School Culture

I’m two weeks from the end of the first quarter.  I think this is enough time that I have  a better idea of my new school’s culture.

First off, although every student is required to do science fair, I’ve learned that no one takes this seriously.  Even the child of a school board member – that school board that mandated the science fair – doesn’t want to take part.  So I’ve got students that don’t want to do these projects, teachers that don’t want to help them, administrators that don’t want to hear from either party and parents that think it’s too much.  And yet the show goes on!

If I was to sum up the school culture here, I would say it’s all about the grades.  Most of my honors students didn’t read a short 3 page essay on Grit.  When I asked why, they couldn’t give a reason.  Many confessed that they treated the survey on the back like a lottery ticket – randomly filling in answers.  In their words, if it isn’t graded, then it can’t be important.  On top of that, the system has worked quite well for my honors physics students.  Classes have typically been easy and grades have been inflated from the possibility of parent intervention.  Sometimes the parents actually intervene so their student doesn’t have to face the prospect of not getting an A.  One of my honors students told me her mother said if she didn’t understand a class, she should transfer out.  It wasn’t get extra help, or figure out what she was missing.  Nope, if it’s too hard then just keep doing something easy.  All in hopes of the perfect GPA!

On the other hand, my general physics students are eager to learn, but they don’t have the tools.  I’m seeing a fair number of students that clearly have never been required to stop and think about why they were doing something.  At least with my general physics students, they’ve actually failed before, so they’re interested in trying something different to see if things go better.

Bear with me a moment, because I’m about to get nostalgic.

At my previous school, we had developed a very different school culture.  From the student’s own mouths, we had created a culture of learning.  Student’s were very invested in if they learned the concepts, knowing the grades would follow.  I miss that.  There were other problems – big problems imposed on us from the outside.  But at least we created an awesome school culture.

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Love/Hate Science Fair

More on science fair?  I know.

Hate:  They have to fill out like a million forms, and get them in super early.  I had to take 30 minutes out of every class today to show them explicitly where the forms are, and which to fill out.

Love:  Student submits lame idea from a website on the Stroop Effect.  I turn it around on student, and make it a really involved experiment.  Student confesses they don’t care at all, they just want to get it over with.  Student and I discuss what is interesting, and stumble upon how to people come up with ideas.  I suggest my theory that people just take existing knowledge and assemble in interesting ways.  Student – out of the blue – suggests they give people a set of objects, and see if people end up building the same thing.  BRILLIANT!  I’m so in glow of this idea, and so is student.

The calculation is fuzzy, but if these projects actually happen, the forms may be worth the work.

Exhaustion and Science Fair

I’m just going to throw this out there: I’m tired as all get out.

I blame science fair. In our school district, every honors student is required to participate in science fair. I am a person who is determined to get my students to learn something useful from anything we do. Therefore, science fair has become something I have to put a lot of effort into. Like 2 times as much effort as normal. I’m starting to see the reward, but the cost was substantial.

The thing about teenagers in school, is that they have a lot of trouble getting started. Invariably, they would say “i have no idea what to do for science fair.” I ask what are their interests? “Nothing that has to do with science.” Umm, everything has to do with science or engineering. “Nope, photography can’t be a science experiment” WHAAAT?

So what I’ve been doing furiously over the past week is taking that tiny morsel of an idea for each student or pair of students, and devising a science experiment that is cool and also feasible with just 2 months for setup and data collection. It turns out I’m pretty good at this – based on the number of students that have become much more enthusiastic about science fair.

So if you’re out there and you are helping your kids through science fair, put in the effort at the beginning to help them find an experiment that doesn’t just come from a website. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.