The keynote speaker was just wrapping up. The teachers in the folding chairs all around me were quietly and politely easing their programs, notebooks and knitting into their tote bags and positioning themselves to sprint out of the ballroom before the crowd got jammed up at the exits. And, because I'm kind of an idiot, it was at this point that I started flipping through my conference program to take a look at what sessions I should go to.

I don't think so. 
Oh, that looks good; no, wait - it's for administrators. 
"Fun MCAS IEP Compliance Strategies That Really Work" - What does that even mean? 
Oh, hey - this looks promising...

I was so busy circling conference sessions that I hardly noticed that the speaker has wrapped up telling us how under-appreciated yet amazing we were and how the hard work was ahead of us and suddenly, we were at the clapping-and-gathering stage. We were told to have a great day, and then four thousand middle school teachers sprinted for the door.

My first-choice session was full up. I couldn't even get close to the door.

My second-choice session looked promising though - Effective PowerPoints in the 21st Century Classroom. Hey, you know me - I'm all about PowerPoint. I love it. There were still plenty of seats in the middle of the room. I slipped in as unobtrusively as possible and started listening to the presenter.

"So, most of you have probably heard something about PowerPoint. It's great - it's like a slideshow you can run from your computer!"

So help me god, she was showing us a PowerPoint about PowerPoint and reading her whole presentation from bullet-points. 

There are times I'm fearful for the future of our profession.

I knew this wasn't going to go well. If I wanted to escape with my sanity, I had to bail out of this session quickly and shamelessly. I got up as quietly as I could and ran the gauntlet of dirty (and in a couple of cases, envious) looks from the other teachers in the session and left.

Okay - the morning wasn't shaping up the way I'd hoped it would. I looked across the hallway and saw an almost-empty ballroom. Through the open doorway, I saw four or five women talking quietly as they cut and folded paper at one of the tables. Assuming that the room was actually free and that these ladies were getting ready for a presentation in the next session, I decided to slip in and get my bearings. If I sat down with the program, maybe I could figure out where I wanted to be for the next session and get there early enough to get a seat.

Of course, (and you saw this coming, didn't you?) it turned out that this was a real session and one with so few people in it that there was no way I could bail out of it. I had to sit politely and put up with whatever silly, paper-craft nonsense these ladies wanted to show me.

Okay - I'll try to make a long story short:
  • The two ladies were veteran teachers with seventy years of experience between them.
  • They were showing three other teachers (and now me) how to make something called a "magic book".
  • They said that this was a time-tested, sure-fire way to spark student interest in presenting projects.
  • It turns out they were right.
"Magic Books" (which, for my money, may be the least inspiring name for a project ever) are brochure-like folders that students make to present information. They have to cut and fold and weave some paper - not much, but just enough to give them some hands-on engagement - and when they are done, they will have a brochure with a secret compartment in the center.

At this point, I've made Magic Books with my students for five or six years and it never fails to engage something like 95% of my students.

Here's how you make one:

According to the teachers who showed me this, you can make magic books out of any kind of paper in any size, from slips of paper as small as postage stamps to giant pieces of poster board. They suggested using manilla folders, which are the right size and stiff enough to fold well. I've found over the years that this is a good call; the one classroom supply request I submit each year is for a couple of cases of manilla folders.

I use magic books for my first research project of the year with my 8th graders. I have each student research one of the Framers of the Constitution and construct a magic book about him.

Here is that project:

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I don't know the best way for you to use magic books in your classroom, but I do know two things:
  • You should.
  • I owe those two highly skilled and experienced educators an apology for my condescending attitude.