A Test Is Just A Piece of Paper

Many students tend to get stressed when it’s quiz or test time.  It’s almost as though they fear the questions will burn when they’re touched.

TestI want to tell students – all students - not to worry so much, so I think I will do just that:

Dear Students:

It’s just a piece of paper. It’s not THE STANDARDIZED TEST, but learning to relax when you take a regular test will help you relax when you take one of the BIG ONES.  It’s a piece of paper.  No piece of paper will ever be as important Torn Sheet of Paper From Spiral Notebookas YOU are.


Breathe deeply.

Stand up and stretch when you feel the need.

Are you in my class?  Go get a coke out of the machine, and maybe a Snickers bar, too. Chocolate won’t hurt your test; I’ll be grading it myself and unless it’s so soiled I can’t read it, who cares?  Your test will probably have at least one Diet Coke ring on it when you get it back.  I don’t know how those get on there. . . .

Sometimes a little sugar might be just the energy boost you need.

 Sometimes a little fresh air will do the trick.

Get up and walk up and down the hall for a few minutes.

Are you in my class?  Step outside 15/08/13 pic of man attacked by cow - walton, waltonand walk around the parking lot for a few minutes; clear your head. Look at the trees behind the school.. Watch the squirrels.

Remember when that cow was wandering around the school grounds?   The city never did find her.   Moo a few times.  Maybe you’ll get an answer.  (There’s a good essay topic for you!)   When you come back inside, take a few deep breaths, pick up your pencil and begin again.

If your school will not allow you to do these things, do them inside your head.  You can do anything you want inside your head.

Read each question carefully; you KNOW these things. I know you do. I’ve heard you talk about these topics for a month now and you KNOW them. Don’t let your fear of the test itself overcome the knowledge in your head. Don’t let a piece of paper take you down. USE the piece of paper to prove your knowledge of these things. Let the piece of paper encourage you to express what you know. You are the boss of this piece of paper. This piece of paper cannot defeat you.  This piece of paper WANTS you to master it.  You can.

Inside your head, where dwells your actual self, is a universe of wonder.  You’ve got what it takes to succeed in life.  You can do it.  The piece of paper is just you showing me that you understand little increments of cool stuff, one sheet at a time.

Is this registering with you, students?  Don’t let the dread of a quiz or test get between you and that piece of paper.  And remember this, because it’s very important:  a test itself is never as awful as the dread of it beforehand.  (Ditto your dental appointment, remember?)

I’ve heard many of you saying this already:  “That quiz wasn’t hard at all!”  Well, guess what:  it was supposed to be hard.  The reason why you didn’t think so is that you KNOW THIS STUFF.

Yes, you do.


No Lesson Plan – Just Insta-Snow

Meet Alan Marshall, who came with his dad to a meeting in our building today.  What a great kid!  Alan brought his iPad to pass the time, but when I saw him passing my office, I thought I’d see how he liked some Insta-Snow, as well.Alan Marshall, Insta-Snow

I think this picture sums up the experience.  Alan was excited about telling his dad what would happen if he put a long-stemmed white flower in some Insta-Snow that had food coloring in it.  (You already know, right?  RIGHT?)  (This works with colored water AND with colored polymers. )  The fact that this stuff lived inside disposable diapers made a bit of an impression, too.  

Alan liked the Insta-Snow so much that I gave him the jar.  He went across the street to the library to show the librarian how it worked.

This is how it happens, you see.  Learning.  True education.  When something makes it to the dinner table library, that something is going to be remembered.

Have fun with your Insta-Snow, Alan.  Polymer science is awesome!

My Spot Dot Red Thumb – Six Years Old and Still Glowing Strong

I’ve carried my Spangler Science Spot Dot Red Thumb in my purse or briefcase for six years. I like to keep it with me because I use it. A lot.


I use it when I lecture because my students can’t keep their eyes off it and it keeps them awake. I love the looks on their faces; they’re not sure if they’re really seeing the red spot dot or not.

I am not above using it in public to mess with people’s minds.

My sister uses it when she directs her many show choirs. A choral music director with a red Spot Dot not only keeps the singers’ attention; she looks really cool. REALLY cool.

My brother is a musician and plays in several bands. (When he’s not busy being Director of Finance at a university out west, that is.) With a red Spot Dot flashing away at intervals during his bass guitar riffs, all eyes are on him and the scenario is, again, really cool.  Their drummer has one, too, and the effect is just as awesome as you might imagine.

Now, keeping the Spot Dot Red Thumb in a purse along with other things that are probably considered unconventional probably isn’t the best place for a Spot Dot to live all the time. Over the years, mine turned really dark, and it became more and more difficult to make it look like my real thumb. A few weeks ago, my classroom computer was being serviced by one of the IT guys, and I noticed that he was missing the thumb on his left hand. I also noticed that what was left of his thumb matched my Spot Dot. Perfectly.

Of course, the Spot Dot won’t work as a prosthesis, but it does create an interesting effect when the person working on your computer seems to be able to take his very natural-looking-if-you’re-from- Mars thumb off and on at will.

Oh, and he likes to make it glow and pretend he’s being electrocuted.

Never think for a moment that anything has only one kind of use. If you use your imagination, everything is game. Sometimes, things are fair game.

P.S.  Six years old and the battery was still fresh.  That’s a darn good battery life!

Oh, Those Middle School Students!

Let me ask you something: what do you remember about middle school?  I’ve been asking a lot of people this question, and I was frankly pretty surprised that most of these people either remembered very little about it or remembered it as a traumatizing experience.  Most of them, however, remember one or two teachers at that level who are beloved even today.

thinking cap, middle school

Not every teacher is cut out for middle school – it takes a certain knack.  I’ve seen many good teachers fail in the middle school because they simply did not have this knack.  These teachers might have been excellent instructors of small children or almost-adult students, but it takes that knack to succeed in the middle school.

We must remember that middle school students do not consider themselves to be children.  Oh, we know they still are, but don’t make the mistake of treating them like children.  A teacher can lose an entire group of 7th-graders simply by referring to them as “boys and girls.”  I’ve seen entire classes turn against a well-meaning teacher because he/she used a tone of voice that connoted “elementary.”  I’ve seen principals wonder all year why the students disliked him/her so much, and it was all because of a condescending remark made on the first day of school that the adult doesn’t even remember but every student knows by heart.

Put simply, talk to middle school students as THEY THINK you talk to other adults. And put simply, that’s not simple.  Two teachers can say the exact same thing and one of them will succeed while the other antagonizes and infuriates the students.

There is some kind of internal attitude inside each teacher, and the least astute kid in the entire school can pick up on it.  Being a good middle school teacher is hard work; it’s exhausting and nerve-wracking.  Loving kids isn’t enough.  Being organized isn’t enough.  Being passionate about the subject isn’t enough.  Combinations of these things aren’t enough.

Oh, those are excellent and necessary parts of a good teacher, yes.  Definitely.  But alone or in any combination, they are not enough.

It’s the internal attitude that counts the most.  To be able to deal with middle school students, to be able to genuinely communicate and earn their respect, a middle school teacher has to have the right kind of internal attitude.

Pre-teens have the instinct to detect sincerity and trustworthiness.  It’s sharp and clear and laced with brand-new hormones, a fear of the unknown, and an intense desire to be accepted.

Every time the bell rings, a good teacher has to shake off one personality and put on another.  No two classes are alike, and a good teacher will not try to teach them in the same way.  Middle school teachers are doing stand-up, and the audience differs with every gig.

Good middle school teachers know how to talk to the students as the students think one adult talks to another adult.  Read that sentence carefully, for it does not say that a good teacher talks to the students as one adult to another.

Good teachers try to keep up.  I don’t mean friend all your 13-year-olds on Facebook, but monitor things when you can so you’ll know what your kids are talking about when they try to tell you that so-and-so is twerking in front of the boys behind the bleachers before first period.  Don’t try to be one of them, but be the adult in their lives who understands.  These things have to be done carefully.  Don’t make the mistake of trying to ingratiate yourself with students by using their generation’s groovy, out-of-sight, beat-me-daddy-eight-to-the-bar, gnarly vernacular.  Some words were never meant to come out of the mouths of actual adults.  Am I right, peeps?

Sometimes, other teachers sense something different about a teacher with that awesome internal attitude, and there can be clashes.  Age has nothing to do with it; some of the very best teachers are 110 years old if they’re a day, and some of the least savvy ones are 24.

It really bothers me when teachers say that the middle grades are a nightmare.  Such statements are unkind, and untrue.  Middle school students are young enough to still be eager, enthusiastic learners, and old enough to be able to actually do and understand a lot of things they weren’t ready for down in elementary.  Middle school students are bright and kind and interested in so many things and quite capable of learning and doing these interesting and sometimes not-so-easy things.

Challenging?  Oh yes.  Quite.  But they’re supposed to be, aren’t they?  I think so.



Avengers, X-Men, Loki, the Culinary Arts and Polymers

As I dug through my briefcase last Friday morning, I discovered some test tubes full of polymers. What. Doesn’t everybody carry test tubes of polymers in his/her briefcase? Well, apparently I do.

test tubes of polymers
I didn’t want to waste an opportunity.

Just down the hall from the college office, there is a Culinary Arts department full of high school students earning dual credits for both high school and college. They are fun and funky kids, so I took the test tubes down to the big kitchen and poured them into a fishbowl wine goblet that happened to be sitting on the counter behind the teacher’s desk. I don’t judge.

I told the students that the tiny little polymers represented them, themselves, a few pieces of what looked like cookie sprinkles and rock salt, and that to transform these insignificant little specks – and the students – only one ingredient was necessary.  I told them to add some water to the goblet.   I went back to the college office, and waited.

culinary students, polymers

There wasn’t long to wait before I heard them screaming about “how awesomely cool, how absolutely awesomely cool!”

I went back down to the kitchen and took a few pictures so you can share in the excitement.

I‘ve posted before about using polymers as analogies for patience, tolerance, learning, and personal change, but each time I do this with students, I learn as much if not more than they do.  Kids that spend more time out in the hall doing lines than time in the classroom will try extra hard to behave so they, too, can stick their hands in the swollen polymers and give them a squeeze.

A tangible example of what change can mean can be the catalyst that will set a stubborn student onto a path of learning no book or set of rules could ever hope to do.

culinary student, wineglass full of polymers

Be sure to bring a box of baggies with you whenever you do this with students; they’ll all want to take home a handful of the swollen polymers to put in a little glass, set it in the windowsill, and water it regularly to remind themselves of the power of learning, and how one simple little thing can genuinely transform one thing into another: a tiny rock-hard piece of polymer or a human being.  Justone simple little addition, and there is a transformation that rivals anything an X-Man or an Avenger could dream of.  Even Loki.

Loki, glorious purpose

Our students, too, are burdened with glorious purpose.  This is something we must help them continue to nourish.  Some tangible examples help tremendously.

Loki is a villain, of course, but even from the villains there is learning to get.  Besides, if you show them Loki, you’ll have their attention for sure!