One of the most important parts of teaching is being able to adjust plans as you go. This happens within the best lessons as well as between them, as teachers make decisions about what worked and what didn’t, and reflect on what changes might benefit kids and learning. I had the opportunity to teach a series of lessons on Sherlock Holmes over the past two weeks, and as I finished my first days of sleuthing with the kids, and looked ahead at another half dozen lessons over the next couple of weeks, I realized that that I could make my lesson better.
More than could, I knew that I needed to reflect on and revise my lesson if I was to be an example of the kind of teacher I admire. As a principal dedicated to being an instructional leader, living the work meant putting in the effort to do it right. So…
I began with Holmes. I knew his methods, and took three simple quotations as my starting point.
“The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.” -Sherlock Holmes in Sign of Four
This meant looking hard at my lesson on “The Musgrave Ritual” and being willing to change things even if I was fond of them as they were. I’d loved taking the kids outside to measure the shadows of trees, so they could use similar triangles to determine their height as Holmes had done in the story. I knew they’d remember it, and I liked the adventure and interdisciplinary aspect of it. But… I only had a an hour and forty-five minutes for my lesson, and if my goal was truly to engage meaningfully with a literary text, I could better spend that time with kids. Clear reason demanded a change. I resolved to keep the introduction of Holmes as I had it, the hands on activity on observation and deduction, and to slice away my field trip to the quad.
“Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.” -Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”
The best way of judging what worked in the lesson I taught was observing how well it engaged and challenged the kids. I wanted some adult voices too; working collaboratively beats working in isolation, and I knew I would do well to bounce some ideas off a team, my own Diegueño Irregulars.
I called my ToSAs.
My district has a cadre of Teachers on Special Assignment who support classroom teachers with the implementation of the common core state standards, technology, and more. These are amazing educators, and a few of them Holmes fans, who I knew could help me. Individually we’re all Watsons, but together we might be someone who approaches Holmes.
Not wanting to appear the fool in front of these educators I respect prompted me to spend some time preparing what I might do, now that I’d made the decision to prune the similar triangles from my lesson. I thought about how I could actively engage the students, thinking of great examples from teachers at Diegueño that had kids up and puzzling over a challenge that forced them to think, reflect, and discover.
I knew I wanted them to engage with the text. I’d seen them enjoy a wonderful struggle with a handwritten letter from Arthur Conan Doyle to the editor of the Strand Magazine (regarding the illustrator, Paget). I wanted to bring that same level of textual analysis, or even more, to the story, and (reason over emotion) I realized that I’d do better to change up which Holmes adventure I used.
Remembering a great line on detection from “The Reigate Squire,” I went to that story with an eye toward teaching possibilities. The mystery hinges on a handwritten note, reproduced in the story, which readers (and Holmes) first see a scrap of and then see in toto. I did some work determining how I’d navigate the students through the story, and I felt like I had something to share with my team.
My meeting with the ToSAs, punctuated with laughter and defined by a shared commitment to creating opportunities for kids to learn, pushed me to improve what I’d developed. Their questions led me to consider how I’d ask the kids to engage with the text (including a close reading of the illustration on the passage I was having the students annotate was just one idea I hadn’t thought of on my own). I left the meeting excited about getting back in the classroom with my revised lesson.
“It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.” -Sherlock Holmes in “The Reigate Squire”
The classes who joined me for “The Reigate Squire” were fantastic. In one a student noticed the telling feature of the handwriting in the note as early as Holmes had, something I never imagined happening. They applied their skills of deduction to the copies of the note I gave each, and brought critical reading skills to the text of Doyle’s story.
We used the quotation above to discuss how reading a mystery can help make explicit the process of reading any text (from a history textbook to a poem), and how they, as literary detectives, gather clues from the text that they can apply to theories about what they’ve been reading.
I’d wondered if “The Reigate Squire” could hold up with an audience of middle schoolers; it’s not “The Red Headed League” or “A Scandal in Bohemia” (those great stories were too long to be contained in a single period in which I was also introducing the kids to Holmes). It did.
The story was a perfect vehicle for the object of the lesson, better, I realized, than “The Musgrave Ritual” had been. It centered on the written word and provided the kids with a puzzle they could solve only by paying close attention to what (and how) had been put on paper.
As a principal, this Holmesian fun has renewed me, and helped me keep perspective on the grand enterprise of teaching and learning. It’s Holmes who says in “The Five Orange Pips” (itself a teachable story): “A man should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.” Teaching is in my brain attic. And Sherlock Holmes. And the belief that we can always improve.