Friday, March 22, 2013

teaching science to the little girl

[NB: Check the bottom of this post for an update.]

My tiny, timid student Kristi is, presumably, coming to YB this afternoon or evening to sit with me for a two-hour session. She didn't come at all to be with me last week-- not last Tuesday, because she supposedly switched her schedule from Mondays and Tuesdays to Mondays and Thursdays; and not last Thursday, because her mother supposedly suffered a flat tire. I know from personal experience that it takes only a few minutes to get a doughnut onto your car in the event of a flat, so I think this excuse for an absence was bullshit, and I wonder whether Kristi has been avoiding me ever since she sat with me two weeks ago. Being sensitive and easily hurt, she may not have the maturity to sit bravely across the table from me again.

If, by some miracle, she does come for a session today, I'll be ready: I've got my 150 questions to give her (see the above link); I've got a copy of Carl Sagan's Cosmos to get her started on; and I've got a packet composed mostly of the marvelous critical-thinking modules developed by Drs. Joe Lau and Jonathan Chan of the University of Hong Kong. In a few months, I'll have Kristi talking the language of science.

Assuming she takes to science, of course. I have my doubts.

Kristi is, by the way, not unique in her desire to attend TJHSST without explicitly knowing why. We have another student, a reed-thin half-Korean, half-Thai guy named Alexey (not his real name), who is also trying to get into the prestigious science high school for no discernible reason. Alexey says he wishes to become a CEO, so I asked him whether he's begun taking any business-related courses, or whether he plans to join DECA once he's in high school. Alexey's respective answers to these questions were basically "No" and "No idea." He's another one who, despite a weird desire to point himself in a general direction, has no specific notion of what he's doing.

Balancing my frustration and compassion when I deal with such students is difficult: on one hand, I do understand how amorphous a young kid can be about his or her future plans. On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that a kid with a specific desire to attend TJ could have no real notion of (1) what TJ is all about or (2) what s/he plans to do with all that marvelous science education. A vague desire to become a CEO of some sort of company, for Alexey's part, or a vague desire to go to TJ without any obvious interest in science, for Kristi's part, seems a recipe for four wasted years. I truly think that, in both cases, these kids are aiming for TJ mainly because, first, they want to please their parents and, second, the only thing they really understand about TJ is that it's prestigious. While it's better to want to please your parents than to flip them the bird, it's not particularly healthy to buy into the mythology that you should be living out their dreams. And that's the basic mission of childhood, I think: to figure out what you want out of life, and to go for it. Many of us adults don't have that figured.

I rarely teach Alexey these days; he comes to our center mainly for advanced math. But Kristi is another matter. I'll be leading her to water... but can I make her drink?

UPDATE, 11:07PM: Miraculously, Kristi showed up, and we ended up having a very good lesson. I took her through the 150-question packet, had her do an exercise on deductive reasoning after explaining Aristotelian syllogisms to her (she scored 6 out of 10, alas, but we're only at the beginning of this project), got her started on what critical thinking and scientific method might mean, and led her through a few thought experiments (e.g., why do scientists theorize that the moon came from the earth?). Kristi now knows she's got a ton of reading, writing, and video-watching to do; I've loaded her up with Chapter 1 of Sagan's Cosmos, two TED Talk videos, and the first 10 questions of that 150-question set.


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