When I wrote about the giant slingshots a few weeks ago, I felt the need to tell the back story that goes with my building them. But it made for a ridiculously long post, and the slingshots were hidden beneath my prattle about teaching.
So here is the back story… the saga of how I learned to teach science to small people.
About four months ago I landed myself a part-time job teaching science labs for an after school program here in town. I have Kindergarten through seventh grade, one grade at a time, each grade once a week. I was so excited to start—I love kids, and I love teaching… what could go wrong?
My first week they ate me alive. I’m 35 years old and by the end of the first week I was weeping at my kitchen table, to the horror of my poor husband who couldn’t figure out how a first grader could bring me so quickly to tears. Here are some highlights of that first week:
- The first question I was asked by the fourth graders was: “Are you pregnant?”
- The first question I was asked by the seventh graders was: “How do you get those white streaks in your hair?”
- I spent fifteen hours preparing for my first lesson—building props to illustrate how we need all of our senses. The kids ditched all my props within fifteen minutes and settled for pulling out the glassware gathering dust on a shelf in the back of the class and trying to turn on the gas nozzles in the front of the class. Simultaneously.
- The sixth graders ignored every request I made and all five minutes of the lecture I tried to give (and gave up on). They covered the entire floor in a slippery sheen of water, stared blankly at my carefully crafted jokes, and, when I threatened to make them withing doing worksheets the next week if they didn’t shape up, informed me that they would just not come to class next week.
- They pushed each other, swore, farted, went through my personal things, and did everything else they could think of to ‘test’ me, checking for a reaction after each little act. For example one little girl told us how her dad used PVC pipe to smoke his weed, and an even younger boy told me all about how much beer his dad can drink in one evening. Both told me these stories while eyeing me, carefully–what would my reaction be?
- Nobody learned any science. Not a darned thing.
I felt like a complete failure. Classroom management wasn’t supposed to be part of teaching science! They were supposed to just automatically love it, and come to me with questions like, “But why does mass times acceleration equal force?”
But I’ve bounced back. I love (almost) all of my students now, and believe it or not they actually love (almost) science. They run to me in the hallways when they see me now, asking when we get to have science next. I’ve learned some important lessons. And I’ve developed a killer death stare.
Most importantly I’ve learned that below the age of 12 the key to teaching science is to get them automatically and inherently interested in finding the answer. To make them learn without realizing that’s what they’re doing. To keep them actively learning, by doing, rather than by listening to me. I’ve learned that kids don’t care about being hi-tech. They don’t need fancy. They just need interesting. I go in now with a general idea of what we’ll be doing, but I am not tied to one plan, and if something else becomes more interesting I (try) to go with the new flow. I let the kids touch everything we’re doing–especially the younger ones. If I have hot and cold water, I let them each reach in to feel it–not because its integral to the science, but because its integral to engagement. And the delight on their faces as they experience the contrasting temperatures is wonderful. The antics haven’t stopped, but they’re manageable–and most of the time they’re so busy ‘playing’ they forget to act out.
There are, I think, two parts to science learning–flip sides of a coin if you will. On the one side is teaching vocabulary and concepts (Newton’s laws, the parts of a worm, elements of the periodic table, etc.). On the other side is a way of thinking. A way of creating new concepts and figuring out processes all by yourself. Only a trained scientist needs to know the vocabulary and concepts associated with a particular field (and these kids are almost all under the age of eleven), but everyone can benefit from knowing how to think like a scientist now and again–changing only one variable at a time, establishing before-hand how you’ll recognize a result, being creative as you problem-solve, and learning how to really observe.
I’ve learned not to focus too much on concepts and vocabulary–just a word or a phrase with the Kindergartners (who knew ‘surface tension’ was so difficult for a five year old mouth to say?), and a simple sentence for the sixth graders (something as simple as ‘a trajectory is the path something takes through the air’). I throw in key words as if they’re part of casual everyday speech so that things like “hypothesis” and “variable” sound normal. And I start the day with a five minute lesson where they practice ‘guessing’ the answers to my questions. Something like this* for the day we tried out the giant slingshots:
“If I wanted to shoot a ball the farthest possible distance, what angle should I shoot it at?” I say at the start.
“Straight up!” says one student.
“Does everyone agree?”
“No, maybe like a 25° angle”, says someone else.
“Hmmm…” I say, “Interesting… we’ve got two different hypotheses about what angle will shoot a ball the farthest. We should probably go outside and test this, but first, let’s discuss the variables that are going to influence the ball. What factors might also make a difference besides the angle of the trajectory?”
“What’s a trajectory?”
“Great question!” I cheer, “A trajectory is the path the ball takes through the air.” (And here I draw a picture of an Angry Bird with a dashed line indicating its path).
“One variable would be the size of the ball.”
“Good!” I say, “Except what do you mean by size–can you be more specific?”
“Like the weight”
“Excellent, let’s call that the mass. But there are other ways to deterime size–can anyone think of another kind of size measurement?”
“How big it is around.”
“And we call that?”
And then we go on to discuss aerodynamics for two sentences, speed for another two. And then we end with a scenario:
“Okay, so the plan of attack is that Johnny will shoot this tennis ball (I hand him a tennis ball), and Mickey will shoot this softball (I hand him a softball) and we’ll see which goes farthest.”
And what sixth grader can resist correcting my stupidity here?
“NO! Those balls weigh different amounts! And one is bigger!”
“Ahhhh,” I try to send surprised and intrigued. ”So what your saying is we need to change just one variable at a time–just the angle in this case, keeping to just one kind of ball–to see what happens, right?”
I tell them I need their help getting the heavy slingshots and balls outside. They love being responsible for these things. We take turns retrieving balls from the field, recording distances for each ball type and angle. I let the kids be responsible for reporting back to me the distance on the field. They try to beat each other in terms of distance a ball goes… thinking about the dynamics of trajectory, even as they struggle to beat the last great toss. They suggest we try footballs next time because they are more aerodynamic. Inside, I feel all warm and fuzzy.
And at the end we wrap up for five minutes–which ball went farthest? Which angle was best? We draw a graph of weight vs. distance, holding the angle constant. We draw another graph of angle vs. distance. And then we call it good.
* For the sake of smooth reading I have removed from this dialogue the parts where I say, “Johnny, pay attention,” “Mickey, eyes up here please,” “George, would you like to join us outside today or watch from in here? Because if you keep turning on the water and spraying the counter tops, I’d be more than happy to leave you in here today.”
I’m still a novice at this teaching thing, though. I’m learning to gauge my lessons appropriately (my first graders were recently bored by animal charades–who knew?).
I’d love your input: Think back to your own childhood and schooling. What lessons stick out to you? What do you most remember learning before the age of eleven, and at what point do you really start committing to long term memory what you learn in school? For example, I think back to my own schooling… I don’t remember any of my school lessons until seventh grade–then there are several that truly stick out. I have memories from the earlier grades but mostly of events: a play I was in, falling on the playground, getting in trouble for writing on the bathroom wall with a crayon (oops), etc.What do you remember from elementary school? What sticks with a kid twenty years after the fact?