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Teaching science and coming out alive: Lessons learned from a pack of kids

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:

  1. The first question I was asked by the fourth graders was:  “Are you pregnant?”
  2. The first question I was asked by the seventh graders was:  “How do you get those white streaks in your hair?”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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?”

Ha.

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?”

“Diameter”

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?”

“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?

20 Comments so far

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  1. Disassembling small motors/appliances! My super-awesome 5th grade teacher asked parents to give us junky hand mixers, toasters, etc. that we would then disassemble and figure out how they worked. That was one of the coolest, funnest activities we ever did.

    • Linds

      That’s a great idea! I’m going to do that with Ari next week… I have a toaster that only 1/2 working, I’ll start with that.

  2. I wanted to add that those kids are darn lucky to have someone as excited about science as you. :)

    • Kristal, you are too kind. And the idea of disassembling old appliances is absolute GENIUS. I’m totally adding that to my list of science activities. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Heather

    Sadly, I don’t really remember any science lessons in school. I did, however, have a great 4-H leader who would let us develop any kind of project we wanted and help us however she could. This led to many tide pool visits and plant collections along the way, which I know had had a huge impact on me.
    Pregnant?? I’ll show them pregnant!

  4. Linds

    The only thing I remember from elementary was learning that because I lived in Utah that I was a Republican. This must have stuck out only because it was so confusing, my Dad wasn’t a Republican and he lived in Utah… Everything else I remember was strictly social so I pretty much only remember things that happen on the playground or at the bus stop.

    I do however remember my High School Science teacher. He taught us by having us DO things, it was the first time I’d had a teacher like that, and the first time that anything academic really clicked.

    I also have to add that the same things you learned in the after school program can be applied to my kids… Great thoughts!

    • Linds, Ha ha ha! I’m still trying to figure out if that meant your teacher was Republican, or if she was lamenting the fact that she wasn’t Republican. I’m like you–I mostly remember the social things until later on. I have a feeling it doesn’t HAVE to be like that with the right kind of lessons though, don’t you? Your high school science teacher sounds awesome–glad you had him!

  5. Pam

    I remember that we used microscopes once. Only once. The school had microscopes and we had one little class on how to use a microscope and then it was all over they were packed back up and I never saw them again. Now I am living vicariously through my son. He got a microscope for Christmas and it is out all the time, anything and everything is observed through it.

    Other than that I don’t even remember Science until 7th grade. It sounds like your students will remember though.

    • Pam, Microscopes make the world a much bigger place, don’t they? A world that is ‘hidden’ comes to life. I’m as fascinated by what you can see with them as any child (but I’m a biology nut…) I remember being a TA in college and having students who were supposed to look at pond scum, just a drop of it, mounted on a microscope slide. I peered into the lenses to help one student focus just in time to see some giant microbe engulf another whole. Poor student, I was so enthralled I didn’t want to give back his scope! =) I’ve been thinking about buying a microscope for myself, and then bringing it to class from time to time, as they don’t have any working ones at this school. You’ve got me convinced that I should!!

  6. dori

    Thinking back the coolest things I remember are raising mealworms and going on field trips. One trip we searched for salamanders and other creek life, and on another we went to a hands on science museum! I am having a hard time thinking of any cool activities I remember though..Solar oven making and nachos is always a big hit!.Good luck with your classes, I think those kids sound super lucky.

    • Dori, Field trips really do stand out, don’t they? It’s the perfect way to have an ‘event’ (which children tend to remember) and also some learning. Going to a creek to look under stream rocks and whatnot is a great idea–I’m going to keep that in mind just in case I get a chance. And I love the idea of nachos in a solar oven–I was going to do a whole week on the sun, with sun prints, solar beads, shadows, and solar ovens, but we ran out of time this year–hopefully next time! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Ooh, I remembered three other awesome science experiences:
    1) taking dip nets to the nearby stream and looking at all of the alien-looking things we pulled out of the water.
    2) making tissue paper hot air balloons with the same fantastic 5th grade teacher who did the appliance diassembly. We got to make the balloons then take them out in the field, blow hot air into them somehow, and watch them take off. Then we chased them down.
    3) in a unit on the human body our teacher was demonstrating the roles of different parts of the digestive system. So she put saltine crackers in a bag, then crunched them up really small (simulating chewing), then added some water and “stomach acid” (vinegar?) and mushed it around some more, and kept adding stuff and mushing until it looked… well… gross. But it definitely stuck with me. :)

    • Kristal, I LOVE these ideas, and am thankful that you’ve shared them! I totally wanted to make hot air balloons with these guys–if school had stayed in just a little longer, we would have done that and gliders (I should send you the link so you can make them with your younguns). What’s funny about what you remember is that I had a third grade teacher who did the same thing with crackers in a bag, and it is one of the few things I remember as well! She used raisin bran and the end result was disgusting and unforgettable–thirty years later! =)

      • Gliders? Yes, please do send me the link. That’d be a popular activity around here. :)

  8. Bonnie

    Great post! You remind me of my third grade teacher. Everyone warned me she was a witch because she made the boys behave, but I LOVED her. She did a lot of hands-on stuff. For example, during one 3 month period, we made an early California village on a board she had installed in the classroom. We brought in sand and dirt to make a landscape and even added boulders, “bushes and trees” we collected from the Manzanita forest outside the playground, and tinfoil rivers. She brought in the right kind of mud and we made tiny bricks and baked them in the sun, then built houses, dug wells and added tiny buckets hauled up with itty bitty cranks. We learned how to make thatched roofs and keep bricks together with mortar and straw. There were teepees made from sticks collected on the playground and the peeled bark of the Manzanita trees. And..well, what I meant to say was you have developed a fabulous teaching style. Lucky kids!

    • Bonnie, I appreciate your comparing me to such an awesome third grade teacher–she sounds incredible. I, on the other hand, still have much to learn! And now I have a new idea to try next time I have a class full of kids… thanks for the idea!

  9. It sounds like you’re doing a fantastic job. Back in my former (pre-kids) life I used to teach middle school science and LOVED it! I think that one of the keys is to really use inquiry to get the kids engaged and thinking. It sounds like you figured it out really fast – way to go (and while you were super pregnant!)

    • Jessica, thanks for the very nice compliment… getting them thinking is truly the key! I may have figured out the essence of using inquiry, but I’m definitely still fine tuning the ‘art’ of it though! And as for being super pregnant–thankfully that was Lindsey, and not me. I can’t imagine teaching while nine months along!!! =)

  10. […] one of the things that I stumbled upon while entertaining-I-mean-teaching small children over the last few months is that PVC pipe is amazing.  It is good for all sorts of […]

  11. Returned to formal education teaching middle school Science after a 10 year break to have kids. Your story is so similar to mine. The first 6 weeks were day to day. After getting a handle on classroom management and systems, I could plan a few weeks in advance which meant doing some cool projects, for example having students design, build and test solar cookers to understand absorption, reflection and the greenhouse effect. The best though is observing students get excited about their science fair projects and encouraging them to answer a question they are passionate about and motivated to do.

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