Archive for the ‘Mr. Caputo’ Category

Mr. Caputo Doesn’t Teach Photography


The 8th installment of “Mr. Caputo Teaches…,” my experience as an extracurricular science teacher in elementary and middle schools across Massachusetts.

I had been looking forward to the pin-hole camera lesson for a while. The thought of making them with my students brought me back to a visual arts class I took my junior year at Stuyvesant high school in Manhattan. The teacher instructed us how to make our own cameras, and I waited patiently to take old-style pictures of the Hudson River.

But had I looked closer at my lesson plan, I would have realized that the pin-hole cameras my class and I were building were models. Everything you needed to take a picture but no film.

I watched as the news zapped the excitement from each of my student’s eyes. “So what do these do?” Asked one of the girls. “They demonstrate… cameras,” I responded pathetically. “I know how cameras work,” she zinged back, “you snap a picture and it shows up on the screen.”

This disappointment caused the kids to be uncharacteristically sassy. I did my best to get through my spiel and decided to just sit down and help them build their projects. Surprisingly, the disinterest in the day’s topic provided some interesting conversation.

“Why are my eyes brown?” asked a 7th-grader after I talked about red-eye in photos. I did a quick survey and none of the kids had discussed genetics or inheritance in their biology classes.

“Well, what color are your mom’s eyes?” I asked. No surprise, brown. “What about your dad’s?” Aha, they’re green. After an brief overview of chromosomes and gene expression, I explained that although both genes are active, the gene for brown eyes from mom is expressed more than the gene for green eyes from dad.

I may be biased, but shouldn’t genetics be introduced before high school? It is so crucial to understanding our bodies that it seems a crime to leave it out of the curriculum. Maybe it’s because genetics involves evolution and reproduction, two touchy-subjects for Americans, or that many elementary and middle school teachers don’t have a firm knowledge of the subject.

All I saw when we had out conversational tangent into chromosomes and genes was curiosity. The kids had questions about the difference between species, the X and Y chromosomes and how human beings are going to evolve.

Bringing genetics into the younger classroom would be easy. It could be done with a story. Some out there include “How the Y Makes the Guy” and “Amazing Schemes with Your Genes.” Class assignments can also include looking into certain family characteristics such as hair color or disease.

Although the pin-hole camera project was a bust, (the second worst after hot-air balloons, said a student), our fireside chat about genetics was kind of fun. I’m not suggesting build a life-size model of DNA, but a tree-of-life tour through a local zoo would be perfect. If only we had the time for a field trip.

Posted by Joseph, under Mr. Caputo  |  Date: May 24, 2008
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Mr. Caputo Teaches Plasma Guns?


The 7th installment of “Mr. Caputo Teaches…,” my experience as an extracurricular science teacher in elementary and middle schools across Massachusetts.

One of the most interesting things about overseeing a classroom of middle schoolers, is listening in on their conversations. Of course there is the occasional who likes who, but for the most part, kids talk about media. In my Thursday class of all boys, the topics of the day usually revolve around two things: YouTube and video games.

To no surprise, the types of entertainment the kids enjoy are far from virtual chess and Sesame Street, but that’s no reason to discount their value as teaching tools. Halo 3, for instance, a video game known for the violent killing of alien beasts, has taught countless players about physics and weaponry. Grand Theft Auto IV, perhaps a parent’s worst nightmare for its glorification of murder, theft, drug use and sex, is also an insightful look into urban sociology.

Thanks to these kinds of games, my students are experts on guns – past, present, and future. This came in handy when trying to explain the concept of plasma, the fourth state of matter. When first bridging the topic, the students quickly asked, “Are we going to make plasma guns?” They were disappointed to learn we were actually making electronic pens, but I saw a teaching moment.

I asked them to describe what comes out of the plasma guns they’ve seen in video games or movies. “Bright stuff,” one kid responded. “It melts everything,” said another. Exactly, stars are hot and shiny because they are mostly made of plasma. To call it by its official designation, ionized gas, didn’t seem the best tactic with a group of sixth graders.

Judging from my students’ interest in turning everything into a weapon, I would argue that a curriculum based on guns and explosions could have educational value. When I discussed light bulbs for instance, all this group wanted to do was break a bulb and attach it to a battery. (I did so and it caused a nice-sized flame to emerge.) When we built a crane, the kids used extra plastic rods and Popsicle sticks to make spears. When it came time for the cannons class, the students were so excited, they built two each.

Their task was to design the biggest explosion, using breath spray as a fuel and a pair of exposed wires, attached to a buzzer, to make a spark. The kids had to come up with the perfect fuel and heat combination to send their ammunition, in this case a film capsule, flying. By the end, everyone had a different style and we were even able to have a contest. Just think of the possibilities with catapults, bows and arrows, fireworks, shields, fortresses, etc… We could call it Explosive! science.

While shaping future Department of Defense employees could be interesting, realistically, it could be a stretch to find safe ways of covering this topic with kids. The point is, relevance is key. So next time a young person in your life is shooting an virtual alien, ask what kind of gun he or she is using.

Posted by Joseph, under Mr. Caputo  |  Date: May 7, 2008
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Mr. Caputo Teaches Solar Power



The 6th installment of “Mr. Caputo Teaches…,” my experience as an extracurricular science teacher in elementary and middle schools across Massachusetts.

It was 3:15 p.m., and the middle schoolers ran into the room. After a few minutes of yelling, furniture rearranging and gossip, the quieter students looked up at me – still putting the finishing touches on the day’s lesson – and asked what we’re going to make. “A solar water heater,” I responded, clasping my hands together, “but more importantly, we’re going to talk about climate change.”

I was genuinely excited. We all know what adults have heard, but what about kids who will be living with the consequences of global warming for the rest of their lives? As they settled into their seats, munching on cookies and crackers, I began. “What can you guys tell me about climate change?”

One girl in pink nearly jumped out of her seat. “It’s why you shouldn’t drive cars, because the carbon dioxide gets in the air and hurts the ozone layer. That’s why you should walk and ride bikes, and recycle.”

After a few more statements like this, I realized the students were confused and not just by the science. (Greenhouse gases and the ozone layer have NO relationship). Although their teachers and parents are well meaning, the students are being misled into thinking this issue has an easy solution.

So I made it personal. I asked them about ways they’ve reduced their carbon footprint. Some told me by walking to school, others said they biked. Ater a few minutes of discussion, however, they realized they didn’t have much control over their own emissions. “I have to get a ride because my book bag is too heavy,” one boy said, “so school causes global warming.”

One girl then raised her hand with a solution. “What if scientists developed a way to stop humans from breathing out carbon dioxide? Like put a tube in your throat or something?” I couldn’t have been more impressed, because she hit the nail on the head with one of global warming’s biggest problems. “Would you want a tube in your throat?” I asked another student. Nobody wanted a tube in their throat. “The most important part of developing a solution,” I said, “is making sure it’s something humans want to do.”

This conversation then led into the day’s project, a solar water heater made out of plastic tubing and tupperware. Although we did use an electric lamp as our replacement sun, it was a way of modeling how to get energy from natural means. After the project was complete, we discussed solar-powered cars and wind-powered boats.

Although recycling and biking are important behaviors for lowering an individual’s impact on the Earth, I wanted the kids to go home understanding this is something that requires a societal change. If my generation can’t provide the technology, then at least my students will.

Posted by Joseph, under Mr. Caputo  |  Date: March 24, 2008
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Mr. Caputo Teaches Balance


The 5th installment of “Mr. Caputo Teaches,” my experience as an extracurricular science teacher in elementary and middle schools across Massachusetts.

The search for balance is almost 7,000 years old. Early forms of the weighing scale, the symbol for a Libra and the device held by Lady Justice, were discovered in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 5000 B.C.E. The key to a weighing scale is balance–the point when the pans are equal, the beam is horizontal, the pointer is motionless, and the measure can be taken. This, in scientific terms, is equilibrium.Communicating science effectively is all about balance. In one pan rests entertainment, in the other is information. When the scale dips too far towards information, the piece becomes dull and you’ve lost your reader. When the entertainment outweighs information, the reader enjoys the story, but takes little away.

Finding equilibrium is also essential for science teaching. Recently, I asked my middle school students if they could tell me what makes a good science lesson (one that has balance). In seconds, the hand of a boy wearing gray sweatpants shot up. “Hands-on,” he said. Across the table, a girl with a blonde ponytail said she enjoyed explosions, like the reaction between vinegar and baking soda. I then asked what makes a bad (unbalanced) lesson. The boy in sweatpants summed it up nicely: “When the teacher talks a lot, and then tests you.”

Teaching science in an unbalanced way is not only frustrating for the teacher, but it can turn a student off to science outside the classroom. I next asked the group where they learn science when not in school. Luckily, only one student said she doesn’t see any science outside of class. Most mentioned television programs on the Discovery Channel, or shows like Mythbusters. Others mentioned the Internet, specifically sites like or Surprisingly, about half of the children said their fathers. None mentioned books or magazines.

After this conversation, it was then my task to teach them about balance, but I wanted to try an experiment with this burgeoning YouTube generation. I decided not to be a talking head–I gave a quick explanation of what a balance is, what’s necessary for a weighing scale to work and how it connects to the Early Inventions theme of the class. Then cam the shocker, they would have to build one using only the model and diagrams I provided. They would have full use of all my materials and their classmates, but there was only one rule: I would not help them.

Even though they spent most of the time trading insults and making blobs with the glue guns, by the end of the class, most of them had it. One student with straight black hair even used hers to measure the weight in grams of different quantities of paper clips.

After trying the class this way, I asked for feedback on the experience. “Science takes a long time,” remarked the girl who doesn’t see science outside of the classroom. Others said their projects didn’t work because it didn’t look exactly like the model. The problem was, they did work. Perhaps the students were so used to copying their teachers that when they create something on their own, it felt incorrect. Or maybe, because the lesson was so social, I wasn’t able to incorporate enough information, and thus the lesson was imbalanced. Where can teachers find this balance? Is there a formula, or is each day trial and error with a different set of weights.

Posted by Joseph, under Mr. Caputo  |  Date: February 25, 2008
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Mr. Caputo Teaches DNA


The 4th installment of “Mr. Caputo Teaches,” my experience as an extracurricular science teacher in elementary and middle schools across Massachusetts.

“I don’t need to listen to you. I can just look this up on the Internet,” said the six-year-old girl.I look up, and she sits smiling in front of me, probably congratulating herself for making such a witty comment . Behind her, two boys are having a private conversation. To her left, another student makes a penis joke before calling me a smartypants.

There are only six children in my Monday kindergarten-group in Newtown, MA, but last week I was unable to keep them engaged or behaved. The topic should have worked; DNA is my specialty and the project was an arm-lengths model of the double-helix. But they talked through my questions, stomped on the spray-painted pasta, (representing the phosphate backbone and amino acids), fought each other with the dowels and purposely rubbed spit-soaked yarn on my hands as helped them string everything together.

When I saw the project would not be finished in time I told everyone to clean up and that I’d be speaking to their parents. Rather than listing their misdeeds, I calmly let each mother or nanny know the class could have gone a little better and next time I would appreciate a bit more attention. I couldn’t say what I was feeling. Your kid is a monster, is not conductive to problem-solving.

Over the weekend my boss called his teaching staff to have a discussion on classroom management. (He claims I’m not the only person who’s been having these troubles). I vented my issues and received advice. My boss said because the children who attend this particular school are affluent they are more likely to test new people. Others said I should be more of a disciplinarian and establish class rules from the start or move seats around so friends don’t sit with one another.

These suggestions make sense, and I will begin to use them, but I know they will make me incredibly uncool. Ever since beginning this job I’ve had a clash of identities. There’s Mr. Caputo the professional and Joe the young graduate student. (To even counter the title I go by Mr. Joseph in some of my classes). Can my role as a disciplinarian to this kindergarten group coexist with the laid-back, fun classroom I want to run? It can with the middle-schoolers, but with the young kids I have to be the adult.

I’m dreading this coming Monday when I have to face them again. I’ll begin by reminding those six students how I spoke to their parents and my right to remove them from my classroom. I will not speak unless the room is silent and will take things away if they are not used properly. For that one kid who was able to listen and work last Monday, I’m sorry, but this is the way I have to be if we’re going to learn science.

Posted by Joseph, under Mr. Caputo  |  Date: February 5, 2008
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Mr. Caputo Explains Thermostats


After the MLK holiday, it was time for my next assignment as a newly hired science teacher for a small company in Massachusetts that programs extracurricular and in-school classes for elementary and middle school students.The topic this time was thermostats. Conceptually easy enough: It’s hot, switch on, it’s cold switch off. Modern units often use a bi-metallic coil, which moves in one direction as the heat rises and the other as it cools so both extremes can be controlled.

The project, however, was a bit trickier. I was to help each 3rd to 8th grade kid in the group make a thermostat that turns on and off when the air inside a balloon-covered cup expanded or contracted in hot or cold water.

A little more complicated but it could be done. When I began to get nervous was a few days before when I was told this group of kids had some learning disabilities but were very high functioning. Just repeat things a couple of times and give them extra time after asking a question said the dean of the school.

The afternoon of the class, after setting up the materials and gathering the group, I knew I was in for it. My getting to know you exercise quickly fizzled, I couldn’t give them time to think about questions because two kids kept on raising their hands right away to give me wrong answers, and no one wanted to volunteer to be molecules for my ingenious explanation of what happens to gas molecules when they are heated.The moment I thought I had captured their attention, someone called out, “When can we do our projects?” That’s when I knew I had the power. “Well, gee” I thought aloud, “I’d really like to get to the projects, but I just want to make sure you understand how it works.”

Having to now be a disciplinarian, I began to use years of tactics teachers used on me to get the kids to behave: “I already explained this but you were talking, you’re going to have to ask you’re neighbor,” or “If you’re listening, raise your hand.”
In the end the projects were completed and parents were impressed. Sure the balloons wouldn’t fit on the cups and some of the pieces were in the wrong directions, but as long as their light bulb went off to show the switch worked, they were happy.

I on the other hand, felt like I had failed. I spent so much time preparing an explanation of the science, I thought they would be at the edge of their seats in fascination. It made me wonder how many times one of my teachers left the classroom unsure if they made a difference. I guess I’ll have to go back next week a little wiser and try again.

Posted by Joseph, under Mr. Caputo  |  Date: January 25, 2008
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Mr. Caputo Explains Fire


After being hired as an after-school science teacher, I wasn’t sure what to expect as I traveled to different elementary and middle schools across Massachusetts. Today, I met my first group.The nine middle-schoolers looked bored as they wait in the cafeteria. They had been in classes since the early morning and it was now late afternoon and there they were, still in school. Heads finally come to rest on comfortable spots of fluffy jackets when I, with a big box and a suitcase on wheels, beckoned them into the cooking room. It was time for science.

Earlier in the day, I was pacing in my room, experiencing a bout of performance anxiety. For the first time, I would be alone. I would not be an assistant or an observer, I would be the teacher, responsible for keeping an entire class of Watertown 11-year-olds well-behaved, entertained and educated for an hour and a half. On top of that, my first lesson was the about cannons, which involved making small working mini-projectiles. Oh, and thanks to Monday’s storm a tree fell on my car the night before so I needed to hitch a ride, but that’s another story.

Before being able to explain cannons I first needed to make sure I understood fire. It’s a good quest to ask yourself, what is fire? If you’re Wikipedia, you’d respond “A rapid oxidation process that creates light, heat, and smoke, and varies in intensity.” If you’re The American Heritage Dictionary you’d say, “A rapid, persistent chemical change that releases heat and light and is accompanied by flame.” Luckily, neither are standing in front of the classroom. For a child, or an adult for that matter, phrases such as “rapid oxidation process” or “accompanied by flame” are nonsensical and don’t actually convey what fire is. The Straight Dope (My new favorite Web site) does an excellent job of reducing the jargon and coming up with a definition that comes close to perfect, but “body of incandescent gas” is still difficult to explain to an 11-year-old. Time was running out and I looked at the notes in my curriculum guide. Discuss oxidation and combustion it told me.

Rather than start with the circular definitions of fire I ended up asking the class what heat was. “It’s temperature,” replied one girl.

“That’s how we measure heat,” I replied. “But when we put our hand on this table or a light bulb, what makes one hot and one not?”

When the kids put on their ‘I don’t know’ faces, I explained how we sense the movement of molecules. The table molecules are not moving so fast, so we feel cold, while the light bulb molecules are moving fast so we feel heat and see light. I then asked them when they see fire. are they looking at a solid, liquid, gas, energy or something else? Three hands shot up and said energy. Wrong. We see fire because mostly gas molecules are moving just like in the light bulb, except they are very fast.

Thermodynamics is anything but easy, but I felt better about this discussion than simply throwing around empty words. By the time they were ready to build their cannons I was able to quiz them about what makes something hot and the three things necessary to build a fire (oxygen, heat and fuel) in front of the after-school supervisor. “We actually learned stuff,” said one student.

So for any teacher stuck with one day to learn how to explain climate change, photosynthesis or fire to an elementary or middle-school classroom I sympathize. There is not a lot of information easily accessible to students, and without a strong background it science, it can be nearly impossible not to get caught in the jargon. Science education would be easier for everyone if we taught even the basics conceptually rather than based on vocabulary.

It is everyone’s right to learn science, and it would be a shame for a student’s interest to end at oxidation process.

Posted by Joseph, under Mr. Caputo  |  Date: January 15, 2008
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Hello class. My name is Mr. Caputo.


The job sounded perfect. Great pay to share an interest in science with elementary school students eager for a lecture on DNA. With a few clicks, I rearranged my resumè and tried my luck.A few days later, I’m sitting in a Dunkin’ Donuts being interviewed by a young man holding an animal cell model as wide as a bathroom sink. This is what I would be making with the students he said between sips of coffee.

Fast forward to this week. I’m in training. My new boss spent two full days showing the new hires how to instruct a classroom of eight-year-olds to build everything from tornados, parallel circuits and cannons. This is my dream job, I thought, I can pay my bills and plaster my room with life-size replicas of genetic material.

The only downside is a few dozen Massachusetts second-graders will soon know me by the name of Mr. Caputo. It may not seem like a big deal, but for a 22-year-old with shaggy hair right out of college, it is an unexpected push into adulthood.

But don’t worry – this post won’t be a novella on my newly acquired quarter-life crisis, instead I’m going to explain why I’m gracefully accepting my new identity as Mr. Caputo, science teacher.

In mid-October, The Boston Globe published an editorial by Brandeis University professor Michael Rosbash, titled Why Teaching Science is Crucial. In his opinion, universities and high schools are not preparing a public able to understand science enough to see something like global warming as a threat because they are not providing enough science classes.

“The general point is that understanding science as well as our shrinking and increasingly interdependent planet often requires abandoning intuition, personal experience, and received wisdom. These can only be replaced by education.”

His opinion is nothing new, and neither is the debate he is contributing too. We have become an unscientific nation and there are many things to blame.

Scientists and educators are upset, but their demand for “Public Understanding of Science” is oddly vague. It seems to represent some undefined standardized knowledge base, as researchers often gauge it with surveys of basic science questions.

Rosbash doesn’t seem to be expressing himself or the problem clearly, but I think he is onto something by framing the solution as something able to change the way people interpret the world.

Increasing the number of science classes, however, doesn’t seem to be a way to do that. Science classes from elementary to undergraduate may teach science, but they don’t always teach scientific thinking.

Imagine a high school biology lab. The protocol is written up. There is a frog laying on its back in front of you, tools to your right as a teacher tells you to dig in. This isn’t scientific thinking. There is no problem you set out to solve. Everything is known and expected. There are even right answers.

The elementary school science fair, an annual pain for parents and children alike, works the same way. Most parents look online or buy a book laying out some nifty project, put one together, mount the procedure to some cardboard and the child gets a grade.

Scientific thinking requires problems and solutions, not arts and crafts. This is why we need Mr. Caputo. Although the program I work for produces things one may see at a science fair, the problems often begin as we construct or complete the projects.

“This tornado spun faster than my other one?” says one of the kids.

“Why?” I ask. “What did you do differently?”

This seems to be an important question since a group of kids are suddenty rattling their water and glitter filled soda bottles to make the fastest underwater cyclone. They learn a few things here: Answers aren’t always printed in a book, they take observation as well as trial and error. Science is full of different interpretations. And to get the answer (or the fastest tornado) may requires a stretch in imagination.

My job as Mr. Caputo is to help students explore the kinds of thinking possible with science, a skill they can take with them to use throughout their entire education and adult life. It’s something worth sacrificing my once youthful identify for.

Posted by Joseph, under Mr. Caputo  |  Date: January 9, 2008