Friday, April 11, 2008
Carlisle Public School teacher Alan Ticotsky is a science giant
Alan Ticotsky has taught at the Carlisle Public School for over 30 years and is a successful writer of books on science for grades four through eight. The Mosquito asked him about his writing, his teaching and how they interrelate.
How did your writing career begin?
I began my teaching career in a private school that was essentially a teacher-parent cooperative. I had to find or create curriculum and couldn’t find exactly what I wanted. After all the work putting together a coherent curriculum, I knew I had built something others might find useful. With help from my wife Jane, who was already a professional author, I sent samples to about ten publishers and kept getting rejection letters. When Good Year Books, at the time a subsidiary of Scott Foresman, expressed interest, it was very gratifying. I guess I was very methodical and frequently discouraged, but it still was a pleasant surprise when my first book, Who Says You Can’t Teach Science?, was accepted for publication [in 1986].
And that book was followed by a series?
Yes, soon after Who Says You Can’t Teach Science? was published, I began to plan another. I had an outline and filled it in over the course of several years, revising and improving it as I tested lessons in my classroom. I also gave workshops to other teachers and had a growing sense of what would be most useful. Eventually I had a manuscript I thought worthy of publication. However, the book was a hybrid that lacked focus. It had lessons and activities that teachers could use and also stories about the history of science. I couldn’t decide how to reconcile the two elements of the book but kept tweaking the format and submitting it to publishers.
After lots of disappointment and publishers’ rejections, Good Year Books contacted authors saying they wanted to expand their list. My editor there and I decided on a format that would combine an activity and a student reading piece in each lesson. We expanded it to a series named Science Giants, with three separate titles: Science Giants Earth and Space, Science Giants Life Science, and Science Giants Physical Science. It was a lot of work over a fairly short period of time, but I was gratified to see my work finally make it into print.
What age group do the books target?
The books are designed for teachers, parents and students in grades four through eight. Activities in the books illustrate major concepts and advances in science. A short reading about the history of science follows the description of each activity. A list of people and ideas to research for further study is included, as well as a glossary of terms.
My goal was to provide an overview of the history of science, emphasizing the ideas as well as the discoverers. Understanding “how we know what we know” helps make science accessible to students.
How did you approach the subject matter?
I have frequently learned science by looking at the historical development of important concepts. What were the paradigm shifts and how did they occur? How do we know what we know? Isaac Newton credited his predecessors when he answered a question about why he could see and understand so much more about the natural world than others. Although he may not have coined the phrase, Newton’s response is well known. He said he stood “... on the shoulders of giants.” That was the working title of my book for more than ten years.
Since your wife is an author, does she critique your work?
My wife, Jane Sutton, has published several children’s books over time. She works part-time as a tutor at Fisher College in Boston. She has greatly helped me with writing on a variety of projects. She is an outstanding editor and taught me to write early in my career. I had many bad habits, and her advice was “Decide what you want to say and say it in the simplest way possible.” My wife is a real author. I consider myself a teacher who has written books, while she is a writer who teaches. Jane is an extremely creative storyteller and very graceful writer. Her web site is www.jane-sutton.com.
You have also written on system dynamics. How did that come about?
Rob Quaden, Carlisle’s grade eight math teacher, and I had a grant from a national organization to develop the study of system dynamics in grades K-eight. System dynamics is the study of how interconnected elements in a system affect each other and create outcomes that are sometimes difficult to recognize or predict. Rob and I have written two books (so far), The Shape of Change and The Shape of Change: Stocks and Flows. We became the leading school anywhere in system dynamics, and in January of this year, Rob helped present a six-day workshop in China. Later in my career, systems study has become a favorite topic to teach and learn.
How long have you been teaching?
I began teaching at a private K-six school in 1972. I came to Carlisle in 1975 and have taught here ever since, so this is my 33rd year at Carlisle and 36th overall. I have taught grades one - six in Carlisle, and when I worked on our system dynamics project, I taught in all classrooms K-eight. For about ten years, I served as science coordinator for the school district.
I have enjoyed all the grades I have taught since they all have advantages and disadvantages. Teaching young children to read and do arithmetic is very important, satisfying work. Older students are more sophisticated and can be introduced to lots of complex ideas. I must say that teaching the same lesson more than once a year is a major advantage for teachers in grade levels where subject areas are departmentalized, as we are in middle school. But teaching students several subjects and helping them understand the connectedness of what they study in each discipline is very special.
Did you have teachers in school who influenced your career choice?
I had lots of wonderful teachers. I loved my grade six teacher. He seemed to enjoy teaching and hanging out with us. He’d play ball with us at recess and was interested in things I enjoyed like science and history. I also remember my grade eight math teacher who could explain things simply yet allowed me to see the elegance of algorithms. Problem-solving was fun in his class. In grade two I had a teacher who was the kindest woman and made sure that we were happy, something not all teachers valued. So I have always sought to have kids enjoy my classes.
Which scientists have inspired your teaching and writing?
I admire scientists who make leaps when faced with data that contradicts the prevailing set of ideas. Galileo, Newton and Darwin are obvious members of that group, and I am always learning about less famous scientists and their contributions. Each year I read students excerpts from Richard Feynman’s autobiography [Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman] to whet their appetite for learning about original thinkers.
How would you describe your teaching style?
I believe strongly in student-centered learning. As much as possible, I prefer to give students problems to solve and stay out of the way. Of course it is difficult to structure lessons that way all the time but it is much more effective than “front-of-the- room teaching.” We are tempted to revert to organizing information for students and presenting it to them, believing it is the most efficient way to teach. But the things we learn best and remember longest are usually things we learned through discovery or actual hands-on exploration. Science should be based on inquiry. Asking good questions is the key to learning.
What are your plans for future books?
Rob Quaden and I hope to write at least one more system dynamics book. More science books may be coming after I retire [from teaching] in two years. I plan to do volunteer work in addition to workshops and training. ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito