OK, I’ll admit it – there might have been an element of clickbait to the title of this post. However, unlike most clickbait, I’m actually going to deliver on my promise of excitement and action.
The first day of school is the most boring all year. The students know they don’t actually have to do anything but pick up a piece of paper that tells them what they’ll be studying and how they should write their school projects. Maybe there will be an activity where everybody tells the group their favorite flavor of pudding. Whatever it is, there’s nothing much happening.
To keep this from happening in our classes, we chemistry teachers are lucky that we have a subject that requires no preparation or preconceived notions in order for the students to get started. All the students need is goggles and curiosity and they can do something interesting from the very first day. That’s why, on the first day of school, I like to give them a lab.
And not a gratuitously easy lab, either. For example, this year I’ve been remodeling my kitchen and have about a zillion little knobs from each of the drawers and cabinets that’s I’m getting rid of. My first day of class will consist of a quick introduction, the ritual passing out of a syllabus that we’ll discuss at a later time, and the following question: “What element is this knob made of?”
And no, I won’t give them any prior hints or information about how to get started.
As you might guess, an activity like this is somewhat disruptive to the boring first day of school. Instead of being a passive recipient of useless paperwork, students will be expected to use their own creativity and knowledge to figure out what the knob is made of. Some of them will do well, some will have trouble, and some won’t even know what to do. Each of these is A-OK and to be expected.
Your students who know what to do will be energized by the exercise. Finally, we get to do something cool on the first day of school! Finally, a class that in which I can finally use my brain! This is real science!
Other students may feel a little demoralized because they don’t know what to do – don’t worry, because this is normal and to be expected. Actually, that’s what you can come out and say: “Don’t worry if you have problems with this, or if you can’t come up with the answer. That’s normal and to be expected.” Followed by “Use your creativity and you don’t have to worry about a grade.” Your students will undoubtedly be surprised to find out that not only are they not going to be punished for not living up to the example of the curve-breaking kids*, but they’ll actually be rewarded simply for doing their best. Remember: The kids who have trouble are your target audience, and if you can get them confident that they simply can’t screw up, they’ll take the opportunity to shine.
So, what do you do on the first day of school? You listen, learn, and nudge students into exploring. No judging or recriminations are allowed. Just let the kids explore in the environment you’ve provided them.
I don’t know what difficulty level of chemistry I’ll be teaching next year, so I’ve got a variety of different questions to ask the students, depending on whether I’m teaching general chemistry or AP. For example, I might ask the general chemistry students what the knobs are made of, the honors chemistry students if the knobs are made of the same material as the drawer hand pulls, and the AP chemistry students whether these knobs are alloys of two or more metals and, if so, what alloy was used. The question may be different, but the basic idea is the same: If you let the students work at solving an open-ended and creative problem, they’ll be a lot more interested in chemistry than if you tell them that 42% of their grade will be tests.
Try a lab the first day of school. At the worst, the kids will think you’re a science nut, which is never a bad thing. However, far more likely is that the kids will realize that you’re really excited about science and that you’re excited to get them involved, too.
*Yeah, I remember you, Donald Kim from Algebra II in 1987. And I haven’t forgotten.