Monday, March 5, 2012

I Get the Science Fair, Making Popcorn, and Bad Teachers


Last night I had to work hard not to get upset. I read a NY Times opinion piece called "Confessions of a 'Bad' Teacher" and it got me thinking again about the insanity of the teacher ranking systems and the pay for play games being played on our children in order to advance political agendas. I could go on about that for an hour or so, but instead I want to think about the science fair and about making popcorn.

I finally get the science fair. My daughter wanted to be in the science fair last year but her teacher didn't give her that option. It was one of the things I didn't like about the guy. There were many things I did like, but this one bugged me. She has her chance this year and has decided to work on volcanoes. I didn't get it when she signed on to do the project or when she announced her topic, but I got it yesterday. She was on the computer typing her draft of the paper to go with her project and then was looking for information about volcanoes. I suggested that we check out YouTube.

We watched Mount St. Helens erupt and you should too. We watched, all told, about an hour of excellent video about volcanoes. We looked up Vulcan to see why his name is the root of so much of the vocabulary. We both learned a lot about the subject and about working with each other. This isn't the first time we've had this kind of experience, but I get the science fair now. The science fair is all about giving my daughter and I a chance to learn together. I'm so grateful for the opportunity.

That said, there is plenty of pain in the ass that comes with this opportunity, but that's pretty much the story of child rearing. I can live with the trade.

Then there is the popcorn.

Each evening before bed, the girls get a snack of some kind. Last night they asked for popcorn. My wife isn't feeling well and is lying on the couch. I was at the kitchen table reading the article about teaching that got me good and upset. Neither of us was going to make popcorn. So I said, "why don't you two make it yourselves?"

My girls are eight and ten years old. Just so you won't think that they are morons, we don't use microwave popcorn around here. It costs too much, makes a terrible stink, and is wrapped in way too much packaging. We make popcorn with oil, kernels, a pan, and some heat. Then we throw salt and maybe some butter on it.

So the girls said that they were more than happy to make the stuff. Under my direction, they got down the pan and added two tablespoons of oil. They tossed in three kernels, put the lid on, and turned on the heat. My younger kept us up to date with very regular bulletins about the status of those three kernels. "Haven't popped yet! Think they might pop! Nope, not yet!" And so on. Our older daughter got down a bowl and I told the younger to take a break from the play-by-play in order to measure out half a cup of kernels. When the three kernels had all popped, she added the half cup to the hot pan, replaced the top and resumed the narration.

As a teacher, leading them through this process, I was very effective in that they made popcorn and no one was injured. But I think that my lesson plan would have been cut by an administrator who would have favored technology in the kitchen. "Kids need to learn how to use microwaves in this day and age," I can hear them say. "Where is the technology in this lesson?" I think fire is a hell of a technology, but I wouldn't expect that to please anyone. Further, if they were tested on this process, they might suggest adding four kernels to the oil or mix up and put half a cup of oil in the pan first. My oldest would likely forget to cover the pan. The youngest would add salt by the pound. In other words, they would fail the test and I would be fired as their father and teacher.

The science fair worked because we had a question: why do volcanoes erupt? We will be thinking about that for the next few weeks and on through our years. The popcorn lesson worked because they got some good popcorn out of the deal and went to bed with their bellies full. Learning is about a lot more than testing. Any parent knows that. Any human being knows that. And yet we are running our schools in a way that is contrary to everything we know about learning, about kids, about teaching, and about how the world works. That's just stupid. If I could, I would give the people creating education policy in this country a test and then fire them for failing it.

Until I can do that, I suppose the best I can do is to have some popcorn, calm myself down, and write on.