The Tale Of Despereaux
Kate DiCamillo

More Information About The Tale Of Despereaux

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Reading Activities

Reading Strategies

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  • Word Choice Activity
    Jonas, Suzanne & Asay, Daniel. “Word Choice Activity.” 18 September 2008.
    A very common district and/or state English core requirement is to teach writing techniques which include word choice “The Tale of Despereaux” uses names and words with specific meanings are not only of importance to the students but also lend opportunities to expand vocabulary. Begin by having students write 5-12 sentences which contain commonly used words that have an obscure etymology or root (i.e. “sincere”). Below the sentence, have students write their own definition of the word. Below their definition, have them write the verbatim dictionary definition. Explain the etymology or root of the word (for “sincere,” the word means “without wax,” referring to the authentic quality of ceramic wares which have not been cracked and then patched with wax to hide their flaws). Continue by having students look up the names and words which they may not immediately understand (i.e. “Despereaux,” “Chiaroscuro/Roscuro,” and “perfidy.” Note that Despereaux, though not in the dictionary, is a derivative of "desperate" and "despair." For Spanish-speaking students, use the words "esperar," meaning “to hope,” and "desesperar,” meaning “to lose hope”). If time permits and atmosphere is applicable, have students pair up and play a few short rounds of literature themed “Mad Gabs” to demonstrate the importance of word choice and lighten up the class period.

After covering these words in class, use them within your routine vocabulary building quizzes. In addition, students may be given a list of short sentences with vague and/or boring phrases (i.e. “The man walked down the street”) and asked to use more descriptive, active wording to enliven these phrases (i.e. “The grizzled hermit slowly clomped along the parkway”). Use this to demonstrate and explain that proper word choice makes papers more interesting for the reader.

  • Voice Activity
    Jonas, Suzanne & Asay, Daniel. “Voice Activity.” 18 September 2008.
    Another commonly required district/state criterion is voice. “The Tale of Despereaux” is a great example of this because it is written in a very intimate and colloquial style, often directly referencing the reader. While this is appropriate for the style and audience to whom the nook is directed, it may not be appropriate under other circumstances. Students should understand the difference in writing styles used for different audiences of readers. Begin by asking what voice is (the action and mood of the writing) and how it is demonstrated (actions, word meanings, and word sounds). Ask a student to read a paragraph which contains a lot of voice demonstrations, such as:

“Ahhh, Daaad!” I whined, “Can’t I go out and see my friends, pleeease!” “No!” Dad shouted as he waved his finger in the air, “You’re grounded!” I angrily rolled my eyes and stomped up to my room.

Have the students write out at least 1 example from this paragraph of each of the 3 ways from above by which voice was demonstrated. Finally, bring a plate made of fine china, a plain white dinner plate, and a paper plate to class. Explain that there are different situations and instances in which each plate might be used. Extend to the students the analogy that writing also has varied formal levels. Explain that the essays which they write to their teacher should display the level of respect and authority that a china plate would, whereas the informal (“dinner plate”) writing is to be used among peers, and abbreviated (“paper plate”) writing is reserved for very informal notes and text messaging. Students will be asked to give 1-2 sentence examples of each of these levels and to explain what elements within their writing (slang, referencing the reader, mechanical errors, abbreviations, etc.) define their level of formality.

  • Social Roles Activity
    “The Tale of Despereaux” leans heavily upon the theme of social roles and expectations. The website given above lays out a fantastic lesson plan to address this issue, which is recommended to the teacher step for step with emphasis on activity 3. Another take on this topic would be to ask students to form groups of 5-6. Have each individual student write on a post-it note a number between 1-10 indicating how likely they believe they are to conform to trends and fads. Then, pull aside one student from each group and meet with them together in the hallway. Give each of these students a sheet of paper with two lines drawn on it, one obviously longer than the other. Explain to these students that they will be asked to return to their groups and you will ask these groups to hold a vote on whether or not the lines are the same length. However, some of the students which have been taken aside will be assigned to claim that the lines are indeed equal in length. Execute these plans and calmly discuss the results as a class. Ideally, certain groups of students will conform to the incorrect answer despite its obvious flaws. Ask the students to look at the number they wrote before the experiment and see if their opinion of themselves has changed. Discuss with them whether or not it’s easier to follow suit with the crowd and make a pros/cons list on the blackboard/overhead as ideas are given.
  • Cultural Background Activity
    “The Tale of Despereaux” takes place in a fictional setting which includes a castle, storybook knights, and other medieval elements. Despereaux himself defines his character through the chivalrous codes of knights and gentlemen. Therefore, it would be enriching and involving to research some of these chivalrous codes and other background from pre-renaissance times.

Though undefined, the story which Despereaux reads could very well be similar to “St. George and the Dragon,” which can be found at the Yesterday’s Classics website. Students may read this story and highlight 3 instances which demonstrate chivalry and/or courtly love and explain why they demonstrate this. Additional codes of chivalry and courtly love are available at the Arts Edge website for further discussion (this is a great resource for lesson plans related to medieval and Arthurian topics). Following this activity, students may be asked to write a brief (1-3 page) fairytale story involving a knight, a princess, and a quest. This assignment should be open to appropriate creative embellishment. After completion of this assignment, 2-3 students may be given an opportunity to read their papers before the class, or small groups may present skits, which will provoke the full class discussion of the following questions: • What is the definition of a hero? • What makes a person into a hero? Who are some of your heroes and why? • Do chivalric codes contribute to heroism? Why/Why not? • How is heroism demonstrated today?

  • Goal Setting Activity
    Jonas, Suzanne & Asay, Daniel. “Navigating the Dungeon.” 24 September 2008.
    Students today face a more diverse and challenging world than ever before. Each child will have individual and unique difficulties to overcome, and part of their education will be to use the tools and skills developed in the classroom to conquer the rigors of life. Additionally, within the limits of prudence and respect, a teacher who understands the needs of his/her students will have a better chance of enabling and empowering those students through life’s challenges. Using the dungeon setting of the novel as a launching point, students will draw, cut from magazines, or print from the computer, 3 pictures that symbolize “rats” which they see as their own personal challenges. Examples could be negativity, procrastination, distractions, forgetfulness, etc. These pictures will be pasted or otherwise attached to a picture of a maze or dungeon provided by the teacher—either as one large classroom montage or as individual handouts. The students will then be asked to write a 1 paragraph for each of the 3 “rats,” describing (1) What the challenge is, (2) why they see it as a challenge in their lives, (3) how the picture represents that challenge, and (4) what, very specifically, they plan to do to overcome this challenge. Next, on a separate handout, students should write 2 specific, measurable, realistic goals which will help and motivate them in their progress toward overcoming each challenge. These handouts should be posted in a visible area within the classroom or the student’s home, and at least 1 checkup, if not several regularly spaced checkups, should be made to mark the student’s progress. If desired, these items can be briefly mentioned at a back-to-school night or parent-teacher conference to keep all parties informed and involved in the child’s progress.
  • Newspaper Project
    Jonas, Suzanne & Asay, Daniel. “Medieval Newspaper Project.” 24 September 2008.
    One of the most important things for students to learn will be to apply their knowledge of English to real world situations. They must transfer their understanding of excellent writing to job interviews, journals, applications processes, reviews, etc. Students will use this project to create a newspaper themed after the novel, complete with a masthead, a featured article, an illustration or photo, several short classified ads, a comic strip, an obituary (i.e. for the Queen), an advice column (i.e. responding to a letter from Despereaux), and a sports story. In order to even out the work load, this project may be accomplished in groups or each student may complete only parts of the whole assignment. For instance, each student will do the featured article, but then only needs 3-4 of the remaining pieces. Examples should be furnished for each of the newspaper’s sections. This project would also be a great opportunity to visit the school’s computer lab/resource center, if available. The purpose of the project is to make students comfortable with the news format and make the community tools therein more accessible and applicable in their lives.
  • Business Communication
    Jonas, Suzanne; Thornock, Krista; Asay, Daniel. “Business Communication.” 3 October 2008.
    We live in an ever changing world of communication and technology. For their success, students will need not only an understanding of how to use technical programs, but the social conventions that accompany them. From the King and his subjects, Despereaux to the mice, and Roscuro to the alienated world, 99% of the problems within “The Tale of Despereaux” arise from miscommunication and misunderstanding of social rules. Have the students image what life would be like in Despereaux’s time period without the conveniences of the modern day. Discuss specific examples of how communication and social expectations have changed over the centuries. Have the changes in these two fields been complimentary or discordant? What problems/benefits might this create in the world today? How might the world be different if codes of chivalry still existed today? Keep with this subject as you move on to explain what might be termed the “rules” or “expectations” of the modern world, and how students can learn these traits and skills to resolve many of the negative aspects you may have discussed.

Setup a system so students may call each other, participating third-person parties, or simply pretend using old phones or a similar substitutes. Have them:

• Make a call as if they were trying to obtain a job interview • Make a call as if they were checking on information (i.e. a price or time). Require them to take notes on what information they obtained, to whom they spoke, and how they might verify this information in the case of a misunderstanding • Leave a message that will tell the recipient who called, why, and how the caller can be reached again.

Discuss with the students the level of formality which one might use in these situations (i.e. avoiding “cuz” and “cool”). Coach the students on eliminating distractingly excessive amounts of words including, “um,” “uh,” and “like,” as well as extremely long run-on phrases connected by “and.” You may similarly wish to cover the appropriate language used in writing a business e-mail or text. Review positives and negatives about a few examples and assign the students to e-mail you or call a designated site to obtain certain information to check their understanding.

  • This is a personal favorite activity for any novel unit. Before the novel reading is entirely completed, divide the students into groups of 4-6 people. Assign each group a different portion of the novel. The size of these portions will depend on the size of your class and groups, but because “Despereaux” is split into 3 distinct books you will have a general idea of where to make these breaks. After gathering ideas for several days but not much longer than a week, each group will make a presentation before the class (approx. 20-30 minutes). These presentations will include:

• A brief summary of what occurs in the novel within their assigned section • A brief skit depicting a scene of particular significance within the assigned reading. Every group member must play (at least) one role. Afterward, the group should explain why they chose to perform that scene and what implications it has for the novel. • A Q&A period (minimum 7 questions) where the group poses questions to the remainder of the class. Be sure to give an appropriate premise for these questions (i.e. no yes/no answers allowed and questions must go beyond identification and recollection into application, analysis and synthesis) • Drawings of scene or symbols from the reading section and explanations of what they are, why the student chose to draw it, and how it relates to the book. • A game or activity. Leave this very open to creativity but make sure there’s at least a loose tie or analogy with the book. A few examples could be Bingo and Jeopardy.

The benefit of this activity is that it covers the entirety of the novel with a greater depth and application than is typical. It requires far more application and thought than mere reading. By assigning the reminder of the class to take notes on a handout that they will turn in at the end of the presentations, you can be sure that everyone will tune in for the duration. It will also clarify expectations and guidelines if the teacher models and demonstrates the first group presentation.

  • Symbolism Activity
    Asay, Daniel. “Light is Precious in a World so Dark: Symbolism Activity.” 18 September 2008.
    Whether in the context of the cannon of classical literature or in mere daily social interactions, a mature understanding of symbolism and deepening levels of meaning and/or interpretation is an imperative element of every child’s conception of the world.

“The Tale of Despereaux” plays on several key symbols, the most prominent being the contrast between light and darkness. Highlighting these symbols within the text and enlisting them for classroom discussion is an easy way to address how authors in all genres, times, and cultures use symbols to intensify the meaning of their works. One activity would be to have students form small groups of 4-6 people. Assign each member of each group with a specific assignment (recorder, researcher, artist, presenter, etc.) and have them fulfill these rolls as they choose a culture (freely or from a pre-approved list, perhaps by drawing out of a hat) and research 5-10 symbols which commonly accompany that culture (i.e. Judaism and the Star of David or the Temple of Solomon, China and Dragons or Feng Shui). Having a preapproved list of cultures and symbols may help speed the process along if time is a factor. Ask the students to research the origin and significance of these symbols to their corresponding cultures. Ask them what symbols exist in their own culture and what significance they represent. These may include clothing, classical and contemporary media, art, transportation, etc. Use creative ideas such as drawings or skits to increase student involvement and have them present their work before the class or in a portfolio. Refer back to the student’s presentations as you discuss the symbols found within “The Tale of Despereaux.”

  • The Archetypal Hero
    Jonas, Suzanne & Asay, Daniel. “The Archetypal Hero.” 24 September 2008.
    For centuries, even millennia, western storytelling has adhered traditionally to an archetypal outline for heroic characters. It’s become a cultural trademark and a standard element of story writing. Students will use the accompanying handout to identify and gain understanding of the traits of the western archetypal hero. The teacher is to demonstrate an initial example which gives him/her the opportunity to discuss the hero’s character traits with the class. During this time, the students should take notes within the third column of the worksheet, ask questions, and familiarize themselves with the topic. The fourth column (Despereaux) and fifth column (a hero of the individual student’s choosing) can be completed in turn, following the teacher’s model, either in class or as homework. The fifth column is meant to give the students an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of the concept. To do so, they can use any hero figure from history, media, fiction, their own lives, etc. Examples include Simba from Disney’s “The Lion King,” Marvel Comics’ Spider-man, or King Arthur. Creativity is greatly encouraged.

The qualities for description on the attached worksheet include:

Circumstances of birth are unusual

Leaves his family or land and lives with others

An event (often traumatic) leads to adventure or quest

Has a special weapon, often that only he alone can wield

Has supernatural help

Proves himself many times while on adventure

Takes a journey and becomes wounded

Experiences atonement with father

At the end of the quest or when the hero dies, he is rewarded spiritually

  • Coat of Arms Project
    Jonas, Suzanne & Asay, Daniel. “Coat of Arms Project.” 25 September 2008.
    Coats of arms have been used for centuries in lands such as The United Kingdom, mainland Europe, and even as distant as Japan. These adornments are still used for various reasons including legal signatures, symbols of shame, honor or achievement, or to represent families and distinguish royalty. Follow the guidelines of the worksheet titled “Medieval Coat of Arms Project” (attached below) to direct the students in creating their own coat of arms themed after the novel. This project is designed to give the students a chance to relate to the novel in a way that applies their understanding of the reading, but to also temporarily break away from the daily routines of the classroom. A reasonable break at the right time can do a lot of good for the class in the long run. Not to worry, it will still require them to analyze the book, synthesize a product, and demonstrate their understanding. This is another project which can be done individually or in small groups and the results could be displayed around the room to give a sense of the book’s atmosphere to your learning environment—helping the students to get out of the world and into the book.

Items included on worksheet:

Definition of Coat of Arms: An arrangement of bearings, usually depicted on and around a shield, that indicates ancestry and distinctions (i.e. the official symbols of a family, state, etc.).

The Assignment: Coats of arms were an official distinction of ancestry and achievement among many cultures, including the pre-renaissance Europe seen in our reading of The Tale of Despereaux. You will now join art and literature by creating a visual image based on an event in the book.

The Process: 1. Write your name, the date, and the period number on the back of the provided paper. 2. Decide on a scene from The Tale of Despereaux which you would like to use as the topic or theme of your coat of arms. 3. Follow the example to the right to create a coat which symbolizes the actions, emotions, morals, etc. of that scene. Your coat does not need every element shown in the example, but it must at least contain a crest, a supporter, a shield with at least one field and charge, and a motto. 4. Write a short review of your coat of arms. Explain which scene the coat depicts and why you chose that scene. Then, for each at least 4 of the elements you’ve included, write: a) What the element is and what it represents. b) How it relates to the scene chosen from the novel. c) Why you chose that symbol and scene. Explain what significance or meaning it has for you.

Example: The shield on my coat of arms has a spool of red thread, which symbolizes the red string that was placed around Despereaux’s neck. Despereaux wore this string as a mark of his shame when he was thrown out of his family and into the rat’s dungeon. Sometimes people want to mark others as outsiders because they are different. Despereaux was marked by a red string because he was different, but he used his differences to reunite the kingdom and help the other mice. If we too are courageous, we can turn bad situations into good.

A picture of a coat of arms is meant to be included on the worksheet

  • Medieval Magazine Ad
    Jonas, Suzanne & Asay, Daniel. “Medieval Magazine Ad.” 26 September 2008.
    This activity continues in the initiative of assignment 4 above, using English techniques in practical settings. The end product of the work will be for each student to develop a magazine advertisement. In the process, they will acquire and demonstrate a knowledge of persuasive writing. Divide the students into groups of 3-5 and use the attached worksheet as a guide to direct class discussion and teach the uses and benefits of persuasive writing. It’s more than likely that persuasive writing will at some point be a state/district writing task and these concepts will prove helpful for when that time comes. In order to complete the worksheet the teacher will need to bring in photos or actual items for the kids to “sell.” Tie this in with the mounds of bowls and spoons the king stores in the dungeons and say that the King is holding a “yard sale” to liquidate his storage. Ideal items are those themed after events, objects, and discussion topics from the novel (i.e. soup bowls and spoons, a piece of dungeon rope, a rat cage, etc.). Once the students have completed the worksheet and in so doing can illustrate a clear understanding of the principles of persuasive writing, have them apply any one of their items for sale to a magazine ad. The idea here is that the ad should use a minimal amount of words but be very catchy (visually as well as verbally). To assist the students in this goal, consider using an overhead or computer projector to display 2-4 sentences with words that can be removed in order to make the message more concise (i.e. Sports Co: Go out and play hard so you win! Sport Co: Go. Play. Win.) and direct the students through the process of eliminating unnecessary words to arrive at a succinct point.

Sell Your Junk: Persuasive Arguments

Use the following format to develop persuasive arguments that will help you create a magazine ad. Each group will be given three items. They might be strange, broken, or seemingly useless, but it’s your job to sell them. For each item, start with a claim like: “You should buy ________________.” In order to support that claim, come up with two pieces of data and connect each of these pieces of data to your claim through a warrant.

  • Example*

Claim: You should really buy this empty CD case. Data: The case is still very functional for (1) holding CD’s and (2) keeping them safe. Warrant: If you buy the empty CD case, you’ll have a spare the next time you find an unprotected CD. After all, a protected CD lasts longer and you’ll be able to enjoy it for years to come!

  • Item 1*




[Teacher: continue this format for the other 2 items on the back of the worksheet]

  • Quotation Sandwich
    Jonas, Suzanne & Asay, Daniel. “The Quotation Sandwich.” 2 October 2008.
    It’s more than likely that at the end of their reading unit the students will be writing an essay. Although an essay by itself is not included among these activities, some writing elements that will help make a good essay are. This particular activity is designed to give the students an understanding of how to smoothly transition into and back out of quotations from the text. This lesson is especially applicable because it interrelates with discussions about what kind of concrete details ought to be cited and how to cite them using MLA (or an alternative) format. The attached handout is designed as a visually involving reference which will provide structure for the discussion. It’s not a complete worksheet. Therefore it is recommended that, after giving definitions and examples of concrete details and modeling them so the class can identify their characteristics, some kind of application activity is included on the back of this handout. For example, you may start with a few unpunctuated sentences that the students will edit according to MLA guidelines, or ask them to write phrases which transition into and out of already provided quotes (share a few of the better ones with the class!). Ultimately, however, they should apply their learning to the novel by choosing an appropriate number of concrete details to use in their essays (generally 2 per paragraph within 3 body paragraphs of a 5 paragraph essay format = 6 total concrete details). Not only will they use these in the essay, but they should turn them in on a separate paper to demonstrate their understanding of the immediate material.

The worksheet has a picture of a top bun, meat, and a bottom bun. Within each are the following texts:

Top: Introduce quotataion, transition into quote, The first time use the author's full name and thereafter use only the last name, title of source, preface situation

Meat: Give quote using " ", Summarize/Paraphrase, Any changes to the quote use [ ], portions left out use . . .

Bottom: End with proper MLA Format - example: "Quotation" (last name, page#).,transition out of quotation, use ratio of 2:1 commentary:quote, explain meaning

  • Peer Review Editing
    Jonas, Suzanne & Asay, Daniel. “Peer Review Editing.” 20 September 2008.
    This is another activity to help improve essay writing. Assuming that an essay has been assigned based on a topic from the novel, move through the steps of this essay project normally. Once the students have completed a rough draft, have them bring a copy of it to class. Place a copy of a completed essay on the overhead/computer projector (can be a student’s essay, professional, related, unrelated, whatever) and give the students the attached Peer Review handout. Have them follow through the steps of the worksheet with you as you review and grade the essay on the screen. Stop to explain and discuss why each score you give is appropriate for its accompanying bullet point. Use this opportunity to address any specific concerns you may have as a teacher with the class’ writing up to this point. When you are confident that the students understand your procedure and method, allow them to trade papers with a neighbor and peer review each other accordingly. You may wish to explain the benefits of tactful positive feedback. One of the best attributes to this activity is that it gives students a chance to see their own writing in the context of their peers. When they are exposed to other examples and techniques they can identify and incorporate fresh ideas and skills into their own work. Plus, they lend and obtain critical commentary to improve their current essays. Everyone wins.

The Peer Review worksheet includes the following details with a scale of 1-4 written beside each for easy circling

Read the descriptors under each of the 6 traits and circle the appropriate number (1=F, 2=C, 3=B, 4=A)

Ideas  Introduction invites the reader into the paper  The conclusion summarizes the main points  Topic sentences provide correct overview of body paragraphs (BPs)  Specific quotes, or concrete details (CDs), in BPs  Commentary adds or builds on the CDs and doesn’t summarize it

Organization  Original title  Well written thesis  Ideas in paragraphs logically divided  BPs contain 2 quotes each

Voice  Writer is aware of the audience and writes appropriately for them

Word Choice  Writer stretches to use descriptive, intelligent words  Combinations of words relay a specific effect

Sentence Fluency  Sentences vary in length as well as structure  Uses connectives between sentences  Quotes are placed in context so they blend into paper

Conventions  Spelling is generally correct  Correct use of commas  No run-ons or fragments  Grammar usage is correct  MLA format  Quotes accurately cited

  • Civil Disobedience
    Jonas, Suzanne & Asay, Daniel. “Civil Disobedience.” 1 October 2008
    This activity is designed to align themes from the novel with history, as well as giving the students an opportunity to explore their beliefs about social justice in a manner that they can apply to real-world situations. Throughout “The Tale of Despereaux” examples of civil disobedience bring varied consequences. Despereaux is almost the polar opposite of his society’s civil expectations, yet his non-violent actions teach them the errors of their ways. However, Roscuro the rat uses rebellion with far less productive consequences. Having the students examine what Kate DiCamillo might have been trying to say about civil disobedience will give them a far more rounded concept of the world in which they live. The idea will be to pose questions such as, “When, if ever, is civil disobedience a good idea?” and, “Under what conditions can civil disobedience be carried out and with what consequences?” While there may not be a definitive answer in class, the mere engaging of the student’s minds into such a deep subject is an exercise which they must learn to employ. Not to mention giving them a reason to survey the consequences of their actions is a skill far understated in modern society. However, it isn’t unwise to make it perfectly clear beforehand in the class disclosure that the object here is by no means to permit or suggest rebellion.

Have the students complete the attached 2-sided Civil Obedience worksheet below. This may be an activity to take home and research or it may require a trip to the school’s media, if available. It should be largely self-explanatory. As always, it’s most helpful to first explain concepts, then give models and examples, then do part of the work together, and then allow the class to work on its own and demonstrate its understanding. Either afterward or when the moment makes itself naturally available, don’t hesitate to hold appropriate discussions in which the students can express their opinions and evaluate the thoughts of their peers. They are a miniature model society, a microcosm of the topic they are discussing, and as such they stand to learn greatly in this activity by experience as much as (or more than) bookwork.

Modern Examples of Civil Disobedience

Select 3 figures or organizations from history that used civil disobedience to encourage change. After finding out a little about them, complete the chart below. The following are suggestions, but you may find your own. A good search term to use is “Non-violent Resistance.”

Make a table that allows the students to give the following details for each of the 3 chosen figures

Person or Group For what purpose did this person/group use civil disobedience? What specific action was taken by the person/group (how did they show civil disobedience)? What, if any, changes resulted in the use of civil disobedience? Evaluate the success or failure of the person’s/group’s actions. What went well? What should they have done differently?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cindy Sheehan

Rosa Parks

Caesar Chavez

Nelson Mandela

Harriet Tubman

Vidkun Quisling

Mahatma Ghandi

Lech Walesa


1) Brainstorm a list of ways to oppose your school’s attendance policy using civil disobedience:

a) b) c) d) e)

2) Select the 2 most reasonable options from your list above. List them below:

a) b)

3) Now, using option 2a, write about the possible outcomes below. What might be the consequences of your plan? How will it impact students, parents, the administration, or law enforcement? What are the possible problems your plan might encounter? How successful might your plan be? Do the same for 2b.

a) b)