Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why I Teach, Vulcan Version

If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." - Mr. Spock
I teach because science makes sense. It answers questions. When all is upside down and inside out from a heartbreak, a loss, an unexpected turn of events, science sets things right again. The predictability smooths out the rough edges of the rest of my life. I know that if I ask a question, make observations, and conduct a controlled experiment, then my results will either support or contradict my prediction. In this way, fears can be quelled, and renamed mere uncertainties. For example, a fear of the darkness is (at the risk of sounding like Spock) irrational.

Darkness is merely an absence of visible light. Darkness is the photoreptor cells in the back of my eyes not being stimulated, and in a way, resting. They are not busy distinguishing different wavelengths of light energy, and so my brain interprets this resting as darkness. In this way, life, when it is hard or scary or unpleasant, can be made manageable. Understanding, then, equates to clarity, which gives me (a sense of) control.

On a daily basis, I feel like I'm trying to impart this idea to my students: "Let not your heart be troubled. There is an explanation. For everything."

Yet, I sense there is a hefty trade-off here. In all my attempts to calm troubled minds, to answer the questions, to bridge the gap between a world off-kilter and one that makes sense, I remove the mystery. Without mystery, I fear there is no wonderment. No curiosity.

When a child is twelve years old (as most of my students are), how much of the balance should I be tipping toward the unknown then? My mind tells me that there will be plenty of time for mysteries as they grow and mature. Plenty of time for unanswered questions, for results that still don't address the heart of the problem, for ghosts and gut feelings and human fallibility. So I think, now must be the time for certainties.

My heart, however, reminds me that those same mysteries, if administered to the students in carefully measured doses (look at me, still trying to quantify and control!), can provide the impetus for not just a sixth grade love of science, but a lifetime of love for it. (*And oh, how the weight of this responsibility feels massive on my shoulders.)

Alas, what started as a statement of why I teach has somehow transformed itself into both a professional and personal challenge. One way (out of many) to become a better educator, and perhaps also a better human being. To embrace more of life's uncertainty and mystery, for myself. To stop trying to quantify those things which cannot be contained. To let go. For without the unknowns (things that are not known at the present moment) and the unknowables (things that can never be known), I risk sending my students out into the world believing that all questions do indeed have answers. That all of life is calculable, measurable, and perfectly logical. And that is probably the most detrimental scientific misconception I could ever propogate.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


I can explain to you why the Moon has phases.
I can show you in the lab how temperature affects the solubility of a substance.
I can demonstrate why air is considered matter.
But when you ask me,
"Miss K, why do you have all these butterflies around your room?"

I am stopped in my tracks.

Like a clogged drain.
All the words get stuck in my throat
And my brain spins around
off-balance and awkwardly empty.

All I can manage to say
Is something cliche and pre-packaged
About how butterflies first begin their lives
As squishy, wandering caterpillars.
And that likewise, we all go through
To become more capable,
More beautiful
Versions of ourselves.

Except I don't even say it as eloquently as that.
Because I fear your eleven-year-old minds
Won't understand what it means to have
Another version of who you are today.

There is a part of me that wants to say instead,
"Ask me in ten years."

It would be like asking a caterpillar
Why he couldn't stop staring at the butterflies
Above him in the air.
"I don't quite know," he would say.
"But something about them just feels so familiar."