Friday, September 12, 2014

Fuller, Feynman: Curious Characters Under Study.

Students in my 10th grade gifted honors classes are doing a quick study of Buckminster Fuller and his efforts to create a mass produced home that would, among other things, exchange the internal air every 6 minutes, withstand fires, tornados; whose foundation was based upon a central mast and suspension structures, that could be shipped around the world easily, that could be purchased for (in 1946 dollars) the price of a Cadillac.  Fuller's Dymaxion House contained amenities and ideas so forward thinking that, after actually going home and digging into Fuller's ideas all on his own (no homework was assigned)  one of my students came into class on Wednesday and said, "Mr. Heidt, I just don't know why we're not all living in these houses now, or why we're not driving his amazing cars."

I'd started the week with a short slide show about Bill Levitt and the creation of the Levittowns, the first planned suburbs that eventually became the model for most all the suburbs in America for the next 40 years.  These are the kinds of suburbs (most with townhomes or McMansions instead of the Levitt cottages) that many of my students live in.  So I'd set them up, used the principle of contrast to allow them to see the future that is, and set Fuller's ideas off against that.

It worked amazingly well.  To have students wondering why this just didn't happen, why the currency of a good idea was not enough to sell America on his genius, that's something I don't get to see everyday.  I wish I did.  But that's the drug that keeps me teaching, that aha! moment.

In my 9th grade classes, students are learning about the challenges that Richard Feynman faced as a member of the star studded Rogers commission in trying to figure out the cause of the Challenger disaster.  Those students are dealing with procedural challenges, a more difficult situation than the tangible situation faced by Fuller, but they are grasping it very well, the bureaucracy of the situation, and the insatiably curious nature of Feynman, a curious character.

We're examining the characters of these two men--biographically speaking we're reading their stories and trying to understand them as characters dealing with conflicts--through the lens of Carol Dweck's notion of mindsets.  We're trying to understand the manner in which they faced challenges, dealt with dilemmas, and overcame by reading, within their dispositions and personalities, aspects of fixed and growth mindsets.

For students in an English class, this study opens the door to deeper understandings of characters and personalities. Indeed, understanding people better was one of the main reasons I became an English major in the first place, as the study of character always lead me to better understanding of those around me.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Stranger in a Strange Land

One of the most stressful aspects of moving from the Middle School to the High School this year has been the culture shock.  Sure, I was expecting the basic, "Oh...So that's how they do it here," as well as the time it'll take to get acclimated to the layout, the numbers of students, the way people are spread out all over the place.

Wait a minute.  Maybe I wasn't expecting that.  I've only been there a day.  It was a day where I did most of the talking because I have a design project with a deadline I have to run with my students.  So today as a procedural day.  Do this, read this, take that, we'll get to that later, here's how you navigate that...It was that kind of day.  Not my favorite day by far as it's generally sedentary, especially when you have to move through a number of things in a finite time.

But just in this day, and in the meetings yesterday preceding today's opening, I get the feeling that this high school, ranked in the top 10 in the state by at least two different measures, isn't much different from the HS I went to (because, ha!  This is the HS I went to).

Don't get me wrong.  The HS where I now work--the very same HS in whose halls I first kissed a girl--is fantastic at getting kids into programs, making sure they meet the grade, etc.  The rankings aren't lying, so far as I can tell.

But the kids still move somnambulantly, gravitate into their cliques, and tolerate most of their classes, while idolizing or vilifying the rest.

Is this ever going to change?  What is it about the architecture, the system that morphs us this way?  Or is it not really the system but rather just human development.  I'm guessing it's somewhere in the middle.  But I'd like to spend some time figuring it all out.  Cause for the life of me, I don't feel like having to relive HS all over.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Panic in the (Brain) Attic

My Brain
Nice closet, huh?  Yeah.  That's my brain right now.  It's burgeoning with ideas, as this closet is bursting  It's somewhat organized but one system of organization seems to get in the way of another system of organization.  Or maybe systems are competing with one another.

The trouble here is not only the mess I have to deal with to get to anything (thoughts clouding other thoughts, a mind fog, if you will) it's actually an issue of prioritization--things to be done competing with other things to be done and those loudly fighting with one another, some with physical, outside voices calling for forms to be turned in, items to be moved, etc.

I have tried to focus on just one thing at a time, but like those dogs in the movie Up, I'm easily distracted, and one "squirrel!" is all it takes to get me working on something else, and then nothing gets done.  And daily the demons raise their voices in my subconscious, telling me I'm not ready, I've not read enough, not prepared enough...and they're usually right.  After all, one summer, two new curricula to write/borrow from/learn, and 42 Gifted IEPs to learn how to write and organize.  Yeah, you could say I am PANICKING!  Not a useful behavior, but it's where I am right now.

It's no genius notion to recognize that I (you, we) don't like feeling this way.

Strangely, my room is, at least for now organized and neat, less cluttered than it was at the middle school, with only about 15 of the ceiling tiles hanging now on the walls (where once the entire ceiling was filled with words).  After all, I jettisoned a good deal of 20 years worth of stuff

But still, my mind is cluttered.

I've plans for the first couple of months, but not physically written down beyond week two.

My teacher friends, as I'm coming from a curriculum that I had memorized and largely in my head, and which I, therefore, rightly or wrongly, rarely put on paper, you help, if you have any, is appreciated.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

And So to Be...

After twenty years or so designing, teaching, and evolving a class based upon the principles of design and reading the world, I've decided to accept an offer from my district to teach English to gifted freshman and sophomores.  The decision wasn't easy.  My life's work was in moving my thinking and ideas away from purely text-based interpretations of the world.

Yes, I was an English major, but after spending the majority of my adult life looking at art, discussing objects, and understanding the way in which we have conceived of and constructed the built environment...after digging in to the way our world is full of texts beyond those written in words, well, it's hard to imagine why I might have decided to switch back to the comfort of books, back to a class that is solidly in the "core" of educational content.

The main answer to that question is that when I inquired as to the district's vision  for this class, their response began with the word "different."  Furthering my line of inquiry, I was told that I would still be allowed to travel to the design conferences I planned on attending, that I could travel to visit schools that had bought into design as a powerful educational tool--places like Design-Lab High in Wilmington, Delaware (not yet open, but soon), The Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, and numerous other places in the Tri-state (and beyond) area that are using design-based methods to engage students and offer them a different way of approaching learning in all disciplines.

And it is in that allowance for design that I found my point of departure.

Design, because it is integrative in nature, presents a way for educators to reunify a schooling (high-school, really) experience that has, for so long, been broken into different disciplines.  To make matters worse, the cognitive boundaries such a system creates are reinforced physically in the architecture of the school--Science in science halls,  English in English halls, etc.

This is not a new complaint, I know, and numerous initiatives have grown up trying to reunify the curriculum.  I actually just finished a book on teaching philosophy in the high school that makes the claim that philosophy can reunify the curriculum (and I think it can).

But design has the added hands-on dimension that moves learning from thinking to doing.  In that aspect of physically manifesting our thought in more ways than simply writing or doing math problems, we move our thoughts and learning out of our heads into the world and, in so doing, exert ourselves upon the world.  The act of designing, then (to which most art teachers will attest), moves us from thinking, to doing, to being.  And it is this move that so excites me about the possibilities for design-based education.

Ideally, though, moving into a new curriculum, having to relearn how to be an English teacher while still trying to innovate in a design-based way...this will take time.  And I am an impatient man who is unwilling to throw away 20 years of his career to move back to being a simple "English teacher."   (Not that being an English teacher is simple, it is just that I'm not an English teacher only anymore.)

Thus, this year for me will be a year of designing.  I will begin with empathy for my students, what they need and want, and how I can design a course to meet that while still being mindful of the constraints of the system and its demands...demands I was able to buck for years.

With breaks for all the work I'll be doing and the Gifted Individualized Education Programs I will be writing, I will try to blog my experience in designing this class on these pages.  I hope to have far more successes than failures, but as this class is, in certain ways, a prototype, I'll defer to what designers always say:

"Fail early, and fail often."

So is to failures and the successes born of them.

Of Toothbrushes and Our Gardens of Forking Paths

Those of you who know me well know that I have a penchant, fetish, obsession, infatuation with toothbrushes.  It was a fascinating toothbrush that looked like a venus flytrap that first led me to understand that all things in the built environment are created with intent...that they are designed.

That brush has led me a long way in my life, perhaps a bit too far as it led me into the creation of a curriculum that, while forward thinking and innovative in its intent, no longer seems to fit the mold of what education has become.

Like the toothbrush, though, I must change, innovate myself, and, as my wife says, if that means going backwards and retrenching in order to move forwards, then so be it.

So as I go back to my English roots I offer this observation of one new version of a toothbrush, that utilitarian object that sparked my intellectual growth so many years ago.  Thanks to Doris Wells-Papanek for this link.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Reminiscing--What Do You Need?

Went out to return a rented Bissel Carpet Cleaner  to Lowes and then tried going to A.C. Moore to get some pieces for a tunnel I'm constructing on our train set. Lines were past the middle of the store in all the aisles.  So we (my boys and I) left.

This simple refusal reminded me of how my wife and I spent black Friday just a few weeks after we were married in 2001.

What follows is a story of that day in 2001 and the following year, 2002.  I still refuse to shop just to shop on Black Friday.  (I wasn't seeking anything today that I wouldn't have gone out for on any other day.) The story from November 25, 2002 was sent to the teachers in my district, which is why I'm speaking about education so much in the text.

But this is not mere nostalgia for my days as a protestor, a recent editorial in the USA Today let's us know that I'm not crazy (nor are the thousands of people who celebrate "Buy Nothing Day" on this Friday--see When we start shopping on Thanksgiving Day...?  Seems like crossing a Rubicon to me.

November 25, 2002:

We all know that the day after Thanksgiving has been termed "Black Friday."
The largest (supposedly) shopping day of the year.  The media builds us up
for this.  The Sunday paper in every US town on the weekend before
Thanksgiving is awash in advertisements and entreaties to "Shop till you
drop."  Television news vans stake out locations at local malls the night
before so they can broadcast their reports on traffic and consumer moods to
those of us who, eeek!, have not ventured out into the mass of (in)humanity
that attacks our capitalist Meccas.  From all angles, we Americans have
bought (something we are quite good at) into the myth of this day.  

A few years ago I asked a simple question..."Why?"  Why such a push to shop
on this day?  Why the need to consume with such aplomb?  Why do we need to
buy so much stuff?  The only answer I've come upon that satisfies me is that
we were raised to do so.  The capitalist economy under which we live fuels
itself on the creation of desire.  It's chief engines are advertisers and
marketers. It is no longer, as it once was, their job to sell a product.
No, the engine of the capitalist economy would sputter if all we did was buy
products.  Advertisers and Marketers are involved in a more insidious
undertaking.  They are the manufacturers of desire, and they now sell the
product of "image."  Satisfying such abstractions as "Desire" and "Image"
requires far more spending on the part of the consumer than just the
purchase of one product.  It requires a lifetime commitment to buy, and to
buy without thinking.

This is a true story--
Last year, on Black Friday, I arrived at the King of Prussia Mall
around 6:30 AM and sat on a round concrete object whose purpose was, for all
I could tell, to be a round concrete object.  But is served well enough as a
bench, and so I sat upon it.  In my right hand was a large, two sided sign,
some 21X 37''.  The sign asked a simple question, "What do you need?"  All I
wanted to do was sit there the whole day and ask this question.  I had heard
my president, in a post 9/11 speech tell us that America had to get back to
business, and that we shouldn't be afraid to do the things Americans do,
like shop.  (That's almost a quote, but not quite.)  That turned my stomach.
Being an American means a hell of a lot more to me than shopping and I'll be
damned if I'll let any president, democrat or republican, insinuate that
part of my expression of patriotism should be to shop.  So there I sat.
About 15 minutes later four mall security men stood like the famed "four
horsemen" in front of me asking me what I was doing.  Well, after no
discussion whatsoever, I was told that if I wanted to take up my case with
the police, they would be happy to oblige me. ('Seems I was trespassing on
private property.)  So I asked if I could talk to someone about what I could
do. They directed me to the mall manager.  Well, I took my big sign and,
quite happily, walked into the mall, searching for the manager.  When I
found him, I asked if I could sit with my sign.  He said I could not, that
if they allowed me to do so, they would have to allow everyone who was
soliciting to do so.  I pointed out that I was not soliciting.  He still
said no.  I said, "What if I just stand outside and ask the question to all
the people who walk by?"  He said I couldn't do that.  "What, I'm not
allowed to ask a question?" I said.  "No," he replied, "it ruins their
shopping mood."

Well, I had no comeback for that, so I walked out, dumbfounded.  The manager
of the mall had, quite openly and shockingly, admitted to me the mantra the
King of Prussia mall--and, I suspect, all malls--want their shoppers to
repeat:  "Don't think, just shop."

So this year I'm going back.  At 6:30 AM I will be outside the Bertiluccis
(?)/Neiman Marcus entrance to the plaza.  That's the one where the covered
walkway connects to the Court. I am trying to get a whole bunch of friends
and other like minded individuals to walk through the mall as a team of
people.  Together with PV graduate Jesse Miksic, I have designed a t-shirt
that has the question "What do you need?" emblazoned on the chest, with a
logo on the back.  This shirt will be our uniform.  If you are interested in
this bit of political theater, this protest against blind consumption, then
write back to me to let me know you'll be coming.  It's important to get
there early.

I want to note here that, as a group, my friends and I are not against
consuming things...we're not against buying things.  I fully understand the
integral part I play as a consumer in this country.  However, as an American
I represent less than 5% of the world's total population (according to 1999
estimates), but I am part of a world minority which consumes over 20% of the
world's natural resources.  I have a problem with that.  When we buy simply
because we are told to, when we buy because it makes us feel good, when we
buy because we are, consciously or not, trying to fulfill some image, then
we are blind consumers, and we are robbing wealth from the rest of the world
for our own indulgences.  My conscience leads me to believe that there is
something wrong with that.  To buy just because I can and because I
want/desire to...there's something wrong with that. Even Christmas has been
changed by these market forces.  What was once a celebration of the hope and
joy represented by Jesus Christ (and you don't have to believe in the Bible
to understand the mythic import of hope and joy to a civilization), has been
perverted into the hope and joy that buying can bring.  One joy is
existential, other worldly, and nourishment for the soul.  The other is
ephemeral; it dissipates like sugar on the tongue. 

What's more is that as educators, we are in a perfect position to get
students to question their consumption, to question the cultural forces at
work that mold them into the kind of blind consumers whose idea of a good
time is a day out at the mall.  Henry A. Giroux, Penn State professor of
secondary education, writes that "if democracy is to carry us forward into
the next century, surely it will be based on a commitment to improving the
lives of children, but not within the degrading logic of a market that
treats their bodies as commodities and their futures as trade-offs for
capital accumulation. . . . Critical educators . . . need to create a
cultural vision and a set of strategies informed by 'the rhetoric of
political, civic, and economic citizenship.'"

It's a small vision I have, this protest on November 29th, but if you agree
with Giroux, if you believe that children are being programmed to buy, that
they, especially the girls, are treated as little more than "bodies" to
parade, Brittany Spears-like, on the stage of human desire, then join me by buying nothing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Your Liberty or The Lives of Children? Explain that to your kids....

What I post below I wrote to a family member.  An in-law, but no less important in my life as a family man than my blood relatives.  He's a military man and a veteran of numerous campaigns.  We've been having a discussion about gun control in the wake of Sandy Hook.  Given the NRA's news conference today and the manner in which they shirked any blame for what their lobbying and strong-arming has wrought, I'm done talking.  With him, with anyone.  What skills I have are in writing and speaking, and as I say at the end of this post, I will use them now to whatever ends I can to seek, if not an end, at least a sensible amelioration of the death and carnage our selfish devotion to our guns has wrought.  I'll not edit it for publication, so the context (my response to his posting of a 1991 video of a woman testifying before congress during the original Assault Weapons ban hearings) is kind of important.  In the video She spoke of how, if she only had her weapon (which she'd removed from her purse several weeks before) she could have killed the man how was shooting at her, would eventually shoot her father and her mother.

Here's the thing.  If you ask most gun owners to present any reasoned and empirical evidence to prove that increased possession of handguns/weapons will deter crime....they can't.  The closest they've ever come was a researcher named John Lott, whose methods and book were pilloried by the National Academy of Sciences.  All they can produce is arguments based on emotion, what Aristotle called "pathos."  Arguments based solely on emotion might move us to tears, but they are not warrant for policy decisions.  For that we require ethos (ethically sound experts), and logos (logic, preferably empiric, evidence.  If you can find it, and it's directly correlated to decreased crime without increasing accidental death, suicide, and grave, accidental injury, I'd like to see it.

"This issue is not about individual incidents. In the aggregate, the more guns we pump into the system, the more we increase the chance of deaths associated with weapons, not just homicides, but accidental deaths, suicides, injuries.... Perhaps the answer is to force gun owners to be better stewards of their weapons. Adam Lanza's mother wasn't. Those who sold weapons to the shooters at Columbine weren't. And what does the NRA tell us today...more guns. That's what we need.

Your comment that you've been in situations like this? I don't doubt it, and I cannot thank you enough for the sacrifice you have made at all levels in America's Army. But when we treat a civilized society like a war zone we admit our own inability to handle the extent of the weapons we've created...we admit also our own inability to handle ourselves. Perhaps the NRA is right in it's goal to arm all citizens and mount an insurrection to a government that's obviously bound and determined to "take away our rights". Let's all get guns and rise up. Anarchy is so much more productive and protective of our rights than democracy. Just ask Somalia during the 1st decade of this century. 

The facts are clear, I've sent you the article regarding children and gun deaths.  

Here, however, is another response. This one to the issue raised today by the NRA.

Drs. from Johns Hopkins, Tufts University, researchers from the RAND Coroporation...they're all in agreement here. You stand against them only with fear. Fear is an emotion. In Aristotelian logic, an argument based solely on emotion (pathos) is not only incomplete but illogical, as it lacks an ethical basis (recognized and ethical source (read...NOT John Lott)) and a logical basis (backed by evidence, preferably empirical but also logical). And in standing against them, you wager the chance happening of a Sandy Hook (a recognized aberration) versus the daily death of children and citizens at a rate that outpaces the total losses from our years in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The protestors at the NRA press conf. were right. All members of the NRA have blood on their hands if they stand with their clearly far more radical leadership. If anyone is in line for an insurrection, it ought to be the NRA. How any members of the organization can stomach the abject lack of responsibility LaPierre and his leadership claim for the manner in which the laws they've fought against and the lobbying they've done for the gun industry...It's beyond me. Such is the nature of blood money. We wager our children, ourselves, and the better natures of our selves versus the perception of a government that would "take away my gun from my cold, dead hands" and a perception of society as a war zone--both of which are fictions promulgated by the NRA in order to cement its base. You'd have to go back to the propaganda machine of Nazi Germany to find an organization as practiced in deception and death. I'll say it again, if your membership is based in so many reasonable and safe gun owners...then do something. Stop the organization from shirking blame here. I sent you the link to the radio program ( If you've not listened, then you're just as guilty, if not more so by association with the NRA, as I am for turning my head while all these deaths go on. Tell does an organization like the NRA go from a sportsman's organization to protecting the rights to own semi-automatic weapons, sniper rifles and ammunition that can penetrate armor plating? (This from the npr program and researcher interviewed there)

I'm done. You want to stand with your organization and find no fault in the policies, monied interests, and deaths that drive it, then that's your choice. It's made with a morality and weltanschauung you've forged through the military and through buying the lies of the NRA. I'll not wager the lives of children versus some perceived threat to a liberty that neither I nor even one of the most conservative Supreme Court justices, Antonin Scalia, sees as unlimited. I've argued this before and I'll tell you again, at the point that your liberty to own whatever weapons you want takes the lives of children, for whatever reason, then I'll fight for the limitation of that liberty with whatever power I have. If that's my writing and speaking ability, then so be it. And if I fail because I don't have the money or the eloquence that comes from the lips of those who would favor wild liberty over childrens' lives, then I'll gladly fail, so long as the ugly and blood stained hands of such people are revealed. 

I don't want to talk about this any more. I've said my peace. I've my beliefs, you yours. Mine value children as a whole, not merely as victims of aberrant shootings. I base my beliefs on research and expert testimony. I've told you how I see your position's basis. Pathos is a poor basis for an argument and an utter failure as a basis for public policy. I value and honor your service, your leadership, and your resolute belief in what you do. But I'll stand against you and the NRA at this point. So let's just leave it there.