AASL Standards for Learners: Thinking Outside the Box – Criminal Profiling

One of the best things about the updated AASL National School Library Standards is the great level of flexibility in how to address the standards across the curriculum. The standards allow school librarians to engage students in learning that is well outside the box of traditional “library skills.”

In late spring of 2018 I came across a news article about a high school in my hometown. Students at Elizabethton High School in Elizabethton, TN, had completed a criminal profile of a suspected serial killer as a semester-long project for their sociology class. As a fan of true crime (and armed with the knowledge that many of our students are also true crime buffs) I immediately wanted in on this action.

I reached out to our sociology/psychology teacher and inquired about doing a modified (and much smaller) version of this project in her classes. By fall 2018 we were ready to go! I had curated a list of reputable articles containing profiling basics (characteristics of disorganized vs. organized crime scenes, statistics, etc.) and selected a series of unsolved murders for the students to analyze. Based on the teacher’s goals for the course, I designed the instruction to meet the Collaborate Shared Foundation, under the Grow Domain (III.D.1.): Learners actively participate with others in learning situations by actively contributing to group discussions. Small-group discussions and debate were required in order for students to complete their profiles. Plus, the high-interest topic had conversation flowing! Even students who typically did not participate in class got involved! Our first time trying out the assignment was in many ways a success, but there was room for improvement. 

The next semester we decided to try it again. One major change I made was waiting to introduce students to the details of the crimes until AFTER they had explored the research. The first time we tried out the assignment, students were so excited that they were coming up with their own hypothesis immediately — before they even saw the research! I also used student feedback from a library aide to make the initial research questionnaire more targeted with less open-ended and/or vague questions. This helped to ensure that students were identifying the exact information needed to form the rationales behind their predictions. During the first attempt at the lesson we simply provided students with the articles and the list of profiling predictions we wanted them to make. The second time around students started by using the articles provided to find answers to questions such as “Describe the characteristics of an organized crime scene and what that suggests about the suspect.” In both versions of the lesson, we only asked our students to make profiling predictions in 10 key areas:

  • gender/sex,
  • age,
  • race/ethnicity,
  • physical stature,
  • nature of relationship to the victim(s),
  • relationship status of the suspect,
  • key personality traits,
  • employment/financial status,
  • mode of transportation, and
  • likely location of home and/or employment

In both versions of the project we spent several days completing the work. Typically, students required 2-3 days to conduct their research, familiarize themselves with the facts of the case, and make their predictions.  

On the last day of our project, student groups presented their profile (including rationales) to the class. Profiles were presented orally by groups, and students were also required to submit their profiles in writing. We invited an administrator to come in and observe their work. We received great feedback from her afterward. She noted, “I loved sitting in on class today. That’s a fascinating project and really requires students to do research and learn the process of abstraction as well as how to apply general principles to specific scenarios. It was great to see the kids doing the work of investigation and getting involved in developing their own questions and theories. Thank you both for letting me sit in today!”

The students involved did not necessarily all form accurate predictions (a suspect has actually been apprehended for the crimes we analyzed), but they were all able to articulate their reasoning and clearly engaged in higher-order thinking throughout the project. The classroom teacher was able to address sociology and psychology standards, and the students all displayed mastery (based on observation) of the targeted AASL Standard. We plan to continue the profiling project in the future and and make new improvements each time. Perhaps one day our students will solve a crime!

What outside-of-the-box ways are you addressing the  standards with your students?


AASL. 2018. National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries. Chicago: ALA.


Author: Brandi Hartsell

Brandi Hartsell is the school librarian at Halls High School in Knoxville, TN. She was awarded Teacher of the Year at HHS in 2021. Brandi was also recognized alongside colleagues as recipients of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians (TASL) Teacher Collaboration Award in 2019 and 2021. She has served (and continues to serve) in many leadership roles within TASL. Brandi has presented professional development sessions for TASL, Halls High School, and Knox County Schools. Brandi loves sharing ideas and brainstorming…also cats…and true crime. Follow her on Instagram @hhslibrarytn.

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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1 reply

  1. I love this! What a great way to empower every learner to be engaged.

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