Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Grab A Tissue...This One Is Sad

Typically, I read this journal reflection aloud to my students during the week of September 24th each school year. However, I am refraining from doing so this year in light of the loss we've felt in our school community. In all honesty, it would be too difficult for me to get through this year. However, I have had students request that I answer one of the reflection questions I asked them, "What was a difficult time in your life and how did you handle it?" The following is my response to that question. One of the most difficult experiences of my life was the sudden loss of a close friend; he passed away from cardiac arrest.

Forty-five years ago on September 28, 1967, a baby boy by the name of Daniel Eric Welsh was born to Kay and James. The fifth of five children. Dan and I eventually became very close friends, like brother and sister. We went to Blessed Sacrament Grade School, Morton High School, and the University of Illinois together. Our schedules were always identical, hour by hour, through grade 12. The only difference that occurred in high school was our language class—when I went to German, Dan went to Spanish. Then during our last year of college, I decided to go into teaching and he applied to medical schools. We both graduated. I began my teaching career and fell in love with it. He went to Rush University for medical school and also had found his calling. We, of course, kept in touch. Twenty years ago on September 24, 1992, four days before his 25th birthday, my dear friend died.

I’m sharing this story with you because I still have a hard time with the fact that he is no longer around, even after twenty years. One action that has provided me with some comfort is to share his life with my students. Why? I’ll explain.

Dan was the type of person who did everything 100%, otherwise he wouldn’t do it at all. When he studied, he studied 100%. No matter what gadgets or distractions we created at the library, he would not stop focusing on his studies. When he slept, he slept 100%. We actually had to break the door down one day to wake him up to go to Physics. Pounding on it wasn’t doing the trick! And when he had fun, he had fun 100%...well, you get the idea.

Saying that Dan was focused doesn’t seem to describe him thoroughly enough. When we were in grade school, we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. We actually recorded our responses, and I still have a copy of our class’s responses in my keepsake box. He said, without hesitation, “a doctor.” He was lucky this way. He knew what he wanted to be for a very long time. And throughout his life, his family experiences gave him the motivation to make his dream come true. His focus started at a very young age and never faltered. He was the type of person who wouldn’t miss class in college because he felt that something he learned that day might end up saving the life of one of his patients in the future. He was intense.

I’ve always had a very difficult time during this week of the year, ever since I lost Dan. When it first happened, I remember feeling so weak in the knees, to the point where standing up was an effort. My younger brother, Bill, was worried about me, because he knew how close Dan and I were. Bill had also lost a friend of his, Matt, 2 years prior to Dan’s death. Bill came into my room one day to give me a reassuring hug. I looked at him and asked, “When did you stop crying? When will I stop crying?” He said—and let me remind you that this is my younger brother, but at this moment he seemed so wise—he said, “Joan, it seems like holding onto the pain is the only way to stay close to Dan, doesn’t it? Well, I don’t know how or why, but one day I was thinking of Matt, and I laughed. I laughed out loud. And it felt great. And one day that will happen to you; you’ll think of Dan and smile. You just have to be patient. Just don’t think that the pain of his loss is the only way to stay close to him.” I  knew he was right, but had trouble with this for years. But, about 10 summers ago it happened. I was thinking about Dan, about how in second grade he glued a Kleenex on his eraser and started flying it around the classroom calling it a “Super Eraser”, and I smiled...then I laughed out loud. Bill was right. It did feel good to let the happiness through.

So why share such a painful story? Because if Dan's life can in any way inspire you for one moment in your life to grasp everything that occasion has to offer, if this story can inspire you to make your next words and actions be a positive influence on the people around you, then this story will have made a difference. You have no idea to what extent you are impacting another person’s life. Who knew that I would ever remember “Super Eraser” and that that memory would in some way help me grow as an individual twenty-seven years later? Your words and actions make a difference for you and for others. Speak carefully, listen wholeheartedly, and live positively...

Every experience, no matter how painful, provides opportunity for growth. Dan’s life and death have influenced my teaching in a profound way. And I will be forever grateful to my friend for playing his part in helping me to become the teacher I am.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Science Exploration: Why Bother?

"Voyager 1 Bids Farewell to Solar System." This news broke as the 2012 summer began. Not on the front page of the newspaper, of course. I read it in one of my science journals. I was vacationing up in northern Minnesota when I heard, and I was instantly pulled back into the adventures of space exploration. I followed so much of this as a child, living during the two decades following Sputnik, during the race to the moon. I was mesmerized once again as I looked up at the stars in the clear northern sky. A spectacular view, uninterrupted by Chicago light pollution. I then listened to Science Friday's Ira Flatow share details about Voyager 1's travels. (Listen here.)

Voyager 1 and 2 were launched 35 years ago, in 1977. I was in fifth grade! Each have computers with only 68 kilobytes of memory and use 8 track tape recorders! I am in awe of the project scientist Edward C. Stone who has been involved with the adventures of Voyager since the very beginning. His dedication, patience and passion are extraordinary. Can you imagine being a part of a "science project" for half your life?!

Voyager 1 is about to "go where no one has gone before," no person or man-made object. It is on the edge of the sun's magnetic bubble, about the break through to interstellar space. It travels close to a MILLION miles a day, and has been for 35 years. The vastness of space is incomprehensible.  And simply fascinating.

Over the summer, we lost two legends associated with the space program, Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong. After hearing the news of Armstrong's death, I reflected on the sad reality that a time is fast approaching where all members of the elite club, people who have actually been to the moon, will no longer be with us. And unfortunately viewing astronauts as scientific heroes and reading about space exploration as front page news is all but a distant memory.

Why explore? Why research? Why bother nurturing curiosity, discovery, innovation, invention? Why invest—money or time—in science at all? Don't we know enough? I've heard my students ask these types of questions over the years. And there are so many responses that jump to mind. Here are three that parallel the classroom articles I've handed out and the discussions I've had with my students this year so far.
  1. Historically, the journey of science itself, without first having a prescribed incentive or even a specific question in mind, has improved and expanded our knowledge base.. "Time after time, Voyager revealed unexpected—kind of counterintuitive—results, which means we have a lot to learn." ~Edward C. Stone. Exploration for the sake of exploration allows questions to surface that we didn't even know needed to be asked. It is the nature of science. And it's in our genes. As humans, we are naturally curious. If we don't explore the world around us, we are denying our humanity. (And I'm focused on all science, not just space exploration.)
  2. Scientific investigation allows for the unification of the global community around great achievement. Imagine if we decided to tackle a single problem together, like discovering the cure for cancer, or determining how to provide clean water to the world, or figuring out more efficient and effective methods for energy. Perhaps if we start to nurture creativity and imagination in school, rather than simply focusing on facts and figures, we can adopt the mentality of dreaming big again.
  3. Why should we explore? Well, why not?! That's a better question.
"I fully expected that, by the end of the century, we would have achieved substantially more than we actually did." ~Neil Armstrong