Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Magic in the Classroom

My first teaching job was seventh and eighth grade science. I was twenty-three years old, married, with a master’s degree in secondary school science and permanent NY State certification to teach high school biology, chemistry and physics. But I had had a hard time finding a job. In those days young married women were not considered a good investment by schools as they were likely to get pregnant and quit. And, because of my graduate degree, they had to start me at a higher pay scale than someone with just a BA. So I was grateful to get the job and prepared myself to face the students with the reputation of raging hormones.

The first eighth grade unit was on “Modern Atomic Theory.” (Do they still teach it?) Somewhere in my training echoed the phrase “Make it relevant.” So I walked into my first class armed with a Fabulous Factoid. After describing the nucleus of the atom with its protons and neutrons and its orbiting electrons the stage was set for the delivery of my FF. “Want to know what makes up most of an atom?” I asked my class rhetorically. “It’s mostly empty space. In fact, if you took out all the space of all the atoms in a fleet of battle ships (maybe 17 ships) and packed all those subatomic particles next to each other, you would have a mass the size of a basketball that weighed as much as the entire fleet!” I paused, satisfied that I had delivered my FF with sufficient drama. Silence greeted me. Then, at the back of the room, a boy slowly raised his hand. (I still remember his name). “Mrs. Cobb,” asked David incredulously, “how do they know that?” I was stunned. I didn’t know the answer. I figured I’d better not fake it. “Good question, David. I’ll find out,” I stammered.

Needless to say, the answer was not in the textbook (nor, for that matter was the FF). So I went to the library and found a children’s book called The Story of the Atom. (I don’t remember the author; there is a current book with the same title by Joy Hakim.) I noticed that the door to my classroom was closed and no one was watching me. So I taught the unit from this book and ignored the textbook. Each day I told a different story giving kids notes they could study from—How Henri Becquerel accidentally discovered invisible rays from a rock; rays that passed through opaque paper. How his friend, Marie Curie, measured the strength of these rays and discovered two more radioactive elements. I described Roentgen’s astonishment the first time he used his invisible X-rays to see the bones in his wife’s hand. They learned how Ernest Rutherford shot some of Becquerel’s rays through gold foil as if it wasn’t there. (His experiments were the evidence for the enormous space in the atom and its nuclear structure.) How J.J. Thomson measured the mass of the tiny electron. Together, my students and I learned how Neils Bohr synthesized the evidence from many scientists to create a model of the atom (modern atomic theory) that explains chemical bonding, changes of state, the periodic table, the gas laws and more.

Some kind of magic happened in that classroom. I found out in the teachers’ room that a few of my students were incorrigible troublemakers and that others were failing. But not in my class. One of my sections was during the lunch hour, interrupted by bells. Decorum was never breached, even when the bells rang. The mood was sustained throughout that entire year, even when the topics changed. Granted, this was a different time. It was before the student protest movements in the late sixties and this was an affluent suburban public school. (My later teaching experiences were not so idyllic.) At the end of the year my students had to take a statewide “achievement test” in science. The week before the test, I gave them practice test-taking. They did just fine.

True to the expectations of that time, I left that teaching job after two and a half years to become a mother. That’s when I became a writer. I began creating books that could give other teachers the opportunity to experience the magic that had made teaching so rewarding for me. But I wonder if today’s teachers have the freedom to instruct from material that resonates with them or with their students. (I wouldn’t survive today in an autocratic school that dictated what and how I should teach.) When I do school assembly programs as an author, I create an intense group experience akin to theater; but I’m considered “enrichment” outside of the typical classroom experience. My performance is simply show-business. I don’t have the advantage of a teacher, who has a real relationship with her students, which can allow for a sustainable conversation throughout the school year.

The magic in my classroom came from a rapport between me and my students that developed through my sharing content from a nonfiction book that resonated with me. After I found writing (while taking care of my own kids) I realized that there is not enough time to teach and write and do both well. So I chose to create books that can make teaching fun for teachers. We authors here at I.N.K. all create wonderful “scripts’ and stories for classroom teachers to share with their students. When passions are shared, magic happens. I know because it happened to me.

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