The Two Great Things to Know about Magic Wands

I found myself, along with my family, sightseeing through the mountains of North Carolina last fall. We stopped and wandered into a local art store. With 150 artists represented inside, I looked around and thought to myself, “A better name for this place would be, ‘Hell, I Could Make That!’” My only interest there was to get some ideas that I might use to build into a classroom lesson sometime. To my surprise, though, I encountered a small, sand-filled barrel with ceramic stars on sticks arranged like a flowers. They were, “magic wands,” and the stars that stood out to me were the ones that said, “Poof! You’re a Genius!”

Without hesitation, I knew I was willing to pay the $20+ price tag for one of the magic wands, but I wasn’t exactly sure why. I knew there was something about it I needed to explore beyond the little ceramic heart attached to the bottom end of the stick. With the magic wand inside a fancy bag in my hand, I queried myself about the relevance of my purchase as we returned to the car and continued to drive the mountain roads.

At first I thought I landed a joke, which I am confident was the artist’s intent. To extend the joke I was going to make a Plexiglas-fronted box to place in a strategic place in my classroom with the wand visible and the words, “Brake glass in case of emergency.” We have all harbored the notion that if we had at least a little more brain power we could solve our problems. So I planned the construction of the box.

Later, I got to thinking more about my plan. I began to consider the implications of the joke. Suppose a student in class makes a mistake. I might pull out the magic wand and affectionately tap the student on the head and say, “Poof! You’re a Genius! Go and do better.” We would laugh together, I am sure, but what message would I be sending? The joke sends a message to the heart that I do not believe I am willing to express. The joke is that the person is not good enough in a way that only magic can change. Since it is a joke, we both would know the magic would not work. So with a tap I would have told the student that he or she was not good enough simply for the sake of a laugh. The real message would be that there is nothing the student could do in difficult situations. I was beginning to regret my purchase.

But there was still something about the wand that attracted me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was underestimating the pervasive wish we all have to be endowed with better brains, and that is what  I could use to send a different message. I found the relevance of the “Magic Wand!”

Now, I keep the wand in my top file drawer. When things get tough in class and the students feel trapped, unable to successfully solve a problem, I pull the wand out and ask them, “What are the two great things we need to remember about this Magic Wand?” Since they have all seen the wand before, they quickly respond, in chorus with renewed enthusiasm, “It doesn’t work, and we don’t need to be a genius!” Then they go and do better.

Red Herrings to Orange Herring Gulls to Clean, White Herring Gulls

I recently responded to an article in the June 22, 2010 Wilmington Star News (hard copy only). I wrote:

Dear Editor,

I have a message for your audience: that is, Reader Beware!

In his June twenty-second article, “Gulf Oil Leak Wouldn’t Yet Fill Up Superdome,” Associated Press writer, Gareth McGrath tosses us a red herring with distracting comparisons of the massive oil leak to similarly massive volumes such as the Mississippi River’s effluent and the space inside nine-thousand-plus living rooms under the guise of a better perspective. Quantities of spilled oil do not compare with similar quantities of airspace within architectural spaces. What is worse, is that McGrath sights a “mathematical context” (which, being math, many readers hesitate to argue against) and tells us that the problem, “isn’t that huge,” because lots of water is rushing into the gulf. The spill IS huge! The consequences are DIRE! While his Superdome comparison may be true, no true statement can make a bad argument valid. I sometimes need to remind myself to read critically. At best, McGrath’s article is not worth printing. At worst, it is drivel, not unlike the leak, itself, that is aimed to desensitize us from the bane of flora and fauna in the gulf. Instead of passing around red herrings, our time would be better spent supporting the clean up efforts in places such as East Grand Terre Island, where the white breasted, first year herring gulls have turned orange from the oil mess. Let’s make the effort go from “red herrings” to orange herrings to clean, white herrings.

Scott Dodd

June 22, 2010


Cole, C. (2010, June 6). Gulf oil spill: Birds in Barataria Bay hit hard. Los Angeles

TImes. Retrieved June 22, 2010

Watercolors and Science Mix Well

For the past couple of weeks my classes have been muddying the waters as they study the ways land (soil) and water interact together. Using a dirt-filled plastic tote with a hole in the corner, they each set up a variety of situations- each with a messy potential, I mean, a messy attraction. At about the same time we discussed vocabulary that included “meander,” “tributary,” “deposition,” and “delta.”

We are learning out-write that experiencing new concepts, rules and relationships are learned in tandem with the vocabulary used to identify the concepts. Sometimes the experience comes first, while other times the words and definitions lead the way. I have found that two important aspect of this learning combination is that the students need to realize that concepts and raw information such as vocabulary are learned differently, and, secondly, that these two ways of learning work best when addressed in succession- not really at the same time, but one after the other.

After mucking around long enough to recognize how water percolates and how run off changes the topography, we went to the GeoGlossary map in  the GeoSkills program we have available on our computer network. There we connected and noted key vocabulary while we discussed the way the words matched our messy classroom experience.

The following day we took watercolor paint to paper to represent the concepts we have learned. I uploaded representative student sample paintings to a Voice Thread at >> . Watch as the students add detailed comments to the voice thread about what is going on, scientifically speaking, in the river scenes. The students are in the process of setting up Gaggle accounts to complete the task.