Posts Tagged ‘CalTech’

Clay Boats

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Reading this was like a stroll down memory lane…

I had a fascinating conversation with a teacher who has been teaching physics for 15 years in L.A. and the surrounding area. She teaches 200 students on most days (in groups of 40 or so), at least three of the classes have the same test-prep curriculum. She feels bored. Ready to “move on”—but to what? I asked her to describe what she wishes she could do—even if it were unrealistic. Her wishes? Small classes so she could explore science more deeply with kids, the opportunity to do some interdisciplinary teaching with colleagues, to be able to approach physics from directions that might not match the state exam, to expand her own intellectual horizons alongside of and separate from her students. What kid wouldn’t say, “amen”?

In such settings, a teacher with 15 years of experience wouldn’t be at the end of her career (and wits) in the classroom. Imagine schools, in collaboration with universities, as the site for teacher-training—prolonged apprenticeships. My friend would then also be teaching other colleagues and would-be colleagues and learning from some interesting scientists on campus.

This was the “reform” idea of the late ’80s. But it’s getting harder, not easier, to imagine this happening today. But, you ask—how did we move so far from this vision in such a short time, so that we now have a bipartisan plan for schools that make the old factory-model look innovative? Partial answer: We left practitioners like me and educational scholars like you out of the loop and instead turned to financiers and lawyers!

I remember going to CalTech in 1990 for training in a program called S.E.E.D..  CalTech personnel–professors and graduate students–trained us public inner-city schoolteachers in the use of science kits that were rotated between schools every few weeks or so.  The kit/unit I remember was called “Clay Boats,” in which students explored the buoyancy of different materials: aluminum foil, clay, aluminum foil and clay, etc.  We were trained on the beautiful CalTech campus, fountains and flowers all over the place, and for lunch one day a scientist invited me up to see his lab.  Under bright lights a not-too-happy-looking monkey sat immobilized, a big hole in the middle of its skull, bundled wires sprouting out.  The scientist explained what he was doing but I was just trying not to pass out.

It was fun, fascinating, an experience I will always remember.  (I was happy to find out that the program is still flourishing in many of Pasadena’s public schools today.)

LA Unified has science kits too, made by a company called Foss. As an RSP teacher I don’t have much to do with science, helping kids more with reading and writing.  But I did have the pleasure of watching the entire second grade experiment with Pebbles, Sand, and Silt. The kids loved it: sifting sand, bringing out the color of rocks by dripping water onto them.

Kids exploring, teachers facilitating. What a concept! And it’s happening right here at our school, albeit only in the springtime after high stakes testing is done.

Next year our school gets a science lab. I hope the kids learn a lot from it. I hope it’s a big success.  I hope it leads to other rooms: a room for music, a room for art.  I have my doubts.  With overcrowded classes, teacher layoffs, and a Secretary of Education not rolling back No Child Left Behind but ratcheting it up, real education may never have a chance

Only if it does, only if we stop teaching to the test and truly challenge students (and teachers!), will real reform ever come.