Sunday, October 25, 2015

It's Funny How Things Work Out

(I wrote the first 1/3 of this last year.   I wanted to give it a place to be.)

Like many people, I am a fan of quotations.  These pearls of wisdom that seem so perfectly formed and easily spoken are as close as I can come to the word of God, for they appear, seemingly unbidden, at just the right time in my life to comfort me, prod me, or give me direction and counsel.  

How words find me in this way is eternally mysterious to me, but such thinking pumps at the very heart of religion.  It is not a coincidence that one version of the Old Testament begins, "In the beginning was the word."  I find…I have always found such solace in the thoughts of others, and I moved away from that, drawn by the desire to do more than play with words and, perhaps, to run from the fact that I could never master them.  What I found in design was a place where my thoughts could rest in the real.  Where ideas were manifest in objects, places, things.  To me this was peace.  Chasing the dreams of words, however beautiful, however playful and melodic, was just playing with ideas.  Design brought thought and ideas into the real world.  I lived there and preached it for several years.  

And then I gave it all up to go back to words as a teacher of a new English class for gifted students at the High School.  

We and our worlds are little more than the stories we tell ourselves.  For 20+ years I had been writing one story and then...?  Then I changed it.  I'm not sure how some people do it, how they can change themselves so easily and quickly and write a new story.  Or I wasn't sure how they did it until I did.  Truly, I struggled to hold myself together last year.  Even with Campbell's words of guidance and my wife and friends to help me, I couldn't see how to begin a new story until I learned to open my eyes and accept the life that was waiting for me. 

And that's where Campbell's words ring so true.  I encountered them in late August of last year, just before I started in my new position.  And I rediscovered them (and the better part of the first 1/4 of this post) just today.  I accepted the life that was waiting for me.  I don't think I'd go back now.  And that's the funny part.  I visited a therapist a few times last year to talk things out.  He helped me immensely, and one of the things he said was, "these things have a way of working themselves out." I know what you're thinking, "You paid for that platitude?"  But it was true.  I'm on a different career path now, finding a way to combine my passion for getting kids to learn by thinking like designers with my love of words.  And my district is offering me a chance to design an entire academy within the school driven by this philosophy I've followed for so long.

I've no earth shattering realization here.  Something happened, I lived through it, I came out on the other side, I'm the better for it.  Campbell seemed to know so much, 'cause right now I'm thinking, "Hey, that's just like the monomyth, Campbell's Hero's Journey."  And maybe it is, and if so, then it just proves I'm human.  

I'll live with that.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

What Counts in Education and Why

My title here alludes to a quip by, Einstein, I believe:  "Not everything that matters can be counted; not everything that can be counted matters."

I've been thinking a lot about my former teachers lately.  Maybe it was the quip that my colleague at the High School made about my corduroy sports coat and our former German teacher, Gordon.  Or maybe it was this blog post I found today.  Regardless, those thoughts led to me find the eulogy I wrote for my good friend Ron T., my former Chemistry teacher in HS.  I wanted to post the eulogy again because I've been thinking so much about what matters, what counts, and how we can ever freaking know such information with any accuracy.

Off and on since I graduated HS back in 1986, I would stop in to see  Ron.  I used to drop by his house on my way to and from my father’s, or, more recently, about once or twice a year my family and I would try to get to see Ron and just talk and enjoy some of the simple food he would make with vegetables from his garden.  No matter when I would stop by, he'd always great me with a smile and welcomed look of surprise.  "Well,  Gary..."  I can't think of any time, not even in class, when it wasn't so.  His demeanor rarely changed and you always had a sense that he felt it a pleasure to have you visit.  He was, more than anything, a genuine spirit, unassuming in his countenance and personality, who taught his students as much by what he did as by what he said.

One summer, before I was married, Rob H. and I helped Ron paint the clapboard siding of a barn and twin home he owned as a rental property in East Greenville.  High on the ladders, all of us working side-by-side, Ron would tell stories and his gentle humor made the days pass quickly.  As we grew tired, we would take a break, and Ron would produce his lunch, a lettuce sandwich--just two pieces of pumpernickel bread with some fresh lettuce between the slices.  To two boys who grew up in the great consumer morass that was American culture of the 70s and 80s, you can imagine how we might have perceived his meal.  But, simple as his food choices were, there always existed some flavor up-front.  The caraway of the rye seeds in the pumpernickel, or the dill he mixed into a homemade soup he once served when Heather and I stopped by one night.   Truth be told, I have never met anyone whose appetite so closely matched his personality. 

Just so, Ron was a simple man, but never dull.  He filled his life with a love for his heritage and treasured nothing so much as sharing with people.  When we were still in HS, Ron invited some of us up to his home to view his Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas Putz, a unique collection of animals, buildings, and all manner of figurines which, when setup like a model train display, produced a fascinating landscape for the wonderment of children.  This collection was his from his childhood, and he kept it with the same precision and organization that guided everything he did in his life…so far as I could tell.  As he grew older, he donated his Christmas Putz to the Schwenkfelder Heritage society in Red Hill so that children would evermore be able to marvel at what children past used to occupy their play. 

Other times, I remember Ron inviting his students to make candy during the holidays.  Ron possessed a collection of molds into which, with the right guidance, we learned to pour a hot, colored, sugary mixture.  I believe we would add to this a lollypop stick and when the mixture cooled and the candy was removed, one held in her hand a miniature delight—a clear, yellow, green, or red sweet that shined like a Christmas light but tasted much better. 

My family and I visited Ron in late August of 2011, and then again in November after learning he had renal cancer.  He was tired, but his kind wit had not abandoned him.  We spoke of school, photography, and somewhat of his illness.  We knew the cancer had spread and that there might not be many more chances for us to visit, and so we made plans to visit with him on December 26th.  But my daughter had come down with a stomach virus.  I called Ron to reschedule but we were not able to get up to see him.  He suffered a setback on the Thursday before New Years and was never able to recover.

If this be eulogy, then let it be this--a eulogy that reminds us all of our teachers and of this important truth:  We can never tell where their influence stops.  Whether I remember how  to balance out an oxidation reduction reaction (if that’s even what you do with them) is not nearly so important in my life as that Ron T. cared…that, for the most part, all my teachers cared, that they shared their lives with me, and that I learned, whether intentionally or not, a good deal about how to be a decent, intelligent, and caring human being.

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.