Over the last few days in class, my students have been working on an activity designed to introduce them to the similarities and differences between elements, mixtures and compounds. It’s pretty dry stuff, to be honest — and the chances are that no matter how successful you’ve been in your life, you probably couldn’t tell me much about the concepts that my kids are expected to master before the end of our matter unit.
That’s the worst part of teaching a subject like science.
While sixth graders are naturally curious about the world around them and FULL of wonder questions worth studying, much of what we are required to teach — and what our students are required to learn — are handfuls of isolated concepts and vocabulary words that will be forgotten before we even begin our next unit.
But something happened today to remind me that teaching is remarkable even on the days when it can feel like a complete and total grind.
It started when a boy I’ll call Mike* — one of the happiest kids on our learning team — rolled into my room during our school-wide enrichment period. I could tell that something was bothering him because he didn’t even say hello to me. He just sat down behind a computer, opened up our elements, compounds and mixtures task, and stared at the screen. He was stuck on the second task: Brainstorm a list of three metaphors for elements, compounds and mixtures. Explain the strengths and the weaknesses of your metaphors.
I wasn’t surprised that Mike was stuck. Thinking metaphorically is a complicated task for many kids. But I knew that being stuck was driving Mike — a confident, capable student used to succeeding at darn near everything — completely NUTS. I could see him wrestling with his own ideas, with his confidence, and with what to do next. Asking a question would be a vulnerable act for a kid not used to feeling vulnerable in school. But NOT asking a question would mean earning a poor grade, something that Mike couldn’t handle either.
A few minutes later, he called me over for help. “Mr. Ferriter,” he asked, “I’m having trouble figuring out how to come up with a metaphor for a science concept. I’m not sure I know what you mean. Can you help me?”
Together, he and I reviewed what metaphors were. Then, we looked at several of the sample metaphors that other students had already generated for the class. I could see Mike’s confidence building moment by moment — and knew that he’d “gotten it” a few minutes later when I asked him whether a Lego set would best represent a homogeneous or heterogeneous mixture. “Heterogeneous!” he answered correctly with a sense of both amazement and relief in his voice!
Mike spent the rest of the day brainstorming metaphors — and it was so much fun to watch. When he found a good one, he’d come up and quiz ME: “So how about this one, Mr. Ferriter: How is a screwdriver like an element?” or “Why is a raindrop in a thunderstorm a BAD metaphor for a mixture?”
My favorite moment: Finding several new metaphors written in Mike’s handwriting on our classroom brainstorming list at the end of the day. “Mike — have you been writing on my board?” I asked. His answer: A HUGE smile that warmed every corner of my heart.
Stew in that story for a minute, would you? Can you see the beauty in it?
I had the chance to help a boy who was wrestling with his self-confidence today. I had the chance to prove to him that he COULD work through a challenging task and succeed no matter how hard it seemed. I had the chance to witness the moment where the concept clicked AND the pure joy that came along with learning something new. I had the chance to see him refining his understandings through repeated practice and playing with ideas in a way that he hadn’t ever played with them before.
THOSE are the moments that I live for, all y’all.
I don’t teach because I’m passionate about compounds, mixtures and elements. I don’t teach because I’m convinced that every kid has to leave our schools with a strong understanding of the chemical and physical properties of matter. I don’t teach because I believe that mastery of scientific concepts is essential for success in tomorrow’s world.
I teach because there’s nothing like watching kids learn something new and knowing that you played some small role in helping them to get there.
*Blogger’s Note: Not his real name.
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