Soraya R. Potter
I am a Chapter I reading teacher at Jackie Robinson Middle School in New Haven. At present I teach fifth through eighth graders most of whom are working and readingon first through sixth grade reading level. My students range in age from ten to fifteen and they come from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds and home situations. Their academic ability and the level of their general knowledge also varies considerably. Some students in the same reading class can barely read, spell or write and others are in the city’s talented and gifted program. Generally their basic skill levels are below average but, many have untapped potentials well beyond that point. Unrepresentative of New Haven’s overall school population, my classes are predominantly comprised of African Americans. Many of my students are members of families with multiple problems. Some have lost siblings and or a parent in violent crimes. Some of my students are in my class for two months at the beginning of the year and two months at the end of the year, and still others are there only for a week or two before they move on. This year, I lost one of my students to the lures of the street. To the best of my knowledge, he is still alive. Few of their lives are without difficulty. At this age/grade level, very few parents and guardians are supportive of the school in particular and the education system in general. The few who are still supportive of their children want to help but are not sure of the best way to go about it. The everyday pressures of life tend to put a halt to many if not all of their best intentions.
Right now, because I tend to loop many of my more stable students—that is keep them with me if I can for the entire duration of their stay at Robinson—I am beginning to see that somewhere during the middle of their sixth grade year to the middle of their seventh grade year many of my students are losing the high goals and aspirations that they came to Robinson with in fifth grade and retained at the beginning of their sixth grade school year. That may be a result of facing the competition of more academically prepared peers, along with the pressures which all teenagers, especially those growing up in inner-city America, encounter. For many of them, the road ahead appears to be a difficult one.
This year, the New Haven Public School system has come up with the novel idea that Chapter I students should read novels. In keeping with the new key word, Multi-culturalism, they have tried to choose books about teenagers from various cultures. This in and of itself is a good start, but most inner city African American students are not interested in the rite of manhood of the Aborigine. They can barely understand their own society and all of its rules about the rites of passage. While all of the six novels chosen have their merits, many leave our children asking, “Why am I reading this?” (Admittedly, there are many students who will ask this question about any book ever written.) As a result of this new requirement, and my constant search for new and interesting books for my students to read and write about, I can see a place for detective fiction in my classroom.
When I signed up for the seminar, I was not familiar with detective novels. I did not think that I really had to read them in when I was school because there were so many fast paced, first rate detective shows on television; neither did I think that I could beneficially suggest that my students read them. I felt that I would hear my old questoion, “Why should I read the book when I can rent the movie or watch the BBC’s production on PBS?” I had a good handle on the action and what was meant by the term detective fiction, but as for actually having read one, well that was another story. From the onset, I knew that I would have to do a lot of reading, and boy did I read. For the first time in a long time I felt what my students feel when I ask them to read something longer than what they encounter in a basal reader, a fifteen page story where more than half of the pages are pictures. Previously, I could not get into the story line nor could I find any merit in reading some of the earlier works. “They were not relevant to my time, or to my life.” I have never been to England and the London described in many of these novels no longer exists, but it’s a capricious genre, and I soon found comfortable settings, as every reader does. I found that I quite preferred reading some of the novels to watching detectives on television. I’ve even found that there are a few detectives that I actually enjoyed.
I also had to contend with the art or craft of detective stories; the act of deductive reasoning. When I hear the term “deductive reasoning” I cringe because the amount of chaos that incorrect or faulty reasoning can cause is phenomenal with Chapter I students. I also think about all of the detectives that I have seen on television ,from Mannix to Cannon, and all of the detectives in the movies. As was the case with many of my students, reading for me, as a youth, was something other people did or something that I did because I had to pass a test. Reading for pleasure was as foreign as a Martian in a burnt pumpkin bell bottomed leisure suit. Today, things have changed. Now I also think about the most famous detective, a dashingly slender six foot tall fellow standing under a lamp on a foggy London street. He is wearing his trademark long brown trench coat, the kind that we speak of today as’ London Fog,’. He is smoking a wide mouthed pipe and its smoke curls enticingly up around his almost concealed face. He is wearing a deerstalker’s cap, which upon closer inspection we notice has two neatly pinned back ear flaps—like a flyers cap. His name is Sherlock Holmes, one of the two most famous residents of 21 Baker Street. Just slightly behind him and in the dimness of the street lamp is his companion, the second famous resident. He is a portly man, who wears an air of intelligence as well as he wears his professional man’s black suit, white shirt, black shoes, hat and bow tie. His image is a bit more obscure, just as his role is in the stories he tells about their lives and their studies and discussions of crime. He stands in Holmes’s shadow, in this case only because he is not standing directly in the light of the lamp. His name is Dr. Watson. Although Sherlock Holmes is by far the most popular and memorable of the fictitious detectives, he was not the first detective to have his exploits written down. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle merely took the grains of sand created by earlier authors, which was melted into glass by Edgar Allan Poe and his contemporary, real life detective Eugene Francois Vidoq , and tempered and formed it into the magnifier of society that it is today.
One of the first works of detection dates back to the fifth century BC.,
by Herodotus. The detective in the story “The Clue of the Headless Corpse” is the king. He also happens to be the victim. With bloodhound persistence, he sets out to capture the culprit and manages to successfully do so by arranging a marriage between him and his daughter the Princess after several unsuccessful bids at tricking him into capture. From what I could gather, the detectives in Herodotus’ day were ordinary people who felt the need to avenge any wrong done to them in a fair manner. They used the evidence presented to them to make inferences and then in turn used these inferences to solve or attempt to solve the crimes perpetrated against them. The stories were written as simple observations of events in history with no attempts on the behalf of the author to embellish the events.
In later classical literature, detectives were called “sharpers” as in the story from
The Arabian Nights
as translated by Sir Richard Burton entitled “The Three Sharpers”. These were people who lived on the fringes of society. They did not work, in any traditionally acceptable sense, for a living. They were content to live by their wits. To my understanding they were like the tricksters of folktales. They competed with each other, much in the manner of African Tribal Folktale Competitions, to solve the riddle or mystery placed before them by the king or sultan. They were, at the time of the first appearance of
The Arabian Nights
, the popular folk heroes of the day. With their cunning, they never ceased to confound their contemporaries with knowledge of situations which were beyond immediate observation. (Cassiday, p. 3)
By the eighteenth century and the appearance of Voltaire’s Zadig c.1747 (see specifically the chapter entitled “The Dog and the Horse”), E.T.A. Hoffmann’s
Mademoiselle de Scudery
c.1821, and—one of my favorite authors,—Alexandre Dumas’s
The Man in the Iron Mask
c.1850 (see specifically the chapter entitled “Duel in the Bois-Rochin”)—even though it was written after the appearance of Edgar Allan Poe’s
The Purloined Letter
(c. 1841)—, deduction was being used to achieve an entirely different effect. The focus of the literary world had shifted from the Near East to France, where deduction, reason and intellectualism were increasing rapidly. In skilled literary hands, story materials dealing with deduction had become more subtle and imaginative. While actual scenes of detection appeared , they occurred only as specific incidents rather than as the central core of the story line. (Cassiday, p 4.)
The form that we call detective fiction today was refined in part by Eugene Francois Vidoq and Edgar Allan Poe. Vidoq, a successful thief turned legitimate in his old age, is credited with forming the now famous Paris Surete. France’s Paris Surete was the first detective agency established under the heading of the police force. Vidoq is credited with the creation of book length criminal studies intended for professional perusal. Edgar Allan Poe , the second author credited with the refining of the modern detective fiction genre, ironically was the American poet who was forced to write prose to feed himself. Poe is credited with the invention of the detective short story which has remained virtually unchanged. In Poe’s formula, ratiocination, Latin for “the act of reasoning” was the term which is today replaced by deductive thinking. In Poe’s formula we find the essential ingredient without which the Golden Age of Detective Fiction could not exist: The Amateur Sleuth. In all of Poe’s Tales of Ratiocination, Dupin, the master, discusses all of his cases or noteworthy news items with his sidekick , the unidentified “I” who, for lack of anyone else to speak of, we will call Poe. Dupin is able to baffle the reader with his cunning ability to solve the case when it seems that every avenue has been exhausted. Contrary, however , to popular modern detective fiction, the amateur, in this case Poe, possesses above average intelligence. He is equally as learned as Dupin himself. Dupin seems to take pride in outwitting or solving the case presented by the Monsieur G——the Prefect of the Parisian police. I do not think that Poe held the Parisian police in high regard and since, to the best of my knowledge, he had never traveled any farther than from Massachusetts to Maryland, the United States police force was probably the cause of this. (Poe had been known to have quite a few run ins with the American legal system, having spent quite a few nights in jail for gambling debts and disorderly conduct.) This lack of respect for the legal system is especially evident in the fact that Dupin usually deduces the answer to the puzzling question or deed leading us to believe that the Prefect never can. This feeling is clearly evident at the end of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” when Dupin says, “let him discourse; it will ease his conscience. I am satisfied with having defeated him in his own castle. Nevertheless, that he failed in the solution of this mystery, is by no means that matter for wonder which he supposes it: for, in truth, our friend the Prefect is somewhat too cunning to be profound. In his wisdom, he is no stamen. It is all head and no body , like the pictures of the goddess Laverna,—or at best, all head and no shoulders like a codfish.”(Poe, 284) By 1843, the London police had emulated Paris Surete and had created a “detective division” thereby coining the phrase ‘detective’ to designate certain special police and setting the stage for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to bring the deductive novel to its modern maturity. (Cassiday, pp. 4&5)
The art and skill of deduction or making good inferences is in the gelling or syllogizing that takes place in the detective’s mind as he makes the connection. (Of course the reader is not privy to some important general information that the detective keeps stored in his brain.) We are only able to see what he sees through the eyes of the amateur detective who dutifully records the steps that our hero takes. The deduction or inference is a combination of a few ingredients. What I shall call the wet ingredients are those details that the reader can see as a result of the dutiful recording of events. The dry ingredients are those details that the detective has stored in the brain; information that (s)he has studied while in college. Sherlock Holmes, for example, had many interests, among which were physics, etymology , police science, medicine and history. ‘Dry ingredients’ can also come from something the detective has read in a newspaper or has heard through the ever popular grapevine. The grapevine is not necessarily a reliable source, but investigating the truth behind some gossip that she ‘really didn’t mean to overhear’ usually gets Nancy Drew a little closer to solving the case. When the detective mixes the ‘dry ingredients’ with the ‘wet ingredients’ the resulting “batter” is the conclusion, or what we call ‘the educated guess’. Before going any further, there are five words or phrases which bear defining so that all things can be “Elementary, my dear fellow teacher, elementary.”
Detection: the long trail of discoveries and deductions that finally results in the exposure or the ‘detection’ of the person responsible for the crime.
Deduction: part of the act of detection, usually the determination of an elusive or unknown information that becomes a link in the chain leading to detection. Deduction involves the discovery of the true character of an unseen or unknown condition by the process of reasoning from evidence or fact.
Evidence: data by which the investigator, or detective bridges the unknown and surmises hidden truths. This can be done through written communication or physical objects like footprints or the smoking gun. This is what I would call a wet ingredient.
Clue: the critical or observable sign or evidence. It is the key piece of evidence that leads the investigator through intricate obstacles toward the solution of the problem. This is yet another example of a wet ingredient.
Red Herring: evidence which has been tampered with either by the author or the criminal to throw the reader or the investigator off the trail. The dry ingredients are made to look wet. (In keeping with the previous analogy, this is what happens when there are more dry ingredients than there are wet ingredients; you end up baking bar cookies, not cake.)
True detective genius excels in the area of the dry ingredients; although the dry ingredients are the most dangerous because they are “presuppositions”. This is the information that the detective has stored inside his or her head from history or reported fact. The best detectives seem to have at their grasp a limitless supply of current events, knowledge of human nature and the scientific principles of animate and inanimate objects. Junior detective “Cam” Jensen has her photographic memory which allows her to ‘take pictures of a scene ‘and store it for future use; and “Encyclopedia “Brown has his encyclopedia-like memory which stores all of the details that he has read or heard about. The application of deductive logic to a problem fascinates the observer because the second step in the chain is never known to the reader. The seemingly brilliant leap over the second step (the addition of prior knowledge)and instant producing of the final and correct solution (the fully frosted culprit on a silver platter) is what makes avid readers love detective novels. They are fascinated by detectives and their apparent omniscience.
One of the reasons that detective stories have maintained their popularity over the years is the element of reader involvement. Trying to guess who is responsible for the crime, together with enjoying the solid action, keeps the reader interested and makes him or her want to find out what happens next. This cerebral challenge and the constant presence of action are two of the primary reasons for introducing the detective novel to low level readers. It also doesn’t hurt that most detective novels are serialized. This allows the reluctant reader to find more of the same kind of book with familiar characters which are on their reading and skill level. While your students are reading books that they like, you get the benefit of knowing that they are receiving an accurate historical perspective of the time in which the book is set or written as well as reinforcing values which are severely lacking in other sorts of fiction our students encounter.
Without even realizing it, our students will be able to walk away from any well written detective novel with three basic truths: First, the good guy always wins; author P.D. James says, “ The crime novel is a moral form. Murder is uniquely wrong. It is probably the most moral kind of fiction that we have in that respect”. (Flack, p.xvi). Second, brains always outwits brawn. Occasionally the detective may resort to using his fists or the gun to bring the perpetrator to justice or to protect the innocent, but in the end it is the use of reason which ultimately leads to the triumph of good over evil. And third, but most importantly, human life is regarded with the highest respect, and in so treating it, the detective writer is forced to seek other methods to incorporate action into the novel than the blow-up-your-enemy, quantum body count of Hollywood. Occasionally modern detective fiction does produce a number of casualties as in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Detectives are supposed to right huge wrongs without blowing up half the state or continent in the process. Preferably they are to do this with out sacrifice of even one human life. The brain, not the automatic assault weapon is the ultimate tool which is used for the good of humanity and the preservation of a society of law and order.(Flack, p.xviii)
While researching this unit, I thought about several of my students who are not specifically talented in their command of written English language, but whose talents may rest in spoken language or in their ability to illustrate a story so clearly that one could read it without the use of words. Often in my lessons I lose these students because the goal is not geared to their specific skill. I have been seeking a plan or method of teaching and evaluating these students so that they too may experience some measure of success in my class. I needed more than the three approaches to how children learn that I was taught. I learned that all people fall into three categories of learning. They are either audio learners, visual learners, or kinesthetic learners. In other words they either learn best by constantly hearing something,( whether taped or in a lecture) by seeing something (whether it is an experiment or a movie) or kinesthetically, (by touching or coming into physical contact with what they are learning). In searching for the answer, I came across a 1994 publication by the Center for Applied Research in Education(C.A.R.E.) entitled
Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom
. This author states that each person possesses all of the seven types of intelligence which they can develop to an adequate level of competency. Each of the seven intelligences work together in complex ways, and there are many ways to be intelligent in each of the categories.
The seven intelligences are as follows:
: the working command of the skills of written and spoken language.(These are the writers and speakers in the classroom)
Logical Mathematical Intelligence
: the command of scientific and mathematical skill. ( These are the serious Math Bee and Science Fair competitors)
: the command of space and the ability to put ideas down in non traditional forms like drawing. (These are the class artists and calligraphers)
Bodily Kinesthetic Intelligence
: the command of body movement and placement to express emotion or meaning. (This is the child who ‘talks’ with their hands well, whose body and facial movements express their thoughts before their minds can put them into words. They are the ones who look sometimes like they know the answer and when they are called on they sometimes choke.)
: the command of rhythm. ( The child who can pound out popular music on his desk chair, knee and chest.)
: the ability to see ones role as a valued member of a society and to work toward setting and achieving goals.( The student who realizes why they have to be in school now and works hard to rise up out of the situation that they find themselves in.)
: the ability to reason out a problem and apply that same reasoning to themselves (The child who can read a story and tell the class how and why the lesson learned applies to their life.)
Each of the seven intelligences can at anytime be activated or deactivated. Activation and deactivation usually occurs during early childhood when the child is learning by watching their parents actions. Crystallizing and paralyzing experiences are the two keys to the development of the intelligences. Crystallizing experiences are usually “turning points” that wake up sleeping intelligences. Paralyzing experiences are those that “shut down” intelligences. Familial factors, access to resources and mentors, historical and cultural factors as well as geographic and situational factors are some of the environmental influences which can promote or retard the development of the intelligences.
Armstrong, following the suggestions of Gardener (
The Unschooled Mind
, 1991), suggests using the “Christopherian Encounters” approach to expanding the thinking processes of the students. Just as Christopher Columbus challenged the notion that the Earth was flat by sailing safely “over the edge” and returning, thereby showing its curved shape, so too educators must challenge their students’ limited beliefs by taking them “over the edge” into areas where they must confront the contradictions in their own thinking.
Using what we know the seven intelligences to be and mean, I am asking teachers to:
1.) Move the students beyond the literal summary of the work.
2.) Devise experiments around which a work of detective fiction is or can be based.
3.) Have students draw a desk that could have been used by a character in a specific work.
4.) Explore the arts and create ways with and without words to express a character’s feeling or mood.
5.) Assist students in undoing modern stereotypes of music in bringing a piece of detective fiction to life.
6.) Help students to go beyond the simple motivations in studying the character’s place in a piece of literature or history.
7.) Deepen the students’ understanding of themselves by relating different parts of the piece of detective fiction to their own personal life experiences and backgrounds.
As most teachers were trained to teach using Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, many will either be wary of accepting a new concept or wonder how this theory of multiple intelligence will work with what they already know. Bloom’s Taxonomy states that there are six levels of learning that take place in a students’ mind. These six levels are defined as follows:
Knowledge: rote memory skills (facts, terms, procedures and classification systems)
Comprehension: the ability to translate, paraphrase, interpret or extrapolate.
Application: the ability to transfer knowledge from one setting to another.
Analysis: discovering and differentiating the component parts from the whole.
Synthesis: weaving the component parts into a larger whole.
Evaluation: judging the value or utility of information using a set standard.
If we consider each learner’s abilities, start each student off working in their area of specialization and move them through the levels of Bloom, then our students will have mastered that particular skill in his or her own way of learning. For example, a person who possesses spatial intelligence may acquire the concept of local environment in the following way:
: remember the basic configurations of specific trees. Comprehension: look at diagrams of trees and tell what stage of growth they are in.
: use geometric principles to determine the height of the tree.
: draw the cellular structure of a tree root.
: create a landscaping plan using trees as a central feature.
: evaluate the practicality of landscaping plans.
The goal of this unit is to create a learning environment in which my students feel that they have access to physical or human resources, and that their home environment or culture is an integral part of the learning process, and not a hindrance. The unit should be taught in such a way that it challenges the students naive beliefs, provokes the questioning and thinking process, invites multiple perspectives, and ultimately stretches the student’s mind to the point where it can apply existing knowledge to new situations and novel contexts. In our classrooms and in our daily lives, good problem solvers and detectives are bloodhounds for facts and clues. They are systematic and leave no avenue uncharted no matter how remotely related. They bring past experience and learning to bear in sorting, saving and organizing data pertinent to the investigation. A hypothesis or prediction follows which is either confirmed or disproved. A resolution is the final stage where loose ends are tidied up and the acclaim and the rewards are enjoyed or disappointing results are acknowledged. The problem solver or detective proceeds to new avenues of research or new cases.
The writing of this unit coincides with the writing of the Library Power Grant applications. In keeping all of the information that I have recently learned in mind, I am going to attempt to create a unit that both keeps the school vision in mind as well as establishes a role specifically for the Library Media Specialist. At Jackie Robinson we have an especially helpful Media Specialist. With respect to my unit she will be an integral and indispensable member of this curriculum unit. I am in the process of using her expertise to create a collection of high impact and low reading ability level novels for students of various ages and abilities. She will be utilized as a resource person who will be able to direct students, by computer e-mail, to human resource persons such as pathologists, criminologists and local mystery authors. Together we will make our Library Media Center a Scotland Yard upon which our young sleuths can converge. She will be a significant mentor in teaching students how to search for information, analyze evidence, check and verify sources and use media tools to create an unbeatable case.