curious incident

“Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.” (Christopher Boone, Chapter 19, p. 12)

At the start of this term I was a bit perplexed about how to approach Mark Haddon’s wonderful ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ with my Year 8 group. I am a big fan of the novel (and the incredible stage production) but there is much in it that is ostensibly very much “grown up”: the complexity of family life; the understanding of the memorable Christopher as an individual; the infidelity that dominates it; plus the very small matter of some rather choice language at times! How would a group of twelve year olds respond? How could I get them to appreciate the beauty of his perspective of the world and the thrilling murder mystery elements of the novel?

The past few weeks, however, has been interesting in illuminating the fact that reading doesn’t happen in some sort of age defined vacuum – young people are very capable of understanding and evaluating the great mysteries and complexities of life. It has been a fascinating reminder of the importance of not diluting the expectations of what younger students can empathise with, or indeed explore in depth.

So some solutions: first we employed a full time class bleeper, who conveniently and comically bleeps over any additional swearing. We have rationalised the language and spoken often about why Haddon has employed the swearing in the novel, how it is an insight into the frustrations and difficulties that the adult characters have to deal with.

In terms of building interest and engagement in the narrative, at the start of term a far more creative colleague in our English department brought in a large teddy dog, a pitch fork, red blood style paper and police tape to drape around the room. So I pinched them for the opening lesson, opening up with some sense of awe and placing the murder mystery at the centre of the text. The novel’s opening is brilliant, and visually demonstrating this really hooked them in.

In terms of deepening an understanding of Christopher, I took from Haddon the risk of the students being too focused on autism in their evaluation of the novel.  In this article he urges it not to be seen as ‘textbook for autism.’ He also writes here about how he didn’t want autism to be given an “an unfair representational weight in the novel” and how  “for this reason he does not use the words Asperger’s syndrome or High Functioning Autism.”  I was interested to see how the students would respond to Christopher without any background understanding for the opening fifty pages or so, so I let their understanding and opinions of him evolve without prompting it. They were free to construct whatever impression they wanted of him.

We eventually did begin to look at Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. I led into this by using the trailer for ‘The A Word’, from the BBC drama.

The programme has lots of good teaching links with the novel: the conflict in family, the difficulty in understanding how different that the protagonist Joe is. We then spent some time researching the condition – leading to lots of “ah, so thats why Christopher did that”, moments. Rather than starting off the study of the novel with this, by the time we approached it they had started to form their own viewpoints. It led into an interesting discussion about the importance of understanding others and empathy. We talked about how we will meet people who appear to be different and unique and about trying to understand this and reserve judgment rather than any other response. Some of them had been very harsh about Christopher – all this was an interesting learning curve (hopefully!) in how we treat people in society.

One of the aspects I have been trying to explore with them throughout the novel is reading with empathy, and trying to understand how a writer might construct a character to reveal different layers. This was the focus of the lesson I taught them on Thursday, which explored the aftermath of Christopher discovering that his father had in fact murdered Wellington the dog (to the genuine outrage of some of them!)

We have been starting lots of lessons with ‘The Curious Quiz’, a set of questions for them to respond to immediately that recap on meaning and events in the novel.  Viewing the novel as a holistic whole at Key Stage Three is so important, constantly referring back to why the structure is vital and previous events. If they get used to this in their early years in secondary then the exam requirements of GCSE become easier, it is effectively training them in their memory of the novel as a whole. More importantly, they are also fundamentally become better readers, more confident in ranging throughout a text and understanding narrative development in a novel.

This was their opening task:

The Curious Quiz (Answer at least two in full sentences)

  1. What has Christopher recently discovered?
  2. How does Christopher feel about his father at this point in the novel?
  3. What do you predict that Christopher will do now?
  4. What do you think that Christopher’s father will do now?
  5. What themes and ideas have been explored recently in the novel?

Now despite the fact that this was a Thursday afternoon lesson and snow had decided to delightfully shatter any serenity by arriving during lunch, the students came in and got stuck straight into the questions. The sense of routine is helpful for securing focus, as is the fact that they know they will be pugnaciously probed without hands up (I am officially patenting that teaching technique – that has a ring to it!) to hear their answers immediately after finishing. It all becomes rather competitive as they try to cover more questions in the time available. It also ensures the lesson begins were it should: with the text. They are also aware of the ‘Express yourself’ talking guidelines that I wrote about last week; they have to frame their answers in full sentences and show understanding of the novel.

After this quick recap we introduced the ‘Post it of Empathy’.  These nifty giant post-it notes are very handy for some structured collaboration and discussion in small groups. The groups had to come up with a range of words and phrases to describe Christopher’s emotions and feelings as he found himself isolated and unsure what to do at this point: “So I grabbed Toby’s cage and went round the side of Mrs. Shears’ house and sat down behind the dustbin so they couldn’t see me”. They are aware that one of them will have to hold up the giant post it note to give feedback at the end – giving the discussion a sense of immediately and urgency in terms of an output.

This then provides them with the mental priming to be able to connect more with the experience of Christopher in the extract as he tries to decide what to do.  As Daniel Willingham highlights in the fascinating ‘The Reading Mind’: “If you’re a good reader, you’re more likely to enjoy a story because reading it doesn’t seem like work.”  I have been working with this group in their study of the novel to build what Willingham calls in  a reading ‘self-concept’: a more positive attitude towards the challenges of reading. These priming tasks are helpful in motivating those who might find the reading passage more challenging: with the giant post it notes in the middle helping them to identify with the range of emotions that Christopher might be experiencing when it came to reading the extract.

We then unpicked the question: How does Haddon present Christopher in the extract?  We talked about how the how aspect means they need to look at Haddon’s purpose and read between the lines: language and word choice, structural points, techniques the writer might have used etc. The frequent reminders of this will hopefully allow the thought process about a writer’s tool kit to become more automatic.

The extract Extract for Year 8 was then printed out on an A3 sheet with room at the side for them to annotate. Given the dominance of extract style questions at GCSE getting students confident at knowing what to look for when they evaluate a writer’s intention in an extract is a useful skill to begin to touch on. I keep coming back to the detective analogy with this group to link in with the murder mystery in the novel: what lies beneath the surface of Haddon’s points?

While we read the students had to highlight the words and phrases that they thought presented Christopher’s feelings in the extract. We have done lots of work again this year on what Doug Lemov splendidly calls ‘Show some spunk’ in the excellent ‘Reading Reconsidered:‘ trying to make sure that any reading we do as a group is full of expression and interest.

After the first reading they compared the quotations they had used. We then looked at some more quotations in more detail: what exactly did they reveal about Christopher at this point? What technique was being used? This was all discussion led, with the students annotating as we went along. Again the hands down approach and the frequent holding up of the extract meant that most of them kept up with the annotating. This was followed by another of Lemov’s writing techniques, presenting the opening of a model then asking students to continue to write in the same style:

Haddon highlights that Christopher is experiencing anxiety in the opening: “sat down behind the dustbin”, he feels he is alone and is clearly concerned. He realises that he has to make a decision: “I had to work out what to do”, this is given a paragraph of its own to emphasise finality. The repetition of “I decided” then highlights that he is making a series of quick decisions. Continue using:

Haddon highlights…

The use of the word…

Christopher’s emotions are shown in…

They then had fifteen minutes to continue to answer the question. The model and the sentence starters again all guide them in the appropriate style of the writing, preventing any confusion. All of this works to develop their stamina as writers, short and quick bursts of comprehension type activity have been present in most of the lessons this term.

Nothing fancy, all very simple with very little preparation: I wrote a short quiz, annotated an extract briefly and started a few lines of a model.  At the heart of it all is genuine exploration of a novel and the ideas it develops.

To fully embrace that Friday inspired over-emotive exhaustion, teaching this novel has reminded me of all the wonderful things that English teaching can do: genuinely engage young people in literature; open up new perspectives and encourage deep and profound empathy. I might have imagined it, but I’m sure one of them paraphrased Christopher as they trudged off into the snow at the end of the lesson:  “I felt happy, because I was being a detective and finding things out”. Thanks for reading.

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