The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Posted on May 8, 2013
I’m fresh off a stint of long-term substituting for a 7th/8th grade English class, and boy am I eager to get back into the classroom. It has only been two days since I handed the reigns back to the teacher I was covering for (out on maternity leave), but I already miss the curious and enthusiastic minds I had the privilege of teaching. So I’m doubling down on the application bonanza that is my life and searching (high, low, and in-between) for a full-time teaching job.
But before I resume résumé-ing or continuing my coverage of cover letters, I though I’d take a moment and share with you all a fantastic book. How I went through my childhood, teenage-hood, and young-adult-hood without once cracking the cover of Ellen Raskin‘s The Westing Game, I’ll never know. I’m just glad I finally had a chance to experience it–at least partially–through the wonder-struck eyes of middle school students.
The Westing Game is a mystery. This is apparent from page one (no mystery there). Its tone is playful, clever, and–it needs to be said–mysterious. Sixteen heirs to a massive fortune are invited to live in Sunset Towers (an apartment complex on the shore of Lake Michigan). Sunset Towers faces East, even though–as we all know–the sun sets in the West. Curiouser and curiouser.
The heirs soon discover that the man from whom they stand to inherit the massive fortune–Sam Westing–has recently died. In his will, Mr. Westing reveals that one of the heirs is guilty of murdering him. Gasp! The heirs are paired up and given sets of different clues (along with $10,000). The heirs who correctly decode their clues and find the answer win the Westing Game!
There soon ensues a madcap race to decipher, discover, and sabotage. Along the way, Raskin sprinkles in tidbits of slapstick humor and puns. Every character detail is presented as a potential clue. Consequently, the inquisitive reader is left chasing leads that sometimes dead end in irrelevance. But, if one is astute, careful, and alert the mystery can be solved before the final reveal (some of my students were able to correctly predict the “answer” to the Westing Game several chapters before it came to light).
I really loved teaching this book. As an extra credit option, several of my students chose to build a replica of Sunset Towers in Minecraft. I started up a server, provided some ground-rules, and left the rest up to them. The results were kind of amazing. You can check out a very small portion of their efforts here: Video of Minecraft Sunset Towers.
Another extra credit opportunity for my students had them designing a Glogster (an online poster) police bulletin board on which they posted clues and information about the mystery. You can see an example of what one of my students created here: The Westing Game Glogster.
I also started off several of my classes with anagram challenges. The students had to work in teams to decode a list of 5 anagrams and tell me how they were all related. For instance, one day I had a list of scrambled professions. Another day, I had a list of jumbled animals.
Finally, I let my students choose from a list of papers and projects that I designed for their final assignment. You can look over what I put together here:
If you haven’t read The Westing Game, drop whatever you’re doing (as long as it’s not fragile) and READ IT. That is all.