When I am teaching, it is usually easy to break down topics into bite-sized pieces that my students can understand. Reading, for example, is relatively simple to break down once I recognize which sounds or blends are giving them trouble. And math is fun because, once I figure out which step is challenging them, I can pull out that one step and come up with all sorts of games and activities to focus on it until my students are ready to pick up the math program where they left off.
But then there is science . . . yikes. My students have been learning about atoms, elements, compounds, the whole shebang. We read the book chapters together, we studied the parts, we conducted the experiments, we tested the vocabulary. But after two weeks, my students still looked right through me. I would ask them what an atom is, and a couple of them would try to explain to me that it is a man in the Bible. No joke.
Then one day, out of quiet desperation, I gathered my students on the floor around me while I quickly reviewed the notes on how I was going to, once again, explain this huge concept to them. I began my mini-lecture and soon realized that no matter how I ordered the topics or how many times I emphasized the fact that we are all made up of tiny microscopic pieces that they can’t see with their eyes called atoms (not Adams) I was still going to get the same blank stare.
Then it hit me. They can’t see these things with their eyes. Even if I hold a chunk of gold in my hand, the whole concept behind it is so immense that it’s no wonder they had trouble with it…it was just facts and words that might as well have been a foreign language. I needed to make science much more tangible and connect it to their lives; otherwise, they were never going to get it.
I began to explain science like a cooking lesson. I told them that elements are ingredients, and each element is made up of tiny atoms with the same property. (Please note that even as we went along, I was frantically racking my brain for the next steps . . . but I was confident we were headed in the right direction.) I talked about our cooking lessons with our big buddies, and how when we had a cup of sugar it was one ingredient, but the individual grains of sugar…still sugar… together made up the whole amount—just like atoms make up the whole element.
The connections and explanations went on and on, and the blank stares slowly changed into looks of intrigue. My students started asking questions about elements coming together in different combinations, like recipes, that make up our environment. They started talking about matter and physical and chemical properties. I could have done a back flip, I was so thrilled.
Luckily, we had a cooking lesson planned for the next day, so I had the perfect chance to ask them about what they remembered. As we went through the cooking lesson, I kept referencing our science lesson. They finally…finally…understood.
I think this whole experience taught me two lessons. First, I had to be willing to ditch the plans I had been working on for two weeks. In a heartbeat, my whole lecture was scrapped for an off-the-wall, spur-of-the-moment instance of desperate explanation. I had to let go of the “eventually you will understand this if I keep trying to order it appropriately” attitude and realize that it wasn’t the order that was the problem, it was the entire lesson material. Oy. It gives me a headache just to think about it.
Second, I have to remember to not only make every lesson an experience, but also to make it one that my students are familiar with. I can put 10,000 antacid tablets into various temperatures of water to explain chemical reactions, but if they don’t understand what an antacid tablet is, they aren’t going to walk away with anything but a mental picture of me spilling water all over the floor because I underestimated the amount of gas that would be produced.
. . . Not that that has ever happened!