Eleventh Hour Mini Unit

We needed a break from "normal school" at the end of this week. We've been doing a lot of worksheets lately, and my 1st grader is Not Impressed. So when I announced that we'd spend school time today trying to solve the mystery of "The Eleventh Hour," he was thrilled.


We picked "The Eleventh Hour" by Graeme Base up at the library last week when I happened across it and recognized the author's name and style from "Anamalia," a book I loved so much that I bought a copy for us after giving away one to my niece!
If you've never explored a Graeme Base book, you are definitely in for a treat! The rich, intricately detailed, and humorous illustrations make them a real joy for any age.
"The Eleventh Hour" has an added bonus: an old fashioned "whodunnit" (non-violent, thankfully!) occurs inside the book's pages which you, the reader, are asked to solve. Unlike Agatha Christie, however, where Poirot always manages to keep some critical observation to himself, here the mystery is actually solvable using a combination of visual, textual, and even coded clues.

James started our "unit" last night when he plucked the book out of the box and started reading it out loud to his 5 year old sister. While he was able to read most of the words, the rhyming and moderately advanced text put the story - not to mention the mystery - a little outside their grasp. I read it out loud a second time, and we took a quick pass at the mystery. While I found some coded messages that could be untangled without pen and paper, the mystery itself remained just that after the first reading. Thus my spur of the moment decision to replace worksheets with detective work this morning.

A note on grade level:
My oldest is a first grader, so I took care of most of the mechanics and lead most of the discussion and ideas. I think a 4th or 5th grader might be able to do most of these steps independently, although actually recognizing some of the codes for what they are may take adult assistance.

Here's what we did

1. Created a timeline of the birthday party, graphing which guests were present at which events. Both older kids helped here. We even got in a little clock-reading practice.

2. Solved a tic-tac-toe code, mirror writing, backwards writing, and some simple scrambles without pen and paper

3. Used pen and paper to solve letter substitution codes.  I had my first grader take dictation on some of these. I think with a little more time I could have taught him the process of actually deciphering some of the simpler codes, but we had both some time constraints and a lot of chaos from an impatient 3 year old in the room.

4. Identified Hieroglyphics and Morse Code puzzles which we will probably work on later.

5. Fingered our suspect and then used our guess as the key for a "shift" or "Caesar" cipher on the last page, which, when solved told us exactly how the crime was perpetrated.
This last cipher was a really long one, and I got tired of it less than half way through. A quick Google led me to this Caesar Cipher Solver. (No fair using it without figuring out the key first - but it Could do it for you!)

Now, did it take all of that work just to get the answer? Well... I don't want to give anything away, but it was my pre-reading 5 year old who found one of the critical clues. My first grader also spotted one of the cipher keys we needed for another clue.

All in all we spent about two hours, maybe a bit more on the project, including reading through the text a couple of times on different days.
My oldest stayed reasonably engaged (at least until we got to the long, boring decipher at the end!), but my kindergartner was done after 30 or 40 minutes.
Again, an older elementary kid could probably figure out some of the simpler codes, and a motivated middle schooler could probably get through most of them.

Thankfully, Base also includes a detailed description of every code and clue in a sealed section at the back of the book. If you get stumped or just want to know what he was thinking on a particular page, you can always refer here!

I hope to use this experience as a jumping off point for some more code / cipher projects. They're not only fun, but I'm guessing I can sneak in quite a bit more writing practice than he's usually willing to do without a fight!

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