Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Boom bang-a-bang

Well, my temporary teaching contract is up for another year so I'm formally between jibs until I get my next one (which i am assured will happen, though for various tedious reasons I won't know until mid-August how many hours I'll be teaching, or what subjects. I'm still finishing stuff off (and getting paid to do so): mainly resulting all the students, but tomorrow I have some compulsory compliance training to finish off, while today was a Staff Development Day. It wasn't bad: we had a lousy keynote speaker telling us about innovation and creativity, and with my superpower of "breaks IT systems" I took down my personal timetable for the day big time. On the plus side, this meant that as well as most of the sessions I had planned to attend (including a good one on teaching autistic students) I did a workshop on samba drumming which I hadn't originally planned for. And those of us who wanted to reconvened at the end of the day and did our drumming in public (outside where the College was putting on a barbecue). We had some ladies from a Latin dance class dancing along to us, which was great fun.

We all had to visit the exhibitions which had been set up in the Sports Hall, and one of these was one on making science interesting, or some such phrase. The guy om the stand was setting off small ethanol/air explosions in plastic bottles, every now and then venturing outside to touch off a mighty hydrogen/air one that rattled the windows. Now my first degree was in chemistry, and I reckon I took two things away from it as lessons for life. (1) No washing-up task is impossible (2) Fire risks need to be taken seriously, and fires need to be dealt with. So I was a little shocked (OK, I was a hell of a lot shocked) that the guy doing the explosion demos didn't have a fire extinguisher immediately to hand. What brought it to my attention was when I saw his assistant beating out flames by hand when he set the tablecloth alight. Now there was no general risk to the public: the sports hall had extinguishers immediately outside the doors, and evacuation would gave been very easy. Little consolation to the demonstrating guy if he'd set himself alight though: and not the best signal to send to an audience you're trying to enthuse with the joys of combustion. If I were doing that kind of demo I would have a CO2 extinguisher within grabbing range, would use it mercilessly if anything caught light, and would (in a normal class) make sure the students knew how to work it (in case of burning lecturer, point horn at screams and pull trigger).

Thinking back to my student days, and to my aborted career as a chemistry teacher, reminded me of another thing. A few months ago I was watching Jim al-Khalili on television recreating some famous chemical experiments, including Davy's isolation of sodium by electrolysing molten salt. A famous procedure, often done in schools. Now my own teachers never tried it, but it was one of the ones on my agenda when I was in teacher training, so I gave it a go. It didn't work, which I spun to the kids as showing what a difficult thing it was and how brilliant an experimenter Davy was. (Both pieces of spin being wholly true.) The guy who was mentoring me, a Mr Donaldson (I forget his first name), told me afterwards (having let me screw up presumably because it amused him) that "to get it to work you have to stick some potassium chloride in with the salt". At the time I just thought "Thanks for the heads-up there", but the more I thought about it the crosser I got. Here was a guy basically faking an experiment so he could show off to the kids. Never mind the idea that "not everything works first time, every time", just shove any old rubbish in and pretend you've done something you haven't. I think my disillusion with the teaching profession, or at least with school science teaching, began right there.

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