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Photo: IHISADC.
Participants in the 2021 Indiana High School Architectural Design Competition.

It makes a difference when professionals offer their expertise to school students. In today’s story we see what happened when an architect returned to his old high school to teach in its STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] program.

Victoria St. Martin reports at the Washington Post, “It can happen in an instant: that moment when you go from not knowing what you want to do for the rest of your life, to having absolute certainty about it. For Tarik El-Naggar, it happened in 1970, when he was in the seventh grade working on a project for English class.

“The assignment? Construct a reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre out of everyday objects. He built a 2-foot-diameter cardboard model — and an architect was born. … Says El-Naggar, who’s now 63 and co-owner of an architecture and interior design firm, ‘I don’t know what it was about the building. It had all the seating, the stage and the open roof — it was just awesome. It was a lightbulb moment.’

“El-Naggar’s life came full circle when he added ‘high school teacher’ to his résumé nine years ago — building a STEM curriculum with members of the administration at his former school in northwest Indiana. Inside his Valparaiso High School classroom, students have their own lightbulb moments by creating projects using ping-pong balls, cardboard, computers and 3-D printers. ‘Instead of just teaching the basics of architecture, I’m actually really teaching them design theory,’ says El-Naggar, whose class is similar to what he taught at a nearby college.

“And he’s gotten results: [In 2021] his Valparaiso students swept the Indiana High School Architectural Design Competition, winning all nine awards out of 72 entries from eight schools. …

“Valparaiso, a middle-class community about 55 miles southeast of Chicago, began incorporating more STEM courses into its curriculum about six years ago. A school official said the district wanted to place more emphasis on skills such as critical thinking, communication, creativity and problem-solving, and secured several grants from the county redevelopment commission to bolster tools across K-12 classrooms. The high school roughly ranks in the top 10 percent in Indiana, and its standardized test scores in reading and math significantly outpace the rest of the state.

‘There are schools around the country that have great basketball programs. So, what do parents do? You move there because you want your son or daughter to go there,’ says El-Naggar. ‘I want people to look at what we’re doing here and say, “My kids are going to be engineers, architects. They need to be here.” ‘

“For high-schoolers who want to pursue architecture as a career, taking classes with El-Naggar is paying off: In the past three years, all five of the students who applied to university-level architectural programs have been accepted. ‘People were really impressed that I had already had this experience,’ says Henry Youngren, now a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. … ‘It’s really guided me on how I want to live the rest of my life.’

“Brandon Farley, an architect who is the chair of the high school design competition, says he has some records that date back to the 1970s and he’s ‘never seen anything where one school won all the awards.’ It’s rare that judges see high school teachers with formal architectural training, he adds. With Valparaiso High School’s entries, he says, ‘you can see it immediately in the way the students address the problems and their solutions, and in the way that they talk about their designs. It really raised the bar on the competition.’

“Seventeen-year-old Olivia Lozano received one of the awards. ‘It kind of got the ball rolling for me,’ she says of the contest, for which she created a reading room filled with glass windows that opened to the outdoors. ‘Then it turns into a vortex and you’re down in El-Naggar’s classroom like four hours a day, and then you’re here after school, and then you’re here on the weekends and over spring break.’

“El-Naggar says the lightbulb moment for his students today really happens when they first see a 3-D view of their building. ‘The ones that go, “Oh, my gosh,” and they start “walking” through it and they’re telling other people, “Look at this.” ‘ …

“When the University of Notre Dame, near South Bend, Ind., asked him to critique student projects, he met a fellow architect and professor who would help him get his first teaching gig, at Andrews University in Michigan. Once he started, he knew he’d discovered a second passion. Several years later, he was asked to fill in and teach architecture in his hometown at the high school. He welcomed the opportunity to teach five minutes from his home.

“Now his fervor for teaching is gaining more attention, earning him a teacher of the year award from a national project-based-learning group this past fall. ‘We consider ourselves very blessed to have a teacher like him in the classroom,’ says Nick Allison, the school district’s assistant superintendent for secondary education.”

More at the Post, here.

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Last Sunday, Pam and I walked over to the library to hear an acclaimed poet read at the poetry series. Ross Gay, who lives in Indiana, had just published his poetry collection Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude and was doing readings around New England.

Glenn Mitchell, who organizes the library’s poetry series, was able to publish an advance interview with Gay in the local paper.

She wrote, “Gay says his inspiration for writing poems is a determination to practice joy as a discipline. He is a finalist for the 2015 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry and the NAACP Image Award in Poetry.

“Gay also works in the field of literary sports writing. He is a founding editor of the online sports magazine Some Call it Ballin’, a publication of reflective essays written by well-known poets, essayists and fiction writers along with podcasts of contributors.

“He serves on the board of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a nonprofit, food justice project.

“An associate professor of poetry at Indiana University, Gay is residing in Cambridge while a 2015-16 Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.”

Here is what Gay told Mitchell about the poet that inspired him to write poetry: “[Amiri] Baraka’s poems were such a clear articulation of the kind of alienation I was experiencing when I went off to college — a kind of racial alienation and class alienation — that I had no idea how to begin to talk about other than wanting to break things. I knew I was full of rage (which I later knew was a version of sorrow, too), but I didn’t know how to put it into words, which Baraka’s work made it possible for me to understand was possible.”

To her question about gardening coming into his life and the difference it made, he says, “I think close looking, paying attention, going slow, a kind of training in receptivity — I think those are things I learn from the garden … I approach poems like that, usually. I like to listen to them as much as I try to impose my own will on them. … A garden or a poem is potentially a device for pulling people together, they are both food, I’m saying, which we might feed to each other.”

In his Sunday reading, Gay included a poem about strangers sharing figs from a tree unexpectedly flourishing near his Philadelphia home — a poem that expresses some of his thoughts about our history of racism and the possibility of goodness.

He says, “The poem ‘To the Fig Tree at 9th and Christian’ gets at it—gets at what it means for us to come together despite the brutal history we’ve inherited, or even enacted. I think that fig tree is a kind of mercy.”

More here.

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I’m grateful to Scott, a former colleague, for putting this cool thing on Facebook. Looking at these healthy, growing plants is especially warming today, now that the temperature has gone back to 15 F.

Tim Blank at Future Growing LLC (which produces vertical aeroponic food farms) writes, “When you hear about a farm that supplies all-natural, sustainable produce, using 90% less water and 90% less land, one that utilizes the most advanced vertical aeroponic technology on earth, you surely would not guess it would be an Amish farm.

“Yet in Topeka, Indiana, you cannot get produce that is more local, fresh, healthy, and sustainable — even in the middle of an Indiana blizzard — like you can get at Sunrise Hydroponics, an Amish farm.

“Sunrise Hydroponics is owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Marlin and Loretta Miller on their rural farm in Topeka. I have had the privilege of working with the Amish community for more than half a decade, and have come to learn that, while their lives seem simple to many outsiders, their homes, farms, and businesses are highly innovative. The Amish utilize cutting-edge and creative forms of technology to improve their lives, while still falling within the guidelines of their belief system.” Read more here.

Greenhouse at Sunrise Hydroponics

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