Teaching outside my comfort zone

Today is a busy, frightful day. I volunteered to stop by the Morris Area High School to give away some spiders and talk in general about the importance of spiders, and I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. College students are one thing, but middle school and high school kids are completely different beasts. I’ve done this before, and mainly what I come away with is the feeling that we don’t pay teachers enough.

I’m meeting with 7th and 10th grade biology classes this morning and afternoon. I’m bringing in a lot of baby spiderlings which are tiny and hard to see, not impressive at all, and a couple of larger adults. I’ve also got several egg sacs, one of which is very, very close to eclosion — maybe we’ll get a sudden eruption of spiderlings, which would be exciting. I’m going to propose leaving a half dozen spiderlings in the classrooms, along with a supply of wingless fruit flies, and recommend that they take care of them for a few weeks, and then on some bright spring day, to release them in a grassy area near the school.

I’ve been researching lesson plans lately, and unfortunately, almost all of them have been geared for younger kids — K-6. I’m not going to talk down to this group, so I figure I’ll just explain a few scientific details and open the floor to questions.

They’re going to eat me alive, aren’t they?


  1. wzrd1 says

    Never leave your comfort zone, never change or adapt. It was a winning strategy for every extinct species. ;)

    As for them eating you alive, unlikely. It’s far more likely that they’ll feed you to your spiderlings.

  2. kenbakermn says

    How many thousands of bugs have you handed over to spiders to be eaten alive? Karma, dude.

  3. says

    I visit HS classes all the time, and you’re absolutely right – don’t talk down to them. Students at this age love to see real, live critters, and they especially delight in hearing why they are worth scientific study. The best thing you can do is to respect them intellectually and play to their curiosity. You’re something they rarely encounter – a genuine scientist – and if you let your own enthusiasm for science come through you’ll bring them right along with you. Good Luck!

  4. cartomancer says

    I used to teach university students. Now I teach 11-18 year olds. The former was quite a bit easier.

  5. expatlurker says

    Don’t show any signs of fear. Or weakness. Also, I saw this in a movie so it must be true … if you stand perfectly still they won’t be able to see you because they can only detect motion. It might have applied more to dinosaurs, but I assume it is a general principle.

  6. strangerinastrangeland says

    The annoying thing about teenagers – ok, one of the annoying things about teenagers – is when they don’t want to admit that they like or are interested in something because they fear that their peers think them not “hip” (or whatever the term is now) if they do.
    Once on an open day in my institute everyone of a school class was playing bored and disinterested until one of the boys loudly said “this is so cool” when we showed him some toxic microalgae. Then the floodgates opened and the whole group could admit that they wanted to learn and do some science.
    And yes, of course I was one of those annoying teenagers myself once. :-)

  7. christoph says

    “They’re going to eat me alive, aren’t they?”
    Well, what did you expect from a bunch of spider enthusiasts?

  8. ANB says

    All excellent advice above (ignoring the clever sarcasm).

    The easiest job I’ve ever had as a teacher was when I taught at UCLA. Mostly, I taught middle school students (think 40 students in a class with five English languages skill levels and 8 different native languages), but I’ve taught every single grade from pre-K up. Enthusiasm, genuine interest in what you’re teaching, and never fear!

  9. says

    When you stand before them, try to make yourself look large. Make loud noises, maybe by banging some pots and pans together.
    Wait, no, sorry. I was thinking of bears.

  10. René says

    @3, “kenmiller”. Is that you of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District fame? In order to not derailing the thread, where can I ask you the question I would like you to answer?

  11. StevoR says

    Outside your comfort zone? How do you think those spiders feel aboyt being given away like that – & not their eight “hands” in marriage neither!

    (Anthropomorphising wildly and, emotional lives of spiders, well who knows? PZ? Arachnologists?)

  12. grandolddeity says

    Oh, sure. You may as well release Kraken.
    The custodial and maintenance departments will be left to deal with all the phobics over the ensuing months.

    Spiders and roaches and rodents, oh my! Ants and wasps and raccoons, oh my! Lizards and snakes and hogs, oh my! Termites and gnats and bees, oh my!

  13. wzrd1 says

    expatlurker @7, no, you’ve got it entirely wrong.
    Freezing utterly only defeats the observation capabilities of elders.
    Younglings have a confirmed and scientifically inexplicable capability of seeing precisely what you don’t want to see, to near exclusivity.
    So, do your best to hide the spiderlings from them and allow them to discover them while you’re trying to stop them from doing so.
    First, ensure that the school district has full contact details as well – for someone who doesn’t know you or who you are. Thereby, you avoid having to deal with the parents, ahem, praise. What with all the spiderlings the younglings will be raising in various hidden spots in their homes.

  14. jrkrideau says

    Why does that link to the local high school seem to default to what, to a Canadian, looks like some kind of paramilitary?

    On a more cheerful note, temperatures here are up to 13 /14 degrees and some fools are shifting into shorts. Walking down the street this afternoon I noticed a young woman in shorts with some kind of blotch just above her knee. As she came closer it turned into a rather large spider tattoo! There are arachnophiles everywhere.

  15. drewl, Mental Toss Flycoon says

    @13. Oh please, derail the thread. I mean that sincerely. That would be some good reading…

  16. birgerjohansson says

    11 in the evening in Sweden, by now PZ should be back from his encounter with the middle school kids. Were they enthusiastic about their new pets?

  17. xohjoh2n says


    If you try banging some bears together you’re definitely going to regret that.

  18. Ridana says

    18) @jrkrideau:
    If you’re talking about the top pic of kids in matching ties and jackets, those are Future Farmers of America jackets, a club similar to 4-H.

  19. wzrd1 says

    @21, I dunno, banging bears together would most certainly be generating some loud noise and discourage other bears from approaching. The only tricky part, other than managing to bang bears together is ensuring that they don’t seek to reciprocate afterward.