"Is this real?"

Post date: Oct 11, 2013 9:53:48 PM

Today we did the History Mystery: Black Death lab and I was reminded of the importance of packaging. I had one student ask "Why is it so quiet in here?" after noticing everyone working and not saying much and another ask "I just have one question... is this real?" in response to the FBI Memo that sets up the case.

The quiet question is interesting only because of the layout of the lab. My classroom is generally pretty quiet when students are working. This lab though is done in an open environment with as many partners as students wish. If there ever were a chance for noise to build this was it. The students though are so intense in their desire to "solve the case" that their focus is off the charts. They are quiet because they are working.

The only reason they get this into it, I believe, is the packaging of the lab. I "borrowed" the memo idea from an Alternate Reality Game that I played about six years ago called Prototype 161. (On that note, to the guys who ran the game, if you ever find this please know that your game has had a greater impact on my teaching and my students than any training or class every has. Thank you.) Most ARGs are just a series of puzzles wrapped into some kind of mystery narrative. This game was no different. I was in it though. I mean deep in it. I felt like an agent trying to solve this conspiracy. I knew if I could bring that to my classroom I'd bring high levels of engagement with it.

Fox Mulder had a poster in his FBI office on the X-files with the tagline "I want to believe." I think this is true of all of us but definitely is true of middle schoolers. I think my student knew the paper wasn't real, but he really wanted it to be. He wanted to be an important part of history trying to crack this case. He was, in reality, a student analyzing a series of documents to reach a conclusion. The packaging though sold him (and almost every other student) on the lab and had them focused intensely.

So, remember this as you're designing your lessons and even your worksheets - packaging matters. Make your sources look authentic. Use parchment paper instead of white copy paper. Write the worksheet title in the language of the civilization. Use language like "explore" and "dig" whenever possible. They want to believe, you just need to help them do it.