A crystallizing moment in the day of an award-winning teacher:
The class is in the midst of trying to map out the human nervous system. The arms and hands of Janet Hartlove plot out the receptors and neurons as if on a giant scale.
Her class is with her. Her thin arm rises up over her students, her hand dangling down, and she holds the pose for a long, still moment. Here is an electrical impulse, and everyone can see it's about to leap across the synapses.
The moment is caught. What's next? It takes merely an arch of the teacher's eyebrow to pose that question.
All 27 girls in this class at Baltimore's Western High School, it seems, now have something to say. Remarkably, when Janet Hartlove asks a question, her students respond not with the one-word answer that students typically resort to, but with arguments, explanations, supporting figures -- thoughts, in a word. Ms. Hartlove teaches a course called "Computers in Science" at Western, a course she designed herself, and one that was made possible by a grant she garnered that put 20 computers into her lab.
Ms. Hartlove is, in the view of a panel of scientists and educators, one of the nation's outstanding science teachers, and next week, at the White House, she'll be among 54 presented with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching, and the $7,500 grant that goes with it.
Yesterday's lesson had to do with how fast students could respond to a signal -- either visual or auditory -- but more than that it had to do with creating ways to solve problems, with analyzing results, and with learning to use computers as tools rather than as answerers.
Sure, said Ms. Hartlove, a lot of her students are "computer-phobic" in September, "but over time the computer just becomes another lab partner."
"Part of it," she said, "is seeing it as an aid to what you are doing, not a black box that sits over there and does magic."
So her students yesterday were calculating their response times to a signal (a beep or a blinking light) by pushing keys on the computer. And then they did it again -- with interference. The interference was the creative part. One team of girls abused the test-taker in their group with songs and finger-snaps. Another team obscured a light signal by shining another light onto it. A third indulged in jabs and hair-stroking.
And the response times -- as measured by their computers -- invariably went up.
Without the computers, it would have been impossible to measure the responses down to the millisecond. But it was the students who devised the experiments, and the students who drew the conclusions. Another digression: How many of you do your homework, Ms. Hartlove wanted to know, with the TV or radio on?
Everyone put a hand up.
"The music is on, but I'm not listening to it," explained Rashida Rowe. "It keeps me awake, because otherwise I'd fall asleep."
"Yes, yes, I've heard this all before," said Ms. Hartlove. "Can your audio receptors say, 'I'm not going to listen to this'?"
Here she let the matter drop. But she had effectively used a computer lesson on the function of nerves and the brain to get her students thinking about thinking.
Amy Dodson, an 11th-grader, said afterward she enjoys the class, and -- get this -- she enjoys the homework, because she likes to participate, and she likes to think.
In hundreds of classrooms, across Baltimore and across the country, students are drilled into providing a single "correct" -- and short -- answer to any question. Nuances and contexts and buttressing arguments are not part of the program. Ms. Hartlove said many of her students are no different when they come to her, even though Western is a selective, citywide high school.
It takes about two weeks of her prodding to break them of that, she said. "I'm not into one-word answers."
That means essays on her tests, too. "What they think and how they think is what I'm interested in," she said. And if it means two to three hours a night preparing, and all day Sunday marking papers, well, that's what it takes to do it right.
She's not the kind of teacher, whose attitude is, "OK, open your head and I'm going to shovel it in," said Andrea Bowden, the school system's curriculum specialist for science, and a 1983 winner of the same presidential award.
"Let's get back to the original question" is one of the lines that keeps cropping up as Ms. Hartlove teaches. Fine: What makes her an award-winning teacher is that she makes students care about learning. She's 45, she has taught in Baltimore since 1971, and says she'd be bored to death if she didn't try to keep fresh.
So she's a science teacher who assigns essays and requires her students to read the newspaper. She'll use events in the news to talk about issues in science. Learning, in her classroom, means grappling with questions of medical ethics, gene technology, birth defect screening.