I teach science to my elementary students, and this would no doubt be a great source of mirth for my own secondary school science teachers, if they knew.
It’s not that I’m stupid. I’m fairly sure I’m a smart person. It’s just that my brain is not wired up to process facts and evidence and results and statistics, and so when I’m required to do so, I can end up wondering if maybe I am actually a little bit stupid after all. I’m going to be honest with you, here – subjects I don’t quite understand include gravity, the water cycle, erosion, earthquakes, and fossils. Would you want me teaching science to your child?!
Give me a poem or a story or a song or a grammar exercise or an art project, and I’m confidently in charge of the classroom. But tell me to explain a volcano, and it’s obvious to everyone present that I really don’t know what I’m talking about.
Still, the purpose is to teach them English by giving them a different subject to focus on, so I struggle womanfully onwards and hope I’m not filling the children’s heads with complete nonsense. Sometimes, I get lost halfway through an answer, and eventually just stop and admit that I really don’t know. The embarrassing thing is that the children usually know anyway, having studied it all much more recently than I have, and they end up explaining it to me while I try to pretend that that was what I was trying to get them to do by ‘pretending’ not to know.
I am now teaching three different science classes, and I study for hours in preparation. I feel like I’m back at school. Currently, I have a confident understanding of about 30% of the material in the highest level (erm, grade 4!), and the rest is gibberish. I don’t know what my mental block with science is. I think it’s that it blows my mind if I think about it too much, and I’m totally incapable of wrapping my mind around the humungousness of the world and everything in it.
For example, one of the questions I was preparing today was: When you stand still, do you feel Earth spinning? Why not? Well, my mind tried its best to follow a logical train of thought that would end up saying something like “It’s too big” or “It’s too slow” or “Everything on it is also moving”. But I can’t explain those answers, because I don’t understand them. This is why I was able to get ‘A’ grades in science despite my insistence that I’m rubbish at it. It’s all about learning the right things to say, and when you’re good with words you can sound like you understand almost any subject as long as you’ve learned the relevant facts. I don’t have a clue what the periodic table was all about, but I can probably still draw large chunks of it. I can confidently state that protons have a positive charge and electrons are smaller and have a negative charge, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what that means. These are the failings of my brain, or the education system, or maybe a bit of both.
Students in my classes (science or otherwise) are not allowed to answer my questions by reading a line from the book. They have to reply in a new sentence, however poorly constructed it is, because I don’t want them to end up like me – all these well-learned phrases and statements, but no understanding of the meaning behind them! I want them to think, instead of telling me what they assume I want to hear. I need them to, actually, because my brain is broken and they pretty much need to explain it to me. Teaching is the best way of learning, so we’re all benefiting, here.
So, to return to my question about the Earth spinning, let me try to show you why I find these subjects too huge to contemplate. The thing is, my head really cannot cope with how mad our situation is. We are on this big, water-covered ball, which spins around crazily in space, with lots of others, in just one tiny little galaxy out of a number too big to fathom. Earth is not resting comfortably on a nice shiny surface to do its spinning; no, it is suspended in mid-nothing, vast empty black nothingness. (My head ends up clutched in my hands when I try to imagine this for too long). And yet we don’t see black nothingness, we see blue sky. And although we’re spinning, we don’t feel it. And although it’s a globe and there are people all around it, none of those people are ever upside-down, even though they must must MUST be (this one really bothers me). But even if they were upside down they wouldn’t fall off because of this invisible force which is trying to suck us all into the centre of the planet and yet has very little regard for planes, kites, helium balloons and so on. We know that the sun doesn’t rise, as it’s actually the Earth that moves and brings the sun into sight again, but since we don’t feel like we’re spinning, and from here the Earth looks flat, not round, it’s much easier to imagine that we stay still and the sun just rises and sets, rises and sets, rises and sets, on that flat horizon. Whirling around on a big round ball in the middle of nowhere around a monstrously oversized ball of gas and fire… I can’t cope with it. I genuinely cannot process it in my mind.
I’m not suddenly claiming that I believe the Earth is flat… but honestly, it would make a lot more sense to me if it were! Part of me wants to sit outside on my next day off, holding a globe with a big X to mark where I am, and spend the day turning the globe to show exactly where I am (upside down? sideways?) as the time passes, all the while looking up at the sky, just to see if I can feel Earth spinning. My brain is aching from trying to think it all through. I think I’ll ask to teach a different subject when we get through this book. If we get through it…