In my classroom this week: “Can of worms”

Sometimes, it’s important to take a break from the academics for five or ten minutes and focus on outside stuff that students are dealing with, see others dealing with, or have genuine questions about (that’s the beauty of having the freedom to create your own curriculum!).

In my opinion, flexibility is a super important quality to have as a teacher. I wasn’t born with it, believe me; it took work, but I’m so glad I’ve gotten better at it! And I’m not talking, like, physical flexibility, like touching your nose to your knees or anything like that. I’m talking about flexibility in planning and time and such, if you didn’t pick up on that. Rigidity is necessary as a foundation (having a routine, knowing when it’s time to re-focus, etc), but can be the biggest enemy of the teacher.

Anyways, my students and I talk about a lot of stuff, math being number one, obviously. But I like weaving in real-life stuff, letting them discuss issues in the country or world around them, hearing their opinions, giving my own, and just allowing them to have a safe space to talk about school and non-school things.

However, because I am their teacher and not their friend or older sibling, I make sure to keep it on the “school-appropriate” side as well; I can’t make them feel too comfortable!

In the past, my classes have discussed race, religion, sports, politics, and things that have happened in their lives. When asked, I have also shared the story of how I met my husband, how he proposed, and what my college experience was like.

My Math in Everyday Life students tend to ask the most questions and get the most off-topic because they have the most need of discussing and being made aware of math and non-math concepts, phrases, and other everyday occurrences than my other students in Algebras I and II. They also make me more cognizant of the words I use and the tone in which I use them, which helps me to become a better teacher in the long-run.

This week, we were discussing budgeting, a part of our “money” unit. I asked my students (comprised of freshmen, a junior, and a senior) what kinds of expenses they might have to pay when they are out of school (including college, if they choose that route) and living on their own. They brought up the usual – apartment/house, bills (electricity, water, gas), food, and extra expenses (clothing, movies/theater, etc.).

One student then raised her hand and asked, “What about kids?” I reiterated that we were focusing on their personal expenses post-school and pre-children; it’s just them on their own with a job. “That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms,” I joked. They all chuckled but gave a kind of confused look.

“Have you ever heard that expression, ‘A whole ‘nother can of worms,’ before?” I asked. They all shook their heads.

I was wondering why we were talking about worms,” one said.

Oh boy. I explained that it just meant I didn’t want to bring in a whole other situation into the mix. They would have enough to worry about after school living on their own without bringing children into the mix. They nodded, but it was obvious that they didn’t get the connection between a can of worms and having a baby.

I mean, I’ll admit it is a very strange phrase, and I couldn’t find the origin or history behind why the heck ‘can of worms’ was chosen over pretty much anything else. I did, however, look up images of them for a possible featured image. They all made me a bit grossed out and queasy, so I decided to use that white board design from my student instead. But I digress.

Another great conversation happened on Wednesday; four or five times a year, we dedicate an entire school day to a different topic and organize workshops in-school or off-campus field trips surrounding each topic. Usually it’s something about social justice or history, but this week we focused on math (yeah!), specifically the powers of 10.

Towards the end of the day, we watched a 45-minute long video called The Blue Planet. During the movie, a student whom I have never taught or interacted with very much (other than the usual “Hi, how are you?” in the hallway) was in my group and openly asked questions about the concepts discussed in the movie. He mostly asked about certain weather phenomenon:

  • Can we see tsunamis from space? Answer: Not unless it’s super clear and the satellite camera is zoomed in closely. I also Googled images and there aren’t any real pictures, although that would be super cool!
  • Can we have earthquakes here in New York? Answer: Of course! Usually the earthquake starts elsewhere, but it has reached NYC – this actually happened a couple years ago!

And I was able to correctly answer them all! I honestly surprised myself in my ability to answer him, bringing my knowledge up from the depths of dusty high school cobwebs and past/current events. I Googled stuff after I answered, to make sure I wasn’t misleading him and the other students in the room. And, by golly (another strange phrase), I was right!

It’s funny and a little scary when the kids think I’m a genius. Another co-worker explained to his math class why we get tired after we eat – a lot of our blood goes to our stomach and our energy goes toward digesting the food we just ate. The students were blown away at this new knowledge and how much it made sense; they told him he was so smart and that he knows everything. He assured them that he didn’t know everything but they weren’t convinced.

I’ve had the same reaction and, though it feels good to feel smart, I am by no means a genius! I wonder if this is what my mom felt like when I was growing up and was amazed at the amount of stuff she knew and could explain to me. I was always in awe of the stuff my mom told me, and the fact that she could do the majority of the crosswords in the newspaper without consulting her crossword dictionary was incredible.

Most of all, I love the times when my students blow me away with their knowledge or ability to think and reason critically. When they make connections from what they have learned to new material, or when they are able to express their thoughts and opinions in a clear and concise manner (especially when it’s difficult for them to do so in math), those are the best moments.

Granted, it doesn’t happen all the time or even every day. Some days I wonder if they’ve remembered anything I’ve taught them. But it’s on the days when they make those connections to new concepts, have their “oh my gosh, that makes sense!‘ moments, or ask those questions that make me think about how and what I have learned in the past (can of worms, anyone?) that make it all worthwhile.

Ultimately, I hope I’m doing a good job in helping my students become well-rounded, knowledgeable citizens so that, when they leave my classroom, they will be capable of managing the world around them, of asking questions and finding answers, and contributing to the betterment of our world.

End the cheesiness already!

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