Spring break is one of those mythological times of year where everything is supposed to be perfect. For a lot of people in Steamboat, spring break meant a desire to go somewhere WARM, without snow or slush or ice. My dream week always seemed to revolve around spending the vast majority of my time in a swimsuit. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some truly spectacular spring breaks over my life.
Teachers love spring break as much as their students do. I’m currently writing this in the afterglow of my most recent spring break, which was absolutely fantastic. Last weekend, I wrote about how I got to go home for a couple of days and play in the (rapidly melting) snow. But I spent the second half of my spring break in LA!
There was a lot of sun. I ate quite a lot of tasty food. I got to hang out with some of my favorite people and stay up way too late telling silly stories. I saw a really cool IMAX film. Sounds like an awesome spring break, right? It totally was!
So now you can laugh at me when I tell you all of these things happened while I was at NSTA 2017, the National Association of Science Teachers annual conference. I know, I can’t help it – there will be a little bit of nerdiness woven throughout this story. But it is, at its heart, an adventure story. So what makes a good adventure?
First, I must confess that I love packing. There is something really satisfying about deciding exactly what I need and fitting it all neatly in my bag. I have a very little suitcase I use so I don’t have to check it, and getting everything in just right is one of my favorite games. I love the anticipation of laying out my things and setting my bag by the door. This is true no matter where I’m going.
I also love airports. I like getting to watch all the different people and make up stories about where they’re going. I wander up and down the B concourse in DIA, looking at where all the flights are going and imagining I was going there. I like how I feel efficient when I can get smoothly through security and boarding the plane. Airports mean I get to go somewhere far away!
Once I was in LA, I got to spend three days learning about and experiencing new incredible things, even though I spent most of my time in the LA convention center and not wandering around the city. (I did not, at any point, see the Hollywood sign. I’m not sad about this.) NSTA is a huge conference; there are usually between nine and twelve THOUSAND people! There are teachers from all kinds of science – biology, chemistry, physics, earth and space science – and at all levels, from kindergarten to four-year colleges. There are representatives from assessment companies, textbook publishers, companies who create educational resources, and scientific organizations like Smithsonian. Being at NSTA is being in the middle of science education as it evolves and grows and changes.
I also got to do my very first presentation at a national conference, which was a source of huge gratitude, excitement, and terror all at the same time. I was invited to help represent Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s BioInteractive project, which provides some of the most amazing resources to educators. Seriously, if you’re a teacher and you haven’t seen them, go check it out. Or if you’re just a nerd and you feel like learning stuff, go check it out! They tell really fascinating stories about all sorts of life science.
My presentation was ten minutes of me being super excited about a virtual lab showing how stickleback fish have evolved in lakes in Alaska. I gave the talk twice, and each time I had about twenty people who stopped by our exhibition booth to listen.
It was a huge learning experience for me; teaching teachers is really different than teaching students. (Also, presenting with little microphone thing that hooked over my ear is way different than just projecting my voice across a classroom!) I also got to hang out in the back of everyone else’s presentations, and I learned a lot about teaching I want to try out in my classroom now.
Another important part of adventuring for me is who I’m adventuring with. The other HHMI ambassadors are, as a whole, some of the most fascinating, dedicated educators I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. Getting to hear and listen to their stories was hugely rejuvenating, informative, and hilarious (usually all in the same story!). I feel like I got adopted and I have a whole community of mentors. But I also got a lot of positive feedback on the work I did, so in addition to having mentors, I’m also seriously honored to feel like a contributing member of this incredible group.
Now, teachers are good at meeting people. A significant chunk of what we do all day is build relationships, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we also met some new people completely randomly. These kinds of stories are some of my favorite; chance encounters that end up having huge meaning. Let me tell you a story of Saturday night walking back to the hotel.
HHMI has a dinner on the last night of each conference to celebrate everyone’s hard work. There was a group of five of us walking home together telling stories and giggling. One of the ambassadors and I were laughing about all of the ridiculous things we’ve had to say, completely seriously, in our classrooms (“Do not take your pants off!” is one example). Another lady on the street corner overheard and started laughing with us. It was also at this moment that we realized we only mostly knew where we were going. The lady who’d been laughing with us was walking home from work, and offered to walk with us to our hotel since she lived nearby.
We all promptly introduced ourselves and folded her into our group. When we explained what we were doing in LA, she delightedly exclaimed “I knew y’all were teachers! I could just tell!” Her name was Saj, and she was a tax code lawyer. She shook her head at us and told us a story that absolutely melted my heart. She’d been born to a teenage mom and, in her own words, had been a problem kid. She told us that teachers had literally saved her life by pouring hours of extra time into her, and she turned out just fine. She’d taught middle school for a year in Washington D.C. before she gave it up to be a lawyer. We all swapped stories of the best and worst parts of our jobs as we walked.
We got back to our hotel, and she continued on her way. We didn’t trade contact information or anything like that – it was just a moment of a couple of lives coming together and veering apart again. But I’m not going to forget her story any time soon.
So let’s take a look at the things that make an adventure. Did I get to go somewhere new? Check. Meet interesting people? Double and triple check. Learn and do new things? Absolutely. Do I feel refreshed and ready to go back? Well, refreshed at least!
My homework for you is this: what makes an adventure for you? I usually prefer quite a lot of outside time, but I definitely think my journey to NSTA counts for me.
Happy adventuring, wherever you go this month!