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Saturday, October 25, 2014

It was JUST one of THOSE days....

 It was just one of those days, just one of those craaaazy days…..   

It started as JUST one of those JP retiree mornings. I was up early, made myself and my wife Jeannine a cup of steaming hot tea, fed our sibling cats, Bertie and Fiona, made some toast, had another cup of tea, waved Jeannine goodbye as she drove to her school, and then bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t flick through the editorial pages of the New York Times because, for some unknown reason, my paper hadn’t been delivered. 

I knew then that it was going to be one of THOSE days!

Feeling a tad irritated, I caught up with the morning chores – emptied the dishwasher, switched on my desktop, listened to Morning Edition on the radio, put my dressing gown on the bed for Bertie and Fiona and told them to behave themselves.

Around 9, I drove to the nearby Goodwill, unloaded a bag of unwanted clothing, and then drove on to the doctor’s for my 10:00 o’clock appointment.

Not too happy with what I learned from my doctor, I arrived back home around 11, put on the kettle, made some tea, dunked and ate three cream biscuits, and took Bertie and Fiona outside for a VERY closely supervised walk. At noon, I came back in and made myself a light lunch washed down with another cup of tea

Ho, hum…………Just one of those retiree mornings, ruined by the absence of my daily paper.

As it was such a beautiful day, a bright blue sky and the temperature touching 70, I resisted the temptation to have a nap, deciding instead to go for a walk. So, making sure I had my wishing rock in my pocket, I got in my car, drove a mile or so, and parked close to the Cherry Creek trail. As I got out of my car, I was struck by the quietness and the nearby cottonwood trees whose leaves were a flaming yellow

As I began my walk, my head was filled with the conversation I had with the doctor. The prairie dogs saw me before I saw them. One of them who was on guard duty stood on his back legs and, breaking the silence, screeched his warning call to every prairie dog around. All the others took note and disappeared down their holes. 

Prairie dogs, as you know, were mentioned in the 1804 journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. They note that they "discovered a Village of an animal the French Call the Prairie Dog.”   Its genus, Cynomys, derives from the Greek for "dog mouse".

Curious, I walked over and looked down one of the prairie dog holes. Nearby, about a foot from the entrance, I saw a tiny skull resting on the earth. I picked it up and blew of the dust, put the skull in my shirt pocket, thinking, ‘Hey, it ain’t such a bad day after all.”

Then, I spotted some petrified wood. I picked it up, turned it over and, wow, it was such a beautiful piece.

And there was another piece! Like a geode, the top was covered with tiny quartz crystals. Looking at it, touching it, gave me such a rush. My eyes widened and my head began to glow. I felt great!

I knew then it was really going to be ONE of THOSE days!

Next I came to an ant-hill, the home for thousands of ants and one or more egg-laying queens. Swarms of ants will soon depart the nest in great nuptial flights. After mating, the males die, along with most of the females. A small percentage of the females survive to start the business of making new nests. Watching the ants move back and forth, pushing sand and tiny pebbles out their way, I was amazed at their industry.

Then, THEN, I spotted this beautiful conglomerate, a mix of rocks glued together, lying next to……………………THIS!!

                               A Native American ARROWHEAD!!

I picked it up and stroked its jagged edge. Hey, someone, long ago, made this beautiful shape........and left it for me to find........MAGIC!!

‘Flippin’ ‘eck,’ I shouted………..’What a DAY!’ 

But, it wasn’t finished……...just down the hill I came across a beautiful fox skull, complete with jawbone!

I knew then it was time to go home and clean my wonderful discoveries. As I walked up the path towards my car, a couple of teenagers came rushing past me, laughing and having the best of times on their skateboards. Hey, I thought, I had the best of times, too. It had been JUST one of those great days.
Just wait, I thought to myself, just wait ‘til I show Jeannine, Bertie and Fiona what I found.

The next day, sitting in Laurie’s classroom at Mountain View School, I described my walk and showed my treasures to the wide-eyed audience of second graders……….

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Response to my post on Frank Oppenheimer

Hi John,

Your blog entry on Frank Oppenheimer reads really well and I'm not just saying that!

It conveys your excitement and enthusiasm and makes me want to meet Frank, that not being possible, read his book. I've met 'really' bright people in my career in fact the guy who taught me to sail was Professor of Naval Architecture at one of the Glasgow Universities, a friend and neighbour and one of the brightest people I have ever met. It astonished me how he seemed to instinctively know how to strip down and repair a diesel engine, navigate a boat from Nice to Greece explain what a Higgs boson was years before it was flavour of the month and many etcs.

You have been super privileged to have met and discussed with such an astonishing group of guys, wish I had been there. I love the multi hanging ball pendulum videos myself and was just showing Mae one from You Tube last week.

I look forward to reading the book when it comes.

Best wishes

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Oh, yes............yes, yes

LOVE THIS PIECE IN MY LATEST READING ABOUT THE OPPENHEIMERS..........this is taken from the book about Frank who, after many struggles, opened the EXPLORATORIUM MUSEUM in San Francisco:

'Frank Oppenheimer’s teaching experience at the University of Colorado convinced him that young people had become dangerously removed from the real stuff of their own surroundings and desperately needed to reconnect. His students were strangely incurious. Most of them had little experience with the natural world and few opportunities to build intuition  about it. They hadn’t climbed trees and collected rocks and fiddled with motors. The result was that they showed up at their courses not knowing why they were. He thought this was a scandal. “Their experience was so meager, their whole contact withy the natural world so restricted, that I thought a place was needed where they could walk through a kind of woods of natural phenomena.”

Like a lot of us of certain age, I can remember as a child being sent outside to play. We explored neighborhoods and built forts or dollhouses out of mud and sticks, climbed trees and watched clouds, played hide and seek and threw stones. We made model cars or planes, flew kites, dressed dolls, played house or tag. We chased dogs and cats, drew on sidewalks, played cricket and soccer in the streets. No one told us what to notice.

Our eyes, needless to say, were a lot more open before we became shackled to our schedules.

Whether kids were happier or more productive in those days, I can’t say. But, unmistakably, both children and adults were engaged in one-on-one contact with the world in a way that is almost impossible to achieve today, even for those who spend substantial time and money to try to make it happen.

In many senses, the tangible reality that used to be our playground no longer exists: that university of experience has been lost to television and computers and lessons and packaged entertainment and education, and also to the increased fears (often real) associated with wandering freely, poking your nose into things just for the heck of it.

And that has enormous consequences for science – as well as for the development of intuition and critical thinking skills in general. There was something about dealing with the real physical world that left you not only better informed but more grounded, more centered – less likely to be swayed by insubstantial claims or fluffy nonsense.'

Something incredibly wonderful happens – Frank Oppenheimer and the World he made up.

K.C Cole

Pages 148/149

Thoughts of Frank Oppenheimer - about teachers and teaching..............

Frank Oppenheimer’s views on teaching and learning.

I'm a dead lucky fella! I've met and worked with some incredibly creative people during my long career who had such an impact on me and the way I work with children and teachers.

During the 1960s and on, I had the incredible opportunity to work with David Hawkins and, through him, interact with scientists from the Los Alamos Manhattan Bomb Project, especially, Phil Morrison, Victor Weisskopf, Stan Ulam and Frank Oppenheimer.

Seeing and feeling their enthusiasm for the world of science and nature was so inspiring. Seeing and hearing the world's top scientists being so excited in a science workshop or ramble through the woods blew my mind.

Currently, I'm rereading the fascinating book by K. C. Cole,  Something incredibly wonderful happens - Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up.

I can't put it down................I'm drawn to finding out more and more about Frank and have such fond memories of meeting him during the late 1960s.

Here's some background on him:
From Wikipedia:     Frank Oppenheimer, physicist, rancher, teacher, creator of The Exploratorium.

Frank Oppenheimer, then 57 years old, opened his dream museum, The Exploratorium, to the public in the fall of 1969. Richard M. Nixon was president, and the Vietnam War and racial tensions continued to divide the nation. Neil Armstrong had just taken humankind’s first walk on the moon. San Francisco had become a nexus for social experimentation. It was the perfect place—and the perfect time—to try out a new way of learning.

Frank had already had three life-shaping careers before coming to San Francisco. A brilliant physicist in his own right, he’d been a university professor and worked beside his brother, J. Robert Oppenheimer (known to some as the “father” of the atomic bomb), on the Manhattan Project of the 1940s. Barred from pursuing scientific research during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, Frank retreated to small-town Colorado and became a cattle rancher. Before long, his passion for knowledge and learning led him back to teaching, and he began to share his view of the world with students at the local high school.

Considering the richness of his own life experiences, Frank was no typical science teacher. He put down the textbook and filled his classroom with the hands-on tools and materials that had become his trademark and that would ultimately lead him to create the Exploratorium. In 1969, Frank’s dream of transforming science education brought him to San Francisco and to the cavernous—and very empty—Palace of Fine Arts, which was once part of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco’s Marina District.

Frank poured heart and soul into his “San Francisco Project,” working alongside the artists, educators, and developers whose job it was to build and maintain Exploratorium exhibits and help visitors use them. He served as the museum’s director until just before his death in 1985.


Here's my BLOG POSTING March 3rd, 2013, when I wrote about my time with Frank when he opened his museum:

Here's a short piece about my talking and social time in San Francisco with former Los Alamos colleagues, David Hawkins, Philip Morrison and Frank Oppenheimer, in 1969, when Frank's dream came true: opening a museum in San Francisco that would be different! It would, he said,  be a place that opens and expands one's/everyone's curiosity. Especially children's. He chose the most beautiful site imaginable.

I spent three weekdays in and around the exciting and very different new museum, The Exploratorium, mainly listening to David and Frank, flattered to be asked my opinion about this and that and the other. Frank seemed particularly curious about the way I ran my science workshops, one in particular that he had attended as a participant. "You get your teachers excited, don't you, John Paull? Not just about ideas they can use in their classrooms.......but excited to be learners, yes?"

I remember one conversation in particular about museum exhibits, a conversation that focused on what size they should be: Frank said he wanted everything to be BIG........size, he felt, would raise the levels of children's (and adults) curiosity even higher. I agreed.

On the Saturday morning, when shopping for yet more science ideas in Woolworth's, I bought a toy pendulum that caught my eye: a large, heavy strip of metal suspended from a coil of wire. That, I thought, would be something I could use in a workshop. I knew, too, it would be of particular interest to David. He was always fascinated by pendulums, large and small.

I took it with me to dinner with David and Philip Morrison at Frank's home that evening.

The conversations, predictably,  touched on science, education, and politics.......and, at times, about their work in Los Alamos, doing their big bit in putting the big bomb together. Philip, talking as fast as Frank, reminded them of the day they saw the testing of the bomb........

As I listened, I began to fiddle with the pendulum, set it in front of me, and pulled the spiral wire. Frank stopped talking and stared at me, immediately asking questions about its motion, beginning another conversation that totally mesmerized me: watching three geniuses get scientifically excited about a toy pendulum was fascinating.

The animated conversation continued after the dinner plates and wine glasses were cleared from the table. Frank, twitching and talking, obviously glad to be with his two extremely close, like-minded Los Alamos scientist friends, lit yet another cigarette and walked around the room, talking loudly to no one in particular about putting a pendulum activity in place in his museum. He chain smoked, waved his hands around,  flicked ash on the carpet and talked and talked.........

I was totally gobsmacked! What an incredible experience it was for a young fella from I have never forgotten and never will. Just watching and listening to these super intelligent scientists talking about a toy from Woolworth's made me feel I wasn't crazy after all!!

And, now, I'm rereading the fascinating book Something incredibly wonderful happens - Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up.

Given my lifelong fascination with the teaching and learning processes that go on daily in all classrooms around the world, I was particularly taken by the pages that described Frank's work as a high school science teacher. 

From the book:

In the summer of 1957, finally being granted permission by the school district,  the atomic physicist and member of the team that created the atomic bomb, Frank began teaching science in Pagosa Springs………and he quickly discovered that his students neither knew or cared about science. In response, he started coming up with ingenious experiments to grab their interest. Frank tried everything he could to motivate and engage his students.

He put books aside, set up mind-catching experiments, put on music they'd never heard before, and took the students to a local junkyard where they took things apart. 

One student, now an adult, remembered Frank as: "The guy was from another planet. We devoured the physics and we devoured the man. I've never known anyone quite as gentle, as understanding. He was always encouraging, you were never intimidated. And he had such a presence! There was an intensity I'd never seen before. He was so curious! We all felt we were experiencing something we'd never experienced before. It took over our lives. Everything in science we could get our hands on we would read, because of him. Any book that he carried I would immediately go out and buy."

In the fall of 1958, Frank began teaching teachers as well as students, doing in-service training, meeting with a dozen or so teachers in the evenings throughout the year.

Frank developed much of his educational philosophy during these years (the 1950s) --the philosophy that became the foundation for the Exploratorium.  For example, he noticed that at first the teachers came to him in hopes of acquiring “jewels” that they could take back to their students.  “[They] acted as though they were just transmitters from me—through them—to their students, without any involvement in the material themselves.  And it took almost a year before the kinds of questions they asked showed that they were genuinely interested in the subject and became more interested in learning for themselves than just as robots for their students,” Frank said. He realized that the teachers themselves had to be excited about the material and engaged in discovery or they’d never be able to inspire, or even adequately teach, their students.

Frank persuaded the school district to pay teachers for summer work so they could develop their own curricula.  And that made all the difference.  “Telling teachers how to use materials that were prepared by somebody else does not make good teachers,” Frank said.  “That’s one reason the nationwide effort to improve science teaching after Sputnik did not accomplish as much as it might have. “

Most of all, Frank learned firsthand what extraordinarily hard work teaching was.  He was in the prime of health.  He’d been ranching and bucking heavy bales of hay and tending cattle for nearly ten years.  “And that job wore me out,” he said.  “I never have had to work so hard, so intensively, as to get ready for those high school kids.”  And Frank’s 130 students didn’t come close to the load of an average California public school teacher.  “I learned what I think is wrong with schooling,” he said.  It was impossible under such circumstances to pay attention to each of the students, to grade their papers, to find out what their individual needs were.  “I never felt even reasonably on top of the job,” he said.  And despite all the evidence to the contrary, he wrote Bob Wilson that he feared “only a fraction of my students are learning anything.”

Frank concluded that the only way to fix education was to double the number of teachers.  He acknowledged the expense, but argued that education must grow faster than the gross national product because much of the growth of GNP is due to automation, and education can’t be automated.  It gets relatively more, not less, expensive over time.

From:       Something incredibly wonderful happens. Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up  Pages 120 - 121       K. C. Cole   HMH publisher          2009

***         I share your views, Frank, always have, always will..........