Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tower Of Power

I write many posts about my classroom and the stuff that makes up the daily life of an educator. I do it very carefully, though. I rework things just a bit, tweak the settings, alter the timelines...anything to make sure that I don't cross the delicate line and lend an identity to a student. Today, I'm going to dance perilously close to that line. But the story is too good to not be told.

There is a student in my class who has a myriad of disabilities, many of which affect his ability to interact successfully with others. In addition to that, he also happens to be a genius. It's a tough mix and an even tougher teaching situation. He can out-think me. He is kind about this, but we all know it is true. Hence, when he comes up with a project that holds his interest and which he can prove has some educational value, I generally let him run with it. He'd do it anyway so it is in my best interest to support it.

A while back, he developed an interest in miniature boat building and I agreed to let him craft one for credit. However, I had some difficulties getting the material he wanted so I picked up some stuff to keep him occupied while I figured out how to meet his needs. What I handed him was a package of craft sticks, remarkably similar to those coffee-stirrers you find next to the Styrofoam cups when you are grabbing a java to go.

Boats went out the window. Bridges became the order of the day.

For weeks now, he has been constructing bridges out of these flimsy bits of wood then stress-testing them to see how much weight they can hold. The weight, in this case, was hardcover books of all shapes and sizes. The first bridge held perhaps 8 before collapsing, a feat I found impressive. He knew he could do better.

I have cleaned out the craft store of little sticks. As quickly as I could replenish the supply, he needed more. The classroom was redolent with the scent of hot glue searing cheap wood. Sometimes there was smoke. He examined each and every collapsed bridge and redesigned the next to shore up the areas that had failed to take the pressure.

Today, he was ready to test his design again. Books from all over the classroom were collected and he began stacking. Eventually, we ran out of hardcover books. He had no interest in paperbacks. The librarian was contacted for assistance and dictionaries were procured. I even snapped a picture with my phone to record the event. This bridge would not give in no matter what we did.

Finally, we resorted to human cargo. Several students and staff stood upon this little bridge. None could break it. Finally, one of my teaching assistants convinced him that we needed to travel down to the gym and ask to borrow the weight room. There, we could find metal plates which were clearly labeled and would give us a better idea of the amount of weight we were placing upon this miracle of modern architecture. My entire class headed down to watch.

Plate after plate was settled upon the little bridge. It never so much as creaked. Two students raced off to find the tech. ed. teacher ("shop," building trades" or "industrial arts" for those of us from an era gone by) It was felt that he would appreciate this. The Guidance department showed up to lend their support. One of my teaching assistants kept track of the weight being added and announced the total each time a new plate was set upon another. Finally, someone reminded me that this was the sort of thing I might want to photograph. I sped up the stairs to grab my phone. Sadly, by the time I got back down to the gym, the bridge had had enough. It had collapsed.

Anyone want to guess how much this wee, little bridge could support? Anyone?




630 pounds. 285.8 kilograms. All this being held up by coffee-stirrers and hot glue.




It was all my class could talk about. They all gazed in awe at the shy, awkward boy who doesn't really "get" people and the miracle he had wrought. He was a god.

But the builder had eyes only for his creation. He observed it with the same level of clinical interest as he had all the previous bridges. While the rest of us mourned its collapse, he took great pleasure in it because he knows that the lesson is really in finding the breaking point.

Plus it made a really cool keeerrrr-ACK sound when it finally gave up the ghost.


Maybe this isn't interesting to everyone. Maybe only a few people out there can be filled with a sense of wonder at the sight of a towering stack of metal plates being supported by the most fragile of materials. I'm sure there are those who are more fascinated by the science of it all than anything else. Some might even want to explain it to me in great detail.

I understand that. We all see the magic through our own lenses. But I might just feel a little bit sorry for them because it was all the more beautiful for my not understanding it completely.

A fourteen year old boy was able to build a bridge with naught but hot glue and sticks that would support well over three times his own body weight. (Yes...he is a big boy) He did this in less time than it took me to knit two sleeves that don't cover three times my body circumference.

Powerful magics...



SA

30 comments:

Leslie said...

Goodness, that's impressive! I can tell that you are a wonderful teacher. :o)

Elaine said...

That's amazing.

scienceprincess said...

I hope you are strongly pushing this child into a career in engineering? He doesn't need to be good at people if his math is good enough and he can build amazing bridges out of coffee stirrers.

I'm glad he's found a place to excel.

Keep up the good work.
Sarah (scienceprincess)

GiM said...

All I can say is, "Wow!" SA, I hope your administration understands your role in that creation: recognizing and nurturing something wonderful is in every student. And it only takes one to prove it. I have a feeling you also have an inherited gift.

kmkat said...

That is a great achievement, both for him and for you. I love the image of the rest of the students and teachers and staff getting involved to marvel at his genius. Well done, you!

Anonymous said...

What a fabulous day!! The kid may not be in awe of his own building powers, but the rest of the class will remember the bridge - and the teacher that invited them all to be a part of something so wonderful.

If you haven't already, could you send a picture to his parents? I can guarantee that they would be thrilled to see the one from the classroom! They can save it to remember his genius on the tough days.

Cleta

Diana said...

Not magics, a wise and caring teacher. He's a lucky guy.

Julie said...

That is so awesome!

MathIsBeauty said...

OMB - You should enter him in the WestPoint Bridge Contest
http://bridgecontest.usma.edu/
Our school has participated and it is fun to design a bridge and them drive the truck across to see if it will hold.

Karen said...

Amazing! Thank you for sharing. You are a wonderful teacher.

Beth said...

Incredible! I really loved this story. It was very uplifting and I'll say what others have said: You're a great teacher!

Yarnhog said...

That is freakin' amazing.

My "gifted" kids participate in Science Field Day, where they build bridges similar to that out of drinking straws. The winner (from over 60 teams) generally holds a few pounds. I'd love to see what your student would do!

Good for him...and for you.

Mel said...

So he's got a career ahead of him as an engineer, then? Fortunately, it's one of those career paths where difficulties in interacting with others isn't always a handicap. Impressive work.

PICAdrienne said...

That is totally cool! Just a wild guess, but there are many engineers with at least mild versions of Aspergers. I have worked with a few, and know a couple more. You are a truly gifted teacher to get him to go to this degree. More than that, you are a very wise teacher to let him channel himself. Good for him, good for you.

Betsy said...

And some days when you are teaching, life helps you remember why you are there...I'm glad you blogged this so you can refer back to it when needed (probably today!)

trek said...

Very cool, indeed!

One of my nephews did something similar for a science project - constructed a small truss bridge and successfully sat his little brother on it. Of course, his dad is a bridge engineer and you can't escape DNA.

Donna Lee said...

The coolest thing is how the other kids looked at him with new eyes. Good job, teach!

Anonymous said...

We are as proud of you as you are of your student!

Love,
Dad

Knitcoach said...

I applaud you as a teacher in letting his creative genius flow. It will be fascinating to see what he might achieve!

Kath said...

That is amazing. Whatever difficulties he may face now as a child, I expect he will go far in life.

Have you tried him on the egg drop project? I'd love to see what he could do with that.

Knitting Linguist said...

My engineer husband is tremendously impressed. Dang, dude. I wish I'd been there to see it :)

=Tamar said...

Wow. I'm impressed by the whole thing - the kid, the project, the reactions, your teaching... It's great to solve the problem, and getting the awed and enthusiastic responses of fellow students and of faculty is a really nice bonus for him.

Is he going to build an unsinkable miniature boat next? :-)

Charleen said...

What an amazing, awesome fete for both of you!

elaine said...

I am so impressed on so many levels! Be proud, SA. Be very proud.

Carrie K said...

O.M.G. That is amazing. I see you know your geniuses when you see one. That picture!! Just, wow. Wow. Hot glue and coffeestirrers? Did I say wow yet?

Jeanne said...

Wow. That is really cool. The boy discovered something very important about himself today, that will carry him through life. (The other kids probably learned a vital lesson, as well.)

You made a difference, too. This is one of those days that reminds you why you wanted to teach, isn't it?

Lynne said...

Wow! Genius indeed!

Thanks on behalf of educators and parents [of which I'm both] for supporting his passion, drive and determination.

May his class mates look on him with more tolerance in future! [if they don't, I think it's okay to give them a Sheepish reminder!!]

lori said...

My youngest son is leaning very much in the same directions as your student (he is 4 - we currently don't have a technical diagnosis). I hope he continues to have positive experiences (ie. teachers like yourself :)) as he grows older.

Amazing.

kitmf said...

If he's back come fall, get him to MIT the weekend before Thanksgiving for an event called SPLASH. He'll find himself in his own tribe.

Deirdre said...

I'm a bit late in reading this post (by about five months) but I can't leave it without commenting. What an amazing feat. And agreed with all the previous (timely!) comments about your decision to run with his idea. It sounds like a great experience for everyone involved, even peripherally.