Biology teacher

A thought on practicing what you teach

Here are some stereotypes for you. English teachers pride themselves in grammatically correct emails, texts, and tweets. Educators of math are exact and methodical. Teachers in the arts are creative, interesting, and dynamic.  PE instructors and coaches are athletic and encouraging. History teachers extrapolate advice from past events applicable to current day experiences. You can mention any country in the world and the social studies or geography teacher can tell you where it is. And, science teachers are analytical, employing the use of the scientific method in everything they do.

Not only am I a science teacher, but my focus is biology and that affixes further considerations to my life. The Green Initiative at the school is really important to me. My family eats mostly organic. We recycle. Our car spends 95% of the time parked in front of our house and we’re in the process of getting rid of it, as we tend to opt for our bikes or public transportation. Two weeks of my summers are dedicated to taking students on conservation based ecology research expeditions, mostly because I want to “spread the word” and I feel greatest change will come from the younger generation. When traveling, I consider the impact of our journey.  Basically, the things I teach pervade our lives.

So, my effort to live what I teach has just been taken to the next level. Our high school students have been challenged to participate in the Project Green Challenge.  For whatever reason, it seemed realistic to me to support the effort by joining the challenge. Eagerly I entered my information and signed up.  Well, the first challenge came through today in the form of an email.  I decided to do both the “Green” and “Greener” challenges.  It took me probably an hour (though the “Green” realistically only took about 15 minutes). Now worry fills me to think I might have committed to an hour each night for an entire month. That’s a lot of time!

Surprizingly, I learned a great deal from my endeavor. Do you know what the “Euro-Leaf” is and means? Were you aware that there is organic nail polish remover? My little projects veritably increased my awareness of organic products and instilled a greater desire to purchase organic especially in the areas of hygiene and cleaning supplies. So, it was worth it, tonight at least. It will be interesting to see where this month leads me. Will I regret my attempt to practice what I teach?  I hope not!

Anyone else care to join?  You can do anything for a month, right? Sign up here.

The Biology Bus, Holiday Labs, and the Emergency Fire Blanket

It is the Crocus Vacation but several students have requested that we have a lab day so they can work on their internal assessments.  Two of the six students happen to be my own so, of course, I drive them in with me.  Another student is from our neighborhood and another lives on the way.  So, because we are part of a very small school with a family environment, we pick everyone up and I’m feeling very much like I’m driving “The Biology Bus” on the way to the school. Two other students meet us at the school.

We all enter the chilled classroom and within minutes there is a buzz of activity as everyone sets up his or her lab.  I am happy to be there with them and once again feed on their energy and enthusiasm.  The environment is considerably more relaxed considering that it’s a holiday week.  At one point the students whip out some marshmallows and roast them over a Bunsen burner while they are waiting on their experiments.  OK.  It’s a bit “on the edge” but I let it slide as they are so responsible and they’re working hard on their experiments.  I turn back to my work.

Suddenly, I hear an urgent, “Mom…..Mom…..Mom, what do we do about this fire” from behind me.   I swivel around in my chair to view my son with his outstretched hands motioning to a gigantic flame on the lab bench. The flame is spreading across the bench, enveloping the gas and electrical outlets.  I have the immediate thought, “This is a huge fire that we might not be able to contain”.  I push the thoughts of requiring the fire department aside as I do what initially needs to happen.  The students have, wisely, already turned off the gas.  It is an alcohol fire (spontaneous combustion of ethanol) and we opt for the fire blanket rather than the CO2 fire extinguisher.  Together we unfold the blanket and drape it over the monstrous flames.  We press down on the blanket and feel the heat beneath.  My son lifts a corner and observes flames licking at the blankets’ edge.  “Don’t lift it.  Don’t lift it,” he advises.  So, we let the blanket do its work of smothering the fire.  An awful stench fills the room, the result of the melted rubber tubing connecting the Bunsen burner to the gas outlet.  Near the blanket, a bottle of methylene blue sits strangely deformed from the heat it’s been exposed to.  It’s a surreal moment as I look at the aftermath of the event and the relief replacing the shocked looks on my students’ faces.

I learn that a student had taken his experiment from the fume hood (!-what !) to the Bunsen Burner, attempted to pour the alcohol into a larger beaker, experienced the spontaneous combustion of the alcohol as it was being poured, and proceeded to drop the beaker.  The result was the rapid spreading and growth of the flame.

Fortunately, all are safe, no major damage has occurred, and we are able to easily erupt into laughter as the students reenact the near disaster, my son’s persistent summoning of me, and my apparent slow-motion response. 

The students finish up their experiments and clean up the lab while I collect the turtle and his supplies to come home with me for the school break.  We work together to place the chairs on the tabletops with hopes that the cleaners will do a more thorough cleaning of the floor. The students perform a final check on ongoing experiments.  I turn off the lights and we exit the Biology room, the 3rd floor, and the school itself.  The magic school bus then begins its ride home, dropping students off at their destinations and wishing them a happy holiday.

On the Lighter Side: Classroom Pets

Two years ago some well-meaning IB students decided I NEEDED a classroom turtle.  I was hesitant as I was happy with my simple fish tank, especially when considering long breaks like Christmas and summer.  However, the students said they would get everything and set it up so I consented.  I let the students handle the entire situation and before I knew it there were two turtles, each named after a boy in the class.

Isn’t that a violation of Parenting 101?  You never name a pet after a child, as you do not want the child identifying with the pet in the event that the pet dies.  So there I was with two turtles named after two students.  One student’s parents were transferred at Christmas so that eased the stress of “What if a turtle dies?” Well, shortly after his departure, a turtle did die.  It took some convincing but I was able to assure the class that the deceased turtle was, indeed, the one named after the student who had moved. 

The remaining turtle has been a little companion for two years now.  He actually has personality and reacts frantically when I walk into the room.  His little head follows student movement in the classroom and he takes food from their hands, much to their delight.  Sometimes he glides to one end of the tank and then swims backwards, glides again and swims backwards.  It’s so adorable and brings visitors from all over the school, including elementary kids.  Most of all, however, I love how he brings big 12th grade boys to a state of absolute intrigue, especially when testing whether the turtle would eat mealworms left over from their transfer of energy experiment.

I’ve always had a fish tank in my classroom.  It’s easy.  It’s pretty.  It’s relaxing.  I read somewhere that people who spend a portion of each day observing a fish tank have lowered stress in their lives.  So, it seems like a good thing to have.  The students are always checking on the fish and it provides pleasure.

However, this past Christmas holiday disaster struck.  As soon as I entered my classroom I immediately observed mass death in my fish tank.  Of the 15 healthy fish I left before the break, only 3 stragglers barely moved in the tank, appearing to hang on for dear life.  What happened?  Did my colleague forget to feed them or put in the vacation tablets?  Why is the filter not running?  Upon closer inspection I discovered that someone, probably with good intentions of safety and/or energy conservation unplugged all electrical devices in my room, including both the heater and the filter system of my fish tank.  The dreary scene in the tank was disheartening.

I’ve transferred these three die-hards to a new tank while the old tank is cleaned and primed for new use.   I feel a strange attachment to them as “survivors”.   They have become a symbol of perseverance and are currently the highlighted feature of the classroom. The news of their traumatic experience has spread throughout the school and lured people to come visit these amazing little creatures again providing both staff and students with a sense of interest and hope.

Despite the risk of loss that living creatures bring, I think a biology classroom should have pets.