CLASSROOM PRACTICE: Motivating Learners with theUnusual: Thinking from 'Inside' the Box

By Bedient, Douglas; Scolari, Jacqueline et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2003 | Go to article overview

CLASSROOM PRACTICE: Motivating Learners with theUnusual: Thinking from 'Inside' the Box


Bedient, Douglas, Scolari, Jacqueline, Kowalewski, Patricia, Phi Delta Kappan


Every discipline has its own history of colorful characters who are sure to capture students' attention. The authors recount how this insight transformed a high school French class.

OBSERVERS of secondary classrooms report that many students simply put in their time, listening passively, scarcely taking notes, and seldom contributing to discussions. Understandably, teachers thirst for ideas that will capture the imagination of these apathetic students and engage them actively in the learning process. Here we describe a successful solution that originated in a high school French class and makes use of the intriguing characters and unusual events that interest people in the French language, literature, and culture.

Every subject has its rogues, its heroes, and its oddities. Van Gogh's removal of a large portion of his own ear following an argument with Gauguin is a classic example of eccentric, but intriguing, behavior. Students who recall little of van Gogh's work unfailingly remember this strange episode. Indeed, it was students' fascination with and long-term recall of van Gogh's self-mutilation that led us to consider whether other heroes, rascals, and rogues might also arouse student interest. Thus was born La Boite aux Mysteres.

La Boite aux Mysteres was a bright red box, about one cubic foot in size. On the outside were images of Vincent van Gogh and his detached ear, as well as the words La Boite aux Mysteres. Inside were questions about French language, history, culture, and other personalities who, like van Gogh, exhibited unusual behaviors. The opening in the lid was large enough to permit students to reach in and draw a Mysteres card, but not so large that they could read and choose a specific card.

When students entered the French classroom and saw La Boite for the first time, their curiosity was intense, and questions came quickly. What is it? What's inside? How does it work? Why feature a Dutch painter in a French class? (Students later learned that van Gogh spent portions of his life in France, a revelation that led to a discussion of expatriates and their reasons for emigrating.) La Boite quickly proved successful in countering student apathy.

What's Inside the Box?

Van Gogh's unusual behavior served as the "hook" for learner interest. However, La Boite made use of a range of questions and exercises that correlated with the beginning French curriculum. Questions challenged the learners and reinforced course objectives. Many questions were open-ended, requiring oral responses or board work. For example, one question card read: "Conjugate etre, avoir, and aller on the board in present tense, s'il vous plait." Others asked students to count aloud in French or to translate passages.

Higher-order questions were prepared for the various units and topics on French culture and customs. For example, when students discussed the Louvre, questions pertaining to its collections, hours, admission prices, and public transportation became Mysteres cards in La Boite. Characters, quotations, locations, and events from works of French literature and history were the basis for other questions. In addition to van Gogh, character cards included such personalities as Napoleon and Josephine, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and Louis Guillotin. When relevant, questions were added to the box that dealt with current events and topics such as festivals, currency, pharmacies, hotels, airlines, train and auto rental reservations, customs, passports, emergencies, and other aspects of everyday life. Our guide to deciding what to include were the questions "What am I trying to accomplish?" and "What learning outcomes am I trying to achieve?"

In addition to content questions, "chance cards" were included in La Boite. Elements of chance and the possibility of drawing a character card added to the anticipation and excitement. Chance cards included such possibilities as "Draw another card," "Tag another student to choose a card," and "No homework tonight.

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