Teaching and Writing: Two Lives in One

By Robert Gardner

I have lived two adult lives, one as a teacher and one as a writer. My early life began in Redding, Connecticut, which was then a rural community. I was born in a house with no electricity, telephone, or running water. Oil lamps provided light, water was hand pumped from a dug well, a coal/wood stove was used for cooking, and a furnace provided heat through one grate in the floor. Unheated bedrooms required an abundance of quilts on cold winter nights. An outdoor privy or chamber pots were out toilet. Baths were taken in a metal tub with water heated on the kitchen stove. You can be sure that the replacement of back-to-back closets with a bathroom when I was five was a welcome change. After moving to a more central part of town, life became easier for a time.

My parents, wonderful caring people, had only an elementary level education, so after my father died when I was twelve my mother had no choice but to accept aid to dependent children (welfare). I went to work on a neighbor’s farm. The neighbor became a father figure for me and it was on that farm that I learned the meaning of hard work as well as the discipline and organizational skills that enable me to be successful as a student, teacher, coach, and writer.      

Because Redding has no high school, I was bussed 20 miles to Danbury High. High school was significant for two things – geometry and football. It was in geometry class that I realized I could think for myself. My geometry teacher would write on the blackboard a theorem we had never seen, tell us to close our books, and ask us to write a proof for the theorem. It not only made me think, it probably colored my own approached to teaching.

Football and other sports were my major interest in high school, and I dreamed of a career in athletics. My football coach, Ed Crotty, who had connections at Brown, was steering me in that direction. (At that time Rip Eagle was Brown’s coach and Joe Paterno was the QB.) Following a serious knee injury, it became apparent that Brown was no longer interested; however Ed helped me gain admission to Wesleyan where scholarships were not tied to football success. Although I played football at Wesleyan, my knee never fully recovered and in my senior year I realized that it was senseless to risk further injury and gave up intercollegiate athletics.

At Wesleyan, I majored in biology with some thought of attending medical school, but I couldn’t see my way through the finances, and at age of twenty-two I was eager to go to work and support my wife who helped support me though my last two years of college.

I took a job in industry, but found work wearisome. After ten months, with short stays at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Arco, Idaho, I realized I could not spend one-third of every day doing work I did not enjoy. Through people I had known in Redding, I learned of an opening at Salisbury School, an independent boarding school in Salisbury, Connecticut.  The headmaster hired me to teach chemistry and biology, head of dormitory, and serve as an assistant coach in football, basketball, and baseball. Teaching science coaching, and supervising a dormitory in a boarding school is a 24/7 job, but somehow I managed to take evening and summer courses at Trinity College in Hartford (a two-hour commute), where I obtained an MA in 1957. Using NSF stipends, I did additional graduate work, I noticed that papers I wrote were always well received. Professors seemed pleased with my writing, and I began to think about a second career as a writer.

In the late 1950s I became cognizant of the materials being developed by the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC). Their approach to teaching physics (and science in general) appealed to me and I was granted a place in their teacher training program at Bowdoin College in the summer of 1959. That fall I began to teach PSSC physics. Several years later I adopted the CHEM Study program.

Because I found it impossible to complete PSSC physics in one academic year, I thought; “Why not use the atomic physics part of PSSC as the introduction to CHEM Study?” Implementing that idea proved to be very successful. After a year of PSSC physics, students handled the chemistry with relative ease. They understood the atomic theory, kinetic theory, and most importantly, the role of experimentation in science.

Given the proper courses, I firmly believe, predicated on my own experience, that physics should precede chemistry. I do not, however, advocate a “physics first” science curriculum.

While I was please with the junior-senior sequence of physics followed by chemistry, I sensed a need for a freshman-level course to introduce students to some basic science and provide laboratory experience, so I designed a course called Fundamental of Science for our ninth grade curriculum.

By the mid 1960s, Education Services, Inc., and outgrowth of the Physical Science Study Committee, was developing Introductory Physical Science (IPS) under the leadership of Uri Haber-Schaim. It was better organized and possessed a theme superior to the one in Fundamentals of Science and I was fortunate to be chosen as a pilot teacher and to contribute to its development. Later, I also served as a pilot teacher and part time staff development of Physical Science II, a sequel to IPS. I believe Salisbury students who took the sequence IPS, PSII (concurrent with BSCS Biology), PSSC and CHEM Study were as well prepared for college science as any student in the county, including those who took AP courses in science.

Between 1963 and 1968, while on leave from Salisbury School, I spent three years working at the Education Development Center (the successor of Educational Services, Inc.) in Newton, Massachusetts. I worked as a staff developer for both Elementary Science Study (ESS), where I had the opportunity to trial teach materials at elementary schools, and the Physical Science Group (PSG), where I helped develop course material and later trail teach PSII. While there I met David Webster who worked with me on ESS units and who was also doing some writing – books and magazine articles for young readers – on a moonlighting basis. He encouraged me to write some articles for a children’s magazine (Nature and Space Science). Later, in 1974 and 1975, we co-authored two books, Shadows Science and Moving Right Along, for Doubleday. We continued to write occasional books together until David died in 1992.

My first solo book was Magic Through Science, Doubleday, 1978. After that I was off and running, writing one or two books a year for Doubleday, where Tom Aylesworth was my editor, then for Julian Messner with Jane Steltenpohl as editor, and later for Franklin Watts, where Henry Rasof edited my work.

I retired from teaching in 1989 to pursue a career as a writer, but during my last year at Salisbury I pilot taught the 7th Edition of  PSSC Physics while also serving as one of its four authors (Uri Haber-Schaim remained the senior author). My first major work after leaving the classroom (the 7th edition of PSSC Physics) did not do well. There has never been an 8th edition. Sadly, PSSC died a quiet death, but recent grumbling about American students’ lack of ability in science may lead NSF or some other agency to fund the development of more demanding science courses. History does repeat, even within a lifetime.

Although my first writing as a full-time author was disappointing in terms of sales, the more than 100 books I have written since then have, for the most part, done well. While I have written for Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, FranklinWatts, Walch and other (many acquired by large conglomerates), recently I have been writing primarily for Enslow Publisher, Inc., a family-owned company that is a joy to be associated with. Their editors seem almost permanent and authors can speak with the company’s president by picking up the phone.

As I look back over a long career in education and writing, I am very much aware of the help, encouragement, and assistance I received form others. There was the neighbor who gave me a job after my father died; my teachers who led me to think; my football coach who thought of me as a student as well as a player and took me to college interviews; my mother who encourages me to pursue an education far beyond any she has ever known; friends who helped me obtain a long-lasting teaching position; teaching and coaching colleagues and co-authors, including a former student and especially David Webster (their assistance was invaluable); editors, too numerous to name, who corrected my mistakes and improved my writing; my two children, John and Barbara, who motivated me to provide for them and who, interestingly, are both now educators; my wife, Natalie, who through 50 years of marriage handled all the nitty-gritty financial and other details so I could devote full time to studying, teaching, coaching, and writing; and my wife, Patsy, whom I married three years after Natalie died of cancer. She, too, has encouraged me to continue writing and to do volunteer work in the community. She has provided the love and companionship that make my life enjoyable and, I hope, of benefit to others, especially those children who read my books.  

This article was first published in the New England Chemistry Teacher’s Journal in 2008.