The 2022–23 school year is Upper School science teacher John Roeder’s 50th at Calhoun! We spoke with John about some of the changes he’s observed at Calhoun over the years, how STEAM education has evolved, and what it means to him to be the employee with the longest record of service to the school.
You’ve observed a lot of changes at Calhoun in 50 years. In your experience, what changes or additions have had the most impact on Calhoun’s program?
Although Calhoun has done an excellent job of adopting technological innovations in education, I would applaud Calhoun for holding close to its educational philosophy. When [former Head of School] Gene Ruth hired me, he emphasized the importance of students becoming independent learners. To this end . . . [in most subjects] students learned individually instead of in classes. After we moved into our present building in 1975, a group of students requested a meeting with the faculty to tell us that while they subscribed to the ideal of becoming an independent learner, they felt they needed “group meetings” [Calhoun’s name at the time for classes]. When Neen Hunt succeeded Gene as Head of School, she shared a quotation from a Calhoun yearbook that [referred to Calhoun’s] warm and caring educational philosophy. When Steve Nelson became Head of School near the end of the twentieth century, his espousal of progressive education reminded me of the meetings I attended in my first decade at Calhoun. As the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
From helping Calhoun become a “physics-first” school, to the numerous awards you’ve received, you’ve been at the forefront of innovation in science education. How has Calhoun’s approach to teaching science remained forward-looking and connected to real-world issues?
I was hired by Gene Ruth to teach both physics and chemistry in grades 7 to 12. Only one science course was required for graduation at that time, and most of the seniors fulfilled that requirement with biology. To spark interest in physics and chemistry, I thought to develop courses in these sciences that emphasized how they affected our everyday lives by including applications of science to society. As a result of being on a panel discussing [these kinds of courses in 1982], I became a cofounder of the Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education and have edited its newsletter for the past 41 years. One of the things I have done as editor of this newsletter has been to keep track of the multitude of studies and recommendations for improving science education. The National Science Education Standards (NSES) established inquiry as a foundational principle that should guide science education. With Calhoun’s emphasis on learning science by doing it in the laboratory, most recently in the Active Physics course I have taught to all of Calhoun’s ninth graders since 1994, Calhoun was already in compliance with the NSES before they were established. Active Physics also gives students experience with the physics that relates to their everyday lives. In 2011 the NSES were replaced by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which set forth three dimensions of science education by combining science and engineering practices and cross-cutting concepts with the topics normally associated with science courses. The point I would make here is that Calhoun’s approach to teaching science is really “mainstream” in terms of the NGSS, and that it is the “traditional” schools that are out of step.
What does it mean to you to be the Calhoun employee with the most years of service? What has kept you here for all these years?
When I first came to teach at Calhoun, I had no idea how long I’d stay, but the complaints I’d hear from teachers at other schools gave me the feeling that I was better off at Calhoun, where I was surrounded by people who were a joy to work with. But it was really more than that: I feel that Calhoun has nurtured my professional development in the same supportive way that it has nurtured the academic and personal development of its students, and for that I will always be grateful. When it comes to being Calhoun’s oldest employee, at least a generation older than most of my colleagues, I’m grateful that they don’t treat me that way—they have made me feel welcome as one of them. I have especially found that I love teaching Active Physics to ninth graders, and I have told Steve Solnick that I would like to continue teaching at Calhoun as long as I feel physically able.