The Mystery Box
Isn’t it fun getting a present? One of my favorite activities during the holidays is wrapping gifts. I love the idea of taking an ugly package or plain box and sheathing it in beauty. (I have an admittedly unhealthy addiction to pretty wrapping paper.) I love the process of choosing ribbons and tags, tying bows, and maybe even adding something special to the top of a gift—a colorful candy cane, an ornament, a small stuffed toy. I even love the subterfuge involved in gift wrapping and will put a gift card in a huge box with something heavy, like cans of veggies, to befuddle my sons’ in their pre-Christmas shaking and guessing. It’s so fun to conceal a surprise in a box, and a wrapped-up box immediately triggers everyone’s curiosity. Sometimes even I can’t wait to find out what the present is, since I easily forget what’s in the boxes I have wrapped!
In my classroom I use the curiosity-inspiring fun of a wrapped box and the universal delight we all take in unwrapping a present to introduce new units, especially in science. I have a small sturdy box with a lid, jauntily decorated with bright polka-dots and tied up like a present with a polka-dotted bow: The Mystery Box. Inside this box I place something related to the unit I want to introduce, such as our class stuffed raccoon, Boone, for a raccoon unit, or pictures of cloudy skies for a water cycle unit. I set the box on a table in the classroom, all tied up and mysterious. As soon as one student notices the reappearance of The Mystery Box, the exclamations and speculations begin: “Mystery Box! Oooh, I bet it’s a turkey for Thanksgiving!” and so on. The box is already doing part of its job in getting my kiddos excited about a new unit.
But the Mystery Box has other important educational jobs to do in its sneaky, Mystery Box way. First I supply the students with four clues about what is hiding in the box. The students must collect all four clues by writing them on their papers, then they are challenged to think about the clues and draw pictures of what they think is in the box. We do our clue-collecting as a silent activity with no sharing so that each student has an opportunity to consider the clues before hearing what others think. The clues provide me an opportunity to review vocabulary and other information and find out whether students have mastered concepts to enable them to make more complicated inferences. For example, if one clue is that the mystery is a mammal and another clue claims that the mystery can fly, students who recall that mammals have fur will eliminate birds or insects from their guesses. If one clue is that the mystery is a Tennessee symbol, then my hope is that they will return to their knowledge (via a song) to help them make an educated guess. My goal is to see students be able to use the knowledge they are acquiring, and fitting together pieces from the puzzle of the Mystery Box is one fun and easy way to do this. My students are usually so excited to find out what is in the box that they don’t realize they are completing an “assignment”; as far as they are concerned, they are each trying to win the game of making a correct guess!
Once we have all collected clues and thought about them, we begin sharing our ideas about what’s in the box. We discuss each clue as a class and find out what we know about that piece of information and eliminate impossible options together. We might find that the mystery lays eggs, leading us in our conversation to eliminate mammals, or we might find out that the mystery grows from seeds, leading us to consider plants. Sometimes I use clues with surprising information that the children don’t necessarily know yet, intended to inspire curiosity and wonder: “I didn’t know butterflies have scales! I didn’t know ladybugs are predators!” Many times the clues are simple and straightforward and almost all the students make a correct guess; other times the clues are more challenging to piece together and almost nobody figures out the mystery. Either way, all the kiddos are dying to see what is in that box! Whether they’re sure they know what it is or not, they all love it when I untie the box and remove the lid. Almost invariably there are shouts, laughing, and exclamations of “I knew it!” The kiddos really love it when I do the spider Mystery Box, because I fill the box with a bunch of different plastic spiders and throw them all over the place when I take the lid off. Screaming ensues! (I gently remind them of this when we take our spider survey, answering the question, “Are you afraid of spiders?”)
In his classic 1886 treatise on teaching, The Seven Laws of Teaching, John Milton Gregory cautions teachers that the language of the teacher and learner must be a common one. The Mystery Box helps me to discern whether or not my little people know what I mean when I use words like oviparous, nocturnal, or hibernate. Gregory notes, “Begin with what is already well known to the pupil in the lesson or upon the subject, and proceed to the unknown by single, easy, and natural steps, letting the known explain the unknown.” The Mystery Box allows me to do this by establishing our basis of known information and opening the door to what we will discover together. The importance of constant review is so crucial to effective teaching that Gregory devotes one Law to it, and The Mystery Box enables me to work in a little review in the midst of introducing a new topic. Gregory also exhorts teachers to “gain the interest and attention of the students,” and the Mystery Box certainly does that, eliciting great excitement about our new unit and inspiring curiosity and wonder in my kiddos.
Who would have thought that one little cardboard box could do so much? Thanks, Mystery Box!