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/that "became," 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
Feynman and C-clamp demonstration
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 obstacles 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.