Thursday, 15 December 2011

What if... (Seeing the Light) by Judi Steen

Judi Steen says:

I usually write children’s stories. However, given the general heading of Celebrating Science, I decided that this story was one that would be appreciated by adults and really did celebrate science.

Eureka moments are the highlight of a teacher’s life and this story is based various incidents at schools both in the North East of England and in Amsterdam. Most characters are composite but one or two are depicted as their own, unique selves under new names.

What if… (Seeing the Light) by Judi Steen

They were already here.

Struggling to balance two boxes, she juggled keys and heavy bag to reach the lock.
“Morning, Mrs Davies.” said Mr Robson, the caretaker, as he relieved her of the overloaded boxes just in time to prevent the contents from cascading to the ground. “I’ll put these in your room. Coffee’s ready in the staffroom and the head wants a meeting at 8.”

Twenty minutes later she collapsed into a chair, a steaming mug of coffee clutched in her hand. “Well, that’s it, there’s nothing more I can do. If I’m not ready now I never will be. I’ve got Kazim first period and if an Inspector so much as looks in his direction he’ll be off on a rant about light coming from satellites. Just keep them away from me until second period.”

She stared despondently into space hardly hearing the Head as he said. “… remember - it’s a snapshot. I know how well you all teach these children. I also know that the majority of them will be on their best behaviour - enjoy that, it doesn’t happen every day.”

He grinned as he quoted his favourite line, from his favourite, vintage TV series, “And remember people, be careful out there.”

As Mags left the room he stopped her, “Don’t try anything new today – that’s risky with any group. Stick to what you’ve planned – it’s an exciting lesson and you’ve planned it well. You’ve got all the equipment ready?”

She nodded, “You bet. Eight sets, one for each group and two spares. I’ve checked all the batteries this morning and I’ve an extra pack just in case. None of the mirrors are cracked or chipped and I’ve tested all the light boxes.”

“The team know that you’re on supply so they probably won’t even watch a whole lesson.” he reassured her, “And I know what a fantastic job you’re doing. You’ll be fine.” He patted her shoulder then turned to greet the Registered Inspector, who was waiting by the office door.

Half-an-hour later the children filed into the classroom. They were subdued and quiet; homework was collected and the register taken, almost silently. Apart from a whispered ‘yes miss’, there was none of the usual morning chatter. Looking at all the pale faces watching her every move, she drew a deep breath and smiled at the really very nice class, who had to rely on her now.

“It’ll be absolutely fine, it really will.” she promised, echoing the Head’s words.
“But Mrs Davies, what if we get things wrong, or we don’t know something? Won’t the inspectors be angry?” asked a number of children, anxiously.
“No, they certainly won’t.” she stated, “Don’t think that for one minute. It’s not you they’re here to inspect. It’s the school; it’s me and all the other teachers. They want to make sure that we teach you properly, that we keep all the records we should, prepare our lessons well and all sorts of things like that.”

While the children collected the books and files that they would need for the first two lessons of the day, Mags had a quiet word with the classroom assistant.
“You’ll be fine.” Alison told her, “They’re a good class - as long as Kazim doesn’t get a bee in his bonnet - and I’ll make sure he stays on task.”
“I just keep remembering the OFSTED inspection at my last school. It was an absolute nightmare. I was teaching the third group – electricity, switches, light bulbs, when in walks an inspector half way through the lesson. Naturally he hadn’t bothered to read the notes and he thought it was the high achiever’s group. Fail? That would have been a gold medal compared to what he said.”
Alison tried to reassure her, “Well, this time it’s going to be great.”

Mrs Davies turned to the waiting children and managed another smile.
“Good morning everyone – are you all ready to start? Today will have to be mostly me showing you stuff I’m afraid. There’s hardly enough space to breathe in this room never mind do a practical lesson. So, observations and questions today: tomorrow we’re in the workspace and you’ll all be doing practical, exciting experiments. The plan for today is on the board so could you all…”

The door opened, slowly. Her stomach clenched. There was an almost inaudible intake of breath from the children as an inspector edged into the overcrowded classroom.

Thirty-two apprehensive faces stared in silence.

“Could I have a word, Mrs Davies?” he asked quietly, “Would you mind if I came to watch this lesson, instead of the next one? I’m sorry to have to ask but we’ve had to re-arrange things – it often happens with last minute inspections.”

Mags heard him through a long and very narrow tunnel. She smiled confidently back at him. What choice did she have? No - go away? Come and watch the lesson I’ve planned for you. The one you said you’d watch; the all singing, all dancing lesson with prisms and mirrors and light boxes; the one where my brightest children are going to bounce light around corners and measure angles, split light through prisms…

Dimly she heard herself say, “That’s - absolutely fine. It’s very crowded in here though – I don’t think we’ve a spare chair anywhere.”

Turning back to the class, Mags smiled confidently at the somewhat bewildered faces. She took a very deep breath and began the lesson.

As she demonstrated some of the experiments that the children would be doing the next day, she began to relax. The children crowded round the cramped space in front of her desk, so she could show them beams of light in the darkest space she could find. No one over-balanced, no one pushed or shoved or complained about being squashed or not being able to see. Everything worked perfectly. The children she asked to help did so efficiently and no one complained that ‘I didn’t get a go’. Light beams co-operatively reflected and they even managed to measure some of the angles with the huge blackboard protractor.

Her trick of using a small ball to show them how light reflected worked too. The children curbed their excitement and the ball stayed within reach. Mags risked a glance in the direction of the inspector. True to his word he had stayed well out of the way perched on the windowsill at the back of the room. “OK,” she said, “any last questions before the bell rings?”

Hands shot up all over; curious minds had been intrigued by what they had seen. Most of the questions she referred back to the class and for several minutes they had a lively discussion. Then she heard the one voice she’d hoped would stay quiet.

“Yes, but, yes but… Mrs Davies… you got it wrong Miss, cos you aint done the sat’lite. It’s sat’lites send light init.”

Her heart hit the floor and went on going.

“Kazim, when you watched the light bouncing from the mirrors, where did the light start? Can you remember where you first saw the light?”

He nodded.

She waited, “Could you tell everyone where that light came from?”

“Course, Miss. From that box thing init, with th’hole.”

“You’re absolutely right, Kazim, well done…”

But Kazim was in full flow; nothing was going to stand in his way. “Yeah, but it was sat’lite sent light into’t box miss.”

There were cries of protest:
“Oh, Kazim – give it a rest.”
“Not again.”
“It’s NOT satellites…”

At that point, to universal relief, the bell rang. Quietly, children gathered their belongings and went off to their next lesson. The inspector nodded at Mags as he left the room, “That seemed fine.” he said in passing. But his next words were completely unexpected, “Physics isn’t my subject - don’t really like it, don’t really like such young children either. I usually inspect sixth form biology.”

Mags and Alison stared at his retreating back in silence.

Lesson two went like a dream. Once she had explained everything, Mags almost felt she didn’t need to be there. Even the passage through the workspace of three more inspectors, who had lost their bearings, failed to unsettle her. She missed the other faces watching through the window and hardly noticed the Head stopping by to see how she was doing. The children concentrated on their tasks, there was no chattering, just a quietly excited hum of conversation. Yet none of that seemed to matter. All Mags could focus on was what had happened earlier: another inspector in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The morning finally ended. Exhausted, anxious teachers staggered into the staff room and silently munched on sandwiches or salads, hardly tasting them. There came the sound of running footsteps followed by a thunderous knocking on the door. The unfortunate person sitting in the least popular spot nearest the door lumbered up out of the sagging chair and opened the door a crack.

“There is a large notice on the door, and I know you exactly how good you are at reading Jade, so this had better be an emergency.”

There was an instant hubbub of excited voices from the crowd of children in the corridor.

“Well, no, sir, it’s not reeeally an emergency. Not a Proper Emergency, sir. Well, you don’t need ambulances and such…” Jade was hopping from foot to foot by now, “but we NEED Mrs Davies, we need her now – it’s real important and she needs to come right now, before it’s too late. Oh, Mrs Davies, Mrs Davies,” Jade had spotted her across the room and beckoned frantically, “Please, Miss. We need you to come with us - RIGHT NOW.”
“You’ve got to come, Miss.”
“There’s light. There’s light travelling in straight lines – it’s all over the sky Miss.”

Several other excited voices joined in, urging Miss Davies to ‘come and see’. Everyone in the room was grinning.

“I don’t think you can get out of this one, Mrs Davies. Off you go, science teacher par excellence,” said the head as he ushered her out of the door. “Don’t keep Mrs Davies too long you lot. She hasn’t had her lunch yet.”

“No, sir.”
“We won’t sir.”
“Come on Miss. You’ve got to hurry – it might have gone if we don’t hurry.”

The excited children hurried Mrs Davies out into the playground, where most of Year Five were waiting. Sure enough, brilliant rays of sunlight lanced across the heavily clouded, grey sky.
“See, Miss.”
“We told you, Miss, didn’t we.”
“We were right, weren’t we, Mrs Davies.”
“It’s what you’ve been telling us isn’t it? Light comes from the sun, travels in straight lines and ...”

Mrs Davies couldn’t help grinning at the crowd of chattering, excited children who were so delighted that they had persuaded her to come out to see the spectacle. “Yes. Yes, it is what I’ve been teaching you. And you were right to come and get me. It’s brilliant. I love things like this and it’s great that you can see what I’ve been talking about. Isn’t it fantastic – mind, remember - be very careful not to look at the sun.”

“Is this doing science, then Miss?” asked Robbie, who often struggled to understand things.

Mags nodded and hugged him, “It is indeed ‘doing science’ Robbie. Isn’t it wonderful when it all starts to make sense?” She waved her hand across the gloriously obliging sky where the clouds had parted once again. Rays of light shone like spotlights on the houses parading up the hillside, opposite the playground.

“Dah-dah.” crowed a delighted Mags, “Sun. Light. Straight lines.”
“But, this not egs-peri-ment?” queried Nadia, who had only been at the school a few weeks.
“Is it observation then, Mrs Davies?” asked Jak.
Mrs Davies acknowledged a waving hand, “What do you think, Martha?”
Martha nodded, as did several other children.
“Course it is, Miss.” Martha turned to her classmates, “My dad says ‘observation is the difference between looking and seeing’. He has to observe stuff all the time at work, when he’s looking for clues. ”
“That’s just robberies and stuff, init?” demanded Kazim, who had unaccountably joined them.
“Obsvashun - is - looking hard?” Nadia wondered.
“Not just looking hard, Nadia.” Mrs Davies explained. ‘It’s looking hard and thinking hard about what is happening to what you are seeing. Oh, dear, look, the sun’s rays are starting to disappear – and so must I. See you all later.”
“Oh, but Mrs Davies, what about ... Where does… No, HOW does the sun…” Jak began to ask.
“Good question. Sorry Jak, got to go – I need my lunch. Remember what you were going to ask and ask me later in class.”

The scattered spears of light faded and vanished. Rain began to fall and there was chorus of groans from the disappointed children. Mags headed back to the building but, just as she reached the door, excited voices called out and she turned round.

Across the slate grey sky arched the most glorious rainbow.
“It’s like magic, init Miss?”

Startled, Mags turned to find one of the biggest bullies in Year Eight towering over her, grinning like a child at Christmas. He was pointing at the rainbow, “That’s what you was teachin’ us Miss, yeh? That time me and Carl was real bad. Aam sorry Miss, sorry I messed yuh lesson. Aah won’t do it again.”

The eponymous Carl came running across the playground, shouting for his best mate to come back to the football game.

“No. I’m doin’ science with Miss.” stated Sean, red freckles standing out vividly against a very white face, defiant for the very first time.
“Don’t be daft man Sean. Yoose can’t do science in the yard.”
“Look.” was Sean’s response, as he pointed skyward, “There’s light comin’ from the sun. In straight lines. Just like what Miss said. It’s goin’ through the raindrops and makin’ a rainbow.”
Miss was grinning, too. He’d got it. She had despaired of ever teaching him anything, but Sean had finally got it.

Then a familiar voice interrupted; “Yeah, but sat’lites send light…”
“Kazim, yoose should listen to Miss.” Sean pronounced very seriously

Three days later Mags was grinning like a child at Christmas herself. The Head had just finished debriefing the staff about the OFSTED inspection report. Apparently she had ‘...made a boring subject interesting.’ Boring? How could light ever be boring when you had children to teach who thought it was - Magic?

Judi Steen says:
Children want to find out and understand more or less everything. My job, in this instance teaching science to Year 5 at a middle school, was to give them enough information and the relevant tools to grasp the concept of light traveling from a source. It is relatively easy to explain in simple terms that light travels in straight lines but the experience of being with a large group of very excited children who had just had their own eureka moments will live with me forever.

I don’t think anyone will ever be able to disabuse Kazim of his belief that light comes from satellites. Kazim is not Einstein and this fervent conviction stems from a cartoon depicting a lightning bolt zapping towards a planet from – yes, a satellite.

Sadly, these OFSTED inspectors are based very closely on specific characters and the comments are genuine. However, there are, I know, some very good, very sympathetic inspectors around who do an excellent job.

For anyone who would like to see images illustrating the science in this story, I recommend Engineering Interact's sections on reflection and mirrors and light sources and rays

No comments:

Post a Comment