About Daisy Filler

Mrs. Filler, or Savage Fill to her students, has been teaching high school English for a decade. In addition to the standard core English class, she has taught inclusion, honors, accelerated honors, and AP Language and Composition. Sometimes, she teaches creative writing and reading intervention. Her love of teaching comes second to her love of family.

sherlockIf you teach middle or high school English but struggle with getting students excited about literature, you should try a mystery novel study, especially if you enjoy mysteries or puzzles yourself. Your students do not have to share this joy in order to get involved in a good mystery novel. Chances are that once this unit is completed, you will have some mystery fans on your hands.

Rationale

One benefit of a mystery novel study is that it covers certain Common Core standards, as well as most state standards. Literature standards that require students to cite textual evidence to support their conclusions or analyses can be covered within the mystery unit. Simply require students to explain which clues or which events from the novel led to their conclusions. Additionally, mystery novels are meant to encourage interaction; students can either work with others or work independently to solve the crime before reaching the story’s end. Writing assignments based on the mystery novel units can also support writing and research strands.

Most importantly, this unit might inspire students who did not enjoy reading to begin finding enjoyment in it. I saw this firsthand when a student with a lower reading level began reading ahead in her mystery book, eager to find out the solution to the crime. Her mother tells me that she asks for mystery books like the one she read. Unlike classical literature that most teachers favor (myself included) but most students resist, modern and certain not-so-modern novels engage readers in figuring out the truth. This is not to say that you never teach classical literature; rather, you do not rely solely on the classics.

Two Options for Teaching the Unit

Option 1: Teaching One Book to the Whole Class

The entire class can read the same novel and work together to solve the mystery. Students can still  break into pairs or small groups to discuss their own hypotheses and form a timeline of events; then they can compare and contrast their findings with the other groups. Different groups can also complete jigsaw activities. For example, one day the class can create suspect profiles – each group works on a different suspect. Also, the entire class can add to an “incident board” like you see detectives create in crime shows.

There are a few supplemental writing activities that can be added to this unit, as well. Before students reach the end of the novel, require them to compose argument papers to convince an audience, like a grand jury or a head detective, why one suspect is definitely guilty. (You could even choose certain students to act as a grand jury and role-play.)  The more credible evidence the student cites, the better his or her paper. Students could also explore creative writing and compose their own mysteries or rewrite the original story from the point of view of another character. Finally, students could also complete a research project by researching a real-life mystery and formulate their own theories. Again, the more “credible” evidence the student cites from his or her research, the better the paper. When I tried the mystery research, I found it to be a success with my students. I did not limit the mysteries students could investigate; I even allowed students to explore supernatural mysteries.

Completing all the supplemental writing activities may not be feasible given your time constraints.

Option 2: Mystery Novel Literature Circles

A class can be divided into smaller literature circles based on a combination of their reading levels and the mystery book each student prefers to read. As students read, you can require them to complete traditional literature circle roles (e.g. discussion director, investigator, summarizer, vocabulary enricher, etc.), or you can require them to complete more “mystery-appropriate” activities in their small groups, such as creating a timeline of their novel, profiling their suspects, and revising their theories with each new meeting. Alternately, you can have your students do a combination of traditional literature circle roles and mystery-specific activities.

Your supplemental activities can be the same as the ones provided in the first option of mystery unit study.

Both options are very similar; the only difference is that one requires you have to a class set of one novel that all students read, while the other requires you to have anywhere from four to seven different mystery novels of varying grade levels. You would need about five of each. I was able to ask my librarian to use the library funds to order books.

Possible Resources
I searched several sites online to get the resources I need to the mystery novel unit. This included sites that had copies of the literature circle roles, sites that had teaching guides for the novels, and sites that included other teachers’ mystery units. I encourage you to do the same.

The books I have chosen (or want to choose) for my classes, whether it be for a whole unit study or a literature circle, include the following:

  • Agatha Christie novels, especially And Then There Were None
  • Lord Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’s novels, especially The Hound of the Baskervilles
  • Carol Plum-Ucci books, including The Night My Sister Went Missing and The Body of Christopher Reed (There is a sequel to this, Following Christopher Reed, that I haven’t had a chance to read but would like to.)
  • Mel Glenn’s Who Killed Mr. Chippendale: A Mystery in Poems

Please note that this list is not exhaustive. As with teaching any novel, you should also read these novels or look up their summaries online so you know for sure whether or not they are appropriate for your classroom. Some of the books, especially Plum-Ucci’s and Glenn’s, contain adult material that would require you to send a parent letter home prior to reading them.

Finally, keep in mind that with any unit planning, you can adapt and modify until you create something that works better for you. I look forward to reading your ideas in the comments below.

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