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Sunday, July 26, 2015

See what I found tucked away my document storage!

From a Teacher’s Diary – September 1967

Come into the Garden, Maude…………….

   Drawing by Antonia Bottinelli             Age 9   (Used with Antonia’s permission )

(Note: I left my classroom teaching position in the summer of 1967 to work as science advisor to the 365 public elementary schools in the Leicestershire Education Authority. My role focused on promoting, encouraging and supporting teachers’ classroom science. This journal entry was made in the early summer of 1967, at the end of an environmental education workshop with forty teachers.)

September 1967 - At the end of one of my pond-dipping workshops at Foxton Field Study Centre, we put our microscopes and white dishes to one side and talked about what we had discovered throughout the day. The conversation soon shifted to what was and what wasn’t going on in their classrooms Some, I knew, were comfortable teaching science, some weren’t.

One teacher, sitting at the back of the room, told me and the class what happened when she asked her 7 year olds to draw a garden worm. A little girl, with wide questioning eyes, put up her hand and said: "I've never seen a worm. How big are they? Are they like snakes?”  

The other teachers smiled – and I was reminded of the story I heard somewhere of the young boy who was flabbergasted when he saw a cow being milked on his first-ever visit to the farm. His only experience with milk was in bottles delivered on his doorstep by the milkman each morning.

This isn't so surprising, is it, when you think about it? If you live in a high-rise apartment building you don't have many encounters with worms or cows. But so what? Would it matter if our children grew up not knowing about cows and worms? What relevance have the lives and activities of cows and worms to the urban child who lives in a concrete environment? And, taking this further, does it matter that adults view many small creatures with distaste and pass on their prejudices to their children? After all, isn’t it true that smoldering beneath the surface of many of us are hostile attitudes to nature. Which one of us hasn't trapped and killed a mouse, stepped on a snail, crushed a spider, or swatted a fly?

Well, I think it does matter. Isn't it important that all children have an opportunity to experience the natural world first-hand and to learn about familiar living things that share the world with us? As teachers, shouldn't we provide the children in our care with the opportunity to discover the natural world for themselves, to learn to enjoy it and to appreciate our dependence upon it? Won't that subsequently encourage them to care for it?

For many teachers of young children, nature  (creepy crawlies, birds, rocks, fossils, for example) is an invaluable aid for educational purposes, an inspiration for discussion, science, language, art, music, and writing. They know that outside the door is a huge outdoor classroom, a place to learn about and to learn in. It needn't be a dense woodland, rich meadow, pond or clear mountain stream (they help, though!). A schoolyard, however sterile, is home to a myriad of interesting small animals. Turn over a brick and you find woodlice, slugs and snails. Standing in silky webs are spiders, hiding under dead leaves are earwigs, centipedes and millipedes. Lurking inside cracks in the wall are tiny beetles. Small animals have big life histories and are easy to keep for short periods of time. A friend of mine, a professional biologist, kept a small colony of woodlice in a tobacco tin for a few days, dropping in the occasional damp dead leaf for food. Not, of course, by any stretch of the imagination,  a recommended way of keeping small creatures, but it does show what is possible.

If we create appropriate classroom homes for small creatures, think of what our children could learn from observing creepy crawlies at close range. Woodlice, for example, would be ideal creatures to keep in the classroom. They’re easy to find and they’re so interesting!  Female woodlice mature when they are about two years old and rear their young in a brood pouch under their bodies. When the offspring are ready to emerge, the female stands still, and stretches her front legs out stiffly so that the young can crawl down to the ground. And snails! What wonderful creatures they are, and so easy to keep for a few days. As are spiders, and worms, and millipedes and slugs………………………….

If children are encouraged to find, watch, and understand how small creatures live, won't it help them learn to live in harmony with nature and appreciate living things? And, important for us teachers, doesn't a worm or a spider give us so many ways of developing classroom skills?

Try it and watch how it impacts the children!  And your classroom!!   

John Paull  1967        

Saturday, July 25, 2015

'I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.’ Albert Einstein

'I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.’ Albert Einstein .............of course!! :) Thank you, Albert!

Having had a very early breakfast and done an hour or so feeding the birds, saying hello to the magpies, jays, squirrels, deer and rabbits, stroking Molly the neighbor's cat, chatting with Bertie and Fiona, picking weeds and watering the thirsty potted plants on both decks,  I'm sitting on the deck with my well-earned second round of tea (fourth cup, actually).................and I'm looking in awe at the view of the open countryside and the nearby trees, listening to the birds and staring at the beautiful blue sky.

Then, the thought occurred: hey, put your curiosity questions on your blog!! Why not?

So, here goes, here's what's in my mind this morning:

  • A small house finch is hopping around on the deck, checking out what's there. S/he ignores the water in the bowl and isn't interested in the sunflower seed. My, it really has the sharpest beak! Ooops, it's gone - nothing appealed to it. What was it looking for?
  • Meanwhile, there's another little red chested guy way up on top of the olive tree, looking down at me and talking its head off. Whatever is it saying? Is it talking to me? Oooh, it's just been joined by the most beautiful yellow chested bird...............they're staring at each other, but not uttering a sound. Are they friends? Sure hope so.
  • The morning glory flowers are so beautiful - deep purple with five black stripes - what a contrast to the dominant, very tall, bright yellow sunflowers. They're all facing the rising sun and swaying gently in the breeze. Why are the sunflowers so tall? They sure need more water each day than I drink!
  • Oooh, there's a kestrel hovering above, looking for its brekkie! (Seeing a kestrel always reminds me of my dad........his favorite bird). Wow! There it goes, swooping down. Wonder what it saw? My, oh, my. They have incredible eye sight!! I wonder how far they can see? Do they have good hearing, too? I wonder what their preferred breakfast is? A vole? Snake?
  • All the beautiful, towering olive trees........they've been here such a long time and, no doubt, seen a lot.........I wonder what they think of what they see, feel and hear today? They don't seem to mind the heat and I never water them. Should I?

Saturday, July 4, 2015

An interesting BBC article on the A Bomb.....

Given my long time friendship with David Hawkins and, through him, with Philip Morrison, both of whom were part of the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos during the second world war, I was intrigued to read this article in the BBC magazine today.
Was H.G.Wells the first one to think of the atomic bomb?

The atom bomb was one of the defining inventions of the 20th Century. So how did science fiction writer HG Wells predict its invention three decades before the first detonations, asks Samira Ahmed.
Imagine you're the greatest fantasy writer of your age. One day you dream up the idea of a bomb of infinite power. You call it the "atomic bomb".
HG Wells first imagined a uranium-based hand grenade that "would continue to explode indefinitely" in his 1914 novel The World Set Free.
He even thought it would be dropped from planes. What he couldn't predict was how a strange conjunction of his friends and acquaintances - notably Winston Churchill, who'd read all Wells's novels twice, and the physicist Leo Szilard - would turn the idea from fantasy to reality, leaving them deeply tormented by the scale of destructive power that it unleashed.
The story of the atom bomb starts in the Edwardian age, when scientists such as Ernest Rutherford were grappling with a new way of conceiving the physical world.
The idea was that solid elements might be made up of tiny particles in atoms. "When it became apparent that the Rutherford atom had a dense nucleus, there was a sense that it was like a coiled spring," says Andrew Nahum, curator of the Science Museum's Churchill's Scientists exhibition.

HG Wells in 1944

Wells was fascinated with the new discoveries. He had a track record of predicting technological innovations. Winston Churchill credited Wells for coming up with the idea of using aeroplanes and tanks in combat ahead of World War One.
The two men met and discussed ideas over the decades, especially as Churchill, a highly popular writer himself, spent the interwar years out of political power, contemplating the rising instability of Europe.
Churchill grasped the danger of technology running ahead of human maturity, penning a 1924 article in the Pall Mall Gazette called "Shall we all commit suicide?". In the article, Churchill wrote: "Might a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings - nay to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke?"
This idea of the orange-sized bomb is credited by Graham Farmelo, author of Churchill's Bomb, directly to the imagery of The World Set Free.
By 1932 British scientists had succeeded in splitting the atom for the first time by artificial means, although some believed it couldn't produce huge amounts of energy.
But the same year the Hungarian emigre physicist Leo Szilard read The World Set Free. Szilard believed that the splitting of the atom could produce vast energy. He later wrote that Wells showed him "what the liberation of atomic energy on a large scale would mean".
Szilard suddenly came up with the answer in September 1933 - the chain reaction - while watching the traffic lights turn green in Russell Square in London. He wrote: "It suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbed one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction."

Illustration of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction

In that eureka moment, Szilard also felt great fear - of how a bustling city like London and all its inhabitants could be destroyed in an instant as he reflected in his memoir published in 1968: "Knowing what it would mean - and I knew because I had read HG Wells - I did not want this patent to become public."
The Nazis were on the rise and Szilard was deeply anxious about who else might be working on the chain reaction theory and an atomic Bomb. Wells's novel Things To Come, turned into a 1936 film, The Shape of Things to Come, accurately predicted aerial bombardment and an imminent devastating world war.
In 1939 Szilard drafted the letter Albert Einstein sent to President Roosevelt warning America that Germany was stockpiling uranium. The Manhattan Project was born.

Szilard and several British scientists worked on it with the US military's massive financial backing. Britons and Americans worked alongside each other in "silos" - each team unaware of how their work fitted together. They ended up moving on from the original enriched uranium "gun" method, which had been conceived in Britain, to create a plutonium implosion weapon instead.
Szilard campaigned for a demonstration bomb test in front of the Japanese ambassador to give them a chance to surrender. He was horrified that it was instead dropped on a city.
In 1945 Churchill was beaten in the general election and in another shock, the US government passed the 1946 McMahon Act, shutting Britain out of access to the atomic technology it had helped create. William Penney, one of the returning Los Alamos physicists, led the team charged by Prime Minister Clement Atlee with somehow putting together their individual pieces of the puzzle to create a British bomb on a fraction of the American budget.

Leo Szilard

"It was a huge intellectual feat," Andrew Nahum observes. "Essentially they reworked the calculations that they'd been doing in Los Alamos. They had the services of Klaus Fuchs, who [later] turned out to be an atom spy passing information to the Soviet Union, but he also had a phenomenal memory."
Another British physicist, Patrick Blackett, who discussed the Bomb after the war with a German scientist in captivity, observed that there were no real secrets. According to Nahum he said: "It's a bit like making an omelette. Not everyone can make a good one."
When Churchill was re-elected in 1951 he "found an almost complete weapon ready to test and was puzzled and fascinated by how Atlee had buried the costs in the budget", says Nahum. "He was very conflicted about whether to go ahead with the test and wrote about whether we should have 'the art and not the article'. Meaning should it be enough to have the capability… [rather] than to have a dangerous weapon in the armoury."
Churchill was convinced to go ahead with the test, but the much more powerful hydrogen bomb developed three years later worried him greatly.
HG Wells died in 1946. He had been working on a film sequel to The Shape of Things To Come that was to include his concerns about the now-realised atomic bomb he'd first imagined. But it was never made.
Towards the end of his life, says Nahum, Wells's friendship with Churchill "cooled a little".
"Wells considered Churchill as an enlightened but tarnished member of the ruling classes." And Churchill had little time for Wells's increasingly fanciful socialist utopian ideas.
Wells believed technocrats and scientists would ultimately run a peaceful new world order like in The Shape of Things To Come, even if global war destroyed the world as we knew it first. Churchill, a former soldier, believed in the lessons of history and saw diplomacy as the only way to keep mankind from self-destruction in the atomic age.
Wells's scientist acquaintance Leo Szilard stayed in America and campaigned for civilian control of atomic energy, equally pessimistic about Wells's idea of a bold new scientist-led world order. If anything Szilard was tormented by the power he had helped unleash. In 1950, he predicted a cobalt bomb that would destroy all life on the planet.

Protest at Aldermaston

In Britain, the legacy of the Bomb was a remarkable period of elite scientific innovation as the many scientists who had worked on weaponry or radar returned to their civilian labs. They gave us the first commercial jet airliner, the Comet, near-supersonic aircraft and rockets, highly engineered computers, and the Jodrell Bank giant moveable radio telescope.
The latter had nearly ended the career of its champion, physicist Bernard Lovell, with its huge costs, until the 1957 launch of Sputnik, when it emerged that Jodrell Bank had the only device in the West that could track it.
Nahum says Lovell reflected that "during the war the question was never what will something cost. The question was only can you do it and how soon can we have it? And that was the spirit he took into his peacetime science."
Austerity and the tiny size of the British market, compared with America, were to scupper those dreams. But though the Bomb created a new terror, for a few years at least, Britain saw a vision of a benign atomic future, too and believed it could be the shape of things to come.

Aren't Bonzai trees so beautiful...........

Today's walk through gateway Mesa was a real treat...........I was so taken by the great variety of lichens that covered the beautiful rocks............and the fir trees that had established a living spot in the cracks.

If I've go this right, lichen ( a cooperative blend of fungus and algae) produce a liquid that dissolves rock...........just enough for them to make a home. Then, over the years, as the dirt gathers in the tiny holes and the winter ice expands and makes the cracks bigger, there's enough growing material for a tree seed to germinate.

And, hey, lo and behold, we see little dwarf trees looking as if they are growing happly in their own private space :)

Two articles of interest for teachers.........

In Today's Guardian (UK) newspaper:

Teachers in England are seeing unprecedented levels of school-related anxiety, stress and mental health problems among pupils of all age groups and abilities, particularly around test or exam time, according to a new report.
Children aged 10 or 11 are said to be “in complete meltdown”, in tears, or feeling sick during tests, and problems can be made worse by their competitive parents, according to the Exam Factories? report commissioned by the National Union of Teachers and conducted independently by Merryn Hutchings, emeritus professor at London Metropolitan University.
Teachers complain that low achievement at tests or exams is resulting in low motivation and low self-esteem. One secondary school teacher at an unnamed school said “self-harming is rife” at key stage 4 (14- to 16-year-olds) and reported that a pupil was hospitalised for three months in a psychiatric ward following a suicide attempt, another nearly starved herself to death and numerous other students “suffered from symptoms that are on the questionnaires that the NHS uses to diagnose depression”.
The report looks at how tests, exams, Ofsted inspections and other “accountability measures” are affecting schools. It includes responses from a survey of nearly 8,000 teachers, case studies of heads, other teachers (not all NUT members) and children, and a review of research and other literature.
Hutchings said: “The problems are caused by increased pressure from tests/exams, [children’s] greater awareness at younger ages of their own ‘failure’, and the increased rigour and academic demands of the curriculum.
“The increase in diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) has been shown to be linked to the increase in high-stakes testing. Thus it appears that some children are being diagnosed and medicated because the school environment has become less suitable for them, allowing less movement and practical work, and requiring them to sit still for long periods.”
Christine Blower, the NUT general secretary, said: “The findings about the experiences and concerns of children and young people are shocking and sometimes upsetting.
“The study exposes the reduction in the quality of teacher-pupil interaction, the loss of flexibility and lack of time for teachers to respond to children as individuals, the growing pressure on children to do things before they are ready, and the focus on a narrower range of subjects.”
The NUT has been at odds with successive governments over testing, exams and inspections for 25 years but the findings on children’s health may strike a more sympathetic chord among politicians this time.
A number of other reports in recent years have raised concerns about the increasing pressure children feel. ChildLine has reported big increases in school and education-related issues and Lucie Russell, director of campaigns at charityYoung Minds, said in response to Hutchings’ findings that many of those the charity worked with “said that they feel completely defined by their grades and that is very detrimental to their wellbeing and self-esteem”.
Russell said: “We have to question the role of schools in relation to developing well-rounded, confident young people.”
Ofsted has never reported on pupils’ mental health since it was established in the mid-1990s, although ministers across health and education departments have become increasingly worried about the issue.
The Department for Education said: “No one should be stressed out by exams, which is why we have scrapped modules and January assessments so young people are only entered for tests when they are truly ready.
“We are also investing in mental health services helping schools provide counselling services and support for pupils with mental health needs. This is alongside almost £5m funding for projects dedicated to helping children and young people with mental health issues.”

And a letter in today's NYT:

To the Editor:
In “No Teachers Are Required for Grading Common Core” (news article, June 23)we have final confirmation on the state of the teaching profession today. We prepare our teachers poorly in programs that are rarely rigorous and almost never useful to the practitioner; we pay them far less than what other professionals make while simultaneously requiring them to obtain more and more specialized degrees; we tell teachers that we will evaluate them fairly based on standardized test results from students; and now we hire former wedding planners to grade those tests so we can rate those teachers.
Doesn’t anyone recognize the insanity of public education these days? How can we make the claim that teaching at any level is a profession when there is every indication that our public policy treats it in such an insulting fashion?
It is small wonder the most accomplished students from the college ranks predominantly seek other avenues of employment. Can you imagine doctors having their performance be judged on some standard operation, a dubious premise to begin with, and then have the results be evaluated by — what — truck drivers? I happen to love truck drivers, and I know they would be the first to tell us they don’t want to rate doctors or have doctors rate them, so why is it O.K. for teachers?
Of course it’s always the money, isn’t it? Maybe we think: Anyone can teach. That may be true, but anyone can do surgery, too, except the trick is that you are supposed to heal patients, not harm them. Great teachers heal, and we treat them like dirt.
Princeton, Mass.
The writer has been a teacher, a dean and a headmaster.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Hey, if you're a teacher - or if your not - you'll want to read 'Kestrel for a knave' by Barry Hines.

I don't know how or why the thought got in my head, but about a week ago, sitting around thinking about this and that and the other,  I remembered the book and the film from the late 60s, 'Kestrel for a knave', by Barry Hines.

Sure enough, when I checked, there was a copy in my library shelves, and, believe it or not, when I went on my laptop, I discovered the film is on YouTube. So, the very same day, I reread the book and watched the film on my computer.

The story focuses on a boy, Billy Casper,  who, says the blurb, has 'nowhere to go and nothing to say; part of the limbo generation of school leavers too old for lessons and too young to know anything about the outside world. He hates and is hated. His family and friends are mean and tough and they're sure he's going to end up in big trouble. But Billy knows two things about his own world. He'll never work down the mines and he does know about animals. His only companion is his kestrel hawk, trained from the nest, and, like himself, trained but not tamed, with the will to destroy or to be destroyed.'

I won't spoil it if you haven't seen it, but I will urge you to take a look at the film. It's captivating! And easy to find on YouTube.

As the review says, 'This in not just another book about growing up in the north of England - it's as real as a slap in the face to those who think that orange juice and comprehensive schools have taken the meanness out of life in the raw working towns.'

When I watched it, the main character, Billy, reminded me of Tiger, the 14 year old who made me realize that my early science teaching style was, well, scabby, to say the least.

Here's the piece about Tiger from my memoir:

Thank you, Tiger!
My teacher wake-up call…….

Long ago, in September, 1963, in fact, I started my first teaching job. I didn’t have a formal interview for the position. Heading home in the train for the Easter break in my last year at college, I happened to share a compartment with Mr. Elvet Thomas, one of my teachers when I was in grammar School, and, now, the newly appointed headmaster of Trinity Fields Secondary School in Stafford.

He said he was looking for a science teacher – did I want the job? Mmm, yes, yes, please, Mr. Thomas! Thank you, thank you, thank you, Sir!!

Thus, without further ado, I was appointed as a science teacher at Trinity Fields. The school, like all secondary modern schools of the time, was for students aged between 11 and 15, all of whom had failed the national 11+ examination, [1]and thus seen to be undeserving of an academic education.

The day before school started for the new academic year, I was given my teaching responsibilities. I was Form Teacher for 1C, which meant, I was told, that I took the morning register for attendance, checked who wanted school lunch, and met with the class again before  dismissal at the end of the day.

After taking my class to morning school assembly, I was to teach the bottom classes in each of the four years (1C, 2C, 3C and 4C). The Head of the Science Department gave me the textbook, pointing out the science topics I was to cover. “Not to worry,” he said. “When they take the Leaving Test at 15, only mathematics, reading and writing are tested. It’s a pity but science isn’t considered that important. Nevertheless, make it good, John Paull, make it interesting.”

The following day I began my teaching career. Well, teaching is perhaps too grand a word. It would be more honest to say that I began to be paid for standing daily in front of loads of bored adolescents, opening a well-thumbed science text book - then, scribbling key science words on the blackboard to be copied into their science notebooks. I didn’t know how to make science interesting.

My science-teaching pattern was straightforward. The kids came in, I welcomed them, they took their seats, opened their science journals, and waited as I read from the science textbook. I then wrote the key science information on the board and the pupils, using their best handwriting, copied my notes. Nothing to it, really.

What follows. then, is is the description of one significant thing that happened during my first and very challenging year, especially with Class 3C.

TIGER            Thirteen year-old Tiger always sat alone at the back of the science lab. As he was always looking for trouble (and he was really good at finding it), he was, to put it mildly, a pain in the ***.  Tiger made my Class 3C science lessons a joke. School didn’t interest him and my science didn’t engage him. His dad had told him that he’d have a job with him as a bricklayer on the building sites when he was 15, so, hey, why should he ‘do his best’ in school?  What was the point of it all?

My monthly science topics certainly didn’t interest Tiger. Well, to be honest, they didn’t interest me very much, either. When I read from the science textbook about Gases, or, Density, Tiger would roll his eyes, run his fingers through his greasy hair, scratch his head, and interfere with anyone sitting close to him. His science notebook was filled with dirty pictures and rude scribbles. Occasionally, on his really bad days, especially when it was raining outside, Tiger would shout that he was fed up with school and very fed up with boring science.
‘Science is borin’…..flippin’ borin’

Nothing I did in my science lessons (which, to be honest, wasn’t much) made any connection to Tiger’s life experience or appealed to his sense of curiosity. The science I read from the textbook was irrelevant to his world – especially, I suppose, the way I presented it. To be honest, the science didn’t interest anyone in the class, including me.

Most of the boys and girls did, though, sit politely through each lesson. They spent their time scribbling and drawing in their science writing books, often whispering to each other, probably gossiping about Tiger. The boys, though, waited for Tiger to stir the pot.

The days, weeks and months dragged by.

In the first week of spring thank goodness, the miracle of miracles happened - a big, BIG change for the better came over my teaching. Tiger, of all people, and a small garden spider, were my divine inspirations.
Walking back from shopping for the weekend food, I spotted the most beautiful orb-web spider sitting in her intricate silky web in the black currant bush outside the steps leading to my flat. Surprised to see one so early in the year, I fetched a jar, popped her inside, and took her upstairs.

The spider reminded me of when I was a kid when my dad and I found some garden spiders in a cluster of webs at the back of our house. I kept two or three of them in a jam jar tucked under the bed – quickly learning that you don’t keep spiders together as they eat each other. Looking after the survivor was really fascinating, though. Keeping her safe and well fed with flies and moths made me feel good, especially when she deposited an egg sac for me on her silky web. Later, I released the babes and the mother back to the garden which, really, was their best home – much better than a jam jar.

I took the spider to school the following Monday, put her in a large bell jar with a little soil, some greenery, a branch, and a couple of small silverfish insects. I set the spider home on a small table at the back of the science laboratory, out of direct sunshine.

The following day, I was thrilled when I saw a silk egg sac dangling from near the center of the spider’s orb web. Smiling, and thinking back to when I was a kid, I knew it was going to be a dead good day. Sensing the spider was hungry, I found another small silverfish darting around the base of my desk, unscrewed the top of the spider home, and, with apologies to the poor little thing, put the small creature on the web. Immediately, the spider came running towards her prey. I sat and watched, fascinated by the process, until Tiger’s class came through the door, breaking the atmosphere by noisily throwing their satchels under their stools.

Here we go, I thought. Sorry, spider, I gotta go. I got up quickly, pushing the spider home to one side. The kids were ready for yet another particularly dull science lesson (all chalk and talk, then reading and writing, and no ‘hands-on’ science investigation). They looked bored before I even started.

Then Tiger came through the door, late. He had a real mean look on his face. Crikey, I thought to myself, I think I’m in for a real treat today! When I asked him where he’d been, Tiger stared at the floor, kicked a piece of scrap paper, and mumbled he’d been sent to the Headmaster’s office because, he said, “I was caught looking frew a dirty book, sir. ‘fore school started. Not fair.”

Smirking, I felt nosey – I wanted to know more about what had happened. “Who caught you?’ I asked, thinking ‘Tiger, serve you right!’ Tiger’s tone changed, and he looked across the room at me, and shouted loudly:

Mr. Jelbert, you know, Mr. Paull, P.E. teacher, he looks at us lads in the yard through his ‘scope from the class upstairs. He saw me. Looking at pictures. You know. Dirty pictures. Weren’t my book, though, Mr. Paull. It’s Fatty White’s. ’E shows me every day.  It’s them pictures I try to draw in me science book. Now Mr. Thomas has it. Fatty’ll murder me. I’ve got to go back to the boss’s office after school. And I’ll get whacked. I’ll get six, I know I will.”

Looking sulky and angry, Tiger turned and went to his usual spot at the back of the classroom, close to where I’d put the spider.
The class was more restless than usual. And now, I thought, I have to teach, well, read about the science of carbon dioxide.

Thank you, Tiger.

As I was writing on the blackboard, asking the pupils to open up their journals and copy my notes, there was a loud shout of “CHRIST! Friggin’ ‘ell!” from the back of the room. Startled, I looked across the lab. Everyone in class turned their heads to see what was going on. What did we see? Tiger, of course! There was Tiger, standing up and pointing his index finger and thumb at the bell jar. The sulky look had gone. His eyes were wide open.

‘F*#  ‘ell! Look! Mr. Paull, Mr.Paull, there’s a spider ‘ere! It’s killing a creepy-crawly! It’s f*^** killing it! Look!!!”  I raised my hand. ”Tiger, that’s enough! Watch your language!”

” Mr. Paull, Mr. Paull, I can’t f*ing believe it. Look at THAT! The spider, f*+** great!!”

Tight-lipped, I told him to sit down, leave the spider alone, and get out his science journal. NOW!!

Tiger totally ignored me. The spider eating her lunch, of course, was, for Tiger, far more interesting than my science -reading lesson. I turned to the class, and tried to settle everyone down. “C’mon. Everybody! Never mind Tiger. He’s just having a moment. Get on with your writing. C’mon everybody, it’s no big deal.”

Yeah, right! Of course it was a big deal! Tiger swearing loudly was much more captivating than my science-reading and writing lesson for the class. “Wassup wiv Tiger, Mr.Paull?” asked Michael, suppressing a giggle. Turning to the rest of the class, he said, ‘“’e sick or summat?”  Everyone laughed. That did it – everyone now was restless. I had no choice but to give in. “Go on, then, everyone, take a look. Two at a time. Go and see what Tiger’s getting excited about – go and see what’s in the jar – then get back to your seats.”

They didn’t need telling twice. Everyone rushed to join Tiger at the back of the room He pointed to the jar which got everyone chattering excitedly about the spider – excited chatter was something I had never heard in one of my science lessons. “Ain’t never seen a spider like that! What is it? Wos it doin’?” asked one pupil.

One of the girls, Diane, said the spider was so beautiful. “Can I look at it, sir? Please? Can I get a maggy glass from the drawer?” she asked.  I thought for a moment. Why not? Sounds like a god idea. T’is science time, after all. I nodded. Diane fetched a magnifying glass and peered through it. “It’s great.” She looked up at me. “ Can I draw it, sir? Please? In me science book?”

Of course.” I said.  “Use your pencil, not your pen. Oh, don’t, though, draw it in your science book. That’s for science. Here, there’s a piece of scrap-paper on my desk you can use!” Dianne looked at me, and asked, drily, “Aren’t spiders science, Mr. Paull?” “’Course, Dianne” I replied. “Sorry. Do it, drawing, oh, go on, put it in your science journal.” Then the teacher bit in me added, “Don’t forget to put the date at the top…..”

The idea caught on and a few more of the class said they wanted to draw the spider, sitting in her web, clasping the poor silverfish. Defeated, I told everyone to close the science textbooks. “Draw the spider, go on, everyone! In your journals.”

Tiger did not draw the spider in his journal, though. He sat very still, ignoring me and everyone else, eyes staring at the jar, watching the spider, mesmerized.  

The science hour went by quickly, every minute focused on looking at the spider and swapping stories about spiders they’d seen around the backs of their homes.

Tiger stayed behind after class for a few minutes, and, with a warm grin and an impish twinkle in his eye, asked me where I’d found the spider. When I told him, he said,  The spider’s great, sir, ain’t it great? You like ‘em? Spiders? They’re brill, ain’t they?” He looked up at me. “Sorry I swore, sir, sorry. Won’t do it again. ‘Onest!! Sorry I din’t do anyfing in me science book. Can’t draw, anyway, you know. Scabby drawer.”
“Well,” I said, using a quiet voice, “I think you can draw, Tiger, but the pictures you draw in your science book are rude, you know.” Tiger smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and then said he was going to get some spiders of his own as soon as he got home. “Good, but now get off to your next class. Don’t be late,” I said. “Oh, and don’t forget to see the Headmaster, Mr. Thomas………….and be sure to give the book back to your friend.”

That night, I couldn’t put the spider episode out of my head. The kids really had a ball, drawing and talking about spiders.

The next day, Tiger was waiting for me, outside the staff room, before school started. He had that  Tiger impish smile on his face again. Hey, Mr. P…………Boss let me off. He believed me. Anyway, it really weren’t my book. Didn’t get whacked.” He took a jam jar out of  his satchel. “Look, Mr. P……….Got some spidos. Found ‘em, Mr. Paull, found ‘em. There were stacks of ‘em. Tiny ‘uns. Babs, I think, ain’t they? I got free or four. Like yours. Can I keep them in the lab, Mr. Paull?  Go on! Can I? Next to yours?” Then, he added: “Found out about ‘em, too, Mr. Paull. My dad knows what they are – they’re Garden Spiders, and they eat flies and stuff!” He looked up at me.  “You know what? You’re ok, Mr. Paull! Sorry, sorry, I swore. Won’t bovver you agen, ‘onest.”

 “Thank you, Tiger, thank you. I appreciate that.” I said. “I’m sorry you swore, too. Come with me. Let’s get some jars for those spiders.” Then, I added, “Hey, no more naked girls in your science book, ok?”

“Promise, no more. I promise.” said Tiger.

We went to the science lab and I gave him four small jars, telling him that spiders can’t live together without paralyzing and eating each other. “Make a home for each one, ok? Quick, now, school’s starting soon. Go to your form room. Oh, and you can tell your class what you know about spiders, ok? Then take them home and set them free, ok?”

When his class came later in the morning for science, Tiger stood sheepishly at the front of the room, by the blackboard, the four jars in front of him. Some of the boys nudged other, curious as to why Tiger was standing at the front.

Tiger held up a jar. He then told a very respectful, quiet, surprised, and very attentive audience what he had learned about spiders. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was fascinated to see how Tiger caught everyone’s attention with his excited, twitchy, body movements. Tiger had at last discovered something in my science period that made him feel that wonderful, inside-your-head glow when the brain is alive and alert. His classmates felt it, too.

“Spiders, “ he said, “ are dead good. Look at this one. It’s a beaut.” He held up one of the jars.
 “Guess what I found out…………Spiders suck their food after they’ve crushed and made  watery…….ain’t only the gals that make silk……..the fella spiders make silk, too, but only when they’re young………..then they stop and go looking for a spider girl-friend. They mate on the web………….sometimes the gals kill and eat the fella………some spiders chase after stuff they want to eat.”

I was taken aback by how much he knew, thinking: “Where did he learn that from, then? All from his dad? It weren’t, for sure, from me in science lessons.” He’d really done his homework. This was Tiger’s golden moment.

Tiger told his audience that, if anyone wanted to watch, he was going to release the spiders and
their eggs in the school garden at lunchtime. “They’re goin’ to die soon, oferwise, y’know, and the eggs will ‘atch soon, right, Mr. Paull?”

When he’d finished, everyone clapped. “Any questions for Tiger?” I asked. The hands went up, and Tiger was asked a million questions, some of which he could answer.

Almost everyone turned up at lunchtime to see Tiger release the spiders.

That night I checked my spider’s identity in a spider book, learning that it was Meta segmentata, a common garden species related to the garden spider. Its courtship routine was different, though. The male, I read, drives off other male suitors, but doesn’t advance towards the female until an insect is caught on the female’s web. Both spiders then move towards the struggling insect. The male’s front legs are larger than the female and he uses them to push the female away from the insect. He then gift-wraps the prey. As the female tucks into her dinner, the male wraps silk around her legs and then mates with her.

The following day, I went to school early in the morning, an hour or so before the official start of the day, and went to the science storeroom. I gathered a box full of bones and mounted spiders and insects, microscopes, racks of test tubes, flasks, and other scientific equipment.  I set them out in the science lab and then rearranged the stools.

When Tiger’s class came through the door, the boys and girls noticed what I had done and looked at my displays of science equipment. “Hey,” said one, “look….look at all this science stuff……..and hey, look, we ain’t sitting alone. He’s put us in groups.” He turned to me.  “Mornin’, sir, this stuff looks great. Can we touch it?”

Tiger showed me a picture he’d drawn at home of the beautiful orb-web spider. “Hey, you did it. You drew your spider. You can draw, see?” I said.  Tiger smiled. “Can I glue it on the cover of my science journal, Mr. Paull?” “OK,” I said, “ but first let me rip out those inappropriate doodles, ok?”

I started off the lesson by pointing to the specimens I’d found in the cupboard and then sharing the spider snippet with everyone. I couldn’t believe the effect it had – the kids were enthralled.

I was very struck with the ensuing class conversations and how the class listened when Tiger had something to say. When talking and learning about spiders, the pupils were very animated, commenting and asking good questions.

“Tomorrow, “ I said, at the end of the lesson (which flew by),  we’ll do that again, ok? See if you have anything that links to our lesson topic, you know, insects and stuff. You don’t have to stand at the front and share. You can share your stuff with me privately, if that’s what you’d rather do. You can draw and write about them in your science journals.” “Great,” said Diane, Like bein’ a proper scientist. S’dead good!” “Oh,” I said, “leave your journals. Let me have a look at them tonight. You’ll get ‘em back in the morning.”

That night, I opened up their journals, the pages of the day filled with spider and insect pictures, facts and questions. Even Tiger’s………….

Hey, it dawned on me.  Why was I such a twerp? I had learned, by sheer luck, what motivated and engaged my most challenging, disruptive pupil: observing and studying a small spider. It was, in fact, an incredible teachable moment. I had learned the importance of arousing curiosity, of engagement…………I had seen HOW students learn best.

The next day, and for days after, kids brought in all sorts to show me, and each other………and, for the first time, I felt like a teacher.

It was THE first ‘Come on, John Paull, be a REAL teacher. Be professional. Earn your pension.’ wake-up call. Now I KNEW how to teach science!!

Well, at least I KNEW how to teach science in a way that I, and my kids, enjoyed.

A life-changing experience, for the better. From Tiger, of all people.

Thank you, Tiger.  Bless your cotton socks. Thank you, spider!!

Extract from:          Through My Eyes – on becoming a teacher. John Paull 2012

[1] The examination, called The Scholarship, was taken by every ten-year old attending a state school in the February month of their last year in Junior School……..those who passed, attended an academically inclined Grammar School, those who didn’t, hard luck.

If you see the film and/or read the book, I think you, too, will agree that Billy and Tiger are from the same peapod.