Guns in schools? Absolutely!

Yes, you read it right.  Both me and Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, believe that local school systems should have the right to determine whether guns are allowed in schools.

Though you may have the mistaken belief that guns are used to shoot people, me and Ms. DeVos both understand that grizzly bears are a constant threat in schools and only a well-armed populace can keep our kids safe.

Seriously.  You don’t believe me?  Check this out:  CNN article about grizzly bears and guns in schools.

I don’t know what I’m doing

As some of you know, I’m currently not teaching chemistry.  Though I do a lot of chemistry writing (Check out “Chemistry:  The Awesomest Science” and “Physical Science:  A Smorgasbord of Knowledge”), I stopped teaching for a while to take care of my son. Circumstances change, however, and I’ve started a long-term sub job.  Teaching TV production.

At first glance, this may seem like a problem.  Not only do I not watch TV, but I only got my first cell phone two months ago.  I’ve never owned a video camera and don’t even take regular pictures.  I know nothing at all about the art and technology of video production.

Fortunately, I’ve got a co-teacher who knows what she’s doing.  She’s worked a great deal with National Geographic making those cool critter-cam videos and she knows the ins and outs of all aspects of video production.  Because she’s German, she’s having problems becoming an official substitute teacher, which is why I’m needed in the room.

It’s a great experience for me to be the most clueless one in a classroom.  Though I haven’t the vaguest idea what the kids are doing, I can still find ways to make myself useful.  I don’t know how the editing software works, but I do know how to handle data management so nothing gets lost.  When our backup system went down, I was able to put something together.  When the kids have ideas, I help them to figure out whether or not they’re any good.  And when they need help getting the equipment together, I know enough to try and get what they need.  I make a lot of mistakes, but I’m learning.

The one skill that’s identical between chemistry and TV production is the ability to not bother the kids.  When students are working on their own and teaching themselves how to do things, my ability to leave them alone and let them work is invaluable.  I keep an eye on things to make sure that nobody goes too far off track, but mostly I just watch and listen.

Am I a good sub?  When it comes to teaching subject matter, my answer is an emphatic no. However, when it comes to leaving the kids alone to teach themselves, I think I do a pretty good job.  And when things go off track, there’s a film producer available to give the kids a hand.

For the next five months I’ll be subbing.  And mostly watching.  And learning.  And hopefully helping the kids learn, too.

How to write your own lab

I was a teaching assistant in grad school when I wrote my first lab.  We’d been given a lab notebook by the university to use with our students, but after the first couple of labs it became clear that my students weren’t understanding what it said.  The first lab I ever wrote was a restatement of one of these labs into understandable terms, with an intro section that simplified the topic.

As I recall, I got in trouble for using the phrase “the damn stopcocks don’t always work, so don’t be afraid to use some muscle to turn them.”  I’ll admit that perhaps I could have phrased it better.

My students liked these labs, so I started to make bigger changes.  By the time the semester was over, my students were finishing three hour labs in 90 minutes and aced the lab practical.  More importantly, they understood the science and had a good time in lab.

The next experience I had with writing my own labs came with my first high school teaching job.  I was given the task to teach 35 remedial students an entire year of high school chemistry in three weeks, in the basement of a church that had no lab and no budget.  It was here that I learned to really create my own labs, using materials that I had accessible to me and that I could safely work with in an ordinary classroom.  This did, as you can imagine, require some creativity.

At this point, I haven’t used any labs that I didn’t actually write for about 15 years.  I like controlling what my students learn and how they learn it.  I like knowing that the equipment and chemicals that my students need are easily accessible.  And most of all, I like posting my stuff online and sharing it.

This leads to the question at hand:  How can anybody write their own lab?  There’s no really good answer to this, but hopefully the suggestions below will help:

  1. Check to see if you actually need to write your own lab.  There are a lot of good labs out there on the internet (most of them on my site), so make sure you’re not reinventing the wheel.  If you teach at a school with very few resources, I recommend looking at homeschool websites because they are experts at making do with kitchen chemistry.
  2. Substitute lab equipment.  If you need to heat something, you don’t always need a Bunsen burner.  You can use a hot plate or steam bath as a heat source.  You can also use ovens, propane stoves, and alcohol burners for many things.  Figure out what you’ve got available and make it work.  In the same vein, coffee cups can take the place of crucibles, drinking glasses can take the place of beakers, and reagent bottles can be fashioned from bottles for subscription medicine or eye drops.
  3. Substitute chemicals.  If you’ve got no ability to deal with hazardous waste, you may find it useful to substitute something dangerous with something that’s less so.  If you’re dehydrating a salt, use Epsom salts instead of copper sulfate.  If you’re looking at combustion reactions, use something relatively safe like rubbing alcohol rather than more flammable liquids.  If you’re doing “like dissolves like”, plain old sugar and salt will teach the idea nicely.  I almost never buy chemicals because I can get away with using stuff from the grocery store, saving my school money and making my lab a safer place.
  4. Don’t be afraid to screw around.  If you think something might work, give it a shot. If you’ve got an honors class, have them invent a lab for you using whatever they can find.  If you play with the chemistry, you can’t go wrong!
  5. Safety first!  Never, ever skimp on safety measures.  Best safety practices are vital no matter what chemicals you’re working with, so even if you’ve done all of your shopping at the 7-11, make sure everybody wears goggles.

Anyhow, I hope this helps you to write your own labs in the future.  And remember to really put some muscle into those damn stopcocks.

How the elements are used in daily life

Now that your students know what the elements are, how can we show them what they’re actually used for?

I’m glad you asked.  On the site “The Periodic Table of the Elements, in Pictures and Words“, Keith Enevoldsen has made a very simple interactive periodic table that shows what the elements are good for.  If you’ve got a few minutes in class someday, I’d recommend letting your students check it out.  If you’re interested in other things periodic and orbital related, his main site is good for that, too.

(Thanks to Mental Floss for posting this site and bringing it to my attention.  If you haven’t seen them, check it out.)

The Election as Teachable Moment

Many teachers are unhappy that Donald Trump is now President-elect of the United States.  Whether you like Mr. Trump or hate him, you’ve got to admit that this election has caused a lot of bad feelings on all sides.  The students in my class this morning were overwhelmingly afraid of a Trump presidency and believed that it may be an end to America as we know it.

As a teacher, it’s not my job to share my political views with my students.  It is, however, my job to teach them things.  And today, even though I’m not a civics teacher, I taught them that a Trump presidency won’t destroy America.

We were all taught about checks and balances in high school.  Put simply, each of the three branches of the government (executive, legislative, and judicial) exercises some control over the others, ensuring that the government can’t spin out of control.  If you believe this is the case – and 240+ years of American history suggest it is – you’ve got to accept that no matter how badly Mr. Trump’s presidency goes, our nation will survive it.  But, you may say, the legislative branch is Republican and he’ll get to appoint Supreme Court justices.  Won’t they get together and end the country?  If you believe that the people we’ve elected are terrible people, then yes, it’s possible that we could get some nutty things going on.  However, most people of either party aren’t terrible, and won’t put up with most of the dire scenarios we’re most afraid of.

And if they do, there’s such a thing as the constitution.  No matter how nutty things get, there are simply some things we cannot do.  Sure, we’ve done some strange things with how we’ve interpreted the constitution in the past, but for the most part we’ve done a nice job of following it.

But what happens if the constitution is overthrown?  If that’s the case, America will no longer be America.  And frankly, it’s hard to imagine anybody thinking that’s a good idea.

If you’re afraid of our future president, remember that our system has been set up specifically to deal with situations like this.  If you believe in America, you have to believe that things will work out.

Teach our students about America, and who we are.

Looking stupid for the kids

From a very young age, kids are told that they’re not capable of making decisions for themselves.  Moms and dads like to speak for their children, teachers like to tell the kids to sit down and be quiet, and older people generally think that teenagers are all either going to murder or have sex with anything that moves.  Fortunately, the story goes, as soon as you get older (18, 21, or something like that), you magically have conferred upon you the wisdom to make your own choices.

I understand the general sentiment here.  I doubt anybody thinks that kids have the experience to make all of the decisions that affect them.  However, kids are able to make decisions from a very early age, and as they grow older they get better and better at it.

The reason I bring this up is that when we tell kids that only adults can fully make good decisions, we clearly show ourselves to be out to lunch.  Here are some examples from the past week about how we adults do a staggeringly poor job of making good choices:

  • Ted Cruz gave a big speech in front of the Republican National Convention to not endorse Donald Trump for president.  I completely understand why Mr. Cruz would loathe Mr. Trump, but it’s hard to imagine why he thought he had been allowed to speak in the first place.
  • Wikileaks showed that the Democratic National Committee, while trying to appear unbiased, actively tried to torpedo Bernie Sanders’ presidential run.  And, by the way, badmouthed their donors while doing so.
  • Members of both parties have been fervently ranting about how awful Hillary Clinton is.  I don’t like her either, but screaming/heckling during the conventions doesn’t make anybody look like they’re interested in making a good point.

I give these examples not because I’m a fan of either Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton, but because these examples show how seriously we adults treat the election of the next president of the United States.  Yep, we seem to think that screaming about how Mr. Trump is a Nazi, or about how Ms. Clinton is a criminal, is a good way to select the leader of the free world.

How can a kid not feel like we’ve been pretending to be rational the whole time?

Here’s a challenge for everybody during the next few weeks and months:

  • Let a child make a decision.  It can be a big decision or a little one, but make sure he or she actually gets to practice thinking for themselves.
  • Let a child see you being reasonable.  If there’s something you need to figure out, let a child see that you’re using reason to solve the problem.  That is, after all, what we want them to do.
  • Special election challenge:  Don’t be an idiot.  If you’re a supporter of Mr. Trump, try to make your case without referring to Ms. Clinton as corrupt or as a criminal.  If you’re a supporter of Ms. Clinton, try to make your case without calling Mr. Trump an inexperienced loose-cannon.  In other words, try to focus on what you believe, rather than on what you hate.

And, as always, get out of the swimming pool if you hear thunder.