A few years ago, I read a chapter in Tina Seelig’s book called "The Upside-Down Circus" and the concept was so sticky it did what sticky things do best - it stuck. The Upside-Down Circus is a case study in creativity and design. How do we go from a generic $5 circus show with elephants and clowns to a fully-fledged, high-end spectacle like Cirque du Soleil? Much like the ideas presented in that chapter, The Upside-Down School is about questioning the traditional assumptions of schooling and education and flipping them on their heads – the same story with a different twist.
In science, one of the first activities I do with my students is have them sketch an image of a scientist. That's it. The activity is simple but reveals a lot about our preconceived notions of what science is and what exactly it is that scientists do. The stereotypical image of a scientist is presented as follows: a white male with wacky hair in a white lab coat working in a laboratory with chemistry equipment. We talk about what these stereotypes mean and where they come from. We talk about why these images are problematic and what we can do about it. And then, we revise.
Scientist sketches, before discussion.
Scientist sketches, after discussion.
The most interesting part of this activity is seeing the variety and differences in approaches that students take when drawing the second sketch. By bringing to awareness our biases and questioning those initial assumptions, we freed ourselves from the initial, rigid, locked in notions of what constitutes "scientist." I feel like this is what we need to aim to do more often in our own thinking DAILY. That's what I'm going to attempt to do more often on my blog as well.
I've been finding ways to sneak in lessons about the Nature and Processes of Science to my students in context of the curriculum we are exploring, but sometimes, these lessons are fun to have on their own. For their final assessment in chemistry, my ninth grade students will be designing and conducting an investigation to find the identity of two mystery powders. As a part of this assessment, they have to be able to demonstrate that they can write a clear, accurate, and reproducible procedure. I did some digging found an excellent resource published by the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District that I used to scaffold the procedure writing portion of this assignment.
I started the lesson by asking students two questions:
PART 1: Designing the Structure and Writing the Procedure
Notes: Although I gave students the option of either writing the procedure as they built the structure or after, all of them chose the latter option which I found interesting. I gave my students a time limit of 25 minutes to complete this part of the activity, which turned out to be a little rushed because it took them some time to settle on a design. In the future, I need to re-emphasize the main point of the activity, which is to write a clear, accurate, and reproducible procedure that someone else can follow. I ended up giving students closer to 30 minutes. Groups that did not finish within the time limit handed in an incomplete procedure.
PART 2: Following and Evaluating a Procedure
Notes: This was probably the most fun part of the lesson as students were very excited about putting their procedures to the test! At this point, I was busy at the front of the room comparing the structures groups built to the originals, although I wish I spent more time walking around asking probing questions such as, "What makes this procedure easy/difficult to follow? How can you tell which way the pieces are oriented? What would make this step clearer?"
After students had a chance to follow another group's procedure, they completed question #5 in Part II of the student handout (above). Once the students have had time to write down their thoughts I had them share their feedback with the other groups.
Notes: Some students began to get overly critical and picky about each other's procedure. At this point, I reminded them of what constructive feedback looks like, and reminded them that mistakes are OKAY - they are part of the learning process.
An extension might be to have students follow-up this activity with a procedure about making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, brushing their teeth, or some other common, everyday task.
Note: This would also be a good time to discuss how scientific procedures differ from everyday ones, and how the formatting may change depending on the class. For example, in my class, students will be expected to write their procedures in past tense and include labeled diagrams with figure captions written below the diagram.
I will evaluate my students on their ability to write clear, accurate, and reproducible procedures as a part of their Mystery Solids Investigation performance task.
Picture a circle on the center of a blank page. Along the circumference of the circle are six spokes, evenly spaced. If you were to write down one word for each of the spokes that defined who you are, what would you write?
For me, these words are: female, older sister, Chinese, Canadian, teacher, learner... These are important parts of my identity, they fundamentally shape who I am and how others view me, however, if I am not careful, they can also label me and lock me in. We all have assumptions about ourselves that can hinder us from reaching our true potential. To be more specific, I recently had a conversation with a good friend of mine who told me about an article she read that said the reason why many females are overqualified for their jobs are because women tend not to apply for a position if they feel they do not fulfill all the requirements, whereas males will if they feel they fit most of the criteria. I wondered how many opportunities I missed because I told myself I wasn't good enough to try.
I recently interviewed for a position that required teaching AP physics. With my measly, almost-two years of full time teaching, and zero experience with physics (or AP for that matter), I definitely did not think I had all the requirements for the job. But I thought about what my friend told me, and I said- to no one in particular- "Heck, what do I have to lose?" Lo and behold... I was stunned when I landed an interview... and even more amazed when they called me back for a second one.
If such a small shift in my thinking could have led to such a significant outcome, no doubt this can apply to all areas of life and learning as well. I am currently reading Mindset by Professor Carol Dweck. I wonder a lot about how I can help my students uncover the hidden assumptions they have about themselves in order to develop a growth mindset. We talked about what it means to have a fixed versus growth mindset at the beginning of the year and what that looked like for different people. We explored the nature of science and how important it is to acknowledge failure in science. We discussed our ideas about how success is like an iceberg; magnificent and grand on the outside, when in fact much of it is submerged and hidden below the surface. I try to make it real for my students and have them connect it to their own lives, but most of all I'm trying to build a classroom culture that enables them to feel safe taking risks, making mistakes, and to fearlessly embrace new challenges. I struggle with this every day. Sometimes I feel like I am making good headway, and other times I feel like I'm picking my students up by the feet and trudging them through the mud, shouting, "Come with me! There is a light at the end of the tunnel!!! Just keep moving!"
And with that last bit of imagery, I shall kindly remind myself that learning is a process, and that we each move on our own time.
When I think about Carol Dweck's research on mindset I am reminded of my grandfather, who, throughout all the years I have known him, has shown me in his own way that it is NEVER too late to learn a new skill or to grow your mind. When I was eight or nine, I remember grandpa practicing to get his truck driver's license. He had only been in Canada for a few years at that point, had never driven a truck before, did not have access to one, and was unable to take lessons, but that did not stop him. He took us out to Canadian Tire and bought a toy truck with remote controls. I remember watching him maneuver it around the carpet in his bedroom, studying it from different angles, gathering information about the spacing, and so on. He practiced like this diligently for days before his driving exam. Even I tired of watching the little truck move around in endless loops, turns, and parking maneuvers, but grandpa always aimed for perfection. This was the type of man my grandfather was.
I used to hate going to Chinese school on the weekends, but grandpa insisted that I persevere because he was afraid that I would lose my heritage and that my future children would forget their ancestry. This thought frightens me also. I never used to think learning Chinese was very important. I just knew how going to Chinese school made me feel - stupid and inadequate. It was like being sent to a correctional facility for not being born to the right circumstances. To hide my feelings of inadequacy I worked even harder to get good grades. I memorized difficult words, I practiced spelling them out over and over, and people told me how smart I was.
It wasn't until one day my grandpa said something to me that I finally was able to breathe. I didn't even know it then, but I was suffocating. I had been trapped by the need to prove how good I was, that I too could read and write, two things that seemed to come so effortlessly to others. I used to cry myself to sleep because it seemed that no matter how hard I tried or how much I worked at it, I would never be fluent in Chinese like my family. So, when grandpa said those words to me I knew the facade was up. I didn't have to pretend anymore. He said, "Even if you are not very smart or talented at something, with effort and practice we can make up for the things we lack. This is me, your grandfather." And then he said, "You and I, we are both hard workers, no?" I will never know what prompted grandpa to say those words to me, but I just know that when he did, at that very moment, I felt true clarity and a huge sense of relief. It didn't matter that I wasn't great at something, what mattered was that I tried.
Teacher, Friend, Adventurer. (Not necessarily in that order)