Tuesday 29 May 2012

To My Husband, On The Morning Of His Students' Exam

Dear Paul,

I've just said goodbye to you at reception. As I walked through the common room the music playing over the loudspeakers was Johnny Cash's version of "Personal Jesus". An interesting choice for this morning!

I know you are racked with nerves over the exam. This has been your first year teaching - ever - and to go straight in with an exam class, unaided, has been a baptism of fire. You are scared that you haven't prepared the students well enough, that they will not achieve what they are capable of, or that they will freak out in the exam hall.

You have done all that you can to help them prepare for this exam.

So what can you do for them now? Pretend that you aren't as nervous as they are. Smile when you see them, look relaxed, even if your stomach is in knots. Students react to their teachers' moods more than we sometimes realise.

It's never going to get better. You will never have an exam where you don't feel like this. You will always feel protective of your students, and responsible for their welfare and achievement, even if you cannot influence either entirely.

It will become easier to fake confidence with them. You will find smiling, telling them not to panic, giving them reassurance, comes more naturally over time. After a while, they won't even twig that you're nervous too.

But the nerves will never leave you. And you wouldn't want them to.

All my love,
Julia xxxxx

Sunday 27 May 2012

Pseudoscience And The Natural History Museum

I've blogged before about eyebrow-raising items on sale in the NHM shop. I know and appreciate that the retail department is entirely separate from the science departments. However, this is no excuse for what I saw on sale on Friday night:

There, in between decent scientific guides to gemstones, minerals and fossils (note the British Mesozoic Fossils and British Cenozoic Fossils books on the right hand side), is The Crystal Bible. Now, it could just be a term to indicate that it is a detailed reference guide, right?

Wrong. "500 crystals to heal your body, mind and spirit."

Among the amazing things this book claims is that crystals will help "find love" and "reduce workplace bullying". The author also claims to be a "psychic researcher" and "paranormal expert".

To add insult to injury, the book isn't just tucked away in a dark area of the museum shop - it's also displayed prominently on the counter next to the minerals:

By offering this book for sale, particularly alongside genuine science books, the Museum is giving credence to this pseudoscientific bullshit. The public trust the NHM to give them accurate, interesting scientific information, and I don't believe this should stop the moment we enter the bright lights of the retail environment.

Retail and science may not mix at the NHM, but they bloody well ought to, for this very reason. Museums join teachers in having a duty to educate and inform. Crystal "healing" suggests that silicates can cure physical illnesses through some supposed mystical energy. This isn't just harmless rubbish - where pseudoscience claims to cure disease (apparently it will "help to relieve a headache"), there is a real risk that people will use these bogus therapies over genuine medical attention. While in mild cases this may simply be a case of a tax on human stupidity, the potential for harm is evident.

The stocking of this book in the shop of the most prominent museum in the country is up there with my biology lecturer colleagues who think evolution is fictional, the head of physics who says the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and the chemistry lecturer who follows homeopathy. It is incongruous, an abuse of trust, and just a whole big barrel full of wrong.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Lab Animals

I've had plants in my biology lab for a couple of years now - the bog-standard variegated Pelargonium, a couple of parrot plants, some cycads too fragile for my garden and a Sarracenia that uses more distilled water than all the week's practicals put together.

But it's clear that all labs need some animal life (in addition to the students), whether it's hamsters, fish or something a bit more exotic. Dave had suggested Mexican blind cave fish, which were a really interesting species. I'd been interested in cichlids, so I could point at them and shout "SYMPATRIC SPECIATION! LOOK!!!" at incredulous A2 students. But tropical fish would have been very high-maintenance - too much for a lab that would be shut down entirely for ten days at Christmas, even if I could have come in to feed and clean the fish during the holidays.

Then, one dismal Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, I went to the Isleworth Spring Fair, to support Paul, who was working on a stall. We had a bit of a wander round on one of his breaks, and saw a tent with a bit of activity going on. As soon as I walked in I saw there were lots of animals there to be handled! I chatted to the owner of the animals - he works for the education department at the Natural History Museum normally, but evidently has a bit of a side project bringing his pets to events for people to learn about. He had a python, corn snake, milk snake, veiled chameleon, bearded dragon and loads of invertebrates.

Including a giant millipede.

Turns out these guys are really low-maintenance and fascinating creatures. It's a bit like being walked on by a toothbrush. They are herbivorous, and detritivores at that, so the freshness of the food is not really an issue. They have a commensal relationship with cleaner mites, and their anatomy is really interesting.

They arrived by courier on Wednesday evening and I brought them straight into the lab. The first one I put in the tank was absolutely enormous, bold as brass and very curious. It investigated the tank thoroughly, then positively inhaled a slice of leek. The second one was grumpy, curled itself up in a ball and sulked for hours. I'm astounded that it didn't cover me in cyanide, it was so pissed off with me. They are both pooing like it's going out of fashion too.

For reasons that will only be clear to my A2 students, the first one has been named Bodman (left in both pictures), and the second one Moisted.

Two of my students have held them so far. One of the BTEC girls asked to hold it and then got scared when its legs started to move. And I made my prospective vet student hold one and told him he'd better get used to them as he might have some as patients.

With my AS students in the middle of exams, and my A2s about to start, and my BTECs starting to wind down and finish their assignments, it's nice to have something still alive in the lab to nurture, sustain and care for. It might make the end of term seem a little less wretched than it usually does.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Rule 34

Someone who doesn't know me might be forgiven for thinking that, as a member of the teaching profession, I am somehow morally righteous, prudish and humourless in the classroom. The rest of you will be under no such assumptions. The following video is a fairly typical exchange between students and eventually me - this week I introduced them to Rule 34.

Other than the information that this is my A2 Biology class, who were doing their final core practical ("Investigating Habituation to a Stimulus"), the students are anonymised. Members of the class who happen upon this video will instantly know who the students are, but I was sure not to film their faces, and no one refers to anyone by name, so their dignity (such as it is) is preserved. All the students in the video, whether in shot or in voice only, are over 18.

Which makes the way they are about to respond to the snail utterly hilarious.

Tomorrow I finish the A2 syllabus, and then it's past papers and practice questions until the exams begin. I really am going to miss this group - a few I have only taught for one academic year, but most of them have been my students for two years. A select handful were my first GCSE class nearly three years ago. In that regard it's the end of an era.

They have made me laugh and cry, sometimes in equal measure. They have frustrated and delighted. Their utter revulsion at the thought of doing fieldwork was one of my most challenging A2 moments, but the weeks we've spent on their coursework have been as strong a bonding experience all round as yomping around a field would have been. They have offers at a range of universities to study great things. As I do each year, I will be very tearful at the end of their Unit 5 exam, and the lab will feel a lot quieter for a while.

They are going to save the world, and it has been a privilege to teach them. Even if they are a load of big girls' blouses when it comes to poking a snail or two.
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