This unit has three purposes. The first is to establish that detective fiction proves a legitimate subject matter for the seventh grade. The second is to propose cross curriculum teaching as an effective method of instruction for this subject. The third is to give examples of cross curriculum lessons as applied to the Agatha Christie short story “Miss Marple Tells A Story,” and to suggest that it is possible to apply similar techniques to a variety of narratives.
Detective fiction is an effective and relevant unit to teach in the middle school. (1) The study of this genre teaches students that things are not always as they appear to be. Because the genre requires that all of the evidence be presented to the reader for inspection in an untampered form, the student will learn to eliminate false leads and irrelevant material in the quest for clues as they distinguish what happened from what seems to have happened. Not accepting appearances in the pursuit of truth is a skill which is invaluable to the students of today, whose complicated lives revolve around a multiplicity of interrelated elements. With these skills, the students can avoid many of the pitfalls that await them in the world outside the classroom door.
The detective novel, in spite of its violence (off stage for the most part), is a constructive form of literature for students of this age because it demonstrates justice served. The students will come to understand also that there are many kinds of justice and they will have to come to grips with the fact that in the detective novel, as in life, the justice served may not derive from the same value system as that of the reader. They will see that the detective in most cases, while not perfect in his or her personal or social habits, is omnipotent and all-judging, and that the criminal in many instances undergoes a punishment that is not meted out by the law. In any event, the punishment is always fitting.
The detective, in spite of whatever faults he or she possesses, is intelligent. In the end it is intelligence that wins over evil. The genre reinforces again and again the fact that intelligence is stronger than violence. Therefore, detective fiction sets a good example for the student who may be leaning toward the tendency of many young people today to “dumb down.”
Another aspect of detective fiction that makes it relevant to the modern student is its concern with social change. Social tension has been evident since the beginning of the genre. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin, the first fictional detective, must retrieve a letter which is a symbol of stolen power. Social tension is still evident today, as in Sara Paretsky’s “Burn Marks,” in which V. I. Warshawski deals with the issue of the role of women in society. Students deal with social change every day in matters that range from racial issues to values that are different from those of their parents. The study of detective fiction will show them that violence is not the answer to these problems. There is a sense of security in the detective novel because in the end it avenges the misdeed and overcomes evil, while restoring the status quo, which has become ever so slightly more future-oriented and flexible than it was before the crime.
Additionally, fast-paced detective fiction is a good stimulus for the reluctant reader; it is usually concise and therefore suited to the student with a short attention span. Furthermore, most aficionados have a tendency to become hooked on a favorite detective in serialized novels, and students may take the bait as well. Often the author mentions other cases in the series, which further stimulates the desire to read additional adventures of the detective. Many people might argue that detective fiction is not great literature, but its typically undemanding style is the very thing which will make the reluctant reader less disinclined to pick up a book. The plot will stimulate them to read on an independent level without becoming bogged down with comprehension and decoding problems. This gives the student a chance to develop important critical and analytical skills.
By reading detective fiction the students will learn the art of analytical thinking. They will see that analysis and intuition work together and that analysis is at the bottom of intuition. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple may claim to use sympathetic identification (that is, she associates the actions of the criminal with those of someone she has known in her home town of Saint Mary Mead) but in the end she clearly really uses the analytic techniques of the scientific method. Eventually the students will come to see that inference alone is unreliable. Because the detectives in these works use both the left brain and the right brain to solve crimes with a blend of intuition and scientific analysis, the teacher should be able to challenge the students to become cross curriculum thinkers. They will realize that when we learn we base what we discover on what we already know. Therefore, it is appropriate that we teach detective fiction as a cross curriculum unit that incorporates both the arts and sciences.
As stated, the student’s daily life is a complex interweaving of skills. Consider a simple task such as buying a gallon of milk. We first locate the milk aisle in the store (in itself often an exercise in detection). We use reading skills as we analyze the nutrition facts on the label. Do we want whole milk, two percent, one percent, or skim? Already, home economic and science skills come into play. You consider that your friend of a different religion is coming over for lunch. You recall learning in social studies that they might have a certain dairy restriction. The checkout person gives you the wrong change. It is a good thing you paid attention in math. Every task we undertake involves a combination of skills. Why should we teach English, math, science, and the arts in isolation when the students will use those skills simultaneously? Cross curriculum teaching is an effective way to adapt the literal, interpretive, and critical thinking skills developed during the study of detective fiction to the other content areas.
“Cross curriculum teaching” for our purpose is a term that is interchangeable with “integrated units.” For too long the middle school teacher in most cases has taught his or her content area totally oblivious to what the other teachers in the building are doing. At best this leads to redundant teaching of skills, at worst it fosters the isolated teaching of soon-forgotten skills because the student cannot relate or apply the newly acquired knowledge to anything but the classroom assignment.
How many times have the students complained that all of their tests fall on the same day or all of their projects are due at once? Often times the only defense the teacher can offer is that the English teacher did not know what the social studies and math teacher had assigned. Further, how often do students ask, “What are we doing this for?” or “Why do we have to learn this?” Often the only answer is, “Because it is in the curriculum guide.”
What might surprise many teachers is that the curriculum guides of several different subjects might exact the same skills. How much better it would be for those skills to be coordinated and taught at the same time of year. Better still, if one ties together the lessons from each content area, those skills will have a better chance to stay with the student because he or she will have more than one reference point when recalling a particular skill. Students retain 10% of what they read. On the other hand they retain 90% of what they learn when they do something. It is one thing to read a detective story with the class and talk about the skills the detective used. It is quite another thing to have the student actually use those skills. The aim, then, should be to make reading as much like doing something as possible.
Agatha Christie’s short story, “Miss Marple Tells A Story,” is the basis for this unit. It will last two weeks and will include every seventh grade teacher in my school as well as the librarian. The intention of this project is to give an example of a cross curriculum unit. The same teaching methods can apply to any short story or novel of detective fiction.
This unit will develop in the student the ability to question, find information that relates to that question, and then know how to use that information intelligently. In this unit the detective story is a springboard to teach a variety of subjects. The result will be a total immersion of the student in the unit. As students read Agatha Christie’s “Miss Marple Tells A Story,” their challenge is to develop a trial for Miss Carruthers, the accused murderess. The students will read and discuss the story in the reading class. When the student moves on to another class the skills in that content area focus on acquiring information needed to prepare for the “trial.” In math, for example, the detective theme continues and the student applies the problem solving techniques of the detective. Throughout the day, as the student moves from one class to another, the detective story theme continues as the students prepare for the “trial.” By seeing the integration of all of the curriculum areas applied to one task, the student will come to realize that their studies eventually will have a useful purpose when applied to their own lives.
There are three distinct roles that make a cross curriculum unit in detective fiction (or any other subject for that matter) successful. Those roles are that of the team, the individual teacher, and the student. Each constituent must understand their role and be willing to work toward its fulfillment.
The role of the team is critical, because this unit will not be successful without a great deal of preparation. It will require mutual planning time for the teachers, librarian, staff developer, and administrators to set goals and objectives, map out the unit, plan lessons and activities, and evaluate student growth and application. This will necessitate on the part of the administrators a willingness to accommodate the grade level teachers with common planning time. Admittedly it is a scheduling nightmare to provide necessary coverage for those in meetings. However, with the creative use of staff, it is not impossible.
Because the unit takes a great deal of time to coordinate the effort, a planning team comprised of people who work well together is essential. They must be willing to make a commitment to the unit, and be willing to take time to discuss the students and issues before they plan. They must also be willing to put in extra time after school for planning meetings. It is beneficial to team morale and creativity to hold at least some of these planning sessions away from the school building. The relaxed atmosphere of a local restaurant usually proves propitious.
The teachers involved in the unit must be willing to take risks. One of the biggest problems that will confront the team is that some members may have to make philosophical changes. At first it may seem for some that the classroom is not as structured as the teacher may normally expect. Most likely there will be times during the preparation of the trial when some students will be at computers looking for information about England and English customs. Some may be writing “biographies” for the characters in the story on the word processors. Others may be working in the library preparing a “case.” Still others may be in the art room making scenery or props. In the end, when it all comes together the teacher will be pleasantly surprised as to how structured the unit actually is, and how much the students benefited.
The team will have to decide what skills they wish to develop. Then they will have to become familiar with, and compile a list of, the resources that are available for the students to use. These resources will include CD ROM, The Internet, books, magazines, the encyclopedia, and personal interviews of persons with first hand knowledge of law enforcement, court procedure, or English customs.
On the part of the grade level teachers, this unit on detective fiction requires a collaboration that demands the putting aside of ego and self interest in favor of compromise in order to develop a unit which will benefit the student. In regard to the student, at times the teacher will take on the role of facilitator, at other times task master. The teacher’s job is to suggest necessary tasks. It is then up to the teacher to see to it that the student accomplishes the task.
At first, it is best to let the student decide what resources he or she may use. As the teacher sees the student needs more information the teacher will make suggestions. At first, the students may feel that they have an overwhelming task before them. (The teacher may feel this way also.) However the students will rise to the level of expectations of the teacher. As they see each component falling in place they become more confident and eager to take on the next task.
The cross curriculum unit on detective fiction will also require some obligations on the part of the student. While all students are not self motivated, with encouragement most will respond to the sense of independence which the unit fosters. With guidance from the teacher, the students will form groups. They will have to decide if they want to be on the defense team or the prosecuting team. Next they will have to decide what role they want to take on: judge, lawyer for the prosecution, lawyer for the defense, defendant, witness, or juror. The next step is to know the character they will portray, so they must make up a biography for the character. The student must honor some details from the story, and make up other details to fill in the character’s life. The students must do independent research (with the guidance of the teacher) to fill in such background as place of birth. In preparation for the trial the students must brainstorm for possible solutions to problems they encounter.
After the students compile their research they then must polish it and prepare the case. When both sides finish preparations they will present their “case” to the court. In the end they will do a self evaluation of the unit.