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Archive for May, 2019

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.

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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.

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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.

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