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When Learning is Magical

This past weekend, as I was perusing the Kids channel on Netflix, I happened across The Magic School Bus. I loved these books and episodes when I was a kid, so I decided to indulge my nostalgia and see if they held up.

Spoiler alert: They do. Back then, I don’t think I understood who Ms. Frizzle was as a teacher, but I loved that she was adventurous and seemed keenly aware of her (admittedly small) group of students. I thought it was amazing that her dresses matched each unit of study and that she never seemed snarky or authoritarian (even if I couldn’t have used those words at the time). In my mind, she was what the best teachers were: smart, kind, aware, and willing to excuse a little nonsense. I’ll admit that I was nervous to dive back into this content. A few years ago on a whim, my husband and I decided we’d re-watch Fern Gully, a classic (as we saw it) animated film about the environment and our need to protect it. We couldn’t even make it through the first hour before we had to call it a failed experiment (the dialogue wasn’t good, and the plot was flat). Because of this, I was cautious that I might be on the verge of ruining a beloved series. And why would I want to ruin the memory of a show that inspired one of my all-time favorite Halloween costumes?

In “The Magic School Bus Hops Home,” we see a highly-functioning classroom before the teacher even arrives. Different kids are engaging in different work (taking care of a spider, conducting research, observing fruit flies, and building a hamster run), and we learn that Ms. Frizzle has given permission for one student, Wanda, to bring her pet frog to school. The frog escapes the classroom in a predictable (but also totally logical) way, which means that the class has to go looking for the amphibian. Ms. Frizzle smartly notes that to find a frog, you need to be a frog (great advice about trying to get out of your own head and into someone else’s) and calls for a field trip in which the bus becomes a frog. The kids learn about what makes a good habitat by seeing a variety of examples. Along the way, Ms. Frizzle gives her students the opportunity to reach their own conclusions based on their observations. Really, I think that’s the central tenet of the series: Kids can figure out amazing and important things when they’re given access to meaningful and authentic experiences. For the last few minutes of the show, a kid calls in and asks an adult version of one of Ms. Frizzle’s students (really—it’s an adult version of Wanda) about the more outlandish aspects of the episode, and those questions get resolved. Here, kids get treated like people who have questions about what they see and get real answers. Sometimes things that seem made-up are true or based in truth and sometimes they’re a flight of fancy. But the kids get information so that they understand what they’re watching. In a half-hour, the show manages to touch on a variety of big questions. Through the course of learning about habitat, losing a pet and trying to find it, and going on a field trip, the show implicitly asks the viewers to consider: How do I create a space in which I feel comfortable? How do I best help another being find where they belong? What is the life cycle? What does it mean to have a pet? What role should fear play in my decision-making? Ms. Frizzle gets to remain a great figure in my mind. She’s smart and savvy, treats her students with respect and dignity, and doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. She’s eccentric, but she’s invested, both in the content learning and in her students. For so many reasons, I think this is a great show. The topics are interesting, it doesn’t talk down to kids, and it demonstrates a kind of education that feels, and is, magical. I think the only danger in watching this is believing that classrooms and schools can’t have these kinds of experiences because they involve fantastical field trips. Yes, you can’t turn a bus into a frog or shrink it so that it can be swallowed by a sick kid to learn about the source of an infection. But school can and should get you into what really matters. It can and should get you as close to the “real world” as humanly possible. Schools shouldn’t have impermeable walls; a community’s school should be a central hub of that place. As you’re dreaming of your classroom this summer, how can you provide a magical experience for your students? How can you make the learning they do genuine and real? Do you want help thinking through this? Let us know! Image courtesy of Jack Bailey.


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