Chaos in the Classroom – Newton’s Apple Weight vs Mass Lab…
There is an unspoken fear of chaos underlying the objections to hands-on inquiry. Thursday was those fears come to life with apples bonking kids in the head and landing up, mangled and impaled on pencils, found in sinks after class. Two suspensions, and me shouting at my 7th period class to sit down and shut up. The worst chaos in about two years. Since, now I think of it, the last time I taught 8th grade.
How did this happen? What can I learn from it (now I’ve calmed down at the weekend)? And how can I rescue the rest of our school year together?
It was supposed to be the story of Isaac N sitting under the tree at his mother’s farm waiting out the Plague and wondering about gravity. Then they felt the force of 1 Newton – approximately the weight of one small apple in their hands. And finally, they were set loose, weighing the apple on a variety of scales – spring scales weighing WEIGHT and balances which compare mass. They were supposed to figure out their own data tables (which they’ve done before without a big fuss). And I gave a little talk about how preschoolers seem to cope with the excitement of Otter Pops so I was sure they could manage with apples…
So I think that naughty boys in 3d period talked it up with same in 7th period and got the buzz going. Remember throwing stuff around when the teacher was at the board? It was SO fun, not really meant to be cruel to the teacher, but a way to bond with your buddies.
So pointer #1 – Don’t take it personally.
I think there was also some confusion about what the !#$% the difference is between weight and mass, and some lingering confusion around acceleration due to gravity being in fact, a constant. The force photo assignment due the same day was much more difficult to figure out than they first thought too. All is not as it first seems. It’s a profound shaking of their world views, and produces some resistance, as I guess I should expect, if I had learned anything from the history of science.
Pointer #2 – this subject matter challenges their world view and is genuinely difficult, even for students used to getting As. Confusion can lead to chaos.
And finally, given the subject matter difficulty, maybe I should have done a much tighter, more didactic lab.
Pointer #3 – don’t challenge them with both subject matter AND process at the same time.
What to do to recover?
I hate yelling at everyone in a class and watching the engaged kids drop off the perch too. I got the major apple tossers and accomplices out for the next day on a teacher suspension. Then told the class about all the cool labs lined up for next week, which they will get to watch as demos instead of doing them. That I’d be giving 2 ‘participation’ points each day and would be uploading those grades for parents to see on PowerSchool each evening, with a note if they lost a point for being off task. Engaged students will get a little, easy grade inflation. 7th period slackers will see some Fs in their grade print out, but it’s not for that many points. Easy recovery.
I’ll run a tight and quiet class for a week and see how they go. I really am willing to do only demos with 7th period if needed. But I really bet they will want to turn it around. In the end, there is no way to dominate a class of kids bigger than me, even with the mean-teacher stare over reading glasses.