Friday 22 February 2013

So What Can We Teach?

A couple of stories (along with comments from some of the louder and more obnoxious members of the Edublogosphere) have popped up over the past few days. Most relevant to my own teaching is on the subject of SRE lessons, which will now include aspects of respect and intolerance of violence against women. Relevant to Paul is the introduction of an A-level in Creative Writing.

Where these two seemingly divergent subjects meet is in the overwhelming criticism of both SRE and creative writing, namely that teachers are woefully underqualified to teach both of them. Apparently our relationships are train-wrecks by and large, and we shouldn't be giving advice to students on their relationships. And the only people who will be able to teach Creative Writing will be those who have been successful writers in their own right. I'll address this one first.

"Only successful authors can teach Creative Writing effectively"

Fortunately, Paul is a successful writer and editor and would be able to rock that A-level teaching. But do all teachers of creative subjects need to be accomplished in that field? The actual creation is not the majority of the qualification - in Art I spent a lot of time learning ratios, perspective, techniques, history of various movements. In Music (I didn't do any qualifications save for my AB exams) there was a formula for composing music, which I was supposed to demonstrate in my Grade V theory exam. I would imagine in Creative Writing there are similar theories and formulae that can be used to help students write creatively.

But surely this is extended to the supposedly non-creative subjects. Do I need to be a successful biologist in order to teach A-level Biology? I most certainly am not. I'm not even a biologist, though I have a masters in Biosystematics. I'm a geologist and I have one published paper. I don't have a PhD - I failed to do that twice. No, I need a good understanding of the subject matter and an ability to pass that understanding to my students. I can do that without a PhD, long publication record, grant applications and the other characteristics of successful scientists.

"Teachers are the last people who should be advising on relationships. Look at us!"

My marriage is not perfect. Many people close to us know we've had some trials and tribulations. My family's story would be rejected by sitcom writers for being too outrageous and unbelievable. But despite all that (or maybe because?) I still deal one-to-one with a large number of students with boyfriend/girlfriend problems, family issues and so on. I'm now certified to give out condoms to students under our borough's C-Card scheme. In Biology classes I discuss IVF, contraception, STIs, abortion and drug use - sometimes it's even relevant to the specification. Why shouldn't I take the opportunity to discuss relationships with the students too?

There have been some concerns that certain supposedly controversial issues such as homosexuality would be difficult to teach about in SRE if one's religious beliefs state that it's a sin. Well, the same colleagues who would have issues also have serious problems with evolution and an old Earth, but no one has suggested (apart from me) that they shouldn't be teaching Biology... If these colleagues can teach a topic they think is inaccurate and wrong, then they can jolly well teach about the full range of human relationships.

Given a framework, regardless of our experience in the world of relationships, we can raise discussion points. We can ask the right questions. We can get students to reflect on their own relationships and those they see around them. I'm not a role model - I have tattoos, blue hair and am contemplating a nose ring (hey, it's MY midlife crisis, right?). I drink and occasionally smoke. I eat poorly. I still have to teach students about the importance of healthy eating and the dangers of lung cancer. No one has suggested that, because I'm overweight, I shouldn't be teaching students about a balanced diet. So why should private relationship woes prevent a teacher from teaching about positive relationships and respect for each other?

Right. Time for caffeine. I don't usually write before my first cup of the day. It probably shows.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

You Don't Scare Me, I Teach In FE #1: Hearts In The Air

My A2 class are an interesting lot (mostly in a good way). They do the "why regress" on me whenever I teach them about metabolic pathways (thus reaching the limit of my biochemical understanding and sending me screaming for the textbooks). They have a slightly too healthy interest in dissecting stuff. They know themselves and their opinions and they aren't afraid to show it. Last year these characteristics were pretty much condensed into one awesome student, and it's great to see more of the same.

Occasionally, however, they test my patience... Surely not, you cry! How could 17 teenagers and twenty-somethings possibly get on my nerves?

Well, last Wednesday was my birthday, and rather than bring in chocolate or anything like that, I offered my A2s a practical. They'd already done one heart dissection at the start of their AS studies, but would they like to do another one? Hell yes. Spirits were high and the students were thrilled at the thought of being allowed scalpels (why we haven't had more injuries, I will never know).

Until one little darling picked up his heart (the disembodied sheep one) and asked me if he should throw it. Well, no, obviously. He said he was going to, and I have to say I was getting a little nervous and squeaky in my protestations. And then he threw it.

I don't know if any of you have ever seen a sizeable sheep's heart sailing across a laboratory, but it is something of a surreal experience. It would have been rejected by the producers of "Teachers" for being too unrealistic. I'm just glad that one of the other students caught it (though my poor broken nerves could have done without her throwing it back to the original culprit!).

This will be an infrequent (I hope) insight into some of the more extreme aspects of my teaching life. Just in case there's anyone who doesn't think teachers earn their holidays.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Other Natural Substances

An advert that always amuses me is the Rennie "Happy Tummy" one, which has been around for a couple of years (sadly, can't embed it). In it, the wonderful declaration is made that "Rennie turns excess acid into water and other natural substances". What are those "natural substances" exactly?

Rennie contains magnesium carbonate and calcium carbonate. That's fairly standard antacid remedy, because it's pretty good at neutralising stomach acid, which is hydrochloric acid.

MgCO3 + 2HCl → MgCl2 + H2CO3
CaCO3 + 2HCl → CaCl2 + H2CO3

Nothing wrong with MgCl2 or CaCl2 (all of those ions are vital for the body's metabolic functions anyway). It's the benign little molecule produced in both reactions: H2CO3. That's carbonic acid. Now, anyone who has studied environmental geochemistry (and any A2 student daft enough to ask) knows that:

CO2 + H2O ⇌ H2CO3 ⇌ H+ + HCO3- ⇌ 2H+ + CO32-

This is the carbonate buffer system, which maintains the pH of the oceans. It's also involved in the maintenance of our internal pH (though it seems to be more frequently called the bicarbonate buffer system in physiology). It's an equilibrium, shifting to the right when the pH increases (in other words, the concentration of H+ ions decreases). Which means that, when the pH is low (the conditions are acidic), the equilibrium will move to the left.

What's on the left hand side? Well that would be water, H2O. We knew about that from the Rennie advert. But this other molecule, CO2, is carbon dioxide. The gas produced when we belch and fart. This is simply the standard chemistry behind the action of antacids, and shouldn't be a surprise to anyone with some high school science in them. It's tickled me that the advert is so coy about it, but I suppose if we were told that indigestion remedies leave us trumping like a one-man oompah band none of us would run out and buy them.
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