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More Than Memorization: Lessons in UFO Construction

My father, as he remembers it, spent his entire second grade year sleeping behind the puppet theater. He was bored in school and the teacher didn’t want to see him sleeping at his desk, so she put him out of sight and out of her mind. As a result, he did not learn to read. The next year, he was placed in the special education program and although he has some interesting stories about some of his experiences in school, they do not include literacy instruction, high expectations, or teachers who believed in him. At 15, he dropped out of school and at 18, he was a father. 

It’s not hard to imagine that I am a better reader than him, a better speller, and that I was much more successful in school than him. For much of my life, I even thought I was smarter than him, because that is the narrative that he told me and, quite frankly, the narrative I learned from school. If you can read, you are smart. If you memorize, you are smart. If you behave and follow directions, you are a good student. This narrative changed, however, in one defining moment during my senior year of high school as I completed my senior project. It was a moment that would forever change the way I viewed being smart, learning, and education on the whole. I can see it in my mind’s eye clearly.

When I was a high school senior, I took a course called Humanities. It was considered a Capstone Experience and only a few motivated students were selected to participate each year. One of the required elements of the course was to design and implement an independent learning project. We had to research a topic, learn a new skill and demonstrate our learning by creating a product or through live demonstration. My research topic: The literary history of UFO’s. My skill: welding. My product: a spaceship. For assistance, I asked my father who had, in his adult life, learned to read well enough pass the GED, and became an experienced welder and metal fabricator. He was very excited to help me. It was really the first time he could help me with a school project.

Carisa's UFO project

Carisa's UFO project

We were at the shop and he brought out a very large piece of flexible cardboard. First lesson: create a prototype. He asked me what shape I wanted my spaceship to look like. I described it and he drew out the shape. The next thing I know there is this formula, and it’s reminiscent of something I solved in Geometry class two years prior. Our conversation went something like this:

“Carisa, solve this problem while I go get some materials.”

 “Hold on, Dad. I can’t solve this. I don’t know where to begin.”

 “What do you mean? You took geometry. You passed the class.”

 “Yes, and I memorized what I needed to and passed the test and I don’t remember how to do this.”

 “What? You’re going to get a high school diploma. I have my GED.”

I really could not solve the problem on my own.  As surprised as he was that I, an honor society student, could not solve what was to him a relatively simple geometric formula, I was equally surprised that my father, who was functionally illiterate for most of his life, could solve the problem with such ease. In that moment, I learned what smart was and what smart was not.

In that moment I also felt a little ashamed at my hubris and a little indignant about the fact that I had wasted a year in geometry class memorizing formulas and had learned nothing about how they could be applied. When else had I memorized for a test and a grade that I could have spent time learning how to do something, build something or change something? 

During my presentation, I had to present my research, my product, and my learnings. Twenty years later, I can’t recall much about my research on UFOs and I can’t say much about welding technique but remember clearly what I learned: 1.) welding is not for me, 2.) math can help you build things, and 3.) being smart is more than just memorizing for the test. 

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