Monday, January 04, 2010


    A science teacher was telling me today about the strange behavior of sodium and chlorine, and I couldn’t help but compare it to the behaviors that might be occurring right under my nose in English class. Sodium, he said, is a metal that causes a violent reaction when mixed with water, and chlorine, by itself, is a highly toxic poisonous gas. However, when these two elements are combined in the right proportions, an entirely new substance is created, called salt. From two uniquely different and wildly reactive substances comes the soft white stuff that enhances our meals each day.  This, my friend said, is no mere shuffling around of ingredients, but instead is total transformation  -- the kind of magical synthesis the ancient alchemists would have marveled at. Strange as it might sound, I wonder if a similar kind of miraculous transformation might happen now and then in my classroom, and in all classrooms. When we’re discussing a novel, does a “sodium” thought inside a student’s head sometimes combine with a “chlorine” thought and produce a totally new thought? Does an “oxygen” idea occasionally meet some “hydrogen” ideas and produce, in a mysterious way, an idea that never existed before for that student, or maybe for any student? I guess this kind of fundamental transformation is what we all hope will happen in our classes – the kind of brand new thinking that can actually remake a portion of a student’s life. As my scientist friend made clear, this type of transformation happens everywhere in nature, constantly, even in every cell in our bodies. Moment by moment, utterly new substances are born from other substances, and perhaps it happens in English class now and then. Perhaps thoughts that might explode or poison on their own occasionally mingle in my students’ minds to create unforeseen, out-of-the-blue ideas that can be used to further enrich their burgeoning lives.

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