A Mid-Year Accounting

Hej everyone! Today is July 2nd, and it is officially the 26th anniversary of the day you all got stuck with me. I love my birthday for a couple of (completely unrelated) reasons.

My Grandma Gay’s birthday was July 4th. She used to joke and say it was because she was such a firecracker, and she was right! Grandma loved to cook, clean, and sew, and she painted ceramics and porcelain dolls. She loved roses and lace and pink, and I learned a lot about being girly from her. However, she also loved snowmobiling and tubing behind a speedboat, and she even went parasailing in Switzerland one time.

When I was little, Grandma and Grandpa used to come to Steamboat to celebrate our birthdays. But I didn’t totally grasp the whole concept of the 4th of July, and so every year I experienced a powerful wave of jealousy. Every single year, Grandma got fireworks for her birthday, and I didn’t! I have since learned a bit about our national history, but I still find it amusing to imagine six-year-old me getting all worked up about the whole thing.

The second reason I love my birthday is because my mom and I go for birthday hikes, just the two of us, each year. We started this tradition when I turned fifteen, and even though I’m lucky to see my mom far more often than just once a year, I still love that we carve out this time.

But the last reason I love my birthday is because July 2nd is the exact middle day of the year. There are 182 days before it, and 182 days after it (unless Leap Day messes with it). Often people use New Year’s to make goals or resolutions for the coming year. I’m fortunate because I have a ready-made reason to reflect on the other side of the year’s arc.

So what can I say about the last sixth months? What have I learned?

As an adventurer, I got back on my mountain bike and I’ve ridden more this summer than I have in the last three summers combined. I was given many opportunities to remember how much I love being outside, feeling my muscles contract and release, and getting sweaty and dusty. I’ve also learned that I can swing too far into adventure mode and forget the other parts of myself.

As a nerd, I had some incredible learning experiences this spring semester. I got to present for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the National Science Teacher’s Association and work with the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study on their STeLLA project. STeLLA is based on instructional strategies to understand student thinking and create a coherent content story line. I’ve really only been focused on three of the eight student thinking strategies, but they’ve changed the way I teach.

But I also struggled with taking on way too many things this spring. In the fall semester I did a good job of limiting my involvement in things outside my everyday teaching job. I was happier and had more energy to be present in my classroom. In the spring, all these fantastic opportunities arose, and I took them! I don’t regret a single one, because they all had hugely positive impacts on my teaching. But I did let my nerdiness, particularly the teaching vein of it, take over everything else.

As for my hobbit-self, I think the thing I’m most happy about is my renewed commitment to my friends and family, especially this summer. I’ve visited Granny (my mom’s mom) more often in these last couple of months, and I’ve done better at staying in contact with with my friends who are far away. Traveling is not a hobbit trait, but finding my people is; I can officially say I’ve spent nine days in Boulder since May 27th. The rest of the time I’ve been with the people I care the most about. I’ve learned a lot about how to share and accept love, and how to really see the people around me.

But in many ways, I neglected the hobbit part of myself in these last six months. Exactly why this happened requires a bit of backstory.

In one of my (far) earlier posts, I described how I had a massive blood clot in my right leg when I was nineteen. I had just been to a cadaver lab, and was feeling incredibly grateful for how well my body works. What I chose not to describe in that post were some of the after-effects of the clot. Most people notice very quickly that I wear one knee-high compression sock on my right leg. The clot destroyed the valves in those veins that help push blood back up, which means the blood will pool in my foot. The compression sock helps ameliorate this problem. What most people didn’t see was the fact that I was on an anticoagulant (blood thinner) for five and a half years.

Being on an anticoagulant meant I had to stop ski racing and mountain bike racing. I had to be careful when I did pretty much anything, because any concussion or internal injury could be very, very bad. Losing the ability to do these activities changed the way I viewed my own identity; I lost my connection with my adventurer. I threw a lot of my energy into nerdy pursuits, and this is also when I developed a lot of my hobbit hobbies.

This past October, I made the decision to stop taking anticoagulants. I feel better and I got all of my adventuring back! It’s been a process of learning how to not hold back and remember all of my love for being outside. But in that process, I lost some of my hobbit-ness, and I started using it as a means to recover instead of loving it for itself.

As I look forward to the next six months, I have a lot of really exciting things coming. I have six more glorious weeks of summer, which includes going to Yosemite National Park for a professional development about naturalism and water ecology, visiting Ogden and Steamboat again, visiting Knowles friends in New York, and going to the Knowles Summer Meeting. I have the fall semester of my third year of teaching, complete with piloting a brand new textbook in biology. I get to attend conferences about teaching and ski race officiating. I have two baby blankets to knit, and some canning to do.

I think my goal for all of these things is balance. I want to express all three parts of me because I can learn from and enjoy each part. I don’t mean to say I’ll create equal time for each thing, but I want to be intentional about how I engage in doing the things I love.

Goals are slippery things. How will I engage in this goal? By writing to you all, of course. This space to reflect will be both part of my process and my measurement.

Your homework: Do your own mid-year review! Write a paragraph about what you want your life to look like for the next six months. How will you engage your goals?

Hej då,

Jamie

 

 

Every Stitch

Today I’m writing from yet another state! I’m currently sitting outside of Penn Valley, California, at my friend Hannah’s childhood home. She grew up on a glorious five-acre property, with huge trees and vegetable gardens and a little orchard and chickens. This part of California is the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, but it’s really different than the foothills in Colorado. At home, the the transition from flat to mountains is fairly abrupt. Here, I’m nestled into rolling hills of pine forests and farms. I think I found the Shire.

And when I found Hannah, I absolutely found a hobbit! Hannah grew up doing three-week backpacking trips with her family and close friends, packing all their extra food and supplies on horses. She wanders around barefoot almost all the time, and she bakes the best pumpkin butterscotch chocolate chip cookies you’ll ever have. We met in college in our leadership program, and I can easily say she’s one of my best girlfriends in the entire world. We’ve stayed up late giggling and singing, hiked and hugged trees and swam in rivers, and had some of the most honest conversations I’ve ever been a part of.

The first time I came to her home was for spring break during our freshman year of college. She took me cross country skiing to a cabin that some of her family friends built by hand (no power tools!), and then she took me on my very first backpacking trip at Point Reyes. I loved both of these adventures, but what I remember most about that trip was how included and loved I felt with her family. It’s been a happy place ever since in my memory.

This time, I’m back for Hannah’s wedding, and I could not be more honored and delighted and totally overwhelmed by how much love there was, not only at the ceremony last night, but as I’ve been here helping for the last several days. Hannah’s family is deeply intertwined in this community, and people demonstrated such an incredible amount of support, creating decorations and food and moving tables and chairs around in 100+ degree heat. I’ve been crashing at her house, and I’ve had so much fun painting signs and chopping veggies for appetizers at the rehearsal dinner, and carrying anything. I’ve met Hannah’s friends from all different parts of her life and reunited with some of our college friends. In the midst of everything, Hannah still carved out two hours to pick me up from the airport and to chat with me about my life and what we’ve been thinking about lately.

Another good example of the love here: Hannah and her (now husband!!!!!!!) Ben decided to opt for a less-traditional wedding theme and combine Star Wars and Lord of the Rings into a fantasy land of awesomeness. Everyone showed up in costume, including her grandfather in the Leia buns and dress. My costume experienced a bit of a setback when the green dress I wanted to be an elf archer didn’t come on time, so I rushed to grab a back up plan. What I ended up wearing consisted of my mom’s cowboy boots, Hannah’s sister’s socks, a brand new friend’s white tunic, Hannah’s dad’s bow and a pair of earrings I stole from Hannah herself years ago. Only my brown leggings, camisole, quiver and arm guards were actually mine! People gave freely and without thinking about it, and I wasn’t even the person of interest.

Yesterday, the day of the wedding, we all headed to the ranch where it was going to take place and set things up for several hours. At 11:30, we headed off grab lunch and go to one of Hannah’s favorite places: the Yuba river. After a (SUPER HOT) short hike, we jumped in the water for a bit and then ran back to the wedding site. Supposed to be back by two-thirty for celebrations starting at 4? Definitely arrived at 3:20. But Hannah has collected the kind of friends who a) will jump in a river and not worry about their hair and b) can totally handle getting ready for a wedding, in less than an hour, with only one bathroom between eleven girls. We had a blast braiding hair and gluing elf ears, and watching Hannah transform from hiking river girl to absolutely stunning bride. This is the kind of girly-ness I really do love.

The ceremony itself was beautiful and multi-part and incorporated lots of Jewish rituals (my knowledge of Yiddish had probably quadrupled in the last three days). I won’t try to explain it all, but I will tell you it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. All the cliché things people say about weddings, the radiant bride, the crying mothers, the perfect light…all of it was true last night. I cried through both ceremonies and afterwards when I got to tell Hannah how much I loved her. I danced until I had blisters and laughed harder than I have in a very long time. And after we cleaned up, we all lost our heads a bit and ended up paddling around in the pool on the property, most of us still in our dresses and costumes!

I like to write. I love stories and words. But how could I ever begin to explain how much my friendship with Hannah means to me? How could I describe how much I loved coming home with her and experiencing her community? How could I possibly capture this weekend?

I didn’t even try. At least, not in words.

A year ago, when Hannah called me to tell me she got engaged, I knit two nine inch by nine inch squares out of some left-over turquoise yarn in a basket weave pattern. And over the course of this last year, I’ve (very sporadically) worked on creating 46 more squares and sewing them together to create a blanket. There were months where I forgot about it, and a lot of frantic knitting and sewing in these last couple of weeks! (I actually finished it here, on the floor of Hannah’s guest room.)

When I knit, every stitch is a good wish, a thank you, and a promise. They’re little tiny good thoughts, but they add up. And I thought it was a nice metaphor for building a life together. It’s a series of small things.

And when I knit, I don’t do it in isolation. Mom taught me how to make cable patterns. Granny helped me lay out all the blocks so the colors were balanced. The whole thing is a work of love. And it’s a way for me to say it without fumbling around with words and clichés.

My friends are so incredibly important to me. Hannah’s given me more sunshine and support than I thought possible.

Your homework today is very similar to some other homework I’ve given before, but I think it’s worth doing twice. How do you show your people you love them? Try to find a way to demonstrate that this week!

Hej då,

Jamie

Summer Rest Days

It’s quite possible you’ve noticed a theme in my last couple of blog posts. I really, really like to be outside. I like to be in the sun, or in the water, and I like to get sweaty and dusty and tired. I’m really not picky about how this happens; I could be hiking or biking or backpacking or doing yoga on my porch or playing Frisbee with my brother. There’s a part of me that feels like any summer day that didn’t require sunscreen is a day wasted.

And so far, this has been glorious. In this past week I’ve been biking and hiking around Ogden, Utah, and I spent three days camping and hiking in Zion National Park. (I will 100% be writing an adventure post about that trip at a later date; it was incredible!) But today was one of those days where I just hit the wall.

Today I had the pleasure of enjoying a very lazy day of summer. I had a lazy breakfast, laid on the couch and called my dad for Father’s Day, knitted for a bit, read for a bit, and now I’m writing for you. I’m hiding my sunburn from the sun a little bit, and I’m letting my calves and hamstrings recover. I’ve also realized it is high time to do some laundry and reorganize and clean all my toys.

In short, I’m having a hobbit day.

In some ways, this is really hard! The sky is blue but it’s not too hot. I want to go explore a whole unknown trail complex at the base of the Wasatch mountain range. I want to find new flowers and ferns and creeks and butterflies (there are AMAZING butterflies here!), and feel that delicious tired feeling in my legs and ribcage. But this is the adventurer in me, and I’ve been indulging her quite lot lately.

Actually, now that I’m writing this, I’m realizing something else about how these three parts of me work together. (I love this aspect of writing. It helps me think about things I otherwise wouldn’t think about.) I’ve been rather out of balance for the last three weeks since I’ve been on summer break. I’ve been in almost full-on adventure mode, with only hints here and there of the nerd and hobbit.

I have spent a chunk of time working with a new biology book I’m piloting next year. I have read a novel that Mom lent me. I have been knitting. (Actually, I knit for almost two days straight last week. But that’s also a post for another time.) But almost every single day has involved some kind of outside adventure. So today’s hobbit rest day is long overdue.

I think that, in part, this is because I’ve been unbalanced for such a long time. This spring semester, I took on several projects outside of normal teaching, including presenting for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the National Science Teachers Association annual conference. These projects were huge honors to be a part of, and I learned so much from them. But I really do think I took on one (or three) too many projects, and I was in full-on nerd mode for way, way too long. I really lost my adventurer for most of the spring semester.

Being an adventurer is really important to me. It makes me feel strong. It brings me a lot of joy. Being outside makes me, and consequently my worries, feel smaller. It makes me feel connected to a living, changing world that’s much bigger than I am. Ignoring that part of me for such a long time means losing an important part of myself. But at the same time, being a nerd is really important to me. I get great satisfaction solving problems and being creative in my classroom. I deeply enjoy stories and understanding how the world around me works. I love asking questions and contemplating answers. Ignoring that part of me would also be doing myself a huge disservice.

So where does all of this thinking and reflecting lead me? To a new commitment. I want to be more aware of how I’m balancing these three parts of myself. I don’t want to lose the adventurer during the school year, or the nerd during the summer. These two parts of myself often seem like such opposites (high school stereotypes, anyone?) but I think they can inform each other in really beautiful days.

I also think I’ve been underserving the hobbit aspects of my personality. I think I’ve been using those things as “rest days” in between working hard on school or adventuring; the purpose has been to recover just enough to get back to it (whatever “it” happened to be). But that’s not why I knit, or bake, or play music. That’s not why I seek out quiet gatherings with the people I love. I knit because I love to knit. I like the colors and textures of the yarn, I like choosing the patterns, and I like watching a tangible thing grow out of a literal ball of string. This part of me is just as important in its own right, rather than in relationship to the adventurer and nerd.

Well, there you go. Just in writing this, I’ve changed my perspective on what I’m doing today. I certainly am not enjoying it any more or less (it’s been pretty glorious so far!) but my purpose has shifted somewhat. Today, rather than being a “rest day,” is about nurturing the hobbit-ness in me.

My homework for you: How do you rest? Why do you rest?

Hej då,

Jamie

Naturalism

Well I have to admit, this is the first time I haven’t felt like I had a million and three options for a nerd post. So you’ll have to look for the nerdiness woven into stories  about adventuring. I’ve still been spending lots and lots of time outside biking and hiking, but also thinking.

Mom has said for years that she loves being able to go for bike rides and hikes in the summer and just think about teaching. And she’s right! It’s really fun to think about what I want my classroom to look like next year: what systems I want to put in place, the kind of community I want to build, the type of learning activities I want to incorporate. As I’ve been wandering around the mountains of Boulder, Steamboat, and now Ogden, I’ve been thinking about the different parts of biology, how they’re connected, and which ones we give more importance to.

Usually the major units in biology are ecology, molecular biology and biochemistry, genetics, evolution, and…everything else. What this “everything else” consists of depends on state and district standards, the school’s curriculum, and mostly on the knowledge base of the teachers. Mom taught a lot about comparative anatomy and taxonomy, and we also learned quite a lot about plants. Mom’s master’s degree is in arctic and alpine botany, so this makes sense. At Longmont, we’ve had teachers who have believed really strongly in comparative anatomy taught through dissections, so we spend a week every spring taking apart pigs, frogs, and sharks.

I was trained as a molecular biologist, so all that stuff about carbs, proteins, and lipids, cell structure, molecular genetics…I loved it. But it’s interesting to explain to my students, especially in anatomy and physiology, that I will place an emphasis on molecular mechanisms and in exchange, I won’t focus on development. I never took a developmental biology class, so I don’t have the background to teach it. (As a side note: Someday I plan on getting more background in development. But there are only so many class hours, and I have to make choices somewhere!)

Perhaps my background is why I didn’t notice, over the course of the last three years, that there was a part of biology that was really quite sadly lacking from my classroom. In fact, I didn’t realize it until I was standing on the Mesa Trail in Boulder, watching a man identify the local birds, that I figured out what was missing. I don’t teach anything about naturalism.

When I tell the story about why I’m a teacher, I start with how Mom used to teach me the names of the wildflowers on the side of the trail as we hiked. Well, (sorry, Mom!) I only remember about half of what she ever taught me. I don’t know the bugs or the birds, and I can’t identify conifers past deciding if it’s a spruce, fir, or pine. I don’t know much about fish or amphibians. Yesterday, as I was hiking up a trail called Fern Valley in Ogden, I was trying to dig through my memory to explain how ferns have two life forms, haploid and diploid, but I couldn’t remember if mosses were the same (I think they are) or what else went into the category with conifer trees (which reproduce differently than ferns but also aren’t angiosperms, the flowering plants).

At some level, I understand why biology has moved away from naturalism. As the field of molecular biology expands, there is more and more to teach and, as I mentioned before, there are still only so many teaching days. Molecular biology is not only the hot new topic, but it is opening a lot of interesting ethical questions that students are likely going to be voting on in coming years. Also, observational field studies can take years, and science funding emphasizes studies that can give results quickly. Naturalism is highly place-dependent; even between Boulder and Steamboat I can see different ecosystems and local variations. For many students, learning the names of organisms could feel like a list of terms to be memorized.

But in that one day on the Mesa Trail, I chatted with this local man who was identifying birds, and I could see his pleasure in being connected to the world around him. I saw a brother and a sister exclaiming over ants and trying to figure out how they knew where to go and why they followed each other. I eavesdropped on a twenty-something couple as they read an informational sign about the bats in Mallory Cave, exclaiming about how bats have sex in the fall and then the female stores the sperm in her reproductive tract until the spring. (I would really like to know how the sperm stays alive that long, actually.) I laughed out loud as I passed a four or five year old girl who was explaining erosion to her mother.

These were people who were engaged in their world. They were making observations and coming up with explanations. They were curious and asking questions. THIS is science. THIS is biology.

This summer I’m going to a professional development about water ecology in Yosemite National Park. (I’m unbelievably excited about this opportunity!) And in part of doing so, I’m reading some ecological classics (Silent Spring, for one) and also a book called Last Child in the Woods. My background is not in ecology, which is why I chose to spend my summer this way. But even more than that, the ecology we teach is based in principles like the ten percent rule, which applies to ecosystems everywhere. Teaching this way means the knowledge students are learning is widely applicable, true. But how do I connect that to the genuine engagement I saw in those people on the trail?

This is one of my goals for the summer; I feel like there is some inherent value in naturalism, despite all the reasons I listed that make it tricky. I feel like the connection to something that’s physically around us all the time is important for many reasons. I feel like I’m not painting a true picture of biology without naturalism, and I want my students to see the innumerable options biology can give them. But I’m (clearly) not very articulate in explaining how and why I feel this way, and I don’t have a lot of evidence to say that it’s better (or not) for my students. So I want to explore this and start to figure out what it might look like in my classroom.

Your homework: What do you see when you go outside? What value does it have for you? What do you see people getting excited about?

Hej då,

Jamie

Summer!

Hello, and happy, happy June! I can now say that school is over; finals are graded, my classroom is cleaned out, and I’m sitting in Steamboat after several awesome days of adventuring. I’m already planning and dreaming about what I want to do differently next year, but I’ve been doing it while playing in the mountains.

I’m going to make one thing really clear first. I do not know a single teacher that takes the summer “off.” Not one. I have 100% flexibility in where and how I choose to work, and that’s a glorious thing. I definitely don’t work 40 hours a week on school in the summer. I choose to go to professional developments and such, and I’m not complaining whatsoever! I love the summer work I do. But when people ask me if I became a teacher because I get summers off, I have to work really hard to remember that they likely don’t understand what it means to be a teacher and I should try to explain it.

Whew. Now that I’ve got that off my chest…

I have been playing outside nearly every day so far this summer, and I am a very, very happy human being. Graduation for Longmont was actually last Saturday, and I worked really hard to make sure everything was done by the end of the day on Saturday. Then, the mountain time began!

I started hiked on Sunday by going to Mallory Cave in Chautauqua Park. I didn’t climb the rock up to the cave itself because the bats were having their bat babies (batlings?), but it was a beautiful climb. Along the way I saw a four-year-old girl explaining erosion to her patient mother, a brother and a sister exclaiming over ants marching in a line, and two twenty-somethings reading about the bats on the informational sign below the cave. Science education for the win!

On Monday I hiked in Chautauqua again, this time towards Saddle Rock. There’s a large rock ridge up there I like to get on top of, and Paige (who teaches math at Longmont with me) was willing to scramble up with me! We bailed pretty quickly when we saw dark clouds rolling in, and sure enough it started pouring just as I dropped her off at her apartment.

On Tuesday I spent all day repotting my plants from my classroom, doing yoga, and packing to go to Steamboat. Wednesday was similarly mellow, consisting of me driving and spending a significant chunk of time digging through the new textbook I’m working with for piloting next year. (It’s BSCS’s fifth edition of A Human Approach, if anyone has anything I should know about it!) Mom and I sat at the dining room table together, nerding about naturalism and pedagogy and everything in between. On Thursday I played around on my yoga mat, worked through more of the textbook, devoured a really good novel called The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, and knitted on the front porch swing.

But the mellow time ended quickly when Friday came around. Mom and I got up early and hiked up the road on Emerald Mountain to the quarry. This was followed by an afternoon bike ride up very different trails to the same quarry (out Bluff’s, up Lupin all the way to the quarry, then down Blair Witch, down Larry’s, and down the lower section of NPR, if you’re a Steamboatian or curious). Getting up there twice in one day was a good way to make my legs a little tired.

But I wasn’t done yet. Yesterday I put my bike on the back of a car and drove to the Lower Bear trailhead, which is nearly all the way to the Strawberry Park Hot Springs. It’s not a super long ride, only three miles, but I had forgotten how steep it is! It gives great views back towards town and the ski area, so it’s totally worth it.

And this morning I hiked up Fish Creek canyon to the second set of waterfalls. I’ve never figured out quite how far it is – the trail continues past the second falls to Long Lake – but it’s rather steep and absolutely beautiful. The trail was dry but the water was really high. I love watching the falls when there’s that much water pouring over them.

I promptly returned and fell asleep on the couch for an hour. Hooray for summer!

There are many things I love about summer. I love the long hours of sunlight. I love how I don’t feel rushed or under pressure to get stuff done. I love that I can come up to Steamboat and hang out with my family. And I really, really love being outside. I love watching the trees bud out, identifying wild flowers, hearing the wind through the pines, the way the woods smell, the feel of my hiking boots, the way I can roll through switchbacks on my bike, all of it. I love all of it.

I’m currently a little bit sunburned, a little bit bug-bitten, a lot sore, and wondering how I can get outside more during the school year. I’m thinking this is pretty critical for my sanity right about now.

Your homework: Where is your favorite place to get outside? What’s your favorite method of getting there?

Hej då,

Jamie

Flow

For the last three weeks, I’ve been exploring creativity from the perspective of being an adventurer, a scientist, and a hobbit. I’ve talked about how being creative is amazing because it’s about overcoming challenges, exploring the new and unknown, and being part of a larger conversation about being human. These things are all true, and I’ve loved the responses I’ve gotten from you all.

But there’s something more, I think, to creativity, than just these pieces. Creating something is a really special experience.

Mihály Csíkszentmihály is a Hungarian psychologist who coined the term “flow” to refer to a state where a person is so engrossed in their task they are oblivious to the outside world. There are a lot of brilliant people who have reported this feeling; Newton, for example, regularly forgot to eat for several days at a time when he was working on a little book called Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

There are lots of studies out there about how engaging in flow is good for you. It can create a sense of purpose and engagement. It’s energizing and uplifting. It allows a growth in perspective. But the thing I wanted to talk about in all of this was that growth.

In teaching, we talk about something called the zone of proximal development. This is the mental and emotional place where a student is encountering something new and it’s a little outside of their comfort zone. However, it’s also totally possible to push a student beyond the zone of proximal development into the danger zone. When students feel threatened, whether that’s confronting an idea that conflicts with their world view or the fear of looking dumb or too smart, they can’t learn anything at all.

It’s important for teachers to recognize where this is for each student. Students in their comfort zone won’t grow, and students in the danger zone can’t grow. Think about it like a graph, with the level of challenge on the x axis (the bottom) and the level of skill someone has on the y axis (the vertical one). As you move from left to right, the challenge of the task gets harder. As you move from top to bottom, the skill level of the person doing the task increases.

There is a magical line running from bottom left to top right of this graph that balances challenge and skill so learning can happen. If the challenge is too high and the skill too low (bottom right) then the person gets frustrated and gives up. If the skill is too high and the challenge too low (top left) the person is bored. This is a visual I keep constantly in the back of my head as I’m teaching.

But hold on a moment here. I moved from creativity to teaching. How’d I do that?

Learning is creating. It’s not always creating something physical; in fact, it’s usually creating something super abstract. Learning is about constructing a framework of thoughts, ideas, and understandings.

If you think about the zone of proximal development, it’s true for every sport ever played. You don’t throw a beginning skier down the hardest run on the hill. That would be a recipe for injury! Coaches help athletes build skills slowly. It’s also true for every art form. I began practicing piano by playing the five notes under my fingers without moving my hands. The first bread I made was not a yeast bread. As I learned, the pieces I played and the recipes I used grew more complex.

But this isn’t some pathway, where I can complete step 1 and “level up” so I can complete step 2. It’s a constant balancing act of knowing when to push to a challenge I might not totally be ready for, but I’m ready to learn from, and when to practice something I already know. Being creative requires knowing myself, and then getting outside myself to really get into this feeling of flow. And that’s a really cool experience.

Your homework: Have you experienced flow? What were you doing?

Hej då,

Jamie

Creativity and Community

My friends laugh at me when I remind them I’m a hobbit. They know it’s true. I like to stay at home. I don’t like crowds or meeting new people. Sometimes I find myself thinking I just don’t like people in general. This year in particular, however, has made it clear that I do, in fact like people. I’m a teacher, after all. And in my hobbit-ness, I especially like my people.

I wrote a little bit about this in my post about having breakfast with my family. I enjoy the things I enjoy more when I’m doing them with people I love. I like sharing the experience in the moment and reflecting on the shared memories later. And I think this is more true in creativity than I originally thought.

See, when I think about a creative genius I think about someone pouring over a manuscript or music score for hours, forgetting to eat or sleep or generally about the outside world. I think about an inventor in a lab or a baker elbow-deep in flour. But without a community, creativity is like shouting at a mountain. All you get is your echo.

My friend Matt made this especially clear when he wrote me about creativity. Matt is a Knowles Fellow who teaches math in Washington state. We were going back and forth about things we’d stopped doing when we started teaching, and we both mentioned music. I played the flute in middle school band and I took piano lessons through high school. I still have my flute, but a piano is a bit harder to move. I miss practicing and playing and the occasional composing I did. Here’s what Matt had to say:

I miss playing music. I played viola. The other day though I got my hands on a piano and was missing around and really want to get in touch with that part of me again. Especially playing in an orchestra or group. I would always be overwhelmed after a performance thinking, ‘Man. We just made that. We just made music.’ It’s…hard to explain. But I got to feel like I was a part of something great. I miss making things!”

I think he nailed it. One of my favorite parts of middle school band was the feeling that I was a part of something. We were making something way bigger than any one of us could make on our own. I liked imagining I was weaving the sound of my flute into a tapestry that was made of all the sounds of all the instruments.

Once Matt got me thinking about this, I started wondering about my other forms of creativity. One thing I love to do creatively is bake. I like the flour, the way it smells as it’s in the oven. And I also really like sharing my baked goods. (Seriously, any potentially sticky meeting you have? Bring brownies. Or snicker doodles. It is automatically better.) I like making huge batches of things so my people and I can enjoy them together. So baking is also very much a community creative thing for me.

I also like to write. Writing especially seemed individual when I started thinking about it. And it’s true to some extent; the initial act of writing is fairly solitary. But grab the nearest book to hand, and look at the acknowledgements. Depending on the author and type of book, it might be a list of a handful of names or it might be three pages long. Revision and editing is a process that takes a lot of people.

And at its heart, writing is about communicating. It’s about joining a larger conversation about what it means to be human. I’m nerding out a little bit here, but I really think that’s the heart of literature. Reading is a passive way to participate, but writing is actively contributing. That conversation evolves over time and across culture, but there are similarities in every story.

One of the reasons I started writing fanfiction was because I wanted to participate in the conversation. I love the Harry Potter series. I may or may not have broken the bindings of three of my books because I read them so often. And when I found a place where people were joining that conversation, I was delighted. And I wanted to join in too! So I did. I started writing. And more than that, I started getting feedback on my writing. I made friends with some of the other people who write. One person, Gerry, was my beta for my last story. (A beta is like an editor; they read your chapter before you put it up and give you feedback for revisions.) It was incredible to have someone to have a conversation with about my writing. I learned so much about writing styles and language and characterization from this process!

And, like all good thoughts, I took this one to my mom. When I told her I was pleased with myself for figuring out that writing was totally about community, she laughed at me a little bit. She pointed out that I had formatted this blog in such a way as to encourage interaction. After all, don’t I give you all homework? I want to start conversations!

So…yeah, Mom’s always right. I’m definitely ok with this.

I really do believe that being part of something bigger than myself is really important for my sense of purpose and happiness in my life. It’s part of why I love teaching. It’s why yoga class is better than yoga at home. And it is a huge part of what inspired me to start this blog.

This fall I attended the National Association of Biology Teachers annual conference. I got to see some of my Knowles friends, meet a lot of amazing people, and in general get inspired by how many absolutely incredible biology teachers there are. And I decided I wanted to be a part of it. All of it. I wanted to reach out and look for opportunities. I wanted to participate in the conversation.

Sometimes sharing my creative “masterpieces” is scary. When I create something, it’s directly a piece of my heart. But without the sharing, I think the creativity is seriously diminished.

So my homework for you: How do you participate in the human conversation? What is your creative community?

Hej då,

Jamie