We’re Going Back to School Tomorrow, and I’m the Teacher.

Trunc Icosa

This is my 22nd year teaching. This year, I teach in only one department. This is nice; I’ve spent much of my career in multiple departments, simply because I am certified in multiple subject areas. This year, in my building, I am one of three science teachers. Our high school has become so large that the 9th grade has been “spun off” to a new freshman campus, while remaining part of the high school, and I’m one of the teachers who gets to go to the new campus. This provides my students, my colleagues (especially at the new campus), and myself the opportunity for a fresh start, to a greater degree than is usually the case when a new school year begins.

My students are in just two subjects, this year: Physical Science, and Pre-AP Physical Science. I don’t want the students in the class without the “Pre-AP” prefix to feel that they are in a “lesser” class, in any sense of that word, so I am renaming “Physical Science,” slightly: “High School Physical Science.” It is my hope that this change in wording serves to communicate high expectations, and 9th grade is the first year of high school — which, in the USA’s public school systems, means 9th grade students must pass courses to earn credits toward graduation, usually for the first time.

In the other class, Pre-AP Physical Science, I am teaching that version of the course for the first time, but I feel well-prepared by the extensive training I had this Summer, and last school year, through my university, the school where the Summer training was held, and the College Board. Both classes will challenge students, but it is also true that the two classes will be different, for Pre-AP Physical Science have to leave students prepared to function effectively, later, in other Pre-AP and/or AP science courses. 

Physical Science is an introduction to two sciences: physics, and then chemistry, at least in my school district. It helps me that I have experience teaching both subjects as higher-level, “stand-alone” classes. In this class (both versions), we also touch on some other sciences which are also physical sciences, such as geology, astronomy, and the science of climate change. However, those sciences do not dominate these courses, as physics and chemistry do. The image above is from chemistry (and was created with Stella 4d, which you can try here), and shows a model of a sixty-atom all-carbon molecule called buckminsterfullerene, one of a class of roughly-spherical carbon allotropes called fullerenes. Mathematicians call this particular fullerene’s shape a “truncated icosahedron,” and, in sports, this same shape is known as the (non-American) “football” or “soccer ball.” Physical modes of this shape may be made with molecular model sets of various kinds, Zometools, and other materials. In both versions of my science classes this year, building models of this molecule will be one of many lab activities we will do; one of my goals this year is for my students to spend a third of their time doing labs. The legal requirement for science class time spent in lab, in my state, is at least one-fifth, so more than that is fine. Science classes helped me learn both science and mathematics, but what I remember the most is the labs. I don’t think that’s just me, either; students learn more effectively, I have observed, by conducting scientific experiments themselves, than by being “lectured at” for extended periods of time.

I’m looking forward to a good year — for all of us.

For John Lennon’s Birthday, the True Story of How I Observed This Holiday in 1983


I’ve been a fan of John Lennon for as long as I can remember, and October 9, his birthday, has always been a special day for me. In 1983, when I was a high school junior, celebrating his birthday changed from something I simply did, by choice, into what, at the time, I considered a moral imperative.

In October of ’83, I was a student — a junior — at McClellan High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and October 9th happened to be the day that all juniors were, according to that school’s administration, required to take the ASVAB: the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. While this is a standardized test, it isn’t like other standardized tests — it is actually a recruitment tool for the United States military.

At the time, Ronald Reagan was president, and we were in one of the many scary parts of the Cold War, with the threat of global thermonuclear war looming over us at all times. If you are too young to remember the Reagan era well, it may be hard to understand just how real, and how scary, it was to grow up with a president who did such things as making “jokes,” like this, in front of a microphone:

Reagan made this extremely unfunny “joke” the next year, in 1984, but the climate of fear in which he thought such a thing would be funny was already firmly in place in 1983, and I was already openly questioning the sanity of our president. My own anti-war attitudes, very much influenced by Lennon and his music, were already firmly in place. For the few unfamiliar with it, here is a sample of Lennon’s music.

So here I was, a high school junior, being told I had to take a test, for the military, on John Lennon’s birthday. I reacted to this in pretty much the same way a devout Jew or Muslim would react to being told to eat pork chops: I absolutely refused to cooperate. “Blasphemy” is not a word I use often now, and it wasn’t then, either, but to cooperate with this would have been the closest thing to blasphemy which I was capable of understanding at that age (I was 15 years old when this happened).

The other juniors got up and shuffled off, like good, obedient soldiers, when the intercom told them to go take the ASVAB. I simply remained seated.

The teacher told me it was time to go take the ASVAB. I replied, calmly, that no force on earth could compel me to take a test for the military on John Lennon’s birthday. At that point, I was sent to the office. Going to the office posed no ethical nor moral dilemmas for me, for I wanted the people there to know, also, that it was wrong for them to give a test for the military on October 9, of all days.

The principal, a man already quite used to dealing with me and my eccentricities, knew it would be pointless to argue with me about the ASVAB. He simply showed me a chair in the main office, and told me I could sit there that day, all day, and I did. To the school, this might have been seen as a single day of in-school suspension, but I saw it for what it really was: a one-person, sit-down protest for peace, in honor of the greatest activist for peace the world has ever known. It was an act of civil disobedience, and I regret nothing about it.

I will be sharing this story with Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, a woman I very much admire, and the greatest living activist for peace in the world today. Yoko, I do hope you enjoy this story. You and John have done great things, and they will not be forgotten, as long as people remain alive to tell about them.

Peace to all.

[Credits: photo from rollingstone.com; videos from YouTube.]

My Students’ Painting of the Periodic Table of the Elements


My Students' Painting of the Periodic Table of the Elements

This is my last year teaching at my current school — I’ll be transferring to another school in the same district in the Fall. To create a farewell gift to the school where I have taught for the last three years, I brought a lot of paint and other art supplies from home, bought more when they ran out, and let my students (who are enrolled in Chemistry and Physical Science) paint a large painting of the periodic table on two large wooden boards, each measuring 4′ by 6′. In the Fall, the plan is for the painting to be mounted on the wall of the science wing of my current school, in a location to be chosen by my current department chair, a personal friend of mine.

I think my students did a very good job — better than this picture I took with my cell phone reveals, just due to camera-quality. I am proud of them.