A Very Gratifying Experience

Finally, to round out the summer here is a post that’s not about anything much. Just a reminisce of some good times. And the best part is the state of Texas picked up the tab.

Last year when I decided to quit my job and retire I cast about for something to take up my slack time. When the opportunity presented itself to assist in the review of curriculum materials for Texas public schools I volunteered.

About every year the Texas Education Agency (TEA) reviews new materials for adoption. Publishers submit books and on-line course material for review, and in November the State Board of Education (SBOE) votes to adopt or reject each item. In the mean time volunteers check the submitted material for compliance with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and the English Language Proficiency Standards (ELPS). This year the TEA is reviewing new materials for high school physics courses, and since I have a degree in physics I was selected to help with the review.

I am not saying the work is 100% fun, but there was a lot of personal satisfaction involved. My high school experience is over 50 years in the rear view mirror, but I recall we had excellent books and a fine teacher in my small Texas school. What most impresses me is the level of sophistication addressed in today’s physics courses and in the other courses, as well. Students who master this material by the time they graduate will be well-prepared for college level work and for employment working knowledge even if they do not attend college.

The first phase was strictly at home. Reviews were conducted on my computer, sometimes using Internet access to the publishers’ on-line curricula. This was not a sometime task. Each review involved hundreds of items of compliance for both student and teacher TEKS sections. It was a strain for me to complete my reviews within the two weeks available.

The fun part, however, came this summer when teams met in Austin to conduct the final reviews. Apart from closely resembling my previous full-time job, this was a fresh opportunity to meet like-minded people interested in the education of our students. For these sessions each team worked in collaboration at a table and got to know one another well. There were four at my table for the physics review, and I was the only one who was not a dedicated public school teacher. These full-time teachers were a pleasure to work with, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

Here’s the happy team at physics table 19. There’s Angie, Scott and Michelle at the table. I’m the geeky guy in the bat t-shirt.

Table 19

Besides the teachers there were a number of highly professional TEA employees who directed the whole operation, managed us and kept us all on track. They were all knowledgeable about their tasks and were dedicated and tireless workers.

Besides that, for a retired guy there’s nothing like getting out of the house for a few days. Barbara Jean said no way was she going out of town five days with me and leave the plants to bake in the Texas sun. So, for a few days I was on my own, watching what I wanted to on TV at night and eating what I wanted and when I wanted. And the best part is the state of Texas was picking up the tab.

Volunteers didn’t get paid, but the TEA put us up in a nice hotel, and I kept thinking about the words to an old Kingston Trio song. The title is Bad Man’s Blunder, and the song contains the following lyrics:

When I was arrested; why, I didn’t have a dime. The sheriff said, “Son, you’re ridin’ free this time.
Where you’re goin’ you won’t need a cent ’cause the great state of Texas gonna pay your rent.

That was a thrill. It’s been over 40 years since Texas ever paid my bills.

Anyhow, the first session was at the Airport Hilton, and what a place that is. In a previous life Austin’s Bergstrom Airport was Bergstrom Air Force Base, and they flew B-52 bombers out of there. The hotel is the base’s renovated command center. I tell you, when the ghost of Conrad Hilton wants to jazz up a military shack, wonderful things happen. Here’s the lobby as it looks now.

Airport Hilton lobby

Nice, what?

But all fun aside, real work got done at the review. Here’s another photo showing in the mass of volunteers and TEA employees taking care of business.

Your tax dollars at work

My previous contract job had been in Austin, and there were people there I needed to visit. Also my daughter, who was desirous of a father-daughter dine out experience with father picking up the tab. OK, that was fun.

I also ran into some other people from out of my past, and that was rather gratifying. Early in my first Austin session I noticed the projector screen at the front of the room had messages for people. One was for Walter Bradley.

I thought, “That’s strange, because I know a famous creationist named Walter Bradley.” Surprise! I later got a chance to hook up with him again after many years.

We were fortunate the SBOE was in session in Austin, and as it turned out SBOE chairwoman Barbara Cargill paid us a visit. Scott, who was at physics table 19, is from The Woodlands, Texas, Cargill’s home town. She had nominated Scott to the review panel and dropped by our table to talk to us. I took this opportunity to seek assistance from the chairwoman, since she was likely to be able to help me if anybody could. In my at-home reviews I had noticed discrepancies in some of the materials, and the compliance tool we work with provides a place to note problems and to make suggestions. I asked Ms. Cargill if I would be getting any feed-back on my suggestions, and she assured me she would inquire and make sure this would happen.

I also got to meet Dr. Bradley later in the day. I had gotten word that some other people I knew were at the session, including Ray Bohlin and Ide Trotter. I had met Dr. Bradley at a symposium at SMU in 1992, and I had met Bohlin and Trotter at a symposium in Dallas in 2003. I spotted Bohlin and Trotter at one of the biology review tables and wandered over after talking to Barbara Cargill.

I struck up a conversation with Ide Trotter and reminded him of our meeting, nearly ten years previous. He remarked on my keen memory, but he should not have been amazed, because I had taken his photo at the time, so my memory was quite fresh. Dr. Trotter is a noted creationist, and I was very interested in talking to him about any progress his movement has made with Intelligent Design in the past ten years. He assured me Intelligent Design is on solid ground.

Also, Barbara Cargill joined us in our conversation. Dr. Trotter and I were discussing Intelligent Design when she walked up, and I am afraid she was confused and thought I was a creationist. She remarked “I’m one of you,” and gave us a reassuring clap on the shoulder. She conferred for a moment with Dr. Trotter over some notes, and she went off to visit other volunteers.

After Ms. Cargill left us I felt a little embarrassed, and I hoped I had not given the wrong impression. I reminded Dr. Trotter that I had previously headed up The North Texas Skeptics, and we were strongly supportive of the teaching the science of biological evolution in public schools. Dr. Trotter assured me that he, too, wanted evolution taught, only he wanted the correct facts to be taught.

I asked Dr. Trotter if he knew where Walter Bradley was, and he pointed him out at another of the biology review tables. I went over and introduced myself. There was no way he remembered me after more than twenty years, but I must say he has not changed much. I did not hesitate to pick up the dialog on biological evolution with him again, and I found him to be delightful to talk with as always. He is a very intelligent man and is sincere in his beliefs. I had Dr. Bradley and Dr. Trotter to pose for a photo, and I later sent copies to them. Here they are. That’s Walter Bradley and Ide Trotter from left to right.

I enjoy talking to people like Bradley and Trotter. Barbara Jean keeps telling me we need to meet more people with interests like our own, but I remind her that I really have more interest in talking to people with whom I disagree. I tend to keep some distance with people who only tell me what I want to hear.

Toward the end of my first week at the review the TEA announced they needed volunteers for the third and final session the following week. I volunteered again and came back after a weekend at home.

The third session was held at a hotel by the freeway in north Austin, and it was close to the home of an old racing buddy. When I say old, I mean that at several levels. James Gardner is pushing 80 and I have known him solidly since he rode his Honda down to Torreon in Mexico for Las Seis Horas de la Laguna, a six-hour endurance race run on the city streets in 1967. I popped over to visit James a couple of times, once to take a bunch of photos and once to hoist a few glasses of Guinness at a local pub. Here’s a photo.

James on his vintage 305 Honda

Also, Barbara Cargill was back to visit the final week, and she thanked me for volunteering a second time. Of course I would not have missed the opportunity for anything, and I’m hoping to have the chance to do this again another year. Readers who live in Texas should give some thought to this, as well. You have a tremendous stake in the success of the curriculum for our kids.

8 thoughts on “A Very Gratifying Experience

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