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MTBoS Mission 1: The Anti-Small Talk

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This is, as the title details, the post for the first MTBoS mission. Dudes, I’m excited. Here’s something I do that no one else in the building does:

I teach sciences and a little math at a small, private school, and our schtick is one-on-one instruction. I get to know all of my students pretty well over the year (or two or three years), but I’m an introvert: small-talk isn’t my thing, especially on the first day. Small-talk isn’t the thing for a lot of my students either, and the first day of class is filled with new teachers asking how their summers went, what classes they’ve had before, what do they like or not like in each subject… it can be draining.

Instead, I shake his/her hand and say, “Nice to meet you! I’m bad at small talk; let’s do a lab, okay? What do you know about diapers?” and I fling a cartoon-printed disposable diaper at the student. I’ve adapted my diaper lab from my public school curriculum to be a diagnostic tool. And I use this on all of my students, science and math.

I take the student to our small science area, where he/she cuts open the diaper and pours out a bunch of the absorbent chemical into a cup. As they add blops of water (“a very scientific amount”) and food coloring and more water, I ask them to describe what they observe. Most are willing to touch the stuff, but some wash their hands more quickly than others. Some want to test the limits of adsorption, but few expect the results from adding salt. Most can come up with uses for an absorbent chemical, but only a couple will try it again at home.

I’m really taking mental notes about their vocabulary, their interaction (and action) levels, whether I have to instruct them on particular steps or if they take some initiative, the kinds of words they’re pulling from previous science classes (“solid” and “osmosis” often come up) and whether they can define those words and put them to work, and just how much oogie-ness they’re willing to put up with. I talk about chemicals and polymers in broad terms, as well as states of matter. I change my comments and questions based on what the student gives back to me. Along the way, I do ask what classes they’ve had before and all of that, but it’s somehow easier to answer when your hands are full of goop and the air is full of cotton particles. All of this helps me plan for future modifications for labs and in-class work.

Especially on the first day, most students are looking for some amount of direction from the teacher. This isn’t really an open-ended lab, as I’m guiding students through it. But there’s no way of messing it up (and if it’s not going the way I expected, I ask them why and test some troubleshooting thinking). I don’t pull out text books and throw equations at them on Day 1, and they learn very quickly that I’m not like most teachers at my school. I also hope that at some level, I’m getting the idea that science can be found in simple things that they take for granted, and that hopefully, they’re more willing to ask about dumb things like diapers.


7 responses »

  1. Nice, very nice. Nothing like filling diapers to ease into a H.S. class. What a great ice breaker and so much better than the traditional time wasters. On a meta note…you have a great way of writing blog posts. I’ll be checking around your blog a little more to see what nuggets and drops of grade 1 and grade 2 treasures I can find. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks!

      I don’t do a lot of little-kid stuff, but have informally in the past. 5 kindergartners running around with slimes was almost as much as I could take, but the rest of the day was also one of my crowning achievements ever.

      Welcome to the game (did you find me via MTBoS?)

  2. Fun post, wwndtd! Welcome to the MTBoS!

  3. I bet I can predict the supper table conversation at their homes that night! You’re right, it might not be an open-ended activity, but it is definitely hands-on. And somehow using diapers adds a bit of playfulness to the activity, unlike, say, a sanitary pad would!

    • I had a college internship at a paper company, working on chemicals in paper towels and toilet paper. The next summer, they offered me another internship in the, uh, feminine supply line. I turned that one down. Yeah, was definitely not a draw for me!

  4. Nice activity. Years ago I gave up on the syllabus, class policies, etc. day one approach. Now we start with math problems right out of the gate. We can take care of that other stuff later. Nothing like a lasting first impression!

    • I also found that a bunch of kids’ schedules changed on Day 1 anyway, so going over the syllabus was almost useless. Plus, I figure if I can entertain them for one chunk of the day, maybe they’ll be more in tune for other classes.


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