It’s now 11:05 a.m. on Saturday, March 20 and my presentation at the NSTA Conference in Philadelphia is done. Whew! But more on that later. This post will seem to be off on a strange tangent at first, but I will tie it into science education in the end.
While riding on the Philadelphia public transportation system last summer (SEPTA) I usually took the 101 surface light rail route to the 69th St. Terminal, then the Market-Frankfurt line to the 5th St. stop in the historic district of Philly. I noticed something then that puzzled me – the main line would always bypass certain stops, such as the stations at 22nd and 19th Streets. I could see there were stations there, and people waiting, and occasionally a trolley car, but there seemed to be no connection to the main line – a complete system that I only got glimpses of. The last few days, I’ve been staying out in Darby and taking the Route 11 trolley/subway to the Juniper Station under City Hall, then walking to the Convention Center. Now I know what that other system was – a completely different sub-subway, a kind of Shadow Line, that runs parallel to the main subway trains for part of its length. It only connects in certain places, such as Juniper Station, which is under the main 13th street station, at 30th St. for University City, etc. Now I am now one of those people I glimpsed last summer, riding the Shadow Line.
It occurred to me last night, riding back to the friend’s house where I am staying, that education is like the Philly transportation system. We as teachers are riding the main line train – zooming in and out with our (supposedly) greater knowledge and experience and thinking we know how our students think and where they live, yet we are really only getting glimpses of them in the few places we can actually connect. It is this disconnect that causes most of our problems as teachers (and as a society); we have far too many places where we don’t understand each other, don’t connect, can’t relate, and don’t communicate. Racial strife, the disparity between rich and poor, the digital divide, the generation gap, etc. are all created by the disconnects between individuals and between groups.
Education is all about building bridges across these gaps, making the connections between their world and ours. If teachers and other adults are on the Main Line, then our students are on the Shadow Line and our classrooms are the stations. Our job as educators is to connect the lines (lives) of our students with our lines (lives) as adults through our classroom stations.
I tend to think of technology as an end-all and be-all of teaching (I”m a techie, after all) but I need to remember that technology is only there to build these bridges and make connections, to give us glimpses into the worlds of our students and their ways of thinking, and as such is no more valuable than any other teaching method or technique. The fundamental thing is learning how to build a community of trust and mutual support and respect in a classroom where students can freely express themselves and learn from each other. Technology can certainly help to do this, but it is only part of a well-constructed and well-taught class. Some of the sessions yesterday reminded me of this fact (especially one by Joan Gallagher-Bolos who teaches an extraordinary chemistry class in Illinois, where students learn to trust and support each other, to speak their minds and make a contribution, as well as learning chemistry). I can only hope The Elements Unearthed project will help build communities of students, in local towns, and across borders. If not so, then just making gee-whiz videos for the Internet is rather pointless.
Yesterday was very much about making connections. I attended sessions taught by, or ran into, many friends and associates from my days in two NASA educational programs, the NASA Explorer Schools program, in which I was a facilitator at JPL for three summers, and teachers in the Solar System Educator Program. It’s been over five years since I’ve seen them, but seeing them again has helped re-ignite my passion as a science teacher and reminded me of the communities of teachers I’ve been part of, renewing the connections I’ve had with these amazing educators. A group of us got together for dinner last night and it was as if I had never left the program; they welcomed me back even if only as a visitor. I am still part of their community, just like I will always be from Deseret, Utah even though I haven’t lived there since 1983. I also spent time meeting and building new connections, finding new ways to collaborate, and new ways to build bridges.
I”ll post more later today on my presentation. Now I’m going to brave the Exhibitor’s Hall. More connections to make . . .