2012 Larry Walker, Calabasas High School

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Larry Walker of Calabasas High School

2012 Paul Shin Memorial Outstanding High School Teacher of the Year Recipient

In today’s schools you find a very scary statistic: 50% of all new teachers quit after five years. This year’s ACS Outstanding High School Chemistry Teacher has surpassed that milestone nine times. Larry Walker has been teaching high school chemistry for 46 years now and shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, I think he can outlast most people one-third his age.

I first met Larry at an Occidental High School Chemistry Teachers Meeting in 1991 where we were both presenting. As a relatively young and new teacher I was interested in seeing what others were doing. He did not disappoint. Larry completely blew us away with an hour-long talk on integrating food into your lectures, and none of it involved eating! He extracted compounds, used as novel sources for his labs, and showed how to never let anything go to waste. He brought in recycling and being green long before it was a mainstream topic for high school courses. In fact, his science was “integrated” long before the catch phrase caught on. He finished the talk with a poem that we found sarcastic and pretty funny. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the power of his poems.

In the last 15 years or so I have had the pleasure of teaching with Larry once a month at the UCLA AP Readiness Program and at countless workshops. It is in this program that I have realized I have been watching a true master at work. Larry has some of the most innovative ideas for presenting material that I have ever seen. His examples are not the normal everyday ones we all use in our classes, but instead are the ones that involve everyday items we would not normally dream of bringing into our lessons. Samples of Mono Lake water serve as excellent acid base demonstrations. His rock collection is not just a hobby but a tool for teaching chemistry, even more then Earth Sciences. His poems are legendary. Most students will boo them on their first exposure, full of puns and bad rhymes, but once you actually start to read them you realize just how insightful they are for presenting difficult concepts. His students come to appreciate them once they make the connection that his poems represent the material he is trying to teach.

Larry grew up in the San Fernando Valley back when it was mostly farmland. He attended what is now called CSUN for his Bachelors and UCLA for his Masters. He started teaching at Notre Dame High School in September 1966. I find this amazing since I was born in October of 1966. He moved to Calabasas High School in 1977 and has been there ever since. In those years he has taught as diverse subjects as Oceanography and Ecology, coached Track and Field, and his mainstay for most of his career has been Chemistry and AP Chemistry. He also coaches Science Bowl and other academic endeavors.

Larry’s best known contribution to chemical education may be his involvement in the first UCLA Science Project in the summer of 1983. This was a collection of truly outstanding chemical educators, many of whom are still quite active. The group he was part of went on to produce the ACS “Doing Chemistry” laser discs and associated curriculum. In the fall of 1983, I was a student at North Hollywood High taking chemistry for the first time. I thought the course was excellent and it convinced me to pursue a career in chemistry. When I started teaching and examined the “Doing Chemistry” materials I recognized many of the lessons as ones that I had done as a student back in 1983. I was a guinea pig for these lessons and many of them were Larry’s creations.

Larry has presented countless workshops for CSTA, NSTA, ACS, and GLATSA. He has been a keynote speaker for Science Teacher events and published in The Journal of Chemical Education, NSTA Papers, and even published some of his poems.

Not many others know that Larry was a participant in every Olympic trial from 1968 to 1988. He twice made the US team—once in 1976 for Montreal and then the 1980 Moscow games but was blocked by the US boycott from attending. His event was the 20 km walk race. In fact, he held American records in the 2-mile indoor and outdoor events.

– Michael A. Morgan, SCALACS Education Committee Chair
Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School

Larry Walker is fond of using poems to teach chemistry and as part of his acceptance speech for the Teacher of the Year award, he shared with us the following poem:

Sharing the Fumes
by Larry Walker

In the dim light of the morning, when the day begins to warming
We stand before our students in the lab.
Wen entrance them with equations, and explode things on occasion
And the sight of neon’s spectrum drives us mad!
We have stench and vapors rancid and we love Butyric Acid
And a day without a lab-spill makes us sad.

There are tales we tell, and some of them true:
Of hatters who dusted with Mercury Chloride,
Of early chemists who tasted the fluorides…
(And where are they now?)
Of old Napoleon’s tragic demise
As arsenous vapors did slowly arise,
The life and death of Lavoisier
Whose eyelids were said to be blinking away,
As guillotine severed French science one day.

Fritz Haber who’s given us World War I
By making ammonia, but look what he’s done.
2/3 of Earth’s people we could not sustain,
But the Green Revolution – it grew from his brain.

I am filled with heartfelt gratitude,
And thank you for this latitude.
But if I speak longer, I fear you’ll grow weary,
And before with emotion, I get weepy, teary,
I’ll just say God Bless you to each and every one,
And grant you relief – this poem is done!