Ya’ll Need Some Science Up In Here

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In my 15 years  plus year of teaching, I’ve taught art, theatre, English, ESL, writing and a few other related subjects administrators threw my way. But now this ol’ grammar gal is teaching science. And while it has required pulling up some knowledge from the deepest recesses of my frontal lobe that I have not accessed since college in the early 90’s and provided my hippocampus with some marathon-caliber workouts (not to mention teaching me all these fancy new words) I absolutely love it. Somewhere between explaining cellular respiration to a room of stinky, middle schoolers and prepping microscope slides on my kitchen table, I realized I should’ve been a science teacher all along.

In my classes we grow things, we build things and we take things apart and make them into something new. We make huge messes, shoot things from catapults and blow things up. We have class in the woods and stomp through streams. We form questions, sometimes strange and ridiculous questions, and then we test for the answer. It’s freakin’ awesome! All those years I sat perched on a desk discussing character motivations and surmising the story after the story, I had no idea there was so much fun happening in science class. Had I known there was a job that condoned using warning labels as mere suggestion, I’d have been on it from day one.

So why did it take me 15 years in the ed biz to figure this out? Do I really have that little self-awareness? Perhaps. But I think the real blame goes to the teachers that shaped me back in the day.

27 years ago, my high school in rural Iowa boasted a whopping 99 in its graduating class, (That total is not inclusive of those classmates who were knocked up at graduation and there was more than one…). I’m quite certain the majority of the school’s educators thought pedagogy was a either dessert from Poland or a something from page 432 of the Kama Sutra. If you didn’t stand out as a stellar scholar bound for one of the three state schools by 8th grade, you were lumped into Category 2 – a direct ticket to community college or trade school at best. Even though I was a kid with learning issues, I loved science and had big dreams of life in a lab until I met Algebra. After repeatedly coming up empty-handed in my search for X, I was awarded the Category 2 badge. While being a card-carrying member of Category 2 kept the academic expectations low resulting in far more time for my excessive extra-circulars, it took a lot more fight to get out.

Though I had the label, I didn’t see myself as a Category 2er, so even though it wasn’t sanctioned, I started the college process on my own. When I proclaimed my ardent desire to get the hell out of Iowa and head to the East Coast where I would fulfill my destiny of greatness, the school’s lone guidance counselor replied, “Oh honey, you’re not smart enough for college.”

That guidance counselor had also provided guidance for my parents 20 years prior where they too had been put into Category 2 along with numerous aunts and uncles as well as my older brother. We were a long line of Category 2s. When she regained her composure and stopped laughing, she provided me with a brochure from the nearby community college and suggested I look into their Ag Management program. “You’ve a perfect candidate for the 6 week program in Hog Confinement Management.”

From beneath my sky-high bangs and through a foggy haze of residual Aqua-net my mouth dropped open. I fancied myself to be a Midwestern Molly Ringwald, and hoped to meet up with the rest of the Brat Pack as soon as I got to the East Coast for college.

“Hog Confinement Management? Are you kidding? Do I look like I do hogs?”  I probably brushed back a strand of crispy, permed hair to punctuate my point.

“Oh dear, you’ve got so much to learn.”

On that point she was right. I did have a lot to learn and once I started learning, I never wanted to stop. I did get into college and I went on to get more than a couple degrees. However, none of them were in science because though I’d proven myself to be above a Category 2, the label was still there reminding me I wasn’t smart enough for a career in science.

But with time and especially with old age, things change and sometimes people see something in you you never saw in yourself- like a science teacher where an English teacher had always been. When I started refreshing my brain and revisiting ideas like phototropism and cell division, my passion for science was reignited and by the time I had a classroom of kids searching for cell walls under microscopes and using my nerdy rhymes to differentiate the xylem from the phloem, I realized I was more than capable. Who knew I had the potential to be a chubbier, cooler Bill Nye for the modern age?

Ironically, I teach science to kids that would easily be labeled Category 2. Many of my students are on the Autism spectrum and others are figuring out how to learn with executive function issues, dyslexia and ADHD. Some struggle to understand the material while others understand perfectly but struggle to get their thoughts out of their brain. Regardless of their diagnoses, I think they are all amazing. Never in a million years would I label one of these awesome kids and let them think they were not smart enough to follow their passions. That’s not my job. That is not any teacher’s job. My job is to give them a love of learning, ignite in them a passion for science and most of all, help them believe in themselves. 

Coming back into the scientific realm I’ve seen a lot of changes. Unlike 30 years ago, while science knows more, society trusts less and it’s a dangerous combination. Science education has never been more important that it is right now and I’m so crazy jazzed to be a part of this. The world we’re living in right now needs more scientists and science needs more people that see the world differently. (And man, I’ve got classes full of those!)

Maybe one of my hyper focused autistic kids holds the key to stopping climate change or perhaps I’m turning a kid on to plants that will become a botanist on the first Martian colony (seriously, I think I have that guy in 3rd period). What if the kid that struggles with writing sentences has the potential to master gene splicing to end a deadly disease? But instead of someone helping him, they labeled him as Category 2 and he gave up. Not on my watch. I’m pretty sure that in this era Category 2s will be the ones who will save the day. Watch out world, here we come. (Just as soon as we figure out where in the hell to find X in an algebraic equation….)

 

*In the next episode I’ll tell you all about trying to look cool at the Science Teacher’s Convention and rallying the troops for the upcoming March For Science. I’m all in baby!

4 Wise Men and Krampus Wished Me a Merry Christmas

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Ten days ago, a goat appeared in my mailbox. It was a small goat, carved of wood with a couple of crazy-ass eyes that did conjure thoughts of Krampus, the half goat, half man Christmas demon. It was wrapped in tissue with “On The First Day…” scrawled on the paper. Immediately, as one does in situations such as this, I began to sing. (When faced with a mystery everyone sings right? Didn’t Matlock?) In my sought-after style resembling a tone-deaf church lady, I sang, “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…a goat in my mailbox.” Hubba whaaa? I am known for my extreme skill at misquoting lyrics, (You will never convince me it’s not really Big ‘ole Jeff left the lights on instead of Big ‘ole jet airliner) but I could’ve sworn it was a partridge in a pear tree.

Entrenched in end of semester grading and swimming through the pain that is the lead up to Christmas break, I didn’t have any extra brain cells to spend on my mailbox Krampus so I tucked him in the napkin bin and chalked it up to something quirky in my strangely friendly neighborhood. (For real, people bring you baked goods in this ‘hood and they are not even laced with weed or trying to convince you to becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. Definitely unlike all of our old ‘hoods.)

It was all rather innocuous until the Turk found the goat and with a quiver of panic in his voice said, “Wat is dis? Is religious thing?”

My darling husband The Turk, simply by being from a Muslim country, frequently finds himself the recipient of unwarranted advances from the devout of Indiana hoping to save his soul. (If only they knew it was a lost cause long before he married this lapsed Catholic infidel.) The poor guy has received more invitations to attend church than a Kardashian has had butt lifts. (I don’t get the whole ‘come to church with me thing’. In the Catholicism I grew up with, if you weren’t part of the club by birth, we offered you nothing more than a cool welcome and a rear pew.)

Given his experiences, it made sense that he assumed the goat was another attempt to convert the foreign neighbor to some form of Christianity. I however, not nearly as sane as my husband, went to a much darker place.

As a long-time crime show connoisseur and the proud owner of a ridiculously wild imagination, I surmised I knew the real meaning behind the goat in my mailbox and when two more goats arrived on day three, my suspicions were all confirmed.

On day three, upon returning home from a long day at school I opened my mailbox to find 2 more carved animals with the crazy-ass Krampus eyes. A snowstorm had forced my stalker to double up on a delivery. A total of three tissue clad, goats was too many. It was time to open an investigation.

Thanks to my incredibly warped and well trained mind, I concluded I had 9 days left to live as I was now facing death by bludgeoning with a goat horn underneath my Christmas tree, orphaning my children and leaving my Turk a widower. (Which also meant I had 9 days to line him up with a new wife because I love him that crazy bastard too much to leave him to handle life on his own.) While changing into my evening yoga pants, I took a quick glance through my closet to choose my 12th day of Christmas ensemble because even though I’d be dead, I still wanted to look good when they showed footage of the crime scene on Dateline.

Once I’d covered those important things, I laid out my investigation. (Using the scientific method of course, because when you spend your days drilling it into the minds of middle schoolers, it infects your world.)

Question: Who is leaving secret messages in my mailbox and what is their motive?

Hypothesis: I hypothesize that the messages are a warning that I will be killed by a crazy-eyed goat on the 12th day of Christmas.

Procedure:

  1.  Establish a perimeter
  2. Dust mailbox for prints
  3. Set up surveillance
  4. Swab goats for DNA and run any findings through CODIS
  5. Install a camera in the mailbox, record all criminal activity. Isolate images of any questionable individuals and run the images through FBI facial recognition software.
  6. Interview neighbors in the hopes of identifying suspicious behavior.

Since steps 1 – 5 were hard and would likely be a lot of work and I had laundry to do and dinner to make, I decided to skip ahead to step 6. I sent a text to my neighbor on the right.

  Me: Weird question, but have you been receiving any small carved goats in your mailbox recently?

            Her : Um no. It’s 4:00. Are you drinking already?

            Me: Perhaps. Do you think these are a sign that someone is coming to kill me?

           Her: Totally. You should have some wine to relax.

I told you this neighborhood was idyllic.

Having reached a dead end with the right side neighbor, I went left.

   Me: Odd question – have you been receiving small carved goats in your mailbox or is this a message that someone is coming to kill me?

            Her: No but we got them last year.

            Me: OMG. Really? Did someone try to kill you? I didn’t see it in the HOA newsletter.

            Her: No attempted murder. It’s a surprise gift from a neighbor. It will be a nativity set in the end.

           Me: Ahhhhhhhhh. Good to know.

           Her: No need to panic.

           Me: Well, I am from Philly…and Turkey…sooooo….

           Her: Understood.

And there you have it. Word is that this is not a message from a serial killer or a secret summonsing from Krampus. But so far I’ve got 3 goats, 4 wise men (Even though I’m sure Sister Nora said there were only three.) and what may be a shepherd or a member of Al Qaida, I’m not yet sure.

I’m not sure I believe the story so if you never hear from me again, I ask only two things – make sure you watch my Dateline episode so I win at ratings postumously  and more importantly, make sure the Turk doesn’t marry a whore.

Merry Christmas to all!!

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Uranus Is Huge and Filled With Gas, Much Like My Own

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I’ve spent way too many years in middle school. Including my own sentence back in the ‘80’s, I’ve spent somewhere around 20 years in middle school. Even during my time teaching in Turkey, I was in middle school. Is it odd that I’m most comfortable in the one stage of life most people spend years trying to forget? Perhaps. But don’t be mistaken, it’s not like I hit my peak in middle school and thus decided to stay. Oh no. I was a hot mess of braces, bad hair, excess chub and incredible fashion missteps. (I have photographic proof if in doubt.) Middle school was certainly not my jam, so why do I keep going back? No clue but I do love it. Yet another reason that I’m a psychoanalyst’s dream.

While I’ve matured past middle school in some aspects of life, (like my sagging neck and creaky knees) the middle schoolers I teach often surpass me in maturity. This became clear again last week as my middle school science classes began an in-depth study of the Milky Way Galaxy.

As every Earthling knows, (ok maybe not those crazies who are certain Jesus’ sat astride a T-Rex, but I don’t believe those science deniers really deserve to be labeled Earthlings.) that any study of the Milky Way must include, at the very least, mention of the Gas Giant Uranus. (Ok, I cracked up just typing that!)

This is my first time teaching about space so way back last summer when I planned to add this into my winter curriculum, it never occurred to me that I’d have to have various in-depth discussions of Uranus. (HA! Better yours than mine! HA!) No, I was lured into astronomy by the thought of settlements on Mars and the anniversary of Pluto being striped of his planetary status (10 years people, it’s been ten years!). Uranus never entered my mind. (No offense, but I don’t think of my anus often either.)

Perhaps Uranus didn’t come to mind because the last astronomy class I took was in January of ‘92 and involved standing in a cornfield on the northern Iowa tundra during sub-zero temps. The class consisted of staring into the darkness while snot-cicles formed under our noses, clad in layers of clothes scavenged from dorm mates enrolled in more sensible academic pursuits. Not a lot of science happened as we hid bargain booze in our long johns and cracked jokes for survival.

“It’s so dark I can’t even see Uranus.”

“Uranus is so cold it got a crack in it.”

“Move over! Uranus is the only thing I can see though this telescope right now.”

Brilliant young astronomers we were not.

In the years since then, attempts have been made to push through an alternate pronunciation for the gas ball, but it’s useless. You can’t let the world mispronounce your name for 166 years and then decide to change it, (I know, people have been mispronouncing mine for 40+ years.) especially if your name is the butt of so many jokes. (See what I did there? Butt…Uranus…ha!)

During our introduction to planetary alignment, I rushed through the whole “gas giants” section of the solar system with only a few giggles (me, not the kids.) But by fourth period I’d met my maturity cap. The transition between Saturn and Neptune was killing me! Sure, statements like “Uranus rotates horizontally” is relatively innocuous but let’s be honest, if you had to repeatedly explain “Uranus is huge. It is made of gas.” You’d lose it too.

I made it through a few more classes filled with snickers and giggles from both the kids and me. We were all clear on the importance of Uranus and it looked like we might make it until, the Great Toilet Paper lab.

See, there is this method of teaching AU (Astronomical Units, for those of you who haven’t taken an astronomy class since 1992 either. Solidarity my people.) illustrating the vast distances between planets by using toilet paper rolled out on the floor. While Mercury is only half a sheet from the sun, Saturn is 65 sheets of toilet paper away and on and on.

It’s fun and provides an easily visible representation of distance. Unfortunately, my classroom is not big enough to hold an entire scale map of the solar system made in t.p., so the talk of Uranus had to be moved into public space…public space filled with other middle schoolers and teachers. Our immaturity fest was on display as phrases like, “How much toilet paper does Uranus need?” wafted through the halls.

Within seconds, every other adult in the vicinity was sharing the same contorted gafaw-stiffling grimace I’d been wearing all week. Finally, I was not alone. No one in middle school is mature enough for Uranus. No one.

Years ago when I coached middle school boys tennis, no matter how hard I tried, every day at the end of practice, when it was time to say, “Alright boys, pick up your balls.” I couldn’t do it without busting into giggles. Every damn time. It’s kind of reassuring to see that while I’m a very different teacher than I was all those years ago, my soul is still 12.

While this exploration of Uranus has been painful, (hehehe…) it has taught me that, someday when we are all sitting in the TV room at Shady Pines Retirement Villa, I’ll still be crackin’ fart jokes and laughing about Uranus. You’ll just have to listen harder to catch my toothless ramblings.

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