Back by the fire of 221b

photo (23)The nice thing about a good Sherlock Holmes story is that no matter how harrowing the case, at the end of the tale we end up back in front of a roaring fire in Holmes’ apartment at 221b Baker Street.

My lesson on “The Musgrave Ritual” done, I have the luxury of sitting down with a cup of tea, looking back on what I learned, and reflecting  on the adventure.

I started with the hope that developing, teaching, revising, and teaching again an English lesson with a Common Core State Standards (CCSS) approach would help me, as a principal, understand the changes my teachers are experiencing. I wanted to move beyond the theoretical and thought that first hand experience would allow me to engage in meaningful conversation about teaching and learning. There was a time after all when “principal” was “principal teacher.”

I prepped, I taught, I adjusted and retaught. Working hard to get my timing right, I did my best to emulate the many great teachers at my site who nurture curiosity, reward effort, and promote learning. My students were fantastic: kind and interesting. They brought diverse and positive points of view, provided beautiful observations and an exuberance for learning. I left each classroom more inspired than when I went in.

Sitting now by the proverbial fire, and knowing that even of Holmes the remark was true: “His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge” I come back to three things that stood out to me.

photo 3 (6)Time, and timing, are tough to gauge if the focus of the lesson is learning rather than teaching. What I mean is that in my first two lessons I was so focused on presenting the material at hand and budgeting time for the hands on activities I’d developed, that I felt I cut short interesting discussion and limited the opportunities for students to engage in the productive struggle of really engaging with (and solving) a puzzle. They’d shown their ability to do this in a portion of the lesson when I asked them to closely read a handwritten note from Doyle to his editor at The Strand and develop a claim about the author’s opinion of the illustrator Paget’s work, but with my eye on the clock I didn’t allow them as much time to wrestle with the text of the story itself as I should have.

Good lessons need to breathe, and too often my “Musgrave Ritual” lesson galloped along like Silver Blaze when it should have plopped down on the ground and brought a magnifying glass to a set of muddy footprints.

A second takeaway for me was that I needed to believe in the text and not feel obligated to do something flashy. The kids enjoyed going outside to measure shadows and the trigonometry portion of the lesson did reinforce a major point from the story, but in a single block period it might not have been the best use of our collective time. Wrapped in a larger lesson, a multiple day unit on Holmes for instance, the similar triangles experience would have been perfect, but in the single day I shared with students it took time that I might have given to asking more questions that challenged a greater depth of knowledge. I put it in with the thought of adding sizzle; I think the better decision would have been to have more steak, giving the kids time to really chew on Doyle’s story.

The most important lesson I learned from my time in the classroom is succinct enough it could be put on a bumper sticker: More kids, less me.

The best moments of the lesson were when students were engaging with each other and either the text or a problem to be solved. Mysteries are puzzles and challenges, and I could have done a better job exploiting that fact.

As I think about it, I fell into the same trap that sometimes ensnares new teachers who are going to be evaluated by their principal: they think that they need to work really, really hard and be the star of the show, not yet knowing that the best lessons are collaborative, student driven, and carry an element of spontaneity.

photo 1 (11)When I do this again I’ll know that the key to success is to trust that the kids will have great ideas and interesting points of view, and in the times they’re reaching for an answer (and not yet finding it) I need to relax and allow us all to suspend disbelief. I need to relish their engagement in that moment right before understanding. Not yet knowing is a magical and disorienting time, and at it’s best it’s the linchpin of learning. As they see me enjoying it, I think students would be freed to as well. …and great things could happen.

The connections I was able to make with students were another tremendous benefit from teaching this week. I’ve noticed even more smiles and “hellos” as I walk across campus, and I’m finding it easier to remember names and put them to the faces that were so fun to teach in the classroom.

One of my English teachers asked me if I’d do this again. My answer: an emphatic yes!

I’d be fibbing if I said it was easy to carve out as much time as I gave to teaching these last few days (5 block periods of teaching in 3 days), but the experience was worth every logistical inconvenience, and it was Holmes in “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” who told Watson: “Come at once if convenient. If inconvenient, come all the same.” For me, to be an instructional leader can’t be separated from being an instructor, even if the time away from administrative obligations isn’t easy.

photo 4 (6)I’d like to see teaching Sherlock Holmes as something I’d do every fall. I can already imagine a lesson on “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” that could be amazing. I’d have the kids do some cryptology and crime scene analysis. We could use the mystery story as a vehicle for closely reading a literary text. I can already think of some historical primary documents.  And they’d enjoy rolling up their sleeves and trying to solve the case along with Holmes. The possibilities are bigger than a demon hound!

Not that I want to wait until next November to step in front of the class again. I’m thinking National Poetry Month in April, and maybe a little Emily Dickinson…

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2 thoughts on “Back by the fire of 221b

  1. I re-read “The Musgrave Ritual” this weekend, and had forgotten that the prize is the crown jewels of Charles I. What a great opportunity to bring in English Civil War history, as well, and what that implies about the Musgrave family. It’s not often you get an opportunity for an interdisciplinary lesson that includes language arts, math, and history! But then that would take even longer, wouldn’t it?

    I also loved the passage where Watson describes Holmes shooting “VR” in the wall out of boredom. I hope you had a little time to explain that comic scene to the kids, so it didn’t just go right over their heads!

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