The Magic School Bus Shows and Tells (Video Review)
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
Title: The Magic School Bus Shows and Tells
Season: 3 (Show 6)
Year: 1996 (PBS)
Format: Video (Approximately 25 minutes)
Ages: 4 - 10
Current Availability: Scholastic
Plot / Summary: The class is preparing to be in the International Show and Tell Competition, but Arnold doesn't show up with the rock collection they were going to present. Instead, he has a wooden artifact he found in a chest that belonged to his aunt Arizona Joan. The Magic School Bus turns into a "suppose-a-tron" so that the class can test a series of hypotheses about the object's original function.
I have seen every video in the original Magic School Bus series, and this episode is not the best. It focuses very narrowly on artifacts, and the artifact in question - a decorated wooden hoop - has been taken completely out of context. There is also a series of cringe-worthy scenes with generic Native Americans. However, with proper guidance, this video can be used to talk about a few important concepts.
Provenience. The provenience of an artifact is where it came from and any story behind it. Without this information, there is very little that can be said about an object. The Magic School Bus kids have very little to go on. Arnold reports that the wooden hoop was stored in a chest with Arizona Joan's journal. The journal states that it was originally found "near bark canoes" somewhere outside of fictional Walkerville. It is colorfully decorated, and has some wear on the edges. For this viewer, so many questions remain. Was it found at an archaeological site, and if so which one? Was it buried (unlikely given its condition) or found in an open air context like a rock shelter? What other items were found in association with it? Why did Arizona Joan keep it? Professional archaeologists never keep artifacts. And why didn't she have a map in her journal? It's safe to say that this is not how archaeology is really done.
Experimental Archaeology. In the story, Ms. Frizzle directs the class to make a copy of the original artifact to be used for testing so that the original stays safe. They then take the copy and try using it for different purposes: a shield, a fish net, and a hat. This element of the story shows hypothesis testing in the classic sense. The kids make an educated guess about the purpose of the hoop and then test it to see if they are incorrect. In the real world, there is a whole field called experimental archaeology where scientists try to make tools, grow and prepare food, build structures, and many other things in order to get insight into how humans behaved in the past.
"Damage an artifact and you lose the key." Ms. Frizzle cautions the kids about keeping the original artifact safe. One could quibble about whether letting an anthropomorphic lizard play with the hoop was the best choice. For that matter, why store a fragile artifact in an old chest or a bag? Children should know that protecting artifacts starts before they are even removed from a site. In some cases, an item must be stabilized to prevent it from breaking when moved. Artifacts may or may not be cleaned depending on their condition or the presence of residues that can be studied. In proper archaeology, artifacts are stored at a special facility (usually a museum) under climate controlled conditions. For artifacts made of organic materials like wood, proper storage is imperative. Discussion question: What should the Magic School Bus kids do with the artifact after the Show and Tell Competition?
No one knows for sure. In the end, Arnold finally mentions that the hoop was stored in a chest with several matching arrows. This final clue leads to the guess that the hoop was used in part of a target game where arrows were fired into it while the hoop was rolling. This seems the most likely answer to the mystery, but to its credit, the show leaves the possibility open that the guess is still wrong. No one knows for sure, and that is really how archaeology works. We come up with a likely interpretation, but new data can always lead to new ideas.
A glaring omission. Archaeology is often presented in popular culture as artifact hunting. The poor puzzled researchers have to solve mysteries on their own because there is no one left to ask. No, nope, wrong, nada. Archaeologists actually rely heavily on what is called ethnographic evidence in order to interpret finds. This involves studying living cultures and hopefully consulting native peoples for their insights and perspective. Sure, the Magic School Bus kids were pressed for time, but they had a magic bus. If it could have turned into a machine for testing hypotheses, why couldn't it have found a tribal elder to ask about the hoop?
Archaeology is a social science. It is rare that a find is so far removed from a living group of people that artifacts need to be interpreted in isolation. Trying to interpret an object without taking advantage of the most useful source of information would be crazy. Incredibly, the profession is riddled with examples of archaeologists failing to use readily available ethnographic data in their research. Hopefully, that is a thing of the past.
The book version of this story is out of print, but you may be able to find a used copy.
If you would like to obtain the video, it can be found on some streaming services or on a DVD as part of the Magic School Bus Complete Series or Season 3.