Research Cycle

 The Question Mark

 Vol 1|No 1|May|2004
Please feel free to e-mail this article to a friend, a principal, a parent, a colleague, a teacher librarian, a college professor, a poet, a magician, a vendor, an artist, a juggler, a student, a news reporter or anyone you think might enjoy it. Other transmissions and duplications not permitted. (See copyright statement below).

Wonder Boxes1,
Window Boxes and Window Shades

by Jamie McKenzie

(about author)

© 2004, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

1. The term "wonder boxes" is taken from the work of Debbie Miller, in her book, Reading With Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. 2002, Stenhouse Publishers, Portland, Maine.

"Have a wonderful life!"

This line too often carries a sardonic meaning with it on the order of "Make my day!"

A life full of wonder? of wondering?

A democratic society needs to raise young ones with a highly tuned sense of wonder in order to maintain the health, wealth and vitality of the nation.

This article explores a rarely mentioned relationship between wonder on the one hand and citizenship on the other hand, pointing out ways that schools should seek to nurture this relationship.

If we do our jobs well, young ones emerge from schooling not only with a sense of wonder but also with an abiding faith and an optimistic spirit.

A society that fails to meet this challenge is likely to suffer from angst, distress, ennui and pessimism - a drifting, rudderless future marked by cynicism and disbelief.

At its heart, a sense of wonder is a vibrant awareness of natural and spiritual mysteries capable of inspiring humans to reach for the best rather than the worst.

Each generation emerges with a greater or lesser capacity for hope depending upon the events of its time, but schools can play a dramatic role in fostering a positive spirit and a willingness to dream.

As Langston Hughes pointed out a long time ago, "If dreams die
Life is like a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly." (Full poem)

The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson was first published by Harper & Row in 1965. A wonderful new edition (Harper-Collins, ISBN 0-06-757520-X)) with fresh photographs by Nick Kelsh was published in 1998. It offers a vivid collection of words and images illustrating the allure of wonder.

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later life, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

Page 54

Carson describes the experiences she shares with a young grandson appreciating the sounds and smells of the forest after a storm, the roar of Maine surf smashing ashore and the shadows of migrant birds crossing the moon late at night. She is careful not to explain these things. She turns off the adult narrative voice and provides space for the young boy to notice and wonder.

The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused - a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love - then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response.

Once found it has lasting meaning.

It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.

Page 56

Another Brick in the Wall

In some schools, student questions and wondering have not been high priorities. Regimentation and transmission of culture from teacher to student has been the norm for decades in such schools - a condition well documented by Goodlad, Sizer and others.

Even rock musicians have lamented the indoctrination and heavy structure of such schools.

Pink Floyd's memorable song, "Another Brick in the Wall," made the point dramatically:

We don’t need no education.
We don’t need no thought control.
(Full lyrics)

Killing Us Gently?

Sadly, at least in the United States, the current focus on reading routines, test scores and basic skills is likely to accelerate the stifling of inquiry and curiosity as schools eliminate the arts and many of the more "wonderful" aspects of the curriculum in order to survive NCLB's harsh punishments. This trend will have the greatest impact on the least advantaged schools and students.

Reporter Mike Winerip notes that the superior efforts made by one Florida school and one principal to turn around student performance came to naught because just one sub group failed to make AYP and brought down the entire school. The same school would have passed in Texas where standards were less stringent.

"Making Leaps, but Still Labeled as Failing"
New York Times, April 28, 2004
Every day, Ms. Castle compromises her educational principles to help her children meet state standards. She does not believe in Florida's mandatory retention policy for third graders who can't pass the state reading test. But to give her third graders an extra 50 minutes of reading daily, she has eliminated music, art and gym. "I believe children need to play and sing and draw," she says. "But I also believe I have to do everything in my power to make sure they're not held back."

Wonder Boxes and Wonder Books

Instead of driving wonder from the classroom and replacing it with ho-hum-drum routines and heavily scripted learning exercises, we should make wonder central to schooling and learning, lighting fires in each child so she or he will be eager to come to school, primed to learn and hungry for words, meaning and knowledge.

Student in Grand Prairie ISD with her wonder box.

Wonder boxes are a particularly effective strategy to awaken, applaud and operationalize the curiosity and inquiry skills of children from the earliest grades onward through school.

Debbie Miller, a first grade teacher in Colorado, outlines the approach in her book, Reading With Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. 2002, Stenhouse Publishers, Portland, Maine.

Miller encourages students to collect the questions that are most important to them in a plastic container and then she helps them seek for answers. She shows them how to map out their questions and build meaning. She demonstrates how books and reading are central to the search for understanding. She balances her emphasis upon wonder and meaning with solid instruction in reading strategies and phonics.

In a similar fashion, Stephanie Harvey describes how older children might keep wonder books to help them initiate and track their inquiries. She credits Mary Urtz, a fourth grade teacher, and her students with the term wonder books.

These wonder books, as her kids call them, give students daily opportunities to explore passions, thoughts and questions in writing.
Nonfiction Matters
1998, Stenhouse Publishers, Portland, Maine
Page 16

In December of 2003, I had the pleasure of watching the impact of this approach on young children in Grand Prairie, Texas. An article and dozens of photographs illustrating the visit can be found at

Window Boxes and Window Shades

Stroll through a small town or an urban neighborhood and it is not unusual to spot houses or apartment buildings that sport window boxes full of cascading flowers - Rave petunias hanging over the sides, Betsy Ross geraniums standing tall and proud.

Other houses seem shuttered, their blinds pulled and darkened against the day. Passing these dwellings, we wonder what nature of shut-in is concealed behind the window shades.

Education can offer children windows to the world and boxes of flowers overflowing with rich color and vitality, or it can pull down the window shades and offer a thin diet of gruel - a shadowy, sorry enterprise at best.

We read Dickens and thank our lucky stars that Oliver Twist's penury and grim existence is a thing of the past, but if we drive through the more impoverished American cities, it quickly becomes clear that Oliver is alive and unwell.

Other lands have their own urgent challenges as some groups thrive and flourish while others stumble along and fall behind.

There is no justification for paring down the learning of disadvantaged students in the name of progress. It is a new form of servitude.

Minimalism may work in the art world, but it has no place in schools.

Every child deserves a life full of wonder.

Child Labor

Conservative zealots are now hoping to convert schools (especially for poor children) into something like the factories of the late 1800s - narrowly focused and heavily structured. They are bringing back the child labor so many fought to eradicate, but the new versions are concealed under slick marketing language. While they will skip the dangerous physical conditions of factories, they advocate "research-based" methods of instruction that reward docility, encourage passivity and prepare young ones for a life of low wage living.

"Don't rock the boat."
"Fill in the blanks."
"Do as you're told."
"Respect authority."

Slavery slides and morphs through variations. The original American system on plantations was grotesque and alarming in its claim of Biblical justification. While the American South took pride in its overt system of slavery, factory owners in the North created a more subtle form of servitude for workers. Variations on a theme. Life was extremely hard for many workers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nominally "free," the Northern worker often owed her/his soul to the company store.

When the Civil War ended the formal system of slavery in the States, the South invented share-cropping to carry through the rest of the century and managed to create a new version of servitude for both the poor white and the African-American. During the late 1800s, conditions in mines and factories remained harsh as "freedom" was still a concept in waiting.

Despite recent advertising efforts to portray employment in low wage retail companies as a heavenly experience, life in the minimum wage economy usually falls far short of Heaven. Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Nickled and Dimed, shows how un-wonderful this minimum wage existence can be. (Metropolitan Books; 2001, ISBN: 0805063889)

The American Dream is about mobility. Supposedly, one can rise above difficult conditions and shrug off the burdens of one's parents. Other countries offer similar dreams. Basic rules of fairness argue for a "level playing field" and the expectation that each generation might, by virtue of hard work and dedication, be able to "better themselves."

A democratic society needs to raise young ones with a highly tuned sense of wonder in order to maintain the health, wealth and vitality of the nation.

Back to May Cover

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format if unchanged in format and content for educational, nonprofit school district and university use only and may also be sent from person to person by email. This copyright statement must be included. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.

FNO is applying for formal copyright registration for articles. Unauthorized abridgements are illegal.

From Now On Index Page