student portraits and tales of learning

A couple years ago, a student caught me before my evening Science Teaching Methods class and reminded me about his kidneys. I remembered, but I knew that I really didn’t fully appreciate it all. He needed new ones, and the list for receiving these was complicated in lots of ways that I only appreciated on the surface, but was nonetheless shocked by. Someone who is simultaneously a husband, father, teacher, and student should be somewhere high on that list; but some things can’t be helped. In his case, even those from his own family weren’t ideal donors, and outside of his family there were other challenges.

He pulled me aside to tell me something about his “levels.” He didn’t want to alarm me, but just needed me to know that through the day they were too high or too low or otherwise in some red area. This was a potential precursor of a stroke. I paled, at least internally. “If you see my head slump over, just kick some dirt on me and let my wife know.” His levity was meant to ease my mind, I think. It didn’t work. I’m not above admitting that my first thought was that it would be really inconvenient for me to try to figure out what to do if he really did have a stroke. When I asked him on this occasion and others if he really felt up for being in class, he smiled and asked, rhetorically, what else was he going to do?

He came to class the following week, completely prepared with an entire display and the hands-on manipulatives we were presenting to kids and their families at the public library. And yet, even that day he had spent all of his time at the E.R., getting extra fluids because his kidneys weren’t processing appropriately. After the night, a smile on his face the whole time, he thanked me. He thanked me for the opportunity and told me what a good time he’d had.

I tell this story because it reminds me of how important learning experiences are to people — not just some future career or other ambition, but their very most immediate present. This past year, watching people in other learning arenas outside my own classroom, I’ve found simple joy and profound awe in how learners interact with a given space.

There was the day that I drove up to a local children’s museum to meet with the director and make plans for collaboration and future visits. It turned out that this was scheduled during the only week of the year that the museum was closed — a weekly tradition to clean everything from top to bottom. As I walked up, a dad with two daughters, about 4 and 2 years old, strolled up to the door. The dad saw it first, and started to explain to his older daughter, but she was already staring into the dark of the museum in disbelief. She broke down in tears, sobbing in response to the locked doors.

There was the kid with his dad at the Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan. The father, someone I would have pegged as a physics professor and potential colleague in my own department, was trying to show his son how concentric circles printed on clear sheets of paper could be overlayed on a projector so that interesting patterns from the combinations of circles were displayed. “And I can make shadows!” exclaimed the boy as he put his hands in the light. Of course, he was right; and frankly it was more interesting than the pedantic lesson his dad was insisting on.

In dance rehearsals, I was awed on a regular basis. Every time they rehearsed a flip or a release of a body I held my breath. But there were incredibly simple and profound moments, too. A dancer would tell another, “That’s beautiful,” in response to a movement being worked on; dancers would regularly try completely new ideas and movements in public, on the open floor; a choreographer learned the dance he was creating from the improvised movements of the dancers, and he took those pieces and put them into a grander structure. And then there were moments within performances that I looked forward to, every time, from the wings.

I spent time in lots of 8th grade classrooms. I’ve decided that the difficulties of being an 8th grader are summarized by the fact that so many of them are wearing mascara and sporting braces at the same time. They are navigating childhood and adulthood simultaneously — there isn’t anything between. An 8th grader can squeal or throw rocks or analyze data or write a compelling, even profound argument.

I admire 8th grade teachers more than most anyone else I know.

There were numerous times when I’d watch a horse with a rider and the rider with an instructor and the instructor referring to the movement of the horse. It was hard to tell who was teaching who, and I’ve decided that this isn’t meant to be clear.

Similar things happened with groups of teachers I saw working together. There was a university collaborator, and there was the compiled information of the teachers’ students, but who was learning and who was teaching was hard to distinguish. And I’ve decided that this, too, is as it should be.

I’ve sat through violin lessons where the most critical feature, I believe, was the greeting the instructor gave her student, welcoming her into the room. I watched an afterschool rock climbing club where the most important moment was sitting in a circle, stretching, and following the suggestions to “say your name and your favorite animal.” This was followed closely in importance by the instruction, “No lollipops while climbing.”

In the Art Institute of Chicago, I saw kids in small herds collected to understand a quiet wisdom of their surroundings. Brownie Troop #2150 walked through the impressionist gallery, each with an artist’s folding stool and a sketch pad. When I caught up to them, they were in front of American Gothic, considering the meaning of the sharp peaks on the farmhouse’s upper floor window. Another group was in front of stained glass, staring into the deep blue that radiated from somewhere else. They sprawled on the floor and pointed.

At the American Museum of Natural History, you can stare into a deep past of a dinosaur immediately in front of and above you. At the Georgia Aquarium, you can stare into the present of a manta ray or a whale shark swimming immediately above you. At the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), you get the chance to design your own spinning flying copter that you hope will be matched to the upward stream of air meant to suspend it. At all of these, I had to wait my turn. Sometimes I’d see a school group, armed with worksheets and some kind of conceptual scavenger hunt, and I felt bad for them. I turned back into the bones of a dinosaur.

And then there was that time when I was alone at Ebenezer Baptist Church, listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. over the PA system. That experience was all, wholly, mine, and it was among the most formative moments of my life. But so was the moment I was sitting on a sandstone cliff with a dear friend in another national park. Or the time, at Yellowstone with my family, I peered through a scope at a bear and a wolf in the same field of view. And so many others.

So I flash back to my student in need of kidneys and my disbelief that he’d stay for a 3-hour class instead of take the night off, even when he was clearly pale and ragged. I suppose he stayed for many simple, practical reasons. But I’d like to think that there was also the possibility that there could be one of those many moments: a dinosaur skeleton, an art lesson, a moment to dance … no, I don’t really claim that any of these more extraordinary events was going to occur during my class. Rather, there was always the possibility. The point of living is to be ready for that next experience, that next moment of learning. I suppose that this year I realized how very many more of these exist than what I’d yet imagined — and I thought I’d imagined quite a few.

And, I learned just today that my kidney-patient student will be teaching high school biology this fall. So I’m especially pleased that he stuck around for all the sessions of my course. I’d like to visit his class. I think I still have more to learn from him, too.