How safe is too safe?

I got an email this week from a chemistry teacher at a small private school.  She had been teaching for a couple of years using only reagents that posed no real possible danger for students under any circumstances – think acetic acid instead of hydrochloric acid and so forth.  She was concerned that she was being far too conservative when thinking about safety and limiting her students in what they could learn in the lab.  What would I suggest she do?

This is a good question, and one that I think isn’t asked enough.  When working in a chemistry lab, there’s always a balance that needs to be struck between making the lessons interesting and useful, as well as making the labs safe enough that nobody can ever get hurt.  On one extreme is a lab in which the only reagents are baking soda and vinegar – in this case there’s no danger of injury but also a limit to how much that can be learned.  On the other extreme are labs that examine how aqua regia and hydrofluoric acid react with common substances – interesting and instructive, but suicidally dangerous for the kids.

What I told this teacher is that you simply cannot be too conservative when safety is considered.  If there’s even the slightest doubt in your mind that a lab can be done safely, then don’t do it.  Even if you feel like baking soda and vinegar are too dangerous to use, then you should absolutely not use them in the lab.  It doesn’t matter what the other teachers at your school do and it doesn’t matter what the lab manual says.  Never, ever perform a lab with reagents that you feel uncomfortable using.

This is not to say, however, that you can’t use interesting reagents.  The key here is to educate yourself about how to use them safely.  If you currently just use baking soda and vinegar but are interested in titrating sulfuric acid, there’s no reason why you can’t.  Provided, of course, that you fully understand your own limitations, the limitations of your students, and the limits of your safety equipment.

Before performing any lab, you should always ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I understand the dangers of using the reagents?  If you understand all of the dangers of using the reagents – reactivity, flammability, storage, and so forth – then you can consider the lab.
  • Are my students able to handle this lab safely?  If you have four classes that are mature and one class that is not, it’s probably a good idea to either let only four of the classes do a particular lab, or alternatively, cancel it for everybody.  Even if a lab should be safe, always consider your students.  And if you haven’t ever taught your kids the basics of working with hazardous chemicals, now is a good time to do it.
  • Do I have the lab equipment to handle everything safely?  If you need to transfer a reagent from one place to another, are you certain that you’re using the right tool for the job?  And do you have the waste container needed to handle whatever is produced?
  • Do I have the safety equipment to deal with a problem?  If you don’t have goggles and some kind of eyewash, you can’t do anything that involves non-eye safe reagents.  If you don’t have a fire blanket, you shouldn’t use flammable reagents – and a safety shower is much better!
  • Have I done the lab before, or has somebody I know done it before?  If you don’t know somebody who’s done a lab before, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it.  However, it does mean that you need to run through it yourself ahead of time with a critical eye.

When you boil it all down to what’s important, the single most important thing in a science class is to make sure your students are safe.  If you have even the tiniest doubt in your head about whether something is safe, don’t do it.  Keep this in mind when planning your lessons for the coming school year, and you should be fine.

A random interlude…

One of the many ways I pass my time during the summer is to make money by filling out surveys using Amazon’s MTurk system.  It doesn’t pay all that much, but in the past few months I’ve averaged $200 a month, which isn’t so bad.

These surveys range from the boring to the very odd.  Today I was given the task of filling out a survey in which I was asked to write a superhero story taking place in modern-day New York City.  Because I liked what I wrote so much, I figured I’d share it with you here:

The Adventures of Captain John

In New York City, trouble was brewing. James and his wife Cindy were sitting in the living room when they heard a terrible noise from deeper in their apartment. They didn’t know what it could be, but from the sound of it, things weren’t good. James armed himself with a heavy TV remote and Cindy picked up a paperback novel about people in Redding, California. They crept into the back of the apartment.

What James saw shocked him into dropping the remote on the floor. Cindy followed and when she saw what was causing the commotion she opened her mouth in horror. Their toilet had, for some reason, overflowed its basin and was dumping filthy water on the bathroom floor. Quick as can be, James got his phone and called his building’s super. The super didn’t answer – he had a drinking problem and was notoriously unreliable.

Unfortunately, this was an emergency that needed to be solved right away! James picked up a lamp from the living room and shone it onto a picture of a toilet, creating a big toilet outline on the clouds outside. As fast as a bout of Taco Bell-caused diarrhea, the caped crusader Captain John leapt onto the balcony with a plumber’s helper and snake. Without a word, he boldly strode into the bathroom and with a flourish of the plunger, cleared the mess. It was amazing.

On his way out, he gave Cindy a note that said, simply, “Use peroxide to get the stains out of your bathmat.” Cindy thought to herself that, though Captain John may have been a sexist for thinking that she’d be the one cleaning it, that he was still truly the most heroic man she knew.

Freedom – I won’t!

In the 1962 book “The Great Explosion” by Eric Frank Russell, there’s a story that changed my life.  Titled “…And Then There Were None”, it posits a world where the inhabitants exhibit total freedom by simply refusing to do anything they don’t find reasonable.  When Earth explorers land on their planet to make contact, the local population finds it puzzling that the crewmen on the ship allow themselves to be led by a captain.  To them, the idea of being led is preposterous because nobody can be forced to do anything against their wishes.  After all, if somebody refuses to work, the person giving the orders can punish them but will still have to do the job themselves.  The inhabitants of this planet have absolute freedom – the freedom to refuse somebody else’s orders.  I highly recommend you read it – you can find it for free here.

Throughout my life, I’ve found this story to be inspirational.  When I worked at a Catholic school, I gave my boss six months’ notice that I would be taking a week off of school to tour with my punk rock band.  He felt that being with the band was counter to their mission and gave me an ultimatum:  Either quit the band or quit my job.  Keeping the story above in mind, I immediately quit my job.  I chose freedom.

Another story:  I caught a student red-handed in cheating – photocopied evidence and everything.  Because his mom was the head of the PTA, my principal told me that I should let the cheating allegation drop.  Which I did.  And then quit at the end of the school year.  I exercised my freedom to say that “I won’t.”

With that, let’s cue the story of Jessica Gentry, a kindergarten teacher from Virginia.  In a social media post, she describes how she found the world of teaching to be dehumanizing and antithetical to the well-being of her students.  Instead of taking the abuse and suffering, she quit the profession.  Her post was simply her way of explaining to others why she felt that teachers were leaving the profession in droves.

With that, I issue a challenge to all of you.  If you are happy in your jobs, or at least get enough fulfillment from your work to make going to work a pleasure, keep doing the ever important job of helping your students.  The world needs more people like you.

However, if you’re unhappy in your jobs, I challenge you to quit and find something better to do.  You’ll be happier in the long run, and your primary commitment is to yourself and your family, not your job.  And who knows, if enough people use their freedom to say “I won’t”, perhaps the people in charge will make the necessary changes that make saying “I will” more attractive in the future.

So, I was building a shed

I was building a shed in my backyard, which taught me several things:  1)  I’m pretty good at rough carpentry; and 2)  My skin and clothing love to pick up stray paint spatters.  If you’ve ever built a shed, you know what I mean.

In any case, building a shed gave me lots of time to think, so I figured I’d share these thoughts with you.  Please note that these are not words of wisdom or particularly useful information – just stuff I thought of while trying to get the cat to stop putting her paws in a gallon of latex primer.

  1. There are two types of offroad vehicle owners in this world:  Those who drive over speed bumps at 0.01 mph and those who drive over speed bumps at 0.02 mph.
  2. There are two types of people in this country:  People who believe that Donald Trump is evil incarnate and should be crucified and people who believe that the liberal media is trying to portray Trump as evil incarnate and as somebody who should be crucified.  Both sides are 100% sure that they’re right.
  3. When people are leaving their house on vacation, they usually wonder if there’s something they forgot to do.  When people are in their last moments of life, do you think they wonder if they forgot to turn off the oven?
  4. When I was a kid, it was nearly impossible not to get a cat.  They were given away in front of the market, people who knew had kittens, and they’d occasionally just show up in the front yard.  Now that people are spaying and neutering their cats, it’s a lot harder to get a new cat.
  5. The best thing about having a pool membership is telling other people you have a pool membership.
  6. If you celebrate only one religious holiday a year, people won’t bug you about it.
  7. My life would be a lot simpler if I could buy only five shingles at a time.  As it is, I have to buy a huge crate if I want to replace one.
  8. Location is everything.  For example, little kids all like to see dinosaurs at the museum but they’d be horrified if they showed up in their bedroom.
  9. I filled out a paper that asked me what gender I was “assigned at birth.”  I don’t know about you, but I think it would be really cool to be employed as a gender assigner.
  10. When somebody asks you whether a knife is a tool or a weapon, I think your answer would probably depend on whether you were about to whittle a piece of wood or whittle a puppy.
  11. I saw a guy today who had an American flag magnet on the back of their truck.  Why not a sticker?  Is there a possibility that he might decide to become Italian before he sells his truck?
  12. My family took a trip last weekend and there was a sign flashing in a construction zone that said “WATCH FOR PED.”  If I were a kid in that neighborhood, I would be terrified.

Thanks, you’ve been a great audience, don’t forget to tip your bartender.

Learning new things as an adult

As I may have mentioned before, I’ve worked as a musician for some of my life.  When I was at university I was the drummer in one band, and then played bass in another.  In my mid-30s I left teaching to play bass full-time in a punk rock band.  I love making music, though at around 40 I realized I’d rather spend time with my family than out on tour.

When my son turned 10, he decided that he’d like to learn how to play the bass guitar, just like dad.  With lessons, he’s doing pretty well, though I think it may be a while before he forms his own band.  I’m just glad he didn’t choose trumpet, because I don’t think I could have survived that.

When he started playing bass, I got an urge that I’ve never felt before:  I wanted to learn how to play the guitar.  Whereas many bass players are guitar players who have switched, I started as a bass player and had never picked up a guitar in all of my years of playing in bands.  Now that my son was trying something new, I was inspired to try something new of my own.

My family has been remarkably nice to the discordant noise this has brought to their lives.  I’ve been playing for two months now and have gotten better at playing chords and at sight reading music.  Not great, mind you, but not terrible, either.  It’s fun to see myself getting better, and it’s undoubtedly the case that my past bass experience has been helping.

For me, one of the best features of learning guitar is that my son gets to see me suck at it.  We adults all know that learning something takes time and are OK with it.  However, kids don’t always realize this, and believe that they should master something within weeks of starting it.  I’m glad that my son can see that his dad, who he still believes is capable of anything at all, struggles with learning new things.

A lot of adults, both in teaching and outside of teaching, are afraid to show kids that they’re not good at something.  Just as we expect our kids to learn from their mistakes in the classroom, it’s important that we also model this behavior on our own.  This doesn’t have to be music, of course.  Maybe we’d like to do a project for the first time with our students and don’t know if it will work.  In this case, it would be good for the students to know that we’re trying something new and to see us work out the kinks on the fly.  At the end, we can ask our kids what went right, what went wrong, and how we can change things in the future.  Not only will this make the activity better, but it will show kids that learning new things isn’t always a smooth process, and that this is absolutely OK.

I hope my guitar playing improves soon.  Until then, I’m happy to keep showing my flaws in front of my son and his friends.  After all, nobody’s perfect.

Why I left teaching

A few years back I had a student who cheated.  This wasn’t one of those “my word against yours” sorts of things.  What happened was that I photocopied the graded tests before passing them back, and when one of the kids turned it back in for a regrade claiming that I’d graded something wrong, I found that he’d changed his answer so that it would look like I’d made a mistake.  This was an open-and-shut case of cheating, complete with irrefutable documentation on my part.

Of course, he claimed that he hadn’t cheated.  When I showed him the evidence of his cheating, he got very quiet.  He asked what he could do and I told him that he’d head up to the honor council and they’d decide what the punishment was.  All by the book.

About a week later, my principal came into my room.  He explained that the kid’s mom was very active in the PTA and that she had the tendency to overreact when it came to her kids.  I pointed out to him that there was no room for misunderstanding, showing him the evidence, and he again explained the situation with the kid’s mom.  Finally, I just asked him if he was telling me to drop the cheating case against the kid and he told me that he did.  And that the case would be dropped irregardless of what I said.

I dropped the case.  And at the end of the school year tendered my resignation.

Before this all happened, I had only very occasionally caught kids cheating in my class.  It was something that was usually handled quietly and was meant to teach the kids a lesson more than it was to punish them.  The typical punishment was a reprimand and a zero on the assignment.  Not that big a deal.

However, once I was pressured into dropping the case, I realized that I couldn’t, in good conscience, hold other kids to the standards that had been ignored when this kid had his case dropped.  I dropped out of the honor council, and when students would be caught cheating I’d tell them to retake the test and not to do it again.

Now, it would be wrong for me to say that this incident of cheating is the only thing that caused me to leave.  In all honesty, my son had finished daycare and was about to start pre-K and I had been thinking for some time about leaving teaching for a time to be a stay-at-home dad while he was in school.  You know, the whole nine yards:  Volunteering at his schools, packing his lunches, doing volunteer work while he’s at school, being at home when he returns and so forth.  I’d be a regular Martha Stuart!

Honestly, I was completely on the fence about whether I should continue teaching or take time off for my son.  However, the feeling that I’d done the wrong thing weighed heavily on me and I decided that this was a good time to take a break from teaching.

If I had to do everything again, I think I’d still leave teaching.  It is so rewarding and enjoyable to spend time with my son that it’s been very worth it.  However, I don’t think the cheating issue would play much of a part.  I think, after much reflection, that it’s better to work within the system to convince people that they’re doing the wrong thing than to bail out when times get tough.  When I go back to teaching in a few years, I’ll remember this and act accordingly.

I miss teaching.  Someday, mark my words, I’ll be back!

Political stupidity made useful

At the time I write this, the American Federal government has been partially shut down for nearly a month.  Some people are working without pay, while others aren’t working at all.  I live in the Washington, D.C. area and can attest that the effects of this are real and are damaging to many everyday folks.

Why is this happening?  It’s happening because politicians are acting like idiots.  I have my own opinions about who’s responsible and I think you probably do, too, but whether we agree or disagree, I think that the complete lack of discussion between the two sides is appalling.  As we all know, to solve a problem both sides have to want to reach out to the other, and I haven’t noticed that this is true with either side.

Fortunately, as teachers we can use this mess to better inform our teaching.

  • Nothing happens if lines of communication are closed:  This is true in our personal lives as well as in politics.  If you’ve got an issue with somebody (as might happen in a lab group!), it’s always best to rationally discuss the issue and work it out.  It may be uncomfortable and you may thing it won’t work, but it’s always worth a shot.  If you’ve got kids in a lab group who can’t play nicely with each other, consider telling them this.
  • If people feel unwanted or unrewarded, they will respond by disengaging.  Right now there are employees considered not critical to the government who aren’t getting paid, and there are employees considered critical who aren’t getting paid and have to go to work anyway.  As a result, there’s a lot of absenteeism and work is not going smoothly at all.  We teachers need to keep this in mind when working with our kids, because if they don’t feel like they’re being rewarded enough for what they do, they’ll also disengage.  Fortunately for us, rewarding the kids doesn’t have to be anything major – simply telling somebody that they’re doing a good job and that you’ve noticed their effort goes a long way.  By the way:  Don’t use grades as your reward system – grades are something that the kids earn, not something they’re given.
  • Having somebody to blame doesn’t help anything:  In our budget issue, each side has spent a lot of time blaming the other as being completely wrong.  Let’s go out on a limb and assume that one of the sides is completely to blame for the shutdown.  Even if this is true (and it most certainly is not), assigning blame doesn’t make anything better for anybody.  Pointing fingers doesn’t solve problems, communication does.  This is something to remember when our kids have trouble working with each other, and when we have problems with parents or colleagues.
  • Relationships can’t be fixed in a moment.  I’m sure most of us already know from hard experience that a relationship with a student can be very damaged by a single thoughtless comment.  Though the misunderstanding can usually be worked out, there will always be a longer time in which the relationship itself has to mend.  This is something everybody (particularly our politicians!) can appreciate.

Though outrageous, we can use our government dysfunction as a teachable moment, both for ourselves and for our students.  If you know somebody who’s dealing with the shutdown, or if your family is dealing with it, know that this will eventually be OK.  Our politicians may be ridiculous, but ultimately they all want to do what’s best for the people.

A letter to my son’s teacher

My son’s fourth grade teacher sends out a weekly email to the parents of her students.  It contains news about what’s being studied, a breakdown of upcoming events, and some questions that parents can ask at home to reinforce the topics being learned.  This week the question was “Why do you think so many settlers died in the Jamestown colony in the first four years?”  I’m not sure why, but I had to email a response:

Hi Ms. Lawson,

When we asked Steve the question about why so many settlers died in the first year, as you’d suggested, he answered, “Because they were dumb as hell.”  Though I was surprised by this answer, I was pleased to find after some research that this is, in fact, the correct answer.
At this point, I’ve received no response.  However, given that I do science activities with her class on a weekly basis, it’s likely that she realizes I’m just being silly.

Common sense is so passé

Today’s fun educational story comes from Ohio, where a student wrote a message on the blackboard in his classroom threatening to murder everybody at his school.  For two days in a row. (Story)

Or so some of his classmates thought.  Upon investigation by the school, it turned out that the message “December 7, Time to [some symbol]” actually referred to the fact that the Super Smash Bros Ultimate video game was coming out on December 7.  When the concerns were brought to the principal of the school, who investigated, found that the symbol was emblematic of the game and harmless, and let the whole thing go.

Of course, this wasn’t the end of it.  Rumors started in the school that this kid really and truly was going to shoot up the school, which led to an investigation by the school resource officer which found that the kid was excited about the upcoming release of Super Smash Bros Ultimate on December 7.  A letter was sent home, etc.

I’m not writing to say that the school did anything wrong in this case.  It’s clear that, when it was brought to their attention, the principal and resource officer did exactly the right things in investigating a possible threat.  When the matter was explained to them, they did exactly the right thing in concluding that the threat was false.  In this case, the system worked.

What’s appalling about this situation is that both the students and parents of this school were so quick to judge that this kid, whom everybody thinks is “weird” (according to his own account), was going to shoot the place up even though the matter had already been investigated and concluded.

Let’s use this story as a cautionary example regarding the rush to judgement.  If a weird kid in the school puts something weird on the board, it’s entirely appropriate to ask if it means something odd.  However, when it has been investigated by the school, it’s time to let it go.  Problems with school shooters have either happened when 1) Everybody ignored warning signs; or 2) The shooter surprised everybody with their apparent harmlessness.  When the school does everything right in investigating a suspected threat, it’s time to let it go.

The boy who was twice investigated in this case was essentially bullied by those of his classmates and their parents who believed that somebody with seemingly odd interests is naturally harmful.  Perhaps instead of treating others like the enemy, we can try treating them with respect.

Safety hypocrisy

I was drinking my morning coffee and watching YouTube this morning when I came across this video by The Backyard Scientist.  For those of you who haven’t seen him, he’s a guy who does “scientific” things in his backyard, usually involving something destructive.  Highly entertaining, to say the least.

The video I mentioned above is titled “This Is Why You Need To Wear Safety Goggles” and shows a number of dangerous things involving power tools.  As with most of his videos, it’s fun to watch things get destroyed.  Unfortunately, during many of the demonstrations he doesn’t actually wear safety goggles at all.  Specifically, when he works with the impaling device/table saw and when he plays with the chainsaw/angle grinder.  Yep, you read that right:  A video that’s supposed to promote safety goggle use neglects to use safety goggles.

I’d like to say that this content creator is the only person who does this sort of thing, but I can’t.  In most of the chemistry classrooms I’ve visited, there are serious violations in eye-protection safety precautions.  It’s not uncommon for teachers to tell students to wear goggles and then do one or more of the following:

  • Fail to wear safety goggles, or wear them only when immediately in the presence of the lab equipment.
  • Fail to ensure that each of the students is wearing their safety goggles.
  • Fail to ensure that visitors to the classroom wear safety goggles.

One might argue that goggles aren’t always needed because eye-related injuries are extremely rare.  After all, we’ve all seen that safety goggles are typically damaged by being dropped rather than through accidents.  However, consider this:  It only takes one accident like this in your career to blind a child.  One instant of having a student fail to wear their goggles can lead to blindness.  Put like this, it’s clear how important it is to have everybody in the room wear their goggles.

The reason I focus so much on this, rather than on other topics, is that eye safety in a high school chemistry lab is the biggest concern we have.  Though it’s not uncommon for students to burn themselves or cut themselves on broken glass, these injuries are rarely serious enough to warrant even minor medical help.  Even in the very rare cases where medical help is necessary, a burn or cut won’t lead to the same life-altering injury that is caused by blindness.

The good news is that it’s very easy to practice good eye safety in the lab.  Just follow these steps:

  • Make sure everybody in the classroom wears goggles during lab experiments, whether or not they’re in proximity to the equipment.
  • Make sure everybody wears goggles until the last lab group has completed their lab.
  • Make sure all visitors to the classroom (this includes your administrator!) wear goggles during the lab.
  • You need to wear goggles during the lab to set an example.

To show the seriousness of this rule, the punishment for not wearing goggles should be a zero on the lab and removal from the classroom.  I know it sounds harsh, but there is nothing more important in a chemistry class than safety.  Though no credit on a lab can hurt a kid’s grade, an accident involving one’s eyes can cause permanent blindness.  As long as you make it abundantly clear that this rule is to be followed, it will quickly become a habit that your kids just automatically follow.

Enjoy the link to the video and The Backyard Scientist’s other videos – they’re interesting and fun to watch.  However, don’t be as casual when it comes to lab safety.