Literacy in the Classroom: Presenting the class reader, ‘Inky Stevens: The Case of the Caretaker’s Keys’ by Chris Martin.
Hi, my name is Chris Martin. After over 20 years as a Drama/English teacher, I left the profession in 2013 to fulfill my dream of becoming a full-time writer. My fundraising murder mystery play business (www.murderplays.com) had taken off by then, and I wanted to build on this by creating a series of whodunit novels specifically designed to appeal to youngsters aged between 8 and 13 years old. The first title in my ‘Great School Detective’ series was published by Hogs Back Books in 2020, yet back then l never envisaged going back into the classroom to teach it myself. But all of this was to change during the pandemic…
I was incredibly fortunate that an ex-student of mine (a remarkable young man called Jamie Foster) had become an English teacher himself and enjoyed my novel so much that he devised a Scheme of Work to accompany it for use with his pupils. Indeed, so diverse and all-encompassing was this ‘60 page/72 lesson plan’ document, that my publishers made it available to all schools as a FREE PDF resource (please request from www.chrismatinwriter.com).
Anyhow, it was during the pandemic that an ex-colleague suggested I ought to become an online teacher as she felt that I still had a lot to offer today’s young learners. I was resistant to this at first but gradually found myself warming to the idea. On reflection, I realized that I’d missed the ‘cut and thrust' of the classroom, the process of guiding young people on their voyage of discovery, and so I seriously began to consider enrolling. Yet the main obstacle standing in my way was that of not knowing what to teach…
And then it hit me…
‘Why not use Jamie’s scheme to present literacy sessions based on ‘my own book’? After all,’ I reasoned, ‘I’m now a published author. One with decades of teaching experience. And I’m certainly passionate enough about my schoolboy detective series to want to share my writing as widely as possible. Surely my enthusiasm will come across enough in the classroom for me to inspire the readers of tomorrow?’ And so, I promptly signed up to become an online educator, something which I enjoyed so much that, when restrictions lifted, I found myself re-entering the classroom to present face-to-face sessions based on ‘Caretaker’s Keys’. And I haven’t looked back since…!
These days I offer free literacy workshop sessions on Inky in return for the opportunity to promote my writing. In this capacity, I’ve been invited to work in many different institutions with groups of all sizes (sometimes up to 200 students at a time) so I’m conscious of being dynamic and engaging right from the start. My intention in this article is to share some of the tricks and techniques I employ, using my favorite workshop lesson as an example. The objective for this particular session is crystal clear…
‘To enthuse each student to such an extent that they’ll be desperate to pick up my book, eager to find out whodunit!’
I send a PowerPoint to the school which, through a series of images, introduces myself as a writer. Plus, I supply all the written text to be presented during the session, should teachers/pupils wish to read this beforehand.
I also suggest relevant preparatory work taken from Jamie’s PDF document which schools ‘may’ wish to explore.
On the Day:
I arrive in plenty of time so that I can settle myself, set up, and visualize how the forthcoming session will run.
I make sure know where all my resources are, including items of costume. (Students, I’ve found, relish dressing up in front of their classmates, even with only relatively simple items. Wigs and/or hats are easily transported and especially popular in radically altering a person’s appearance.)
I wear bright clothing myself to make myself a focal point and stimulate the imagination.
I set up my banner which depicts an oversized image of the book’s cover, providing a strong visual image of what’s being explored.
On the board, I write down the names of the four suspects who we’ll be ‘investigating’ at the end of the session.
I also distribute a single sheet of paper (one per student) with all the relevant text from the novel for use in the session. (As this will be sight-read by some, I’ve deliberately simplified the language to ensure it can be accessed with ease.)
Warm-up Alphabet Game:
To energize the students and get them thinking, I pick a youngster at random to select a number from 1 to 7*. Each number corresponds to a category… eg sport, music, people’s names, animals, places… Students then have to name an item, any item whatsoever, within this category. The competition element comes in shortly after when I produce a timer and ask the class to do exactly the same, only this time supplying answers in alphabetical order (missing out Q, Z &Z). To enhance the competitive element, I ‘invent’ a result from a previous school/class and challenge this particular cohort to better it. This exercise guarantees a lively start to the session, breaks down inhibitions, and gets students thinking about language in a fun, engaging way.
I repeatedly fire out questions during all my sessions, usually selecting a youngster with their hand raised to answer. However, if I feel that an answer is straightforward enough (like just picking a number, as on this occasion) I’ll randomly select a student in the hope of keeping everyone ‘on their toes’ whilst boosting self-esteem of the individual concerned. (If a student is struggling with a response, however, I’ll quickly move on. I would never want a child to feel unnecessarily pressured.)
Main Session Content:
After introducing myself and discussing what both a ‘murder mystery play’ and a ‘whodunit novel’ entail, I state that… ‘We’ll now be exploring three ‘key’ (no pun intended) elements which occur at the start of any whodunit novel…’ then introduce each in turn, linked to ‘Caretaker’s Keys’…
1. The Crime:
Using a big bunch of keys (which I bring along and hold aloft as a visual prop to attract attention) and the image of the book cover on my banner, I explain that Fred’s big bunch of school keys have been stolen, something which has upset him greatly. I’ll then take suggestions from the youngsters as to what the consequences of this action could be, focusing on Fred’s fearfulness.
2. The Detective:
A volunteer is asked to read out the paragraph from the book where Inky is first introduced. Students are then asked to describe him based on what they can recall from the passage. Answers will naturally include information directly linked to the text, but more interpretative responses will also focus on what Inky is like as a character, his personality, and his outlook. To enhance self-esteem, I always use ‘gushing’ praise for any contribution, something that I reinforce using positive facial expressions.
3. The Four Suspects:
I have rewritten the section from Chapter 3 of the book where Fred explains the loss of his keys to Inky in a play format, with each character’s ‘lines’ highlighted in bold. Two volunteers are then asked to take a seat at the front, put on simple items of costume (overall and cap (Fred), school tie, and glasses (Inky)), and read out the dialogue relating to the first suspect, Spud Barton. I assist the ‘actors’ by reading out the narrative sections in between… ‘said Fred… Fred removed his cap, perplexed… Inky looked worried’… etc. From there, if enough students are willing to volunteer (there are usually far more), different pairings can read out the sections relevant to the other three suspects (Candy, Wilfred, and lastly Crispin). Students can also be chosen to read out ‘my’ narrative parts, also, if appropriate. Carefully splitting the dialogue up in this way allows several pupils to read out aloud. It also means that no one student will be over faced by too much text. Plus, as narrator, I’m always there to guide the readers, if required. Thus, one suspect at a time, the evidence linking each potential thief is explored.
Students are then given a minute to re-read the section and discuss the all-important question… among themselves, ‘From the four suspects under suspicion, who do you think is most likely to have stolen Fred’s Keys?’ This section breaks up the lesson and allows each student the opportunity to express their ideas in private.
End of Session:
After this, I instigate a public vote by the raising of hands, one vote per person, as to who the group thinks ‘did it’. I count up all the hands raised for each of the four suspects in turn and write the totals down on the board. In this way, each student becomes part of a communal response without feeling singled out.
The session closes with a more detailed look at the results provided. As part of a wider discussion, students are offered the opportunity to justify their choice of culprit based on evidence found in the text. The beauty of this exercise is that, as far as this section of the novel is concerned, no comment can be ‘wrong’. No one knows who stole Fred’s keys, yet, not even Inky, so any comment can be verbally praised as all conjecture is theoretically possible… As far as the plot of the novel is concerned, it’s now Inky’s job to test the evidence supplied by Fred and initiate his own quest for the truth! (And by now, students are usually so desperate to test out their suspicions that they cannot wait to get hold of a copy of the book in order to find out…!!)
Question and Answers:
If time allows, I may host a final Q&A section to close the workshop, but I never reveal the most pressing question of all, the one which always comes up… ‘So, tell us then, exactly who did steal Fred’s keys…!!??’
Thank you for taking an interest in inky and the tips and techniques which I use to present him in school. Should you wish to know more about my work, request Jamie’s Scheme of Work, or receive Inky’s free bi-yearly newsletter, please get in touch via www.chrismartinwriter.com or Facebook: Inky Stevens the Great School Detective. Good luck and happy detecting!