his child moved to another English class? Problem solved. Why does this parent feel the need to speak for the masses? If you’re opposed, go away. Don’t take it from me.
    And further, this seems like the same kind of parent who, when his kid does commit a crime, blames society, movies, video games, schools, books — whatever else he come up with. Except bad parenting.
    Lee, thanks for posting this. I plan to write something for her.

  8. Mark,
    I’m not saying all Republicans are book banners — and if I had the ability to draw a venn diagram here, I would — I’m saying that the upswell in conservatism has, in my opinion, opened the door to this kind of thing. I don’t care if you’re a conservative republican, conservative democrat, or a conservative Zerakcian from the planet Mooroz, as soon as you begin telling people what they can and cannot read because it goes against your personal moral code, I get angry. You had a choice not to read the book and you took it. You also had the choice, have the choice today, to stand up on a soap box and demand that it be removed from all public schools and that teachers should lose their jobs for even offering it be taught, but you don’t and you won’t because you understand the difference between choice and force. The problem is that as soon as these things begin happening — and, in some cases, are instigated by elected officials — and occur without recourse, they just keep happening, the tacit agreement being that it’s right. I wrote a column about this not too long ago in the Las Vegas Mercury and was stunned by the amount of letters and emails I received from both sides of the allegorical fence and what I found was that the amount of people calling me an ass and a moron was equal to the people telling me I’m strong for standing up, which makes me think that we’re in for a long, long four years.

  9. I guess I still don’t see how you can blame this on Bush. These kind of people were around long before he was President.
    In fact, I saw an article when I was in high school about banned books. Most cases were cases like I was, parent/student objected, took an alternative assignment. By the definition being used 10 years ago, I am a book banner. So my hackles get raised because I’m lumped in with people like this parent.
    The only book that was sighted in this study as being truly removed from schools and libraries was Huckleberry Finn because of the “N” word. And who was objecting to that? Teachers.
    Parents get the press, but teachers are just as bad about it for very poor reasons.
    Sorry, you got me started. This is one of my pet peeves, too. How all conservatives are accues of stuff that liberals are just as likely to do.

  10. Before anyone says anything, yes, I am assuming the teachers in my last example were liberal. I don’t remember specifics now, but that’s the way it came across at the time, 11 plus years ago.
    Especially intersting was the banning of the book for the use of the correct term at the time it was written even though it has such a positive portrayal of a runaway slave. Seems to me like it would be worth reading for that reason alone, with the word understood in context.

  11. Banning books isn’t a conservative position, it’s a kooky one. Only a nutty liberal would blame this nonsense on conservatives. (The fact that the people advocating it might be “conservative” or Republicans is beside the point.)
    Blaming a group you disagree with might make you feel better, but it hardly addresses the problem. Blame the jackasses who do stuff like this.


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