It’s been a few months since I spent any time reminding myself why I teach. I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise. I am, after all, a “glass is not only half empty…it’s shattered on the floor in a million pieces” kind of guy. I get lost in the battles I’m fighting and forget that there are real reasons why I love the work that I do.
They’re called kids.
The past few weeks have centered me, though. You see, we’re coming to the end of a science unit on energy—studying light, sound and heat—-and each day has been a bit more amazing than the last.
Wanting to take advantage of the full science lab classroom that I’ve been assigned for this nine-week period, I nearly killed myself planning a bunch of hands-on activities designed to introduce my kids to the key concepts behind the ways that sound, light and heat are transferred through our universe. I spent hours and hours scrounging up supplies and setting up stations that were manageable for my students—not to mention dropping $100 on consumables that we didn’t have in our storage room.
Then, I made a bit of a gutsy instructional decision: I decided to place the focus of assessment in each of our stations on nothing more than the quality of the additional questions that my kids asked after engaging in each activity. “Kids and scientists are a lot alike,” I explained as we began our unit, “They both have incredibly curious minds. It’s just that scientists do a better job documenting their curiosity.
“In this unit, I want you to conduct the experiment as it is described—but then, I want you to design a new experiment testing something that you’re curious about and see what happens. Remember to write down your initial question, the steps that you take to test your predictions, and the results that you find.”
Needless to say, I was pretty worried about what was going to happen next. Turning students loose in a lab is something that most teachers wouldn’t even consider. Not only are there chances for real injury (I had nightmares about the new kid getting set on fire), but I couldn’t control the content that the kids chose to study. How could I be sure that the curriculum would be covered if I gave students the right to set direction and ask questions of their own? Would they miss required concepts completely because I wasn’t able to spoon-feed it to them?
Talk about useless worrying!
From the moment I said go, my kids were brilliant. They understood how important it was to act responsibly in a lab and held one another accountable for behaving properly and for cleaning up their stations at the end of each period of work time.
But more importantly, they were alive with investigation! They asked meaningful questions connected to our curriculum, showing a depth of perception that surprised me. Excited shouts and puzzled brows spread as groups dove into projects driven by their own sense of wonder. Not a minute went by when I wasn’t surrounded by three or four kids begging to show me what they’d discovered. When the bell finally rang each day, I”d literally have to push my kids on to their next period to make room for a new group of motivated minds.
I found that teaching became much more organic during our energy unit because instead of standing in front of my students and telling them what they should be surprised by or interested in, I could slip content in when they least expected it. Each group made “discoveries” that I was able to predict—-and when they made the right discovery, I could help them to understand what they were seeing. Required concepts and vocabulary is much easier to learn when looked at through the lens of something that student groups own.
Looking back, our energy lessons were challenging for me: Finding supplies, testing stations, making sure that each group was learning the required curriculum, cleaning up at the end of class, and keeping a close eye on safety left me exhausted most days.
But the excitement of kids filled with wonder is honestly nothing short of beautiful. I hadn’t seen that in awhile, simply because we’ve been moving too quickly for anyone to wonder about anything—-but I know that it’s something that I want to see again.
Wonder is why I teach!