Monday, July 16, 2012


This spring I became obsessed with the BCC’s Masterpiece Classic series about the famous literary detective, Sherlock. Within a week I had watched the series twice over. I then devoured all 2,000 pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. I talked about Sherlock, I dreamed about Sherlock. Yet I wanted more. And then I hit upon it: I would teach Sherlock.

With a week-and-a-half left in the school year and the June heat transforming classrooms into saunas, forging on with lessons about decimal conversions and sentence structure seemed not only pointless, but deleterious.

Instead, my fellow teachers and I turned our attention to teaching lessons whose content went beyond the standardized statewide MCAS test. Some conducted classes on the art of henna, the legends of Big Foot and American’s obsession with space aliens. Others crafted lessons on constructing catapults and sewing stuffed animals.

I taught Sherlock.

We opened the day with a little history about secret messages – a brief discussion of the American Code-Talkers and the German Enigma – before diving into the art and intricacies of codes.  Symbol codes, cypher wheels, code creation and code cracking strategies. My boys created codes with money signs and elaborate squiggles standing in for letters.  One girl created a code devised of twenty-six smiley face derivatives. Next, we launched into a four-way student riddle and logic-puzzle race.

I even managed to show a small excerpt from the BBC show, of Sherlock using his powers of deduction.

It’s an ancient maxim, but still valid: teach what you love.

Yes, our students are just middle schoolers. There are so many facts and concepts that they must absorb: times-tables, construction of grammatical sentences, how to compose a thesis-driven argument.  While I am not a fan of standardized tests, I grudgingly concede that they can help ensure that a student has acquired foundational knowledge and skills on which they can build.

Yet, I hope there continue to remain moments, even within a public school curriculum focused on end-of-year tests, when teachers can share their passions with their students.

Allowing us teachers that flexibility and freedom is not simply about letting us indulge our obsessions.

If I have ever been inspiring in the classroom (and I hope I have), it has most often been when I have drawn on my passions  -- delving into the art of Shakespearean insults and the character development of Macbeth, and sharing with my students the intricacies of the Thai political system.

I see the energy in my own teaching. I bounce on the balls of my feet, I stride up and down the rows of desks and, when a student makes a connection or an intellectual leap, I am known to exclaim with loud and enthusiastic validation. 

“So if the Prince is not respected then…then the monarchy will have less power…then, maybe there wont be a monarchy”


“Ms. Lander, when Macbeth says ‘out out brief candle,’ is that like the earlier scene where Lady Macbeth goes crazy and says ‘out, out damn spot?’”


“Because of the code-letters we already know, that other symbol there must be an N and that one must be a D!”


At such moments I often take my students by surprise. I see it in their manner. They sit up a little straighter, they look hesitantly at their peers: Is Ms. Lander really bouncing up and down because of the answer I just gave?  They are also intrigued: passion and excitement is infectious.

I think back and wonder how much of my love of Asia comes from my own 6th grade teacher sharing her passion for China.  I know that my drive to write creative non-fiction can be credited to a high-school English teacher who sent us to the cafeteria with notebooks, pencils and instructions to sit, listen and record.

I will continue to teach decimal-to-fraction conversions, basic geography lessons and the elements of writing a story.  I will continue to correct my students’ spelling and press them to give full synopses in their reading responses.  These are all essential building blocks they will need for the future.

But, in between such lessons, I will continue to slip in Shakespearean sonnets, and perhaps a code or two. Who knows: One of my 6th graders might just grow up to serve in the FBI or the CIA. And, if not, I will at least have succeeded in cultivating a few more fans for Sherlock

1 comment:

  1. Hi! Jess, this story is inspiring and awesome. Your kids are really lucky to have you in the classroom! Good luck and have fun (rather, keep having fun)! ^_^
    Love, Sandy Wood (CA '08)