Life Is An Experiment by Velya Jancz-Urban

018I’m a hands-on science teacher. My family lives amongst my lesson plans. In our pantry there’s a plastic tub of lively mealworms. I’ve kept them alive for over eighteen months on a diet of organic oatmeal flakes and organic potato slices. There are assorted snake skins, antlers, and rodent skulls on a shelf in the garage. A five pound box of two-inch galvanized roofing nails waits on the dining room table. Eighty of them will be used in the Bed of Nails prototype my husband is constructing for me.

In our house, it seems that no matter what product we pull from the kitchen cupboard or bathroom cabinet, it is invariably labeled with some cryptic number or letter. The six assorted shampoo bottles in our shower niche are labeled 1 through 6 in black Sharpie marker. I used them in a Shampoo Analysis Lab to determine if price makes a difference in a shampoo’s effectiveness. I won’t be a spoiler, but my students now know the terms viscosity and flash foam. There’s a big red Sharpie A, B, or C on the three toothpaste tubes in the bathroom vanity drawer. They were part of my Secret Formulas unit. The kids identified the attributes of toothpaste, and then made their own blends. But first, they crafted “colonial toothbrushes” from small branches I snipped off trees in our woods. You should have seen those little baby teeth gnaw the ends of the twigs to get the “bristles” just right – my little beaver scientists! The 625-count pack of Q-tips is labeled “for Grossology.” I used them in conjunction with my Microscope unit. The kids investigated their own ear wax and then swabbed the water fountains drains (you will never, ever drink from a water fountain again if you see the results!).

Did I mention the Chicken Mummies? There are eight raw Perdue chickens in my garage. They are part of a six-week after-school Mummification unit I’m teaching. The chickens are heavily salted, wrapped in layers of white gauze, adorned with glue-gunned sequins and jewels, and are slowly dehydrating. We’ll repeat the entire salting/gauzing process next week and the kids will eventually see that, just like ancient Egyptian mummies, the chickens don’t rot or smell. On the last day of class, they’ll wear the hieroglyphic clay necklaces they created and bring their chicken mummies home. Some parents will throw them away before they even make it to the front door, and maybe some will not.

People ask, “How do you come up with this stuff?” I always say the same thing, “I just try to think like a kid.” I don’t really care what they examine under a microscope. My goal is to have them learn the parts of a microscope, and to associate science with a love of learning. I think kids are actually drawn to people who are real and down-to-earth. They can sniff out authenticity as fast as a pack of bloodhounds can track a chain gang escapee in the swamps of Louisiana. My experiments are messy and imperfect, and kids deserve the right to know that life is messy and imperfect.

If you haven’t been in an elementary school lately, you may not know that the Scientific Method has become the focus of science lessons. The scientific method is a way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations and doing experiments – it involves a lot of predicting and hypothesizing – which is wonderful. But here’s the sad part, and maybe it’s a reflection on today’s perfectionist society – I can’t tell you how many times one of my students makes a prediction, gets it wrong, and then furtively erases their answer. Last week, in a Mealworm Madness class, each giggling child hesitantly selected his/her own squiggly mealworm from a big yellow bowl. Then, they introduced themselves to their mealworm, gave their mealworm a name, and predicted how long their mealworm was, in inches. The responses ranged from one inch to nineteen inches. Each child used a green plastic ruler to measure their crawling worm. Cries of, “Hey, hold still little buddy!” and “Stop wiggling so much!” filled the classroom. Then, the kids discovered that all of the mealworms were about two inches long. Two little girls actually scolded themselves for making an incorrect prediction. One kid hit himself on the forehead with his palm. Four boys shielded their papers with their arms and surreptitiously erased their predictions. These were first and second graders who had gleefully assigned their worms names like Zippy, Sparkly, Unicorn, and Bob. When did it become wrong to make a mistake?

I suspect that standardized testing has something to do with this. Tests that expect all children, no matter their birthday, and no matter their developmental speed, to achieve the same levels at the same time. I always tell my classes “Don’t just think outside the box, let’s totally avoid the box!” But is this what they’re hearing at home or in their classrooms? I don’t think so. Not anymore. I think they’re hearing, “Be the best.” First and second graders should be happy, carefree, and playing – not weighed down by school. And school should be a fun place of learning, not of stress and pressure where incorrectly predicting a mealworm’s length ruins your afternoon.

I left public school teaching five years ago because I didn’t want to be part of it anymore. I didn’t want to teach from a script as my former colleagues are forced to do, because life and learning are not scripted. The quest for perfection is exhausting and unrelenting. Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best.

Experiment. Fail. Learn. Repeat.


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10 responses to “Life Is An Experiment by Velya Jancz-Urban

  1. Wonderful. I especially like “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best.”

  2. I really love your creative approach to teaching, Velya. It’s a shame teachers are forced into corrals of curriculum these days. Great post!

  3. Your lessons remind me of the English schools my sons first attended. Then we moved to the States and drawing the symbol for a battery the right way round mattered more than understanding what makes a short circuit. I think you’re right about standardized testing.

  4. There are two subjects that get me going, Sheila. The U.S. educational system and U.S. healthcare/insurance. Thanks for commenting. It all seems kind of backwards, doesn’t it?

  5. When I read the first sentence, I just knew who wrote this. Have you ever been nominated as Teacher of the Year? If not, I can’t imagine why not. You have certainly become my favorite teacher of the year; no…of my life. Had I been fortunate to have been one of your students, I would probably have my doctorate in one of the hard sciences and be teaching and/or researching somewhere today. I look back on my life and know that, if I knew then, what I know now, I would have confidently pursued the sciences. The world and its young, impressionable children are better because of teachers like you, Velya.

    • Man, you can be my cheerleader any day. I actually was Teacher of the Year a hundred years ago when I taught high school English and History. I just try to think like a kid and keep in mind what my ultimate goal is. Thanks for your kind words, Maribeth!

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