Reflecting on My Best Lesson of the Year

For Christmas I got the book Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. I had been interested in this book, but was a little skeptical about whether I would relate to it. I was wrong. What this book espouses is what I aim to be as a teacher and, although I am only half way through the book, I am loving it.

In a section on Raising the Bar he asked the question, “Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets for?” The following lesson I will describe was likely one I could sell tickets for. It is not because the lesson was perfect itself, it was my best lesson because of how I presented it, how I made my students care.

Over the summer my district put on a Summer Institute, which clearly had an impact on me as this is my second blog to mention it. One of the sessions I attended was about scientific modeling. Modeling is a big part of the Next Generation Science Standards and in beginning to incorporate those standards the past couple years I really didn’t get what they wanted us to do with modeling. I left that session with a good idea of what modeling could look like and this lesson planned out in its beginning stages. I worked on it until the first day of school.

I have never been a fan of boring first days that are just a list of rules and expectations. My students are 8th graders, they know basic classroom expectations. I give them the syllabus, tell them my one rule which is “Contribute to your learning and that of your fellow students” and leave it at that. We can go over the grade break down another day.

Then I introduced the Bottle Demo! Thrilling title. If you look at the link above you can see that it is not some magically original activity. I’ve seen it in other shapes and forms and pulled from a ton of sources to adapt it to be a lesson about modeling. Now, I should say a bit about my aim with this lesson. I didn’t expect my students to 100% get the scientific principles behind the demo as they have little to no background in those principles. I expected them to collaborate, think creatively, and practice creating a scientific model. I also wanted them to know that Physical Science doesn’t have to be intimidating, it can be fun.

The demo stretches over two days and it is very teacher led. This is not a time for pure student led inquiry, though I happily demonstrate any different set up that they ask to see (what happens if you remove just the bottom tape, what if you remove the cap…). Could I have a student led lab? Sure, but I honestly don’t think every activity needs to be that student led.

So, I get up in front of the students with the PowerPoint behind me, worksheets in front of them, trashcan next to me and I carefully, ever so slowly and with great fan fair, remove the first piece of tape on the bottle. Nothing happens (sort of a combination of vacuums and surface tension keeps the water in). They don’t believe that there is a hole, so I walk around them showing the hole, squirting out a bit of water by squeezing the bottle.

They want to know why, but I tell them at this point it is up to them to figure that out. I then go back to the front of the room, students convinced there is some magic at work, and I remove the second piece of tape. Water comes out of the bottom hole.  Yes, this is my best lesson, water coming out of a hole in a bottle made by a heated nail. You can hold the applause. Let me tell you, they were at the edges of their seats. Questions began. What happens if you remove the cap? What would happen if the hole were bigger or smaller? And I show them or answer those questions, but avoid the “whys”. But I don’t explain it all, I want to see their thought processes when they create their model. In the end there are some good explanations that are right, some good explanations that are wrong, and some students who still need practice and support constructing scientific models. But all the students were engaged in the process.

The next day I bring in magic tricks. They are terrible tricks by the way and I am no magician, but they help explain the concept. I demo a bottle with 5 holes in a ring around the bottom of the bottle. No water comes out unless you remove the top or tilt it on its side. I do another demo where there is a hole in the side and a hole in the cap and I discretely uncover and recover that hole. By discretely it is obvious to everyone one of the students who can actually see my thumb. Before I lift my thumb I tell them to all breath in so that we lower the air pressure of the room and lift my thumb from the hole. Water comes out. I bill all of these as magic tricks, but I give them support to begin to grasp the science. I collect their worksheets. And then I explain it all to them. Every trick. A demo can seem like magic, but it should end with real science.

Here’s the thing about that lesson, I could have taught it to my class last year and it would have failed. Firstly, different things work with different students. Secondly, I hit a breaking point last year. I used to be much more self conscious of myself teaching, but somewhere around March I finally asked myself why I felt that way. I knew my students liked me and respected me when I was silly and when I was not. I guess at that point I had finally taught enough that I no longer worried about seeming ridiculous to my students with my enthusiasm. My classes were better for it.

My students left that second day knowing my enthusiasm about science, my some what personally sarcastic demeanor, and my willingness to answer any science related question they put before me. It was a success.



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