Monday, March 2, 2015

A Call to Keep Writing...

Mark here! As we start a new month at HOF, I thought I would take a back seat to my guest blogger early rather than later. I'll have something pithy, hopefully, before we hit April.  Today, I would like to introduce everyone to Jeff Charbonneau.  Jeff was a former student of mine, is a current colleague and great friend, and teaches our upper-division Science classes at Zillah High School. Jeff was also the National Teacher of the Year for 2013, and has spent the bulk of the last year traveling the globe, interacting with educators, serving as an ambassador, champion, and liason for learning. While our blog's name implies a fantasy focus, I thought it could still be instructive to get Jeff's perspective on what we do and how it impacts what he does. Everyone: Jeff Charbonneau.

I am a science teacher.
I teach chemistry, physics, and engineering. I teach about quantum mechanics, wave-particle duality, and relativity.
The irony is that I am not really concerned with the actual content of my courses. Don’t get me wrong, content is important. My courses are rigorous; so much so that every course I teach to my high school students, counts for college credit.
However, content is the method, not the goal. Content is a tool that we use to teach with.

The actual goal of education is to help students develop the ability to use all of their combined skills and resources to solve problems.
My science classes can certainly help students add to their problem solving tool box. Learning how solid metals undergo phase change and ionization during the ionic bonding process allows my students the opportunity to take a complex set of data, break it down and identify trends to predict future outcomes. At least in theory, anyway.
Far too often, though, the science lab can get reduced to performing experiments with predetermined outcomes that the student has already learned about and are being “confirmed” by completing specified tasks.
What we need more of in science is what scientists used to get us here; a good dose of imagination.
How many of our advancements in science came straight out of the pages of science fiction novels? From Mary Shelley to Isaac Asimov, our science fiction writers have served up countless ideas about how we might one day alter the universe around us to meet our needs.
To end the story there, as so many do, would be a travesty. You see it is not the science fiction that is important to future generations, but the fiction itself.
The ability to imagine an entire world or even just a single event is vital to the problem solving cycle that we are so desperately trying to teach our youth.
The subject itself is less important than the shear act of looking at the universe and altering it, even if only slightly, to match our needs.
Some of the most influential courses on my teaching practices were literature courses. From reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis to The Brothers Karamazov to The Hobbit, one learns that the power of fiction to describe reality is, perhaps, without equal.
After all, as a chemistry and physics teacher, I am often faced with trying to describe what can sometimes only be perceived as strange and magical worlds of protons, neutrons, and quarks. If I can tell the tale of quantum mechanics using similar techniques as my literary colleagues, then my students will be better for it.
One the most impactful lessons in my physics class is when we study the screenplay, Copenhagen. It is a fictional retelling of the meeting between two of the most important quantum physicists of the 20th century, Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Without the humanizing tale of Copenhagen, my students would struggle to tie together the politics, science, and personal relationships that helped shaped the outcome of WWII and the world as we know it.
Simply stated, without a fictional play, my physics class would have less impact.
At the end of the day, STEM education is vitally important; but the arts and literature are just as important.

So do me favor…

Keep writing.

Jeff Charbonneau
2013 National Teacher of the Year
ZHS Science Teacher
CWU/EWU Adjunct Instructor in Chemistry/Physics
STEM Coordinator for ESD 105


Terri-Lynne said...

Hello, Jeff! Welcome to HoF, and thank you for this truly thoughtful and heartening take on things. My son is a chemist. He is also an very creative person. The combination did not always get him the grades he wanted in school, because he found new ways of getting to the same result while the teachers required him to go at it a specific way. I get it--they need to know he's absorbing what they're teaching but it's really a shame that creativity--especially when something new and exiting actually WORKS--doesn't get the recognition it deserves.

One teacher was forced to give him a C on a lab, but took him aside and told him it was killing him to do it, but his hands were tied. No one in all his years teaching had ever come at the procedure the way my son did. The prof was truly excited to see what he'd done, but the course requirements tied his hands.
I have to say, the prof's enthusiasm and praise meant more to my son, and to me, than the grade. It's just a shame that creativity is often at odds with the reality of a classroom.

Karin Gastreich said...

Jeff, thanks so much for joining us on HoF!

I struggle a lot in my labs trying to get it into my students' heads that unexpected results do not necessarily mean they did something "wrong". The best of science forces us constantly out of the box and into new ways of viewing the world. Fiction does the same. Both modes of scholarship require hard work, discipline, and adherence to an important set of rules. But both of them also require a heavy dose of creativity.

Thanks for a wonderful, thought- provoking post. I'll be passing this link along.

Piper McDermot said...

Thank you for this, Jeff - and we can only hope there are many more educators in the world with your understanding and vision of what true education is. If you don't mind, I'd like to share this post around!

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Piper, I have alerted Jeff to the possibility of sneaking on here to respond to comments, but I'm not sure he will. I do not think he would have any qualms about any of us sharing his post. Have at it!