The Chemistry of Learning

  • David Hoffman One of my favorite high school classes was chemistry. While my academic passions and strengths have favored the humanities (after all I did attend law, not medical school), no course during my senior year could match Mr.Crampton’s chemistry class. My understanding of the complexities of matter and how it interacts, combines, and changes was nurtured thanks to Mr. Crampton’s inspirational instruction and devotion to his subject and students.

    He also taught me to appreciate Bob Dylan—stay with me.

    I had been reluctant to take chemistry. I had struggled greatly with physics during my junior year. Physics was too complicated (read: mathematical) for my sixteen-year-old simplistic view of the world. In any event, I signed up for chemistry because of peer pressure, college requirements and Mr. Crampton’s stellar reputation.

    I knew I was in for a unique year of science on the first day of class. Mr. Crampton let it be known that a chemistry kidnapping of massive proportions had been perpetrated. The class’ mascot, Harry the Mole, had been abducted, and it was our job, through study and experiments, to discover clues as to who abducted the mascot and the means to his return. (While Harry was a paper Mache insectivorous rodent, he also symbolized a unit of measurement in chemistry known as a “mole.”) Throughout the year, Harry would return and then mysteriously disappear causing benign agitation and excitement.

    Mr. Crampton would not allow any of his students to fail. He proffered an open invitation for students to come to his classroom outside their scheduled classes to get help, complete unfinished labs or just hang out. Before any lab experiment or test he sat with us to review models, demonstrate procedures, and, through the use of analogies and colorful language, successfully convey chemistry concepts. Furthermore, it was not unusual to find us painting and sculpting quantum mechanic models or cooking tasteful concoctions with chemical compounds.

    Mr. Crampton never left his room and could always be seen bouncing around like an errant atom, assisting groups of students. He encouraged students to help each other, sharing their notes and scientific findings. We simply loved hanging out in chemistry lab solving the mysteries of matter and Harry the Mole.

    And now the Dylan connection.

    Once a week, chemistry students would participate in something called Large Group. All the chemistry sections would convene in the high school’s performing arts center to collectively acquire new information, learn concepts for an upcoming lab or participate in a question and answer session. As we filed into the auditorium, Mr. Crampton would entice his teenage attendees with the musical trends of the day. The theater’s speakers would blare out the latest and greatest from Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles (it was the 70s after all), and all decades of Dylan. The Dylan ditties received the greatest play rotation. It was not unusual for Mr. Crampton, before starting a lecture on bases and acids, to ask us to once again listen to Dylan’s sorrowful harmonica solo on “It’s all Over Now, Baby Blue” or examine the lyrics on “Blood on the Tracks” that evidenced Dylan and his soon-to-be ex-wife’s own combustible chemistry. Like atoms upon atoms, “Blond on Blond” (another Dylan masterpiece frequented in Large Group) became part of my musical molecular makeup.

    Reflecting on my chemistry experience, I now know that Mr. Crampton did what every outstanding educator does; he made sure to incorporate a strong social/emotional component to his solid academic work. He knew that learning is more than acquiring facts and figures. He created a milieu wherein students felt safe, successful, cared for, encouraged to take risks, connected to and responsible for each other and privy to the joys, amusements and startling interplay between the cerebral sciences and emotional arts.

    At Island Park we too work hard to balance academic growth with social/emotional achievement. The truth is that, as Mr. Crampton knew, neither exists without the other. We cannot learn if we do not feel good about ourselves, happy and safe at school, and supported by our peers, instructors and community. Likewise, we can’t grow emotionally and socially without academic opportunities that challenge us to occasionally reside outside our comfort zone, create chances to learn from mistakes, foster collaborative opportunities to work with diverse learners, and experience the connection between the sciences and humanities.

    Through our Second Step social/emotional curriculum, practice of mindfulness, student mentorship opportunities, classroom buddies and meetings, counseling services, recess camp, and a myriad of other social dynamics, students develop greater empathy, problem solving skills, compassion, appreciation for diversity and personal agency to positively impact their world.

    This isn’t rocket science (or chemistry for that matter). We know that children who attend school with a singular focus on academics and grade point averages risk bouts of stress, depression and isolation. Students who value academic endeavors along with making friends, bettering their community and honing other non-academic skills, attain authentic self worth, happiness, connectivity and a healthy life balance. Most importantly, they love learning for the simple sake of learning.

    Mr. Crampton’s chemistry class has had a long atomic half-life on my professional career. As an educator, I have used his combination of heart and mind throughout my practice. While I certainly can’t remember any particular chemical formula, I am quite certain that when one mixes social/emotional education with strong academic instruction, it results in an alchemy of pure gold.