Chapter 10: Crossroads Elementary School

Captured here is a series of reflections on my career as I approach the world of retirement. I hold up stopping points and reflect on how they played in my life as an educator. 


Screen Shot 2020-05-16 at 10.23.52 AMFloating in a zero-g environment is a phenomenal experience. How often does one get to do that?  My work at Crossroads Elementary School provided me with that remarkable opportunity. In many ways, this experience provides a fitting metaphor for that portion of my career spent at Crossroads.

I was focused on landing a job in higher ed when I saw a posting for a Science Curriculum Coordinator at a new school on Front Avenue in Saint Paul. I got the job! I have often stated that at the point I reach my retirement I would look back to my first six years at Crossroads as the pinnacle of my career. And now here I am. Those years remain front and center as I consider my career in education.

I vividly recall an early faculty meeting as we debated moving forward on a grant initiative when Celeste Carty made the bold statement, “I hired each of you because I saw you as risk-takers. It is far better to try and fail than never try at all.” At that moment, I knew I found the place I belonged. I had the profound experience of working alongside a phenomenal leadership team, including Celeste Carty, principal, Carolyn Hodges, Montessori Coordinator, and myself as Science Coordinator. We operated in a synergistic rhythm that made it a pleasure to come to work. I knew whatever I did, I had Celeste’s support – and if I was traveling down an unproductive path knew she would tell me. We got to know each other’s thoughts. We acted as one. 

We had the unique opportunity to interview and select the teachers that would make up our school community. In so doing, we began a school with the very best of teachers. Through those first six years, we had virtually no turnover. We came to be like family all committed to the well-being of our collective students. It was a pleasure to work alongside my brothers and sisters.

MVC-021Opening a school alongside colleagues motivated by altruistic purposes of doing good for the kids we serve created unparalleled energy. Doing it as a year-round, science magnet program opened doors to phenomenal opportunities. I had the chance to dream, to write grants, to develop programs, to dig a pond, to create, and to teach. And to wander the country in pursuit of expanding my background in science education. I flew to the Science Center of Eastern Connecticut with Amy to visualize the Inquiry Zone learning space. I took three trips to the Exploratorium in San Francisco with Lee, Nils, and Celeste to plan professional development for our teachers. As part of the NASA Explorer School Program we flew to the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland for our introduction to research at NASA; to Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley to explore astrobiology; to Kennedy Space Center to see NASA’s history in space travel; and finally to Johnson Space Center to fly our sixth-grade investigation on rotational motion as part of NASA’s KC-135 Reduced Gravity flight program. Mixed in there somewhere was a trip to Huntsville’s Space Camp and three National Science Teachers’ Association professional conferences.

Space Shuttle - 47I was privileged with an amazing opportunity for creativity through our nationally unique Inquiry Zone – our own little science museum designed to get kids to ask investigable questions, seek answers, and present findings. I developed stations to go along with themes that lasted a semester, including: Institute of Engineering, ThinkMath, Inventa Zone, EcoZone, Quid Zone, and Aerospace Research Center. Each of these presented their own creative challenge developing centers to stimulate kids’ thinking. One Intersession, I created a centerpiece project with three sixth-grade girls building a model of the Space Shuttle to hang from the ceiling. 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA highlight of the year was our trips to the Audubon Center of the Northwoods for a three-day stay in the northern Minnesota woods. Our sixth grade went in January and fourth grade in June. Riding the bus up, one student asked me, “Will this be where it is daylight all the time?” (we traveled 70 miles north of the cities). Sixth graders that could loom ominously in school became the kids they were and needed to be. They listened quietly to my reading of picture books at night until they fell asleep. They asked if we could leave a light on. Some snuck their teddy bear along. We faced our fears together on the high ropes course. We waded in the creek, played games in the fields, and roasted marshmallows by the campfire. We caught one group of boys retreating to their room and chugging maple syrup (there are worse things to chug). We learned about the environment, ourselves, and each other.

Crossroads was a powerful place to work. We opened a school community, we assembled desks and tables, unwrapped boxes of books and supplies, and opened the doors to kids and families. We began with a blank slate – never caught ourselves saying, “but that’s how we always do it” – rather contemplating what traditions we desire to make. Collectively we found ourselves in a supportive, productive, nurturing learning environment. Periodically in those years, I found myself gracing the boundaries of Maslow’s stage of self-actualization. It was a good place at a good time. Crossroads added rich threads to the fabric of who I came to be. Life is good.

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Chapter 9: School Nature Area Project

Captured here is a series of reflections on my career as I approach the world of retirement. I hold up stopping points and reflect on how they played in my life as an educator. 


unnamedNature flows in cycles – as does life. I found a return to my environmental roots as an Environmental Education Specialist at the School Nature Area Project (SNAP) – an outreach program housed at St. Olaf College. We provided grants to schools to support the development of a nature area on their school campus along with professional development in how they might utilize these rich natural learning environments. I was able to watch from my unique partnership lens as schools utilized our resources to transform learning for their students. Projects ranged from trail and outdoor classroom construction in the woodlands on school property, the establishment of a prairie landscape, to the planting of a butterfly garden. Alongside their teachers, students researched plant species native to their region, developed a landscape design for what and where, put together a shopping list, ordered, and planted. It was a joy to watch as kids thrilled with the emergence of new life and nurtured their growth for the benefit of future generations of students. 

unnamed-2A concept I learned from Tim, the science department in Grygla, MN, was the term vuja de. As opposed to the more familiar term déjà vu, Tim made a point to seek out vuja de experiences – i.e. an experience he has not had before. I appreciate the play on words and love the concept, and try to always seek a vuja de experience somewhere within our travels. Thank you, Tim.

No connection to environmental education, but SNAP was my first foray into higher education and the side benefit of greater possession of my time. As a classroom teacher, I had learned to train my bladder to only release in those precious few moments I could sneak away from my students. At SNAP, I found the freedom to go to the bathroom any time I wanted. To a public school teacher, this was a gift without equal.

It was my days at SNAP that allowed me to do my dissertation research. I developed a nationwide program in which students monitored the progression of fall. Borrowing from GLOBE, I developed a protocol to measure the progression of color of an identified tree on the school campus, reporting weekly to a data set I kept posted on the Following Fall website. I went on to develop a comparable project for SNOW and Signs of Spring. I am grateful for the context, resources, and time SNAP provided as I had the opportunity to develop collaborative projects while simultaneously collecting data for my research on network science.

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Chapter 8: Hinckley Elementary School

Captured here is a series of reflections on my career as I approach the world of retirement. I hold up stopping points and reflect on how they played in my life as an educator. 


I was offered a one-year position to fill in for a maternity leave. On that (along with a bit

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My “professional” photo as it appeared in The Hinckley News welcome to new teachers

of naive idealism), we bought 40 acres of undeveloped land, moved north with an 18-month old daughter in tow and began a 16-year journey learning the craft of teaching while hand building a small farmstead replete with horses, pigs, sheep, cow, geese, and a mule. For the first 6 months, our home was a 12’ camper on loan from my in-laws. Backing the camper into a field of ragweed made coming home from school a sneezy challenge.

This was the profession my studies at Augsburg were preparing me for. I was a certified licensed teacher. I was a professional. I knew what I was doing. I was a teacher! Yet, as often the case, my illusions of entering the profession with ease were quickly dashed. I had to come to terms with the realization that I didn’t really know how to effectively manage a classroom of kids. If students were in a rebellious mood at the Street Academy they simply stayed away. We lived 24 hours a day in a home with the boys at Frontier Farm. The surrounding wilderness gave clear defined boundaries in the BWCA. My boundaries in the classroom were less clear. My 9-year-olds rebelled. They didn’t listen. They didn’t do their work. They didn’t cooperate. They, they, they…. but … it turned out to be not so much ‘they’ as it was ‘me’. Throughout that first year, I went home at night thoroughly exhausted. I often walked out into the field and wept. I needed to learn the art of teaching. I needed to find myself as a teacher. I needed to take all I had been preparing for and find my way to make it work. I had to become the teacher I was meant to be.

That first year remained a challenge. I so often think of seeking out those kids to profusely apologize for learning on them. Yet, I know my experience as a novice teacher was not unique. I have heard a similar story from many. There is a reason so many teachers leave the profession in the first five years. 

unnamedMy wife gave me a picture some 30 years ago. I began tucking a sampling of notes I received from students and parents into the back of the frame – so thankful at this point for having done so. Looking back at these notes reassure me that I did indeed find my voice and grew as a teacher. Several in particular make me smile…

“_____ has adored you. You have been wonderful in working with her diabetes and you don’t know how much that is appreciated. You have encouraged her self-esteem and given her a better vision of the future and believing she can be whatever she wishes.”

“You bring out in me something I never knew I had before and that’s the ability to use philosophy and I thank you for a great year.”

“You are the best teacher I have ever had. You have found so many unique things in me that I never knew I had. You always got my chin up when it was down. You cared about what I had to say. You respected my questions and answered them. You never criticized my ideas or my thinking. Your about the only person who understands what I say or think.” 

I have always had a particular affinity for reaching those students that might benefit from a different touch – perhaps a bit on the quirky side – creative – unique – quiet – outcast – isolated – gifted. I would seek them out, get to know them, develop a relationship, scaffold support, find outlets of expression. It helped that I am a bit quirky by nature myself – it showed through. I found joy in the micro-successes. It is that work that has fed me over the 42 years I have been blessed to call myself a teacher.

A panoply of memories

Many memories and experiences come to mind as I reflect back to my 16 years in Hinckley. I catch a few of them here:

  • I brought the IMG_0871Minnesota Student Inventors Congress into the school culture. All fifth graders participated along with an open invitation and encouragement throughout the school. It grew every year and became part of the school culture. We tried to downplay the competition, but were able to select 10 kids from our local event to present their invention at the Regional Congress in St. Cloud. From there, we had several that went on to the State Inventors’ Congress.
  • I’m not quite sure how or when I grew in my move toward a focus and expertise in science, but somewhere within those 16 years it happened. My students enjoyed the science experiences we had. I fed off that interest and worked to grow my capacity to teach science. My fifth-grade team at one point decided to specialize in our teaching – I ended up teaching science to all three sections. I was consulted in the design for a science classroom as we planned an addition for our building. To my joy, I ended up assigned to that classroom. My interest and reputation for science grew – and I liked it 🙂 I loved seeing kids get thrilled by investigation.
  • I enjoyed taking on projects with sufficient complexity to require some chunk of time to develop. One such project involved working with my reading students to develop a playscript of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. We developed a script that allowed every student a chance for active engagement. We constructed stage props, costumes, and handbills for a live performance. Parents and community members were invited. Kids loved the chance to perform to a live audience – and parents made a great and appreciative audience. 
  • I was transparent in sharing our journey to adopt our youngest son from Korea with my students. They responded by throwing a baby shower in the classroom complete with games, punch, and gifts. Mrs. Cahoon called me to the office while they quickly transformed the room. A memorable moment of authentic mutual caring.
  • In those days, we had a Christmas tree (paper rings) in our room and exchanged names for a gift exchange. Vestiges of these celebrations are still found hanging on our Christmas tree and I still pull coffee mugs gifted to me from our cupboard. 
  • With my fifth grade colleagues, I instituted an Out to Lunch program. As students reached certain markers, they were able to add their name to an Out to Lunch can. On Fridays, I drew a name. That student could invite one friend and they joined us for a cafeteria lunch brought back to the classroom. A bit hokey perhaps, but it worked!
  • I was part of the Minnesota Educational Effectiveness Program leadership team. Seymour Papert was the keynote speaker at the statewide annual meeting held at Madden’s Resort on Gull Lake one year. Dr. Papert was an older man with disheveled grey hair and a misbuttoned gray cardigan –  not unlike my image of Albert Einstein. Halfway through his talk my team grew bored, got up and walked out. I remained – transfixed by his ideas and thinking. Dr. Papert was the kind of genius that would pause now and again straining against the limitations of language to express his thinking. He was an MIT professor and developer of the Logo computer language.  His topic was on the powerful role of technology to support learning, but he spoke about kids, about thinking, about learning, about power. That talk transformed my life in Hinckley. The next weekend I applied for a Master’s Degree program in Learning Technology and my life changed.

I have been gifted throughout my career with relationships with thousands of students from kindergartners to those coming out of retirement with a desire to earn a license. I learned what it meant to be teacher in Hinckley. I found my teacher voice and set the stage for the second half of my career. I am so thankful for each of the students that entered that classroom door I claimed as ours. Life is good.


Note: It is hard to write about my time in Hinckley without a nod to my life in the community. I was blessed with colleagues, friends, and neighbors. Each of them has also added a thread to the tapestry that is my life. For another day…

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Chapter 7: Frontier Farm – Group Home outside of Effie, MN

Captured here is a series of reflections on my career as I approach the world of retirement. I hold up stopping points and reflect on how they played in my life as an educator. 


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I would often tell the story that post-college I spent a year in a psychiatric unit, moved to an alternative high school setting, then a  year living in a group home, before finally making it to fourth grade. I would typically qualify that statement with the clarification that each of these was experienced as staff.

By calendar, my wife and I spent a year as house parents at Frontier Farm at the tender age of 24 years old. By any measure of lived experience, it was significantly longer. What did we know? How were we prepared? On paper, I was trained as a teacher, had a background in psychology, found success working at Northside Street Academy (PCYC), and worked with youth at Wilderness Canoe Base (PCYC). But faced with boys that sniffed paint in the barn, stole the Ford farm pickup to begin a trip around the country, and saddled our Welsh mare in the middle of the night to ride into town, we were continually confronted by our ignorance and forced to rely on our gut instincts. In the end, the boys in the pickup had car problems 5 miles out and in an attempt to hitchhike to Grand Rapids were picked up by their probation worker. The horse turned out to be uncooperative due to an upside-down bit. He eventually tied the horse to a mailbox and knocked on a door for help. Noticing the pajamas, the neighbor invited him in and gave us a  call. Turns out grand visions often don’t turn out as expected.IMG-0840

We learned to see these street-savvy hooligans as a motley group of young boys trying to make sense of the world. We were on a 160-acre homestead well out of view of any of our neighbors. The boys played tag and silly games – the games they missed as children. We saw their pain. When confronted with behavior resulting in negative attention, Nicholas (pseudonym) said: “Negative attention is better than no attention at all.”  That statement rang profound truth. Nicholas was one of those kids that found little success in life, receiving no accolades or blue ribbons for work well done, resorting to the only thing he could do to be noticed.

IMG-0843Frontier Farm was a farmstead in a real way – the original homesteader lived just down the road. What a treat to listen to her stories of sitting around the stove in their humble farmhouse as a group of Native Americans walked into the house, stayed a bit, and left. This area of the state was a late arrival into the trappings that marked ‘civilized’ society.

Pinky, our 600-pound sow, gave birth to 13 little piglets that we raised to market weight. By this time the director had left and we were temporarily in charge. The tradition of the farm (that I could not forego) was to butcher the pigs, cure and smoke the hams, and add them to our freezer. I found peace in the wild and enjoyed the farm, but was largely still a city boy. It was up to me to do the butchering. What did I know? How would I learn to do this in a pre-Google world? So I got a book and talked to neighbors. The Moses family was kind enough to let me join them in a butchering on their farmstead. Willis Moses was a man of the earth and did things the way the Moses men had done for generations. And so I learned to heat water to 145 degrees, immerse the carcass in hot water for six minutes, pull it out on a table and scrape the hair and dirt away with a bell hog scraper. After that, we would gut and hang the hog and let it cool before bringing it into the butcher block to cut into pork chops, roasts, slabs for bacon, and hams. The hams and bacon went into the brine in the cooler in preparation for taking out to the smokehouse. Relying on how-to books with pictures, we’d cut off a chunk of meat, compare it to the picture and designate it as a pork chop, steak, or roast.

IMG-0841We put up hay the old fashioned way. We pulled a hay cutter behind our Allis Chalmers WD tractor, let it dry in the sun, raked it into windrows, loaded it loose on the wagon with an old-fashioned hay loader, and headed to the barn. From there we lifted the hay with slings we had laid out in the wagon. The boys were in the loft ready to evenly spread the hay out for the coming winter. They were an integral part of all this hard work. They learned the satisfaction of being needed and making contributions through sweat. It was a good place for them to heal.

What did we know? In the end, our gut instincts pulled what we did know through. We like to think we even found some success – perhaps even making some positive differences in the lives of the boys. Life is rich with so many unexpected twists and turns – each adding their own unique strands to the tapestry of life. Life is good.

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Chapter 6: PCYC: Northside Street Academy

Captured here is a series of reflections on my career as I approach the world of retirement. I hold up stopping points and reflect on how they played in my life as an educator. 


unnamed-5PCYC was birthed in the same year as me (1954) by a group of radical seminary students and social justice advocates. From the beginning, its mission focused on at-risk/at-promise youth in North Minneapolis seeking to enrich their skills, prospects, and spirit. During my time, PCYC hosted four programs in service to this mission:

  • Wilderness Canoe Base on Seagull Lake in the BWCAW (see Ch 4).
  • Frontier Farm near the Bigfork area in northern Minnesota (see Ch 7).
  • Kinship – a big brother/big sister type of program (the only program I didn’t work with)
  • Community Programs (Ch 6), including an alternative high school, friendship groups in northside elementary school, summer recreation program, and social outings for adults with developmental delays.

Northside Street Academy was an alternative high school serving students that had struggled in their public school setting (primarily North High). I was a newly licensed elementary teacher getting his first job. Turns out, it was an ideal setting to launch my career. With the support and mentoring of Jim and Ann Long, I was able to successfully move into my teaching role working with this special population of students. My elementary training helped provide some of the fundamental remediation these students had missed. My work at Fairview Hospital Adolescent Psychiatric Unithelped me to see these kids beneath the rough exterior. My immersion in the PCYC mission at Wilderness Canoe Base provided me with the altruistic motivation to do good in as many ways as I could. 

Our instructional time blocks were one month. If a student failed to meet expectations, they only had to the next month for a fresh start. Many of our students took a longer time to complete high school, but they successfully overcame the many obstacles in their path to graduate. It was a joy to witness that graduation ceremony.

I taught classes from fundamental reading to rock climbing. I took students out on many field trips. We loaded the PCYC van and headed out (was a different time). We went to Flying Cloud airport where everybody got a chance to go up in a plane and fly around a bit. We rented rock climbing gear and took off to climb and rappel the cliffs at Taylors Falls. (Thankful for the foundations I developed at ELC – Ch 3). On one trip I noticed a marijuana joint on the floor of the van. I held it up and asked whose it was. Bob (pseudonym) quickly responded, “That’s mine.” Gotta love honesty – see you next month.

One of the things I loved about this work was the great variety. I worked with Como docents to bring animals to school. On one occasion, a Siberian tiger cub got loose into the neighbor’s backyard. “Mom, there is a tiger in the backyard!” Fortunately Mom and family were friends of PCYC. In the summer months, we ran a recreation program at Peanut Park. Once a week I went out with Ann to a local elementary school and met with a small group of students referred to our Friendship group program. Every Wednesday we had dinner at Jim and Ann’s then back to the Center for an outing with a special group of adults with developmental delay we called the Swingers. We bowled, partied, ate, and celebrated each other.

More than anything else, we dealt in relationship. Yes, I like to think I had some impact on those I worked with, but I know they had an impact on me. I learned the important role relationships play in working with people in those you serve and the community you serve in.

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Chapter 5: Fairview Hospital; Adolescent Treatment Program

Captured here is a series of reflections on my career as I approach the world of retirement. I hold up stopping points and reflect on how they played in my life as an educator. 


Fairview ATPTurns out living in the wilderness isn’t the ideal place to launch a successful search for a teaching career. There’s something about no phone or mail service that gets in the way. And so a particular set of circumstances opened the door to an unexpected opportunity. I put my psychology studies from Augsburg to work in the residential Adolescent Treatment Program at Fairview Hospital. It was through my year as a psychiatric technician that I had the chance to enter into the lives of some extraordinary individuals caught in the torment of mental illness. 

Behind so many of the adolescents being treated were parents that played into the creation of mental illness in the children under their care. I remember so clearly one young girl I routinely charted on in my shifts (I’ll call her Ann). She slept on the floor leaving her bed unused. We discovered her mother blamed her for her Grandma’s death and took her bed away as punishment. Ann was a cutter, drawing blood from her arms and legs. Cigarette burns were a form of punishment for her at home. Despite the abuse from her parents, she anxiously looked for them every weekend. They never came. Ann’s insurance ran out. As stark as residential treatment can be, Fairview was a great place compared to what she faced with transfer to a State Hospital. I stopped to see her on a trip out west. The tall ceilings, cold tile floor, and blank walls reverberated all sound within. It screamed institution

A young boy (I’ll call John) was noted for his high pitched voice – until one day it drastically changed. His parents wanted a daughter. In order to gain the attention all children strive for, he did what he could to give his parents what they desired. 

Clearly, not all had mental illness is born of neglect or abuse. Mental illness’s insidious nature steals stability from so many. Bob was a pleasant young man – easy to get to know. He was there for long term commitment on a charge of murder. Others I came to know were there for severe paranoia, schizophrenia, obsessive hand washing, and acute hallucinations. 

Each of these individuals had a story deserving of our respect and care. I learned to look behind outside appearances to the child within. Planting my feet in a psychology of care would influence me throughout my career. I am thankful for this diversion.


 

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Chapter 4: Wilderness Canoe Base

Captured here is a series of reflections on my career as I approach the world of retirement. I hold up stopping points and reflect on how they played in my life as an educator. 


unnamed-2I worked at a camp for two summers in college – yet it was so much more than working and so much more than a camp. I was a guide/counselor at Wilderness Canoe Base (WCB) on Seagull Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail. Located on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, I found WCB to be a holy place, a place that helped me navigate that awkward time of transition between youth and adulthood. My time in this holy place was instrumental in my becoming who I was to be. It was a life-changing epoch.

unnamed-1My weeks were spent guiding groups of teenage youth on canoeing adventures into the BWCA wilderness.  Groups ranged from church youth to offenders from the Red Wing State Training School. Each uniquely created their own rich story. Some knew how to canoe, some meandered from shore to shore. Some were strangers, some were close friends. Some groups gelled quickly, others took time. Some trips were graced with beautiful weather, others faced storms and swarms of mosquitoes. All trips ended in the formation of rich, lifelong memories. 

There is nothing like the immersion in the beauty of the remote wilderness to promote the community that forms as we learned to rely on one another for help and companionship without the distractions of civilization. During the day we learned to paddle in synchronistic form and how to work side-by-side as we traversed rugged portages. In the evening we had rich conversations around the campfire. Stories were told, laughter shared, and caring words expressed. 

unnamedThere is nothing like the immersion in the rich community of others rooted in faith and committed to service to find oneself. Surrounded by a community of such deeply talented individuals, I often found myself feeling as if I fell short. I came to realize my focus should be on becoming my best version of Bill instead of comparing myself to others. That shift in thinking changed me in a deep and profound way. This lesson has carried with me throughout my career. A message I share with my aspiring teachers is to come to know who they are, to celebrate their uniqueness, and become their best versions of themselves. Their students will appreciate that authenticity.

unnamed-3Within that community, I also found my lifelong love. We continue to be blissfully married 43 years later.

Life is good.


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Chapter 3: Environmental Learning Center, Isabella

Captured here is a series of reflections on my career as I approach the world of retirement. I hold up stopping points and reflect on how they played in my life as an educator. 


unnamed-4I headed north in the fall of 1975 to spend a semester as an intern at the Environmental Learning Center in Isabella, MN – the predecessor to today’s Wolf Ridge ELC. There is no better place for an emerging teacher than immersing oneself in the woods and lakes of northern Minnesota with a bunch of elementary-age kids. And so began an environmental education focus that wound its way throughout my career. 

Every Monday a new group of excited 4th, 5th, or 6th graders would arrive to spend a week in the north woods. I was one of four interns (along with Jeff Copeland, Val Piwoschuk, and Steve Nulsen) to meet the kids at the bus and escort them to the dormitories. There we welcomed them, provided an orientation, and gave them time to settle in. Over lunch, we would connect with their teachers and plan out how we would move through the activities of the day.

unnamedSo far out of the normal school routine, these kids overflowed with energy and enthusiasm. We learned to identify characteristics of trees, listened to faraway birds with parabolic receivers, fell backward into peers’ arms, and played games simulating ecological principles. Two favorite activities in the rotation were canoeing and the climbing wall. I learned how to climb by teaching 6th graders the principles of climbing and belaying – then standing back to watch what they did. I couldn’t repeat their moves but was amazed at their agility. Those not encumbered by fear scaled the wall with such fluid grace. A few select groups traveled to Lake Superior’s North Shore to climb real rocks.

One weekend we climbed with Mike Jackson, a visiting climber from the National Outdoors Learning School (NOLS) in Wyoming. After repeated failures on a wall a mere 15 feet high, I lamented aloud there was one hold (a bump in the rock) that I couldn’t grasp for more than a second. Mike simply said, “That’s all the time you need, just keep moving up.” Keep moving. Simple logic. A simple solution. I could cognitively embrace the concept but still failed physically in my efforts to scale that wall.  

I returned as a teacher for two weeks the following summer for a group of high school students from Duluth. My three-day rotation was orienteering. After learning the basics of reading a compass, setting bearings, and using our pace to measure distance, we planned an orienteering trek to a remote location on a map (small lake, height of land, etc). We selected our starting point, took our compass bearing, and headed out in pursuit of our goal. Using our compass we traveled from benchmark to benchmark. Halfway through our adventure with the first two groups, we found ourselves facing a north woods swamp with no apparent route around. After debating what to do, we collectively decided the only way through was straight through. By the time we got to the other side, we were wet, scratched, bit, sweaty, and exhausted. But we made it! By the time we made it back to dinner adorned with all our scars and smells, we joyously entered the hall beaming with deep pride for what we accomplished. It was a beautiful day for the third group. We missed the swamp finding ourselves on a comfortable, easy hike. There were no beaming smiles or swagger for these guys at dinner. I coined the term “gentle adversity” on that experience. We find greater meaning and value when we have to work hard for something. Vygotsky called it operating in the Zone of Proximal Development. Educational theorists speak of productive struggle. There is good value in facing gentle adversity. It gives us the opportunity to develop a habit of mind marked by perseverance and grit.

Those hikes made a lasting memory for me. I learned a great deal from those excited kids. My time at ELC was a long way from the inner city Augsburg experience, but what a rich way to help me become the teacher I am. Life is good.

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Chapter 2: A Brush with Learning

Captured here is a series of reflections on my career as I approach the world of retirement. I hold up stopping points and reflect on how they played in my life as an educator. 


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I painted houses through my college summers. Augsburg College was my undergraduate home. It was a good education, but as a private college, it was expensive – $4,500 a year for tuition, room, and board. To meet that high cost, I had to take a summer job. Good fortune paired me with a painting contractor that needed summer help. Along with a close friend, I joined up with the “Boss” for two full summers of climbing ladders, scraping away old paint, prepping the surface, and brushing on a new clean coat of paint adding new life to the underlying boards.

Ok, not directly teacher preparation, but I learned lasting lessons from my time with the Boss. I learned patience – painting a house could only be done stroke by stroke. Over time, the accumulation of many strokes resulted in a revitalized wall, those walls made a house. Each house presented its own unique challenges. Some parts required exacting care, while others we were advised to give a “lick and a promise”. Throughout those summers, the Boss took the time to get to know us, sprinkling light-hearted fun with an infectious laugh in the midst of what could otherwise lapse into tedium. A light-hearted spirit led to a job well done.

unnamed-2So maybe I did learn a thing or two about life in a classroom. To be an effective teacher, I have to take the time to prep the surface before brushing in new coats of knowledge. I need a healthy dose of patience. Learning takes place gradually, building over time, concept by concept until the resulting accumulation of knowledge creates new understanding. As a teacher, I need to get to know my students, I need to know those areas requiring exacting care and those that could get by with a lick and a promise. I need to sprinkle in healthy doses of fun to bring life into the year we would spend together. For my students, and for me, I need to remember to smile, to laugh, to enjoy the learning journey alongside my students. Thank you, Floyd Gooding, for transforming a summer job into an important learning platform for my journey into life.

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A New Life Chapter

I was born in 1954. I entered school in 1959, graduated from high school in 1972, earned my BA in 1976, MA in 1993, Ph.D. in 2000. I married in 1977. Together we had three children and four grandchildren. Big life events, each marking significant changes in the flow of life.  

Throughout that time, I moved in and out of jobs as I pursued my career in education. And now it is 2020. A new chapter begins at the midpoint of this new year. A big chapter. A major chapter. One of the biggest. I am excited as I approach the entrance to the grand promenade that will usher me into this profound new chapter called retirement.

But first, a time to reflect on my career. To do so, I feel compelled to lift up individual elements of that career and do that reflection through writing here. 

Chapter 1: Santa Claus

unnamed‘Tis the season just past – a good enough reason to begin with my illustrious career as Santa Claus. The final two Christmas seasons of my college years I was gifted with employment as that jolly old man. The first year I set up in  Minneapolis’ downtown Donaldson’s department store. My second year was at Rosedale shopping mall. 

I was young, tall, sort-of slender, with a scraggly beard and longish brown hair. To play the role, I bulked up with a pillow and sported a fake beard and wig. A chintzy attempt at deception perhaps, yet the mystique of the figure was transcendent. To the children approaching my throne, I was none other than the real thing. One boy – about 10 years old – strolled around the room peering at the Christmas display until there was no one waiting to sit in my lap. He sauntered up to me and coyly said, “There is no such thing as Santa Claus …. is there?” Children’s requests ranged from the must-haves of the times to desires more basic. One child sat on my lap and asked for a complete packet of bus schedules. A favorite past time was to board a bus on a Saturday morning and transfer his way around the city. One of my attendants, a young 30ish woman found her way to my lap and proceeded to tell me of her recent diagnosis with cancer. She asked for good health. As Santa Claus, I offered the promise of hope. Those that sat on my lap walked away with visions of that promise. 

My career is that of a teacher. Does Santa Claus fit in there somewhere? It did for me. It found a place on my resume as I applied for jobs always promoting a conversation. Through my time as Santa Claus, I learned of the mystique young children accord to trusted adults in their lives. That precious trust can help a gifted teacher work miracles. I learned of believing in good things. That belief raises our students’ eyes to the realization of their dreams. And so, I offer my thanks to the jolly old man that lent me his wares.

 

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