Maybe It’s Time for a Diorama

Back in my youth, when it was fashionable, if insensitive, to celebrate Christmas unabashedly in public elementary schools, a good part of the curriculum and instruction after Thanksgiving was devoted to holiday activities. There was practicing for the Christmas “pageant” (music), making a Christmas ornament or a gift for Mom (art), and Christmas-themed writing, spelling, and reading activities. Counting reindeer, calculating how many days remained until Christmas vacation, and figuring out how to convert $5 into Christmas presents for the entire family all qualified as mathematics. I believe that elementary school science wasn’t invented for another 2-3 decades, but I digress. The centerpiece of all of this yuletide educational frenzy, the showstopper, if you will, for GBBO fans, was the Christmas diorama.

The mother of all performance events, the Christmas diorama had it all. Those self-contained boxes of art required creativity, research, collaboration (at least with a parent or sibling), communication (oral reports and later written reports), and critical thinking to

    • seek out and compile the relevant information,
    • determine what information was critical and what can be left out,
    • design the scene that would best convey the information, and most importantly
    • fit it all into a box.

Who would have guessed that you could get so much from a shoebox, some brightly colored wrapping paper, a bottle of glue, a roll of tape, construction paper, crayons, and a pair of those steel safety scissors with the rounded tips?

In addition to all of the subject areas mentioned above, the Christmas diorama projects also covered key social studies standards. Through those displays we learned about Christmas traditions across the various cultures represented in our classroom – including learning from the occasional student whose family didn’t celebrate Christmas. As we got a little older, the project expanded to Christmas traditions in other lands not. We learned about differences between cultures (again including that many didn’t celebrate Christmas), but more importantly, I believe, we learned a little bit more.

As important as it was to understand differences between cultures, the diorama projects also revealed similarities – beliefs and practices that were common (or close to common) across students’ families in our class. We learned that some shared beliefs and practices were uniquely “American”, some had been “Americanized” in some form, and others were shared by Christians around the world.

Common ground. That’s what I think we need we’re missing and need a little more of right this very minute – actually a lot more.

We’ve got a pretty good handle on our differences on just about everything, but we’ve lost track of the vast stretches of common ground. On everything from high-stakes assessment and accountability to COVID policies to climate change to gender issues to the role of government to the Constitution we need to see the common ground. We need to express less polarization and more Polar Express – we need to believe, to learn, and to be able to depend on, rely on, and count on leaders who will lead.

Given that nothing else has worked, I think that it’s time we call on dioramas to work their magic.

  • Tucker and Rachel – let’s see your dioramas on the most important aspects of covering a story.
  • Nancy, Chuck, Mitch, and Kevin – dioramas on what America means to me.
  • You nine over there – dioramas on the Constitution.
  • Vaxxers and anti-vaxxers, maskers and anti-maskers – dioramas showing us your main thoughts and concerns about the COVID-19 virus.

And while we’re at it, let’s bring it home to the educational measurement and assessment community as well.

  • Instead of posters at NCME in San Diego next spring – dioramas “defining” educational measurement.
  • Dioramas on state testing at NCSA from testing companies, states, local educators, and students and parents.
  • Dioramas on balanced assessment systems from anyone who has used the term in the past five years.
  • Dioramas on college admissions.
  • Instead of dioramas on school accountability systems, I think that I will ask for dioramas on the purpose of public school and the importance of universal education.

Will this solve all of our problems? No, of course not. Like our Christmas dioramas back in Boston, however, it may reveal some much-needed common ground nestled among our differences. We may learn a little more about ourselves and each other, perhaps enough to start a conversation. I’ll settle for that.

If nothing else, the task would require people to pause and self-reflect on their own views as they go through the diorama steps listed above:

    • seek out and compile the relevant information,
    • determine what information is critical and what can be left out,
    • design the scene that would best convey the information, and most importantly
    • fit it all into a box.

And that’s why I am insisting on old school dioramas. Sure, I could accept that this is the 21st century and ask people to do some type of multi-media presentation, make a TikTok video, create a meme or GIF, or for the older folks, make a PowerPoint presentation (but not just a series of bullets, please).  I think, however, that the physical interaction with the project is critical here – a full sensory experience, make a mess, get your hands all sticky, just like in elementary school. You can use the modern stuff for the presentation part of the project.

So, find an empty shoebox and let’s start solving problems.

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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