This week a generous English teacher offered me the keys to his freshman English classes. They’re gearing up to study Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and, Sherlockian fan that I am, I offered to come teach a story by Conan Doyle.
One of the vows I made when I became a principal was that I would teach classes every year. Not only is it a great way to stay connected to the most important part of education, the magic that happens in classrooms, it also helps to reinforce the fact that the principal is really a teacher on special assignment.
If the kids see me as a bureaucrat, I’m doing something wrong; if they see me as a teacher, I might just stand a chance of making a difference.
I’ve done Holmes lessons in the past, teaching “The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Reigate Squire” last year, and knew I wanted to try a new story. Beyond being the tale Haddon references to get his title, “Silver Blaze” is a nice bit of fiction that provides an opportunity to talk about mysteries, literature, and how solving a mystery is a lot like a close reading of a text.
Pleased with a couple of elements from last year’s lessons, I kept the close reading of a handwritten letter from Doyle to his publisher (as an example of a supplemental primary source) asking students to puzzle through the text (and handwriting) to get a better sense of the author and his vision of the great detective.
I decided to use a deduction experience I’d carried over from my own time as an English teacher, filling ten grocery bags with items from our school’s lost and found and distributing these to groups of students who had to write down observations (this is an XS male jacket) and deductions (I believe the person who owns this item has a cat, because I see cat hair on the sleeves) as they echoed Holmes’ methods as employed on a walking stick left behind in Hound of the Baskervilles.
The kids were amazing. One group deduced left handedness based on the wear on the cuffs of a sweatshirt. Another group noticed the smell of perfume and rolled sleeves on a man’s jacket they argued had been borrowed by the girl who lost it. Laughing and working together, these were budding detectives who realized that working together they could accomplish much. As Holmes says in the story: “Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.” Ah, collaboration.
Gray matter humming, we tackled the story next.
It’s here that if I’m honest I’ll admit my enthusiasm outpaced the reality of what could be accomplished in a single block period. We read, wrote, and talked a bit together, but even as we slowed to understand the text and apply the observation and deduction methods we’d practiced on the items from paper bags and letter by Doyle, we reached the end of the class period before the end of the story.
Swooping in like a noble knight, my generous host teacher offered to complete the end of the story during the next day in class. I’m a little jealous that he gets to reveal the origin of the title of Haddon’s book, but it’s my own darn fault that I took an ambitious approach to my time with the class.
Truth be told, I’ve got no complaints. The kids were marvelous, curious and kind. Getting to be a part of the teaching and learning on campus was renewing, and it’s always fun to share Sherlock with students.
I’ll come back and visit when the class is reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and I look forward to seeing if today’s lesson contributes to their understanding of the novel. What I know for sure is that they’re a bright bunch who reinforced my ongoing belief that today’s students have the capacity for great things.
And for the rest of the week, every time I look at our mascot, I’ll be thinking “Silver Blaze!”