michael b. leyden --- An Evolutionary Tale

In our ( mike; charlie; virginia; john) text TEACHING SCIENCE GRADES 5-9, the editors asked us to put some prose into a special chapter at the end of the book.

To wit --- you've read the book; you've had the course, so what ?
What are you going to do for the rest of the 21,915 days of your life ?
I spent my pages by telling the tale of how a nice guy like me wound up in central illinois.

This is a story of evolution. I'm not talking about evolution in the Darwinian sense. I'm not concerned with the voyage of the "Beagle," the Galapagos Islands, finches, apes, and humans. I won't even mention the Scopes Trial - you know, the teaching of evolution. I'm interested in the evolution of teaching.

It was spring of my senior year in high school, and someone said, "What are you going to do next year?"
I replied, "I don't know."
They countered, "Why don't you go to college ?"
And I said, "Me? College ?" And they said, "Yes."
So I went to college.

In those days they called it Brockport State Teachers College but that has now evolved into State University of New York ( SUNY ) Brockport and I majored in elementary and junior high school science education. As I scuffed across the tiny campus, I did not really know if I wanted to be a teacher, but heck, it would be a job. This might be Phase One-or the primordial ooze from which teachers evolve. It's called "It's A Job," or the "Jobbing Phase."


During our junior year we went student teaching, and having watched the behaviors of my professors and recalled the techniques of my elementary and secondary teachers, I evolved to the "Stuffing Phase" of my career. You see, teachers know stuff and their job is to get the stuff they know (even though they only learned it last night) into the minds of kids. Stuff is important. That's what school is all about. It is the cornerstone of education. After student teaching I knew this was for me. I was going to be a "stuffer." I would finish my senior year, return to the hills of Wyoming County, and tell the kids everything I learned at Brockport State. I wouldn't need a masters degree, or even any graduate work. Who needs that ? After all, I was just going to be a teacher. I wasn't after the Nobel Prize. Heck, four years at B.S.T.C. was enough . . . or so I thought.

When I returned for my senior year I noticed we had to take a course in geology. Let me be polite and simply say that my attitudes about rocks were not at all positive. We called the course, "Rock I," and what made it even worse was that a "different kind" of teacher was in charge. We called him "The Rock Doc," "Rocky," or "Old C -." Students easily find aliases for their teachers, and the latter nickname was a tribute to his rumored grading policies. So I signed up for the course and braced myself.

I remember that first day of class. Rocky took us across campus to sit on an outcropping of sandstone and told us what the course would entail. It took us fifteen minutes to walk to that strata near the football field, he talked for about twenty minutes, and we hiked back to the classroom in the remaining time. Right then I could see that the rumors about this guy were true: he wasn't much of a teacher. What an inefficient use of time! If those rocks were so important, why didn't he just show us some 35 mm slides of them ? In the years that have passed, I have often tried, but cannot remember what he said in that first meeting. But I have never forgotten that on the first day of class about rocks we went out and sat on some. Well, to make a long story short, I finished the course, and got a C -.

When spring semester began I noted that we had to take two science courses. One was an option of astronomy or meteorology, and the other was a free elective. That was 1961, and the country was agog over the USSR-USA space race. This provided an incentive to take astronomy, a course we called "Star I." There was also an incentive not to take it. "Old C -"taught it.


Giving students choices is one way to activate the reticular formation, and at that time my brain was really turned on. For days I thought about it, and finally came up with my schedule. I decided to take "Star I," and as my free elective, "Rock II." Yes, Rock II! In western New York, the January storms are legendary. I walked through knee deep snow with a friend to that first class in Rock II. "Hey," I said, "we must be out of our minds for taking C - for two courses in the same semester." Then, in a feeble attempt at humor to cover up my anxiety, I added, "I bet Rocky takes us on a field trip today." We had both learned in Rock I that this "different kind" of teacher was a field tripper. He thought it was important to see the real environment instead of or before you introduce plastic models, maps, films, and other visual aids that represent the real environment.

We got to class and found only four other people daring to take the course. Rocky walked in and said, "Put on your coats, we're going outside." Someone tried to explain to him that all the rocks were covered by 40 cm of snow, but he didn't care. After all, he was "different." I looked at my buddy and tried not to laugh, and in my mind could just see the newspaper headline: "Professor, Six Students Lost in Blizzard."

We went out into the storm and performed the most amazing science experiment I had ever participated in-the plastic deformation of ice. As the semester wore on it became apparent why the class met at 3:30 P.M. It was the last class hour of the day. If class ran a little overtime, there wouldn't be any conflict problems; and the class did run overtime. There was the time we went to the Rochester gorge, the time at the Rochester museum, and along the shores of Lake Ontario, and the glacial moraine deposits in a five county area. One afternoon (early evening) we wound up at a gravel pit in my home town -- 40 miles from campus.

"Imagine that," I thought, "there is science in my hometown!"

One day Rocky walked into class and suggested we go on a weekend field trip to the Catskills to see faults, deformations, and other things that were only abstract words on a page in the geology book. He further suggested that it would be the first weekend in May. When we suggested that the date he had in mind was "Spring Weekend," with campus athletic events, parties, dances and other activities scheduled, he countered with the idea we should leave Friday morning at seven. So for the love of rocks, we surrendered Spring Weekend, and met him at seven. We returned 62 hours later with specimens, memories, and several new insights into what science and science teaching encompassed.

Meanwhile, things in my Star 1 course were following the same "different" pattern of instruction. There were labs until all hours of the night, indoor and outdoor activities that entailed indirect measurement, shadow movements, sundial construction, and telescope usage.

Back in Rock II, the semester was coming to a close, and we noticed that there was no final exam scheduled. This proved to be a mistake in the schedule; we would have an exam. "Now," he said, "when can we all get together for the final ?" Even with only six people, the scheduling problems were difficult; conflict abounded. So he unilaterally suggested Tuesday, May 31st. Then we suggested that it was Memorial Day and the college would be closed. Then he said, "You mean no one has an exam that day?" And we said, "Right." "See you at seven," he added. At 7 A.M. on Memorial Day we climbed into the station wagon and headed out to the fields, streams, pastures, and quarries for our test. During the next 14 hours we traveled about 200 miles, and I lost track of the questions he asked. He would pull off the road, hand us a 3 x 5 card, and ask us to explain the topography, or the rocks in the quarry, or the specimens on the roadside. Some test!

Long ago I told you this guy was "different." What I wanted to say was "bad," not different. Here is proof that he wasn't a good teacher. After we handed in our 3 x 5 cards-he would not tell us the answer! (Years later I realized he didn't know the answer.)
But I'll tell you what he did do.
He would pull up a rock, and sit down; he had some ideas about the stream or the quarry or the rocks, so he shared his ideas with us. Now we were six seniors within a few days of graduation, so we had some ideas, too. So we shared them. To make a long story short, I got a C -.


After spending three years "stuffing" junior high school kids with trivia (that is now outdated), I spent a year at the University of Florida earning my masters degree in earth science education. Rocky had written a letter of recommendation for me and sent it to a friend of his, Dr. Caspar Rappenecker, who was the director of an NSF-AYI Program at Florida, and I was accepted. Rapp (we always had nicknames for our professors) was a gentleman geologist who was more interested in teachers and kids than he was in rocks, and that's when the next stage of evolution took place. I became a "Kidder." I got interested in kids, and disinterested in "stuff," per se.

When I completed my work at Florida I took a position at a college in Massachusetts, teaching, of all things: Rock 1 and Star 1, to kids who were going to be junior high school teachers. Sound familiar ?

Within 30 km of our campus at Westfield was a concrete example of just about every "geology term" in the textbook. There were dinosaur footprints, lava flows, arkose, volcanic tuff, mica, granites, sandstones, and so forth. We took field trips during class, after class on weekends, and during the summers. Sound familiar ?

Before I left Florida, Dr. Rapp had turned me over to Dr. Ned E. Bingham, head of the science education department. Ned (no nickname) not only helped me in the Master's program, but while I was at Westfield, wrote and encouraged me to return to "Gator U." and complete my doctorate. Me ? A doctorate ? But I wasn't going to go to graduate school, remember ? When I returned to Florida in 1968, Ned took me by the hand and led me through the doctoral program. He is a man who is in love with his environment and is excited about the opportunities that teachers have to share their feelings about it with children. He strengthened and completed my transformation into a "Kidder." It took a decade to go from Jobber to Stuffer to Kidder.

But is the evolution complete ? I don't think so. I hope not. Maybe now I'm at the substage of "Kidder" that is called "Author." I am excited about sharing my views with readers across the land. I attend conventions, join the professional organizations, and mix with others in an attempt to find out more about the world of kids and science. I have taken many course since completing the doctorate, and have credits at fourteen colleges around the country (I forgot to mention these sidetrips). My education as a teacher never stops.

I have been extremely fortunate to have met three scientific "god-fathers" in my academic career. Dr. Victor E. Schmidt played the role of "Rocky" in my life. He was the first to let me look at science and science teaching from a different point of view. Dr. Caspar Rappenecker and Dr. N. E. Bingham were incredibly important in the development of my graduate programs. Three people who cared helped me. How lucky I was to have met them. The children in your classes are looking for someone who cares too. You can be that person. Believe me, I know ---one teacher can make a difference.

m.b. leyden --- 1978

october 1995

Times they are a changing:

It's a good thing that Rocky has retired. He could never teach in 1995. He's be sued. Imagine --

No question about it -- students would revolt and he would under the gun to lower his standards.

He always used to tell us --- to paraphrase a bit -- that he wasn't hired by Brockport State Teachers College. He was hired by 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 . . . . year old boys and girls. They wanted him to keep bozo ( male ) and bimbo ( female ) students from becoming dorky teachers and making their life in elementary school a painful experience. Isn't that the goal of the ELE staff at EIU ? Oooops -- no, this is 1995 and you can't tell lazy students that . . . . they are lazy -- unless you are a guy named Verne Rockastle.

Rocky had a teaching partner at BSTC who moved to Cornell to teach before i ever met him. Years later -- about 20 years later -- Dr. Verne Rockcastle became a Consulting Author on my first JHS textbooks for Addison-Wesley. How strange are the roads of life -- and their intersections.

In this folder -- "fillosophee" -- read an article Verne wrote: "lazy student."