Recently I watched a Ted talk by Ramsey Musallam called “3 Rules to Spark Learning”. It was recommended to me by my husband who, knowing my love of Chemistry, thought I would enjoy Musallam’s integration of Chemistry into his message. So I settled in to enjoy the show, so to speak. Musallam uses the occasional explosion during his talk for two reasons, to grab your attention and to strengthen his message about the sparking of deep cycles of learning.
During my 23 years as a teacher I have enjoyed doing the same thing. The curiosity that is sparked when you show a classroom of students an explosion is electric. Students want you to show it again and ask to take pictures of the demo so they can show their family and friends. As a chemistry teacher, this is music to your ears. Students are excited and want to share what they have learned! My favorite demo was always one which I set up with seven different pieces of glassware, six of which appeared empty. I would tell the students a story of a day that I was very thirsty and couldn’t decide on what I wanted I drink so I kept changing my mind. The demo had them wondering what I would make next by pouring the contents of one container into the next and so on as the liquid appeared to change from water to kool-aid to water to 7-Up to milk to Pepto-Bismol. At first, some students thought it was magic but then they would ask why the liquids changed, how did I do it? I could then give clues and their Chemistry knowledge would lead them to the answers. It was so rewarding!
I can relate to Mussallam and his journey as an educator. So many of the things he talks about are things that I believe. For example, the importance of cultivating curiosity. Teachers need to be curious in order to take risks and students need to be curious to facilitate inquiry. Teaching is not about the content, it’s not about giving students the answers so they can give those answers back to you on a test at the end of the unit. It’s not about using technology to present these answers in a pretty, bulleted list that you transpose into a PowerPoint. It’s about the questions that students ask when you present them with a perplexing problem. It’s about the discussions that follow when you step back and allow student voices to be heard. It’s about the student who shows up early to class or stays late to discuss with you a “What if?” question that came up at the dinner table last night, one that their family has been pondering because of yesterday’s lesson. When curiosity spills out of the classroom and into the hallways of the school and into the homes of your students, that’s when you as a teacher feel it, that feeling of success.
I also believe that it is valuable to bring your students with you on your own journey of learning, risk taking and discovery. I recall on day, in my Science 9 class when I decided that I wanted to use my iPad as a document camera. So, I grabbed two ring stands, an old binder and two buret clamps and built myself a sketchy stand on which to mount my iPad. I did this with a class of 30 students watching as I explained to them what I wanted to accomplish and how I thought I could do it. The class watched and commented, almost instantly dividing themselves into three camps. One which was sure I would fail, one (rather small camp) who believed it would work and the outliers, who were not willing to commit to either side just yet. Once my stand was complete I attached my iPad to the stand and to my projector as the class waited to see if I would be successful. I turned on the document camera app and placed a flower beneath the camera. To my delight, the flower appeared on the screen and the class went up in applause! The kids were (almost) happier than I was that it had worked. I explained to them how we could use this in class to share student work, to enable the entire class to get a clear view of objects that I wanted to share with them as I placed a large preserved insect beneath the camera and it appeared on the screen. I worked through a problem with the class and the students exclaimed that it was like watching a YouTube video! Of course I had a few who wanted to put their faces under the camera so the class could see them on the screen.
But the best thing that happened that day was that the students became part of the process. They witnessed, as Musallam puts it, the “messy process of trial and error.” They saw that I was willing to take the risk of failing in front of an entire class. Some of them later asked me if I was ever scared that it wouldn’t work? I said “Of course, but I had to try and I believed that I could do it.” They left that day, talking about what had happened. I could hear them talking to their friends in the hallway about what I had done and how cool it was. That they couldn’t believe that it would work but it did! Several also suggested, on their way out the door, ways that I could strengthen my stand so that my Ipad would not fall off and get damaged. The evolution of the stand continued as my husband fashioned one from an old overhead projector, some of you may remember those. Then ended in my ordering a proper one online. I went on to use my iPad as a document camera for many applications but I will always remember that day when 31 people went on a journey of discovery together.