Thursday, June 16, 2016

Guest Post: Seeing the Dog: Reflections on a great teacher by John Suchoki

Today I am thrilled that Dr. Suchocki has agreed to be our guest at Ohio Homeschool Assessments. I wrote about his program Conceptual Academy here. Please welcome him!
I am grateful to Becky for allowing me to jump in as a guest blogger here at Ohio Homeschool Assessments. Thanks Becky! She said she would be open to any topic I thought might be appropriate. Raised in Ohio, what first came to mind was not a what but a who: Mrs. Ford, my high school science teacher of so many years ago at Sycamore High School in a suburb of Cincinnati. My efforts to provide quality curriculum for the home school community began with her. So, Mrs. Ford, this blog post is dedicated to you.

Seeing the Dog
Reflections on a great teacher
As a kid, I always liked science. I mean, who wouldn’t? I grew up in the age of Star Trek and Star Wars. And as I child I remember watching the television broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the Moon. Science was a world of wow and gee whiz! And I grew up in a time of new-found confidence in technology. . . slide rules were giving way to digital calculators.
I KNEW I wanted to be a scientist. So imagine my dismay when I kept bombing those 10th grade chemistry exams and quizzes. How could this be? How could I love science so much and yet perform so poorly in class?
To my great fortune, I had Linda Ford as my chemistry teacher. She saw beyond my low scores. She saw something much more valuable: enthusiasm. She also saw enthusiasm disheartened in the face of academic rigor. Did she lighten up on the rigor so that my enthusiasm might be retained? Absolutely not. She held her ground. But she also reached outward, far outward, to hold me on board.
I remember sitting with her at a classroom table after school. I just couldn’t understand this thing she called “stoichiometry”, let alone solve problems it. With patience, she walked me through the ideas step by step, then had me explaining each idea back to her in return. She gave me her greatest gift, which was the personal attention I needed to “See the Dog”.
See the what?

Fast-forward to today. That struggling student of Mrs. Ford is now a college professor and established author of science textbooks. “Seeing the dog” is a metaphor. I show my students this inkblot, high contrast photo. I tell them, “Raise your hand when you see an animal.”  Invariably, a significant portion of the class just can’t “see the dog”.  I explain that certain chemistry concepts, such as stoichiometry, are quite like this. You can stare and stare and it just makes no sense. You have your choice of thinking:  1) I must not be smart enough, or 2) I just don’t see it yet, and to no fault of my own because I know I am capable.” The popular choice is number 1, but the accurate choice is actually number 2.

I explain further: “Chemistry is accessible. You can do it. But it’s an involved path, and a little guidance can go a long way, providing many “ah ha!” moments. What if I told you there was a Dalmatian in this image, nose to the ground, and walking away from you?” Bingo! Everyone soon sees the dog. Why? Because we are all capable of seeing the dog, just as we are all capable of doing stoichiometry. The real question is whether or not you want to, which is another story I’ll save for another post.

I’m in a distant city giving a presentation on teaching methods to a large audience at a national conference of the American Chemical Society. Imagine my delight when I see in the conference program that Linda Ford, herself, is at this very conference to receive the prestigious national Conant Award for outstanding high school chemistry teacher. Would she remember me? After some 30 years? Regardless, I knew I had to try to meet her.
As fate would have it, her award presentation was in the room right next to mine and at the very same time! This meant I would not be able to attend her talk.  But it also meant that she and I would be teaching side-by-side, literally, with no one but myself knowing of the significance. I planned to rush over to her presentation upon finishing mine. I did my best, but with numerous follow-up questions from the audience, by the time I got to her presentation room, she was gone.
Saddened, I sat alone and reflected in that room where my former teacher had just received her well-earned laurels. She had protected and even nurtured my youthful enthusiasm for science. But she did something even more profound: she inspired me to have self-respect and confidence. She made me realize I’d face even more struggles, but that my underlying passions would see me through. Excellence in teaching comes from understanding that “content” (chemistry, literature, history, or whatever) can also serve as a means for the higher goal of helping students to learn about themselves.
Thank you Mrs. Ford. I am honored to have been one of your many students and more so to have taught with you side-by-side, albeit incognito. Thank you for helping me to see the dog and for preparing me to do my share in helping others to see that dog too, in all its spotted glory.
In writing this blog, I realized I was long overdue in trying to reach out to Mrs. Ford. In but a few keystrokes, I found her contact info and sent her an email. The very next day she wrote back. She was most pleased to hear from me. A while ago she had found a copy of my textbook at a used bookstore and recognized my name immediately. How cool is that?! Better still, I learned we’re both giving presentations at yet another conference this summer. This time we will be sure to meet.

*  *  *
John Suchocki is author of Conceptual Chemistry as well as a coauthor of other popular science textbooks at both the college and high school level. John obtained his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Virginia Commonwealth University, which was followed by a two year post-doctorate in pharmacology at the Medical College of Virginia. He taught chemistry at the University of Hawaii where he received tenure and was highly active in the development of distance learning programs and student-centered learning curricula. In addition to authoring textbooks, John is currently an adjunct professor at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. Through his company, Conceptual Productions, John is the founder and executive producer of Conceptual Academy. To learn more about Conceptual Academy as a valuable resource for the home school, please visit the Conceptual Academy support site: LearnScience.Academy. where you will also find John’s blog on science education.

Linda Ford is a recipient of the prestigious Conant Award for excellence in teaching high school chemistry. About to begin her 45th year in the classroom, Linda teaches at the Seven Hills School in Cincinnati, OH. You can follow this link to learn more about her teaching philosophies and methods.

1 comment:

ohiohomeschool said...

I am finally seeing the dog. :-) Thanks so much for visiting, John.
I think you will help many home educations students.