Grilling the authorities Teachers take polygraph in 5th-grade whodunit exercise

November 15, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

The prospect of strapping their teacher to a polygraph machine seemed full of possibilities to Larry Henning's fifth-graders at Runnymede Elementary School.

But the questions the interviewer gave him were a real let-down.

"Are you a schoolteacher?" polygraph specialist Wayne Pugh asked Mr. Henning.

"Is today Thursday?" continued Mr. Pugh.

The children didn't need a polygraph machine to figure out whether Mr. Henning was telling the truth.

Mr. Pugh had warned them ahead of time that polygraph tests are not very dramatic to watch, and that he wasn't going to embarrass Mr. Henning with any personal questions.

"If he lies, will it beep?" asked Josh Showers of Taneytown.

No, not even that.

Mr. Pugh explained that no obvious alarm would sound. For a real test, he later would analyze the breathing, blood pressure and heart rate on the charts.

"Couldn't we have asked the questions?" said Jason Graybeal of Westminster.

Jason didn't want to grill Mr. Henning on his personal life. He wanted to get to the bottom of a classroom mystery devised by the three fifth-grade teachers at Runnymede.

The reading-resource teacher for the school, Joy Dain, also tried to stir the pot by slipping a piece of paper to Mr. Pugh, suggesting he ask who robbed the fifth-grade "bank."

That's what Jason wanted to know. He and other students have narrowed it to the three fifth-grade teachers. But Jason wants to know if Mr. Henning was the one who took the money, the one who did the shooting, or both.

Later, Mr. Henning said he and fellow teachers Paula Sandridge and Carol Frazita surprised the students two weeks ago with an announcement that the bank they created in their math class, with fake money and checking accounts, had been robbed by "three masked bandits."

As part of the mystery unit in reading, teachers devised the robbery and gave students some clues to figure out who took the money.

"If they ask the right questions, they could figure it out," Mr. Henning said. And unless they do, he's not going to tell them, he said.

Actually, he said, interest has waned since the students figured out the three bandits were the three teachers. They aren't so interested in each teacher's role, Mr. Henning said.

Jason, however, would like to get all the details for the record.

The mystery is part of the "integrated language arts" program. The integrated approach gets students to learn, read and write about several aspects of a topic, so that it connects with other subject areas such as science and math.

For example, the students read two mystery books, "The Boxcar Children" and "Basil of Baker Street."

The teachers connected the mystery theme to math when they devised the bank robbery. Along the way, the students learned how money in a bank is insured. The "money" they put in the bank comes from a weekly "paycheck" they get and deposit in checking accounts. They learn to write checks and keep a register.

Teachers integrated mystery with science by having Mr. Pugh bring his polygraph machine to class. Mr. Pugh works for the Department of Defense and lives in Sykesville. He is a friend of Ms. Dain, who came up with the idea to invite him to the school.

Mr. Pugh gave two demonstrations, quizzing Mr. Henning in front of his students and Ms. Sandridge in front of hers.

In each case, Mr. Pugh attached two straps around the teacher's chest -- one for breathing and one for heart rate. He also attached a blood pressure cuff and sensors to two fingertips.

Before the demonstration, he told children a little about how and why scientists invented a polygraph machine.

The word "polygraph" refers to the way the machine charts several things on one page: perspiration, heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate.

The fifth-graders have their own built-in lie-detectors.

When Mr. Pugh asked if any of them could tell when someone is lying, they were quick to raise their hands.

"My brother always laughs," said Kim Smith of Union Bridge.

"My brother always looks at the ceiling," said David Humple of Taneytown.

"There is some change in their manner, their physical appearance," Mr. Pugh said of people who are lying. "Scientists and doctors always felt you could tell whether a person was being truthful or not because of some physical change.

"That's the basic principle of a polygraph: stress," he said. He made sure to point out to children that the polygraph machine is just one tool in figuring out whether a person is lying.

The results are used in court only if both sides agree to do so, he said.

Often, he said, defense lawyers use them to figure out whether their clients are telling them the truth.

"That doesn't mean the polygraph always works," he said. "If someone tells you that, they're not being truthful."

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