The coffee maker was working overtime in the office attached to Zack Griffin’s sixth-grade classroom at Mackinaw Trail Middle School in Cadillac. On the heels of a long 14-hour day on Monday, the first-year science teacher arrived at 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday to set up for a lab.
School started at 7:40, and he was hosting a 7 a.m. meeting of the staff’s new Grief Crisis Team, so he needed to be ready for class before then. The time crunch meant this varsity football coach was too tired to watch the college football national championship game the night before.
“I got up at four this morning, and it was coffee, lots of coffee, and more coffee,” he said, clutching a stainless steel container of more coffee to his chest as he greeted students with jokes and high-fives in the doorway of his classroom before the start of first hour.
Frank Sinatra crooned “Luck be a Lady Tonight” over speakers inside. Students entered, talking to friends, taking a seat to read directions projected on the white board: “Pencil, bathroom, expos. If you do not have these things, or don’t do them and ask, you will be marked tardy.”
Underneath the reminders were riddles for them to puzzle over, including this one: “A man was driving a black car. His lights were off. The moon shown no light. A cat was in the middle of the road. How did he know to stop?”
After the bell rang, one student raised her hand to solve it. “It was daytime.”
When Griffin began giving directions for the lab, he paced back and forth, his voice remaining steady in tone until dropping like a rock at the end of each sentence – in the style of an Army commander talking to recruits. He mixed good-character reminders with lab instructions.
“You will be respectful. You need to know it’s OK if we don’t get everything we want. It’s part of having a good attitude.”
They would work in groups to test guesses about where the world’s water exists. Each team was given a graduated cylinder and pipette (like a mini eyedropper) plus one liter of water to divide among one 1,000 ml container and five 300 ml cups – all with measuring marks on the side.
They had to label the containers as ice, groundwater, lakes, swamps, rivers, and ocean – then decide how much water to put in each one. The sixth graders had earlier begun a unit of study on the hydropsphere – the interactions of water in the Earth’s system.
As the students debated amounts and poured water into glass beakers, Griffin circulated to ask questions and challenge thinking. “Why do you think there’s so much groundwater? Is there more groundwater than there is in lakes? What about ice? Where is there ice in the world?”
His queries sparked doubt and further discussion. Water was traded from one beaker to another. Most every group picked the “ocean” container to be the biggest, and their fill lines ranged from 400 to 800 milliliters. Other sources of water had 50-300 ml each.
“It’s great to see them working with graduated cylinders,” he said, surveying the scene with satisfaction. “We hadn’t done any of that before.”
Students drew a picture on one side of a worksheet to represent their guesses.
Finally, it was the moment of truth. Griffin worked through the answers for the smaller water sources in millileters – rivers (.1); lakes (.1); swamps (.2); groundwater (9); ice (20.6) – before finishing with the amount students should have had in the ocean container: 970 ml.
Students gasped. Their mouths dropped open and stayed there.
“Immediately we have to look at how much water we have to drink – it’s only 9 millileters out of 1,000,” he told the class. “Is that a big percentage?”
He did the math. “So .9 percent of the Earth’s water is drinkable. Is that an issue?”
One surprised boy raised his hand. “More and more if we run out, we’ll have to find a way to make the ocean water drinkable, and only some of us would be close to it,” said Achilles Luther. “It’s a very dark thought.”
Griffin directed the class to write down the correct answers and reallocate the water in the beakers now that they understood why they were given pipettes to use. Ten drops from the dropper represented .1 ml. But suddenly Griffin glanced at the clock.
“8:26! Holy smokes. Here’s what I need you to do. Stop what you’re doing, and look at me. I need your eyes… Ellie, put down your pencil…”
The class was told to clean up and get back to their seats. It was time to draw a bar graph on the back side of their worksheet to represent the breakdown of water sources. Griffin told the students to remember to label both axes in the graph, but many didn’t know what to do.
Time was short, and Griffin still had morning announcements to do. He circulated briefly to help groups of students at their table clusters. Others strained to look on and adjust their drawings. Announcements were given. Soon the bell rang, and the scramble to get to second hour began.
Griffin dashed in the boys’ restroom next door, and returned to find a student pulling wrinkled papers and other detritus out of her locker on to the hallway floor. “What the heck are you looking for?” Griffin asked the girl with amusement.
“I want to change into my shoes, because my boots are uncomfortable!” she shouted.
Griffin chuckled. “A bunch of characters is what they are. I’m never surprised, and I’m never bored.”
He teaches three sections of the same science class before lunch, and one after eating, so not much opportunity exists to refine his lessons from one to the next. But he’s reached the point of the year when he knows each class has a distinct personality, so he naturally adjusts.
Every time he teaches a lesson, Griffin also sees where the points of confusion are, he says. “Usually by about fourth hour, I’ve got it down,” he joked.
Hour after hour, he delivered the same lab instructions. Sometimes he emphasized the behavioral expectations more strongly. Other times, he tried to build enthusiasm and engagement: “Their minds were blown by this lab last hour,” he told one class. “They said, ‘You are full of baloney, Mr. Griffin,’ and I said, ‘Nope, it’s science.’”
Every class seemed interested in the work, and all were shocked by the true answers. His toughest class (right before lunch) was louder than others, but engaged in the task. When Griffin listed the water amounts, they shouted out loud – even while wiggling and dancing in place.
“What?” “Lakes aren’t even a whole number?” “No way!” “How is this true?”
Griffin altered his explanations as the day went on, finding ways to show students how to turn parts of 1,000 ml into a percentage and demonstrating how to draw and label a bar graph. Next time he would use 100 ml total water to make percentages easier to figure, he said.
One beaker was broken – by an overactive group led by a girl who hadn’t taken her ADHD medication, he said. He caught one student copying answers from an earlier hour before even starting the lab. Overall, though, “This is the best day we’ve had in a while.”
Lunch was early (10:45 a.m.) and a blur. It lasted 25 minutes, but Griffin didn’t sit and eat the whole time. He stopped in the faculty break room, swapped stories and laughs with colleagues, and was back on the move – popping in the office, greeting students in the hall, pulling pencils out of locker jams – on his way back to his room.