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Class Notes
'Toy table' helps make school fun
(Published May 5, 2003)

By H. WELLS WULSIN

The front corner in my classroom has become something of a hangout in the past week or so — a hotspot where even students I don't know congregate before school or during breaks.

It's my newly created "toy table" — a collection of various tricks and mind-teasers picked up at a science teachers' conference in Philadelphia. A blinking array of fiber-optic tubes first catches the eye and sparks most people's interest to investigate a few more of the puzzles.

One of my favorites is the "bashful lock," a small circular disk with two protruding hooks that are seemingly immovable. But put the lock behind your back, and the hooks effortlessly pull apart. I explain the mystery by telling students the lock is too shy to open in front of other people, but even the most naïve don't buy that theory. After experimenting for a few minutes, they realize the trick: the lock is designed so that it opens only when held upside down — which is the way most people hold it behind their backs.

"How does this work?" a quiet sophomore from my homeroom asks me, referring to a classic remove-the-ring puzzle, in which the ends of two horseshoes are connected with a chain link and encircled with a metal ring. Because the ring's diameter is smaller than the width of the horseshoes, there appears no way to remove it. Some give up after a half-hearted attempt; others plead for me to show the answer, but I always refuse. Eventually, someone stumbles across the successful strategy: twist the horseshoes 90 degrees and loop the ring onto the ends of both horseshoes. It slides off smoothly. Celebratory cries of triumph ensue, and the proud winner rushes to show off the newly discovered skill to a friend.

I wish I could make my classroom even more like a museum, a place where children come to question and deepen their understanding of the world. Everything on my toy table — the levitating roller, the rainbow glasses, the gyroscope, howling tube and Styrofoam "rock" — all involve principles of science, but demonstrating science is not their main purpose. Mostly, I want to pull students into my class and expose them to mind-stimulating puzzles. One of the best ways to counteract absenteeism (which in my classes is usually more than 10 percent) is to attract students with engaging activities. Too often we forget the importance of making schools a place where students want to be.

Recently a preliminary report of federally funded after-school programs was published by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., which claimed that the programs do not demonstrate significant gains in academic achievement. The Bush administration used the results to justify a $400 million cut to after-school programs nationwide. Some experts have questioned the validity of the preliminary findings, but few voice the argument that giving students an enriching program after school might be inherently valuable, even without a positive effect on grades. Our government spends billions of dollars fighting the war on drugs, or "getting tough on crime," when these social ills could be more effectively solved by getting teens off the streets and into rewarding activities that build confidence and long-term skills.

When I think of the extracurricular offerings at our school, from football and volleyball to marching band and multicultural club, I know that the benefits of these programs extend far beyond a boost in GPA. I also know that many of our students make haste toward the bus stop when the last bell rings at 3:15 p.m., to spend the late afternoon "just hanging" — a time when they are unsupervised and unproductive. If we had more personnel and equipment, existing programs could be expanded and new ones created to offer greater opportunities for the many needs of our students.

In one of the most popular poems of my elementary school, Shel Silverstein's "I Cannot Go to School Today," little Peggy Ann McKay describes an exhaustive list of ailments, any one of which would be reasonable grounds for staying home from school. She seems certain to win her case to the very end, when she abruptly changes tune: "What's that? What's that you say?/You say today is ……Saturday?/Goodbye, I'm going out to play!"

Luckily, despite occasional outward reluctance (as in the case of little Peggy), the reality is that most students, most of the time, do want to come to school. The hard work left to educators is getting students to truly invest their energies in academic and extracurricular activities, instead of just walking through the motions.

If we want students to be involved actors rather than passive recipients of their education, then we must re-invent schools as centers of convergence where students and neighborhood residents congregate not only for academic reasons, but also for social, athletic, creative and artistic functions. Above all, these activities must be fun. The drive to raise educational performance in our neediest schools is well-justified, but that should not lead us to neglect the unique opportunities in and out of the classroom to build strength and solidarity in a community.

This week my sophomores in chemistry built ball-and-stick models of molecules using gumdrops and toothpicks. A staple activity of many introductory chemistry courses, it demands thorough knowledge of fundamental covalent bonding principles — the number of valence electrons per atom, the number of bonds and lone electrons needed to satisfy the Octet Rule and the Lewis structure of the molecule. The correctly constructed "gumdrop model" culminates a series of steps, and it is easy to make mistakes along the way. I divided the class into teams of three and gave each a list of 10 molecules to model. At first some students were confused, but they soon caught on, and the activity quickly turned into a race. "Come on, let's go!" one student would say to a teammate. "Their group already has eight done!"

One sophomore – "Donald" (not his real name), who I used to reprimand frequently for wearing his hat in the building – brought one of his team's models to the front of the room for me to inspect. After I signed his paper, authorizing the model as correct, he broke into a dance on the way back to his seat. Skipping and humming, with his arms swinging back and forth through the air, he acted as if he had just won the door prize at the prom. For a second I wanted to say, "Donald, I hope you realize that you just danced clear across the room, all because you got one little chemistry problem right." But rather than expose his display of enthusiasm for schoolwork — certain cause for ridicule from peers — I smiled to myself, content with the knowledge that for all their protests to the contrary, students sometimes actually derive pleasure from learning.

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Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator