Eye of a Scientist, Eye of a Poet
IS it terribly surprising that many young people grow up imagining the human mind like a miniature schoolhouse? We envision compartments of thought like the various classrooms, each one separate and autonomous. Math is the ``room'' with the orderly desks and the computers. Science lab is hidden away in the basement. The gym, rumbling with stomping feet, opens onto the playground. Students are programmed by this model to shift gears every 45 minutes, to dash from room to room in the mind, leaving behind all the last room's special insights and abilities.
One teacher summed up the irony perfectly: ``It's like: `Hurry now, class! Stop drawing and go to Art.'''
When I'm working in a school, I make it my job to stretch these boundaries as much as possible. There is a ``door'' in the music room, I try to point out, that leads to History and English. Science and Art are really next-door neighbors. Poetry, I find, can often build common spaces between a variety of subjects, just as it demands that you use the whole mind and not just certain compartments.
In one middle school, I was in the teachers' room when several obviously anxious sixth graders entered with Mrs. Collins, their science teacher, in tow. It seemed their class was studying euglena, one-celled microorganisms revealed in a droplet of pond water. The students were investigating how different conditions would affect these tiny creatures and so, as an experiment, they'd frozen thin sheets of pond water in ice cube trays. Today, when they arrived to retrieve their specimens, they discovered the ice trays empty.
Only one possible explanation presented itself and it was a terrible one to consider: Earlier there had been a surprise birthday party for another teacher, complete with cake and soda. For a moment we were all frozen by the imagined thought: cubes of pond water, chock-full of euglena, floating in some teacher's ginger ale.
In the end, imagination was all this amounted to because another science teacher had removed the frozen specimens for her class. But still, I told them, I preferred my fantasy to the cold fact - not just for the humor of it, but because it made me envision the fate of the humans and the euglena in one focused image.
Our discussion rolled along to touch on ecology, nature poets, and the natural sciences. The happy chance of this incident created a bond between poet and scientist that we began to explore. After all, both are concerned with the mindful experience of the world - in reaching into the realm of wonder that lies beneath most moments, simple or complex. If the poet's and scientist's style of seeing is different, we wondered if they might be complementary.
Chet Raymo, a physics professor and science writer for the Boston Globe, described the situation perfectly in one of his essays. ``Scientists are trained in a very un-metaphorical way of seeing. We are taught to look for immediate connections.... But the poet's eye guides us to truths of another kind.... Metaphors have a way of exploding the bounds of perception. Some of the best, most creative science occurs when likenesses are perceived where none were thought to exist.''
The sixth-grade students ushered me into their classroom, showed me their drawings and worksheets. They were excited to introduce me, through their microscopes, to the greeny world of euglena. The teacher and I wondered what ``likenesses'' a poet might help these students to find. Though I was not scheduled to work with her students, how could we resist such a tantalizing experiment?
The sixth graders were surprised next week when I showed up during their science period. I talked to them about poetry, nature, and the ability to wonder. I brought in a tape recorder and played them Christine Lavin's ``Going to the Amoeba Hop'' and the Incredible String Band's ``A Very Cellular Song'' - two delightful fantasy songs that focus on the microscopic world.
These provided quite a contrast to the raw data they had been gathering. Then I shared with them my three-part poem called ``Questioning Euglena,'' inspired by their ice cube fiasco and written (they were quite pleased to hear) especially for them.
The whole class bubbled with comments and questions.
But then I turned the tables on them. ``Now it's your turn. I want you to try your hand at a persona poem, a chance to give voice and thought to the tiny creatures you've been studying so carefully.'' At first, there was a bit of grumbling across the room: ``Write? Poetry? Now]''
The root of their anxiety was clear: How do you switch from science-mind to poetry-mind? But once we started, I watched them, one by one, make the shift. Though we'd been talking biology, we were thinking creatively all along.
We began by closing our eyes and doing a relaxation exercise I like to use. Then I asked them to envision the green of the pond and how you would feel if you were a tiny speck like the euglena, twitching your way through the currents. Look around you: What do you see, how do you feel in your watery world? And suddenly, eyes sprang open and the writing began. Most students wrote quickly, with abandon. Some even completed two short poems during the quarter hour of silence we worked.
Once the first student brought me a rough draft for comments, a half-dozen others raced to line up. I made suggestions and tried to point out where each piece was strongest. Before we ran out of time, I called the class together to share their poems aloud. I was delighted to see how passionate and playful their writing was, now that their words were enlivened by emotion and data. They seemed to care more about the little beings they had so casually heated, frozen, prodded, and poked.
Here is my ``Questioning Euglena'' and one example of the sixth graders' persona poems. I was pleased, not only by the students' ability to move freely between two ``separate rooms,'' but by the science teacher's own commitment to keep the doors - all the doors - to the knowing mind unlocked and wide open. Working within a traditional school structure, the teachers here were struggling to create new thinking places for their students.
RECENTLY we've been assaulted once again by the prestigious studies that paint in darkest terms the state of American education. Reading and writing scores remain nearly unchanged after two decades. Science and math training is called barely adequate, and is described as ``light years'' behind other industrialized nations.
Perhaps we have to begin with bigger questions. What vision do we conjure up when we talk about ``the mind''? How do we traverse such a complex territory of thoughts, memories, feelings, and dreams? Under what conditions do we learn best, with most passion and purpose?
Recent studies describe a new model of thinking, one that includes a multiplicity of intelligences and ways of knowing the world - far beyond the customary math and verbal orientation of our institutions. How can the place called ``school'' parallel and support the inner ``landscape'' of our young people?
The traditional model of the American school is that of the factory, with classroom production lines turning out two dozen ``units'' per year. Even amid the heated debate over educational reform, the driving principles tend to be framed in purely commercial terms: How will our kids be trained for the technology of the future? How will they be able to compete in the global market?
I think our questions must create a more fundamental transformation: How can we educate young people so they can eventually steer their own learning process, become responsible for their lives? How can we create an atmosphere in schools where teachers are as challenged and learn as much as their students? How can we integrate the variety of subjects and learning styles into a more encompassing concept of education? How can we protect the hungry, wondering, delighted mind we each start out life with, but all too often surrender within the process called ``education''?
Whatever such a school would look like, I know two things that must be true: We will not be able to offer our students the means to think vigorously and creatively in neatly packaged 45-minute increments. And without a doubt, the math teachers and musicians, the biologists and the poets of such a school will have to share a broader, more unified space - besides the faculty dining room.