By Steve Maanum
During my many years as a science teacher, it was not uncommon to have live animals in my classroom. We used an incubator to hatch quail eggs, aquariums were the homes for assorted fish and crayfish, terrariums were used for snakes, and wire cages became the playground for white rats.
My science room was at the end of a hallway and connected to the next classroom by a shared storage room and work area. After taking attendance one January morning I managed to get my lively group of eighth graders settled down enough to begin our discussion about some of the terms that scientists use; terms like theory, hypothesis and scientific law. You have to understand that keeping the attention of 13 and 14 year-olds is a balancing act. If they are not interested they will not pay attention and if they don’t pay attention, the chances of them learning anything are greatly diminished.
I had been searching for a creative way of explaining the list of vocabulary terms that accompanied our science chapter when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a mouse that entered the room from the attached storeroom. The students hadn’t seen it yet and I knew that the very moment someone did notice it, the entire classroom would be in an uproar and the distraction would mean that any chance of learning would go out the window.
Teachers are called on to play many roles during the course of a day so in my attempt to keep their attention away from the mouse, I went into an animated narrative on how they could remember the definition of the term ‘scientific law.’
I began by saying, “When I had to memorize the meaning of an unfamiliar term, I would either find a way to put it to music or I would play some kind of a game in order to remember it. Here’s an example, tonight when you are sitting down for dinner with your family, wait until everyone has a mouthful of food and then stand up on your chair. That will get their attention. Strike the pose of a great orator and state (with authority) ‘A scientific law is an explanation of how the universe behaves’ and then sit down.”
The entire time I was explaining this odd learning style I was watching the mouse cross the front of the room, move slowly under the row of windows along the east wall, and then across the back of the room toward the classroom door that opened to the hallway. Not a single student had noticed it and as our classroom intruder entered the hallway, I had to smile to myself for my ingenuity. That’s when the mouse decided to turn around and come back into the room. He spent some time sniffing the floor along the back wall before beginning to retrace his path in my direction.
I jumped back into my narration. “When you sit down, one of two things will happen – your parents will totally ignore you and continue eating or they will send you to your room and tell you to stay there until you regain your sanity.”
One of my students said, “What happens if I stand up on the chair and strike that famous orator pose, but I forget what I’m supposed to say?”
“Hum, if that happens” I said, “Just say, please pass the mashed potatoes.”
By this time the class was laughing and the mouse had made its way back to the front of the room. One of the boys sitting in the first row saw it and without saying a word and without any hesitation, he dove from his chair and, with catlike reflexes, he grabbed it. As he stood and looked at me, he asked, “What do you want me to do with it?”
We walked over to the windows, opened one, and gave the classroom distraction its freedom.
As that group of students entered the room the next day, I realized there was no way I would try to top the previous day’s lesson. Two students wasted no time in raising their hands. When I called on the first, he said, “I tried that last night at supper.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“My parents just stared at me and didn’t say a word.”
The other student who had raised her hand, blurted out, “I tried it, too, but when I got up on my chair I forgot what I was supposed to say.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well, we didn’t have mashed potatoes so I just said, please pass the salt.”
Working with junior high students taught me many things. I learned to quickly adapt to any situation, and I learned that when distractions entered the room and I thought every chance of learning was about to go out the window, I should just take the distraction and drop it out the window instead. Then my mind could concentrate on finding a creative way to get on with the lesson.
A footnote to the story – when the students took the chapter test, the term ‘scientific law’ was included and not one student missed it.