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Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

The Slinky Paradigm:
How One Science Teacher
(Eventually) Created Another

Heres a story from Laura, a former student, about the powerful and life-changing influences a teacher can have. Laura writes:

I didnt think wed be playing with toys when I walked into my first physics class.

Yet there was Mr. N. holding a giant Slinky, welcoming us into room 32. Mr. N. was 28, making him younger than the rest of the faculty, with short brown hair and an unshaved face. Okay, I admit it: I thought he was adorable. In about two minutes, Id developed a mad crush on him. He looked less like a science teacher and more like one of the jazz musicians Id seen wandering around Greenwich Village.

But when he started to speak, what he said got my attention and I swear I stopped thinking so much about how he looked and began listening to what he said -- which is not what Id expected to happen.

Maybe you thought the most interesting thing a Slinky did was to walk down stairs, he said, But actually it is the perfect example of a longitudinal wave.

I had no idea what was ahead of me. I certainly didnt think it would turn out be my favorite class. I had no idea that I would end up being a math and science teacher myself.

Since math had not been one of my strongest subjects, I was worried about how I would do in physics. Mr. N. seemed to understand that many of the students facing him that day would feel the same way. He eased us into the basic concepts and, practically before we knew it, we were facing formulas, equations, and laws without fear.

The Slinky was not the only unusual object Mr. N. used to illustrate his lessons. Even when we were taught by more traditional methods, such as chalkboard drawings, they had elements of surprise. For example, there was the flying Bichon Frise (just a picture of one, of course -- his methods were not that odd) showing us how projectile motion worked. When studying light and color, Mr. N. used simple objects such as flashlights and more elaborate tools such as computer programs to make the lesson entertaining -- and to make it stick.

I learned more in that electrifying and bizarre class than in most other classes because he taught us with all the enthusiasm and love for the subject he possessed. The immediacy of his need for us to understand what he was saying is what forced us to lean forward and pay attention. It was electric, magnetic; it was light and heat. It was everything he was explaining about in theory but somehow he was channeling it into the lessons themselves and how he taught them.

He made sure that we understood the lessons well enough to explain them to others. Whenever we needed to have him clarify a point, he was happy to stay after class and review the material in detail. But he wasnt a push-over, either; if you asked questions, those questions needed to be smart and specific. He explained to us that he didnt need friends to hang out with but was fine spending extra time with students who wanted to talk about ideas.

Those of us who were in his unofficial fan club decided that we werent really in love with him as much as we were in love the subject.

Yet everybody in that class wanted to do well not only for themselves, but for him. He made the material, and his students, feel important and, hey, when youre talking about fundamental issues in the universe, it isnt always easy to make an individual student feel significant. It was a gift he gave each of us.

He packed up his office that June and left our school, heading to Boston for an advanced degree. The degree he sought was not in physics, but in music -- proving the point he always made about science: knowledge is portable property and you take it with you wherever you go, choosing in every new situation how you will apply it.

Theres a Slinky now in my own classroom, inspiring, I hope, a new generation of students who think that math isnt their strong subject to think differently -- about toys, about school, about themselves.

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Article by Regina Barreca
Education World®
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