Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Teaching Rationale: The Curious Incident

The following is a teaching rationale for "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night", which is referred to in the preceding post.

Teaching Rationale: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night

In May, 2006, several of the Roseville Area High School English Dept. instructors who teach English 9 met and agreed that a common novel was needed in the first half of English 9. Numerous discussions took place during May, June and July to find a novel that would be appropriate. Some of the characteristics of a good selection would be:

A novel that provides a strong coming of age story to work with the English 9A topic of Passage to Adulthood.

A novel that provides opportunities for instruction in literary concepts that are important in the Language Arts sequence of curriculum.

A novel that is interesting and accessible regardless of reading level. This is an important consideration. English 9A classes include a wide range of readers. Many students in these classes do not perceive themselves as readers and are not highly motivated to read for English courses.

A novel that will be interesting to both boys and girls in the classroom.

A novel that will be accepted by students, parents, and administration.

Many titles were considered. Traditional titles such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye were thought to be too difficult and lacking in relevance for many of our students. More recent novels such as The Bean Trees or The Secret Life of Bees are more accessible, but are frequently perceived as being only of interest for female students. In addition, almost all of the more contemporary adolescent literature that was considered has strong sexual content that cause more frequent challenges from the community.

For reasons that are detailed below, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night has been selected because it fits the above criteria. Those of us who will be teaching this book are very enthusiastic about the way that it is both a book that students can get excited about reading and it is a book that teacher’s can get excited about teaching. We are not insensitive to the fact that it contains some strong language. Our instruction will include a discussion of how that language fits into the cultural context of working class England and how words need to be understood within their cultural context. However, rarely will you find a book that has such interesting and sophisticated discussions of topics such as the meaning of words and the purpose of metaphor that is also enjoyable for the adolescent to read.

The following pages provide detailed information about the book. First you will find a short summary of the novel. The next section details just a few examples of ways in which the academic community has received the book. As you will see, this book is being read and taught in many schools and communities worldwide. We have also provided a selection of responses from the commercial publishing community, where the book has received considerable critical acclaim. In the last section, we have described how we are teaching this book, and the numerous ways that it allows us to teach important literary concepts from our curriculum.

Summary of the Novel --Jackie Gropman, Chantilly Regional Library, VA

“When a teen discovers his neighbor's dog savagely stabbed to death, he decides to use the deductive reasoning of his favorite detective to solve the crime. Employing Holmesian logic is not an easy task for even the cleverest amateur sleuth and, in Christopher's case, it is particularly daunting. He suffers from a disability that causes, among other things, compulsive behavior; the inability to read others' emotions; and intolerance for noise, human touch, and unexpected events. He has learned to cope amazingly well with the help of a brilliant teacher who encourages him to write a book. This is his book-a murder mystery that is so much more. Christopher's voice is clear and logical, his descriptions spare and to the point. Not a word is wasted by this young sleuth who considers metaphors to be lies and does math problems for relaxation. What emerges is not only the solution to the mystery, but also insight into his world. Unable to feel emotions himself, his story evokes emotions in readers-heartache and frustration for his well-meaning but clueless parents and deep empathy for the wonderfully honest, funny, and lovable protagonist. Readers will never view the behavior of an autistic person again without more compassion and understanding. The appendix of math problems will intrigue math lovers, and even those who don't like the subject will be infected by Christopher's enthusiasm for prime numbers and his logical, mathematical method of decision making.”

Acceptance by Academic Community

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night has been a very popular book among educators. It’s unique point of view and rich style combined with its relevance and readability make it an excellent choice for adolescent readers.

Recommended for Adolescent Readers by the Center for Teaching and Learning, New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

#1 Book You’d Leave on a Bus for 2005, Teachit, Ltd. (Ranked by English Educators). #2 was Wuthering Heights and #3 was Pride and Prejudice.

New Book Trust Teenage Fiction Award 2003,

Whitbread Best Novel Award 2003,

Booker Prize Longlist,

Developed as a recommended Secondary Education Whole Class Novel by the Department for Education and Skills on their Standards Site.

2006 Young Adult Literature Conference Selection for grades 9 and up.

Critical Reception and Reviews

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night was published in 2003. It has quickly become a very popular book in a wide range of circles. In the commercial publishing worlds, typical reviews are as follows.

Library School Journal, Recommended for High School students and adults. “Unable to feel emotions himself, his story evokes emotions in readers-heartache and frustration for his well-meaning but clueless parents and deep empathy for the wonderfully honest, funny, and lovable protagonist. Readers will never view the behavior of an autistic person again without more compassion and understanding.”

Publishers Weekly, “Though Christopher insists, "This will not be a funny book. I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them," the novel brims with touching, ironic humor. The result is an eye-opening work in a unique and compelling literary voice.”

"Think Huck Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, or the early chapters of David Copperfield." –Houston Chronicle

"More so than precursors like The Sound and the Fury and Flowers for Algernon, The Curious Incident is a radical experiment in empathy." –The Village Voice

“Moving. . . . Think of The Sound and the Fury crossed with The Catcher in the Rye and one of Oliver Sacks’s real-life stories.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Gloriously eccentric and wonderfully intelligent.” —The Boston Globe

"This is an amazing novel. An amazing book." —The Dallas Morning News

“A superb achievement. He is a wise and bleakly funny writer with rare gifts of empathy.” —Ian McEwan, author of Atonement

“Brilliant. . . . Delightful. . . . Very moving, very plausible—and very funny.” —Oliver Sacks

“Superb. . . . Bits of wisdom fairly leap off the page.” —Newsday

"Both clever and observant." —The Washington Post

“[Haddon] illuminates a core of suffering through the narrowly focused insights of a boy who hasn’t the words to describe emotional pain.” —New York Daily News

“Engrossing . . . flawlessly imagined and deeply affecting.” —Time Out New York

“The Curious Incident is the rare book that repays reading twice in quick succession.” —Detroit Free Press

Responses to the Novel by Adolescent Readers

Claire , Girl, age 43, from Winnipeg , Canada, on 7th June 2006. Rating: 10/10

I just finished reading this book and Oh my gosh it is just a wonderful story. Brought tears to my eyes in the end. One of the ladies at the library said she heard it was good and hadn't read it yet, and wondered if I wanted to read it and boy am I glad I did. Its wonderful from start to finish. A must read for everyone.

Cookie lover, girl, age 12, from London, United Kingdom, on 3rd June 2006. Rating: 10/10

A BRILLIANT book. it will have you gripped from start to finish, a beautifully written tale about one boy and his seemingly impossible quest. EXTREMELY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!!!

Catheryne, girl, age 12, from Oxford, United Kingdom, on 20th May 2006. Rating: 10/10

Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nightime was a really brilliantly written book about an autistic boy and his quest to find his Mother and to find out who killed Mrs. Shears dog, Wellington. It was so brilliantly written and is now one of my favourite books.

Johnny, boy, age 12, from North East, United Kingdom, on 7th March 2006. Rating: 7/10

A Wierdly Gripping Story With A Fantastic Ending Which Had Me Gripped From Start To Finish.

Moh, boy, age 17, from Kartoum, Sudan, on 22nd November 2005. Rating: 10/10

A great read!! I'm doing a personal study about it which proves how much i like this book. I read it last year in my Christmas holiday and i could not put it down. I'm not a big reader, but this has to be one of the best books ever!

Joan Hin, girl, age 13, from Wales, United Kingdom, on 11th October 2005. Rating:

Weird. But highly enjoyable. Putting it from the point of an autistic teen was a stroke of genius and there should be more books like this. The story would be great in it's self with an unautistic person but I like the way you see it from this angle. Totally unputdownable. This is just out of interest, but are there any autistic people out there who've read this book? I wonder what they'd make of it?

Kate, girl, age 14, from Fife, United Kingdom, on 4th October 2005. Rating: 10/10

I found this book very hard to put down. It covered real life issues, as well as being written from the point of view of an autistic teen, making the book interesting, but not too hard to understand. Maths is used regularly in this book, with chapters going up in prime numbers, meaning you can revise your Maths skills while reading an interesting book. I'll definately recommend this book to my friends and read it over and over again. I think this book is a must for adults and teens alike.

More responses can be found at

Opportunities for Instruction

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night is an excellent text for teaching Passage to Adulthood, Metaphor, Euphemism, Simile, Denotation, Connotation, Point of View, Characterization, Social Context, Dramatic Irony, and Symbol. As with all of our texts in English 9, we also look at Basic Needs, Question Levels, and Theme. The following is a broad outline of our curriculum. Each teacher is free to develop specific activities around the questions and suggested tasks in this outline.

Text Setup

Our focus on Passage to Adulthood traditionally begins with an examination of how the student is perceived and misunderstood by the world. This discussion generally involves an examination of stereotypes and perceptions, with consideration of how various communication mediums are understood by various participants in the communication. The novel begins with the protagonist being misunderstood by various other characters as he discovers the “dog in the night”. As we introduce the text, we look at stereotypes and perceptions and ask the following questions.

How are you understood/misunderstood?

How do you code shift to be understood?

Who tends to misunderstand you?

What prejudgements do others make about you when listening? Or that you make about others?

Section 1: pp. 1-21 Metaphor, Euphemism, Simile, Denotation, Connotation

One of the more exciting elements of the text in regard to how it can be taught is its frequent and explicit discussion of the meaning and function of words. The unique perspective of the narrator, Christopher, and his frequent ruminating about the words and symbols that people use provide a great opportunity to discuss how words are used and what they mean in the classroom. We explore this section with the following questions.

What is a metaphor?

How is a euphemism like a metaphor?

How is a simile like a metaphor?

Why does Christopher think a metaphor is a lie?

Explain differences in the denotation and connotation of words in the text.

Find the literal sentences for euphemisms on page 15.

Brainstorm other euphemisms and state the literal sentences.

Section 2: pp. 22-43 Point of View

Again, Christopher’s singular perspective on his world provides a wonderful opportunity to explore how point of view is used by an author to manipulate meaning in a text.

What is the point of view of this book?

How is it different from what you would expect from First Person Limited?

What is unusual about the reliability of this narrator?

Introduce this topic by identifying ten paragraphs from various points of view. Process as a large group?

Section 3: pp. 44-61 Characterization

Christopher has interesting opinions about the other characters in the book, and these attitudes on the part of the narrator provide an opportunity to explore how characters are created by authors.

What are the methods of characterization?

How are your evaluations of the characters in the book different from Christophers?

What specific elements of characterization does Haddon use to create this gap? Use textbook definitions of Characterization and process in class.

Section 4: 62-79 Social Context

This is an important element of the text in that it is through this teaching moment that we disarm the potentially offensive language of the novel. It is important for the student to recognize that within the cultural context of working class London, language is used in ways that differs from our own Midwest American social context. Students are generally skilled at understanding this kind of code-shifting, as they must do it every day when they move from the worlds of peers, school, home, church and work. While being similar enough to our own world to be easily understood, the world of the novel is different enough to support this conversation in the classroom.

In what ways do the world of this text differ from our own world?

What research might we do to learn the reasons for these differences?

Are these differences fictional, or rooted in a real social differences?

How does our social context affect the way we understand the text?

Section 5: 80-99 Dramatic Irony

Another way in which this text is uniquely appropriate for teaching a literary concept is the rich presence of dramatic irony in the text. Dramatic irony is that moment in a text when the reader knows something about the world of the novel that the narrator does not realize. Because of the ways in which Christopher understands his world, this happens frequently throughout the book.

How has the nature of the narrator’s point of view created dramatic irony?

Section 6: 100-124 Passage to Adulthood/Coming of Age

Because Christopher moves beyond the fears inherent in his condition, we are able to see that he can change his identify in his social world and move beyond adolescence into a more independent form of adulthood.

How might this be the beginning of a passage experience for Christopher?

In what ways might he have lost his innocence?

In what ways might he gain independence?

Predict Christopher’s passage.

View various images of cultural passage and discuss.

The following sections include discussions of several essential elements of the English 9 curriculum. Although not uniquely appropriate to these topics, this text is similar to others in the way that it allows these concepts to be taught.

Section 7: 125-140 Question Levels

Formulate questions in each of the three levels: Factual; Inferential; Big Idea.

Define and create questions.

Section 8: 140-164 Basic Needs

How are Christopher’s choices driven by his basic needs?

Define and answer question.

Section 9: 164-179 Theme

Identifying the main theme of a novel requires knowing the ending. How might possible endings create different themes for the novel?


Provide topics and ask students to explain what the book says about the topic.

Section 10: 179-200 Symbol

At this point, knowing more about the text, what do you think the dog from Section 1 might symbolize?

Final Section: 200-219

How did Christopher’s quest prepare him for adulthood?

What is the theme of this novel?

As you can see from the above, there are many elements of this novel that lend themselves to our instruction. Although it is certainly true that the language of the novel is strong, this language is rooted in a working class social context in which that language is accepted. At no time will instruction with this novel suggest that it would be appropriate for students to use this language. In fact, our explicit discussion of context will make it clear that students should not use this language. Although we may find the language offensive, it is a natural part of the text and we are confident that it will remain within the text.

Although it is certainly possible for someone to select a different novel and argue that it would be a more appropriate choice than The Curious Incident, we have been unable to do so. Each alternate that was considered failed to compare in some important element. Most telling is that fact that as of today, Tuesday, September 12, instructors who are using the text report that students are unusually engaged and enthusiastic about the novel. In many ways, our first task is to get students excited about reading and to help them see themselves as readers. We believe that this novel allows us to do this in unique ways.

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