I am about to try to explain magic.

Doug Selwyn is our professor for an ELA/SS course via PSWP (Puget Sound Writing Project). He is the real deal.

Let me show you the hat trick he shared:

Room of ten adults. Fluorescent lighting. Stuffy room. Lack of sleep, coffee, and August is ending. We each get a piece of notebook paper and pen. Nothing else. He asks us a question each of us, through our age and experience might have some familiarity with: “Tell me everything you know about the 2008 financial crisis.” We write. Some more or less. He takes our papers, and puts them aside.

magic box

Then he asks a seemingly unrelated question. All the while, the number 2254 is written, small. He asks us to imagine it’s the year 2254, and what might our world be like? We mention a variety of scenarios. What’s interesting is to see who’s read a ton of dystopian literature (me) and who is more optimistic.

Then: (by the way, that in the magic business would be called a ‘misdirection’)

he picks up our papers, and one by one, softly drops one to the ground, stating– this one was lost in the earthquake (being North-westerners we are thinking about earthquakes), this one lost….and this one….and then there are two left. As we watched “our” paper, our ideas, fall to the floor, (we shared later how distraught we felt).

Once the board is fairly full, pick up the student- written stories and start dropping them on the floor, one or a few at time, linking each to something on the board, narrating as you drop. These were lost when the seas flooded the West Coast. This one was used as packing material when a ship left earth to colonize the moon. These were deemed politically untenable. These were used to start a fire in a woodstove when the wood ran out, and so on. Drop stories until there is only one left. Announce that this is the official, surviving history of the event that you have all experienced. Since no one from that shared experience is still alive, those future scholars will only know what is on this one piece of paper.

He chose one, and then read it out loud. Granted, our handwriting is not as careful as it used to be, so plodding through our text proved dodgy at times. When finished, he asked us to share some of the facts and opinions we heard.

Doug Selwyn and Kim Norton
Doug Selwyn and Kim Norton

After we dissected one, miraculously the teleporter worked and another piece of history stepped through: this time is was a much closer personal experience with the 2008 crisis, and shared a completely different point of view. More information! More context! More voices heard!

Now those of you who are socially conscious can already see all the possibilities for teaching, and all the ways this can be used to discuss voices in history, whose stories are told, and whose are silenced, what comes through, and how we interpret mysteries from our pasts. And– you also see how valuable it would be to talk about the passing along of knowledge (education) and information. This led into a rich discussion on even now, with the Internet, social media, and an explosion of information and shared ideas, we have loss in not being able to access the digital media as well as many inhabitants of our planet who do not have access or are censored, and even punished, by trying to share in the conversation, by their oppressive governments.

Now: walking back to the parking lot I contemplated on how to bring this to students under our new dictum of learning targets, success criteria, and performance tasks. If those three things are not visible, we are ‘marked down’ on evaluations.

magic trick

Can you imagine going to see Houdini and he tells you how, why, and what he’s about to do? 

I have no issue with students seeing a purpose for their learning, and understanding when they’ve achieved that purpose. But sometimes…

…wouldn’t it be more powerful to let them feel the breathless moment, to ride the emotions, and then reconstruct what just happened? The “How did she DO that?!” moment? I can just see my students protesting when their papers are dropped to the floor, and how they grapple when all the information isn’t provided. Doug made a time machine appear in our minds, and we hung on every word.

Well, at least ‘student engagement’ was covered.