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Teaching The Westing Game

March 17, 2018 5 min read

Hands down The Westing Game is our favorite novel unit we do with our students. It immediately grabs their attention and keeps them engaged the entire time we’re reading it. If you don’t already teach this, seriously jump on the bandwagon and add it to your curriculum – ideal for high fifth graders through eighth grade. We promise it’s the type of book your students will beg to keep reading (we’re talking past classes wanting to stay in at lunch to finish a chapter) and remember for a long time! (We just heard from one of our students who is now a sophomore in high school, and she was reminiscing about how much fun this unit was back when she was in 5th grade with us!)

So, what makes it so good? It’s a ridiculously clever mystery with other smaller mysteries woven throughout the story and sprinkled with a good dose of red herrings (false clues) to keep readers on their toes. Millionaire Sam Westing has just died and his will states that his life was taken by one of the tenants living in Sunset Towers. The tenants are paired up and receive several clues that will lead them to the guilty person and twenty million dollars if they can figure out who the murderer is. (Don’t worry. It’s definitely NOT scary in any way.)

We print out all the clues from the story and reveal them in the order the characters receive them. Our students, who have already been placed in detective agencies, work together to decipher the clues. One memorable year, it was pandemonium when our students figured out the mystery and were literally jumping up and down and hugging each other.

Over the years, we’ve tweaked our activities, discussion questions, and quizzes to bring you the BEST NOVEL UNIT THAT YOUR STUDENTS WILL LOVE!!! Sorry for yelling – we are just really excited about this 🙂

Here’s how we set up our unit:

  1. First, we prepare a Detective Case Book for each student. Included in the Case Book is a Character Instagram handout, a Clue Tracker, an Evidence Tracker, a Vocabulary Graphic Organizer, and Chapter Discussion questions.
  2. Divide students into pre-selected groups, and allow time to come up with a Detective Agency name to be written on the cover of their Case Book. We explain that throughout the novel, students will be working in their detective agencies to figure out the answer to the Westing game.
  3. Explain that students will be completing an Instagram handout for each character in the novel. Since there are sixteen protagonists, it can be easy to mix some of them up. Creating a picture for each character and including relevant information will help students better remember each character and analyze them throughout the unit. We allow class time throughout the week to work on this.
  4. We then spend some time going over the Clue Tracker handout, and explain that it will be used throughout the novel for students to record any piece of information that they think might be significant in figuring out the answer to the Westing game. In addition, students should record any suspicious information about any of the protagonists.
  5. Spend a few minutes explaining the Evidence Tracker and the Essential Question that students will be analyzing throughout the novel: Which character experiences the most significant change as a result of playing the Westing Game? The evidence students gather can be used to write a final Response to Literature at the conclusion of the novel. Students should use this resource to record evidence about any character that shows significant growth as the novel progresses.
  6. We provide vocabulary words broken down by chapter and include them in the Case Books. We explain our expectations for students learning the vocabulary and decide how best to complete it as a class: Will it be homework prior to reading a chapter or two in class? Will we allow time for students to work in their detective agencies to complete the graphic organizers? Usually, the kids choose to work on it as a detective agency. Occasionally, due to time restraints, we will have them complete some of this for homework.
  7. Explain that students will be answering chapter discussion questions throughout the novel. More questions will be added to their Case Books as the novel progresses, so as not to reveal important information. The majority of these are comprehension based questions which encourage students to note key information that will lead them to the main discovery in the novel (the answer to the Westing game). However, other questions help them analyze the different characters or break down complex plot points.
  8. During the novel unit, we set own pace for reading based on our particular class. We like to read the story aloud as a whole class and then allow time for the detective agencies to a do a close reading of certain pages in the chapters as they fill in their clue tracker, evidence tracker, Instagram handout, and discussion questions each day
  9. We also use comprehension quizzes and vocabulary questions throughout the novel as formative assessments.
  10. Finally, we like to conclude the unit with a “Westing Game Day!” We ask students to come to school dressed as a character from the novel. Props (within reason) are encouraged. The class votes for the student who best exemplified the character they chose. Our students LOVE this activity, and it’s so fun to see their creativity shine through. One of our favorite costumes in the past was a boy, who throughout the day, changed into four different outfits, ending with a patriotic Uncle Sam costume. He was Northrup, McSouthers, Eastman, and Westing!

Looking to teach this unit with your class, but don’t know where or how to start? Don’t worry, we’ve done all of the hard work for you. After over a decade of teaching this particular novel, we have fine tuned every aspect of this novel study to make it easy to implement in your classroom. Nearly all of this is print-and-go, while also maintaining a high-level of complexity and depth. You will not be disappointed. Grab The Westing Game Unit here. 

This blog post walks you through how to effectively teach The Westing Game in your middle school classroom! These ideas are perfect for keeping your students engaged and intrigued throughout the whole novel!
By the way, if you teach summer school, this unit is AMAZING! We used it for summer sessions for years, and students were actually excited to come to summer school to read! WIN. WIN.
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This blog post walks you through how to effectively teach The Westing Game in your middle school classroom! These ideas are perfect for keeping your students engaged and intrigued throughout the whole novel!
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