Ms. Frizzle’s Sparkling Pedagogy

So thank goodness I watch so much children’s television on Netflix, because otherwise I may never have known that The Magic School Bus streams there. Remember The Magic School Bus? You know, that kids’ show that blended science and fiction: students went on spectacular field trips into the human body or into a volcano…meanwhile, the hardest part for me to believe is that Ms. Frizzle has somehow managed to evade the red tape which surrounds every school field trip.

I decided to watch “The Magic School Bus Gets Lost in Space,” and man, was there some major nostalgia. This episode is so old (how old is it?) that this episode was aired twelve years before the IAU reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet. This episode is so old (how old is it?) that at the end, in the segment where an anonymous caller chastises some random fellow with a telephone for the factual license the show takes (you can’t get that close to the Sun, you can’t expect to take your helmet off on Pluto and live, you can’t visit all the planets in a single day, etc.), one of the more random facts they include is that due to Pluto’s odd orbit, it will be the eighth planet from the sun until 1999. Do you remember when people were looking at 1999 like that was a long way off? Do you remember September 9, 1999, when some people were honestly scared that the world’s computers would crash because they’d think “9/9/99” was the last day of the world? In 1999, Britney Spears dropped her first album. In 1999, the euro was new currency. For half of 1999, no one knew what a Jar Jar Binks was. These were different, simpler times.

I’m getting away from the point, but I’d like to see you talk about The Magic School Bus without missing the past.

At any rate, Ms. Frizzle takes her class on one of her trademark extraordinary field trips, this time with Arnold’s officious but well-informed cousin, Janet, in tow. Here’s the point of this post: Ms. Frizzle is more or less a perfect teacher. Here are a bunch of things that Ms. Frizzle does right as she takes her students on a tour of the solar system:

–Let’s start with the basics. Ms. Frizzle’s class has eight students: Arnold, Wanda, Ralphie, Dorothy Ann, Tim, Keesha, Carlos (who is, believe it or not, voiced by that skeeze from Mean Girls), and Phoebe. Eight. I don’t know how Ms. Frizzle managed to swing that, unless she’s teaching at a really small private school in a really diverse area. Not only is her class teeming with positive racial representations, but it’s tiny. We find out very quickly that all of these students work together well and are friendly with one another. Ms. Frizzle definitely got lucky, because it’s so much easier to create a strong class environment when there are fewer students. It’s also a fact that smaller class sizes lead to better instruction and more learning on the student side. How many students Ms. Frizzle has in her class is beyond her control, but it certainly helps that it’s fewer than ten.

–Ever notice how nobody raises their hand in Ms. Frizzle’s classroom? The kids just talk. Ever notice how rarely they sit at desks doing busywork? In the start of this episode, the kids appear to have made a scale model of the solar system and are hanging it up by themselves. Ms. Frizzle is the queen of student agency. Presumably, this project stems from an assignment she gave…but after that, it appears to belong to the students. The students made those artifacts themselves, which is another great way for them to learn. On top of that, artifacts can be presented and shared; it gives meaning to the business of “doing school.” How many times did you turn in a project and then see it three weeks later with a grade on it…and that was all? Not in Ms. Frizzle’s class.

–Ms. Frizzle walks into the room with her pet lizard, wearing one of her funky dresses and glowing earrings. It’s certainly professional, but there’s no question that it’s her. One of the phrases that I heard a lot in my Ed classes was “teacher persona.” Teachers should definitely be themselves in front of a class, but it’s rare to see a teacher who’s the same in the classroom as they are with their friends or families. The teacher persona is a fine line between authenticity and acting, and one of the ways to establish it is through dress. Probably the two best teachers I had in high school were both known for dressing very particularly: one of them always wore black, and the other always wore outfits which matched perfectly. People knew those teachers had a particular fashion sense and came to associate that with the teachers themselves. The former was largely seen as no-nonsense, and the latter was accurately seen as a woman who had it all together. Enter Ms. Frizzle, who matches her instruction with her outfits. She’s kind of a nut, but this is the icing on the cake. It signifies an interesting connection of goofiness with the obsession she has with her subject matter.

–There’s a ninth student in the class today. Janet is Arnold’s bossy, officious, but well-informed cousin whose class has already studied the solar system. She’s deeply annoying, and Arnold (and his classmates) show some frustration with her from Mercury to Pluto. Janet spends this field trip trying to collect evidence that she’s been to all of these planets on the field trip to end all field trips, which includes a tacit reminder that saving weight is paramount for any trip into space which means to land on a heavenly body. At one point, Arnold has to sit on her to keep her from commandeering the titular bus, which is more of a Magic School Space Shuttle on this occasion. Yet even though most of the kids chastise her for being a know-it-all or just plain irritating, Ms. Frizzle never does. Ms. Frizzle actually goes in the opposite direction: she keeps Janet close and tries to find ways for her to be important. While doing her best Story Musgrave impression, Ms. Frizzle has Janet hand her tools, rather than banishing her to some cold corner of the bus. And perhaps most importantly…

–I spoke about student agency before, and how students were largely taking charge of their own learning by making artifacts. My favorite way that Ms. Frizzle maintains student agency is to avoid lecture almost entirely. Students teach each other in Ms. Frizzle’s class while she guides them to answers or ideas when necessary. That’s where Ms. Frizzle’s masterful handling of Janet comes in. At one point, when Janet is being insufferable about her knowledge of the solar system, Ms. Frizzle compliments her on “knowing your planets.” Along the way, Janet probably spouts off more facts about the solar system than Ms. Frizzle does, and she’s not the only one. For example, Dorothy Ann makes a point about the name “the Red Planet” for Mars. And yet Ms. Frizzle is not absent from their learning. She informs Keesha that over a million Earths could fit inside the Sun, for example, when Keesha wonders just how big the Sun is. The major point is that Ms. Frizzle rarely decides what’s important to know: her students ask her questions directly, or their fellow students (mostly Janet) provide information along the way.

–Finally, Ms. Frizzle makes scientists of the students in her science class. One of the most important things for a teacher to do, and something which I’m not sure a lot of teachers have in mind when they teach, is that students in their disciplines ought to do the work that professionals in that discipline do. If they can’t do the work (no English teacher in his/her right mind expects Lacanian analyses on a novel read in class, for example), then it’s important to teach them how to think and act as a professional in that discipline does. In English, students must become active readers and writers. In science classes, students have to act like scientists. In History, students must act like historians, and in Math…you get the picture. (You’re probably also remembering how little you felt like a historian or a mathematician in those classes, and that’s part of the reason why they were so boring in high school.) Ms. Frizzle is a science teacher and she makes her students act like scientists. She brings them into the field. She lets them make observations on their own and allows the students to build on them. Take Carlos and his interest in gravity: he notes that he can jump to great heights on Mercury, but cannot on Venus. Janet helpfully (and smugly) informs him that it’s the difference in gravitational pull on the two planets which makes the difference. Or consider how Tim begins his time on Mars by making an observation of his surroundings; that’s exactly what they trained astronauts to do on the Moon, even modifying the LM for Apollo 15 and after so that an astronaut could open a hatch on top of the vehicle and look out. Even Janet’s obsession with taking samples for proof is based in the principles of the scientific method: if you can’t prove it through observation and/or experimentation, then it’s not really science.

The legend of Ms. Frizzle continues to grow: not only does she drive a magic school bus and wear clothes that would be considered odd at Halloween, she is, in fact, pretty darn close to being the perfect teacher.

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