Friday 29 July 2011

What Makes An Exemplary Science Teacher?

A few weeks ago I caught the end of the #asechat, asking "what makes an exemplary science teacher". There was some wonderful debate about whether we should all be calling ourselves science teachers, rather than sticking with biology, chemistry and physics. Maybe one to discuss for another time.

But an interesting question was raised by a tweeter:
"Can a sci teacher with great results, respect from kids, passion, great classroom mgt, but who disputes evolution, be exemplary?"
My response was:
"Since evolution is the unifying theory of biology, would doubt it for biology, especially lessons on evolution"
I know, and indeed work with, lecturers who do not accept evolution, but who teach it nevertheless. They teach intermediate courses, or those with no evolution component, leaving me to tackle the more advanced adaptation-evolution-speciation topics. It probably suits them and me best. Chemistry seems to be a safe place for creationists to hang out (and it does seem to be the field from which the various Discovery Institute talking heads hail).

Sanders (2010) wrote a superb study for the 2010 SAARMSTE conference looking at the teaching methods employed by teachers with different levels of acceptance of evolutionary theory and earth history. The more vehemently young-earth creationist the teacher, the less effective the teaching strategy they employed, in general. It is a single study, and I am not sure of the extent of peer review relating to the article, but it raises some questions that really should be addressed at some point! Are teachers who do not accept evolution more likely to create a hostile teaching environment?

One could argue that it is possible to avoid teaching evolution. It would certainly be very easy to teach BTEC biology courses without ever touching on evolution (although I shove in a fair bit of variation and adaptation as an added bonus). Someone teaching pure physiology courses could avoid it too. However, my response to that is identical to Nesse et al. (2009), who say evolutionary biology is essential for medicine. There is so much in biology with an evolutionary link - Dobzhansky (1973) worked that one out when he said "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution".

At advanced level I am supposed to have mastery of the subject. I am supposed to be a biology expert. I am supposed to understand all the theory that I teach (or at least to know where to find the best explanation if I don't have one). I simply do not accept that someone who disputes evolutionary theory understands it well enough to teach it at advanced level. This is not to say that people with religious faith cannot be exemplary biology teachers. Religious faith has nothing to do with it - just ask the hundreds of palaeontologists who have strong faith but who wholly accept evolution, abiogenesis and the age of the earth.

So the short answer to the question is "no", but the long answer is "perhaps, as long as they stay away from biology at advanced level". Otherwise, they are forcing their students to learn from someone who does not understand the subject to the extent required, and teachers who fall short of the subject knowledge required are soon punted into less damaging roles.


Dobzhansky, T. 1973. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. American Biology Teacher 35:125-129.
Nesse, R.M., C.T. Bergstrom, P.T. Ellison, J.S. Flier, P. Gluckman, D.R. Govindaraju, D.
Niethammer, G.S. Omenn, R.L. Perlman, M.D. Schwartz, M.G. Thomas, S.C. Stearns & D. Vallem. 2009. Making evolutionary biology a basic science for medicine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(Suppl):1800–1807.
Sanders, M. 2010. Teaching evolution in a multi-cultural society: teachers' concerns and management strategies for coping with conflict. SAARMSTE 2010 Conference. [online]

Wednesday 27 July 2011

My Summer Holidays

It's as much a sign of the summer holidays as the back-to-school sales push, the ice cream van's relentless jingle and the onset of torrential rain. I refer, of course, to the annual bitch and whine about the length of the summer holidays. Do a Google News search for "school holidays", and there are calls for companies to not respond to increased demand by upping the price of limited commodities (i.e. flights and hotel rooms) and a ritual demonisation of all schoolchildren and their pathological inability (one would think) to avoid hoax calls, vandalism and anti-social behaviour.

Thanks to The Edudicator, I have now seen what the Right Wing think, courtesy of the Torygraph and the Daily Fail. If you suffer from low blood pressure, I highly recommend clicking on the "worst rated" comments list, for a load of barely literate blustering that will result in you putting your fist through the computer screen.

The Torygraph is an interesting one. The general consensus among teachers is that the students are absolutely bloody knackered by the end of the academic year. This is confirmed by a comment piece in the Grauniad by school-leaver Sara Abbasi, entitled "Please, Mr Gove, leave our summer break alone!". We can sit and discuss the historical reasons for the long summer holiday, that is, needing children to help with the harvest, and how we don't need children in the fields with a sickle for the best part of August anymore (though that would be fun to watch), but she highlights the very modern need for a long holiday.

After mid-June, the kids start to get antsy. They are over-tired. The classrooms are often very hot. Tempers flare up. And good luck trying to get them to do homework. For most of the college year, my AS biology class notched up over 92% attendance and 98% punctuality. When they came back for the "Intro to A2" sessions, attendance dropped to 77%. In the midst of the observations from teachers, the Torygraph suggests that shorter holidays are better for the students, and quotes a study in American Sociological Review.

There you go, a graph that purports to show that children from high-income families do more learning over the summer holidays than their low-income counterparts, and therefore do better in school and get into university. It's approximately what the paper says too, but I've had a pint of Pimms and lemonade, rendering my paper-summarisation magic power greatly reduced. And oh, what a noble cause, for teachers to gallantly sacrifice themselves for the good of the low social classes.

But it seems that this is a classic case of confusing correlation and causation. When I cover this with my AS students (hopefully at a time when I have more than 90% attendance!), we analyse data to see if there is a direct relationship between two variables, or if there is some other factor that has not been considered. And the glaringly obvious omission is parental interest in their children's education. Higher-income families tend to involve parents with a more advanced level of education. People who have a more advanced level of education tend to be keener on education for their children. Are there exceptions to this? Undoubtedly. When I was younger, even on my father's teacher salary, we were very poor, living in the much more expensive Home Counties on one income. But I progressed, and I probably did more summer study than my classmates. Because there wasn't much money we were more resourceful. I used books my father had used and kept. He was able to borrow a computer from the school during the holidays, and I learned to programme in BASIC (and more, I'll have you know, than the 10 PRINT "HELLO", 20 GOTO 10). We went to the local library and borrowed books, and unless I am very much mistaken, the library is still free for children at least.

So in a move that smacks more of recent Labour educational policies, Govey would like to use teachers as substitute parents, making up for the deficiencies of people who don't give a rat's arse about their children's education. Because bollocks to things costing money, there is plenty of free access to learning - it all comes down to parental attitude. And this is in addition to parents whining on all the articles I've quoted, who seem to think it's grossly unfair that they should have to deal with their children for such a long period of time. Clearly this is a horrid surprise that the educational establishment has thrown at parents, and not the status quo for many decades, if not centuries.

Of course, there are those who will claim that teachers do naff all, race the kids out of the door at 3:30pm and swan around on these long 20-week holidays. For 40 weeks of the year, I work from 8am to 6pm, and often until 8pm or 9pm. That doesn't include the work I take home to mark. Someone with a regular office job, working 9am to 5pm with half an hour's lunch break works out at 1,800 hours per year. I can clock up at least 2,000. Maybe there are lawyers and doctors who work longer hours. However, consider that as a lecturer in FE, I am never going to earn more than £35,000, tops. So I've earned that holiday. I spent the first week packing away notes and folders. My holiday ends on 15th August as I go back to prepare for the new college year. My Easter holiday is eaten into each year with revision classes. I don't begrudge these. But expecting me to babysit the children of parents who didn't consider that kids need looking after, and the children of parents who don't give a shit about them, when I've spent 10 hours a day for the entire academic year giving these poor little sods the best education I can, is taking the piss.

I think I need another Pimms.

Monday 25 July 2011

My Students Shine Again

A few weeks ago I was invited to a reception at the Wellcome Trust to celebrate the end of another successful round of I'm A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here. I was asked if I would bring along a couple of students who had participated, including the now legendary "Waveicle".

We were all asked to say some words of thanks (in fairness to the students, I did spring that on them at the last minute, because I was worried that they would back out if I asked them beforehand!). I'm astounded that, after several years of setting up and running the PA system at school, and having given numerous talks at conferences, I still held the microphone way too close to my mouth. Ah well. The video says it all really:

I'm in from about 1:30 in, but it's worth watching the whole video, and the second half of it. It was a fantastic evening, and wonderful for the students to meet some of the scientists. If you are a science teacher, and you are reading this, and you haven't signed up for I'm A Scientist, you really must - it is probably one of the best activities I have ever done with the students!

Saturday 23 July 2011

The Rap Guide To Evolution

Back in May, I bemoaned the lack of songs about palaeontology similar to the great "I'm A Climate Scientist" rap. May I now present The Rap Guide To Evolution. I discovered it via Twitter - the artist, Baba Brinkman, is on as @rapguide, to promote the site.

I think this is one of the best resources for evolution that I have seen. It remains to be seen whether my students think the songs are cool, or whether they think that me trying to introduce them to rap music is the Saddest Thing Ever, but I'll be using these in my A2 classes on speciation and evolution in September. Here's a taster:

Friday 22 July 2011

A Schoolboy Error (NSFW)

One of the things I lament most about the syllabus is the lack of human anatomy incorporated into classes. It is perfectly possible to do both GCSE and A-level biology without mentioning any reproductive kit save for the ovaries and testes. Is it any wonder, therefore, that standards of anatomical drawing have dropped?

I was alerted, by my father of all people, to the highly amusing prank played by some of the young gentlemen (for it is only ever young gentlemen) at Fairfield College in New Zealand. Now, I would never condone the use of weedkiller as a means of playing such pranks - how about sowing some brightly coloured flower seeds instead?

In any case, as I have done with my own students upon discovering their CDCs (crudely drawn cocks), I must take to task these lads, not only for dubious anatomy (what on earth is going on in with the one in the very bottom of the screen?), but also for failure to grasp how to truly draw a CDC.

Now, now, boys. To properly draw a CDC, the meatus should connect entirely with the corona. This half-arsed job is simply not good enough. As defined by B3ta, it should also have precisely "three pubes per bollock". You have drawn no hairs at all. A CDC should also, ideally, be ejaculating. You can show this by drawing a curved dashed line from the external urethral orifice out in the direction of your choice.

Please consider the above to be the model diagram to use for next time. If you can arrange for it to be done in magenta, then even better - perhaps investigate the use of bright pink flower seeds? My students all know how to draw proper CDCs, so I feel it's only right that I should pass on the art to others who are not fortunate enough to have me teaching them biology.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Motivating Male Students

I love how Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal captures science and education so well. I sometimes struggle to motivate some of my male students, so I paid special attention to this particular strip!

Now I have never propositioned any of my students (oh dear lord no!). I do recall, however, one day walking around my lab while students were working on past papers, and stopping in front of three young men to explain one of the questions. I leaned over the desk in front of them, propping myself up on one elbow. I explained the question, and looked up for some acknowledgement of understanding. And I saw all three of the boys looking at me in exactly the same way as shown above.

So the moral of the story is not to wear low-cut tops and lean over desks, I guess...

Tuesday 19 July 2011

The Best Thank You Gifts

At the end of the year, some students give their teachers gifts (there seems to be a thread on the TES forums about odd presents every year, and I am simply thankful that I am not a primary school teacher!). I watched the cards and presents piling up on the maths lecturers' desks with a slight tinge of jealousy (one of them was given £200 a couple of years ago - something that I still cannot quite comprehend for a number of reasons), and then I felt really guilty for my materialistic tendencies - after all I should not be expecting presents, and many of the students I teach can't afford to buy gifts for their teachers, and it would be really unkind to want that. Some students did buy me little presents - I had a very nice box of Toblerone mini chocolates from students who knew exactly what my favourite chocolates were. Earlier in the year I was given a massive bottle of Smirnoff Ice, and the same student presented me with a "Top Teacher" bottle stop - he knew me very well after two years, although Paul pointed out if he knew me better he'd know that wine bottles don't stay open long enough to merit a bottle stop!

Then there were the less tangible gifts that I'm going to treasure for a very long time: the cartoon one of my A2 students drew on exam paper at the end of his final biology exam (which I made him sign so when he's a famous movie director and I'm still a lecturer I can sell it for lots of money). The tearful hugs from some of the young women I taught which tell me they are really going to miss me. Some amazing e-mails from students who I honestly thought loathed the topics we covered. The students from this year and last year who have places at universities that they didn't think they could get into, studying subjects they didn't think they could. The revelation that the subject my A2s and BTECs enjoyed the most was biology (oh yeah!). Catching up with a student who's been at university all year studying biomedical sciences, who is having the whale of a time.

I'm reminiscing and getting all soppy like this because I saw some e-mails included in last week's PostSecret: Sunday Secrets:
My geometry teacher at Central High School in Pueblo, Colorado is the reason I'm alive today. The reason I burnt my suicide note. He changed my life and never knew it.

When I went back to thank him, and apologize for my behavior in his class, they told me he moved away. I wish I could find him now and tell him how much he's changed my life. I hope he sees this. That man needs to know that he's a hero. His name is Cole McGee.
This was followed with:
The comment written to the high school teacher shook me. I also had a teacher in high school that saved my life. I see him whenever I go back to visit but never have the courage to tell him how much he truly changed my life.

I realized today how important it is to say what you have to say while you can still say. I'm going to visit Mr.Tobin this week and thank him.
I haven't saved any lives (at least I don't think I have). But I have made a goddamn difference to a lot of young men and women this year. And the best gifts I've had from my students have been seeing them using the difference I've made. So if you have a teacher who made a difference, let them know - it'll be better than cards, chocolates and wine, honest.

Monday 18 July 2011

Microteaches #4: Already Bored

I've been off for ten days now, and the weather has rewarded my year's hard work with rain - all my grand plans for reading in the garden, going out on day trips and doing a lot of catching rays are on hold until Britain remembers that it's fucking summer and is supposed to be warm. The weather picked up nicely on Friday, when I picked up Chris from Highly Allochthonous from the airport and took him for beer and sausages - I think we went through a full reminiscence of every lecturer we'd had in Cambridge Earth Sciences.

There's a new site called Instagrok, which markets itself as a search engine for educational materials. I'm quite taken by the idea of having the more commercial sites discounted from my searches, so I'll be trying it out over the holiday.

Clearing some of my starred feed items, my husband shared this little gem courtesy of The Onion:

I like the satires about fundamentalism and creationism that involve the other students objecting. Sometimes it feels like it's only the teachers complaining about anti-evolution sentiments in the biology classroom, but it's worth remembering that there are a lot of students who want to learn the science, as Doonesbury demonstrates:

On the subject of inspiring students overcoming the odds to study, the Mary Sue ran a feature on Sada Mire, the only active Somali archaeologist in the world. One of my Somali students is really keen on anthropology, and somehow I have got to get her to meet Dr Mire as soon as possible.

I'm on a bit of a women-in-science binge, to prepare for my additional role next year as the chair of our Women In Science committee, and may well have more to say about this, but I noted this press release reported on Labspaces. We have a long way to go, ladies!

I'll be using this XKCD cartoon in my classes when we have to look at correlation and causation:

And I'll finish off with something that will make the former students who read my blog snigger like they're still at school (bonus points guys if you download and read the paper!): "Immune Activation Reduces Sperm Quality in the Great Tit". Don't say I don't give you interesting articles to read!

Thursday 14 July 2011

Half A Lifetime Ago

I've been digging out and scanning old photographs this week. I think I still have two albums full of geological photos to scan, but these were some of the highlights of my school and university life. There are a few little gems waiting to see the light of day. The more enterprising of you will click through to the album (I think Picasa allows you to see the whole album if you have access to one image). Beware - what has been seen cannot be unseen, so consider whether you really want to see me dressed up for the Rocky Horror Show circa 2000...

One that I thought was worth showing you is this:

This is me, aged 13. It was my first Trailblazer expedition (Trailblazer being a Nottinghamshire County Council scheme acting as a precursor to the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme). I was about halfway along The Roaches, and you can see just about how much I'm enjoying the experience - NOT. I complained all the way up the hills, and cried all the way down the hills. There may have been some landscapes, but I didn't take any photographs. I suffered from hammer toes, which meant every expedition was coupled with blood blisters under my toenails, and frequently temporarily losing the nail. I was also extremely asthmatic - I'm holding my first aid kit in the photo, so I was almost certainly going for my inhaler.

Fast-forward 14 years. The surly teenager gave rise to a twenty-something who actually quite enjoyed being outside. At 18 I'd had corrective surgery, removing the distal phalanx from each second toe (as an aside, I now wish my surgeon had kept the bones for me!), and it gave me a new lease of life as far as the great outdoors was concerned. It also meant I could continue my dancing classes, but I haven't scanned in the pictures of me doing the rumba yet...

A four-year geology degree was also a great way of getting me fitter. I did whine a fair bit through my first and second year, but the end of my second year brought the mapping project, and after six weeks of wandering the Lake District I came back super fit and super buff. And so Paul and I began to contemplate going on holidays that involved a fair bit of hiking. In late 2007 we went to the Peak District (we stayed in Castleton, not too far away from the Roaches as the crow flies), and on our first day did a circular hike on Hathersage Moor. Paul took a photo of me on a short break, immediately post-Mars Bar:

I'm smiling, for starters. I'm also very well-clothed for the weather - that jacket has been going over a decade and is still in great condition. My hat, I think you'll agree, is far superior to the woolly number I sported in 1993. I don't remember being cold at any point on that holiday, although having to take a field piss on top of Kinder Scout is a particularly bracing experience for a woman. I don't need to take my inhaler as much now - oddly enough I am now more likely to need it from being indoors in a dusty environment than being outside exercising.

If you'd told me at 13 that I'd be yomping over Hathersage Moor, hiking up Kinder Scout, tackling Winnats Pass and scaling Mam Tor for fun, I'd have laughed (and then probably needed to take my inhaler). There are maybe two points worth making out of all this. The first is that it's very useful to keep records of our younger selves - it's a great way of seeing how far we've come. It's one of the reasons I like keeping as much of my students' work as I can, and then showing them their first pieces of work for me when they leave at the end of the year/two years. They look back on their journey and can see their improvement. The second point is that if someone told our younger selves what we'd be doing once we were double that age, we probably wouldn't believe them. It simply would not compute. But life throws us some unusual consequences, and maybe my students won't rule out anything in their futures - what they turn their noses up at now may come to be one of the things that bring joy to them in another 18 years' time.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

My Month Off

I was asked today what I was doing now I'm on my summer break. It's a tough one to answer, because I honestly haven't given it much thought. Since I left work on Friday I have been for Chinese twice, ordered pizza once, and cooked twice. I spent much of Saturday feeling very low and melancholy - a common affliction of teachers once the marathon of the teaching year is over. Now it seems everyone is off in the bits of the USA I love the most, and I won't be going there this year at all. I am really pining for the Mountain Timezone - you can help by sending care packages of good tequila, since the best I can get is José Cuervo Gold. And preferably lots and lots of margarita mix.

Yesterday I was able to get stuck in tidying up the garden. Poor old Jurassic Park has been very much neglected, as has its blog. But for most of the year, I guess the organisms that I've been pruning, deadheading, potting on, tying in, training and nourishing have been the eighty-odd students I've taught, which has been well worth it. Il faut cultiver notre jardin, indeed. And in between a gazillion loads of laundry, washing up, cleaning the flat and ignoring the Ironing Basket That Will Not Go Away, I squeezed in a visit from a former student.

Paul is at work until Friday, and then we have a month until I return to work. In the middle of this period, my little brother is getting married, which is all very exciting (and means Jabba gets to go on holiday to Uncle Matthew the V.E.T.). So what am I going to do with myself?

I have a shitload of DVDs to watch and books to read. This is Britain, so we will have plenty of rainy summer days, and to my great shame I have still not finished "Origin Of Species". Usually I have no problem at all with books written very formally. And I understand the concepts entirely, of course. But I get distracted by the floweriness of Darwin's prose. I know, bad biology teacher. When I do finish it, I have promised myself a little inky something, somewhere (exact location as yet undecided...):

I want to finish "The Greatest Show On Earth", which will be slightly easier going. Yes, Dawkins is evidently a misogynistic arse, but his books are still well written (I don't think anyone's been calling for a boycott, have they?). DVD-wise, I have at least a season and a half of "Teachers" to finish watching (scarily true to life), and I have been promised "Game Of Thrones" too, so now I can find out what all the damn fuss is about.

There's a garden design course I paid for, sitting in a magazine file waiting for me to give it some attention. I might get going with that at long last. I have at least three gardening magazines that I haven't read yet. I plan on spending several evenings at the cinema - "The Tree Of Life" looks beautiful, and of course there's "Captain America". "Cowboys & Zombies" and "Cowboys & Aliens" both look great fun. And add into the mix "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes", and that's every week taken up with at least one film - bonzer!

Other than that, I'm looking for a few day trips to areas of geological or ecological interest. So if anyone has any favourites, let me know. Anywhere with a good walk, a nice pub with great food, and some superb wildlife or geology to be seen (without needing to ask for access permission first, preferably) will be considered, and I'm on the look out for good field trip locations too (for which all of the above criteria apply, but crucially it should be topographically arranged such that only the teachers' mobile phones have reception). I'm especially interested to know how close I can get to the Stokenchurch Gap without trespassing on the motorway, because that stretch alone is why the M40 is my favourite road.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Yet More Gender Stereotyping

Nothing like a good old dose of rage on a Saturday morning to drag me out of my melancholy. Friend of mine Wendy posted this to Facebook first thing, along with a comment that it was "one of the most offensive articles I have ever read". She's written to the BBC to complain, and I will be following suit. The article is entitled "Sugar and spice and all things nice", and I have highlighted one of the more troubling aspects for me and my fellow palaeontologists:

If you can't see it too well, it says "So what's it like to swap muddy football boots and dinosaurs for all things pink[...]?".

For starters it is quite a non-story in any case (seriously BBC - aren't there more important things happening at the moment that could benefit from more attention?). But what is all this about swapping dinosaurs for "pink things"? Are girls not allowed to like mud, or sport, or dinosaurs? Holy shit. I have already informed pinkstinks, as I imagine they'll have one or two things to say on the matter.

The gender stereotyping begins, of course, as soon as babies are born. I was annoyed to see the above juxtaposition at my local garden centre, and when my cousin gave birth to a boy, I scoured three card shops for a congratulations card that wasn't blue, before giving in to the stereotype. My mother sympathised, and in fact my parents did an exceptional job of avoiding stereotypes. They never defined my role or told me what I should be, except, of course, anything I wanted to be. This was how I was dressed (and later dressed myself) for most of my childhood:

I was given as gender-neutral a childhood as possible - I was allowed dolls, teddy bears, tea party sets, and also trucks, dinosaurs and building blocks. As was my brother. My parents are still inordinately proud of the fact that I broke a Tonka truck - they were supposed to be indestructible. My dad would later take me in to school with him during holidays and at weekends, and we'd play on the computers (BBC Micro FTW!), light the Bunsen burners and poke at the skeleton. There was never any question about whether science was something girls did. Science was something I did.

I'm painfully aware that there are gender stereotypes about and within science. Within our department, female students underperform relative to the male students, by a significant margin. I have been tasked with forming a committee to promote female achievement within our subject area. Very few girls take physics AS, and none of them carry it on to A2 at the moment. Biology and chemistry are fairly even. The girls are picking up "soft" subjects, such as psychology and sociology (not my definition - the universities'!). This may be affecting their chances of good university places. In an ideal world we'd like the universities to stop being so up themselves, but it won't happen, and I do concede that really a prospective medical or veterinary student should be doing four full A-levels in biology, chemistry, maths and physics.

It may be a bit of a leap to say that saying pink is for girls and blue is for boys is responsible for female underachievement at advanced level in science, but it is surely a contributing factor. Denying girls access to some of the easiest means of hooking them into science because it's masculine and for boys only tells them that science is for boys. Anyone who was involved with this week's #SciTeachJC has discussed the gender imbalance to some extent, and the paper we looked at does highlight gender differences in the perception of science as a career.

Nevertheless, I have a bit of a monumental task ahead of me, and it really isn't being helped at all by throwaway sexist comments like the BBC have made.

PS: Added in the paragraph above about #SciTeachJC because it is a) relevant and b) awesome.

Friday 8 July 2011


What is it about things all happening at once? It all kept coming, one after another, today. It was my last day before the summer break, and as we're moving into a new building when we come back in August, it meant saying goodbye to the old building - it will be gutted over the summer, and then I will have to attempt to teach while the block is demolished in full view of my lab (I have resigned myself to getting nothing out of my students for the first half term).

I've cleared my desk. I live in hope that the guys from IS (lovingly referred to as the Dentrassi, as they're at their most helpful when it annoys senior management) will manage to get my computer to its new home, because I managed to get admin access on that one and install useful software! I bid farewell to my lab, the very first classroom I taught in (not including the odd university lecture, and of course all those outdoor fieldwork "labs"), and location of some of my favourite memories of teaching so far.

I was home early enough to watch STS-135 via NASA TV. I was born just over a year before the first shuttle launch, so I have only ever known a world with space shuttles. We sat at home back in 1986 watching Challenger launch and then disintegrate, a tragedy that has extra poignancy for me now that I am a teacher. I have visited the Challenger memorial at Arlington Cemetery twice. I expected to feel emotional watching the launch, but I didn't expect to be howling my eyes out on my sofa.

So two thirty-year eras came to an end - the old science block and the NASA Shuttle Mission.

And then I got my rejection e-mail from SVP - my abstract was not accepted for the Education & Outreach Symposium. This means I cannot go to SVP this year - my managers have been really supportive of my plans, offering to fund my registration fee and allow me the time off teaching to attend. But without an abstract, I have no justification for going. Maybe I'm just tired and pessimistic, but I don't think I will be going to any more SVP conferences. I will have missed two in a row, and I'm really rather out of the community. I will not be, as I had hoped, standing in Coral Pink Sand Dunes this year. So in a rather melodramatic manner (which I will probably laugh about when I've had a good night's sleep or three), it feels like the end of a dream as well.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Just A Little Sorrowed Talk

The day I left school to sit my GCSE exams, I remember the last song I heard on the radio before leaving the house. It was "Ordinary World" by Duran Duran, which had come out three years earlier, and I remembered these lines above anything else:

Here beside the news of holy war and holy need
Ours is just a little sorrowed talk

My grandmother shut me up when I whined in a pithier manner: "Worse things happen at sea", which is a really good way of putting a girl off cruises for life. And there are some monumentally appalling things happening in the world, things that I cannot even bear to watch on the evening news anymore. I teach students who have been through so much: refugees and asylum seekers, torture victims with PTSD, whose life stories have made me weep. I get it. And yet, awful things still happen to the rest of us, which is something that Richard Dawkins doesn't seem to get.

For women all over the world, life is lived with a little hint of fear. This is summed up nicely in a post from a couple of years ago, entitled "Schrödinger's Rapist" - in summary: men, until we open the box, you exist in two states - someone who will rape us and someone who will not rape us. The vast majority of you are, thankfully, the latter, and you are wonderful. We don't particularly want to open the box and find out you're the former. Certainly not on a deserted tube carriage, or working late at night at the office, or in an elevator on our way to our hotel room. The odds of you being "someone who will rape us" become much greater in our minds if you do not take no for an answer.

For those of you late to all this, and wondering why I'm rabbiting on, read the "Open letter to Professor Dawkins from victims of sexual assault", posted at Almost Diamonds. Because looking at the "relative awfulness", so to speak, of an uncomfortable come-on in an elevator versus female genital mutilation is flawed at best, downright insulting to victims everywhere.

I signed the letter. This is why. I don't feel as able to write eloquently about it all anymore, so it's just as well all the gory details are permanently online. I spoke about it to a couple of students who had been through a similar experience, and who wanted support and reassurance - it was comfort to know someone else who "got it", but my heart aches for those girls, and all the others whose stories I've read in the comment list at Almost Diamonds.

I wish we didn't have these scars.

Wordless Wednesday: Farewell Old Friend

Monday 4 July 2011

On Conditioning

Every evening, at dusk, the white strip light in Jabba's vivarium goes out, and is replaced by a softer blue nighttime bulb. At the moment this is happening at about 9pm. Within a couple of minutes, sometimes a lot sooner, Jabba is awake and out of his warm hide (his preferred location), and on the cadge for food. His appearance at the front of his tank is our cue that it's time to feed the gecko.

On Saturday night, there was a special sense of urgency - this little chap had a fierce hunger. He was practically pawing at the glass to try to get out to the food. By the time Paul knelt down to get the locusts prepped, Jabba was standing on top of his calcium dish, staring very intently at the hand that feeds him. If you missed him in the photo, here's where he was:

The yellow tongs are an indicator of food. Paul is more frequently recognised as the provider of food. I am associated with being taken out of the viv, with baths, with a need to take a warm damp cotton bud to his vent to get stuck shed off, and with the V.E.T. Not quite sure how I drew the short straw there, but it is some consolation to me to know that Paul usually deals with the faeces too.

On this occasion, every time Paul lifted his hand, Jabba's head shot up to look. And once the door to the viv was open it seemed all he could do not to leap out into the bag of locusts. Clearly, he is very well conditioned. From a classic Pavlovian point of view, he associates night-time with food (there'll also be some instinctive association there, but since some geckos are quite happy to feed during the day, it's not entirely instinct). Tweezers are signs of forthcoming food. And his daddy is a definite sign of food. In a more Skinnerian way, he performs the desired behaviour in order to receive the reward. By standing, effectively begging for food, he receives the locusts he wants (although we still feed him even if he is, occasionally, sulking in his cold hide because he's just shed and feels soft and vulnerable).

Then it occurred to me. We, as his owners, are also pretty well trained. He has taught us that him standing at the front of the vivarium means he wants to be fed. And we dutifully respond and provide him with locusts, for his nourishment and our entertainment. Clever little boy...

Sunday 3 July 2011

Making A Goddamn Difference

On Thursday I went on strike for the second time this year. Last Sunday, our "favourite" Education Secretary appeared on the Andrew Marr Show to talk about how he felt that:
"Taking industrial action... will actually mean that the respect in which teachers should be held will be taken back a little bit."
Who is he kidding? Gove doesn't respect teachers - he thinks we are glorified babysitters (in the next breath almost he urged parents to go into schools and do our jobs while we were on strike), we're all greedy and only care about money (because we were striking for our pensions), and we have cushy holidays.

Well, as has been done many times, let me calculate what my salary would be worth as a babysitter. Let's go with an hourly rate of £5.93, the National Minimum Wage. Not including the admin and induction weeks (and assume I don't get paid for enrolment duties), let's stick with a 36-week year. This year I taught nine A2s and 15 AS students for 4.5 hours a week. I taught 16 BTEC level 3 year 2s and 13 BTEC level 3 year 1s for 4.0 hours a week. I taught 18 BTEC level 2s for 3.0 hours a week, and eight of them for 1.0 hours a week. That's 286 student-hours a week. Multiply 286 by 36 weeks by £5.93 and that's an annual salary of £61,055.28. Thank you very much - I'll throw in all my admin, school trips and enrolment duties for free. That's more than twice my salary, Gove, you bastard.

But I digress. So at the end of a shitty week where it has seemed that the entire world is against teachers and everything they do, it made my year to have a message from a student to say thank you for everything that I'd done, and that he wanted me to be the first to know he'd got an offer from a university - a jolly good one at that. Where colleagues gave up, I persevered, nagged, bribed and cajoled, and I am so fucking proud of this young man. I'm not ashamed to say I cried a bit on the phone telling my dad (a retired physics teacher) a couple of hours ago.

And I've felt the tears streaming down my cheeks watching this for the past couple of days (yes, I'm a big girl's blouse), but it is one of the most powerful and moving tributes to educators that I have ever heard:

This week - this year - I made a goddamn difference. Now what about you, Govey?

Friday 1 July 2011

Teaching The Art Of Tequila Shots

For various reasons perhaps not lost on my Twitter followers, Paul and I were wondering how one would go about teaching a class of students how to do tequila shots. We're talking the classic salt-tequila-lemon/lime combo, often referred to in the UK as a tequila slammer (although I know there is a difference between this sort and a true slammer).

It'd work well as a microteach, mainly because after the big practical activity none of the students would be particularly capable of a positive learning experience. Note to non-UK readers - "ECM" stands for "Every Child Matters", five student welfare points we need to include within our lessons (it's a little academic given that all the students will be over 18, but even in FE it's good to use ECM in lesson plans).

So 25 minutes to teach the ancient art of tequila shots...

Class Information
Class size: no more than six (because their lecturer is not made of money)
Class age: all must be over the age of 18, advise equal mix of male and female
Extra support identified: lightweight drinkers to be given extra support and strong coffee

Learning outcomes
By the end of the session, students will be able to:
  • Identify the alcohol and accompaniments in a tequila shot
  • Describe the difference between the major types of tequila
  • Select and prepare a tequila shot
  • Demonstrate smooth and accurate performance of a tequila shot

0-5 mins
Introduction and ice-breaker: students to brainstorm the proper accompaniments to tequila shots
Suggest students work in pairs or threes to identify the three ingredients
Use of assertive questioning techniques to achieve whole-class participation (ECM: Make A Positive Contribution)
Extension for more able students to put the ingredients in order

5-10 mins
Teacher-led interactive whiteboard presentation on the definition of tequila and its production in Mexico (Equality & Diversity)
Overview of the different types of tequila: silver, gold, rested, aged and extra aged
Pass around examples of each tequila for students to taste - students to decide which tequila they wish to use in their shots, considering taste and financial implications (ECM: Be Happy, Achieve Economic Well-Being)

10-20 mins
Main activity - students to observe demonstration of tequila shot by teacher
Consideration of health hazards of salt (increased risk of CVD), tequila (flammable, plus effect on body) and citrus fruit (low pH, irritant to eyes and broken skin) - students to complete a risk assessment (Health and safety, ECM: Stay Safe)
Students perform tequila shot - teacher to make one-to-one observations on student technique and appropriate suggestions to improve on this
Students to repeat practical performance until deemed competent by teacher

20-25 mins
Plenary and recap on learning outcomes
Declaration by students that they love their lecturer, and she's their best friend
Class dismissed

One Tequila, Two Tequila,Three Tequila  FLOOR

Students to investigate other means of imbibing tequila, to demonstrate at the next lesson
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