My favorite genre to both read and teach is mystery. Everything from the history of the genre to attempting to solve the mystery before the end of the book are elements I look forward to both as a reader and a teacher. The book I use in my class to teach the mystery genre is Ellen Raskin's "The Westing Game". This book is a great example in teaching characterization, among other fictional elements, and lends itself to discussion groups and writing instruction. The following are activity ideas I utilize during the unit study.
The first activity I use to introduce the unit is a brief study on the history of mystery writing. I discovered an article on Thinkquest "The History of Mystery". I have students read the article, and then discuss the basic story elements of mysteries. In order to allow students to practice identifying these elements, each student is assigned a Netbook, and with a partner, we visit the website Mysterynet. Students can read online mysteries, identify the story elements, and click to solve the mystery or find the solution. These short examples allow students to better understand the genre. I conclude this lesson with a mystery writing assignment. Students are given a graphic organizer and rubric to guide them through creating and drafting a short mystery. Students share the final copy with the rest of the class. As students get toward the end of the novel, I assign a writing project titled "On Trial". We discuss persuasive writing in the context of courtroom closing arguments. As an outside example I use the court scene from the movie "Miracle on 34th Street". Students choose who they think the guilty party is from the novel, and write a closing argument incorporating persuasive writing techniques discussed in class. The final copy is presented to the rest of the class, and after everyone has presented, the class votes on the most persuasive closing argument.
Once students have written and read examples of mysteries, we begin the novel "The Westing Game". Some of the lesson activities in my mystery unit include: discussion questions, literature circle cards, student-created questions and quizzes, and character and clue charts. After students read an assigned group of chapters, they are given a set of discussion questions to answer with a partner or small group. As students answer questions, we discuss the structure of each question. The purpose of this activity is to guide students in structuring their own critical thinking questions, which can help them evaluate their thinking about the literature and their reading skills. Once students begin creating their own questions, I incorporate them into literature discussions and quizzes. This has been a beneficial activity that I use throughout the year during other unit studies as well. In my teaching experiences, students have thrived when given a sense of ownership in their learning. This activity is one way in which I construct that learning environment.
In addition to the discussion questions, students keep character and clue charts as they read the novel. "The Westing Game" is a great example of characterization. Information and clues that are given about each character are an important part of solving the mystery, and helps students learn how to analyze characters. As the students discover information about the characters, they record it on a chart. At the conclusion of the book they present their chart to their literature circle group in order to discuss their thinking throughout the book. It is interesting to hear students compare their thinking and which character(s) they assumed were guilty of the alleged murder. Another group activity students participate in during this novel unit is the literature circle cards. Students are divided into five groups. Each group receives one card. Each card has an activity to complete. The activities include: analyzing a character, drawing a map of the setting, illustrating the problem/solution, identifying and explaining the climax, and discussing the theme of the novel. Students are given ten minutes to complete each card, and then the cards are rotated until each group has completed all five activities. These are only a few activities that can be incorporated into this particular novel study. There are numerous online resources that include a variety of activities and study resources as well.
"The Westing Game" Activities:
Literary Letters: After reading a short story or novel, students analyze the characters by writing a letter as a character in the story to another character. This lesson provides a pre-writing handout to help students organize ideas and direct their thinking.
Newbery Award Reading Project: Students read a Newbery Award winning book and complete individual book projects chosen from a list of activities. Activities include each learning modality. An outline of expectations for the activities are included.
The Westing Game-Vocabulary Time: Students master 29 vocabulary words from the novel "The Westing Game". A variety of activities designed for students at all learning levels include crossword puzzles, word searches, and a vocabulary bee. Opportunities for practice include both individual and whole class instruction.
"The Westing Game" - Who Am I? : After students have finished reading chapters nine or ten, basic characterization can be reviewed. Students are provided with a worksheet to identify each character, and help in defining their roles in the novel. Through matching descriptions to characters, students are required to provide evidence to support their thinking.