Sleuthing in English Class

I love detective stories and when I come across a good author, I usually try to read all of their books. I enjoy Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series, because her main character is always about six months older from one book to another, as are her friends and the other characters that keep popping up from time to time. Kinsey Milhone feels like someone I’ve known for years, someone I know well and can often predict how she’ll react. Kinsey solves crimes by talking to people, going from one person to another and asking questions until she begins to understand what happened. A couple of years ago, I tried using A for Alibi with some adult students and we enjoyed it, so I decided to try it again with a group I’ve been teaching for four years now. We had read Holes and Hunger Games, and I wanted to give them a holiday from having a lot to read every week and from using films. I also wanted to make the lessons as conversational as possible.

I began by giving them the first page of the novel, where Kinsey Milhone introduces herself. I had the only copy of the book, so they read only the passages I gave them to read. After discussing Kinsey’s character, I told them that they were Kinsey and I was Nikki Fife, a woman who wanted to hire her to investigate her husband’s murder. Nikki had been charged, tried and condemned for his death by poisoning. After serving eight years in prison, she wanted to know who the real murderer was. I gave them the background information, what Kinsey already knew about the case, then, playing the role of Nikki, I answered their questions. When they had finished interviewing me, they discussed whether or not they would accept the case and decided that they wanted to talk to the police officer who had originally investigated the crime. Their task for our next lesson was to prepare questions to ask Lieutenant Conan Doyle.

I began the following lesson by giving them a description of Con Doyle, a short passage from the book. Then I put my feet up on the table and pretended to be the lieutenant while they asked me questions. When Doyle leaves the room so that Kinsey can look at the file about the case, I gave them a summary of what she learns, another passage from the book. We read through it and I helped them understand the implications. After that, they decided who they wanted to see next. Once again, they had a week to prepare their questions. Most of our lessons follow the same pattern. A short passage to read which is usually a description of the person they are interviewing, the interview, then discussion about what they have learned, the possible implications, and deciding of who they want to see next. I have asked them to keep notes about the different characters, which we add to as they learn more about them. In this way our lessons involve listening, speaking, reading and writing in a very natural way.

Basing the investigation on an actual novel rather than a plot of  my own makes it more intricate and realistic, furnishing me with authentic passages for reading. Occasionally there is an “action scene” which I give them to read, knowing it will be compelling input. I was able to end one class when Kinsey was on the phone with Sharon Napier and their conversation was interrupted by what sounded like a gunshot. The following week I began the lesson by handing them the description of Kinsey finding Sharon’s body.

Sometimes they want to interview someone that Kinsey didn’t see, or in a different order. If I can’t give a good reason for not seeing that person at that time, I simply tell them that Kinsey decided differently. My students know each other well and have a lot of fun guessing at the murderer and their possible motives. I find it relaxing to have my lesson plans made by a very talented author who knows how to build suspense. The students are enjoying reading short passages with my help, yet are motivated to reread them on their own, looking for clues. Hooked by the plot line, they come to class eager to learn more about the different characters and Sue Grafton has lots of suprises in line to keep them guessing.

I’m already considering using the same technique with other groups. Any detective novel where the sleuth solves a mystery by interviewing a series of characters could be adapted in this way. Since I can edit the reading passages if necessary to eliminate difficult vocabulary, it is easy to make the input, both oral and written, comprehensible. I would be curious to try it with a class of high school age students, but there would be the danger of one of the students googling the author and giving away vital information, spoiling the element of surprise. I would probably not give them the name of either the book or the author, to prevent that happening. If, like me, you are allergic to textbooks and have little time to give to planning intricate “gap exercises”, you may find that a good whodunit can give you weeks of excellent lessons with minimum planning. I’d like to hear about other authors that you could use with this kind of lesson.

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