It isn’t often that I reflect back on my first year of teaching (2002-2003), but I found myself doing just that this week.
That first year, I was teaching 9th grade environmental science in the Bronx. I decided to start with a study of the Bronx River. Since understanding the water cycle is an important part of understanding how any watershed works, I wanted to do a lesson on the water cycle. What I didn’t fully appreciate is that many high school students perceive the water cycle as a “baby” topic since it is commonly discussed in elementary school science curricula and on children’s educational TV programs. I expected that my students would have a bit of prior knowledge about the water cycle, but would have plenty more to learn about it. (That was a correct assumption.) I did not expect them to be wildly insulted that I was teaching the topic. But my students were insulted by the idea of studying the water cycle in high school and, well, let’s just say that trying to teach a bunch of adolescents who are bristling with righteous indignation is not something that I can recommend.
This week I taught an Earth science lesson to middle schoolers about vortices and how they are often present in weather formations (i.e., hurricanes, tornadoes, and dust devils). As part of this lesson, I wanted my students to experiment with tornado tubes to discover as many different ways as possible to get water to flow from the top bottle to the bottom bottle and to figure out for themselves that when a fluid forms a vortex, the water flows more quickly than it does when if flows in any other way. What’s the catch? I know that all of my students have seen tornado tubes before and many of them consider tornado tubes to be toys for young children. But this week I didn’t get any complaints from my students about the class being babyish. No one was insulted or upset. Everyone stayed focused on the purpose of the lesson. So what was different?
I think the most important difference between my early, disastrous lesson on the water cycle and this week’s successful lesson on vortices was the way I framed things. First of all, I calmly and confidently acknowledged that tornado tubes were often used as toys for young children and that quite a few of my students had prior experience with them. Then I challenged the students to use the tornado tubes to answer some very specific questions – questions that I made certain would not be perceived as babyish.
This double-pronged approach of acknowledging the students’ prior experience and immediately highlighting the next level of inquiry and understanding that is available successfully diffuses students’ fear of being underestimated and prevents righteous indignation from rearing its head. Thus, something that could be a major classroom management problem never develops. And that’s what good classroom management looks like. Issues are anticipated and dealt with before they become problems. Although I knew that intellectually back in 2002 I hadn’t yet developed the skills to implement good classroom management. Since I can’t get in a time machine and help my younger self out, I hope I one day get the chance to mentor new teachers and make the learning curve easier for them.