Saturday, April 26, 2014

Find Yourself In the Stars

Post by Pete Bruecken: Pete has been teaching science for 40 years, the last 24 years at Bettendorf High School. He also serves as the the Director of our Planetarium. Next year he will move to the position of Instructional Coach. You can follow him on twitter @PeterBruecken

I have been teaching physics for 40 years, 24 of them have been spent at Bettendorf High School on the corner of Interstate 80 and the Mississippi River.  One of the reasons I came here was because Bettendorf High School was the ONE school in Iowa that had a planetarium and I thought the people who put a planetarium in their school must be pretty special so I went for the job and got it.   I also was, unknown to me at the time, handpicked by the previous physics teacher and namesake to the planetarium, Donald Schaefer. So, 24 years ago, my family and I made the trek from the west coast of Iowa (Missouri River) to the east coast of Iowa (Mississippi River) making us true bi-coastal Midwesterners.

When I took the job, it was made clear to me that teaching was the #1 priority and the planetarium was secondary; sort of like coaching is secondary to teaching for athletic coaches.  After all, I was the assistant director and had an awesome collaborator, Pete Sweedy, to bring me up to speed on how to run the "instrument".  The duties included running scheduled programs for classes, repairing and maintaining the "instrument", creating new programs and running live programs for community groups.  I had to learn the constellations, the electronics that ran them, the folklore of the celestial bodies and work the "instrument" to simulate them.  When I took the job I thought I was ready.  I had astronomy courses and knew my way around the sky but it took me years to get to a point where I could perform the duties in a seamless manner.  Fortunately, I had  Pete Sweedy  to bring me along while I learned the systems.  I was affectionately known as "RePete". 

About 5 years after I took the job, it became clear that the planetarium should be used to meet the needs of the elementary schools as well as the high school.  It was then that I realized that the "instrument" wasn't the focus.  The "instrument" wasn't why the founders of the building in the 1970's invested in the dome and the "classroom real estate" for a planetarium.   They invested in this facility for the students that would benefit from it.  It was to be an instructional tool that would keep our attention on the development and interest of our students. How was I going to make the transition from focusing on running the "instrument", to focusing on the students?  Well, that's where the story gets interesting...

Our assistant superintendent came to the science team with a problem.  It seemed the elementary teachers were teaching different science topics in different grades at our 6 elementary schools so certain topics were being repeated and the curriculum was not consistent.   Pete Sweedy suggested we give planetarium programs to the elementary schools as field trips and make the programs the same for each grade.  We chose particular astronomical programs for each grade that would match their curricular needs.  This idea helped align the elementary curriculum.  It worked pretty well and morphed into providing pure chemistry and pure physics shows that didn't have anything to do with astronomy!  The planetarium became sort of a science center for the elementary schools.  The elementary students loved coming to the planetarium as a field trip and the district supported the bus rides and the time needed to run the programs.

The next evolution came at the high school.  We have block scheduling and were faced with broadening  the choices students had for elective courses.   Our current assistant director and I thought we could offer a course in "Planetarium Productions" so we could work with high school students to make a planetarium show.  This seemed to be a good way to add another dimension to the planetarium. 

This proved to be a great idea as most students had fond memories of coming to the planetarium when they were in elementary school and could now work the other side of that experience.  Due to an upgrade, we had moved into the digital age with digital projectors replacing some of the old slide projectors.  The digital media enabled students to use their videos and digital pictures instead of slide photography.  This advance brought the students closer to making a successful program.  The course focused the talents of our students on creating a program for other students.  Again, the focus was on the students. 

BHS Planetarium

These programs were tailored to the specific needs of our school system. The students that experienced the programs were interested in hearing and seeing what their peers produced and were impressed with the work that had been done.  There is just nothing like 5th graders seeing what high school students do for them.  It seemed that bringing the planetarium to life this way exceeded the founder's vision for the planetarium as it was reborn with the work of our students.

Now I'm not a fancy person (I drive a 38 year old car), but I think when the lights go down and the 40 year old star "instrument" puts the millennia-old stars on the dome, the people who went to the trouble of putting that facility in our school would be smiling.  It has added a uniqueness to the experiences of the people who have trekked through the Bettendorf school system.  Much credit is due the school boards, accountants, administrators and staff that have not laid it on the chopping block of budget cuts and fiscal fatalities.  I would like to think the planetarium stands as a symbol of today's commitment to the same paradigm the founders had in mind when they put it into the school 40 years ago.  It keeps us focused on the educational experiences of our students by making those experiences creative in all subject areas. 

The planetarium accompanies the life-long  learning of kindergartner and grandparent alike.  They gaze at the stars through fresh eyes in elementary school or watch a program on The Christmas Star, Shakespeare or Sky Watchers of Ancient Mexico.   They write scripts, narrate or put graphics in their story as they discover more about themselves through the programs they create.  The "instrument" is what it was designed to be, a learning tool for our whole community, as each person finds themselves in the stars. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Why Do I Do This?

Post by Connie King:  Connie is in her 25th year of teaching. She currently teaches English & Journalism at Bettendorf High School & is the Publications adviser for both our school newspaper & yearbook. You can follow her @Connie_King925

We've all had those days in which we wonder why we are not plumbers instead of teachers.  Or ditch diggers.  Or anything other than dealing with teenagers, day after frustrating day.  I had one of those days recently and went home frustrated, burned out, angry, and feeling even worse because I felt all of the above.  I've been teaching for twenty-five years; why do I keep doing this?

And then I received an email from a former student who is now a successful sportswriter in Chicago.  In an interview, he talked about his first journalism teacher (me!) and how influential that teacher was to his current work.  He even mentioned my name.

And I thought “Wow.”

A few days later, I heard from another former student, who also gave me credit for his success in journalism.

And I thought “Wow” again.

And then I thought . . .
…about the former student who graduated at least fifteen years ago and still refers to me as her “mentor”;
…about the former student who graduated twenty years ago and sent me a note that said, “If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't be doing what I love”;
…about the current student who calls me her “mother figure” because she no longer lives with an abusive parent but needs a shoulder to cry on once in a while;
…about the senior student who stopped in the other day to say “hi” because he was in the hallway and hadn't talked to me for a couple of years;
…about the student who invited me to a milestone birthday party because I was her favorite teacher;
…about the student who thanked me for being understanding when she was absent for a couple of weeks because of a serious illness;
…about the student I ran into at the pet store who asked me how my cats were, then introduced me to her friend as her “favorite teacher”;
…about the student who couldn't wait until I walked into the room to tell me she had been accepted at the college she really wanted to attend;
…about . . . well, you get the idea.

Why do I still do this?
Because of the kids.

It’s the kids.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Ask Questions First

Post by Jenny McDaniel: Jenny is in her 21st year of teaching English, all at Bettendorf High School.

As a high school English teacher, I work with roughly four hundred students a year; multiply that over the twenty-one years that I have taught, and you can see that I have had the great fortune to meet and know many teenagers. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons I have learned from my students is to ask questions first.  It is always easier to judge people than it is to understand them.  Judging someone takes a split second, but understanding takes time, effort, and sometimes it requires us to push aside our preconceived notions and listen with a pure intent to truly understand.

I particularly remember learning this lesson when there was a girl who came to my senior Interpersonal Communications class every day and put her head down on the desk. I could feel my irritation growing as the days progressed, until I recognized that I had formed a full judgment of her.  She was, according to me, lazy, disrespectful, apathetic, and destined to fail my class.  Notice that in forming my judgment, it was all about me.  At this point, I did not bother to ask her “Hey, what’s going on?  Is there something that is preventing you from paying attention?”  To my chagrin, she stayed after class one day because she needed her make-up work.  We started to talk, and I softened enough to ask the questions I should have asked in the first place.  As it turns out, her apparent apathy had nothing to do with me--- shocking.  She was being abused by her father.  Every afternoon when she left school she lived in fear, so school was her solace, a place she could sleep, let her guard down, and feel safe. I fulfilled my obligations as a mandatory reporter, and from that day forward when she slept in my class, I simply patted her on the back and let her know I was available if she needed me. Because I asked the questions, I understood her, and when I understood her, I could treat her with kindness and empathy.

Similarly, I remember the day I went for my son’s fourth grade conferences.  The teacher, a thirty year veteran, seemed to suggest that she believed he was “slow.”  She said, “I was shocked by your son’s high test scores.  Whenever we address him in reading group, he does not make eye-contact.  I had to check the high scores twice to make sure they were his.”  After I pushed my jaw up and bit my tongue, it occurred to me that had she just talked to my son or asked him questions, she might have realized he is shy, and shy people don’t especially feel comfortable with eye-contact.  She might have also learned that he was a boy scout with numerous merit badges, that he was interested in history, that he read more than three books a week, that he loved to garden and care for animals, and that avoiding eye-contact does not make a child “slow,” nor is it valid to make complex judgments of a person based on one behavior without seeking more information.

These and many more moments like them sit in my heart and remind me to ask before I condemn the student who forgets his homework, does not come to class, or puts his head on the desk.  Some people will not answer personal questions, but what I have discovered over the years is that most people simply want to be understood and accepted.  When that happens, they are more open to suggestion, support, and growth. Besides, we all have times when we wish someone had just asked first.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Do We Really Know?

Post by Evan Hartman: This is Evan's second post. He is in his 4th year of teaching. This is his first year at Bettendorf High School. You can follow Evan on twitter @EvanrHartman

During one of the warmer days this winter (it must have been about 10 degrees or so), I was taking my 2 year old son to buy some groceries. The weather was reliably terrible and the parking lot was a slushy mess. As we pulled into the lot, I immediately noticed a bright yellow sports car parked directly in front of the store. This car was decked out to draw attention – big spoiler, vinyl graphics, the works. It was also double parked; not a little, but a lot. It was parked the way somebody parks when they show not just complete indifference but perhaps antipathy to the very concept of parking spaces.

My first thought when I saw this was “What a jerk”. My second thought was “Awesome, there’s still a great space right in front of that car”. As I pulled into my new awesome parking space, I spotted a note left under the wiper blade of the yellow sports car. It was left on the stationary of spontaneous parking lot interactions (a napkin) and it was brief. In letters so large that I could read them 10 feet away, it read “A**HOLE”.

I initially felt a little tinge of vindication. You tell ‘em, anonymous parking lot vigilante. However, as I sat in the car gathering my courage to face the elements, the car’s owner arrived. I watched in curious silence as an elderly woman approached the car keys in one hand and a small bag of groceries in the other. Imagine your grandmother; now imagine someone looking infinitely more the archetypal nice old lady and you’ll be able to picture this woman. She was slight and bundled in a coat that likely outweighed her.

A wave of guilt swept over me – this woman wasn't an a**hole, she was just old and probably couldn't see the lines. I briefly contemplated trying to grab the note to spare her the indignity, but she would certainly see me – I wouldn't take the blame for another’s impulsive revenge note. I hoped that she just wouldn't see the note; after all, she missed the lines, right? Being parked so close, she was upon the car quickly and the die was cast.

She immediately noticed the note. She picked it up, crumpled it without reading it, and threw it on the ground. She smiled and got in the car; without appreciable pause, she backed right out of the space (nearly hitting both a pedestrian and another car), and sped out of the lot.

I was more than a little stunned. If I watched my grandmother act that way, I would have been appalled. She drove the way I would expect one of my students to drive. It dawned on me that I had no idea what this person was like. Was this person an aggressive driver who couldn't care less about everyone else? Was she just an old lady struggling with the weather? Why did this old woman have a pimped out sports car?

In our line of work we deal with a huge number of people on a daily basis, and I think that sometimes we have to be reminded that they will continually defy our expectations. Sometimes this is for the better and sometimes for the worse.