constancy & change; status quo & complications

Some things on this Earth are enduring. One of these, at least since the 1957 launch of Sputnik, is the ritual of science fair; and at any science fair you will see a volcano and a solar system model. At my most recent elementary school visit and judging I think there were two of each. There were also a high number of microbiological studies, an occurrence the competition’s coordinator attributed to my students bringing an interactive demonstration on germ transmission a few weeks before. One of these projects, conducted by the neighbor kid, showed that the highest number of microbes on any of his swabbed spots in the school happened to be the communal hand sanitizer. It so happens that this is the one used as kids enter the school and line up for lunch.

I love to judge and visit the elementary school science fair because there is so much variety and thinking and nerves and, most of all, splendid quotes from the mouths of babes. There weren’t too many quotables this time, but I did really like the hypothesis that “tobacco will have the same effect on fish that it does on humans.” I pictured a small-brained, scaled ancestor out on the corner, puffing away while skipping class or taking a break from work. But this fifth grader was thinking of other effects. Turns out, feeding a fish tobacco makes it sick, so that it swims slowly and only in one corner of its small tank.

That was all yesterday. Today, I found myself back on campus, heading to the “other” office, which happens to be in the library. Entering the building I was immediately reminded that there was a book fair today. I was reminded because, well, there were stacks and piles of books pouring from tables, each with a sign designating a genre. I bounced to the pile with the small “education” flag. Funny, some of the used, donated, perhaps obsolete books sat on the shelf in my office. Others I might have donated myself. In particular I found a book called “Models of Teaching,” useful, for sure. I have a copy of the 2004 edition, but this one was the 1972 edition. There was also a hardbacked piece on models of learning, but it was on the other side of the table. Interesting. Also on the table: a useful guide on winning chess matches via opening strategies, and a large full color coffee table book dedicated to images of kittens. All these, apparently, go together. No wonder we’re confused.

Yesterday, before I was at the science fair, I was giving a presentation — a plea, actually — to my teaching students. It was about goals, teaching, and learning, and getting these all straight. You can’t be clear how you’re going to teach until you know what kind of learning you want students to attain; and you can’t know this until you know what your goals are. Mixing the pretty photos of the oh-so-cute kittens on the education table seems odd, but I think we’re doing this all the time. Fill in a glitzy PowerPoint slide animation or a brand new smart board for the cute kittens. It can be very confusing. I’d just revert to a model of the solar system, too, if I were doing science fair. In fact, truth be told, I showed my rock collection in fifth grade. It was worse than the solar systems and volcanoes I so despise now.

Confusion takes me to other prospects. In my office, after the pause at the book fair, I’m considering a recent prospect. I, from my mountain west university, could potentially find myself at a summer meeting place in London where I’ll meet faculty from Saudi Arabia. I’ve been asked to teach them how to teach. In four days.

How to teach all of teaching (it’s an Escher painting in word form) in four days? I’m told that I’m the right person for this. I’m terrified and excited. I would like to think that this task is impossible, but I also can’t help but think that if I don’t do this, someone else will. And how exciting to try to develop something so impossible and so prone to failure and so remarkably dreamlike, in the “dream” sense of juxtoposition of completely non sequitur pieces: me teaching teaching to turbaned and veiled faculty in a country foreign to all of us. Shit. Strangely but reasonably, it’s one of the few crazy just-one-more-tasks that Karyn thinks is a fantastic idea, and we’re already talking to the girls about what it would be like to go to Europe.

In the meantime, I still need to figure out how to teach my own how-to-teach courses, both for my students and for faculty here. And on Monday I’ve just scheduled a meeting with someone who wrote this in an email:

I would like to ask you if you and your students would like to participate in our project in Guatemala. I think it can be a great service learning/community research opportunity for them. I was going to explain everything by email, but it is too complicated.

“Too complicated” seems like an understatement. Seems like it’s just part of the norm, now.

Later, still in my office this morning, I had a meeting with someone who needs my help. People say this when they want to flatter you, but this group really does. I said “Project 2061” and he didn’t know what I was talking about, and they’re writing for a group whose initials are NSF. We talked research and evaluation. And then I ate lunch.

I found out, just a few hours later, that I got the grant to go visit more schools. (So now I have to do it!) That is, the same trouble that caused the neighbor kid to swab the hand sanitizer dispenser. That is, I can go back to schools with more stuff and more people and I could do my penance for ever trying to pass off my rock collection as a science fair project.

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