Classic explosions, compounds and chocolate

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Gill Brown reports on prizewinning chemistry teachers.

Each year, the Salters' Institute has offered four chemistry teaching awards worth pound;3,000: pound;1,500 for the candidate and pound;1,500 for their school science department. Open to teachers who have been in the profession between two and seven years, it aims to celebrate and encourage good practice. This was the last of the awards in their current format as the Institute are reviewing all their programmes for teachers and will consequently announce a new programme.

Natasha Jovanovic Callaghan (left) The Ravensbourne school, Bromley, Kent (5A*-C grades 45 per cent 2003) As a child growing up in Belgrade, Natasha Jovanovic Callaghan was taught all three science subjects separately from Year 4 at primary school. She was surprised to find that the syllabus for under-11s is so different in Britain. She sees Year 7 children puzzled by the bewildering language and ideas of chemistry. "Science is all about logical thinking," she says. "The challenge at this age is to help them see the chemical ideas in ways they can easily grasp."

In 1991, Natasha was an assistant teacher at Belgrade University doing a Master's degree in solid state fermentation. She came to Britain for a crash course in English, but then war broke out in Serbia. While here waiting for sanctions to lift, she married and today teaches chemistry at a large comprehensive school with a high number of special needs children.

Natasha believes all children benefit from clear structure. Lessons are broken down in this way: a clearly stated objective then a variety of activities including collaborative learning, video discussion, pupil presentations, games and last, the plenary. "Year 7 pupils especially don't like change and it's important they understand the reason for learning certain things."

Each lesson includes something for every type of learner. So, in a lesson on distillation, for example, "listeners" will pick up on her presentation; visual learners are helped by the colours in the PowerPoint presentations denoting, for example, the differences between solvent, solute and a solution. Finally, those who respond to practical examples get the chance to work hands-on, either through the experiments or collaborative games.

Ian Bellamy Birchgrove comprehensive, Swansea (5A*-C 39 per cent 2003) A visitor to Ian Bellamy's Year 11 chemistry class might be forgiven for thinking they were in the wrong lesson. Pupils are playing games: Bingo, True or False and the intriguingly named Play Your Atomic Cards Right.

There's no time for anyone to get bored and everyone has a chance to join in. These games are the result of Ian's experience of being thrown in the deep end when he had to teach physics in his first job. He didn't find it easy and realised that he and his classes were finding the subject dull.

In common with most teachers, he had limited resources, so set about devising activities that were cheap, fun and stretched the pupils.

"Chemistry in particular can seem baffling to some children," he says.

"They see it as a different language."

As pupils can find if difficult to understand the formulae of compounds, he's produced a jigsaw puzzle based on squares. To choose the right combination to form a square, pupils fit the pieces together. Each is designed as a positive or negative ion with chunks added or taken out according to their chemical structure. Chemistry lessons are, Ian hopes, rarely dull, sparkling with quizzes and card games. "I try to ensure there is something for everyone. That way, no one leaves feeling they have failed."

Dr Sharon Marsden Durham high school for girls (5A*-C 98 per cent 2004) Girls and chocolate. A well-tried recipe for success and satisfaction. That is the view of Sharon Marsden, who has chocolate rewards available in class. It's a trick that goes down well, but the real result is the enjoyment pupils get from teamwork.

"Generating positive response in an energetic environment is rewarding for me as a teacher," says Sharon. "I try to throw in an element of surprise in each lesson and let the girls discover it for themselves." This way, she believes, they start taking responsibility for their learning, something that pays dividends in the long run.

While doing her PhD, Sharon taught some girls privately and loved it. She became fascinated with learning styles and now tries to put those who learn in the same mode in the same group while including the widest range of methods possible.

One that goes down well is a competition to unscramble words in a lesson about separation techniques. Teams are given a worksheet with key words scrambled up. It is a race to unscramble them and then run to the board to list them and put together the final missing phrase. "It's like a PE class with everyone rushing around," says Sharon. Perhaps that way they work off the chocolate.

Angela Brown Long Road sixth form college, Cambridge "Chemistry is everywhere, everyone should be able to relate to it," says Angela Brown, who believes this is the key to successful teaching. Giving pupils practical work and cutting down on writing can help them to see how chemistry works in action. She believes in taking pupils out of the classroom as often as possible. She encourages students to use computer simulations to vary outcomes, keeping them engaged with the process and the end result.

Angela knew she wanted to teach chemistry while still at school, where she was inspired by teachers who taught her that chemistry is fun. Later, she ran a chemistry summer camp and loved working with teenagers. Today, she enjoys the challenge and variety that chemistry teaching brings and shares the excitement of experiments with her class. Even the old classic - exploding potassium in water - gets pupils going.

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