Friday, June 16, 2017

What an English Teacher Learned from Teaching Chemistry


When Kim Essenburg woke up one spring break from unsettling dreams, she found herself changed in her bed into a chemistry teacher….

Not that chemistry teachers are anything like cockroaches—in fact, after a quarter of teaching chemistry as a long-term emergency sub, this 30-year veteran English teacher has a heightened respect for the variety and depth of knowledge and experience of all of my colleagues in all of their fields. My quarter of chemistry teaching also helped me appreciate my own expertise as an English teacher. Finally, I was intrigued by the ways good teaching is the same and different from discipline to discipline. Still, as I scribbled equations on the whiteboard, it did feel a little Kafkaesque.

The world intrigues me. From quarks to cultures, it is an amazing place. And reading is my entry to it all: from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. So, I figured, there are books about chemistry. There is YouTube. I had a year of Chemistry 101 thirty-four years ago when I was an indecisive college freshman. Certainly I can model a growth mindset and somehow tap into all that learning!

Chemistry is fascinating. If it is incredible that all of English literature, from Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare, is made up of various combinations of 26 letters, then it is even more incredible that everything in the physical world is made up of various combinations of 3 particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. I psyched myself up by re-reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I discovered amazing online resources from Khan Academy to TED-Ed’s Interactive Periodic Table.

And when I collected my first worksheet, the students seemed to think the point was getting the right answer rather than understanding how to get it. I realized simultaneously why I don’t do worksheets in English, and that it is my experience with teaching English that enables me to create assignments that are meaningful enough to spark engagement, creative enough to defy plagiarism, and still target important learning goals. I didn’t have that kind of experience in chemistry.

Another thing experience gives is the ability to explain even complex things simply, in multiple ways, while anticipating novice misunderstandings. If a student doesn’t understand satire, I have 5 other explanations and 10 other examples, both from literature and from life. If a student doesn’t understand the common-ion principle, all I can do is repeat the one explanation and one example I got from the textbook. 

For comic relief, there were a couple of interesting “when your science teacher is also your English teacher” moments. Like when I was clearing up confusion over what the capital K I’d written on the whiteboard stood for—I’d tried to make it look italic, which means equilibrium constant, but some students didn’t recognize that and thought it meant degrees Kelvin. I said, “How do I make it italic?” One of my English students volunteered, “Underline it! Underlining is italics!” (Well, yay they finally got that, and I won’t see Works Cited pages any more with mixed underlines and italics, but I’m still not sure the proper way to do it in science.) There was also the time I asked an English class to list the 7 reading strategies we’d talked about, and a student said, “All I can remember are the 3 you had us use on the nitrogen-fixing reading in the chemistry book.” (At least he remembered 3….) 

I tried to connect the learning to life. We read about chemistry professionals, researched for presentations on topics from the Nobel Prize for Chemistry site that interested us, and watched Chemistry Life Hack videos. (I discovered that even with chemistry life hacks, interest has to be calibrated to the students. For example, here in Okinawa, Japan, where many people don’t have ovens, there was little interest in the one on baking soda life hacks, but there was high interest in the videos on the chemistry of wasabi and how to treat a jellyfish sting!)

I used as many engaging teaching strategies as I could—I gave choice on an independent module reviewing gases or exploring nuclear and organic chemistry. They worked in groups to understand and complete the modules. To review chemistry vocabulary for the exam, I assigned each student in a class 5 words to create Freyer models for and orchestrated reciprocal teaching. 

My students learned about chemistry. I did, too. In addition to learning about chemistry, I also learned about teaching—how much I love teaching English and how 30 years of experience really helps, how much amazing knowledge and experience my colleagues have who can engage and challenge students in other disciplines. And I wonder what we can learn from each other about constructing meaningful learning opportunities; teaching skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and communication in the context of each discipline; and creating a culture where students see challenge as an opportunity to grow.

Khan Academy just sent me an email: 

Kim Essenburg, 
We missed you this past week! Be sure to come back regularly and continue learning!
If you make a mistake, it's an opportunity to get smarter!


It made me laugh out loud. Yes, it was a week without Khan Academy. They might have missed me, but I didn’t miss them. Still, those are a couple of great thoughts to bring to all of our students next year: Continue learning, and If you make a mistake, it’s an opportunity to get smarter.