February 2008


Looking into my pigeon hole made me smile today. I discovered this (And before you even ask, no sister, I can’t take niece and nephew with me):

That’s right, the sesame tree is coming to northern ireland. This usually isn’t my area (primary education), but then I discovered that the main character is an inventor. When you look into it, it really is amazing how many inventors came from northern ireland. Is the sesame tree going to educate and entertain with some local history. I am looking forward to finding out. A bookish inventor… my kind of guy, I like him already.

In my chemistry lessons today, I had fun. The experiments were very simple, but we discussed real world examples and even ventured into tangents; heart disease, perfume and why does heat radiates but cold doesn’t? As an example we reacted a solid acid with a solid carbonate. They don’t react until water is added. ….Boring…. Until it is connected with the real world. The reaction fizzed and got very very cold. I waited and wondered if anybody would make the connection. Then, “this is like a bath bomb”. No, it is a bath bomb! Suddenly it was real and they had a little insight into the world. They understood how something actually worked. Okay, to be fair, half of them didn’t know what a bath bomb was (the boys). Anyway, more connections followed. The acid we used was edible, the carbonate was edible. And these are used in soluble drugs like disprol and soluble paracetamol. When we did the chemistry, and balanced the equations, it was revealed that it produced a lot of salt. Is that a problem? It is if you have high blood pressure and are trying to reduce your salt intake, it is. This little nugget of basic chemistry was overlooked by doctors for a while.

As I read more books that would be considered ‘nerdy’, I am finding that it does benefit my teaching. Weird little anecdotes that reveal how relevant it all is. The best bit is giving students the confidence to understand the world around them. It’s not all magic and you don’t need to be a qualified ‘scientist’ to know how it works.

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As part of my day at the university I deliver a lecture. It usually lasts 1 hour 30 mins and includes… 86 powerpoint slides!

This might make a normal person gasp and feel pity for the poor people who had to sit through it. The irony is that part of the lecture was about the misuse of powerpoint; bad powerpoint.

On Friday I tried something a little different. I helped out the local local education authority with some science INSET (in-service training) SIDD*. It was an interesting experience which I was very nervous about. I have delivered to teachers before, even large numbers. It’s just that it was usually me sort of giving a lecture. Friday was more involved; group work, discussion, etc. Of course I do this sort of thing in the classroom many times a day, but it is completely different with my peers. Especially as I myself hate getting involved in any sort of group work on such days. In the end it all was ok, ish. It really surprised me how everybody got quite involved. Although, being self critical, I found that I rushed a few things and did not wrap up discussions properly. I will be repeating it all in a few weeks so will get the chance to try again. Calm down, deep breaths.

Tomorrow I get to try something even more different. Lecturing.  This has quite a different type of scaryness.  On the good side it does not involve  group work, or discussion.  However, … no backup.  On Friday I was part of a team. Tomorrow from 9.00 until 5.00 I am on my own.  I am shuffled to a room first thing in the morning somewhere in the bowels of the University and left in charge.  Until lunch time, when I am taken out and stocked up with energy and caffine.

*The lovely Sharon claims that such training days are not called INSET anymore. The weird eduspeak fashion now calls them SIDD. Although neither of us know what it stands for.

Last Friday was a busy day.  It was not supposed to be a busy day, it was supposed to be a staff day.  In my head this always translates into a busy day.  On this particular staff day I attended meeting after meeting after meeting.  What is strange was that I enjoyed most of the meetings.  I found one of the meetings so interesting  that I was disappointed when it ended.  Maybe I have bumped my head.  At the end of the day I was supposed to get all the camping equipment sorted out for a day walk.  The idea was that on Tuesday, another staff day, we would practice navigation, pitching tents and using cookers.  The caretakers were kicking us out, leaving me just enough time to throw a whole pile of unsorted gear into my car.  On the way home my mind was thinking of nothing in particular when suddenly, “pegs”.  I forgot the pegs.  A very early drive back to work on Tuesday morning would have to sort that out.

On Tuesday morning, after getting the pegs, we met the students in bitterly cold and foggy conditions.  The location we choose to train these fledgling mountaineers was…..  near sea level, near the city, walking along a very flat path.  It was an ideal area to practice the skills as it was our first time with them as their leaders and the season is too unsafe for the mountains.

We spilt the students into 4 manageable groups and discussed tactics.  It was then that we realised that we would have to carefully time and coordinate the day to ensure that we all met up to hand over the ‘limiting factor’.  It turns out that 5 fully qualified leaders remembered to bring 1 box of matches between them.  Well, we were all meeting up for lunch anyway.

Oh, that’s right! I’m a teacher! I drink a shot of bitter disappointment blended with martyrdom each day for lunch. Its builds a healthy cynicism.

Today I began to construct a giant artistic periodic table.  It uses prints from a project by 96 artists.

The idea is to stick the squares onto fabric and use wooden poles to hang it beside my regular periodic table.  So far it is massive 2.5 meters by 1.6 meters.  There were 118 little cards to be sorted into the correct positions.  I got my year 10 class to sort them.  Initially nothing happened as they had not a clue what was happening.  I wanted them to sort it out themselves so I gave very little help.  After 2 minutes a wave understanding passed through them and it was all sorted.  It was quite difficult to know what some of the elements were.  When it is finished they will feel as if they were a little part of the project.*

Tungsten is my favourite.   It has the symbol W which was its old word – Wolfram.  this was because tin miners hated it.  If tungsten was present when they were trying to extract tin, the tin would dissolve in the tungsten and became stolen.  Like a wolf steals sheep.

*of course I scrambled the symbols as soon as the class left, so that the next class could also “feel as if they were a little part of the project”.

It all started very well in the morning.  I arranged the cover, eat my porridge and finished off a set of reports.  All before the school day began.  From that moment on it all kind of went a bit strange.  As always, it began with the dreaded computers.  They started hanging and freezing (not particularly unusual behaviour for the system).  Then ‘my documents’ disappeared, that’s bad.  So a quick call to c2k got them alerted to the problem and all was well in 30 or so minutes.

About an hour later one of the servers died, leaving many of the computers completely unusable.  It’s hard to teach when you have no board to write on (interactive whiteboard , no normal whiteboard or blackboard).  Not impossible, but hard.  A couple of hours later the system was hobbling along (with a few limitations).

Then the old technology failed….fire.  I went to use the Bunsen burners and they died after 5 Bunsens were lit.  This is all part of an ongoing saga which involved a recent “upgrade” to our gas switching boxes.  It was all supposed to be settled and sorted last week.  Apparently the fitters even tested it all thoroughly using our Bunsens.  The Practical lesson ended and I resorted to the mantra of many generations of science teachers; “this is what should have happened”. 

Later on I gave it another go and broke out all the Bunsens.  It worked!  It turns out that the system does not like me turning on the Bunsens in quick succession.  I have to be patient.  Some of the other scientists are still not convinced and we are planning a Bunsen burner marathon.  Tomorrow we will try all the Bunsens in all the chemistry rooms at the same time.  I’m not taking any bets.

At the end of the day I decided to do some art/science.  I am making an arty periodic table using the prints from here.  To mount the elements I am using glue on hung fabric.  As I was merrily gluing the lights began to flicker. Then the power failed in exactly the way it happens in the movies…… dim….dim…..click….clunk….clunk…..fans whirring down…….low level emergency lights slowly flicker on through the building.  Thoughts raced through my mind, mainly; “we are under attack…..zombies”.  I watch too much TV.

After about half an hour the power returned and my glue gun began to warm up again.  Just in time for my phone to ring.  A colleague was in the car park; “can you come and help me?  My car won’t start”.

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