polite dinner guests


beersamplerOver the years, John and I have shared many meals and drinks together. Perhaps this is why we use the model of “polite dinner guests” as the standard for potential Crossroads participants. Invited people should be able to listen attentively and engage constructively. Representing diverse backgrounds and perspectives, they’re the kind of people that you hate to see go, and those whom you’d like to host at your table again. They are willing to sample new appetizers and enthusiastically clear the dishes at the opportune time.

Your own experience at Crossroads is a powerful resource for detecting and inviting additional guests to the table.* You can help us to enrich the pool of participants with even more witty, creative, driven, critical, and generous individuals. Think about who might be a good person to welcome and have sitting across from you at this table. Ideally they would have a background that would complement the dinner party — a new scholar in science education, a teacher emboldened to take students to a National Park, an artist working to sketch collaborations with a science classroom, perhaps an engineering educator building a bridge to help us with NGSS, etc. But they would also be ready to articulate a personally professional challenge and equally receptive to input.  The ideal dinner guest listens attentively and contributes thoughtfully, more enchanted by the ideas of others than by the sound of their own voice.

Give it some thought, but don’t rush this identification process. Allow time for it to marinate (or perhaps ferment), because finding great Crossroads people should not be done in haste. In truth, the very best candidates are those who may not actively be seeking an invitation, though they often understand the objective quite clearly. Should you uncover someone who might be good to add to the mix, let them know that this year’s Crossroads will be held in Cleveland on October 1-3, 2015, and proposals are due by May 16. (And I suppose we just let you, dear reader and subscriber, know this information as well.) If you and others can help bring guests to the table, we will do our part to make sure to have the other ingredients and the ideal chef on hand.



*There is a long-standing tradition of us inviting great people to Crossroads, and this has led some to believe that the only way to gain entry is by receiving a golden ticket from John or Adam. Not only is this not true, there’s no way it could be sustained. The point of inviting people is to help identify and encourage those who will understand Crossroads and its purpose. Because the meeting is so hard to explain sometimes, it’s best represented by a previous attendee’s testimonial. That’s why we’re calling on you.

a new collage


heatherinprivateFor a long time, both in rhetoric and in active contemplation, we have wondered Where is Heather? If you’re new to this conversation, here’s a brief history: Heather was a 9th grader featured in the iconic Private Universe video. This program began with interviews of Harvard students on graduation day being asked to explain causes for seasons and moon phases. Heather and several classmates attending the public school across the street expressed similar confusion about these topics. Many science educators were introduced to alternative conceptions, conceptual change, and qualitative research via this video. This articulate 14-year-old showed us that the bright student could misconstrue ideas in all kinds of amazing ways, and at the same time enamor us with logic and resourcefulness.

The problem is that Heather isn’t a 14-year-old anymore. Like others who “grew up” into science teacher educators, during each science methods course we pull the video off the shelf as if Heather is a preserved specimen in a jar. However, Heather is not the character we have contrived. Science educators cobbled together an involved narrative about Heather based on a few hours of classroom video and a handful of individual interviews. This fiction does not describe who Heather is now, nor ever was. We should be embarrassed that we turned a 1987 ninth grader into an unwitting paragon for science education. Further, we ought to be ashamed by our complicity since no one gave Heather any influence over her persona. True: her mother signed a video permission form. However, the science education community treated this as a license to invent stories based in a reality as thin as the VHS tape on which Heather was recorded.

Heather engages us in making our own mistakes.

Heather encourages us to embrace mistakes. (All photos by Ron Proctor)

Through a series of serendipitous events and surreptitious efforts, we have been able to follow-up with the real Heather. When the two of us talked with her over an extended lunch about her life since the Private Universe, she dished out considerable food for thought. When we invited her to share with a larger audience, she brilliantly devised ways to communicate her musing by engaging the attendees at the 2014 Crossroads in a collective craft project. Along the way, we became acquainted with the real, genuine, adult Heather who, like all of us, is a collage of experiences, relationships and aspirations for the future.

Making art with Heather

Making art with Heather

But are we falling into the same trap once again? Here we are: talking about Heather, posting images of her in a manner reminiscent of the actions by the Private Universe creators. This concern was voiced during our Town Hall session at the end of our conference. Interestingly, this revelation was magnified as our time with Heather increased. She interacted with the conference attendees for twice as long as she had with Private Universe videographers. Along the way we learned that Heather embraced her role in science education, and that she was more than her 9th grade self and those misconceptions. In retrospect, this should have seemed obvious; but we have been enculturated. Moreover, so many of us had “used” Heather, her image and her youthful eloquence, to such good effect for so long that we’d forgotten that Heather was substantially more than a voice describing indirect light in ways that confound scientists but are reasonable to architects.

Although we went to great lengths to make bring Heather into the conversation on her own terms and as her own self, we realized the potential for not representing Heather as she wants to be. It would be reasonable and responsible to ask Heather makes of all of this. It turns out she described it before we had the chance to inquire. Incidentally, we agree with her that this professional learning event is better than Disneyland. In fact, we’ve been especially delighted to see that she intuits Crossroads better than most:

The goal of this activity is to leave the conference
with two pieces of original art. One piece is purely
yours. The second piece is a collaborative artwork.
These two artworks represent the purpose of the
Crossroads conference; you leave with both the
progress you’ve made on your own work, alongside
the impressions made by participating with your
colleagues’ work.

The literal and metaphorical use of a collage was a gift from Heather to all of us. We produced something not by avoiding mistakes, but by embracing them. We worked together, side-by-side and eventually left with new pieces contributed by others that we packed into our bags. In turn we gifted pieces of our own background, experiences, and ongoing efforts towards the ventures of colleagues. The exchanges occurred while producing cut-and-paste craft collages as well as through our collegial conversation. People brought their Vexations and Ventures and left with them thoroughly cut apart and reworked.

XRoaders dig in to collage making.

XRoaders dig in to collage making

During our time with Heather, we learned that despite our imaginations we still were not fully prepared for what would transpire. Initially, there was the awe that we had forged an intersection between Heather and ourselves. Those who know us well just nod (or shake) their heads and say “of course you invited Heather.” It was all in a day’s work/play: the same whimsy and gumption that created Crossroads in the first place. Still, our amazement that Heather-of-Private-Universe was our contracted presenter was replaced by a collective awe of Heather-the-artist/teacher/mother. We did not fully realize all that we could learn from Heather. And yet somehow she knew and took the license and liberties we granted her. The most important lesson was not that Heather’s misconceptions didn’t disable her for life – although that’s important to note. Rather we were reminded about the necessity of continually reaching out to others for fresh perspectives, advice, and inspiration. That’s why Crossroads first came into existence. From now on, each time we see the 9th grader in Private Universe, there will be the reminders about the real Heather and the important lessons she continues to craft for others.

Despite all the lessons about graciousness and generosity, many at Crossroads asked to be photographed with Heather. Each request began with: “I’m sorry, but is it too weird to ask if we could get a picture together?” Heather knowingly accepted the role she had in so many of our science educator trajectories, gladly posing for those portraits. John and I were just as pleased as anyone else.

Heather & John

Heather & John

Adam & Heather


professional learning


Hear that? It’s the shuffling of papers back and forth as John and I are reviewing proposals for this year’s conference. This is one of those episodes of my work life that I look forward to. Really. It’s lots of work, but the kind that I want to dive into and indulge in. People submit problems and pose real solutions, and I get to be one of the first two people to interact with this. Generally, John makes a run through with edits and comments along with his advice and recommendation; and then I get to follow, either adding to or countering the advice he gives. There’s this strangely effective and engaging trialogue going on between the original author and the two reviewers. This gets captured in the margins of the page and our colored-font appendices of each of your papers, and it often extends into the final draft and presentation.

And then there’s this anticipation, like the one I start to develop as I look at a summer concert lineup or a beer tap list. We get to see these pieces and not only help with their development, but also imagine how they’ll pair with others in incubator sessions as well as the overall program. It’s a very human endeavor, complete with a true excitement. Those of you attending this fall will see John and I hopping up and down like little 8-year-old boys, delighted to see our friends and the party that has finally started after all those months of planning.

All this has been swimming in my consciousness as I just saw that our publication about Crossroads has just come out to press in the slick pages of ASCD’s Educational Leadership:

Settlage, J. & Johnston, A. (2014). The Crossroads Model. Educational Leadership, 71(8), 67-70.

You’re welcome to cite this often. It’s also useful to show to deans, spouses, and others who may doubt that this meeting and its format could be a real thing. Some of you are even described and photographed within this 4-page documentary.

The piece is inserted into a focused issue entitled, “Professional Learning Reimagined.” We thought that Crossroads was a good example of this reimagination, and this gave us a good forum to present and document the model. Yet, the most striking thing to me is that within this issue our model is sandwiched in between descriptions of a MOOC model and a “flipped” model for professional development. These are both perfectly legitimate and important in this day and age, but as I’ve described the human elements of the conversation before and during Crossroads, I realize that our very simple, low-tech model of describing a problem and talking to one another may actually be a genuine innovation. When we crafted Crossroads, the impetus was a frustration that other conference structures — including every technology introduced to meetings — actually place barriers between people. If Crossroads does nothing else, I hope that it continues to forge connections between us and between our professional efforts. I can’t think of anything more vital in professional learning.