The first science article I remember reading was about Thor Heyerdahl. In the 1940’s, the Norwegian ethnographer and explorer postulated the Central Pacific islands were populated by South Americans who drifted from Peru to their new homes on rafts. This article, on a stiff card, came from the box in the back of the classroom. This was, I think, second grade.
There were four boxes back there. Maybe eight inches cube, maybe a bit longer than wide, they were named after birds. Each contained cards with articles and stories plus reading comprehension questions. Bluebird was the highest of the four levels.
If that was second grade, then four years earlier was when I learned to read. And five years earlier was when I learned to walk and when my parents were told learning to read would be out of the question for me..
Heyerdahl was wrong, it turned out – South Americans did not drift to the Central Pacific. He was terribly eurocentric and felt the migration could not possibly have come from east to west due to lack navigational skill and instrumentation. That the Pacific islands could only have been populated by accident. His son, an academic, said his father did everything backwards – came up with an idea, then made the facts fit it. Genetics, some seventy years after his voyage, would prove him wrong.
But I didn’t know that in second grade. In second grade I could not get enough of Thor Heyerdahl, or anything else that came from the Bluebird Box.
You can’t have bluebird boxes today. See if you can follow this. I can’t, and I’m a professional.
Having boxes the kids move through and up from is now considered tracking. This is like having a college track and a technical track in secondary school. Even though the kids can progress from one box to the next, it still separates the kids into groups. But teachers are supposed to differentiate. They get reviewed for, receive scores for, differentiation. Differentiation is when a teacher recognises students have different skill levels and adjusts the work for those differing abilities. That isn’t tracking. When I taught ESL, recently, we used a computer program that tested the student’s reading skills, took articles and adjusted the lexile (reading level) of the content so it was a just difficult enough to make the students stretch their abilities, but could still read it, and then gave them a series of reading comprehension questions, letting them move up through the levels of difficulty at their own pace. That isn’t tracking. But boxes are.
When I was reading from the Bluebird box, computers were more true to their name – they computed. They performed complicated functions with numbers. They counted people and trajectories and helped send men to the moon and took up entire large rooms. They didn’t fit on a desk, adjust articles for kids from Honduras, China and Syria, and then fold up when not in use. Maybe it’s just that boxes are bad. The boxes were simple. The boxes were tactile. I liked the boxes.
I walked proudly to the Bluebird Box for another article every chance I got. I devoured them. Anthropology. Botany. Zoology. Mineralogy. Physics. By mid-second grade, I had moved to articles that weren’t in boxes, and then books.
My first book inspired by the Bluebird Box was Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl – the story of his 4, 300 mile trip across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft. Then Leakey and his discovery of Lucy. Once I read a card from the Bluebird Box, whatever it was about, I wanted to read more. More about bees. More about volcanoes. More about of trees. More about Aborigines. From the box to the books..
I read anthropology. And archeology. I was fascinated by them. And myths. Lots of myths. In sixth grade I read book after book of Aboriginal and African myths. From there, Philosophy. In eighth grade, I read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Bach. Realm of Numbers and The Planet that Wasn’t, essays on mathematics and Physics, respectively, by Asimov. I read the collected works of Carl Jung. I read Also Sprach Zarathustra by Nietzsche. Zen Flesh Zen Bones by Paul Reps. Tao Te Ching, translation by Feng and English. I read the biographies of Steinmetz and Tesla. I read The Book: On the taboo against knowing who you are by Alan Watts, and started the ABCs of Science Fiction – Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. I eventually made it to Zelazney, though I am not a fan.
I also learned about primary sources. I found I preferred reading first hand material rather than second hand accounts. Why have someone tell me what a bunch of other people said when I could read it for myself? After that, my disdain for textbooks was obvious. This often drove my teachers to distraction as I would raise my hand and say, “actually. . . ” and quote exactly what the inventor, explorer, or author said, instead of the paraphrase which was, often, to my understanding, watered-down, misinterpreted or wholly incorrect
In ninth grade, I had heard about pep rallies. They sounded like monstrous things and I dreaded even the idea of them. I’d rather read and didn’t want to participate in anything that wasn’t academic. So every time we students were supposed to be in the gym, I was hiding in the library with a book. I succeeded in avoiding pep rallies until I was found with Oedipus Rex under a table and was removed from the library as I protested that I was learning, which was the function of school, and saw no point in the pep rally, let alone forcing me to attend it. I recall citing Dewey regarding the Pragmatic philosophy of education as I was lead down the hallways and into the gym. Kids were stomping and screaming. I collapsed in the bleachers. Fell on another student. They never made me leave the library again.
That is not entirely true. Once I was asked to go back into the gym.
I don’t like dissection and I took part in only one. A frog. The smell of formalin was terrible, and I did not slice it open myself. I was paired with another student who did the slicing and who was, unfortunately, not Grace Barcia. As I was watching him poke around inside I, popular as I was, felt something wet hit my head. Then my face. I was soon being pelted with livers and lungs and other airborne ampbianalia. The teacher had a rather loose concept of classroom management, especially considering we were in a lab with organs, scalpels and chemicals. So I walked out. I never took part in a dissection again.
Thus, when welcoming the incoming ninth graders with a gym-full of tables displaying all our school had to offer, I was a strange choice to put in charge of the table displaying our menagerie of dissecta. It had the usual jars of fetal pigs, frogs and other animals, none of which I had ever personally taken a scalpel to. One notable object on the table was a (if you are squeamish, please skip down four paragraphs) cat. Skinless, four furless paws adhered to a board, one could examine the surface musculature in detail. I was left, behind a table covered in dissected animals, with a skinless cat, a gym full of high school students, and I was in danger of being bored.
So I sold the cat.
I hawked that cat to everyone who walked by, billing it as the perfect pet. “You’ll always know where it is, you never have to clean up after it and all it takes is a little bit of dusting now and then. Plus, it is guaranteed never to shed!”
I finally sold it for nine one-dollar off Frito-Lay’s coupons. I knew better than to accept actual money. That might have gotten me in trouble.
I don’t know what happened to that cat. It was the morning, and it wouldn’t fit into a backpack, or into anything but a fully empty locker, so I imagine it was hard to not see a student walking around with a skinless cat glued to a wooden plank, but it would not be the first obvious thing missed at my high school.
Another obvious thing missed at my high school was the relatively vacuous state of our library, and our local public version wasn’t much better. The large, full, beautiful library was too far away, in downtown Miami, so I spent quite a bit of my time at Waldenbooks in the Mall at 163rd Street or Arts and Science Bookstore in North Miami. There I read the bulk of Freud, Heisenberg, and as much Alan Watts as I could find. Through the next years, right through college, and still today, I found the use of secondary sources was only to lead me to primary ones.
In college when we came to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I went to the original for a more full understanding, reading Toward a Psychology of Being and finding it so much more meaningful, making much more sense. Reading the original took Maslow’s work from a theory in a textbook to something whole, deep and complete. Once I read his own words, I could see his theory played out everywhere in daily life. That is not something I would have ever gotten from the textbook, no matter how much it cost.
Having Marty Fromm as a teacher in Human Relations, I read the works of her lover, Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls. Then Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, and Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society, then Rogers and more Rogers. Having read Adler’s Understanding Human Nature, as well as other essays by the famed psychologist, when I had the delight of meeting, and spending an extended amount of time with, Margot Adler, author, activist and NPR journalist, we were able to discuss her grandfather’s work, at length, with an understanding of the original texts. Luckily, I had read her books as well.
I read Piaget from Piaget, not a textbook. I read Assagioli and Ellis, Harlow and Groff. I read Milgram from Milgram, Zimbardo from Zimbardo, Allport from Allport and Kohlberg from Kohlberg. In education classes, I read Jefferson and Mann and Dewey, Skinner, Hegel, Kant.
As a massage therapist, I read my textbooks, but I also read Alexander, Feldenkraise, Ling and Rolf. I know that made it difficult to have conversations with me, but if you knew the other students in my class, you’d see that was certainly a plus.
As a teacher I’m an absolute fiend when it comes to source reliability and the use of primary sources in research. Just ask. It’s ok, kids. You can tell them the truth.
Today, though I read less now that my eyes are often problematic, and sometimes listen to books, I’m still likely to read an article, see the study discussed, regardless of the field, and then immediately go to find the study. I am always appreciative of the nuances of the original which seldom translates into the paraphrasing and description found in secondhand accounts.
And, regardless of what I’m reading, and right now I’m reading The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, and Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton and The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, I think, believe it or not, nearly daily about the Bluebird Box. and what it did for me. Shallow enough to be beautifully wide and varied and deep enough to provoke an interest that has lasted my entire life, with neither dulling nor diminution, in a child who was never supposed to be able to read. The Bluebird Box is still the best box. You can quote me on that.