Scientific Inquiry 2014: Investigating Relationships

2010 MISSISSIPPI SCIENCE FRAMEWORK, GRADE 8

Content Strand: INQUIRY: Draw conclusions from scientific investigations including controlled experiments.

Objective 1a: Design, conduct, and analyze conclusions from an investigation that includes using experimental controls.

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Before last year, I had never taught a student with whom I had nearly no way to communicate.  Many of my students have been native Spanish speakers, but I have always been able to do enough of that to get by.  Such wasn’t the case when I met Enigma, my foreign-language student whose real name I have hidden.  Instead, I am substituting the feeling I got whenever I interact with him.  I attempted to look up a name in his language with a similar meaning for this description, but I don’t know enough about those connotations to do so accurately, so you’ll forgive me for giving him an English word for a name.

In many ways, Enigma possessed a physical appearance ideally adapted for an organism trying to blend into its surroundings. He had short hair, slightly slumped frame of medium height, plain worn jeans, a light speckling of some of those facial anomalies that become obsessions in the mirrors of 13 year old boys. A Christopher Reeve-era Superman hoodie over a trendy t-shirt. During break he became the consummate wallflower, propping up the outer edge of the commons at his established post, never budging an inch closer to the commotion. Everyone knew who he was. He was one of the few kids in school who actually didn’t talk.

Communicating with Enigma was a difficult process. First, I had to find a day in which the other students were working diligently, quietly enough for me to sit down with him.  Then, I had to have my iPad handy (and hopefully the school’s wi-fi was working). I opened up Google Translate, found the appropriate settings, and I typed out a simple message. Usually I looked at Enigma, and he just stared back at me.

I raised my eyebrows; he stared.

I shrugged slowly; he stared.

I pointed at the ipad; he stared.

I balled up my fist and made it nod, then I made it shake left and right, as “Yes or No” signals; he stared back. Occasionally he blinked.

I translated “Do you understand?” He smiled and nodded.

“The…” I grunted and pointed at the previous message. He cracked the slightest of a smile.

“You DO, don’t you?!” I exclaimed, and tapped the crown of his head, playing my frustration up.

I had at times pleaded with him to express his confusion, to resist the silent stares, through appeals to his good nature, appeals to pleasing authority, appeals to his vanity (I’d told him it made him look dumb- that though I knew he was not dumb, others might assume he was dumb if he acted that way), all to no avail. I’d probed at the differences in cultural expectations, asking what his relationships with teachers had been in the past, and tried to assure him I wanted to hear his thoughts. Nothing.

There had been bright spots. Once I asked him a simple question, got the stone face, and took it as a challenge to a “stubborn-off.” I told him he was not allowed to leave my room until he answered my question. At the bell, he rose to exit with the rest of his classmates, and I sat him back down, handing him the iPad and moving on to teach the next class. Eventually he typed out an answer. It took a threat of punishment for skipping class in the form of laying a referral in front of him, but he did type out an answer. Responses on subsequent days were easier to elicit.

I think I garnered some measure of respect from him for that. His smiles and chuckles came easier after that, and each day at break, he was quicker and quicker to bump my outstretched fist with his when I passed by his post.

I knew when I became a science teacher that I was likely to see science reflected in my life- teaching itself is a great example of scientific inquiry- teachers ponder the best ways to get their students to learn; they make living, breathing hypotheses in the instructional choices they make; they test those hypotheses on students, collect data, and draw conclusions based on the assessments. There’s a whole host of variables, controls, and arguably even professionally accepted theories explaining what teachers experience everywhere.

Looking back, it’s easier to see how scientific our building of relationships is. My ability to teach Enigma could only grow as fast as my relationship with him could, as is the case for all my students. But being forced to build it block by block, day by day, it’s clear to me now that it really was a process of scientific inquiry.  The teacher-student connection between Enigma and me was a phenomenon yet to be discovered- How did it work best? What were the variables and conditions that needed to be met in order for the reaction to occur? What exactly could be built out of a clearer understanding of it?

I had to be a scientist.  I got to note what variables I had tried, analyze the results, and try again the next day. Before the year was over, I had developed a shorthand with Enigma and a better understanding of everything that was possible to achieve out of the interactions we had left.  But these are questions for any relationship. These are goals for every interaction I have with every one of my students. I just have to pay close enough attention.

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