Washington Educators Working to Make a Difference – Part I

I spent a number of days last month visiting local public high schools, talking to teachers, and watching classes (mostly in the sciences).  The dedication and creativity of the educators I saw in action were inspiring, and gave me ideas for my own classes next year.

I watched Mark, an old colleague, teaching a pre-IB science class at IHS in Kenmore.  Mark is a veteran teacher, and a true professional who knows a thing or two about the craft of teaching.  And it’s a good thing, because his current assignment is a very tall order.  He has six sections of students, a total of 201 sophomores.  IHS houses students grades 10-12, so these students are also new to the high school experience.  The class I watched had 36 kids, neatly arranged in six rows of six.  It’s called pre-IB science because it is designed to prepare students for the rigorous International Baccalaureate classes in Chemistry and/or Biology the students will be taking as juniors and seniors.  As such, it contains a lot of introductory chemistry content, a pre-requisite for both of these IB sciences.  But Washington state also has a High School Proficiency Exam (the successor to the WASL) which will test sophomores with a content-specific end-of-course exam in biology.  So part of Mark’s pre-IB class must necessarily cover enough biology content to ensure they pass this exam (which will be required for graduation).

Some teachers might consider this assignment a daunting prospect: over 200 students, arriving 30-something at a time starting at 7:10am (and continuing for 6 non-stop hours), all needing to learn the equivalent of two years of science in only one.  Mark throws himself into it with enthusiasm: 36 students for 75 minutes – no problem!  As the bell rang, the class began at once.

The students had done a lab during the previous class (a gravimetric analysis of magnesium oxide to find its empirical formula, MgO).  One of the things that I notice is how Mark weaves in their new experiences with some themes and analogies that he has been using recently – for example, that chemical reactions in the lab are just like chemical reactions in the kitchen (i.e. cooking and baking).  He tells a great story of making special chocolate chip cookies with an old family recipe, with 2 cups of sugar, 1 cup of flour, Mexican vanilla, 1.5 cups of “heaping” cups of chocolate chips, etc.  The ingredients are like reactants which get chemically transformed in the baking through the application of heat and time.  The magnesium and oxygen react in a similar way in the lab crucible.  This could be a cheap, throw-away example, but Mark really takes his time sharing a bit of himself with the class, and painting for them a vivid picture of the slightly under-baked cookies with the soft gooey center.  Mark is a good story-teller, and the kids (all 36 of them!) are really engaged in his stories.

The students also stay focused, because they never know when Mark will tell a joke or funny anecdote, usually at his own expense – like enjoying the free donut at Krispy Kreme so much that he goes outside, puts on a disguise, and returns for another one.  Or the time when Chips Ahoy ran a marketing promotion guaranteeing an average of 16 chocolate chips per cookie.  Mark bought a bag of Chips Ahoy and a notebook, and set out to see if they really did have the requisite 16 chips per cookie.  He discovered that while the chips were really numerous, they were also really tiny!  He actually broke up the cookies, separating out a small pile of tiny chips from the larger pile of remnant non-chip cookie.  While the kids are still laughing at this visual, he whips around and uses the “chips and cookies” story as the perfect visual example of a percent composition by mass.  Even though the chip components are numerous, their small mass leads to a small overall percentage of chocolate in the cookie.  Similarly, you can also do a percentage composition calculation with magnesium oxide.  Although there are just as many oxygen atoms as magnesium ones, the compound is less than 40% oxygen by mass since the oxygen atoms are smaller.  The kids (and Mark) are laughing all the way to the bank of knowledge and understanding.

Humor, analogies, and stories are all powerful methods that Mark uses to keep his huge class engaged for the long block period, encouraging them to come with him on an entertaining and enlightening journey of science discovery.  I felt pretty inspired to do some learning (and some teaching) by the end of class too, which was pretty remarkable considering that I’m usually only ready for a nap after a 75-minute class.  And I also wouldn’t say no to one of Mark’s under-baked cookies with chocolate chips and Mexican vanilla.

Hungry for more?  I was going to write about more of my teacher visits in this post, but it’s late and I’m tired, so look for more in the next edition coming soon!

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