Student detectives connect with mystery author, world


What do fifth graders at Skyline Elementary School and actress Whoopi Goldberg have in common? They were both featured in a worldwide Web cast about a book series “The 39 Clues,” a multimedia phenomenon that targets 8- to 12-year-olds but has participants of all ages excited about history and reading.

Goldberg interviewed Gordon Korman, the author of the second book in the series, in an hour-long live webcast Dec. 1. Classes from around the globe had pre-taped questions for the author to answer during the show.

Bentz’s and Lisa Campbell’s fifth grade classes at Skyline represented the United States.

They all piled into Bentz’s classroom to watch the webcast, and everyone was filled with suspense each time Goldberg introduced a video question.

Skyline was saved for last.

“I think that was really neat,” student Eli Applegate said. “We were one of five classes in the whole world that gets to be on a live webcast.”

Skyline students were selected to participate because of their heroic efforts to solve the mystery of “The 39 Clues” and the innovative ways Bentz introduced technology to aid their search.

Bentz began reading “The 39 Clues” to his class for about 20 minutes a day earlier this year. Detectives must not only read the books, but collect playing cards, play an online game and conduct historical research to find all 39 clues and solve one of the greatest mysteries of all time: the source of power of the influential Cahill family.

The mystery includes real-life characters such as Benjamin Franklin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Bentz set up a secure blog for his students to share information and ask each other questions about the mystery from home. He also created an editable wiki for students to catalogue their findings.

“The idea was to figure out a way to make it relatable for kids to extend their learning, as opposed to plugging in technology for technology’s sake,” Bentz said.

“The 39 Clues” blog and wiki have been a surprising success, with more than 800 comments posted by students from both classes puzzling out the mystery and helping one another, all on their own free time.

“I was shocked to find kids posting research at hours well beyond the normal learning hours,” Bentz said, “5 in the morning, 8:30 at night.”

Bentz alerted the author about the students’ active engagement with the book, who in turn alerted the publisher and now, the editors of the series are regularly commenting on the blog and answering as many questions as possible.

This direct connection with Scholastic led to Bentz and Campbell’s classes being invited to participate in the webcast to launch the release of the second book.

Technology is becoming more common in Solana Beach School District classrooms.

“This is a fantastic example of how technology can be used to its fullest,” said Erik Johnson, a teacher on special assignment helping other educators integrate technology into their lessons. “It’s not frivolous, it’s making something more meaningful ... and we’re providing 21st century skills.”

The students said they enjoyed using the different online tools.

“I think it’s really interesting,” student Sean Panish said. “You get to learn from your friends, and tell people what your are thinking.”

Watch the webcast at Scholastic’s Web site: