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Green horse-s

This is the infamous green horse that I keep around to remind me that I’m not as great as I think I am.

In my last post, I talked about the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and how he resolves the false dichotomy of classic versus romantic ideals through the concept of quality. He also talks about what he calls the “gumption trap,” which has become all too clear to me working with students for over 28 years. We get into this trap of losing motivation and enthusiasm part way through a difficult project or challenge. This can be because of external setbacks or internal hang-ups. Much has been said recently about the importance of “grit” or “resilience” in students, of teaching them how to persist in the face of challenges and how to stay motivated when they hit the halfway slump.

As an example, my family and I have been watching a reality show that involves teams of two people racing across the country, meeting unknown relatives and solving challenges. I’ve noticed a pattern. Some of the teams have been Millennials who seem to have unusual difficulty with challenges. When they fail a few times, they tend to fall apart and give up trying. Of course, the stress factor is greatly increased by having cameras shoved in your face as you fail. Other teams (often older people) have shown persistence and problem-solving skills when faced by the same challenges and have ultimately succeeded even though their basic knowledge and skills were the same going in. Halfway through the 10-day race, the teams’ enthusiasm starts to slip and they have to start reaching for an inner quality of persistence.

Brain hemispheres-s

Most recent research contradicts the idea that our brain hemispheres are completely different, the left hemisphere good for logic and math, the right good for art and holistic viewpoints. Instead, both hemispheres are used for all types of activities and are not as differentiated.

I am at this point in the book project I am writing and illustrating. I made a great initial effort earlier this year and created twelve illustrations. I ran into some issues with mixing ink that I thought was waterproof (but wasn’t) with watercolors, and that stumped me for a while. Then I hurt my right hand playing racquetball and it is still healing; it hurts to hold writing or drawing pens. These setbacks have led to a slowdown of the entire project. I need to rise above the challenges and get going on the project again. At the very least, I can continue to type the text while my hand heals. I need to get motivated again and get over this midpoint slump.

Persistence and resilience are not easy to teach. We need to begin with developing students’ meta-cognitive problem-solving skills as part of their project-based learning education. For example, how to break a difficult task down into manageable daily chunks. If you’re going to drive from Minnesota to California on a motorcycle, you’d better plan your route, figure out where to stop for rests, meals, and sleep, and plan for the inevitable setbacks of bad weather or breakdowns. A certain mindset of flexibility, mindfulness, and growth are needed. People who are too rigid or who view the world in terms of black and white, success and failure (perfectionism, all or nothing, etc.) will be the most likely to give up part way through a project. Success is not immediate and may take several iterations, and it should be a learning process. It’s not about the destination but the journey.

Diagram-fixed vs growth mindset-s

A diagram comparing the types of thought processes and beliefs in people with fixed versus growth mindsets.

Dealing with Failure: The Growth Mindset

I have a goal to apply for one teacher grant or program each month, partly so that I am always sharpening my resume and collecting new letters of recommendation but also because I always need extra funds for projects. I usually fail; my success rate was at about 35% at one point in 2015 but is now down closer to 25%. I don’t know if this is because I’ve become too successful or too old or have merely entered a more rarified level of competition because I’ve already won the easy stuff. It means on average that I need to apply for at least 8-9 opportunities to get the two successes per year that I desire. I have failed more times than I can count, and some of those failures have meant a great deal of effort and wasted time. I collect rejection letters and put them in a Book of Rejection, not to discourage myself, but to remind me of the cost of my successes. Rejection is simply part of the process of eventual success.

One of the greatest opportunities I’ve had was to be an Educator Facilitator for the NASA Explorer Schools program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You could only apply once per year, and I was finally selected on my fourth try. Each year I worked to make myself more appealing through volunteer activities and the Solar System Educator Program until I finally reached their criteria for selection (or they got tired of reading my applications).

Green horse on steps-s

I am forced to conclude that no matter how I try to artistically pose the green horse, it is still ugly.

A Green Horse

When I was in middle school I took an art class with a unit on ceramics. I learned how to make different types of pots – a coil pot, a pinch pot, a slab pot. I tried and failed to throw a pot on a potter’s wheel. At the end, I decided to build a sculpture of my grandfather’s horse, which was named Sob (or SOB, which is what my grandfather always called it – only not as an acronym). I tried doing this without actually looking at a photo of a horse. The clay was too wet and slumped a bit in the legs, which were too straight and too thick. The nose looked more like a donkey or some kind of funky mule. Then I tried to find some brown glaze for it and came across an unlabeled pot of a nice reddish-brown color. When it came out of the kiln, the brown glaze had turned to a beautiful translucent green. Talk about a horse of a different color!

A have kept that sorry horse all my life as a reminder that I’m not nearly as great as I think I am. It is a constant reminder to rise above failure. Whenever I get down on myself after many rejections in a row, I look at that horse and say to myself, “I may be a sorry horse of a different color, but I’m still standing just like that green horse. I haven’t been accepted to this program yet, but I probably came close. Maybe next time I’ll do better.”

I have tried for the Einstein Fellowship twice now, and failed both times. But I did make it to the semi-finalist round both times, which meant free trips to Washington D.C. to meet the other semi-finalists (36 of us interviewing for 12 positions). It took a lot of effort to write the essays, get the letters of recommendation, travel to D.C., and do the interviews. And I failed. Twice. Each time we were told to keep our phones with us and they would call us if we were the first choice of the agency, or if we were the second choice and the first choice declined. We had to keep the phone with us for an entire week, but each day the probability of being chosen dropped dramatically and my hope died with it. I tried willing my phone to ring: “Ring, darn you, ring!” Finally, a rejection e-mail was sent to the 24 of us who failed.

Growth mindset self-talk

The types of self-talk carried on by people with growth versus fixed mindsets. My challenge is to provide opportunities for my students to build success and to start changing their self-talk.

But if I look at this with a growth mindset, I see that I made it to a rarified position each time. I was a semi-finalist, one of only 36 out of hundreds who applied. I got a free trip to Washington D.C. and stayed in a hotel just two blocks from the National Air and Space Museum, one of my favorite places. I got the chance to learn more about the Noyce Scholarship program, and I got to meet and talk with 35 amazing teachers. I heard about other programs to apply for from them, and I learned about myself in the process. I did my best, I made it far, and I can always try again.

Some Characteristics of a Growth Mindset

I received an e-mail from another teacher last fall that included a link to an article about the characteristics of a growth mindset. The site included a series of mini-posters that you can print out with various motivational lists, including how to foster creativity, be more optimistic or happy, and reduce stress. I have twelve of them posted in my room now. The site is: https://www.innerdrive.co.uk/resources/

Here is their list of attributes for someone who has a growth mindset:

  1. Effort: Achieving quality on a project takes effort – not infinite effort, but you certainly can’t do a quick or sloppy job and expect quality as a result. Students have to put in the time and thought needed to achieve quality.
  2. Courage: Some students fear success, or have anxiety over ever achieving it. Quality means stretching oneself, and that takes courage and the ability to take risks.
  3. Learning: Quality is a learning process, not a destination or a fixed bar to jump over. It takes time and requires changing one’s mind about things.
  4. Curiosity: You have to have some enthusiasm for the topic to be willing to put in the effort to dig deeply enough to develop a high quality result. If you don’t care, or are apathetic, you won’t achieve quality.
  5. Feedback: Since quality is a process, it requires receiving feedback and frequent formative assessment and re-direction. If you don’t get feedback from reliable experts, you won’t know if you have achieved quality or not. This is why science conferences with poster sessions and concurrent presentations are so important – to receive feedback from knowledgeable peers.
  6. Challenge: Doing something that is easy isn’t going to teach you anything. Projects should stretch students’ abilities, help them develop new skills as well as content knowledge, and be authentic and engaging. I’ve seen high school students do amazingly difficult things, such as presenting a scientific poster at a conference of professional astronomers. If properly engaged, students can achieve quality beyond your wildest expectations.
  7. Persistence: This means resilience in the face of setbacks and failures, grit, being willing to revise and fix problems, and keeping with a project even when you hit that midpoint slump. It means putting in the final 80% to get that 20% of shine on a project.
  8. High Standards: You don’t do students a favor by making the projects too easy or accepting anything less than excellence. As long as they have the opportunity for revisions and the time to do them, you should expect professional quality.

Another poster has five self-talk suggestions to help maintain a growth mindset:

  1. Don’t say, “I can’t do it” because with the proper resources, time, and motivation, everyone can.
  2. The Power of Yet: If you fail, look at it as temporary and part of the road to eventual success by saying, “I didn’t succeed – yet!”
  3. Ask yourself, “What could I have done differently?” Don’t just accept the failure and forget about it. Learn from it. Decide how you could have done it better. But don’t dwell on it overmuch. Resolve to do differently, then try again.
  4. Failing better or failing up: Sometimes setbacks are not really failures but opportunities for course corrections and better eventual success. The Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts was a terrible failure for NASA and almost destroyed the Moon program. Fortunately, instead of giving up, NASA resolved to learn from the accident. They fixed the problems and built a much better Apollo capsule as a result. This redesign probably saved the lives of the Apollo 13 crew.
  5. Try new things: If you fail doing things a certain way, try a different way or approach. If you keep failing at the same task, try a different task. If you continue to do the same thing the same way but expect different results, then you’re not accepting reality (this is a clinical definition of insanity).
Einstein quote

Persistence is a better predictor of success than intelligence.

Out of the Slump

As to my own persistence and resilience, I applied for nine awards or programs this year. One was an award from the Space Club that went to a teacher whom I am familiar with who is much more qualified than I, so I can’t feel badly. Others were outright rejections without explanations other than “We had many qualified teachers apply.” But out of the nine, four were successes. I applied to present at a chemistry teacher’s conference in Naperville, IL and was accepted. I applied to present at the STEM Forum and Expo of NSTA in San Francisco and was accepted. I applied for the EdD program in Innovation and School Reform through the University of Northern Colorado and was accepted. And I applied for a second time for the Teacher Innovator Institute at the National Air and Space Museum, revising my video application, and this time got accepted. I will be flying to Washington, D.C. a week from tomorrow and will be there during the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 landing, and will possibly get to meet some Apollo astronauts and work with museum personnel through a generous grant.

Unfortunately, all four of these opportunities are happening on the same day: July 25th. I had to turn down the presentations in Naperville and San Francisco (I would have had to pay my own way, anyway) and will have to fly directly from Washington, D.C. to Denver to make the mandatory orientation class for my doctorate program, then drive home in a rental car from there.

These successes have come after about 18 months of no success at all, one of the worst slumps of my career that included an unanticipated change in jobs. But I kept trying, even though it was very discouraging. If my career can teach anything, it is that persistence pays off. I try to be open with my students about the programs I am applying for, as well as my successes and failures (or not-yet-successes). I hope they can learn from it, and see that if I can do it, so can they. I may be getting old, but I’ve got some life left in me and a long buckle list of future successes to tackle.

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Zen and the Art cover

The cover to my edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, which I first read as a freshman at BYU in an Honors Colloquium class.

As a freshman at Brigham Young University forty years ago I had the privilege of taking an interdisciplinary class called Honors Colloquium. It was taught by three professors and a graduate student, including Dr. Eugene England (literature and writing), Dr. Larry Knight (physics), and Pro. Omar Kadar (political science). Our theme for the two-semester class was the intersection between Classical and Romantic modes of thought in various disciplines. We had frequent guest professors teach units on everything from international politics to science fiction to Russian literature.

Alto Computer

An Alto computer, the first to truly be a personal computer with the capability for digital drawing, music, and other forms of art. It was developed by the Palo Alto Research Center of Xerox Corporation but was never sold commercially. An article on this system written by Alan Kay titled “Microelectronics and the Personal Computer” was in the back of the Sept. 1977 edition of Scientific American, but I never found it for my paper because there was no Internet back then to do a comprehensive search by keyword. There was only the old printed periodical index . . . I do not miss those days. The article would have proven my point that computers were already beginning to become a tool for artistic expression.

One of the most influential papers I ever wrote was for this class, where I reported on how computers (the ultimate expression of Classical thought) might someday be used to create art or literature or music. When I presented my paper to the class, the professors almost laughed me to scorn. “How could a computer ever be used to do art or write great literature?” they asked. They were wrong; that paper predicted a major part of what I teach now: digital media. I am using a computer to write and distribute this very essay.

The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance

Despite the poor reception of my prophetic paper, I did learn some useful things from that class that have defined my life as an educator. One of our first reading assignments was the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This book sets out the dichotomy between Classical and Romantic ideals through a motorcycle trip across the American northwest, a kind of mobile philosophical Chautauqua. Pirsig defines the Romantic mode of thought through his friend John Sutherland’s approach to his Honda motorcycle: John is after the gestalt feeling of the open road, the experience of riding the motorcycle and living in the moment, and doesn’t know much about the nuts and bolts of keeping the bike maintained. If something goes wrong, he’ll hire a mechanic to solve it.

No Zen on a mountain top

Pirsig’s narrator, calling himself Phaedrus, was searching for the answers on his road trip through the Rocky Mountains. But the book concludes that there is no answer, no Zen to be found at the top of the mountain (the destination) but instead is found on the journey. It is the sides of the mountain as you climb, not the top, that sustain life. 

The Narrator, on the other hand, exemplifies the Classical mode. He drives an older Harley that he knows well and can troubleshoot. During the trip, while driving through Montana, he recognizes that his engine is running a bit rough, analyzes his spark plugs (which are sooty), and realizes that the high altitude is making the engine run too rich, which he easily corrects. The classical mode, therefore, gets into the nuts and bolts and mechanics of a process instead of appreciating the gestalt of the moment.

As we discussed this book in Colloquium, I came to see that it explained the two warring sides of my own personality. I had always considered myself a logical, rational, scientific kind of person (I identified the most with Spock on Star Trek) and had discounted my emotional side, yet I was continually drawn to art and music and theater, which are all romantic modes of expression. Later in the year I got myself into an embarrassing situation by not seeing the irrationality of questionable actions, which were brought on by sleep deprivation. I was a bit surprised to find out I had strong emotions after all.

Pattern of life

I have always been pulled in two directions: towards the logic and reason of science and toward the creativity and self-expression inherent in the arts. I can see these two forces clearly as I look back on my life.

I am still pulled in both directions, and this is why computer art appeals to me – both classical and romantic at the same time. I can tell you how the Color Picker in Adobe Photoshop uses 24 bit graphics, meaning each primary additive color (red, green, or blue) can have 2^8 or 256 colors, or 2^24 total colors in an image. It is all very logical, digital, rational. But I can also tell you how to blend photos seamlessly, create any image desired as a form of self-expression, and visualize what has never been conceived before. This is all very romantic and artistic. Whenever I go for too long focusing on science, I start longing to work on a nice hand-drawn art project. I’m working on a mixed media painting of Utah’s Delicate Arch right now as an illustration for a book I’m writing.

Delicate Arch-s

This is a preliminary scan of my Delicate Arch illustration for a book series I am working on. It turned out fairly well, but I need to get myself re-motivated on this project.

Another way of looking at this that is more relevant to my career: the Romantics are the Apple Macintosh people – they are after the experience and the creativity and what they can do with the computer. I am very much this way, and love my Mac. The Classicists are the Windows people that custom build their own computers and know all the components and technical details such as how to overclock the CPU, etc. This is my oldest son, who is a technical expert on video cameras and audio systems for a camera rental house in California.

Now, after more years than I care to think about, I realize that the dichotomy between Classical and Romantic is false. I find that I can both love the technical/classical aspects of a subject (such as the process of doing science, analyzing data, working with numbers, and rational reasoning) and the artistic or romantic side of education, the satisfaction of a well-taught lesson where students are moved. This is why I am a major proponent of STEAM education – to bring the arts, history, and humanities into STEM fields to ignite the creative spark and provide the context or gestalt viewpoint necessary for STEM. It is possible to be both classical and romantic at the same time; therefore, it is not really a dichotomy.

The Resolution: Quality

The Narrator of Zen and the Art, calling himself Phaedrus, tried to reconcile the two sides of this dichotomy through the concept of Quality. I never understood, at that time, exactly what he meant by Quality. I realize now that he deliberately left it undefined, except to compare it with the ancient Greek concept of arête (the Good or the Truth). The needs of the situation define what Quality must be and how to measure it. However, it must blend the technical requirements of a project (the mechanics or nuts and bolts emplaced by the grading rubric or teacher expectations) and the romantic aspects: What did the students learn, how deeply, and how have they applied their knowledge or skills? What are their overall feelings about the project, including their enthusiasm for it? What level of professionalism was achieved? These aspects are not measurable and can’t be tested at the end of the school year, but are every bit as important as the technical knowledge component. As teachers, we tend to do well at teaching the mechanics but not well at the gestalt, or overall quality of a project.

Blue-orange Jupiter-s

A sample from my current STEAM class. My students have marbled paper using oil paints diluted with mineral spirits and floated on water. These colors are swirled, then lifted off the water on paper and dried.

An Example

Let’s look at the idea of quality through an example that my STEAM students are currently completing. I will describe this course in more detail in my next post and the types of art-infused science we are attempting, but for now I will describe the central project. Each student has chosen a topic related to the history of science and the science of art, including dyes and pigments, the iron age, weaving, Native American petroglyphs, Chinese pottery, iatrochemistry (alchemical medicine), and more. It is a five-week course during this summer, and they are writing a 1500-2000 word essay on their chosen topic. This essay will become a chapter for a book we are putting together and will add to in subsequent years and perhaps even publish through an online print-on-demand service. I will publish the essays on this blogsite.

In addition to the basic essays, they are creating illustrations on their topics using a variety of art forms including pen and ink drawings using homemade iron-tannate ink, watercolors using pigments we created ourselves (we finally managed to made good red out of cochineal), copper etchings, marbled paper, tie dye, and batik. I will pick each student’s three best illustrations for the final book. They are also writing at least three sidebar articles.

Katie weaving illustration-s

This is a student’s illustration of a Navajo lady weaving a blanket, drawn using homemade iron-tannate inks. The brown ink was made using normal brown tea for the source of tannins and the black ink was made using green tea. This is a good example of the type of quality these students are achieving.

This is a high expectation for a five-week class, and to turn these essays into a professional quality book that we can publish is by no means an easy task. Many of my students have never written an essay of this length before. To ensure quality, I have set up a series of strict deadlines and checkpoints with frequent feedback and revisions. Most of the students have just turned in their rough drafts. Some will lose points for being late. These drafts were copied for two peers to go through this weekend and proofread (I’ve taught them how to use proofreading symbols) and assess for interest level and readability. Our history teacher and I are also going through the rough drafts looking for scientific and historic accuracy. The students will receive the rough drafts back next week and will make revisions. Ideally they will then be reviewed by other students who are not in our class and final revisions will be written, but that will have to happen during our second summer term when we have English classes. By the time I include the final essays in the book, they will have been reviewed by three or more people and revised twice.

This process of formative assessment and revision is essential for any quality work, be it in school or in professional life. Engineers create prototypes and test and revise them until design specifications are exceeded. School work should follow the same process. Instead of school assignments that are done once, given a final grade, and forgotten, student work should go through formative assessments, revisions, and reworking until a desired outcome of quality is reached. Perhaps not every assignment, but at least one major project per unit or at least per term should require this level of quality. This means fewer assignments but deeper learning. There should also be a public outcome – a blog post, a book, a performance or presentation before parents and peers, etc. that emphasizes the level of professionalism required.

Jazmine Canopic Jar painting-s

A painting of an Egyptian canopic jar using homemade watercolor pigments. The gray is made from soot, the red-brown from cochineal and gray mixed, the blue is Prussian blue, and the purple is a cobalt compound.

To gain professional excellence in student work, they must understand that the amount of effort needed to gain excellent quality is not a linear function.

The Quality Curve

As my diagram shows, the relationship between quality and effort is not linear. It’s exponential. Doubling the effort does not double the quality – it takes twice as much effort to get a project from good quality to excellence as it does to get it to good in the first place, but excellence is not twice as much quality as good. Achieving excellence may require a quadrupling of effort. There is a rule in business called the 80-20 Rule: it takes 80% of the effort to achieve the last 20% of quality, to get a project from good to excellent. In the real world, good isn’t good enough, only professionalism and excellence are acceptable and get your ideas noticed. But that extra bit of polish comes at a high cost in effort and time.

Quality Curve-s

This diagram represents that the relationship between effort and quality is not linear. It takes twice as much effort to get from good to excellent quality than it does to get to good quality in the first place, and perfection takes infinite effort.

At the same time, some people can be perfectionists and not know when to let go of a project and say, “It is done!” As my diagram shows, put into mathematical terms, effort is asymptotic to perfection; perfection can only be reached through infinite effort (meaning never in this mortal world). As teachers we should expect excellence, but not perfection.

I’ve seen too much of the negative side of perfectionism. In fact, is there even a positive side? I’ve seen students who show high levels of stress and anxiety because they expect (or their parents expect) too much of them; students who refuse to try anything hard because they fear to fail, or who give up after even a small setback. People who can’t let go of any mistakes but have to relive them over and over instead of moving on and learning.

As teachers, we need to build revisions into our projects, or, in other words, embrace and plan for the probability of initial failure (although failure is too strong of a word – I prefer to refer to it as “partial success” or “emerging excellence”). We should encourage students to make every project an iterative learning experience through frequent formative feedback with plenty of time for fixing mistakes. We need to help them build, test, and revise prototypes of their projects, always returning to the specifications/rubric until all expectations are met.

Mucker illustration color-s

An illustration of a mucker, a machine used to “muck” or dig up shattered rock after the face of the mine has been blasted. I started this illustration using what I thought was waterproof ink for the lines, then adding watercolor washes over the top, but the dark lines bled all over the place. I had scanned the non-colored version, so I layered the clean lines over the color image, set the blending mode to darken, and used the Clone tool to clean up the mess. I also fixed a few crooked lines. Hopefully it doesn’t look too digitized.

There is more that can be said about teaching quality, but this post is already overlong. This will be a major part of my doctoral program, which I am starting in three weeks. I will come back to this idea in future posts. In the meantime, I think its time to re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m old enough and have enough experience now that I can finally understand what Phaedrus was trying to say.

Education as Pollock painting

I found this quote on a TeachThought website. It captures the spontaneity, engagement, and creativity of extraordinary education.

Several years ago I attended the closing banquet of our state science teacher conference and overheard two teachers comparing notes in a friendly competition. They had apparently gone through the same teacher development program together. One bragged that 86% of his students had passed the state science standards test at the end of the year. The other claimed that his students had a 93% pass rate, with the implication that having more students pass the test meant that he was the better teacher.

They were both new teachers and I can forgive them their misunderstanding. I felt like jumping into the conversation to remind them that having most of their students pass the standards aligned test only proved that they were standard teachers, when what our children deserve is extraordinary teachers. Unfortunately, there is no state test for extraordinary education.

school nurse

Is our public education system ailing and in need of reform? Yes, in that it insists on treating each child like a cookie-cutter clone using a one-size-fits-all set of standards.

Would any of us recognize extraordinary education if we saw it? Can we even agree on the characteristics of extraordinary education? For my own definition, I say that students must be deeply engaged in the learning process, with memorable learning opportunities that invite active participation and critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication. In the end, education should have a lasting impact on their lives. And it should be fun, meaningful, and inherently interesting for them!

I learned during my third year of teaching that Project-Based Learning (PBL) can be a powerful route to extraordinary education. I’m not trying to say that I am an extraordinary educator, but I have tried with some success to bring meaningful opportunities to my students. To do this, I have had to look at my course standards in a different way.

Ed guidelines

There is a great need to change how we do education, but the forces that resist changes are the teachers and administrators and communities that need them the most. The bureaucracy of our school system is the very thing that holds us back. As one individual teacher, I have to accept that I may not be able to change everything, but I can at least change the way I do things.

The push for standards in education is simple to understand. We don’t want students with gaps in their understanding of the world, nor do we want teachers who are incapable of bridging those gaps. Society needs well-educated people in order for them to make informed decisions. Educational standards were developed to achieve a minimum level of essential literacy and knowledge across all students.

This brings up a deeper question: what constitutes essential knowledge? As one of my college professors put it, is there any knowledge (or skills) that a person must have? Every subject expert has a list of what he or she considers to be the essential concepts of the subject, and the list tends to multiply in any committee put together to consider new educational standards. Heaven forbid that even one math student would not understand the quadratic equation. The world might very well collapse if that happened! So we have to create a standard to address that concern, even if only a minority of teachers hold this opinion.

As a result of this drive toward comprehensiveness, all states have far too many educational standards than are truly necessary for each discipline. In chemistry, is it critically important for students to understand Le Chatelier’s Principle of Reaction Equilibrium? You’ll find it in all the state standards. But is this really necessary for what the student and society need? If taught well, it might help them understand some aspects of everyday chemistry, such as why the Haber process works to produce ammonia or why shaking a warm soda bottle causes the carbon dioxide to spray out. But can they become productive citizens without knowing this? Probably. Why force them to learn what they can easily live without? This has bothered me for years.

do what I say

All the shareholders in the education system (parents, children, teachers, administrators, state officials, communities) point the fingers of blame at the others and expect them to be innovative, but are unwilling to change their own viewpoint of what education should be.

What I finally recognized is that standards are meant as a guide to the lowest acceptable level of understanding in a class, not as the final target. Anyone who teaches to the standards alone (especially to the end of year test) will succeed in creating a standard class, an average class, but not an extraordinary one. If we want all of our students to graduate as identical cookie-cutter clones of some “standard” citizen, then standards-based education and the factory model of education will suffice. But if I want students who are strong individuals, creative problem solvers, and innovators, I must go beyond the standards and teach for excellence and quality, not mediocrity. The standards are supposed to be a means to that end, not an end in themselves.

Deeper into Theory

Many of our vaunted education theories support this reductionist view of a subject. For example, Bloom’s Taxonomy is widely used and quoted in educational circles. It poses that there is a hierarchy of understanding and learning; that remembering facts and content details comes first as the foundation of all learning and then leads to understanding, then to application, then analysis, then evaluation, and finally to creativity. The implication is that we need to move our educational activities toward creativity and higher-order thinking skills. The problem with this pedagogical model is that too many teachers never get to the higher-order levels; they get stuck on remembering and regurgitating facts with little real understanding and even less application, analysis, evaluation, or creativity.

Flipping Bloom

Bloom’s Taxonomy, often quoted but poorly understood. Instead of starting at the lowest level (remembering facts) and working our way up, we should start with creativity and work down to facts. Think of this pyramid as flipped upside down, or of creativity being the ground level but the other levels being roots underneath, reaching down to the facts. Students will learn the facts they need if they start with the requirement to create.

So many educational theorists are beginning to propose that Bloom’s Taxonomy should be stood on its head. Creativity should come first, not last. As students create, they can be taught to evaluate the effectiveness and even the aesthetics of their work (more on this in my next post). To do this, they will need to learn to analyze their work in the same way that engineers analyze the effectiveness of their prototypes and models. To analyze the prototype, they have to build it first, which involves the application and understanding of scientific theory. To gain that understanding, students will have to look up and remember the scientific facts and theories involved. In other words, teaching creativity first and insisting on quality work provides the impetus and motivation for students to find the information they need, understand and apply that information well enough to build prototypes, then analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of that prototype against specifications. Students will look up what they need to know because it is necessary for them to solve the problems that occur as they create, build, test, and analyze prototypes. We call this the engineering or design process.

This is where Project-Based Learning (PBL) comes in. Only through extended projects can students have the time, independence, and creativity to deeply explore and understand a subject by following their own curiosity. Projects are the only way to ensure that the intent for having standards is met and that we reach extraordinary education. This happens through what I call “standards overreach.”

Shorten the pole vault

It doesn’t make sense to raise standards while lowering the resources available to schools to reach those standards. There’s nothing quite like an unfunded mandate.

Standards Overreach:

Let me start with an example. During the first week in my first year biology classes, I introduced the concept of the characteristics of life and the abiotic factors necessary to sustain it. This is a common biology standard in most states. Now if I were a standards-obsessed teacher, I would teach to this point as my target for student understanding. I might put up a list of terms and have students write down definitions in the hope that they will understand them. This is a low-level activity without much student mental engagement. They’ll forget these definitions as soon as the test is over, if they retain them even that long. I might write the terms on a worksheet and have them look up definitions. Slightly better but still boring for everyone concerned, although it does meet the standard. I could show them a video about it and have them take notes. A bit better but still teacher-centered and passive for students. I could have students brainstorm the characteristics of life, then ask them to provide examples, or do a lab activity, etc. Getting better but still not entirely effective.

What all of these activities have in common is that they are targeted specifically to this one standard alone, and on the end of unit test, only some of the students will show understanding (or at least regurgitation). I have only partially succeeded.

Exoplanets

What kind of life forms could exist on an exoplanet or exomoon, such as shown here? As students ask and answer such questions, they come to understand the characteristics of life and the abiotic factors that support it.

Or I could do this in a completely different way through a student-centered, engaging project. I could have them go beyond the standard (overreach it) knowing that at minimum they will understand the standard and possibly much more. So I use my passion for astrobiology and experience conducting field research studies of extremophiles in the Mojave Desert to create a project for my students. We’ll collect halophilic bacteria from the Great Salt Lake and let them grow in a Winogradsky column then analyze the pink floaters under a microscope. We’ll extend this to research on other extremophiles and use real examples of how they are adapted to their environments, with students developing posters or presentations or other summary products of their choice. Do all forms of life on Earth need oxygen, or even air? No – there are lithoautotrophs that live in rocks and get carbon dioxide from minerals, not air. Does all life require light and plants at the bottom of the food chain? No. Look at the chemosynthetic bacteria that are at the bottom of the food chain near deep ocean hydrothermal vents.

Square test in round head

How can one test measure the quality or extent of knowledge for every student, even if the tests are adaptive? How can a single measure determine the effectiveness of every teacher?

Then they’ll look at potentially habitable exoplanets (and learn a bit of astronomy and physics on the way) and choose an actual planet, then develop a drawing or clay model of an alien life form they envision, complete with descriptions of how it is able to survive in that environment, the abiotic factors that exist there, and the ecosystem it is part of. How does it eat or get energy? How does it move around, reproduce, adapt to changes, grow and develop, etc.? How would we detect it and know that it is alive?

As a capstone event or product, they produce posters or other products on their research into and present them at a science showcase night, just as if they were professional scientists at a conference. At the end of the evening we can watch and analyze the realism of the movie “The Andromeda Strain.” In the process of thinking all of this through, the students will deeply understand the characteristics and factors necessary for life. They will all easily meet the standard because we shot way beyond the standard.

Relax and take the test

With high stakes testing supposedly measuring the effectiveness of teachers and schools based on how students take the test, its no wonder teachers are teaching to the test. Their jobs are on the line. Yeah. No pressure . . .

You will argue that this type of project will take days to complete, when you can cover that standard in just one day. Maybe so, but we haven’t just covered that one standard. Without my having to lecture them, my students have learned about evolution and classification, microbiology and using a microscope, physics and astronomy, and even developed artistic skills. They have learned about scientific communication, which is part of one dimension of the Next Generation Science Standards. We have therefore touched on about ten other standards from multiple disciplines in the five days of this project. If I tried to teach each one of those standards one at a time, it would take far longer than our project did. My students’ understanding will be deeper and more permanent than any lower-level unengaging assignments can achieve.

The test to test us for the test

No Child Left Untested . . . How can teachers possibly meet education standards when they have to spend all of their teaching time administrating tests to measure how well they are meeting education standards?

Meeting Standards through PBL:

Here is another example that we completed just two weeks ago. We had moved into our units on human anatomy in my biology classes. I wanted students to learn the function of muscles and bones and how they provide support and movement. Now the “standard” way of doing this would be to provide diagrams of the skeleton and muscles and have students label all the names of all the part. Tibia. Fibula. Patella. Femur. Pelvis. Clavicle. Sternum. Latisimus Dorsi, Deltoid, etc, etc, ad nauseum. And many teachers leave it at that, with no understanding of how it all works together. Some will go on to teach (or more likely have the students read in the textbook) how flexor and extensor muscles must be paired, how they are anchored to the fixed bone with tendons reaching across the joint to the mobile bone. But only a few teachers will have students apply this knowledge, or design experiments to collect data that can be analyzed, or have students think critically to evaluate the quality of their knowledge, or do something creative with it.

So I turned the process on its head. I did draw a diagram of the elbow joint on my whiteboard as an example, showing and labeling the parts of everything. I explained how the bicep and tricep work in tandem to flex and extend the joint, and how ligaments, cartilage, and all the other parts hold it all together and allow it to move. That was all I did, and I didn’t really need to do that. It was just a quick 15-minute introduction. Then I gave them a challenge: using the materials I provided, they had to build a mechanical arm that would duplicate the movement of the elbow joint. As teams, they would need to use my diagram as a guide, look up whatever other information they needed, then design and build their own arm. It had to meet certain specifications: It had to have the same range of motion as a regular arm, not bending too far or extending too far (it could not be double-jointed). It had to have a way of both flexing and extending the forearm. And that was it.

I provided lots of cardboard, wooden skewers, beads, string, hot glue guns and glue sticks, etc. I divided the students into three-person teams, and required them to show me a sketch of their plan before they were allowed to collect materials. Then they set to work. In every case, their first attempts didn’t work very well. Some of the students wanted to quit at that point, saying that this task was “impossible,” but I provided encouragement and hinted that they should look more closely at how the actual human arm does this; obviously, it isn’t impossible if our arms can do this. They tore parts off their models, reglued, tried again, and eventually all the teams succeeded. They were all different, but all mimicked the construction of the human arm in important ways.

Round head in square hole

Standards imply that every student is the same, and that one size fits all in education.

With that project done, the same teams went on to create working models of the human hand. These models had to be able to create several gestures of my choice to show control of individual fingers, be able to pick up and move small objects to show dexterity, and be able to grasp and lift a cup full of water (added slowly) to demonstrate strength. This was a much harder task, and the same students again tried to give up. They wanted me to provide step-by-step instructions, but I refused. I repeated that there were no right answers, no one right way to do this. Some had to redesign from scratch, which was frustrating, but they overcame this frustration and eventually all succeeded.

It took seven class periods to accomplish these two projects. I could have easily taught the basic concepts about the arm and hand in a day using traditional activities, and they might have remembered the details long enough to pass the unit test (with some repetition and review). This would have sufficed for the requirements of the state standards. But it doesn’t meet my own standards, which are much higher. And it meets those other two pesky dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards: Scientific and Engineering Practices (engineering design process) and Cross-Cutting Concepts (modeling). We’ll look at teaching through building models in a future post.

So how did they do upon assessment? On the unit test, the students who completed these models showed a thorough understanding of how the arm and the hand work; not just the parts, but how they are shaped, how they operate and fit together, and even the importance of having opposable thumbs. Those teams that didn’t have effective thumbs had great difficulty lifting their cup of water.

All students received 100% on the essay questions related to these projects and all passed the test. They could repeat the facts, and they thoroughly understood the concepts. They will remember their learning far longer than traditional methods because they have applied their knowledge. They have analyzed problems that occurred with their models and evaluated their effectiveness against the specifications. They have revised, fixed, redesigned, and in short, they have created. They fulfilled all of the requirements for the state and the three dimensions of the NGSS, as well as all of Bloom’s levels. In addition, they learned resilience, teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills. Not all of the teams got along perfectly, and I had to work with them on how to communicate effectively to listen to all ideas and make a solid group decision instead of one person trying to run the show. Was it worth the extra time? Absolutely!

Tower of Education Babel

There are a lot of education buzzwords out there, a veritable Tower of Educational Babel that obscures instead of clarifying the problems of education and the need for reform.

Conclusions:

When administrators and parents and everyone else gets bent out of shape about standards and you feel a pressure to “teach to the test,” just remember that state education standards are the minimum expectation, and we should hope that you are a better teacher than that. Yes, you must meet the standards. You can get fired if you don’t. But state standards are not the end we are after, only one means to the better end of extraordinary education. So overreach the expectations forced upon you by your state, principle, or community and dare to teach to a higher standard. Mentor your students to deeper understanding, higher engagement, and further creativity. Dare to be extraordinary!

Starting out at a new school, I decided it was time to re-examine my personal philosophy of teaching and education.

Over the last several years, as I have been reporting my experiences in these blogs, I have paid attention to how effective I am as a teacher and what sorts of activities and lessons seem to resonate with students and provide memorable learning opportunities for them. From this I have developed my own model of education, which I have shared at conferences and workshop sessions. I will be starting a Doctorate of Education (EdD) program this fall at the University of Northern Colorado, specializing in Innovation and Education Reform. This will be a means for backing my theories up with empirical research, not just the anecdotal evidence I have now. I already know what I want to do for my doctoral thesis.

This is my revised model so far, with examples from my teaching experiences:

Creative Classroom Diagram v3-s

This is my revised model of education, what could also be called the Levels of Engagement model. The purpose of education, in my experience, is to move students from ignorance (no knowledge of a subject) through passive learning (sitting and watching or listening) to active learning (hands-on, experiential) and beyond to creative learning (students as explorers, teachers, and innovators). Students move from being consumers of educational content to interacting with content to creating new educational content or new science, engineering, art, math, or technology. The students become makers, designers, programmers, engineers, scientists, artists, and problem solvers.

I call this the Creative Classroom model, as the goal is to move students from Ignorance (lack of knowledge or experience with a subject) through the stages of being a Passive Learner (sitting and listening to the teacher or a video and consuming content) through being an Active Learner (students interacting with content through cookbook style labs) to becoming a Creative Learner (students creating new content as innovators: teachers, makers, programmers, designers, engineers, and scientists). Let’s look at these levels in more detail. It could also be titled the Levels of Engagement model, as moving to the right in my model signifies deeper student engagement with their learning.

Level 0: Ignorance

Ignorance is the state of not having basic knowledge of a subject. This isn’t a bad thing, as we all start out in this state, as long as we recognize our ignorance and do something about it. What our society needs are more creative and innovative people, not people who are passive or even willfully ignorant.

Ignorance is not bliss. What a person doesn’t know may indeed hurt him or her – if, for example, you don’t know that mixing bleach with ammonia will produce chlorine gas, you could wind up with severe respiratory problems. A basic literacy for science and engineering concepts is necessary for any informed citizen, since we live in a technological age with problems that need solving and can only be solved through science and technology.

If you do not understand science and technology, you can be controlled by those who do. How many people actually understand the technology behind the cell phones they use every day? They leave themselves vulnerable to control by the telecom companies that do understand and control this technology. If you don’t understand the importance of Internet privacy and share personal information on a website or Facebook page, you leave yourself vulnerable to people or corporations that can track your web searches or even stalk you online (or worse). I am fairly ignorant of the basic techniques for repairing my car. This leaves me vulnerable to paying the high prices (and the possible poor service) of a local mechanic, when I could save lots of money and ensure quality if I only knew how to do it myself.

As teachers our first responsibility is to lead students away from a state of ignorance. This seems simple enough, but anyone who teachers teenagers (and even some so-called adults) will know that some of them insist on remaining willfully ignorant, usually because they mistakenly think that they already know everything they need to know, which is never true of anyone. As the Tao Te Ching says: “To know what you know, and what you do not know, is the foundation of true wisdom.” So the first step to becoming a creative learner is to delineate, define, and accept our areas of ignorance.

Most Likely to Succeed quote

A quote from the introduction of “Most Likely to Succeed” by Toni Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. How long will it take before education systems realize that the old factory model of education is no longer working?

Level 1: Passive Learning

When people start learning a subject they are usually not sufficiently self-motivated to learn it on their own – but we hope they will reach that point eventually. Most inexperienced learners are passive. They wait for their teachers to lead the lesson, sitting in their seats listening to lectures or watching a movie or otherwise absorbing and consuming educational content. The focus in such classes is to complete individual assignments that usually involve only lower order thinking skills such as recall and identification. This is the level described in the quote above from Most Likely to Succeed by Toni Wagner and Ted Dintersmith.

At this level, teachers emphasize mastering the facts and basic concepts of a subject. Students are consumers of educational content, but do not interact with it or create new content. Common classroom activities include listening to lectures and taking notes or answering basic questions, watching a video or demonstration, completing worksheets, or reading a text. Student motivation is usually external, based on the desires of parents or teachers and the fear of negative consequences (poor grades, etc.).

Education at this level is all about efficiency but isn’t very effective, since less than 10% of what teachers share in lectures is retained by students beyond the next test. Evaluation is based on standards, not skills. There is always a need for students to learn facts and concepts, but it is better to provide engaging projects where the students will find out the facts on their own as a natural part of completing the project.

Level 2: Active Learning

At this phase, students start developing internal motivation as they engage and interact with content. Students are beginning to explore, but usually through activities that are fairly structured although more student centered than before. These activities are hands-on; students are doing and acting, not sitting and listening.

Common classroom activities would be “cook-book” style labs, with step-by-step instructions and pre-determined outcomes. Students begin to learn observation and inquiry skills, with some data collection in a controlled environment along with data analysis. Teachers still determine if the student has the “right” answer. They start to practice the 21st Century skills of collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. Unfortunately, most science classes stop at this level without moving beyond hands-on to the deepest level.

reasons for using inquiry

Inquiry-based learning shares many of the features of project or problem-based learning, in that it is student centered and empowers student voice and choice, allows a high level of engagement and meaningfulness as students take responsibility and ownership for their learning, and teaches resilience, grit, and perseverance.

Level 3: Creative and Innovative Learning

If the purpose of STEAM education is to teach students how to become scientists, technology experts, engineers, artists, and mathematicians then they must learn the final stages of inquiry: to ask and answer questions, to solve problems, or to design products. The purpose of science is to answer questions whereas engineering has the goal of solving problems through designing and testing prototypes. Both are creative endeavors as the result of learning is something new for society – new knowledge or new products.

In the Creative Classroom, the environment is completely open, without predigested data or predetermined conclusions. Students work on projects where they research a question important to them, develop a methodology, decide how to control variables, make observations, determine methods of analysis, and draw and communicate conclusions. At this level, students become innovators or inventors. They synthesize knowledge and apply it to themselves and teach others through writing blog posts, creating posters or infographics, presenting lessons and demonstrations, and filming and editing videos or other educational media. They become makers and programmers, building products of their own design. The students are creating and contributing to society by making new content, knowledge, and solutions.

Learning at this level is never forgotten but is difficult to evaluate with a multiple-choice test, as the focus is on skill mastery and competency instead of easily regurgitated facts. Overall, this deepest (and most fulfilling, motivational, and engaging) level is entirely student centered and driven, with instructors as mentors. Ultimately, once a student has practiced learning at this level, the teacher is no longer necessary; the students will continue to learn on their own, because they are now entirely internally motivated. These are the people that society will always need.

How This Impacts My Teaching:

As an educator, my goal is to move students toward Level 3 activities and projects. Where I succeed, the projects my students work on are meaningful to them, demand professional excellence, use authentic data, involve real-world applications, are open-ended, and are student-driven. The students are required to create, make, program, build, test, question, teach, and design. They are innovators and engineers; they are creative students.

To give some examples from previous blog posts on my two sites:

Rachmaninoff 430-630-1000-s

Representative color image of the Rachmaninoff Basin area of Mercury, created by my students using narrow band image data from the MESSENGER space probe at 430, 630, and 1000 nm. We stretched the color saturation and image contrast so that we could see differences between volcanic (yellow-orange) and impact (blue-violet) features.

My chemistry and STEAM students created an inquiry lab to study the variables involved in dyeing cloth, including the history, ancient processes, types of cloth, mordants (binders), types of dyes, and other factors. We also explored tie dyeing, ice dyeing, and batik and developed a collection of dyed swatches that we will turn into a school quilt. We also experimented with dyeing yarn with cochineal, indigo, rabbit brush, sandalwood, logwood, etc. and my wife crocheted a sweater from it.

2. My chemistry and STEAM students did a similar inquiry lab to test the variables involved in making iron-gall ink using modern equivalents. We studied the history and artistry of this type of ink (used by Sir Isaac Newton, Leonardo DaVinci, and many more) and tried to determine the ideal formula for making the blackest possible ink. We also created our own watercolor and ink pigments such as Prussian blue, etc. We used the inks/watercolors to make drawings and paintings of the history of chemistry.

3. My astronomy students used accurate data to build a 3D model of the nearby stars out to 13 light years. This lesson was featured in an article in The Science Teacher magazine, including a video of me describing the process.

4. My astronomy students created a video for the MIT BLOSSOMS project showing a lesson plan on how to measure the distance to nearby stars using trigonometric parallax. It is on the BLOSSOMS website and has been translated into Malay, Chinese, and other languages.

5. My earth science students learned how to use Mars MOLA 3D altitude data to create and print out 3D terrains of Mars.

6. My chemistry students created a 12-minute documentary (chocumentary?) on the history and process of making chocolate.

7. My 6th grade Creative Computing class built and animated a 3D model of the SOFIA aircraft prior to my flying on her as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador.

Kasei_Valles-Mars-2

A 3D render of the Kasei Valles area of Mars, created by students as part of the Mars Exploration Student Data Team project. They learned how to download Mars MOLA data from the NASA PDS website and convert it into 3D models and animations, then created an interactive program on Mars Exploration which they presented at a student symposium at Arizona State University.

8. My science research class collected soil samples from the mining town of Eureka, Utah to see if a Superfund project had truly cleaned up the lead contamination in the soil.

9. My chemistry and media design students toured Novatek in south Provo, Utah and learned about the history and current process for making synthetic diamond drill bits. Another group videotaped a tour of a bronze casting foundry, while others took tours of a glass blowing workshop, a beryllium refinery, and a cement plant.

10. My astronomy students used infrared data from the WISE and Spitzer missions to determine if certain K-giant stars may be consuming their own planets. This was done as part of the NITARP program. They developed a poster of their findings and presented it at the American Astronomical Society conference in 2015 in Seattle.

11. My biology students build working models of the circulatory system, the lungs, the arm, and create stop motion animations of mitosis and meiosis. As I write this, they are learning the engineering design cycle by acting as biomechanical engineers to design and build artificial hands that must have fingers that move independently, an opposable thumb, can pick up small objects, make hand gestures, and grasp and pick up cups with varying amounts of water in them.

12. My computer science students, in order to learn the logic of game design, had to invent their own board games and build a prototype game board and pieces, write up the rules, and have the other teams play the game and make suggestions, then they made revisions. This was an application of the engineering design cycle.

13. My STEAM students designed and built a model of a future Mars colony using repurposed materials (junk), including space port, communications systems, agriculture and air recycling, power production, manufacturing, transportation, and living quarters. They presented this and other Mars related projects at the NASA Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston.

These are just a small sampling of all the projects my students have done over the years. I have reported at greater length in this blog about these and other projects. My intent has always been to move students away from passive learning to active learning to inquiry/innovation. They often create models, build prototypes, collect data, or design a product and it is always open ended and student centered; even if I choose the topic of the project, they have a great deal of freedom to determine their approach and direction. There is never one right answer or a set “cookbook” series of steps, nor a focus on memorizing facts. They learn the facts they need as a natural consequence of learning about their project topics; by completing the project, they automatically demonstrate the required knowledge.

Mars Exploration main interface-s

My students designed, animated, and programmed this interface for their Mars Exploration project, then presented it at a student symposium at Arizona State University as part of the Mars Exploration Student Data Team program. They build 3D models and animations of Mars probes, such as the one of the MER rovers shown. In this interface, the Mars globe spins, and as the main buttons are rolled over, side menus slide out and space probes rotate in the window.

Some groups require considerable training and experience to get to this level of self-motivation and innovation, and some team building, communication, and creativity training may be required. Other groups move along more rapidly and have the motivation to jump right in. This means that managing such projects as a teacher can be challenging because every team is different. I find myself moving from being a teacher at the center of the classroom (a sage on a stage) where all students move along in a lock-step fashion to becoming a mentor or facilitator of learning (a guide on the side) as students move toward higher levels of engagement at their own pace and in their own way.

As classroom activities become more student-centered, I find it natural to tie in the Next Generation Science Standards. If I do an inquiry lab to test the variables that affect dyeing cloth, the answer is not known before nor the methodology. Students have to work out the scientific method or steps needed by asking the right questions and determining how to find the answers, or to design, build, and test a prototype product. Through this method they learn the science and engineering processes that are one dimension of the 3D standards.

Crosscutting concepts can also be explored more effectively through this method. Inquiry leads to observations, which should show patterns, processes, models, scale, proportion, and other such concepts, which are the second dimension of 3D science education.

This leaves the third dimension, which is to teach subject Core Concepts. This is where most of the misguided opposition to Project Based Learning comes from. Teachers feel that projects somehow take time away from “covering” all the standards. But if we want deep learning of the core concepts of a subject, we can’t expect students to learn them by using surface level teaching techniques that emphasize facts without going any deeper. If I do it right, I can involve many standards at once in the same project and not only meet but exceed the standards in all cases. I call this “standards overreach” and I will talk about this in more detail in my next post.

Element posters and virus models

Projects don’t have to be a elaborate and complex as the Mars project shown above. Here, my New HAven students have created models of viruses and mini-posters of chemical elements. The green plastic bottle to the left is a model of a human lung.

New Haven signs

New Haven Residential Treatment Center, where I now teach. It is located in a rural area near the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon. It is surrounded by alfalfa fields and deer frequently walk through the school in the evenings.

With my performances in the musical over (see my previous post) and Christmas past, I redoubled my efforts to find another teaching job. By the end of 2017 I had about seven different interviews, some over the phone, a few in person. I thought they all went well, but not all of the jobs were equally attractive. Some would require my moving away from Utah, which I am reluctant to do. I like living here, with the great combination of desert and mountains, incredible geology and scenery (there are five national parks in Utah and two others just outside), and a wonderful mix of biomes, ecosystems, and weather. A science teacher’s dream-come-true! So I am loath to leave.

One interview was with Pearson Publishing to promote their new science curriculum, which would require frequent travel but allow me to continue living here. But I’m not much of a book salesman, having had a negative experience while in college selling books door to door in Phoenix during the summer. I wouldn’t want to do that again unless at the uttermost need. I had some teaching interviews with KIPP schools and elsewhere, but again there are none in Utah and it would require moving. Another job was for a new tutorial program, but it was only part time (I need full time) and I’m also reluctant to start a new job with a new school knowing how much is promised that never comes to fruition.

New Haven schoolhouse

The school building at New Haven RTC. I teach in the science room, which is the new addition right behind the pine tree next to the pond.

I looked for a variety of categories on every job aggregating website I could find, from Teachers to Teachers to Indeed and beyond. I looked for teaching jobs, curriculum development jobs, education consulting jobs, media design jobs, tutoring jobs, even substitute teaching jobs. These last two I didn’t pursue yet since I wasn’t quite that desperate, but I decided if I didn’t get an offer by the end of January I would start applying for these jobs, too.

One position I found was for a science teacher at a residential treatment center in Spanish Fork, about 20 miles south of where I live. I have taught at an RTC before and am familiar with how they work. Students with emotional and behavioral problems are sent to these centers (by parents, the courts, and school districts) as a last resort to provide them with in-house therapy while helping them catch up on school credits (which they are often behind on). Utah has a cottage industry of RTCs because the structure of our laws allows for lock-down school facilities as long as they have fire-safe zones separated by firewalls. I was called in for an interview and was impressed by what they are doing and felt the interview went very well. It happened on Dec. 16, so I wasn’t expecting to hear back immediately because of Christmas break. But once January began I hoped to hear back one way or another.

I followed all the requirements of Unemployment to apply to at least four employers per week (I actually did far more than that). I put myself on a daily time card to track the hours I spent, hoping that I could be productive in everything I did. I worked harder than on a normal job, averaging over 55 hours per week. But not much was happening. I was about to start subbing and finding whatever jobs I could, but knew if I did so it would take time away from looking for better jobs. It’s a kind of Catch-22.

BBIG Project Diagram-s

A schematic diagram of how a project would be organized and managed using the BBIG Idea structure. The entire organization from students on up will decide on the major projects for each year, and the Project Directors and Advanced Innovators will divide the project into separate pieces, such as videos, 3D models, games, etc. Innovator teams work with Master Educators to divide the project further into pieces that individual students organized into Apprentice Teams complete, based on continual formative assessments.

A BBIG Idea:

I continued to develop a business plan for creating an organization that would take Media Design and STEM professionals into schools as independent contractors, similar to some school to work programs. My idea is called the Black Box Innovation Group, or BBIG. It will create a non-profit that sends professionals into schools to work with their media design students to create non-profit educational products, starting with practical projects such as promoting Utah tourism through creating county videos. Each year I would add more schools, then build an organized training program, with graduated students (masters) working for BBIG to go back into schools to train apprentices (middle school students) and journeymen (high school students).

Competency based school challenges

My BBIG Idea will be a competency-based school program directed by outside professionals and Master Teachers (classroom teachers trained by BBIG). This diagram from the 2014 meeting of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools describes the challenges to adopting a competency-based curriculum, although it is a much needed school reform.

Students advance by mastering skills and participating in central journeyman level projects that show high competency. The central themes will be decided on each spring at a BBIG Idea Convention. Anyone in the organization could propose ideas at the annual conventions, and these would be focused on media design but with STEM themes. At first, BBIG would be supported by grants but would eventually fund itself through sales of its products. I worked out all the details, and even set up an appointment with the Small Business Development Center to look it over. The SBDC was very favorable on all but my funding model, as trying to continue an organization on grants alone isn’t very sustainable. I took a Saturday class at the SBDC to learn how to test the feasibility of my idea, and I took a continuing class on Thursday nights for how to create my own business. Although I haven’t moved further on this idea, I intend to pursue it through grants once I build more cache for myself through adding those three magic letters to my name and gaining the backing of a university.

If you want to learn more about the BBIG program, here is a PDF file you can download and view at your leisure:

BBIG presentation-s

Finally: Success

If my job hunting efforts had continued into February, I would have taken the plunge into starting BBIG while beginning to do tutoring and substitute teaching. But my job search efforts finally paid off. In mid January I interviewed with Heritage School, another RTC that is less than two miles from where I live. When I taught at Provo Canyon School 20 years ago, we did some joint training activities and classes with Heritage, so I was familiar with their campus and some of their people. The day after the interview they called me and offered a job. I told them I needed 24 hours to decide. With an offer in hand, I called up New Haven RTC and asked what their decision was. They had a couple of final questions for me based on my references from my former school, which I was able to answer satisfactorily. They offered me a job as well. After three months of no results, I was in the good position of having two offers to choose from.

I also weighed continuing my job search. It was near the start of a new semester and there would be some science jobs available at local school districts. Did I want to go back to crowded classes with over 30 students per class? Working in a district is a stronger position than being at a private school when it comes to applying for awards and grants. Finally, however, after much thought, I decided to accept the offer at New Haven. My feeling for their program was more positive and I felt I could work in their system more effectively.

I would be replacing a teacher who was leaving to become a stay-at-home dad. Over the years, he and his wife had sponsored 14 foster children and she had accepted a great job offer, so he was needed at home. I went in to the school starting a week before the end of the semester to observe and get prepared for the transition at the end of January 2018.

Making gak at NH

Making gak in my classroom at New Haven RTC. Because of the nature of our school and the students’ need for privacy, I cannot show faces or give names. It is nice to be back doing fun projects again, which I’ll describe in later posts.

I have been at New Haven since then, and I am used to the students and system. I feel that I am finally getting back on track creating new materials, blogs, lesson plans, and applications. I am writing blog posts again, creating new lesson plans, and planning ahead for what seems like the first time in a long time. I am innovating and creating again, and beginning to apply for awards and professional development opportunities. One thing I can’t apply for, however, is grants. This is a private for-profit school and almost all grants require the grantee to be a non-profit entity. I am moving forward and have been accepted into an online doctoral program in Educational Studies at the University of Northern Colorado, specializing in Innovation and Education Reform. I will talk about this more in later posts. This may provide further opportunities for grants.

As of today, May 21, 2019, it has been a year and a half since I was laid off at American Academy of Innovation and I don’t miss it. I do miss many of the students there, who were amazing, but I don’t miss the commute or the long hours or the stress that seemed endemic to that school. I have half the commuting time, and I get home now long before I would even leave school there.

I can focus on individual students and their needs. We have weekly treatment team meetings where we go over the therapeutic, educational, and social needs of each student. Think of it as a very detailed IEP that takes place every week. Our structure at school allows teachers to attend those meetings and be a full part of the team. I wish normal schools could do the same, but the intensity of how we do things couldn’t be replicated without quadrupling the amount we now spend on education.

Although I’ve now been here for 16 months, which is longer than I was at AAI, I’m not sure if I’ve yet recovered from the trauma of losing that job, even if it was a lay off due to financial issues. I still feel a need to cover my backside. I applied for over 60 jobs, interviewed for nine, and received two offers. That’s a lot of rejection, and it was hard to take day after day for three months. One thing that helped me was to see the movie The Greatest Showman (my wife insisted –she’s a big fan) and hear the song “This is Me.” It inspired me to write my own personal anthem as a way of thumbing my nose at all the detractors and naysayers I’ve had during my teaching career (and there have been more than a few) and to rise above the continued daily rejections. Here it is, for what it’s worth:

I Will Rise

Personal Anthem of David V. Black

They tell me my efforts are worthless,
I’m too old, obsolete, uninformed.
They say that my skills are now useless,
And ignore all the castles I’ve stormed.

But they’re wrong about me.
I’m afraid they won’t see
All the value I’ll bring to their schools.
Yet I won’t believe them,
As a teacher of STEM
I’ve learned to obey my own rules.

Though I may not be much in their eyes,
You can still count on this: I will rise!

I’m not falling down, I am leaping
Ahead of the pack, not behind.
Their negative thoughts won’t start seeping
To poison my thoughts or my mind.

Oh they won’t get me down,
And I won’t play the clown,
I deserve some respect for my strife.
Through the rest of my years,
I won’t give in to fears,
I’ll have joy throughout all of my life.

No matter how hopeless the prize,
There will be no mistake: I will rise!

I’ve taught classes from Boston to Bali,
Written blogs from the ends of the Earth,
Lead workshops for NASA in Cali,
And now you dare say I’ve no worth?

I’ve worked far too long to accept it
When you say that my best years are gone.
There is still much to see, still more to do
And I won’t quit until I have won!

Oh they’re wrong about me,
And some day they will see,
That I have so much further to go.
They will bow with respect,
Accusations retract,
And upon me their honors bestow.

Through the darkness I’ll reach for the skies,
And no matter the cost: I will rise!

I’m the teacher they thought to despise.
I will never give up: I will rise!

 

OK – so – I’m not exactly a great poet. But it encapsulated my feelings, and helped to keep me going. Despite daily setbacks and let downs, I had to keep going and believe that my efforts would pay off eventually. As an ancient king once said regarding his people’s attempts to escape from slavery:

I trust there remaineth an effectual struggle to be made.
– King Limhi

Or as Shakespeare put it:

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.
– Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

I had to believe that my attempts weren’t futile and set my fears and self-doubts aside. I kept trying, and it finally did pay off.

Now I can continue this blog and look forward to the rest of my teaching career. With my doctorate program I can finally join empirical research to the theories I’ve developed over the years based on my observations as a teacher. I can finish the books I’m working on and edit them until they are published. I can create a plethora of educational materials and follow up on all the ideas I’ve had. I’m no longer in job limbo. I am in recovery.

Poster outside SCERA

A poster advertising our musical in front of the SCERA Center for the Performing Arts in Orem, Utah

I told the story in my last post of how being laid off led to some interesting silver linings, including starting my Trinum Magicum book series. In this post I will tell the story of another silver lining: becoming involved in community theater, and how storytelling and theater are forms of education that are often overlooked in science classes.

SCERA and marquee

The marquee in front of the SCERA theater advertising our musical. We were competing with the premiere of Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi. Despite the stiff competition, we had large audiences except for one private showing where the theater was only half full.

Two weeks before being laid off at American Academy of Innovation (as described in a previous post), I signed up for an LDS Self Reliance Services class on how to start my own business, which I was attending every week. Through this and other venues, friends in my community knew of my situation and that I was looking for work but also had some unexpected time on my hands. One of these friends was Arden Hopkin, the retired director of vocal performance instruction at Brigham Young University. He had been cast in the part of Kris Kringle in our local community production of the musical Miracle on 34th Street by Meredith Willson (the same guy who created The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown). The production was short on male cast members, and Arden approached me about trying out for a part in the musical. I’ve always wanted to do community theater but had judged myself to be too busy to commit to the practices and performances. Now I had the time. So I showed up to the second rehearsal and they gave me four parts – as a community member (the general chorus), as the governor of New York, as Tamany O’Halloran (the Judge’s political advisor), and even as the drunken Santa Claus.

Drunken Santa Claus

I had four parts in the musical, including as the drunken Santa Claus. Here, Arden Hopkin as Kris Kringle is shocked at my sorry state. I even had a little song that I sang to myself, which I called “Ho Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum.”

The second rehearsal I attended was to learn choreography on a large production number called “Big Ca-lown Balloons” at the start of the play. It was very challenging for me, since I didn’t receive my script or music until right at the start of this practice, so I was trying to sight read the music while learning dance steps. It made me wish I had taken some MDT (Music, Dance, Theater) classes in college beyond a few ballroom dance classes. There was this one little step in this number that I never did get completely right, but could at least move with the other players enough that my lack of footwork finesse wasn’t obvious to the audience (although it undoubtedly was to my fellow performers).

Makeup time

Doing stage makeup in the mirror next to the Green Room underneath the stage.

Gradually, over many practices in October and November, my parts in all this came together. The most difficult number for me was “My State, My Kansas” where Tamany O’Halloran, Mr. Macy, Doris, and Shelhammer try to convince the judge to throw Kris Kringle’s case out of court or his constituents in Kansas might get upset and vote him out in the coming election. The words are ridiculous but it was a lot of fun to do. The choreographer had us do a jump with a heel click at one part, and I never could do the heel click (I don’t trust my weak legs enough) but could at least do a bit of a side hop. Although I managed to mess up on this on our final performance (because I was standing on the wrong leg going into the hop), I did reasonably well on all the other performances. I even had a nice solo singing line at the start of the number and a high sustained E to sing at the end. The other performers were kind enough to work with me to practice (and practice and practice) these dance routines so that I would at least blend in.

How to do makeup

Why do your own makeup when you can have three assistants do it for you? I didn’t trust myself at first, so my wife helped me out putting on makeup and slicking back my hair before I left for call at 6:00. Eventually I was able to do it myself.

We held our practices in the basement of the SCERA Theater in Orem. As we neared the end of November, we moved up to the stage where the sets were being built for our performances. We got fitted for costumes – I had four costumes, including a quick change in the wings to go from my townsperson’s outfit (for “Big Ca-lown Balloons”) to my Santa Claus outfit. I had to take off my overcoat and hat, swing into my Santa coat and hat, grab my brandy bottles, and hoof it out to the lamppost all during a very short transitional scene. My other changes could be done more leisurely as I put on my fancy Governor’s outfit, then changed into my Tamany O’Halloran outfit during Intermission.

Hamming it up for video

Natalie Merrill (far left) recorded us all lip-synching to “All I Want for Christmas.” It was a fun cast and despite my amateur status, they were kind and supportive and willing to teach me the ropes.

Overall everyone was great to work with, and I learned so many things about theater and had some deep conversations in the Green Room as we were waiting to go on. Arden was the master thespian we all looked up to, and many of the secondary parts (Shelhammer, Macy, etc.) were cast with people in their thirties and forties who had been doing community theater for years and had some amazing experiences to share.

Big Ca-lown Balloon dancing

The opening scene featured a large production number called “Big Ca-Lown Balloons.” Despite my lack of choreography experience, I managed to stay mostly in sync with the other cast members on this one. I am at far right in the tan coat.

My favorite scenes were the “My State, My Kansas” scene (although that was also my hardest to do) and the courtroom scenes, with Garrett Smit (Mr. Macy) singing “That Man Over There” with great enthusiasm. It brought down the house every night. I learned that most of acting as a bit player is really reacting to what the leads are doing and saying, projecting your emotions through exaggerated expression and body language. The more fun we had, the more fun the audience had.

Waiting in line for Santa

Here I am playing a grandfather waiting in line for Santa Claus at Macy’s.

Evan Allred played Judge Martin Group, and he is the grandfather of Lydia Oakeson, who played the part of Susan, the same part played by Natalie Wood in the movie version. It was great to see a grandfather and granddaughter in the same play. I worked a lot with Evan, helping him get his lines down. He was taking medication for Parkinson’s Disease, which helped control his shaking but made memorization extremely difficult. Each night during Intermission, after I had changed, I would sit down with Evan and help run through his lines, since I was one of the people in the scene. We worked out using his script as the commitment papers he was supposed to sign, so that he could look down for his lines if he needed to. On a couple of occasions we had to ad lib, but we made it work and people I knew in the audience said they couldn’t really tell – they just thought the judge was pausing because he was being thoughtful. He has been in many plays, even directing musicals, and this was to be his last performance. I learned so much from him.

Governor of New York

Mr. Macey introduces Kris Kringle to the Governor of New York (me) and the Mayor of New York City along with Mr. Shelhammer. Although the original story is set in the early 1950s, our production was set in the 1960s. I think the governor was Nelson Rockefeller at the time, since he is referred to as Nelson.

About a week before performances began, we held a sweetening session to just record all of the group songs so that they can be played back behind us to make the sound fuller. We then practiced with the sweetener to make sure our timing was perfect.

Dont take this case

After intermission, the musical focuses on the courtroom scenes. Here, Tamany O’Halloran (me), the political adviser for Judge Martin Grohe (Evan Allred), is trying to convince the judge not to take the Kringle case but instead go on vacation. Meanwhile, Fred Gailey is hiding under the judge’s robes.

Our first official performance was Dec. 1, 2017 and we continued for two weeks, with Tuesdays and Sundays off, for 12 regular performances with our closing night on Dec. 16. My best night was on Wednesday, Dec. 13 in terms of getting all my dance moves, singing, and lines in sync. We had our occasional glitches, but the show went well and was well reviewed and had good audiences. I learned what it felt like to have this intimate bond with the audience – as we performed well, the audience responded and that fueled our enthusiasm. I can see why live theater is the best form of acting and why TV and movie stars will go back to their theater roots from time to time, just to get back that rapport with a live audience.

There were some funny things that happened, as happens in all theater productions. There is a scene were Doris has to slap Fred, and the other actors would wait in the wings to hold up judging cards on how well the slap went. Shellhammer (played by Logan Beaux) made up different lines each night about the plastic alligators he was handing out to store clerks, like “Oh, this one is my favorite!” The “She Hadda Go Back” scene was very reminiscent of the train scene at the beginning of The Music Man, with difficult rhythmic chanting that had to be timed perfectly, with Fred Gailey (played by TJ Thomas) pretending he knew women only to be surprised by a girl selling Girl Scout Cookies. They always got the best laughs for that scene.

Removing the robe

At the end of the scene, I quickly grab the judge’s robes without noticing Fred hiding underneath.

My wife helped me put on my makeup and slick back my hair each night – some rouge for my cheeks, eyeliner for my eyelashes, lipstick, etc. We each had a section for our own costumes in the men’s dressing room, and things got a bit crowded and crazy each night. At the end of Intermission I would take the judge’s robes up and drape them on the bench set, and there was a scene were Doris (played by Natalie Merrill) had to leave the stage from an interior set, then re-enter in the next scene with her coat on. I volunteered to get her coat ready and help her into it quickly, which Natalie appreciated. I had to carefully set up my Santa coat and hat and my brandy bottles on a prop table each evening before the opening scene. I was in the first scene as a grandfather, and so I was on stage as the curtain opened each time. On one night, I made it all the way through “My State, My Kansas” before realizing that my fly was unzipped. Yikes!

Convincing the judge

Shellhammer and O’Halloran try to convince the judge that his Kansas constituents won’t like him putting away Kris Kringle.

We also got miked each night, and they had to test our microphone’s channels by having us speak a part and sing a bit, so I started singing through my old song “Fred the Policeman” just for fun. I traded off my mike with one of the children for the first act then kept it for the second. During downtime when I wasn’t on stage I read the book Most Likely to Succeed and wrote a long poem for my Golden Apple book that I was writing at the same time. The kids in the show would get a bit noisy, and I was afraid the audience might hear them all the way through the Green Room ceiling.

My state my Kansas

Singing “My State, My Kansas” with Shelhammer and Macey. The song has nonsensical lyrics meant to stir up patriotic feelings of mom, apple pie, and Kansas corn fields in the judge.

We reported to the theater at 6:00 each evening and got dressed, ready, and miked, with opening curtain at 7:30. The performances lasted until 9:30 or so each night, then we would return our mikes and walk out into the lobby for a meet and greet as the audience filed out of the theater. Since there were three people from my immediate neighborhood in the show, quite a few of our neighbors came to see us (it was Arden, not me, that they were coming to see). All of my immediate and some extended family came, and my two boys loved the show.

Almost airborn

This was the most difficult moment for me in the whole musical, where I’m supposed to be doing a side heel click like Shellhammer and Macey are doing, but with unsteady legs, I didn’t dare try to jump. I’m just lucky I was on the correct foot when this photo was taken.

We held a cast party on the second to last night, with a white elephant gift exchange (my ugly garden gnome mushroom head got the most laughs) and some fun activities such as an ugly Christmas sweater contest. My home dyed sweater did not win, so that tells you just how ugly some of these sweaters were. Natalie recorded the cast lip-synching several songs and her videos are a lot of fun to watch. Here’s a link to all of us singing “All I Want for Christmas”: https://youtu.be/JnuXY5x0mv8 .

High E

We finished off the song with me hitting a sustained High E on the words “and ME!” Not for the faint of heart, and I was always afraid I would go flat. Which is why I have my eyebrows raised so high. We did get good applause each night, so I’m happy about it.

On Friday nights the cast would get together to have a late dinner at Denny’s. Being short on money, I only was able to join them once for frozen yogurt. We got to be quite close as a cast and it felt like family. Many of these people go from one performance to another, and I felt that they were all much more talented than I am, but it was a great experience overall. I went with my son to see Bye, Bye, Birdie the next summer and several of the people from my cast were in that musical as well. Given how much talent there is in this community with two large universities, I was fortunate to be in this production and may never get the chance again. I’m glad I did it.

 

Community Theater as Storytelling:

So what does theater have to do with education? Why would I want to tell you about all of this in a science education blog site?

In the green room

Cast members in the Green Room under the stage waiting to go on. Nate Allen, playing the District Attorney, is center. We had some interesting conversations about cosmology and helped Evan run through his lines as the judge.

Education is partly theater. Every day, every period, teachers must entertain as well as teach. We now compete with all kinds of devices that didn’t exist when I started teaching almost 30 years ago. It’s hard for any teacher to be more entertaining than YouTube kitten videos or Internet memes, or more relevant to our students’ everyday lives than texting their friends. We could turn our classes into three ring circuses and still not be as entertaining as iPhone game apps. So we have to learn ways to engage our students and make our course content meaningful. We can try to regulate cell phone usage as much as we please, but we’re not going to reach our students unless we can provide more for them than the devices can.

Mushroom head

We held a cast party the night before closing and exchanged white elephant gifts. I’ve been trying to give this ugly mushroom head away for years . . .

One of the requirements of our jobs that isn’t taught in a teacher preparation program is how to be a good storyteller, because much of what we teach are stories. When we talk about the discovery of the double DNA helix, or the development of the periodic table by Mendeleev, or Einstein’s theory of relativity we are essentially telling stories, and the more engaging and entertaining these stories are told, the more likely they are to be remembered. Storytelling is part content and part theater. We have the Timpanogas Storytelling Festival here in Utah Valley each September, and they have classes on how to become a master storyteller. My experience in this theater production has convinced me that I need to take some classes at the festival.

Ugly sweater winners

We also held an ugly sweater contest. These are the winning (?) sweaters.

I think many educators ignore how useful theatrics can be in any classroom. Holding mock trials, recreating famous debates or discoveries, and having students teach others through acting can be very effective and memorable teaching tools. My 6th grade son participated in a Wax Museum project where each student took the part of a famous revolutionary thinker, then created a poster explaining whom the person was and what they did. They dressed up like the person and brought props. He was Galileo, and I have a small telescope and my wife a Renaissance style hat purchased at a Shakespearean festival. His job was to create a tableau of Galileo: to stand still in place until people came around then act out a short script he prepared to represent Galileo’s life. I think this was a marvelous idea, and months later he still remembers everything about Galileo and the other revolutionaries that were acted out in the Wax Museum project.

Trial scene

A scene from the trial. I didn’t have any lines here, so my job was to react to what the leads were doing.

I grew up in a small town without many forms of excitement, so one of our main ways to keep ourselves entertained was to “visit” or basically to tell stories to each other. There were naturally good storytellers in our town, people who could make the most mundane events seem like grand adventures. I envied them, and I hope some day to emulate their skill at holding an audience enthralled. You can tell from the overly long, pedantic way I write that I have a long way to go.

I now work with Nathan Jones, who teaches English and is a film and fantasy writer, movie director, and voice actor. We’ve had interesting discussions about the role of storytelling and the hero’s journey in education and how all people see themselves as the central character of their own story, naïve at first and needing direction from a mentor until they make the journey, slay the dragon, and return changed and enlightened. What are the stories we tell about ourselves? Do we say of ourselves that we are capable or incompetent, bold or timid, mighty or weak? And as teachers, how can we act as the mentors in the self-told stories of our students?

That Man Over There

The population of students that I now teach come from all over the country and from many backgrounds and cultures. Some come with severe anxiety and exhibit self-harm, suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, poor body image, depression, family trauma, and a host of other emotional issues. They’ve been listening to some very negative stories from themselves and others. How can I help to change these negative self-told tales, to show them that they can become the heroes of their own stories instead of the “villainous” roles they’ve fallen into? It is an avenue of education I haven’t considered before and something to pursue as I prepare for my upcoming doctoral adventure.

Enter the Marines with mail

In the climatic scene, the marines bring in the letters addressed to Kris Kringle.

Storytelling is hardwired into the human brain; it was the primary way we passed cultural and tribal knowledge before the advent of writing, and oral traditions still thrive in many parts of the world. Yet we’ve somehow gotten away from storytelling as educators. I’ve even been reprimanded for telling too many stories in my classes; my principals wanted me to focus more on content and improving test scores instead of helping students construct meaning from what they were learning or understanding the context and the history of science. I think this is a mistake, and part of my doctoral research will be to show how storytelling can be an effective tool, a part of STEAM education. When we talk about incorporating arts into STEM, we mean all arts and not just painting. We mean music, dance, and theater including storytelling. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I hope to always tell generative, positive, transformative stories. I hope that my students come to tell the same types of stories about themselves.

Curtain call

Curtain call at the end of the musical. It was the realization of a major bucket list item for me. I hope some day to have the time to do this again.

In my next post I will finally catch you up with where I am teaching now and what has been happening since.

Waiting for the parade to start

Education and theater have much in common. Both are based on ancient oral traditions of storytelling.

The Silver Linings

Golden Apple cover-m

My own cover design for the book I am completing for NaNoWriMo this month (Nov. 2018). It is based on the cover page of Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier.

Today is Nov. 1, 2018 and it is time to begin another year of NaNoWriMo: the National Novel Writing Month program that encourages writers to complete at least 50,000 words during November. I will be splitting my writing over four major projects. The first is to catch up and maintain these blog posts here at Elements Unearthed and at my other post: www.spacedoutclassroom.com, where I have been writing about activities and lessons in astronomy education. My second project is to write a series of lesson plans on STEAM education projects for chemistry classes, which I will report on and share here as well. My hope is to create a collection of 20-30 lesson plans that incorporate the arts and history and publish them through the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). My third project is to write and illustrate a series of young adult (8-14 year old) fact-based books on exploring the world (and beyond) written from the perspective of fictitious youngsters who experience these adventures. It will be largely based on my own travels. The final project is to complete the first novel in my Trinum Magicum series, which I started for NaNoWriMo last year. This blog will describe that project and other silver linings that came during my job hunt last year.

prague-castle-map

A map of the Hradcany, the castle hill in Prague with St. Vitus’ Cathedral. Most of my novel is based in Prague in 1609 during the time of Emperor Rudolf II.

Upon my return from the Teacher Research Data Conference in Washington, D.C., I was faced again with the challenges of my situation. Just two weeks before, I had been laid off from my teaching position at American Academy of Innovation because of budget problems, and now I had to pick up the pieces and somehow find a new position for myself when the school year was already well underway. My situation seemed pretty cloudy and dreary, but for every cloud there are silver linings. Mine came in the shape of unexpected opportunities to fulfill two of my Bucket List items: to be in a community theater production (more on this in the next post) and to start my long-planned Trinum Magicum book series.

maier_emblem_6-s

A photograph of Emblem 6 of Atalanta Fugiens, written by Michael Maier and illustrated with engravings by Mathias Merian. The book’s central mystery involves this book, which was perhaps one of the first attempts at multimedia, as it contains illustrations, poems, epigrams, and fugues.

For the first few weeks of October, my priority was to get all of my materials, books, filing cabinets, and papers from AAI put away into my house, as they were all stacked up in my carport exposed to the elements. I had to build a bookshelf, clean out rooms in my house and workshop, and do a lot of sorting and packing, but I finally found a spot for everything. Then I took some time to plan out my goals for the coming weeks as I looked for work. I had to make at least four contacts per week to maintain my unemployment benefits, so that was the top priority. I signed up for quite a few job seeking aggregate sites, went for interviews at Workforce Services, filled out a lot of paperwork, and started applying for jobs.

Prague castle

An illustration of what Prague looked like around 1609. The main Hradcany was on a hill with a steep wall in front. St. Vitus’ Cathedral had only been completed to the transept – the nave wasn’t completed until the 20th Century.

One job opening was for an informal science education director at Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City, which I thought was an ideal job for me (and me for them). 35 people applied, and I was one of the five chosen for interviews. The interview went well, but I could tell that I didn’t have enough large-scale grant experience for what they wanted. They hired another person who had worked as an educator at a planetarium before and whom I had actually met before at The Leonardo museum in Salt Lake. It was disappointing on top of all the other disappointments, but at least I came close (although close only counts in hand grenades, atom bombs, and horseshoes).

st-vituss-cathedral-map

St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague as it exists today. At the time of my book, the Choir and Altar and Transept with towers were completed but the Nave was not (until 20th Century), so the cathedral had a truncated appearance.

Feeling down on myself for not getting this job that had seemed so right, I walked to a local bookstore to browse articles on job seeking and just to take my mind off my problems for a while. I picked up a copy of Writers Magazine, and it had an article about a program that encourages people to write novels, a kind of community tracking project called NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write at least 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November. It was the fourth week in October when I read this, and I checked out the website and decided to go for it. After all, I finally had the time to complete another item on my Bucket List.

Carbboard model of Prague

A cardboard model of Prague built in the 1820s-1830s by a man named Langwell. You can see that St. Vitus’ Cathedral is truncated and incomplete, and that the Hradcany castle complex overlooked the old city (Mala Stana) and Vltava River.

I had an idea for a novel that had been simmering in my head for eight years, ever since I spent the summer in Philadelphia at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. It would be a time travel adventure into the history of chemistry as the protagonists searched for clues to an ancient mystery involving that remarkable book by Michael Maier called Atalanta Fugiens. I started doing research into Maier and the history of the book, and found that he had written it shortly after leaving the service of the Emperor Rudolf II of Prague, so I started researching the Emperor as well. He was a remarkable person living in an incredible city and time, full of many story possibilities including the kunstkammer (Cabinet of Curiosities) he collected, the Voynich Manuscript, the Devil’s Bible, enough artists and alchemists and scientists (Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Anselmo de Boodt, John Dee, Elizabeth Weston, and many others) to provide a rich cast of characters, and backed up by the intrigue of the events leading up to the 30 Years War. And there was that whole business about the Golem of Prague, too. Great stuff!

Prague_Hoefnagel_

Prague as drawn by Hoefnagel from the early 17th Century.

So I built a plot up, the first book in a series (I hope), and on November 1st started in on writing the novel. This was my second such attempt, the first being a novella competition sponsored by Tor.com in 2015 where I wrote a 39,000 word novella called Dead Stone Lions in about two weeks. That experience was remarkable in that the story wrote itself – minor characters would take on a life of their own and show up as major story points, and ideas just popped into my head as I wrote it, a process that is often referred to as discovery writing. I barely finished in time and had no time for editing, so of course the novella was rejected. But at least I got a first draft done, and will edit it at some future time.

Prague in 1606

A drawing of Prague in 1606 showing the Charles Bridge across the Vltava River.

For the NaNoWriMo novel, which I titled The Golden Apple, the protagonists discover that Atalanta Fugiens is actually a time machine of sorts. By singing the fugues in the book in three voices (Atalanta, Hippomenes, and the Golden Apple) while holding a crystal, they are able to travel to Prague to the Court of Rudolf II and find themselves in the middle of the machinations of Matthias, the brother of Rudolf who is gradually taking control of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg dynasty. Here is a synopsis I wrote for the book:

 

In the twisted streets of the Old City, a misshapen monster stomps its way through the fleeing crowd. Jeremy McGowan, science teacher and time traveler, is running for his life . . .

Golem_by_Philippe_Semeria

Since my novel is set in Prague in 1609, I have to include a Golem or two. Rabbi Loew, the supposed creator of the Golem of Prague, lived until October 1609.

His fellowship at the Nexus Foundation was supposed to be an escape from the constant reminders of his lost love, not an escape from the legendary Golem of Prague. When he stumbles upon a secret hidden in a remarkable book, Jeremy embarks on a journey with science historians Ankha Zalinski and Benjamin Johnson to the court of Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia. They hope to solve an ancient puzzle: as a child, Ankha memorized a poem handed down through millennia from her ancestors. It speaks of a Golden Apple, which may be the key to unlocking incredible power.

Emblem 1 color

The first emblem of Atalanta Fugiens, showing Boreas, the God of Winds. In 50 emblems and epigrams, with essays and fugues, Michael Maier laid out the steps needed to achieve the Inner Transformation required to make the Philosophers’ Stone.

Using the legend of Atalanta as their guide, the explorers become the Trinum Magicum, the three alchemical emblems of Paracelsus, on a perilous quest to the past. Pursued by clandestine agents of the Emperor’s brother, Matthias, and hounded by a dark entity from beyond history, they must grapple with the limits of their own humanity. With the aid of Johannes Kepler, Elizabeth Weston, Rabbi Loeb, and other brilliant scholars, they hope to find the Golden Apple, decipher the symbols of a strange manuscript, and prevent a war that will rip Europe apart.

Fire salamander emblem

One of the emblems in Atalanta Fugiens, showing a fire salamander. In some books, such as the copy in the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, the first ten emblems have been hand colored to enhance the value of the book.

In this unique tale of historical science fiction, what appears to be magic may simply be a technology beyond comprehension, if only the travelers can find it in time.

I made my goal, barely, with 50,380 words by November 30, although I had to write 7000 words that last day. Since then, I have taken the book on to over 68,000 words and it is now about halfway done. It is a different experience than Dead Stone Lions, as I’ve had to plot it out much more carefully and think through the details of the whole book series in order to lay a good foundation. It even required writing a long poem full of chemical history references. But it is certainly coming along. Now I need to get back to it, with the goal of finishing it up during this 2018 NaNoWriMo so I can edit and submit it by the end of the year. My goal is to write one of these each year. If I do succeed in finishing it, then in December I will work editing and finding an agent or a publisher that wants to print and market it.

Golden Apple progress chart

This is my progress chart through the month of Nov. 2017. I made my goal of 50,000 words just barely (by 380 words). It required a major sprint of 7000 words on the last day!

We see many space operas, biological science fiction, future tech explorations, and so on but chemistry science fiction is rare. I can only think of Asimov’s The God’s Themselves, which has some chemistry in it (radioactive tungsten, anyone?) but is also about physics, entropy, multiple universes, and space colonization. So I hope my book finds an untapped market, with its references to real alchemists and history and some fascinating mysteries to solve in a remarkable time and place.

NaNo-2017-Winner-Badge

My badge for making my goal of 50,000 words.

So there are seldom any challenges we face that do not have some benefits for us, including silver linings and opportunities that we may never have accepted if we weren’t in dire straits. These changes in direction are never voluntary, but they can be for our good. Sometimes you have to look for the windows that open up when the doors are closed in your face. Sometimes they find you, like these two opportunities that dropped in my lap. I am glad I had the courage to accept them.

Emblem 50 color

Emblem 50 from Atalanta Fugiens, another enigmatic symbol. Reading through the translations of the Latin and German epigrams and discourses doesn’t help all that much for understanding the book. Maier wrote in symbolic language that used many of the ideas behind Rosicrucianism. It will take me years to write all the books; maybe by the time I’m done I’ll have a clearer idea of what he was trying to say. Or maybe not . . .