March 30, 2019

From the Vaults: Stealing


    Stealing or borrowing?  I have been trying to decide whether my teaching career had been one based on ‘stealing’ or ‘borrowing’ ideas.  Of course I could sound noble and say I was “recycling ideas” in the classroom, but that flies in the face of everything I have be taught about finding and using other teacher’s intellectual property.  There are fancier words and phrases that describe the act of incorporating ideas picked up from other sources like ‘adopting best practices’, but in the end it still amounts to some form of borrowing. Cleaning out forty plus years of accumulated files in the months before retirement gave me an opportunity to think back to where some of the ideas that became lessons in my classroom came from.  I let myself off the hook a bit by rationalizing that if something was offered to a roomful of teachers at the annual NMU Science and Math conference, for example, it was done with the intent that we would carry these ‘best practices’ back to use in our own districts. Perhaps what separates the ‘borrowing’ and ‘stealing’ here is always giving credit to the source for any activity used in class.  Even if an idea gets tweaked beyond recognition (from the original concept), I still like to point out where it originated. It has also been one of my ‘best practices’ to tell others, “If you like one of my ideas, please feel free to use it.”

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but the idea for me to become a teacher was planted in my brain in sixth grade by the first male teacher I ever had.  Mr. Arnson was passing back a standardized science test we had taken when he paused at my desk. He set the answer booklet down in front of me and pointed at the score on the top and quite casually asked, ‘So, are you planning on being a science teacher?”  Of course my natural reaction was about the same as if someone offered me a plate of liver and onions: “What? ME? Ah, no!” It was an innocent enough question and it remained firmly on the back shelf for the next seven years. Science was always one of my strong suits in school but through my freshman year in college, the closest I had come to exploring a career in science was enrolling in a track of study that was heavy in Geography and Earth Science classes.  

    During my senior year in high school, we were expected to have two mandatory meetings with a school counselor.  Not surprisingly, mine asked what my plans were after high school (which was to go to Northern Michigan University as an undeclared major and see what happened from there).  It was a short but enlightening conversation: Counselor: “You can NOT go to college as an undeclared major!” “Why not?” “Well, that is for people who can’t decide what they want to do.”  “Right, like me!” “No, no, no, they don’t want people coming in without some idea of what they want to do.” “If that is the case, then why does the application form have a code that says ‘999 – undeclared major’?”  That was the last straw as far as the counselor was concerned. He signed off on my file and never called me back for the follow up meeting everyone else had. I found out much later that he had designated me as someone who would, “Probably be an average college student.”  I only found this out because I needed a copy of my high school transcript for one job application I filled out after graduating from NMU. After seeing his less than ringing endorsement of my future college career, one part of me wanted to get a hold of him and ask, “Does graduating with a 3.60 GPA make me ‘average’?” but cooler heads prevailed and I let it slide.  The same counselor was a guest at our ten year high school reunion and I remember telling this story to a couple of old friends who thought I should march up to him and ask the same question in person. That didn’t happen because a full decade after the fact, it was a moot point in my mind.

    Going to college and majoring in education in the early 1970s was a bit of a pig in a poke because there were many more applicants coming out of college than there were jobs waiting for them.  My brother, sister, and brother-in-law all entered the education field and promptly got out. My brother got drafted into the Army after one year of teaching high school biology, my sister hated teaching home economics, and my brother-in-law decided to use his biology degree as a springboard to additional degrees in nursing and anesthesiology.  Having watched these events transpire, even my folks questioned the wisdom of getting an education degree in the over saturated market. I assured them saying, “There are a lot of places that would hire me with a degree in anything so if it isn’t a teaching job, it will be some other line of work.” The truth be told, I can’t decide now if this was a bit of reverse psychology at work or maybe just some really good advice.  In the end, my basic plan didn’t change so their helpful guidance became yet another moot point in the career planning process. I was all in to get a teaching degree before worrying about the finding a job part.

    My seventh grade English-Social Studies teacher (Mr. Summers) was big on mapping projects.  His favorite involved us coloring the physical features of states, provinces, and countries of North and South America on blank outline maps.  These were then cut out and glued to a 4 foot X 8 foot piece of butcher’s paper supplied by us. As soon as I was hired to teach Geography-Earth Science in Ontonagon, a flashback of how much we enjoyed doing this project for Mr. Summers convinced me that it would be a great project to do with my own classes.  Knowing that it would take a while to find maps of the correct scale and size to make the final, giant map, it made sense that there should be some kind of introductory mapping unit to set up the big, final project. Spying a pile of Nystrom World Atlases and a companion booklet of blank maps, I started crafting directions for my students to make political maps of the areas that would eventually be covered by the physical maps they would assemble for the large map project.  To add a little local flavor, the political map series began with the world, narrowed down to smaller and smaller geographic areas. The map series eventually ended with the counties of Upper Michigan, the townships of Ontonagon County, and finally the Village of Ontonagon. The big map project originally borrowed from Mr. Summers eventually went away, but the lead in project inspired by Mr. Summers’ idea ended up as the one unit I used every year in my seventh grade (and then later in my sixth grade classes) during the course of four decades in the classroom.  

    Chuck Zielinski and I were team teaching Physical Science 9 for a number of years so we would attend the yearly Math and Science Conference at NMU’s Seaborg Math and Science Center.  One year, a session hosted by a chemistry teacher from Gwinn covered the importance of teaching measuring skills. She capped our lesson by having us measure blue, red and yellow colored water into six test tubes.  If the measurements were all done with a fair degree of accuracy, the six tubes formed a rainbow of blue, purple, red, orange, yellow and green with each test tube containing exactly 11 ml of water. I can’t recall if she said she made this up or if she had borrowed it from someone else, but from that point on, every one of my classes got to demonstrate their measuring prowess with this simple, yet elegant quiz that melded math, science, and art.  It turns out we were doing STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) lessons before they even had a name for it.

    One of the standard science class research projects that we were trained to use was the dreaded Biography of a Famous Scientist.  “Dreaded” here was my reaction, not the students. Having over one hundred students per day meant reading more than one hundred rough drafts and an equal number of final drafts.  By the end of my first year in the classroom, it was time for a change. Rather than have my classes do a fully researched biography about one scientist, I decided to give them a basic list of one hundred names and have them write a short paragraph for each one.  This was actually much worse than reading longer biographies because it involved reading the same information over and over again. It was popular with the kids because they soon learned that they could form a coalition with a few friends, research five or ten names each and then share.  About the time “Biography of a Famous Scientist” bit the dust, I spied an article in the National Science Teacher Association publication Middle School Science Teacher that described a research calendar that was touted as being a much better alternative to the dreaded “BoaFS” project.  All I had to do was adapt it to my Astronomy Unit by crafting a few rules of the road that would keep this project from becoming another copy fest.

    The name of the person who wrote the MSST article is lost to me, but the writer had mentioned he got the idea at a ‘NASA On The Road’ workshop.  The name jumped out at me because I had only recently made contact with the NASA Lewis Research office in Cleveland, OH to schedule a school visit by one of their education specialists.  These ‘NASA On The Road’ programs started back when I was in elementary school and I did a little happy dance when I found out they were still available twenty years later. The presenter scheduled to visit our school was Ralph Winrich.  The bonus part was the teacher workshop he would run for local educators the next day at the ISD building in Bergland.

    During the workshop, Ralph asked if anyone used a research calendar as a vehicle for a class project.  I raised my hand and mentioned it was my first attempt at it. Ralph asked, “Did you read about it in Middle School Science Teacher magazine?  That article was written by a guy who was at one of my workshops last year.”  He proceeded to pass out examples of various calendar projects he had produced with his own classes and workshops participants.

    The beauty of this project hinged on the vast field of data that students could research.  My rules basically said, “Entries can be anything dealing with space science or astronomy, BUT only one person can submit an event and get credit for it.”  This meant once someone turned in ‘the first artificial satellite (Sputnik) launched on October 4, 1957’, there would be no need for me to accept ten or twelve more of the same entry.  The trick was having students turn in their entries on file cards that could be arranged chronologically from January 1 to December 31. When I recorded their events, they were either put in the file or returned marked “Sorry, event taken”.  This simple process made it impossible for students to ‘share’ their research and it made it a lot more interesting for me: I learned a lot of new things by encouraging them to dig past the ‘first’ events and to get deeper into the history of astronomy and space science.  I went so far as to limit them to having no more than one third of their entries come from the space age (the period from the aforementioned Sputnik to the present). I ended up using Ralph’s idea for more than thirty years and every year he showed up in the credits. It also seemed prudent to send Ralph a copy of the calendar each year and based on that, we have been corresponding about all things space ever since.  

    I liked to show off this bit of student work by having my students assemble the calendars and  then distribute them to the school staff and board of education (and to fellow educators I had made contact with during the course of my travels).  In all the years we did this, I got one anonymous negative comment in 2017 when someone scribbled, “This is a waste of time!” on the cover of a calendar and left it in my mailbox.  Had they signed the note, I could have pointed out that it was not a waste of time or resources on many levels but I settled for making note of this very thing in my traditional last page ‘Welcome to AstroCal’ note for 2018 – the last one we distributed.

    Let me wrap this up with a blanket ‘Thank You’ to anyone I ever borrowed an educational idea from and a ‘You are welcome’ to anyone who may have nicked one of mine.   How do I finally settle the ‘was I stealing or borrowing’ argument? One word works just fine: ‘Yes!’

Top Piece Video:  Uriah Heep performs my theme song . . . I guess.