Wednesday, December 26, 2007

High School Science Appreciation

Back to blogging. With AGU, Holidays, and associated activities over the past 3 weeks I have found almost no time to read, let alone write any blog posts. I've had this idea simmering for a while and thought I might work it out.

I spent the week od the 10-14 of December in San Francisco for the AGU Fall meeting. I had a presentation on Tuesday that went well. In general the meeting was excellent:
1. I had a chance to see many good talks, a few great ones, and a couple dozen interesting posters.
2. I was able to see and catch up with many of my friends who I haven't had a chance to see for a long time.
3. I got to meet and share beer and tapas with fellow geobloggers.
4. I enjoyed many a free glass of Anchor Steam at the afternoon refreshment break (thanks to AGU, err, maybe thanks to my registration fee..)
5. As I mentioned my poster went well, which has inspired me to get it written up into something submittable by the time my boss returns from the field (end of January.)
6. I also had a chance to pop down to my old graduate school department and do a little pro bono technical support on the lab I built while a student. This allowed me to eat Thai food outside in the sun for lunch, something not possible at ESRU.

As I mentioned before I grew up in Sacramento; the cultural, political, and intellectual capital of California. I had not been back to Sacramento for roughly a year and a half, so after AGU I hopped on Amtrak and spent a few days back home. This past year and a half is actually the longest contiguous amount of time I have ever spent out of California. In college I was in the Midwest, but came home for Holidays, etc. So getting back to the Great Valley was very nice (i.e. they don't call it the Great Valley because it sucks.) I saw my folks, some friends, and ate roughly 50 lbs of Mexican food. All of that was excellent.

But what I'd like to blog about is what I did on the Tuesday of my visit. I spent Tuesday visiting my High School Chemistry teacher's class.

First the background. I attended Sacramento High School, a large public high school on the border of a not-so-great neighborhood. Like many schools, it was overcrowded, underfunded, and had it's share of problems. I had some terrible teachers, but I also had quite a few who I considered exceptional. One of my favorites was my Chemistry teacher. My chemistry course was one of the first times I really remember being challenged in a science class. Specifically, my teacher made us think quantitatively about science; in the labs, in the homeworks, in everything. When I took introductory chemistry in college, I actually found it almost entirely review. College chemistry was a breeze, even though I was only a sophomore in high school when I last took chemistry, and it wasn't even an AP course. I even considered the inorganic chemistry that underpins Mineralogy and Petrology quite straightforward. In short, I felt that my high school science teachers, and my chemistry teacher in particular, prepared me exceptionally well for college.

Since then I have obviously become a professional scientist and am in a discipline where I end up using chemistry quite often. I have spent time at many colleges and universities, and have yet to run into better science teachers than I had in high school.

In 2003, my high school was judged to be in such poor shape that it was closed down and turned into a charter school. The politics surrounding the decision to shut down the school and turn it into a charter were rather confusing. For example, Sacramento High was no where near the lowest performing school in the district, and test scores had been improving thanks in large part to an intensive reading skills program, which of course had been discontinued due to lack of funds. The conversion had much more to do with the fact that a wealthy and famous alumnus wanted to use his charitable organization to change the school. The speed with which the rest happened astounded me. As soon as many people heard a famous guy wanted to donate a lot of money and change the school, they jumped on the bandwagon, blaming the school, and more specifically the teachers (or teachers union) for their own children's academic failures. What else could it be? Everyone knows teachers are just in it for the money...remember, those who can do...(worth a watch if you have 3 minutes). Parents love the idea that their child's performance has nothing to do with them.

This burned me up to no end. Why? Well, I have spent time at a small liberal arts college well known for it's teaching, as well as one of the best universities in the world, and have yet to find better science teachers than I had at Sacramento High. I had plenty of good teachers in other disciplines as well, ones that fully prepared me for college. Sure, some teachers were horrible, but that is true at any high school, college, or university. The worst class I ever took in my life (with the worst teacher) was at a well-known university. I consider myself to be academically successful, and I know plenty of other students from both my years and older who were also very successful, doing well in college, and many getting advanced degrees in a variety of fields. So if Sacramento High prepared us well, my position is that it is not necessarily the fault of the teachers that some students don't do well. I don't want to get into that, I am not a sociologist and have little background or authority to speak from. For the purposes of this post, let's just say that many of the best teachers I've ever had were blamed for things they had little control over, and all of their success stories were buried beneath piles of averaged test scores and propaganda. They got a very raw deal. (students got a raw deal as well, because once again the real problems in public education were ignored while the mobs hunted down the easy targets.) People who had spent decades developing their courses, helping students, and dealing with exceedingly tough situations were turned into the bad guys, offered non-union jobs or sent packing. My Chemistry teacher was told how little she cared for her students, how uninterested she was in their education, and how she was just in it for the easy money. Years later, for all of the big talk the charter school proponents spewed, for all of the talk shows the famous alumni has appear on spouting off all of his greatness, turns out it isn't working so hot. Sure, grades are inflated, but the school serves a much smaller community, and the "improvements" seem to be primarily relegated to PR campaigns and empty statements... But I digress.

The whole event really pissed me off. In addition to spreading pure lies about many of the staff, I felt it was a great insult to those of us who had succeeded academically. Off the top of my head, I know of 5 Ph.D's, a J.D., a dozen M.S or M.A, and scores more who did well in college and have excellent careers - just from my year and my older brother's year alone. At least in my experience, the students who worked hard did well, the ones who cut, didn't do their homework, and didn't care about school did not. I know it isn't always that easy, but my point is that students who wanted to do well had the opportunities. I thought about this a great deal while I was putting together the acknowledgments section of my thesis, and decided to try to get in touch with my Chemistry teacher. It turned out not to be too tough to find her, even though she had of course changed schools in the interim. I wrote her an email updating her on what I'd done since high school, and thanking her for providing such an excellent scientific role model. I've had many scientific role models in my life (my parents and brother to name 3), but she was certainly one of them.

Turns out public high school teachers don't get letters like this very often. She seemed touched and we ended up sending a few emails back and forth about how things have been. I was interested to hear her side of the high-school-shut-down debacle, which only bolstered my negative view of the event (turns out in addition to rampant grade inflation, they cut the number of students from 2200 when I was there to 800 now, why they couldn't address overcrowding without shutting it all down is anyone's guess.) She also asked if the next time I came to Sacramento I'd mind speaking to her classes. So I did.

It was great to see her, and I actually remembered the lesson she was teaching, chemical nomenclature (I also remember not doing all that well this exam.) I was really impressed by how I was received by the students. I had 15 or 20 minutes at the end of the classes, and all 5 classes were very polite and respectful, a reflection I believe on the rapport the teacher has with the students. They asked questions, came up to me after class for follow-ups, and seemed really into it. My basic message was that there are a lot of great careers in science, and this class is excellent preparation for those careers. I also hammered home how lucky they were to have this teacher; how the class was difficult, but well worth it. Who knows, in total I talked to 130 or 150 kids, if 1 or 2 take the message to heart, that would be excellent. Who knows, at that age I wouldn't have had "geologist" on my top 50 potential jobs list, maybe I planted the thermochronic bug.

The main reason I wanted to blog about this is to point out how simple reconnecting was, and how much it meant to my teacher. At least in the US, public school teachers are increasingly asked to take on more and more responsibilities for less pay and even less respect. Like when I was in school, many of the kids they have in class come from difficult backgrounds, and have few other invested adults in their lives. Funding is terrible - the chemistry class I visited had no hot water or gas, and the teacher spent her own money to buy hot plates and balances - and the only results that seem to matter anymore are meaningless test scores and average inflated grades. Teachers are blamed for everything, but are rarely acknowledged for their "success" stories.

Perhaps you never had great high school science teachers, but if you did, I think it is well worth an hour of time to find and thank them. They will be thrilled. My teacher still remembered me 15 years out, she still remembered my classmates, and even had pictures of us on a bulletin board in the back of the room. She reads my original letter to her classes every year; many of the students I talked to remembered the letter, which is poster by her door.

For anyone interested, the basic outline of my email was:

Dear Ms. Urlacher,

I just finished my PhD in geology and am about to start a post doc.
You were a very influential teacher for me, and helped me decide I wanted to be a scientist.
Your class taught me a great deal, and made college chemistry a breeze.
I hope you are doing well.

Thermochronic (class of 1994)

But of course her name wasn't Ms. Urlacher, the letter was 2 pages long, and I didn't write it in bullet points, but you get the point. This could be turned into a sort of holiday, National Thank-A-High-School-Teacher Day, to be commemorated during the week after Christmas when teachers are gearing up for their second semester. I suppose it could be expanded into thank a teacher day, if your high school wasn't blessed with superb teachers like mine was.

As you can tell, I am inherently wary of charter schools, especially those with blaring PR campaigns who slander hard working and dedicated teachers. I've heard the entire Sac Hi debacle will soon the the focus of a post over at Metcaffeination, which I am sure will be more detailed. Stay tuned.


Andrew said...

Bravo, bravo, bravo!!!

Daniel Petta said...

Hey Jim, thanks for the post, nice to see that you were able to reconnect with some Sac High history. I had some really good teachers there and even *gulp* Sac City which I'll remember always.

Hope you Christmas was good, probably a nice break from back east huh?


Thermochronic said...


Thanks for mentioning that, turns out one of the questions I got asked a few times was "how do I get into BWRU for undergrad?" What I wanted to say was "don't waste your money." Not that it is a bad place, but if your interest is actually in learning things, it seems that there are many places where you can do that, and focusing so much on a big name place, especially at first, is a little bit of a misdirection. My graduate program had people from all kinds of colleges/universities, they all succeeded academically, many of them without a big name behind their degree.

Oh, and I have no idea who "Jim" is, my name is Thermochronic, and I am completely anonymous.

Although I was telling the story the other night about our New Year's Eve walking tour of downtown Sacramento Bars. Good times.