Robin

she said there’s a robin.

i think it’s hurt. can you help? we 

walked to the stairwell, looked through the glass.

a robin panted, stranded on the concrete steps, chest heaving,

wobbling on unsteady legs, seeming dazed

perhaps concussed? no broken wing, i guessed, feeling helpless

i’ll do what i can i said and we returned

to class, my mind on the robin, suffering

after class i checked again, hoping for a miracle instead

poor robin is dying struggling to breathe

sunk down on the concrete, not trying to fly

i walked away, unsure how to help


what do you do when you see suffering

and nothing you could do will ease it?


i passed our building custodian, who asked

how are you today?

sad i said and told him about the bird

let me he said and pulled on thin white gloves

he opened the door, stooped down, and cupped the robin

in both hands, gently stroking it’s small feathered head

the robin closed its eyes, did not resist, but rested peacefully

upheld for a moment with trust and compassion

and that’s the image I can’t shake

this gentle man taking time to cradle a small life

offering comfort, carefully placing the robin

in the grassy shade. dignity for a life we couldn’t save

Feynman: Asking Questions, Solving Puzzles

What I cannot create, I do not understand. --Richard Feynman

Found on the chalkboard in physicist Richard Feynman's office after his death in 1988. Image by Jennifer Leung.

A wonderful performance of QED in Mansfield, Massachusetts taught me about physicist Richard Feynman, the beauty of mathematics, and the restless questioning and creating that lead us to find meaning in life.

The primarily one-man show brought to life a man who was more vibrant and chaotic than the particles and quarks he studied. To Feynman, everything was a puzzle, and questions, especially the ones that seem the most simple and have already been answered by “the experts” are the ones most worth exploring.

Among his exploits, this Nobel Prize-winning physicist who helped design the atomic bomb also loved appearing in productions at Cal Tech–stealing scenes with small parts just because he could. He successfully picked the locks on every file cabinet and combination safe at Los Alamos just because it was a puzzle to solve. His office was a playground of bongo drums and sketch pads, short stories and theorems. As the show began he explained how collecting stamps as a child led to his desire to visit Tannu Tuva in the USSR by learning Tuvan–a Russian dialect–and scheming ways to enter the remote country.

His mind was agile and curious. He viewed the natural world and its mysteries with appreciation, wonder, and bravado when called for. In short: this was the type of man I would hope education could encourage. He was not a product of education, rather, he never allowed the voice or expertise of another to dissuade him from his many passions or his curiosity. He never took “yes” or “no” for an answer and swore “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

In my own educational experience, I missed the beauty in physics that captivated this man’s imagination and wished my science teachers had shown me how to ask unabashed questions rather than explaining what to memorize and what to know. Through the performance, the actor shared Feynman’s joy–demonstrating how even a simple piece of glass reveals a mystery of the natural world: light as particle and wave, reflection and refraction–but how do the particles know whether to pass through the glass or bounce off its surface? How often do I allow my students to ask questions with no definitive answers–or help them understand that there is a difference in questions others ask them to “prove” they’ve learned the “right” material and asking themselves “I wonder why?”

I found myself alternatively inspired and challenged by this man’s vision and passion. I wondered what he was like in middle school, this man who picked the locks of file cabinets containing military secrets. Are there Feynmans in my classroom who bide their time until they can leave the confining walls of uniform knowledge, doled out in memorizable bites? How will they feed their curiosity? How will they know it’s okay to be in love with an idea? That joy and learning are not impossible sides to the same coin?

Will the obsession with testing crush the next Feynman before he (or she) can create his (or her) own way to question nature?

UPDATE:

GOOD Magazine recently posted this video of Richard Feynman explaining how rubber bands work. I would love to see my students this restless and excited about the world and their understanding of it.

Superman and Clark Kent: Teaching’s Symbolic Superhero

Depending on who you talk to–and depending upon who is listening, teachers are either the laziest, dumbest, backward-thinking, status-quo-worshipping, bottom-feeders of society, or self-sacrificing heroes, model citizens, and our nation’s most precious treasure.

President Obama, in his State of the Union address said:

Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

In fact, to every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child – become a teacher. Your country needs you.


Read more of the President’s speech

Though this sounds hollow when compared to the anti-teacher narrative pervading our country. We’re supposed to feel better about it when someone tells us they admire us and could “never do” what we do. It’s also supposed to make us feel better when someone reminds us we work such short days and get to take the summer off.

Still, so few people know what goes on in our nations’ classrooms. Education reformers believe they’ve found the secret to shedding more light on what happens through standardized testing, but nearly every classroom teacher distrusts the method and its impact on learning. In the tug-of-war for the profession and purpose of education, teachers find themselves at a loss for good ways to explain what we do and how we know when it works. There’s a battle for the soul of education and the camps are lining up on two sides of the issue.

Unfortunately, teachers have often been as quiet about their successes as they have been about their struggles. In the absence of our story, one has been written for us.

Waiting for “Superman”

In searching for a metaphor or symbol to identify the new reformers and contrast them with the teaching establishment, Davis Guggenheim selected an image offered by Geoffrey Canada. It’s a moving story. A boy looks to the heavens for a powerful, benevolent figure to swoop down and right the world’s wrongs, defend the weak, and protect the innocent. A boy waits for Superman.

In the comic books, Superman is an alien, an outsider from another planet. A benevolent interloper who comes to the rescue when opponents with similar levels of power and evil intent threaten to destroy Metropolis. Since his introduction in the 1930s, Superman’s personality, identity, and mission have shifted to reflect current events and cultural perceptions. Our culture sees in Superman the magic answer to the problems we can’t solve for ourselves–the ones that seem to big or overwhelming.

Superman’s powers are impressive. He is strong in many ways, leaping over immense obstacles, outrunning bullets or trains; he can “change the course of rivers” and “bend steel bars in his bare hands.” In education reform, don’t we need someone who isn’t daunted in the face of significant obstacles and can prove their clout?The problem with Superman, is that in order to “change the course of rivers” or “bend steel” his strength turns to destruction.

Superman is single-minded: do the right thing–but his single-mindedness combined with his strength can lead to unintended collateral damage in the name of doing what is “right.” He shows up to save the day, but Metropolis is left to pick up the pieces and sweep up the mess after he has defeated the bad guys and hung up his cape for the day. As a hero, he is loved by his fans, hated by his enemies, and truly known by no one.

If education reformers are Superman, then what role do teachers play? Are we the citizens of Metropolis, passively waiting to be saved along with our schools, or are we the union villains to be defeated in the name of “truth, justice, and the American way”? Teachers must refuse to be cast in either of these roles.

Despite these concerns, Superman still may be the right symbol for education reform–and a symbol teachers can embrace, despite his unintended flaws. Not just because many teachers have claimed there’s no need to wait for Superman or Superwoman. Those of us in the profession see many examples of strong leaders who are making a difference in the lives of their students and in their communities. They are often unassuming, yet they are visionary leaders bringing change to their schools through their own actions without carrot-and-stick measures. No, Superman makes a good symbol because he’s actually Clark Kent in disguise. Clark, who chooses to hide his dual identity in order to lead a normal life while stepping up to save the day when called upon. Clark, the quiet, unassuming reporter may not garner the same amount of attention or recognition, but still has all of Superman’s strength and abilities. He chooses to work behind the scenes instead of making headlines and getting the credit.

Maybe it’s time for our inner Clark Kent to stop hiding our strengths and make sure our communities, our states, and our nation know there is no need to wait for Superman when Clark Kent is already on the case.