Sunday, January 27, 2019

Singularly Adapted to Our Needs [MISS]

I spent a lot of time this week meandering through different topics for tonight's post.

After listening to this week's episode of Trifles about Germans and Sherlock Holmes, I thought about doing a post on how Hans Gruber could be tied to the Canon.

Then I saw Dan Andriacco's post about the lineup for Holmes, Doyle & Friends, and figured I could do a love-fest for the names on that list.

This weekend I read a crazy book: "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as Retold by Sherlock Holmes."  That was high on my list to talk about.

But a tweet by Howard Ostrom popped up this morning, and I found myself debating the merit of younger versions of the Canon.

Sherlock Holmes + Kids Reading.  Yeah, I have some opinions on that.

Some folks thought that kids should read the original Canon as is and revising it is pandering to the lowest common denominator.  An argument was also made that by reading the stories in their original form, kids would learn new vocabulary terms.  (Another person said that they thought the Canon shouldn't be taught in school because it isn't literature.  We agreed to disagree on that point.)

This year, The Beacon Society undertook an initiative to list many appropriate texts that educators can use to introduce Sherlock Holmes to students at any age.  Now, I don't think the people that I was tweeting back and forth with all day today were saying that kindergartners should sit down with the Doubleday and a dictionary and fend for themselves.  But is it wrong to expose kids to Holmes and Watson with some very light versions of the Canon? 

The Canon is written at approximately a high school reading level.  As a fifth grade teacher, I want my kids to know about Holmes.  There's no way in hell I would expect them to wade through Victorian literature at their age.  Even my highest readers would get bogged down with some of the outdated terms.  Do they really need to know the difference between a hansom, growler, four-wheeler and a dog-cart?  Just call it a cab or a carriage and get on with the story.

An valid argument was made that these stories are full of great vocabulary for kids to learn.  I agree with that, but also don't want them to miss the forest for the trees.  If a kid is spending time looking up word after word, the genius of these stories is going to be lost on them; instead they're reading a choppy tale that is teaching them what "moor" means. 

So many people are quick to make decisions about how "kids these days" need to be taught without taking into account all of the micro-decisions that educators make when developing lessons.  (I can do a WHOLE LOT of expounding on the "kids these days" sentiment, but will spare you.)

A friend of mine that teaches in Missouri is also a fifth grade teacher and loves doing mysteries with his class.  When his students read Holmes, they use an adapted version to learn about the framework of the mystery genre.

Shannon Carlisle in Tennessee also uses younger versions of the Holmes stories in her fourth grade classroom.  But her focus is to teach deductive reasoning and decision making skills.

Both of these educators are using texts that are at their students' levels and their kids are getting a great education from it.  Nothing is being dumbed down for these kids.  The focus of these lessons isn't to expand students' vocabulary or teach them to decipher unfamiliar phrases, but to teach genre conventions or critical thinking. 

Would it be great if we could also teach kids to look up unfamiliar words along the way? Absolutely.  But you must prioritize what's important.  And quite frankly, teaching outdated words and phrases is nice sometimes, but it's never going to be high on my priority list.  My number one priority is getting kids to fall in love with books.

We Sherlockians are a literary bunch, and I'm going to assume that we are all pretty strong readers.  That statistically means that most of us were pretty strong readers as kids.  We are blessed.  Whether it was a teacher, family member, librarian, or other angel here on Earth, someone introduced us to The Great Detective.  We picked up our first story, and there was no looking back!  We are the chosen ones.

And not every person who reads a Sherlock Holmes story is going to become a Sherlockian.  But I hope that every person who reads a Sherlock Holmes story walks away with a pleasant memory of their time spent in the pages.  And if we need to adapt the original stories so that kids can enjoy them, then let's do it!

Because if a kid isn't enjoying what they're reading, how can we help them grow into adults that love to read?


  1. Certainly that tweet was a statement open for conversation. I'm so happy to see you expand on that tweet with these thoughts. I love what teachers like Shannon Carlisle and yourself are doing, just wish more teachers were. Of course you do realize my tweets are always news and happenings in the Sherlockian world, and rarely do I comment on them, and simply just report them, so congratulations for drawing me into the conversation. My conundrum in this world is that I love everything Sherlock, even the things that I hate.

  2. Adapted, abridged... aah, I don't know. And on an admittedly larger scale, there will be an inflationary effect of dumbing down. The types of carriages weren't known to the young reader of 1950 either, were they? And that this funny word hansom refers to some sort of carriage or cab is probably understood, even if the reader won't be able to explain how it's different from others.
    I suppose it would be best to wait a year or three if a child is too young, and it might be useful to have editions not with extensive footnotes that will deter most pupils but with few, necessary marginal notes, some of them just illustrations.

    1. I disagree that adapting or abridging books "dumbs them down." There are millions of people out there, students especially, who can't access the stories because of the language used in them. Should kids be denied the pleasure of reading SPEC because they don't know what a riding crop is?

    2. It doesn't literally dumb the pupils down, at least not in terms of how bright they are. "Dumb down" has a certain mildly pejorative touch, even though people routinely ask others "can you dumb that down for me".
      But it does dumb down, that is, simplifies, the text. In fact, that's the point, making it simpler:

      car -> car
      trap -> car
      hansom -> car
      wagonette -> car
      brougham -> car
      growler -> car

      Now this is an example of obsolete realia, but I suppose the same would be true for other less known groups of words.

      Children will understand a hansom is some sort of car, and if you would force them to they think about it, horse-driven and typically rented. They don't need to know if it has two or four wheels, and whether the driver sits in front or in the back, unless they're that sort (in which case slip them the Annotated or Les Klinger's New Annotated - quick, before the parents notice.) But I'm confident they understand it's some sort of carriage or car or cab, and they won't stop there because they're frustrated.

      I realise you have more first-hand experience as a teacher than I as a mere parent, of course.

      The appeal of the Holmes stories isn't simply about the plot, I think, but also about the atmosphere and the words that evoke it. I understand that language and style have changed since then, and that children - not originally the main target audience - have a different vocabulary at their disposal, but I think changing the language would take more than it would give.

      If they encounter "riding crop", what do you think would happen? (I actually don't know - it would be interesting to test it somehow.) Would they not understand it at all, and it could as well be in a foreign script they don't know? Or would they have some faint idea about the word and assume it's a sort of whip? Or intuitively guess from the context it's some stick? More importantly, would they be frustrated and lose interest in the story?

      If there's a scene descripted in which an irrelevant flower is mentioned to be in a vase, the pupil will understand it's a flower, and until some poison is derived from it or its blossoming or lack thereof is important for the plot, it's irrelevant which or what flower exactly, but it won't be necessary to replace it by "flower" or delete the whole sentence. There may be some slight irritation from not understanding, but that's all, and next time, in a story by a different author maybe, the child will be a bit more familiar with it already.

      In case of a word that may not be understood and can't really be skipped over because it doesn't make a difference, I suggest a short explanation or illustration on the margin.

      I suppose there's a certain minimum age from the plots already, in terms of interest but also toughness of content (with differences between regions or countries?).