Update: Five years after posting this, I started the website Puzzlements.co to send out links to interesting videos and images around the web. This experience with the zoetrope video directly inspired my interest in student curiosity.
As teachers, we spend a ton of time searching for inspiration to enliven our lessons. But sometimes, inspiration hits as soon as you leave the books behind. One Friday night, my wife and I took a trip to Disneyland and saw this unbelievable (like literally unbelievable – it seemed like magic) intersection of art & technology.
Luckily, I also found a video of it online:
This is a Zoetrope, basically a three dimensional version of an animated flipbook. Watching it come to life was truly shocking, I watched it at least five times to try to wrap my mind around it. If you live in the area, definitely check it out in person (in the animation room at California Adventure) as a video simply doesn’t do it justice.
Bringing this into my classroom is an example of the technique of purposefully exposing students to interesting ideas.
What Can You Do With This?
Back in the day, Dan Meyer used to use the acronym WCYDWT (what can you do with this all of the time. Rather than starting my lesson plan by looking at some standard and thinking, “What the heck could I do for this awful thing?” with WCYDWT, I’m starting with something that is utterly interesting on its own and then connecting it to what my students need to learn.
Seeing this Zoetrope in action immediately made me think, “What can I do with this?”. I knew my students would love it, it had interesting cultural and historic connections, it’s something you can build on your own. So…
What could I do with this?
Besides just sharing an amazing piece of art, you can use this as a hook to explore other concepts. Take one of these big ideas and ask students to find other examples that support the statement. These would be deductive lessons, and you can learn more about that technique here. We’re also building on the Depth and Complexity Framework.
- When our 👓point of view changes, new 🌻 details emerge to reveal new 🏠 big ideas.
- New 🌀patterns emerge when new 🌻details are introduced.
- When one 🌻detail is missing, a 🏠 big idea can fall apart.
- Or explore Arthur C. Clarke‘s quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
For example, we could start with the idea that missing a 🌻Detail leads to a broken 🏠Big Idea.
- Of course, we could model this using the zoetrope. Take away the strobe light and the effect falls apart completely.
- Then, scaffold by talking about students’ own lives and interests. When you’re at home, is there an important piece that would make your whole home life fall apart? Maybe it’s mom, or electricity, or a vital piece of lumber!
Students got into groups and we moved towards thinking about content. I asked them to make a treemap with this generalization on top, and then create four branches – one for each topic. Those four topics could be chosen by you or perhaps you’d let students choose one or two. Maybe you are vague (language arts, math, science, social studies) or maybe you’re specific (Where The Red Fern Grows, surface area, tornados, and Ancient China):
- In a story we’ve read, is there one detail so essential that removing it would destroy the narrative?
- In a math problem, which piece is most essential?
- In the Seven Years War, or in a chemical equation, or within a molecule, or within the solar system (and so on!) what one detail holds the whole thing together?
In the end, my students explained how this big idea worked across all subject areas. If they disagree with it, then they can offer counter-examples and argue against the big idea. Either way, this is a whole lot of thinking. It led to discussions and arguments and (had I wanted them) individual essays.
The Big Bonus
Finally, (and I love to share this bit) bringing this interesting idea into my class had the following unexpected impact. After the weekend, one of my students returned on Monday morning with something to show me. “Look what I made,” they said.
It was a zoetrope. The student had built it on a pencil. She could spin the pencil and the little drawings on top would animate.
This kid was not one of my academic superstars. She came from probably the roughest homelife. She often didn’t do homework. Yet she, for some reason, was the one who went home, researched this idea, spent her weekend building it, and then brought it in to show me.
This gave me a chance to brag about her to the class. “Look at what so-and-so made!” Then, as you can predict, everyone started making zoetropes.
Big things can happen when we make classrooms interesting. Not just challenging, but interesting.
Anyway, that’s what I did with this. What might you do with it?
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