In March of this year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, when speaking of teacher layoffs and increased class sizes nationwide, said that he would rather have his children in a classroom of 28 students with a fantastic teacher than 23 with a mediocre one. I am in neither of these categories: I am a terrible first year teacher teaching science to class sizes ranging from 24 to 33. I teach in a classroom so overcrowded I have had students sitting at the small table in the corner that holds the National Geographic magazines and others who have to sit in the desk reserved for observing parents and administrators. So far, my teaching experience at a critical needs junior high school in North Panola these first 14 weeks of school has shown me not only that Arne Duncan does not understand the current pressures or the needs of teachers and schools, but more importantly, that teaching science in a classroom such as my own is quite difficult for myself and unjust to the students that I serve.
North Panola Junior High School is the nucleus into which all students in the district are funneled from three other elementary schools. This is the first time the different territorial groups meet each other. As a student, the two greatest factors determining whether you will be friends with another sixth grader is: 1) if they have the same last name as you, and 2) if they reside in your town. If they are neither of these, they are instantly an outsider and not your friend. My children constantly want to fight one another, and they typically do not want to work cooperatively in groups because of these divides. My classroom, which just barely accommodates six rows of desks and has no communal table space, has already housed a fistful of fights. Even on a daily basis there is arguing and hateful name-calling between students. Out of the three grades in the school, sixth grade is the one in which the students have to make the biggest transitions. It is understandably the hardest grade to get used to, and the 2011 class has been no exception. This year has seen the largest amount of 11-year-olds to date, 144 and counting, and with this increase in numbers comes more behavioral, capacity, and logistical issues.
As science teachers, we strive for hands-on inquiry, critical thinking, exploration, observation, and serious analysis of the world around us. But how does one facilitate this dream effectively when there is no room and no opportunity for a student to leave their desk during a 50 minute science lesson? I want to be that fantastic science teacher that lights a student’s spark for the natural world and perhaps even motivates some of them into pursuing careers in science. Yet, each day when the mantra “I wish I had a bigger classroom” passes through my head, I fear I may be doing the opposite to inspire my students into science. My bell-to-bell instruction is confined to the board almost every day. My students take notes for part of the period, read a passage or two in their text books, and then work independently on practice problems and their night’s homework. My sixth grade students badly want lab experience; they feel compelled to get up out of their desk, they love touching and messing with props, and science becomes much more real to them when they are the ones making it happen. Currently, the experience that I am able to provide to them is a pathetic attempt but an attempt nonetheless, and I think the students know and appreciate it. When I do a demonstration in class or when we really do have “lab days at our desk,” those are my best days instructionally and my students’ best days behaviorally. Simply put: My students want to pour water into a beaker and measure its contents; they want to use a ruler to measure their pencils; they want to use pipettes and tweezers to investigate a penny or piece of candy.
Going off of this basic desire for participation, getting my students excited at the beginning of a lesson has turned out to be quite easy because they are ravenous for the science experience. Some of the best demonstrations in my classroom have involved very simple household objects and foods from the grocery aisles at Walmart. When explaining the phases of matter recently in class, my students became very excited with a handful of beans placed into a simple plastic bottle. The beans represented the particles of a substance, and the speed at which I was moving the bottle signified what state of matter the substance was in: solid, liquid, or gas. For the solid, I slowly vibrated the particles back and forth with as little movement as possible. The beans then slipped and slid around between one another a little faster, like a flowing liquid. Finally, gas particles chaotically shook and rattled inside the container to represent a gaseous substance, to the wide-eyed amazement of the students before me. They loved this phase the best, partly because of the noise the gas particles made, and partly because it was me, their teacher, making such a racket in the first place.
Even with the challenges that the lack of space presents in a science classroom, more and more I am realizing that it’s no excuse for not bringing any type of activity in for the students. When I can provide my students a glimpse of what they ought to be receiving as young science-minds, it encourages me to to keep trying to encapsulate entire labs in the confines of a desk space. And it also reminds me of why I became a science teacher. I love seeing children play, investigate, smile, and learn. I am encouraged for the rest of the year and for future years as I hone my abilities to engage my students any way I can and present to them the education they deserve.