Allan November and Me


Recently, we met with Alan November at the infamous Union Oyster Bar in downtown Boston. It was a bit surreal chatting with this icon of the educational world over a 2 hour chowder in the booth next to Kennedy’s infamous booth in one of Boston’s original institutions. He was most generous to meet us in town to spend his valuable time with strangers and talk education. Thank you.

Mr. November has such a large network and set of experiences to draw upon. I love that he talked about practical examples of classrooms and teachers that he knows- theory put to practical use. I found it interesting that he told a story about a physics teacher that I should absolutely meet and with whom I should spend some time as a fellow physics teacher. It turns out, that he was speaking about Robert Goodman, someone I already knew. Robert and I were both back-to-back guest presenters at the SMART Technologies Collaborative Classroom way back in ISTE San Antonio 2013 just before they released Smart AMP; even before it had a name or a platform. He presented on how he is using SMART Notebook to bring a needed level of continuity and consistency to physics teachers in New Jersey and how they were recruiting and training physics teachers with his SMART Notebook content. I presented on my design of the Collaborative Classroom, the same room in which we were presenting.

The more we chatted with Alan, the more we realized that we were on the right track. We have been pushing the boundaries a little bit and were uncertain how far the pendulum should swing. He confirmed almost everything that we said. While I have been using technology and STEM and STEAM etc.. he warned me not to get attached to a particular piece of kit or acronym or program because they will not stand the test of time. However, good teaching will. That is exactly what I have been working hard to do. As I present around the world, my father , a retired master teacher, often remarks, oh, that is so 1974 or 1989 or 2003. He has seen the pendulum swing left and right and back again multiple times. Dad would say that there are lots of kinds of students who need lots of kinds of teaching strategies regardless of the program, the school improvement plan, the acronym, the buzzwords or the posters.

Alan November makes me think about my classroom. On the outside, my classroom looks tech rich, but quick observers do not take the time to see that the devil is in the details. Observers are blinded by the tech and do not take the time to see the small but critical nuances in the PEDAGOGY that tech allows to happen, that is the real nugget of innovation and the real difference in making our students future ready. For example, when I say that I use SMART Boards, people only hear SMART Boards and move on because they have gone as far as they can go with that tech without listening to how much further and different we have gone. The same thing happens with Probeware, O365, SPAN Walls etc… I need to find a better way to elevator pitch the critical nuances. While we use the same terms, I am uncertain we have the same understanding. When we use STEM, STEAM, Collaboration and Critical Thinking, I worry that observers too quickly dismiss what we are doing and say, “we are doing that too” and miss the golden nuggets that make it different.

It seems odd that a physics and chemistry teacher from small town Riverview New Brunswick is interacting with people like Alan November, that he is recommending we talk to people, some of whom I have already interacted, and confirmed a path that I started a number of years ago, long before STEM, STEAM, Global Competencies were in vogue. I believe our ideas will last long after these terms have been replaced with the next round of terminology to describe what good teaching in the 4th industrial revolution might be.

CJ STEM, STEAM and Beyond…Personalized learning

The curtains rise to the first song which rocked the house! Despite all the lights, the music, jumping around, I saw a familiar look in his eyes as he rocked the guitar and the spot light changed from the first character to the him, the lead of a Broadway hit. He is living his dream. Every strum of the power chord was a friendly invitation to all those who thought his path was frivolous, to see him now.

Tonight, I went to see one of my previous students as the lead in “School of Rock” on Broadway. I was teary before it even began. Teaching is the most wonderful and important professions of all.

school of rock 2

Ten years ago, this very energetic student took my high school physics class.  While, he was personable, enthusiastic, respectful and made reasonable grades, he often seemed distracted and was distracting. Multiple times a week, he pestered me to go to the chem lab and “blow something up”. I finally had a few moments of sub crazy to take him to the lab. His eyes popped out of his head the first time we made a charcoal flare. I hoped this single outing had appeased his badgering. I was wrong.

The next day, his eyes told me he wanted to go back to the chem lab. It clicked in my head that there was something here. I took a breath, took a moment and pondered. How might I capture this spark, and personalize his learning to develop his passion. You see, the same talent and skill that was the Bain of many teachers’ classrooms, also made him a national level improv actor and coach.

“What if we did a chemistry road show? You could flip through this book of chemistry and physics demonstrations, learn the science, write a script, design some costumes, prepare the chemicals (under supervision), run some dress rehearsals and then actually take it on the road to the local elementary and middle schools.”

“We CAN? …YEAH!!” Within the week, he gathered a team of 5 around him and had written a first draft.

We spent a couple of lunches and after schools learning about endothermic and exothermic reactions, collision theory, the effect of particle size on kinetics, catalysts and thermodynamics. They spent much more time figuring out how to incorporate the demonstrations in to a cohesive, reasonable script, complete with considerations for showmanship and logistics.

I did not recognize then what I have since come to know as truth, “use areas of confidence to explore areas of uncomfortableness”. Like working out, learning is painful and scary. So, I used his confidence and passion for performing to teach the science that he was previously distracted to learn.

We had multiple successful performances that involved dry ice, liquid nitrogen, flames, smoke and discrepant events. On the last demonstration of our last performances, someone had not mixed the correct ratio of chemicals and it produced more smoke than expected. While there was no danger to the kids, the sports event that was scheduled for later that day had to be postponed.

I believe this had a positive impact on his final grades. While he knew the content of the Chemistry Road show inside and out, he also seemed to understand the rest of the content better too. I never had to worry about a distracted or distracting student, even when we were doing word problems.

One day as graduation approached, the grads were discussing the various paths and schools that each would pursue. He told the group that he was going to attend Second City in Chicago for improv. I congratulated him with enthusiasm; however, the whispers around the student tables and the staff room were largely something like, “go ahead, get that improv thing out of your system and we will see you after your gap year?” or “when will you grow up Peter Pan?” or “who does he think he is, going off to Second City..does he think he is good enough to be on SNL? Doesn’t he know he is from New Brunswick”

Facebook allowed me to keep infrequent and loose connection to him as he did dinner theater, improv, got a teacher’s license and even got married.

One evening just a year ago, I had a moment of déjà vu when I saw a car commercial. Surely that cannot be CJ. Come to find out not only was he in a couple of commercials, but he had some appearances in some TV episodes, had an animated series that he wrote picked up by NetFlix and was starring as the lead in School of Rock!!

school of rock 1

Recently, I found myself on Broadway, skipping the long line up to pick up reserved tickets at the box office for School of Rock. It was a bit overwhelming walking into the theatre with the pressed tin ceilings, the red drapes, lineups at the concession stand. Ushers were directing people to their seats and the beautiful large red curtain with the snake and School of Rock logo. CJ’s picture and bio was front and center with super impressive bios of the other extremely well decorated veterans. He was in the spotlight surrounded by wonderfulness. As the guests file in, dressed in their Broadway best, you can hear the excitement in the voices of both the little kids and the adults. The magnitude and significance began to hit home. While others where talking about the rumours of how good he was, I was telling my colleague stories of his antics in class and using a flare to smoking out the elementary students. I was not sure that I had contributed in anyway to his success, yet I felt such a sense of fatherly pride because I was fortunate to witness his development first hand.

The curtains rise to the first song which rocked the house! Despite all the lights, the music, jumping around, I saw a familiar look in his eyes as he rocked the guitar and the spot light changed from the first character to the him, the lead of a Broadway hit. He is living his dream. Every strum of the power chord was a friendly invitation to all those who thought his path was frivolous, to see him now.

The lyrics that he sings parallel much of his high school experience. “At the top of Mount Rock, The doubters, and the Haters, and the hipsters let ‘em laugh, Soon they’ll all be begging for my roadie’s autograph. I know my time is coming, Well, hopefully its coming, I’m pretty sure its coming any day. Once they hear me Play !!! Then the dream that I had since the day I turned 10 will be finally coming true and no one’ll call me a loser again, or tell me what I can’t do. “

It is not lost on me the irony. One song talks about sticking it to the man, all the people trying to tell you what you can or cannot do, to put limits on your dreams and box you in. I laughed out loud. Later, in the parent’s night scene, he has to explain to the adults who are charged with developing kids into wonderful adults, to look beyond a score on a test about how intelligent and talented his students truly were. One of the songs (listen to me) behoves the adults to put away their preconceived notions of their kids and to take a moment, to breath and pay attention. “I’ve got so much inside, If only you would listen” “you just don’t want to see the real me…  but I promise one day I’ll make you hear.”

The standing ovation started very early by all those around me and lasted a long time, confirmed that even those newly connected to him thought he was as awesome as I did. I am uncertain they had a tear falling of both cheeks like I did.

school of rock 4

We waited outside the stage door for 30 min while the cast signed autographs for everyone, despite a physically and emotionally draining performance. A cast member comes out to the street and yells out my name over the noise of the crowd…Ian….Ian…. CJ wants you to come back stage. I arrive on stage in the middle of a photoshoot with fans. In the middle of the picture, he yells…”that is my physics teacher”. The picture is taken, he runs and jumps, feet off the ground into a huge hug. Laughing the whole way. He told everyone that he heard me laugh and pointed out where I must have been sitting. “It had been a long time since I heard Fogarty’s laugh.” After a pic on set, he showed me his dressing room, the same room that gave Linda Ronstat her start. He made it to the top of the Mount Rock.

We went out for something to eat and drink. The bouncers and waitresses all know him by name, and give him hugs, fist bumps …a la TV series Cheers. After a few minutes of speechlessness, I tell him how proud I am of him and I hope he is proud. His response will most certainly be a turning point in my career.

Some precursor. Over the past year and even just on the drive down to NY, I had talked with my car pooling colleague that I have been wondering about my effectiveness as a classroom teacher. While I am trying to be relevant and develop kids through teaching science, am I just transferring science knowledge? Should I continue teaching? Am I making a difference?

In the bar on 8th street, CJ said, you should be proud. My teachers did not know what to do with me. I was done my work, had lots of energy, lots of enthusiasm and personality. One teacher actually said, go back and put your head on the desk while you wait. Others did similar. But you were one of my seminal teachers. You took a moment, you listened, you saw my passion and created something for me.” There were other activities in school like student council, coffee houses and most importantly, IMPROV that allowed him to express himself. The Chemistry Road Show was the only place in school that embraced him and used his areas of confidence to explore uncomfortable learning. “I can still tell you about endo and endothermic reactions, kinetics, the recipes, the ratios and the procedure.” This was terribly encouraging to me. Personalization through contextualization.

Then he says, you care about your students and about your content. I still remember the day you talked about candles in space (microgravity) and time travel. He then proceeds to give details as evidence that this silly lecture I gave over a decade ago had stuck.

Conclusions… As I write this blog, I find it interesting that in some ways, maybe there are some small similarities between the way I teach science and the way School of Rock suggests education could be. Perhaps a book should be written that describes the educational philosophy that is hyperbolically described in the School of Rock. Aren’t there funny parallels to CJ’s life to those of his on stage students.

Do we provide time and space in our day, our curriculum and assessments to pause, listen to kids, see who they might be, see beyond what they might see for themselves and point them on their personalized way?


A 1st Year Uni Student Perspective part 2: Engineering Brightness Leads to Research

A student perspective given at the Atlantic Regional Liberal Summit attended by the Provincial Premier’s, the Federal Ministers and federal MPs.


As an Integrated Science student, a big part of second semester is the opportunity to do research, and I was so thankful to have done Engineering Brightness before I started the research. Engineering Brightness and all the experiences it gave me, have lead me to one of the greatest experiences I have ever had: the opportunity to work with a group to study the uniformity and dosimetry of radiation when a 3D bolus is used in external beam radiation therapy for cancer treatment.

Having all the research opportunities pitched to us, we were told to expect having to learn to 3D model and 3D print, as well as a large time commitment greater than that anticipated when signing up for this program. I was the only one with experience in 3D printing and design already from Engineering Brightness, as well as a history of time commitment on top of schooling. I could confidently dive into this research opportunity and explore my passion for medicine with minimal emotional trauma. Since these skills were different from those taught in regular high school, this made me appear even more qualified. In fact, my supervisor told me that there was a huge portion of people who wanted the same project I did, but I was chosen over the others.

I believe Engineering Brightness has caused a chain reaction in my life. I was doing real work for real people, exploring a passion of mine, as well as learning plenty of other new skills not taught in first year university. It has allowed me to adapt and make my world bigger, which in turn has lead to more opportunities. I am hoping these will lead me to even more opportunities such as med school or wherever else my life may take me. Either way, I know very well that Engineering Brightness was probably the best decision I ever made in high school.

Engineering Brightness Student Persective after 1st year Uni: The Purpose of Learning #student perspective

A student perspective given at the Atlantic Regional Liberal Summit attended by the Provincial Premier’s, the Federal Ministers and federal MPs.


Engineering Brightness has had long term effects on me after leaving high school and starting post secondary education. I am in Dalhousie’s Integrated Science program, a competitive program accepting around 70 students from first year to take part, meaning that from the nearly 1000 students going into their first year, it was competitive. I had the same level of biology as many other kids, my marks weren’t valedictorian level good, nor was I an athlete. What made me different, was Engineering Brightness and the fact I was being the change I wanted to see in the world. This made me an individual and not just a number: B00766752.

Great, I got in. One thing I was not fully prepared for, was the challenge of first year university in an elite program such as Integrated Science. It was challenging in a way my high school had not prepared me for; more assignments in a week than I had in a semester of high school and an environment where the stress of succeeding is higher than any other time in my life (I mean after all I am paying for my school, any amount of effort less than my all was a waste of my own money). It was challenging, but I had the environment of Engineering Brightness for the last few years, and I could use Engineering Brightness to help me get through the tough days. As cheesy at it sounds, I’d remind myself of my involvement within EB when times got particularly stressful or busy. Could I really get all this work done on time? of course I could, I’d designed and built my own light that was now in the Dominican Republic. When I wake up early in the morning and sleeping until noon sounds like the best idea ever, I get up and go to class no matter how much I dislike earth science labs because Engineering Brightness instilled the ideology that my education was an important tool for both myself but even more important, for helping others. Even though I don’t see first hand how learning about igneous rock composition will help others, that mentality has remained across all my subjects.

Engineering Brightness has given me a set of skills and mentality that I can draw from to help me in every other aspect of my life. Engineering Brightness has given purpose to my learning and strength to persevere. The purpose of learning is to build capacity so that I can help others.

Engineering Brightness & Global Competencies that Changed a Kid’s Life- A student perspective

DP_studentsA student perspective given at the Atlantic Regional Liberal Summit attended by the Provincial Premier’s, the Federal Ministers and federal MPs.

I’ve been a part of Engineering Brightness since grade 10. I am currently a first year university student. I’m here today to talk to you, the Atlantic Summit of Liberal Federal Ministers, Premiers from all four provinces and MLAs, about my experience with Engineering Brightness, the skills I developed and how it changed the trajectory of my life.

I learned a lot during my time with Engineering Brightness including: CAD work, soldering, the dynamics of electricity, technical writing for presentation proposals and even empathy.

For me, The biggest thing that came from Engineering Brightness was confidence and public speaking. What a lot of people don’t realize is that ever since I was little I have had a speech impediment due to surgical complications resulting in paralysis in my throat. This has always affected the way I talk, and caused me great anxiety when any form of presentation was proposed. I was unable to present to people. I would stand in silence and wait to be told to sit back down. I would turn red, sweat and hyperventilate when a teacher asked me to answer a simple question. Even though I knew the answer, I froze. Then a couple of interesting things happened that I can genuinely say changed my life.

Through Engineering Brightness I was given the opportunity to present a poster at the ISEC STEAM conference at Princeton University and again at the ISTE conference in Denver with nearly 19,000 delegates. I was passionate enough about the work, that it gave me confidence to speak to a whole room of strangers. After these challenging opportunities, speaking to a class of 30 friends was simple. In fact, later, I was able to present an entire project in my second language for an hour and… even asked a girl to prom at the end.. as if it were nothing.

Confidence and Public Speaking are skills I get to take away from Engineering Brightness that will benefit me in ways that I cannot yet realize. Three years ago, I wouldn’t even be in this room, let alone on stage. I have always been interested in Law as a career, but my self confidence about speaking kept me away. Engineering Brightness has removed that barrier and now I am in an undergraduate degree to study law.