Students Sit Pretty With New Science and Art Chairs
It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. It was after 10 pm and my daughter was wrestling with a difficult physics problem. She called a friend.
Ariel: “Matt, can you help me with the physics homework?”
Matt: “Yeah, I am working on it too.
Ariel: Hang on, Bennett is buzzing in.”
The three students were stumped, each by a different problem. Personally, I wouldn’t know a Higgs boson from a Large Hadron Collider, but I was intrigued by how they interacted. They were genuinely interested in the process of problem solving. Each described roadblocks, while the others patiently listened. Their dialogue was sophisticated. Didactic. They posed questions for each other for an hour until that light bulb moment when everyone understood.
I was sprawled on the couch nearby playing “Words With Friends.” How is it, I wondered, that Blake is getting it right? Let’s face it. Education is far less about memorizing than it is about appreciating how to access and synthesize information. Even I can Google a physics problem and find “the answer,” but in no way will that distinguish me from anyone else with a computer who can type.
How does this School continue to ensure the greatest bang for our tuition bucks? First and foremost, it’s the people who teach our children. Next, I’d say the vertical integration of each academic department is genius. Curriculum across the campuses is chock full of developmentally appropriate building blocks. As our kids age up through the fourteen grades (or transfer in, like my kids did) they acquire critical thinking skills that open thresholds for higher learning. Our chairs are experts in their fields, constantly looking to bring the best teaching practices into the classrooms.
Natalie Rasmussen and Christine Saunders are both in their first year in their positions of Science Chair and Arts Chair. I recently caught up with them to see how things are going. Their resumes and large personalities blew me away.
Natalie moved to Minnesota from Michigan with her family when she was 8. She taught chemistry, biology and physics in the Minneapolis Public Schools for twenty years before coming to Blake. She holds a PhD in Science Education from the University of Minnesota. She is warm, engaging, and graceful with a sparkling flare for personal style. She is all about demystifying what seems threatening, and instilling confidence in students in everything from AP classes to the color of their own skin. Oh yeah. She’s African American and has bust open Blake Middle School students’ ability to talk about race. “If we can talk about what is happening in our crotches during sex education, surely we ought to be able to talk about race,” said Natalie. She meets every Tuesday with about 30 members of “Allies for Diversity,” a club for students of color and white students as well as teachers seeking frank discussions about navigating culture, race and heritage.
One of Natalie’s goals is to ask more of students in science. “If you love science, great. If you don’t, that’s okay too. You don’t have to turn out to be a scientist to benefit from an aggressive science education. The point is to stretch yourself and to find out you CAN handle science." Natalie says the most important thing for students is to enjoy the science journey. “I tell some anxious parents who may be pushing too hard to make sure their child is allowed enough space to enjoy their discoveries. There are so many different ways you can become a scientist, but you are only going to be a kid for so long. Middle School is a time to develop your own compass and passions, not to race to the next level.”
Biology first thrilled Natalie when she was a little girl. She remembers watching her mother prepare a chicken for dinner. “She gave me the chicken’s heart to examine. I used a bulb syringe to shoot water through it so that it came out of the aorta. I saw how the heart pumps blood through the body and I was hooked.” Natalie sings professionally, does voice-overs for radio and TV commercials, and enjoys coaching sports like volleyball and softball. She has two beautiful grown children and has been married for 24 years.
What about the Arts? Back in the 1970s you either had talent or you did not. Christine says this mindset is a thing of the past. “Our job is to foster creative expression and model technical skills, not judge talent. Before accepting this position Christine scoured the School’s Moodle pages to get a feel for Blake. “Immediately, I was impressed by the emphasis on the didactic – the artist’s statement. Artist, musicians, actors, directors, and writers frequently are asked to reflect on their creative process. What was frustrating? What techniques worked? What did you enjoy? What would you do differently next time? I knew I wanted to work here.”
Christine’s energy fills whatever room she is in. She is a music brainiac. She plays piano, and used to study bassoon and clarinet. She is a handbell pro. She majored in voice and has dual master’s degrees in voice and music theory. Her career has focused on general music and choral conducting and recently she pulled together a beautiful holiday concert at the Middle School.
While Blake is steeped in time-honored traditions like the Jack Edie Debate Tournament (49 years and counting!), and the Senior Speech Program, Christine says her challenge is to bring the visual arts, theater, music, speech and forensics into the 21st century without sacrificing all-important traditional hands-on, face-to-face performance and studio experiences. “To do this we need to examine what we provide that only the arts can give, as well as when and how it’s appropriate for the Arts to integrate with other academic disciplines. What does 21st-century communication look and sound like? How can we effectively mix traditional music literacy and technology? Why are Digital Filmmaking and Game Design now heralded as useful academic tools, in addition to being creative, cutting-edge arts? Or the flip side: within a technology-laden day, isn’t there great human value in having a student create with their hands at a potter’s stool? Or a painting canvas? As a department, we need to achieve a thoughtful balance as we chart our next course.”
When she isn’t dashing from campus to campus, Christine enjoys spends time with her husband, Peter (a musical theater teacher), cooking, sailing, sampling good wines, and getting acquainted with Twin Cities theater and music offerings. They live in Mound with their two-year old daughter Eva, a blooming visual artist “obsessed with chalk, paint, and crayons, often simultaneously.”