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The Mystery Box

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

I’d like to present you with the idea of the mystery box. I’ve only recently come across this idea by chance and I must say, I’m upset I didn’t hear about it sooner. I will warn you that once I tell you about the mystery box, it will take some of the mystery away, but also know that the mystery box will contain something different for everyone. So here goes.

I recently came across a TED talk by J.J. Abrams, best known for the television shows “Lost” and “Alias” and his work with Star Trek. His Ted talk is appropriately titled “The Mystery Box.” Abrams tells the story of his own mystery box that was purchased at Tannen's Magic over three decades ago. The box had question marks on the side and promised $50 worth of magic for $15. To this day, Abrams has kept the contents a mystery and has let that mystery shape all of his work. Each creation is regarded as a mystery box because, in his words, "it represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential." In his work, he knows that the audience is more engaged when they are asking questions and working to uncover the mystery. (Remember the polar bear in Lost?)

So, I firmly grasped onto this idea of the mystery box because to me, it made total sense. It’s that feeling you have during the days leading up to Christmas. After days of speculating by shaking, listening, studying the weight and shape of the objects, the mystery is gone. It’s the depressed feeling you get after all the Christmas boxes are open to reveal what was inside. It’s the same feeling I get when I finish a book, some call it a book hangover. After reading each page and carefully collecting the clues and puzzling the details together, everything is revealed and the mystery is done. The great thing about books is that there are a never-ending supply of those little mystery boxes.

The mystery box theory is one that can be applied to writing as well. It’s better to hold out on details rather than lay them all on the table. The reader wants mystery. The reader craves the unknown, even after the story is over. It’s the reason book series are so popular.

This year, I presented my students with their own tiny mystery boxes. As I'm writing this in November, about half of them still haven't opened the box. They're still speculating what's inside. There are theories out there that some of them are the same, but I will tell you that I loaded each box with different contents, so it's okay that they are questioning and testing theories because that is what we really want our students to do.

The mystery box has come up over and over in my class, whether we're writing narratives or reading short stories together, trying to guess what's going to happen. My students are okay with guessing the wrong answer because they know that it's the questioning that's the important part and that their questions can lead to new and more amazing ideas.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. Your classrooms are filled with dozens of mystery boxes, but these little mysteries are in human form. And while it may seem pertinent to uncover all the mysteries as soon as possible, because that’s what we’re supposed to do as teachers, it’s also okay to take your time and enjoy each mystery that you uncover. The great thing about humans is that there is no end to the amount of mystery that they hold. #mysterybox #reading #writing #questioning #teaching

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