Monday, January 29, 2018

Spy School: Communication

This is a summary of what we did the first three weeks of Spy School and a guide/suggestions for those who wish to do it, too. I do not recommend Spy School for children who are still learning to read. For young kids who can read some, the Melissa & Doug Secret Decoder set is a great set for independent (or some adult help needed, depending on reading ability) exploration on the topic of codes and hidden messages. I don't remember when I got this kit for the boys, it was between 2-4 years ago. Their favorite part was the invisible ink marker that could be revealed with a different marker. That was my favorite part, too, because it had my reluctant writer, Builder Boy, writing all on his own initiative! It was that activity and result that gave me the idea to make Spy School.


If you have elementary students (3rd-6th grade work ability) you can make Spy School with just the Spy Science and Detective Science books, plus some Pinterest DIY. If your kids are middle school and up, or are very interested in the topic and capable of doing more, some additional resources will be necessary. There is overlap in my suggestions, and I bought more books than I really needed to because I recently discovered Thrift Books where I can find a lot of books I want in good condition for $4 on average. Free shipping on orders for $15 in the US, and a reward program that gives you $5 spend every $50 you accumulate in purchases. And a referral program (this link will get you 15% off your first purchase.) Some of the books I already had purchased years ago, either new or at a thrift store, because my kids aren't the only ones who think codes are cool.

General Schedule:

(For an expanded explanation of the schedule, I blogged about that here.)


(First Day only) Introduction to the concept and issuing of gear bags, choose Secret Agent Code Names, and make ID cards.
  • Move Like a Spy
  • History of Spying
  • Talk Like a Spy
  • Themed Activity
  • Themed Activity
  • Write a Mission Report to Headquarters 
Friday: Mystery! (I will be blogging about the mysteries separately.)

Week 1:

For our first week, Move Like a Spy was learning how to walk silently. We used some of the resources linked here, and practiced by having one person sitting with their back to the rest of the room and having the other person try to sneak up on them without being heard. If the listener did hear them (and isn't just guessing) then the sneaker goes back to the beginning. Over the week as they got better at it we added obstacles like tissue paper and other things on the floor that they had to notice and move around to avoid making a sound. We also tried doing it from longer distances, and found our it's a lot harder to be quiet on stairs.

History of Spying is outlining a two page spread every day from Clive Gifford's Spies and Spying. It was a learning lesson for me as well as the boys. I learned that it had been too long since we had done any narration and summary, and the skills had atrophied. Also, outlining was a big struggle for Builder Boy when I tried to teach him over a year ago, and Early Bird had never done it. I learned that it worked better if I did it along with them and let them copy my outline to get them used to the basic structure. Also, instead of having them read it I read it to them and then we discussed it and decided together what the unifying themes and most important things to take note of were. (For those who aren't sure how to do outlining, The Well Trained Mind is my go-to resource. Most libraries carry it) How to outline is covered in chapter 16 (3rd edition) Why 1492? History and Geography in the Logic Stage under the heading "How to Outline" (page 297 in the 3rd edition.)) We are doing basic - dash and *dot layers so far. We do the main text together and then I let them chose one of the bubble/pop-up information blips to write their own short note on at the end.

A word of caution on Spies and Spying: this does cover history and war and mentions some terrible deaths for spies who were caught. Sensitive children who highly empathize may not work well with this book. It is not overly graphic as far as I have found so far, but please keep that in mind and pre-read for yourself. Though a benefit of this book is it had my 8 year old telling my husband about Fredrick the Great disagreeing with Machiavelli and then launching into an ethical discussion on leadership and war, so it is worth the work if your kid can handle the subject matter. I will however be skipping the end of the book with current conflicts. Early Bird can not handle knowing about current issues with his anxiety. Just seeing the news on a tv in the local McDonald's set him asking about North Korea and their missiles for weeks.

Talk Like a Spy is taken from the back of Spy Science. If we are still doing spy school and run out of glossary words before we are done then we will use words from the glossary of Detective Science. The first day they write the words down and I give them the definition verbally. This always prompts a discussion of some sort or the other as the boys verbally make connections or explore alternative definitions of the words that they know but are not used by the book. The second day I say the definitions and they tell me what word I'm describing. The third day I say the word and they define it to me. The fourth day I have them spell out loud the words that they should be able to spell at their level. Once a week, instead of writing a report they are allowed to write the vocabulary words in 5 unrelated sentences.

Themed Activities: For the first week the first themed activity was learning a new code for the first activity, and a communication exercise for the second activity.

For the codes I used the additional resource Cryptography for Beginners. This taught some codes that were new to my boys who already had some basic code knowledge. I liked that this book had activity pages that I could just photocopy without any other set-up or work. But you can easily do without this book. Spy Science has 3 cypher activities and one deciphering activity already. There are also codes available online you could learn about and DIY; I've collected some in my Pinterest Board, sub section "Codes and Hidden Messages." Pick one or two a day, depending on child's ability and stamina.

The communication exercise was of my own design. A good spy needs to be able to communicate with team members. I had the boys sit across the table from each other with a file folder in front of each, blocking their view. I then gave them the same things on either side and had one arrange them and then tell the other how they were arranged so he could copy it. They then pulled up the dividers to see if they replicated it correctly. Sometimes they did, sometimes they weren't specific enough and were a little off. This practiced not just accurate communication, but also trying to put yourself in the other person's perspective. We did it with foam blocks, Legos, and paper shapes, changing it up so they had to keep thinking of different things and ways. This was a very good exercise for my autistic boys. Your children may not need the practice; condensing the 3 weeks into 2 by cutting this out and doing other hidden messages this week instead is just fine.

Write a Report to Headquarters. Builder Boy still sometimes struggles with writing work. One of my main goals with Spy School was to sneak in a lot of writing practice, but making it fun and spy themed so he wouldn't mind so much. At time of writing this we've done Spy School for 4 weeks with mixed results. But the constant practice, which we've been spotty and weak on in the past, is helping. Early Bird is slower to write his paragraph, but it is always excellent quality and readable. For him I am hoping the repetition will help him gain speed in writing. Again, we're not there yet; his anxiety and perfectionism is very strong. He also needs a lot of re-directing on this activity as he gets lost in thought a lot when left to his own devices.

For writing a report, all I ask from the is 5 sentences about what we did that day. It can summarize the whole list of activities, or describe in detail one or two of the activities that they liked the most that day.

Spy Gear: for this week I added to their bags cypher wheels that I got here. I printed them two to a page so they would be smaller, glued the bottom one to a colored piece of card-stock, and laminated them all individually before putting them together with a brad. I'm glad I laminated them because 4 weeks later they're still using them and they are holding up well.

Week 2:

Move Like a Spy for this became an unplanned communication exercise. What I did is had one boy hide a specific book somewhere in our library. The other brother had one minute to try to find it on their own. Then, if he did not find it, the hider would give "warmer" or "colder" clues. Builder Boy needed the practice of giving feedback; in the beginning brother would move in a direction and he wouldn't say anything. But over the week he got better at it.

History of Spying and Talk Like a Spy will always be continuations of the outlining and vocabulary work with the next ones in sequence.

Themed Activities: this week we worked on decrypting cryptograms for when you don't know the key and handwriting analysis.

For teaching decryption skills I used the supplementary resource The Cryptoclub: Using Mathematics to Make and Break Codes. This is an excellent, but expensive resource given that we only did the first 6 chapters for only one week. If you have an 8th grade or higher student, the rest of the book is an excellent exercise of applied mathematics. For younger you do not need to spend the money on this book. I could not find it cheaper on Thrift Books, either. Spy Science has 1 activity on the basics. The book TOP SECRET expands on the idea enough for younger students, and also has quite a few codes in it, so it's a good supplementary resource to add to the Spy Science and Detective Science books if you want to go deeper into cryptography than the surface basics.

For handwriting analysis we used the activities and instructions from Detective Science. We also wrote "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." (This sentence contains every letter in the English alphabet.) They did that every day and compared their handwriting to each different day's. We also got samples of the handwriting from other people (same sentence) and had them compare to their own. Sometimes I mixed up the unlabeled samples and had them figure out which was whose. In the beginning, they didn't even recognize their own handwriting when the samples were mixed! But they got better at comparing and noticing identifying details. For the last two days I had them try to disguise their handwriting in two different ways. If I could guess whose was whose, they had to do a chore for me. If they were able to trick me they got an extra half hour of tv. The first time they did not trick me, but the second time they put a lot of thought into identifying each other's traits and were able to trick me, with me really trying!

Reports to Headquarters will be unchanged unless stated otherwise.

Spy Gear: this week I printed out the letter frequency chart found here as well as most common small words lists and a few other lists like that from the TOP SECRET book. I cut them out, glued them to colored cardstock (blue for Builder Boy, green for Early Bird so they know who is responsible for which) and laminated them. These helped them on the big mystery.

Week 3:

Move Like a Spy: for this week we again did the hiding the book in the home library. But this time the hider got to tell the seeker where to find it while I tried to find it without the clue. I got a head start while they were doing the telling. This helped them practice not whispering so dang loud. Once they had that down then they were restricted to only 3 words, then 2 word clues to give brother, so they had to think about what words to use. Then they had to write the clues and couldn't say it or give any other clues verbally.

Themed Activities: this week we covered invisible messages and hidden messages rather than coded messages. Each day we did two of the following: From Spy Science we did Lemony Message, Scytale, and Page Grilles. From Pinterest we did red filter, white on white (we used marker instead of paint), and 2 pieces of paper that when held on top of each other and held up to the light reveals the message. I also turned anamorphic illustrations into a hidden message (see picture) and we beaded their names in Morse code with one color for dot, one for dash, and clear for spaces, on pipe-cleaners. Lastly we found little things from around the house to hide messages in. We found an old candy wrapper, empty floss container that opened and closed, and some small, leftover Halloween candy boxes. To test them out I had the boys hid messages in them, then put them in their spy gear satchels. When their daddy got home we told him to try to find the hidden messages, but we didn't say where they were. He overlooked them for a long time, which delighted the boys.

Spy Gear: they got to keep the hidden messages containers for future use. I also printed out a Morse Code legend and a Pigpen legend and pasted it on to their color of cardstock and laminated them.

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