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Winona science teacher uses likability to reach students

March 2, 2019
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Joseph Cynor, an eighth-grade science teacher at Winona Middle School, directs students on where to stand in the stairwell to watch their peers try to create the biggest explosion they can from vinegar and baking soda, Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (Madeline Heim/The Daily News via AP)

WINONA, Minn. (AP) — The scent of vinegar permeated Joseph Cynor’s classroom on a recent afternoon, and one of his eighth-grade students wasn’t shy about letting him know.

“Are you guys complaining about my smell already?” Cynor joked as he entered the room and instructed everyone to pick up a pair of safety goggles.

His class was about to undertake their most dangerous experiment yet: mixing vinegar and baking soda to determine the chemical composition that would produce the biggest explosion. After concocting their perfect mix, they gathered in the nearby stairwell and watched their peers try to send the cap on the tiny vial as high as it could go — a few inches, several feet or even all the way over the railing.

But the trickiest part was still to come, Cynor said later, which would be walking them through the actual science behind the experiment the next day.

“That’s where I lose some of them,” he said to the Winona Daily News. “I try to do the inquiry, hands-on part first. Hopefully they’re thinking, ‘Why did those two chemicals react?’”

It’s no surprise that Cynor is trying to figure out what his students are thinking. In his 15 years teaching science at Winona Middle School, he’s placed a heavy emphasis on identifying what makes kids tick.

One of the first assignments in his eighth-grade earth science class is called “What Do You Have In Common With Mr. Cynor?” Sometimes it’s a love for science, he said. Sometimes it’s a love for the outdoors, for basketball or baseball, for achieving goals or even for YouTube, of which he has a channel — Cynor Science — created just for them. The connection, even if it’s only a single one, is important.

“If we have that relationship, then they’re more likely to listen and follow directions and pay attention and that sort of thing,” Cynor said. “Not everybody likes science. But if they like their teacher, they’re more apt to give it a try.”

After graduating from Winona State University in 2002, Cynor took his first teaching job in Alaska, in a remote Yupik Eskimo village on an island in the Bering Sea. There were no roads; only a few plane rides could get you there, he recalled.

But it was far from his first venture into the world of the outdoors. Growing up in northern Wisconsin is what led him to earth science in the first place. And after spending time in college coaching girls sports in the Lewiston-Altura school district, he was sold on becoming a teacher, too.

“I love being outdoors anyway,” Cynor said. “And then to study the outdoors, to study how landforms are created and how rivers change and ancient glaciations, basically trying to figure out how the earth ticks a little bit, just brought out another dimension for me.”

The YouTube channel arose in 2015 with a video on the sun and the solar system. It began as a study tool, to help students who might not have understood the day’s lesson review it before coming back to class. Now it’s morphed into a different way to show kids the intricacies of science, from earthquakes to the polar vortex to a super wolf blood moon.

Sometimes the students are in the videos. Others he makes on his own time, like on a recent trip to Alaska. And when a video goes viral, they’re the first to notice.

“The kids like that too. They’ll tell me, ‘Hey Mr. Cynor, your Throw a Better Bag With Science video is up to 20,000 views,’ and we’ll check it out and they’re all excited about how many views I have and how many subscribers I have,” Cynor said. “They’re more excited about it than I am.”

His students would argue, however, that his energy in the classroom matches theirs. It’s just one of many praises they had for him.

“Mr. Cynor knows a lot about science. He’s really energetic and considerate when he’s teaching,” said Roman Kauphusman.

“He’s positive, he thinks positive,” said Kennedy Meier.

He works hard to make sure his students are “successful, safe, nice and included,” said Taylor Losinski, and Marissa McNally added that he gives good advice.

As a parent of three, Cynor said that experience has underlined the importance of helping the whole student. Knowing that he’s a positive influence in their lives, whether that be in modeling responsibility, organization, meeting deadlines or balancing academic and social obligations, he said it’s now his favorite part of being a teacher.

Another important part? Being humble. Cynor remembered a key moment during his time student teaching in Trempealeau when he shattered a beaker while trying to demonstrate plate tectonics and, in his rush to clean it up, got a piece of glass stuck in his hand. It remained there for over a decade, something he’d feel each time he leaned on a lab table, until it finally popped out last year.

“Just one of my many screw-ups,” he said, chuckling. “You have to have some humility if you’re going to be a teacher. You have to be able to laugh at yourself sometimes.”

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Information from: Winona Daily News, http://www.winonadailynews.com