on a walk

It’s been a few days since I’ve made it out of the mountains, and I’m still working to make sense of it.
Hurricane Pass

It would be strained to suggest that there was some well-defined purpose for this trek in the Tetons with dear friends and my 16-year-old daughter. I have this pile of scribbles that I’ve compiled over the years to make sense of weeklong treks into mountains and desert and why these are worth doing. Ultimately the excursions have some bigger purpose, making connections within and without. And there’s something about high altitude, low volume, heavy weight, and vast distances that draw me in and make me a better person. At least I stand by that claim as I grasp at justification to leave a portion of my family and take a long walk.

Yet, there’s also this other feature that I appreciate more as I think about learning and my work with students and teachers. I keep pushing people to think about the questions and ponderings they have about the natural world. But there are wonders that you don’t realize you should wonder until you’re in the presence and present of it. For example:

How did the plateau form such a flat contour above a glacial valley?

Death Canyon Shelf

Why is this high alpine moss so vividly green?

Alaska Basin moss (?)

Where did this dark colored rock come from, and how did it get so squished, as though it were taffy?

And wildflowers … I don’t even know where to start, because there’s the lushness and the color and the variety and the locality all at the same time.

Alaska Basin Wildflowers

And it could go on. There are some things that I know about the natural world — lots, actually. But then there is the experience of the natural world that trumps just knowing something or even seeing it through the lens of someone else’s camera or narrative, this passage included. There’s a renewed sense of wonder and awe that comes with setting foot on the trail, and that never gets old.

Anna cresting Static Peak

bee learning

When Grace and I got into the house and took off gear, the protective veil from around her head and the screen-hooded coat from my body, we heard the familiar sound of a single stowaway. One of our new honeybees from our new endeavor had tucked itself into Grace’s hat unnoticed, deciding only then to leave its perch. Her buzz went straight for the window; the cat went straight to the intruder.

While I was thinking about a quick eradication with a swatter or a napkin, Grace was holding back the cat and approaching the bee. “It’s okay sweetheart,” speaking to the worker bee rather than the restrained feline. This took me aback. Just a few minutes before I’d been stung by one of the other 10,000 sisters in our new family, and I wasn’t mourning a potential loss of one more bee — one that was clearly displaced and about to be eaten. But I stepped forward to take the cat.

Grace continued to talk to the bee searching for a way through the window and to the sky that was clearly just beyond but mysteriously impenetrable. She held out a finger and soothed the bee, talked to it, coaxing it to stay still on her finger. She moved slowly towards the door, but the bee flew back to the window. Repeat: soft voice, coax to finger, walk to door, escape back to window. Three times, and then on the fourth try, Grace walked the bee, perched on one finger with the other hand slightly covering, to the door. Wings sprung and the insect took to the sky.

I looked at my own swollen finger from which I’d pulled a stinger just a few minutes before and considered that maybe my kid really does know how to talk to bees.

I’ve been reading about bees, probably more than my daughter has been. But Grace has a feel for the bees and a calm connection that I don’t understand. She moves slowly and smoothly even as she opens their home. I had seen that between her and a horse and now I see it as she pulls a frame of thousands of bees from a buzzing hive. She resists adding smoke to the hive when we check it, because she doesn’t want them to feel stressed — their response to the smoke is one of preparation for a forest fire. Of course, I know that bees don’t “feel” anything. But now I also realize that what I “know” doesn’t compare, in some cases, to what Grace has a feel for. So I’ll let it go; I’ll stand back and watch her save one honeybee at a time. Maybe it will feel thankful. I know I do.


a feel for learning

When Grace gave up horse riding a year ago, we went through a period of mourning with a dash of trauma added for flavor. Who our child is, or was, or was going to be, all came into question. But more than this, maybe how we understood parenting and mentoring all crumbled a bit. Being the parent is hard enough when things are going as we’d expect; it’s completely unraveling when you explicitly face how very little you know about what you’re doing, and we were shaken. We thought we’d had Grace pegged as the animal loving, farm hand, horse-riding kid and wherever that would lead. And then one day that just wasn’t there. We felt unsure of ourselves and what we know about our own kid.

Of course, we wondered about our child, too. Maybe there’s something that she’s going through that we just don’t understand and that we need to try to figure out. Or maybe — and let’s be honest about how often it comes to this — it was really all about us and our feelings. We each liked being the parent of the horse riding kid. It’s expensive and time consuming, but it was character building, empowering, and unique.

What I’m trying to convey is that we don’t really know what to do with change once we feel like we have something well understood. I suppose that goes with anything, but I imagine that it’s especially apparent when we’re talking about our children. We’re trying to help them become, and when those targets shift, we realize that we understand even less about this process than we’d thought. Of course, how could it be otherwise? We don’t understand our own selves, so why should we understand others, even our own blood?

It wasn’t until this weekend, skiing with Grace, that I understood more about what we take with us from experiences like dressage lessons.

Let it be known that I’m only an adequate skier. Teaching another to ski is something I can only make up as I go along. It’s a treacherous endeavor. Fortunately, Grace has learned just enough that she can make her way down a slope, in control and in the direction that she aims. Our time on the lift is good opportunity for simply relaying my own pieces of advice based on my own experience. I can’t so much provide her instructions as give her goals and my own imagery of what it feels like to make a turn with parallel skis. Grace is comfortable on almost any hill, able to turn her toes inward and make the wedge, the pizza, the snowplow — whatever your parlance is for making the tips of your skis come together to control speed and navigate a turn with just the shifting of your weight. She’s happy, too, to point the skis in the same direction and let them run. But I was pointing out to her that as she works on turning with the skis parallel, she’ll be able to turn more confidently on the hills.

The thing is, I’m not able to give her very articulate directions. I can barely figure out my own physical presence, and most of what my body is doing seems to be only loosely tied to what my brain is telling it to do. I can just tell her how it all feels to me, what I have to mentally tell myself has to happen. The inside ski needs to turn along with the outside ski. I need to keep my knees bent. I need to remind myself to pick up that inside foot and then stand up on it to pivot around. There isn’t so much an algorithm for this as there is a feeling for it. So I can’t tell Grace much about what to do, only what the goal is.

Progressively, throughout the day, it dawned on me that two things were happening. First, Grace was actively working on her turns. She’d give herself a break and wedge the skis when she needed to, but you could also see, each run a little more pronounced, her skis coming together as she commanded one foot to line up parallel to another. As runs leveled out, she wouldn’t just bomb towards the lift, but actively work on this back and forth.

Moreover, when she was working on this, it wasn’t on a prescribed skill, but on a sense of the motion and what she was trying to feel. Halfway through the day I remembered where I’d seen this before: on a horse, working the transition from trot to canter. One of the magical things about seeing your kid working with 1000 pounds of equine is that cause and effect aren’t obvious. It looks a little more like magic, like witchcraft. Somehow, the horse and rider work together as one. You can’t program this. I think you have to feel it, firsthand. And to get to that point, you have to literally feel your way through it, to see what works.

So this is what I realize the horse riding was all about. Maybe Grace will go back and ride again, and maybe there will be some long career as a veterinarian or a wildlife biologist or a trainer of dogs or some such thing. None of that is the point, though. She could take away nothing from her horse except that she developed a feel for learning, for responding to another as they respond to you, a sense of how to adjust and persevere and adjust. As I watched her carve a turn and her ski coming around, I realized that this is in artwork she’s been doing and in music she’s been practicing. None of these is critical in and of itself. But they all point to evidence of a bigger set of skills and an openness to the unknowns that lie ahead. That feeling for learning is something she’ll have with her wherever she goes.

exam space

7:25 AM.

I step in through the upper door and walk down the steps of the lecture hall. The metal door slams behind me to the dark morning, shuddering in the frame. Students are already assembled and still, counting down the last 300 seconds before they must tear off a cover sheet and plunge into cold, turbulent waters of their first midterm.

I host exams in the classroom and at the class’s ridiculously early assigned time because I have this belief that it’s to their advantage. Students should have every advantage we can give them, and one could be being surrounded by all the same associations that might give them one more hint or comfort. At least, this is what I tell them, and myself. Plus, I don’t trust myself as an exam writer, so even though we have the option to put exams in a testing center for students to take at designated times, I’m afraid that there could be some intractable problem because I forgot a minus sign or a coefficient of friction. It’s as though I’ve designed and built a sailing vessel, and yet I’m not sure that my design is perfectly sea worthy. I want to be ready to put my finger in some hole to plug a leak.

Those are my stock reasons, at least. I think that the real reason I give the exam in class is so that I can experience this firsthand.

This lecture hall hosts 4 exams in a row on this particular Friday, a quarter of the way into the semester. Mine is the first. By the afternoon hours, anxiety will condense and drip from the ceiling, accompanied by the smell of stress and grit of eraser shavings coating the floor. Chairs will be in disarray. Drips of coffee will breadcrumb the stairs back to the door.

Yet during a particular exam session, there’s peace and tranquility. There’s quiet and focus. On exam day you can hear the lulling flow of air through the vents, even as all of the bodies are in the room. There’s the click of calculator buttons. A distinct turning of the 8 1/2 by 11-inch piece of paper. Pencils scratch. There’s a clearing of a throat, but even this is muffled and temporary. A cough fades away and you never think of it again.

There are foam cups, travel mugs, last-minute breakfasts from 7-11. I associate the smell of breakfast burrito and coffee with that ether of stress and focus that’s filling the hall.

Gazes are down, mostly. A head brings the brain up for air only once in a while. Sometimes this is in the form of a stare up at the ceiling. Usually it’s an unfocused gaze just beyond the horizon of the desk, and you can see eyes scroll back and forth as gears turn within, recalling and re-creating. Then eyes turn back to the page.

Some stare into the calculator, as though it were a crystal ball that may or may not be revealing a true answer. Or, worse, it can make the answer more obscure. I can see when this happens, someone’s brow forming faults as they try to understand what just went wrong. It spits out a negative sign when you were expecting positive; a fraction when you knew the answer had to be something like a hundred.

They finish one at a time. The first turns in his exam before the halfway mark. He’s confident, more than he should be.

They turn in exams with a slow saunter to the front of the room. They step, slowly, as they keep a gaze on the pages they’re about to commit to the gradebook, wanting to be done but wanting to be sure they’ve done everything they could. They check for their name. They read over answers they’ve provided, not sure exactly what they might be looking for, but unwilling to let any moment go unused to check their answers. Each student places an exam onto the table, onto the pile, with a finality. They rest a hand on the paper for one extra moment, as if there’s a prayer, or at least some affirmation that they finished one more test. And then they leave, usually wondering about how they should have answered #4.

Some keep their head down on the way out, saying nothing. I let them go. Most, though, say “thank you” or “have a good weekend,” as though they hadn’t just suffered some trauma. I wish them the same, and marvel that they’ve signed up for this.

back to school

Sabbatical is over.

To make this especially clear, last week was that back-to-school tradition, and I, along with thousands of students and hundreds of instructors at my institution, marched or otherwise stumbled forward into another school year.

Basic tasks are challenging during the first week of school. Writing would seem to be impossible. There was no time nor allocation of wit, except for the quick ideas that read more like pleas or ransom notes. There is nostalgia and revelation all stewing together.


I have dreams before school starts. I’d call them “nightmares” except that I’ve started to appreciate, even grow fond of them. There’s the one where I’m suddenly thrown into a Shakespeare production and am supposed to recite lines and play the part. And there’s the even more common vision that I’m suddenly on the football team, calling plays or running passing routes. It’s all imposter syndrome or otherwise being out of context, over my head, filling a role I’m not qualified for. It’s all true. I accept the dreams. They don’t seem so bad. They seem just like being in the front of the room during my 7:30 AM physics class. I smirk in class occasionally and I’m sure my students don’t understand. I realize that my reality is just another version of those imposter dreams.

I used to have one dream that placed me in the realistic, real world situation of being in front of a classroom. At some point, for some reason, the class mutinies. It starts with a question that I can’t answer. Then there’s a protest. Then revolt which escalates to the point that students are eventually chasing me around the room, but they’re lined up in single file so that they’re chasing me as a long serpentine.

I wake up just before they catch me.

I’m not sure why they’re chasing me, exactly, nor what they’d do if they apprehend me. I’m not sure I want to know. I’m sure I’ll have the dream again.


It seems too early for school to start. Correction: It is too early for school to start. “August,” conceptually and astronomically, is still summer, and leaves are still green. Still, there’s just that hint, that premonition in the trees. They know. You can tell that they know that it’s all about to change, and we all have to give in to it. If you look closely, you can see that they’re already succumbing, gently. I wear long sleeves. In a week, the greens will start to fade to yellow and red, first in the narrow canyons and up high, gradually spilling downward and outward.


I love the back-to-school clothes I see each fall, as though it helps me understand fashion trends. More than this, I love the back-to-school wide-eyes, back-to-school buzz, back-to-school hope and promise and even bliss. Everyone is happy during the first week. I listen to AC/DC’s Back In Black and drink coffee too early to keep pace with the marathon of the rest of the day. I’m wearing my new tie, a new shirt. I know I can’t leave the sleeves unrolled for more than about 10 minutes of class, but I try anyway.


There are several songs that stick in my head, but the most permanent is my elementary school theme song:

Oakdale School, you’re a part of me

Always will be, for eternity

Memories we all hold dear!

We work and play

All together in perfect harmony

We are the students of Oakdale School!

I’m writing this all from memory, with nothing to guide me except the tune in my head. I’m often humming it, walking down the hall on my way to teach lab. I learned this song in 1979.


There’s a certain solace in making new course notes by hand on yellow notepads, lines and holes already part of the architecture of the page. I fill in with ink, blue or black, with red to emphasize a demonstration or activity. I push the keyboard away on my desk, wedged up against the monitor, and I hunch over the pages and turn them over as I etch letters and numbers, lines and scrawls. I review old notes from old classes, and for many I remember not only the ideas, but the act of writing them out. I’m not sure that I can replace this process with anything more modern.

Scouring shelves and binders and finding my old notes, I keep coming across these old, partially used yellow pads of paper. They often they get buried in a notebook or wedged between books. I lose them or forget they’re there, and so I grab another from the supply closet. Now that I’m unearthing some of these, I’ve found seven, so far — no, eight — and each with blank pages to spare, still waiting for notes.


Back-to-school is more than that there’s so much to do, but that there’s so much to wrap your head around. On an email list I subscribe to, someone asked hundreds of others, “Does anyone have a fun and science (perhaps inquiry) activity, about an hour in length, that could be used in a Science Methods course the first day of classes?” This disturbed me, actually. Anyone who is qualified to teach such a course should already have at least an idea. The first day of class is low hanging fruit. The stakes are low and the possibilities are broad.

But I was maybe more disturbed by the responses. An early reply emphasized thinking about a special blood type: B+, or “be positive.” This is a reminder about attitude. Others emphasized that the instructor must set the tone, learn names, do an activity that demonstrates the emphasis and nature of the class. It was as though everything was at stake, that falling short would ruin the course and ruin education.

I don’t think any day is unrecoverable. Not even the first day. But, then, I’m the guy who has dreams about a serpentine of students chasing me around the classroom.


Overheard in the office across the hall from mine, a student replying to his professor:

“Taking the integral wouldn’t work?!”

The student was taken aback. Because, apparently, to this point in his academic career, integrals solved almost every other tricky problem he’s ever faced. It would be nice to live again in that world where using the chain rule or integration by parts fixes everything.


This summer I ran into a former student at science activities at the local children’s museum. She recognized me, confirmed who I was, reminded me of the class she took when she was 18 and straight out of high school, and even where she sat. I remembered her and her friends, third row, left of center. And all the while during that conversation, I was working with her 4-year-old daughter. I was teaching the children of a former student. I thought that day would come much later in my career.


When I first started teaching here, my first day was a question. I was 24 years old at an institution where the median student age is 26. I remember walking up to the classroom at 7:00 AM to teach astronomy for my very first time — a class I’d never even taken. I still think that this was a practical joke being played on me. It turned into a career.

There was a herd of students ready for the first day, congregating in the hall just outside the locked door. I looked at them, and some of them at me like I could have been anyone. Which, of course, is exactly who I was. Not really sure what to say, I pulled out the freshly cut, shiny key in my pocket and opened the classroom door. It was the only thing that distinguished me from them. In a lot of ways, it still is.


I spent the morning working on various notes, an assignment, and a couple of colleagues and students stopping by to ask a question. Later, looking in the restroom mirror, I notice one of those partially hidden but clearly visible boogers that you sometimes get, and I wondered how long it had been there for all to see. I wondered if that explained conversations that seemed to have been cut short.

This morning I double checked myself in the mirror, blew my nose. And then I checked my fly. Twice.


An email from a student about 20 minutes after a quiz on Friday described how on her drive from campus to work she realized she’d used the wrong value in an equation, and wondered if that post-quiz revelation could be worth an extra point.

Another student had come rushing into my office the day before, obviously a little out of breath, at precisely 11:58 AM. “Oh, good! I got here before the end of office hours! I work graveyards … “ She went on to describe that she had just woken up, early for her, because she works all night at the hospital, something that she needed to do while in school to support her family, a spouse and a baby, coming back to school after that. She’d organized her life events all “out of order,” as she described it.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her I had nowhere else to go, and that I probably could have waited for her and let her have another hour’s sleep.


Brooke, a student of mine from 2, 3? 4? years ago — maybe more — posted to Facebook about her day of teaching high school biology.

I remember why I wanted to teach! Here I am, feeling like I’m getting really sick, 4th period, very tired and it’s time for [Biology class]… It was AWESOME! These kids got so excited. It was question after really good question after spine tingling because I’m so excited question! They just wanted to know more! And the discussion topic? The polarity of water! Now, I get damn excited about polarity. I think it’s fascinating, but a bunch of high school kids getting that excited about polarity?! Someone even made the “oh my gosh! Life wouldn’t be possible without this jump.” And then the class practically roared with, “oooooohhhhhh.” Ahhhhh my gosh I nearly broke into tears. So, yeah, I love my job.

I nearly broke into tears, too. This is why — at least one of the reasons, anyway — I love my job.

on the harvesting of our children for industry

I spent a good part of two days listening to industry experts extolling their virtues and their needs. In this venue, once I started to hear a particular theme, I could not un-hear it. These leaders looked to our education system to “provide a workforce.” They desire to collaborate with educators in order to enhance “workforce ecosystem development,” meet “industry needs,” and put students onto “pathways” and “pipelines” that will provide, courtesy of public funding, their future workers. They even went so far as to describe the “fertile ground” they wanted to cultivate, in order to someday harvest these workers for themselves.

For much of this ongoing narrative, I was seething,* taking notes in a journal simply to keep myself from boiling over. At some point our metaphors step beyond simplistic models and imagery; they become euphemistic and damaging. When my children are being looked at by executives as future workers rather than children, human beings, citizens, I start to lose my shit. Moreover, I’m profoundly sad.

What I’m working on right now is how to process all this, how to move forward, how to work collaboratively rather than being “that guy” who grabs the microphone and tells a room full of people how they’re all wrong. That’s never productive.

And yet: they’re all wrong.

These are children. These are my children. These are children who should be able to ponder how a drop of water beads on a leaf, why a piece of paper gets lifted when air flows by it, the improbable fuzziness of a caterpillar. They should do all these things for their own sakes, for the joy and intrigue of it all. They don’t need to think about a distant future; we should help them embrace their present and all that it has to offer. Our children deserve better, no doubt, but not because of what we could someday extract from them in order to enhance our economy. They deserve better because they’re our children. Period.


*To cap it off, a representative of the aerospace industry said that “this industry changes lives.” It strikes me that, although he was specifically talking about the lives of children that he wants to harvest locally, the industry is largely devoted to finding the most efficient ways to end the lives of those on the other side of a line on a map. So, his statement is true in so very many ways.

a day at the “museum”

Note: A few months ago now I was traveling, bouncing from one experience to another and all the while trying to stuff them into my head. This is extracted from my notes and attempts to create quick entries about specific visits, though the last few have not been so “quick.” This is the fourth in a series of five very distinct settings I got to experience on that trip.


There are museums, and then there are “museums.”* My archetype for a museum is one that holds collections, keeps them preserved for the sake of future study, cultural memory, and public display. We host dinosaur bones and impressionist art in museums, and we’ll travel miles to admire the holdings. As I grow older, I hold these places in higher and higher esteem alongside schools and libraries.

But there are also “museums.” One example of the kind of place I’m thinking about is the Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) in New York. I like to point to this place because it is distinctly not a building which holds onto some preserved artifact. There is no room where you can go visit the original number three, not even seventeen. There aren’t fossilized records or canvases with layered oil brushstrokes. This is an example of a museum that documents and, more important, portrays ideas for the public to engage with. Inside of MoMath, you can make interesting geometrical constructions, ride a square-wheeled tricycle, and measure your velocity on a walkway and be inadvertently introduced to calculus concepts, whether you knew these were calculus concepts or not.

Science museums and planetariums are in this same group for the most part. Of these, the Exploratorium may be the most well known and regarded, and for good reason. For me, though, the science museum that I grew up with and idealize is the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, or OMSI. Thirty years ago, it was adjacent to the zoo and forestry center off the highway the headed towards the Oregon Coast from Portland. Now it sits downtown, on the shore of the Willamette River in an old power plant formerly known as “Station L.”

There is a deliberateness in this location. The river provides a context as well as a place for the submarine that sits outside the building. The old power plant provides a historical context and a science lesson all in one. The large smoke stack, now dormant but painted bright red, provides a landmark for a destination and a visible reference as you’re crossing a bridge or scanning from the opposing shore. It is distinctly industrial on the outside, holding true to the “I” in its acronym.

On the inside, it is distinctly whimsical. There are displays and activities and labs. You can sit at a counter and order an experiment. You can walk through the hollowed industrial space and suddenly realize that the rainbow colored cartoon character on the screen in front of you is you and your heat profile. You can launch water rockets, inside, within a multistory container — with the added ability to pressurize two rockets, side by side, with a clear variable to test and a satisfying recoil of water spraying downward. There is a working paleontological lab where you can watch the extraction of a dinosaur fossil, one grain of sand at a time.

There’s wide variation. There’s a sobering and fascinating room of plasticized, developing embryos that is a quiet reprieve from other ebullience just outside. A computer gives me a sense of how I’ll look in many decades, while a special exhibit while I was there showed optical illusions, including an image of myself, now, in a warped mirror. In another room, kids and families and even the one solitary 40-something man (that’s me) could interact with simulations about waste management and energy production. I tried to help the museum by creating electricity as I danced on an energy converting platform.

At “Theory,” OMSI’s eatery, there are fireplaces, open seating at tables built from reclaimed solid ash and on stools from recycled aluminum. Out expansive windows you can see the natural state of a river and the engineering marvel of bridges in all forms. There are large displays advertising “Science to Snack On,” providing information about the science of food. There’s also an explicit connecting to people and the Portland vibe. You can get an organic snack, a lunch from the wood fire pizza oven, or even a drink at the bar. “Science Pub,” a regular event that brings an audience in for a beer and a science presentation, is advertised.

The museum is a lot of different things; reading, displays, specimen, activity, historical space. In fact, it may be so many things that it’s hard to pin down exactly what it is — and I didn’t even take partake of the planetarium or the theater. There’s no doubt that the space provides interaction and inquiry. I could spend hours finding ways to get disks and orbs to roll on a horizontal, rotating platform; or to create from paper a design that would spin and levitate in an upflow of air (I had to be careful that I wasn’t pushing children aside in my zeal).

But my favorite exhibit, by far, sits in a corner of the physics room, overlooking the river. It’s the harmonograph. This consists of two long pendula hanging from above my head and extending almost to the floor. In the middle of one is a platform with a piece of paper; and in the middle of the other is a pen. When the two move, the pen traces on the paper a pattern that is dependent on the two motions, creating all kinds of possible patterns depending on the phase and direction of the two swingers. In case it’s unclear what kind of possibilities could result, here are some my very own harmonograph tracings overlain on one another:


Maybe my love of this is based on something in the core of my childhood memory, a nostalgia — this is one of the few, if only, exhibits that was at the OMSI I grew up with a kid. Years after I’d first seen and maybe even forgotten about the harmonograph, I’d be working with an oscilloscope and making lisajous figures that would look very much the same, but resulted from the measurements of voltages across components of an AC circuit. And maybe as I’ve done more with math and physics I like to come back to this place that may have, in some subtle way, been a launching point for the person and profession I now live.

But I think it’s something more than this. There’s the simplicity and the elegance in a harmonograph, all at once. There are distinct, simple variables, but so many unimagined possibilities. There is beauty. And, there was a simple focus and calm. Overlooking the river and the walkway, I could see beyond, but I could also focus within. For all of the many exciting exhibits — launching rockets, dinosaur bones, and chemical properties, all steps away — this one still pulls me in.


* I’ve been having fun in recent days responding to an email from my dean who called all the faculty back to school with our first meeting. He’d said that there would be “lunch” at this “retreat,” using the quotation marks for both of these. I know why we often use quotes in this way, excusing the nature of a meal or a meeting and all that maybe it is not. In this case, I’m suggesting “museums” have lots of different forms, and many of them take on a certain superlative when I describe “museums” rather than museums that might be more traditional. Or, “traditional.”

learning relationships: making sense of a dressage clinic

I’d like to be more clever and elegant in this narrative. I would like to write up my experiences with dressage in a slightly coy way, drawing the reader in with some intrigue and mystery. I’ve had notions that I could craft descriptions and quotes in such a manner that the reader would never be able to guess that she’s witnessing the interaction between an instructor, a rider, and a horse. Clearly, with lines like these, I have some material to work with:

“not convincingly soft on the inside bend”

“a little bit more rounder in the transition”

“more throughness, more over the back”

“no resistance in the contact”

“push forward with that transition”

“challenge him a little bit in the corner”

“use more leg”

Generally, when I’m sitting in lectures and I hear phrasings that have multiple or obscure meanings cobbled from interesting words, I write them down under the heading, “Good Band Names.” The dressage clinic could produce a bountiful crop of these. More often, as I write these out, I start to wonder if publishing this to the internet will get it flagged for some second-rate erotica. What makes this more comical is that I hear all of lines clearly with their German accent, issued forth by a man named “Guenter.” Do a search for “dressage” and “Guenter” and you’ll see there is a serious resumé here, olympic medals and high regard in the American equestrian community.

As an outsider stepping into the dressage arena (both the literal and figurative), terms and phrases like these are fascinating, like some new cultural scene and all the unexpected that could come with it. There are questions and imaginings: what does it mean to “get in front of him” when the “him” being referred to is a horse that the rider is, presumably, atop? “In front of” means something, and as a rider would change how far front or back they were I could tell there was a difference. But they were also, always, on top of the horse — that’s where the rider is supposed to be, after all. There is the “rising trot” and “sitting trot” and “working canter” and “collected canter” and more, but most of this for a novice outsider is a blur of legs and hooves.

However, it’s not at all important what I did or did not understand in much of this. Clearly, others in the audience and in the arena were, in one way or another, making sense of instructions and terms and putting them to good use. And when there was confusion from one individual another could clear it up. I swear, during a break I heard one woman clarifying to another that a certain hand position was “like riding a bicycle” — not “like riding a bicycle” in the idiomatic way, but in the literal how-to-put-your-hands-on-the-rein way. This helped immensely, but there’s usually no efficiency in scaffolding with bike riding instructions during a dressage clinic.

In any case, I’m working on all of this, both understanding for myself and understanding how others are understanding and practicing dressage. I’ll start with what I know, with what I saw.

First of all, “dressage” is nominally about riding horses. But that isn’t what it’s about at all. It seems to me that it’s very rare that anyone fails to ride — no one goes to a dressage event to see if someone will fall. A disaster would be much more subtle. More important, the horses are willing collaborators in the partnership. To say that one is “riding” is to suggest that there’s a hierarchy in the relationship, as when we drive a car or (again) ride a bike. It’s more complicated, more inter-relational between the horse and supposed rider. Dressage, as it’s explained to me, is more like dancing, and it has its roots back in a time when maneuvering a horse into specific positions and with precise control was about the techniques of warfare. (Yes, dressage is about killing people on a battlefield. Why aren’t more people drawn to this?) When you watch a futuristic movie with specialized military equipment and how they can maneuver within a battle arena, I think it’s only a lame approximation of a skilled rider and horse. Watching dressage in person is mesmerizing, impressive, artful, and even beautiful. (And also, if they just kept the traditional sword, they could kill you.)

Second, and more to the point of my work and fascination, both the rider and the horse have to learn how to work with one another, differentiate between the “rising trot” and the “sitting trot,” find ways that a rider’s subtle movements with two legs can influence details of a horse’s four legs. Contrary to most of what I’d expect, most of what is communicating the most basic information from the rider to the horse is through the positioning of legs that most of us do not even notice. When I see a rider and horse do what is known as a “leg yield,” the horse continues a forward motion while simultaneously moving sideways, as if there’s a sideways slide while the pair continue along the same heading. This is a relatively simple, standard movement in dressage, but it’s always magical to me. It looks to happen through some extrasensory perception. Turns out, it’s just the inner thigh.

So here’s the basic scene: At this particular clinic (subtitled as “classical dressage in the modern age”), there are two instructors, Guenter and Gary. Guenter is within a large arena, while Gary stands outside, but both are focused and attentive to a horse and its rider in that space. They provide two vantage points and two professional perspectives. Both ride and judge and teach, but Guenter often represents the perspective of the accomplished rider and Gary that of a respected judge. Guenter asks each rider/horse combination to go through specific drills that would be typical in a dressage competition.* At a basic level, it’s like a piano teacher asking the student to play some scales and then giving advice about the hand position or the turn of the thumb under the hand. Here, Guenter says to work on the rising trot in a circle of one size and placement or another, and he gives feedback — he is the most immediate director of the lesson. Gary can chime in from his vantage point at appropriate moments or to summarize a technique or even an entire session. But it’s not like piano lessons. Rather, there isn’t just advice, but directive. Try this; now try it this way; and again; “use more leg” and “challenge him a bit more in the corner” … whatever these mean.

Each rider has applied for and auditioned via a video of their riding. They are selected, privileged to be on the receiving end of this instruction. They have ideas of what they need to work on, levels that they’re at with a given horse, but when they’re in this arena they are dedicated to the directives of Guenter and Gary, and they accept this willingly, respectfully, and appreciatively.

As I watched, recorded phrases, and made notes, I also tried to jot down what I was seeing from a wider field of view. I think that there are no imperatives in teaching. There are no things that must be done by every teacher outside of doing no harm; but, there are clearly some nice principles and examples that I can take away from a clinic like this. Guenter and Gary were consistent in some very simple but effective practices, and I made room to compile these on an opposing page in my notebook:

  • Using the learner’s name and knowing them as they are: There was very little familiarity between the rider and instructor. They had to get to know one another quickly, and one of them was dancing around on a horse. There were simple, important things here like calling the learner by name, knowing something about what level they were at, what level the horse was at, what their experiences were, what they should be working on, etc. And, during the course of the interaction, Guenter adapted. The student might have thought she needed to work on the canter, but really she needed to do some more basic work with the horse.
  • Clarity and consistency of terms: I have only a vague understanding of what “use more leg” is supposed to mean in this context, but the rider and instructor do share that language. And, I can say, having come into this experience with one entire riding lesson myself, I had a feel for what the use of the leg could mean. Riders with more experience knew more than the terminology, but the action involved in these terms. They needed that kind of familiarity in order to get input and be responsive — and subsequently learn something from that whole experience.
  • Challenging, problem-based situations: Guenter suggested tasks that were likely to highlight not only a problem that the rider was working on, but the particular pieces that were involved with that problem. Many of these exercises weren’t exactly what that rider would be tasked with in a test, but they were fundamental in some way. It might have been a transition between two gaits, or a focus on some aspect of a rider’s hand position or weighting in the saddle. In so many ways, this is where the nuts and bolts of the clinic were very reflective of the kind of work we might engage in with students to help them solve physics problems. What’s interesting to me about the physics is that we do scaffold things, but we don’t necessarily see where the problems are in their answer — we would be wise to sit down with them and make them write out problems in front of us, and potentially an audience. (More on that component later.)
  • The expert/novice distinction and the trusting relationship between: One issue that I’d had no appreciation for before walking into the arena was how renowned these two individuals were in equestrian circles. I’m not sure I could make the correct parallel to other sports (because there are so many differences), but here are olympic caliber athletes with a track record and name recognition. In addition, they came across as friendly as well as incredibly knowledgable; they were prolific in their understanding of the sport and the skills therein. Additionally, they seemed to love working with the horses, the people, and the interaction — they volunteered as much when I talked to them after a long day of work. So, people listened attentively and trusted the advice. At the same time, these experts didn’t spoil the good graces that they were able to come in with. They maintained a trusting relationship; we all saw riders taking risks, trying new things, being vulnerable, and it was clear that it was in their best interest.**
  • Charm and attitude: When someone says that they like or love a teacher, it’s never really clear how effective this might be in helping someone to really learn something. Being likable can only take carry your teaching so far. On the other hand, being an ogre can ruin things right off the bat. In addition, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that we pick up on how someone thinks about their practice through their attitude. If they like something, clearly work hard at it, and set high standards for themselves, it’s fair to imagine that those attributes are on display and even offered as a model for the learner. Guenter and Gary were enthusiastic and encouraging, even when a rider was having a difficult time. Guenter, especially, could offer advice that had both a cutting edge and a charm at the same time. “It’s not a punishment, it’s a schooling;” and, “Don’t not do something; but do it the right way.” We laughed at directives like these, but we took them seriously as well.

Yes, I said “we.” This is the other major feature of the dressage clinic. I rode the coattails of my daughter to have a ticket into this culture, since she was there with our friend, her own instructor, to audit the course. I, also, was an auditor. In fact, most of the people there — enough to fill the rows of chairs lining one whole side of the arena — were paying $125 each not to ride. Instead, they watched the teaching and learning from, quite literally, the sideline. Like me, people took notes, paid careful attention, stayed hushed as they listened and watched the interaction between rider, horse, and instructors. Between sessions they had the chance to ask questions, and the instructors often addressed certain issues as teachable moments to the entire audience.

This is the especially bizarre and fascinating dynamic in this mode of teaching and learning. There are multiple people learning lots of different things, and there are multiple perspectives. These include the rider, the auditors, and (let’s not forget) the horse, who should be learning something from the rider as the rider is learning something new from the instructor, and then there’s subsequent feedback from horse to rider as well. And the auditors stare on in amazement and try to put themselves in the rider’s stirrups.

With one riding lesson on my record, I can affirm that you can’t learn to ride a horse without trying to ride a horse. This is obvious and similar to other things we learn, from piano to ping pong. But I think it’s fair to say that you can’t learn to ride a horse well without listening to the horse, watching others ride horses, engaging with an instructor, and on and on and round and round. There are multiple dimensions and multiple exchanges taking place here. And, even those who are giving lessons are also taking lessons from another instructor, who is taking lessons from another instructor, and on and on.

For me, there’s a richness to dressage in how all of those relationships and modes of learning are happening at the same time. Perhaps there are things to be mined from this (e.g., like my idea to have expert physics problem solvers work through a problem while getting instruction, but also while in front of an audience of students), but dressage and its many enigmatic traits in teaching and learning seem well outside of any other model (in the ways I describe, as well as many others, ranging from the judging to the relationships people develop with horses). Maybe it shouldn’t be that way; maybe there should be more that we take away from the dressage tradition.

Months after the clinic, I was telling my friend John about all this. We happened to be sitting on a remote sandstone ledge in Canyonlands National Park. We were eating cheese and crackers, maybe some trail mix, and overlooking millions of years of erosion splayed out in front of us. This is where good ideas often take shape, if you’re willing succumb to the quiet and geological patience. I had just finished telling John about the interesting interaction between horse, rider, instructor, and auditors, and followed with something like, “There’s no other teaching and learning context like this.”

Like me, John is a science teacher educator, and as soon as I said this out loud in front of him and the rim of slickrock shading us, I realized an amendment that I could tell he had thought of immediately. We work with science teachers, who are learning to create and implement their own lessons, in the context of classrooms and labs full of students. I’ve always claimed that this is the most bizarre educational context I know of. I have to teach teachers how to teach, but they have a completely different relationship with a completely different group of students than me. So how does that work? Well … it’s a long story. I’m always messing with different models for courses like this.

But now I have yet another model: I see those teachers as being like the rider, and their students are like the horse. Don’t take the analogy too far astray, but it is genuine. The important facet is in the relationship between the horse and rider, the students and teacher. They have to learn from and interact with one another. And then, in the best situations, we have other riders/teachers who can observe other classroom situations and learn from them. This is something that I could actually implement more explicitly in my science teaching methods class. It’s what I’m working on as I get ready to start a new semester in a month.

And me? Well, I get to be Guenter. I will guide, and mentor, and perhaps if I have the wherewithal, I’ll impart wisdom like, “Don’t not do something; but do it the right way.”


*I’ve been fortunate to have been at a couple of these as well, and I’m confident there’s a whole other chapter that could be written about those experiences as well.

** My friend and colleague, Eric Amsel, has recently been making the case of how it’s the relationship between student and teacher that’s really important — rather than any of the specifics of what we do. Those relationships take different forms for different purposes. In his model, there are sages, guides, and mentors. I’d have to work on this harder, but I’ll posit that the dressage instructor is closest to a trusted guide, but blended with mentorship and a dash of sage. He doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories. This is just to say that I’m long overdue for a lunch conversation with Eric.

stating the obvious — because I’d forget it otherwise

As I go back through my notes, I am recognizing an important, significant fact: I would not have remembered 90% of the details of what I’ve been experiencing if I hadn’t written it down. I wouldn’t even have remembered all of my own reactions.

In my journal there are ideas for pieces of the dance collaboration that were completely discarded without a trace. There are narratives about the dance that were even tried out in the studio, right in front of me, and later replaced. There were quotes from a dancer or Erik that are completely familiar but otherwise lost except for the scrawl on the page. And that’s just the dance collaboration. There are conversations in Yellowstone and classroom visits and meeting notes and copious reactions to a dressage clinic scratched on an opposing page in a journal, is flooded with my own internal questions about what is going on.

There are two subsequent terrovelations*:

  1. I need to go back through all my notes, because there’s something there I won’t otherwise remember, and I won’t know which pieces were important until I’ve scooped them up and put them through a sieve.
  2. I can’t remember which of the things I didn’t write down I’m forgetting.

The moral, of course, is to write things down, and then read them again.

Perhaps blogs — even the bad ones — in addition to the notes and transcripts, have purpose after all.


* My new word, a cross between a terror and a revelation.

stepping in: on vulnerability; or, “a physicist walks onto a dance floor…”

A few months ago, Andy was telling me about his work with college students preparing to be elementary school teachers and their experience with his science class. Andy sets up authentic science experiences for these students who have very little background in and often animosity towards science. They most always have very little experience with it outside of a few disengaging courses.

Andy’s data and narrative tell how these students come along to embrace science in new ways in his course. Students embrace scientific inquiry in new, personal ways because they actually get an opportunity to try it on for size, see how it fits them as individuals. Yet, the surprising twist in all this is that the students talk about feeling vulnerable during the experiences of trying on scientist identities. The experience is new, and the identity they’re feeling out is unfamiliar.

Andy’s first reaction to this, like mine, is to grimace, feeling like, yet again, we’ve created a situation in which we’re alienating novices from a field that we want them to embrace. But there’s still another plot twist: the students go on to explain that being “vulnerable” wasn’t a negative emotion in this case, but one of empathy. They were relating to the perspective of a scientist, one of tentativeness, skepticism, unknowing. They felt vulnerable in that they saw how their ideas were always being put to a test, that all of the possibilities were on the table. They were empathizing with the scientific experience, having stepped into this role and seeing it from the inside. In the right context, the vulnerability was something they valued rather than despised. They learned something more about science and what it really should feel like, and from their reflection they could describe to people like Andy and me something about science that I hadn’t appreciated fully. The vulnerability is uncomfortable but also an opening for new ideas and experiences.*

I’ve understood this better as I’ve put myself in my own vulnerable spaces. I’ve had the chance to take my first (and only) dressage lesson, sitting upon and asking (and “asking” is exactly the correct term here) a horse to negotiate the arena at different paces and gaits. I got to have my table of privilege turned, being the only white guy in the room when working with AmeriCorps volunteers in Atlanta. I’ve attempted other things new to me, ranging from making whiskey to running long distances, and I’d like to think that all of these help me mirror an empathy for the novice science students. I’m trying to better understand that place of vulnerability, with both the inherent risks and benefits.

My most salient vulnerable experience, however, is embodied in the moment that I stepped out onto the floor of the dance studio. To say, “I was called out to the floor to fill in for a dancer,” is ridiculous as far as tales go. The story boils down to us swinging these pendulums — balls and string — that I’d cut and tied; and then there was a dancer that had to drop the class; and there I was, the science consultant, standing there in the corner of the studio. In my memory’s eye, there was an awkward silence as all dancers’ heads turned towards me. Then there was an invitation and a phrase I had to work out that was in sync with the swinging of a pendulum, my rigid flexors and inflexible muscles trying to find their way through a fluid space. Even as I describe these things in my own recollection and my own notes I’m not sure that I have an assured belief that this all really happened. I’m a science teacher, not a dancer, inflexible in all manners of speaking.

But then, the fact that I can barely sit cross-legged on the floor was part of the fun. And also I’d come to the point in my weeks of collaboration with dancers that I’d recognized that they were putting themselves in vulnerable positions, literal and figurative, every day. So, there was some whimsy in it all, like imagining the joke with a first line: “a physicist walks onto a dance floor …” And there was also a sense of responsibility. There were twelve pendulums that I’d asked the dancers to work into a piece, and yet there were eleven dancers now.

Alongside that whimsy and the responsibility, there was also a comfort in that place. There’s still no comfort for me in extending a limb or even making sure that there’s a sense of fluidity to a motion. In my typical comfort zone, when I’m supposed to be standing still in front of a class, I end up pacing back and forth; and when you ask me to move fluidly (or stand still) I default to the pacing again. Upright with stiff legs is my default state of existence, a strange alternate to Newton’s first law of motion that I teach. But after three months of doing this dance collaboration from the sidelines, I could step out. I’d seen and admired those other eleven people do such day after day, sometimes being asked to do something impromptu, something they’d never rehearsed, something that was awkward and unknown, something that would almost certainly be discarded before the final performance. If they were comfortable with this, surely I could at least try. It goes back to a notion of trust, perhaps, or of culture, maybe. Maybe there was courage, though it felt like anything but. There, simultaneously, was a clear sense of vulnerability and comfort stacked into the same moment. It required some combination of what I brought, what I had been developing, and especially the welcoming of this space become enculturated in.

Through my field trips of seeing teaching happen in multitudes of places, it’s clear that the space is essential. This is more obvious in some venues than others: a giant aquarium, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Old Faithful at Yellowstone, a sparse expanse of the Needles District in Canyonlands. In large part, such destinations and experiences aren’t simply enveloped by their spaces, but are defined by them. The physical space creates the interaction. Other venues can’t rely on a ready-made space. The experience itself has to be created in tandem with the space. I’d like to think of our Science in the Parks program, or Science Education at the Crossroads in these ways. People aren’t there to take in a physical spectacle or experience a certain ambience. The memorable part of the space has to be built into something else.

As I’ve learned through a new collaboration, the Treehouse Museum is another one of those spaces. “Step into a Story” is Treehouse’s trademarked invitation to visitors, and this manifests itself as children walk into all kinds of different exhibitations of story and pretend. These range from a barn to a diner to the Oval Office to a medieval castle. There’s a wide spectrum of nooks, corners, and enclosures that each represent a culture: You can sit down at a table setting low to the ground and learn about preparation of fish in Japan, and a few steps and half a world away you can be immersed in German folklore while you stage your own puppet show. These exhibits invite children and parents to engage side-by-side, as they step into each culture and shared experience, together.

In many of the exhibits, children play their part by dressing up. The entryway to an attraction on “heroes” has assorted clothing hanging on pegs immediately across from a large mirror. A child can become a firefighter, an astronaut, a mail deliverer. Most explicit in this dress-up practice is Treehouse’s ParticiPlay. Hosted in their theater, a museum docent becomes the interactive narrator of a story in which children become the stage performers. As the story is told the children act out their parts, having literally stepped onto the stage, into costumes, and into the story at hand. When I sat alongside an audience of field tripping first graders, the students were not only willing, but simultaneously exuberant and focused about the prospect. The girl cast as a rabbit made sure that she hopped across the stage; the boy taking the role of a wizened king would twist his face and stroke his beard; the “cat” inflected cunning in her lines.

What strikes me about watching children in a ParticPlay is that they can immediately do the act of stepping in and become not a puppet at the hands of the narrator, but a true participant — even when they are not familiar with the tale being told. They make facial expressions to reflect the perspective of their character and they laugh when there’s humor or irony. The narrator describes the hypothetical and the child makes this all real. I can’t help but think that they’ve uncovered something in the process that goes beyond something they could gain by just hearing the narration. They take on a new perspective that can only be had by being something else, a talking cat or a princess or an ogre. There’s empathy and celebration of a character that was made possible by wearing the right costume and stepping up to a stage only twelve inches off the floor. And, of course, they were invited and welcomed onto that otherwise foreign space.

This takes me back to Andy’s “vulnerable” science students. Hearing about these teachers-to-be, I’ve come to realize the importance of vulnerability in other venues. Pre-teachers taking scientists’ perspectives, the ParticiPlay actors stepping up on the stage, and my own dance introduction all expose us in similar ways. In all cases, the space had to be safe and welcoming, but it also kept this in tension with a certain amount of risk. “Risk” doesn’t feel like the right attribute at first blush, since there isn’t a case of finding the hand hold on the edge of a rock face or the inherent danger of swimming with sharks. Instead, this is the kind of risk you associate with being in the wrong place, hoisting the wrong identity, feeling exposed because you are a novice to a culture. In all these cases, this out-of-place self could be acknowledged and simultaneously encouraged. Setting the stage to make us vulnerable is a delicate but important balance. The stage should be only a few inches of the ground, but still far enough that we get to see things differently.

Stepping onto a dance floor, I didn’t have the full set of tools of a dancer (e.g., being able to touch my toes without bending my knees). But I was given just enough of a prop and an invitation so that I could experience a literal change of perspective, looking from the stage towards the audience. It’s harder than it looks, as they say. But it’s also impossible to understand that perspective without actually taking it. That’s the attitude I had to take to step onto a dance floor. It’s important that this space wasn’t empty. I was emboldened by the others and the culture that they created. I recognized the vulnerability as something that made me uncomfortable; but, it is also something that’s a critical part of a dancer’s culture, as well as the scientist’s. This is something that you can’t learn from the comfortable seats of the audience. We have to let learners take the stage. And we have to take the responsibility to extend a hand to bring them there.


*I flash back to an on-the-air radio conversation I had with another science educator. His contention was that understanding science is a form of “power”. I balk at this. Yes, it’s true that you can think about lots of different problems in powerful ways by using scientific inquiry and reasoning. Let me be the first to promote this. At the same time, I disagree that this power is the real strength of science, nor the singular attribute I want students to get from understanding science. Instead, I want them to be open to new ideas, and to be able to kick some off to the side with this tool. I want them to be ready for the next idea with wide eyes and a narrow gaze.

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