Kate Quarfordt's Learning Story


I walked into Dr. Jacob’s 10th grade chemistry classroom with a huge chip on my shoulder and a snotty attitude to match. I wasted no time letting him know that I was an arts-and-humanities gal with no use for nerdy lab coats, fancy number crunching or wanna-be-profound scientific theories. With a telepathic squint from under his bushy brows, he assured me that he wouldn’t embarrass me with the truth he’d sniffed out through my bravura’which was that I was bad at math, plain and simple, and terrified of failure. Only mildly consoled, I spent the first few weeks of class spewing judgments. Jacobs was an easy target. He had a bad case of eczema, a huge pot belly and he laughed like a goat. Despite significant dandruff issues, he only wore black turtlenecks. I even found fault with his decorating skills. Where were the inspirational posters? The only thing on the wall was a long rectangular shape covered with an ominous black cloth. Despite my efforts to remain aloof, chemistry grew on me. Rather than ridicule my self-righteous artiness, Dr. Jacobs spun intricate and’I had to admit’beautiful metaphors to help me understand isotopes. He picked up on my burgeoning romance with the blushing boy at the lab bench next to me and put spice in his lectures (and our courtship) by featuring us in hysterical allegories about attraction and covalent bonding. He agreed to let me take quizzes in whatever form I wanted’including pastel sketch and haiku. And then there was the Mass Spectrometry project.Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of the details here. What I know for sure is that we were learning about Stoichiometry and doing hands-on experiments that yielded endless pages of what seemed like meaningless data concerning the atomic weights of various elements. We had no idea what we were working towards and just when we thought we were finished, a new problem would plunge us into confusion again.To make matters worse, Dr. Jacobs suddenly changed his approach. Gone were the cute metaphors and creative scaffolding. Our bewildered questions were answered with more questions. The only time he addressed us directly was when one of my classmates hit a breaking point and threw her Trapper-Keeper across the room. A crafty glint in his eye, he simply said, “So much data. Yuck! Why not find some way to organize it so you don’t kill each other?” We got to work. Within a few days each group had found a different solution’a color-coded list, a spiraling graph, a rectangular chart’but each design displayed all the elements in the same configuration. Dr. Jacobs walked over to the wall. “Congratulations,” he said and yanked down the black cloth, revealing a colorful poster of the periodic table. “Look familiar?” The classroom exploded. Imagine the emotional impact of twenty-seven Karate Kids simultaneously realizing that months of wax-on/wax-off repetition have yielded high-octane, tournament-ready fighting skills and you’ll have a feel for the electricity unleashed when we looked down at our papers and found that we had invented the periodic table of elements from scratch.Years later, there’s a lot I don’t remember: the exact formula for converting grams to moles, for example. The atomic weight of copper. But I do remember the visceral experience of becoming the author of my own learning for the first time in my life. I remember the trickster gleam in Jacobs’ eye that made me feel like I could do it. And I remember how that horrible sensation of floundering in no-man’s-land gave way to a solid feeling of feet meeting road.Looking back from the perspective of my own first decade as an educator, I know first-hand how much courage it took for Dr. Jacobs to invite us into prolonged, uncomfortable contact with the natural wildness of real learning, and then leave us alone there to summon our own courage. Since then, I’ve had countless moments as a teacher (not to mention as a wife and a mother) when I’ve needed to reconnect with that courage, the faith that turns despair into fertile ground and coaxes creativity from the grip of fear. Now, of course, the stakes are higher and there is no wily, black-turtlenecked guide. I fail often. But at the very least I have a touchstone, a map that feels like it was custom-made just for me. Which makes sense, because I’m the one who made it.