Growing Up in Santa Cruz: On the Best Day a Teacher Can Have

Growing Up in Santa Cruz, May 2019, “On the Best Day a Teacher Can Have… Behind the Desk May 2019,” by Lisa Catterall.

True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.
– Nikos Kazantzakis

I have a funny tradition in my science class. Each year, when we get to organic chemistry, I introduce the topic in a half-hour long discussion.

For the last five minutes of class, I give the kids exactly sixty seconds to come up with a structure for the chemical C6H6. If a student can do it, they do not have to take the final.

In 11 years, I’ve had two students succeed at this ridiculous challenge. One was eight years ago, and the second was this week. I figure, if a student can comprehend that much organic chemistry in one lesson, they probably don’t need my final exam to cement their learning.

Luckily, success is so rare that the word has not gotten out; so far I’ve never had kids arrive at my doorstep secretly prepared. I suppose I will have to stop the tradition after this blog…

The funny thing about the lesson this week was that the class is ninth graders who skipped chemistry entirely in middle school in favor of an environmental contest. They did not know what an electron was until that moment, in any scientific way. The lesson began much farther back conceptually than it normally does. Despite this, not only did one student rise to the “impossible” challenge I posed, but most of the class also scared me by coming dangerously close.

Floored, I spent some time reflecting on what makes a lesson really work for kids. What was different about whatever was happening in the room that day, and how can it happen more often?

Weeks before, I began the semester with these kids as I always do. I try to answer the two biggest questions every student has when they meet a teacher:

Do you care about me? And… What do I need to do in this class? Read more