Intense Science

I don’t take responsibilities lightly. My first year in college, when I was still an acting major (later playwriting), I woke at 6 a.m. to do vocal exercises before conservatory. When I wrote seriously, I woke at 4:30 a.m. to write before work. When I worked as a dramaturge on a theatre production, I went to rehearsal after a full day of day-jobbing (paralegal), got home around 10 or 11 p.m., and spent the next hour or so writing, reviewing, and editing my notes for the director or doing requested research. When my passions are called upon, I can be a little…intense. Or nuts, you can say it.

So when I learned I would be teaching 7-9th grade science, without textbooks or equipment and only the vague but ambitious national curriculum to guide me, I felt a wee panic, a faint nausea, which has never really left. After all, science is serious and seriously fun…but I hadn’t studied it in any serious way since high school sixteen years ago. How was I going to guide these kids through the wonders of the universe’s first moments, animal nutrition, and “various atmospheric phenomena,” and “conceptualize the experimental research process and develop simple experimental designs, systematizing the basic process of the experimental method”?

I did what I could to prepare. I located some very affordable textbooks for myself, thanks to /r/scienceteachers, which also helped translate the curriculum for my layperson’s mind and pointed me in the direction of helpful websites. Still, between nerves and the vastness of my subject and curriculum, I didn’t have my first lesson planned until two days before the first class.

Some of my affordable science textbooks.

Some of my affordable science textbooks.

And it’s been that way ever since. I have no doubt that my fellow volunteers, perhaps with affection, think I’m a little crazy, because when our busito gets home I almost immediately am at my desk, researching and planning for tomorrow, and that doesn’t stop until 7, 8, or even 9 p.m. And that’s just for tomorrow, because try as I might, I so rarely get ahead. My books have some but not all of the topics in the curriculum. Even if they do, to break something into digestible bits, I have to understand the topic thoroughly, so I must hasten to Google for details. Then I try to find cheap, minimal material projects, if I can, because science doesn’t come from my notes on the board. Science is experienced. Science is relevant. As you can imagine, my intensity, my desire to give these kids as wow a science class as possible, leads to some exhaustion.

I have become an expert on the hagfish, also known as the slime eel.

I have become an expert on the hagfish, also known as the slime eel.

Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I fail. Last week the 7th graders made edible animal and plant cell models out of gelatin and candy. The 8th and 9th graders blew up balloons with fermenting yeast. I did a lesson on carnivorous plants using a song from Little Shop of Horrors. I lead all three classes in the construction of seismographs using rubber bands, shoe boxes, string, and markers—an endeavor of ultimately dubious value but, for me, a useful personal study in how maturity affects the ability to handle frustration. I try to laugh at my mistakes, because I make a lot. The kids surprise and stump me all the time.

My key to survival is to never take the long view. Come June, I’ll be here, but if I think about the months, weeks, days, minutes it will take to get there, let me just say there’s a small padded room with my name on it.

But today? Tomorrow? Yeah, I can look at that through the window.

Yours in Science (oh, and 7th grade English),



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