In no particular order here are the things that I accomplished that made me happy or helped me feel like I am using my time in a meaningful way. I am not talking about my family in this assessment. Not because they aren't important but because I don't think about them as a set of projects that I need to improve. That's not true of course; I'm pretty sure all parents think about how they'd like to improve their kids if they could. But anyway, below are the projects that I am most proud of, outside of my family:
Completing my first marathon!
I said that I wasn't going to write this in any order but it would be silly of me to not start with my biggest personal accomplishment. I finished the NYC marathon in about 9 hours and 30 minutes.
I think I was on track to complete the marathon between 7:30 - 8 hours but then Honey fell just around the 20 mile mark or so. I helped her up but she was in tremendous pain and was not able to stay up on her own two feet. Honey is a "streaker" - a title earned when you have completed 15 NYC marathons. This was her 26th nyc marathon and she had been moving since 9 am (streakers go right after the pros go). Honey was in no shape to finish the marathon so we walked right alongside her and got her right to the finish line. After that I got her into a cab.
I will admit that when it happened I was kicking myself for being so nice. I was exhausted and wanted to go home. The realization that this would take me hours didn't make my foot pain subside that's for sure!
But once I accepted this is how we are ending the marathon I was fine. Honey was lovely and kind and I am thrilled that she was able to complete the marathon. My kindness had its own kind of karma; I wasn't sore the next day. I don't know if this is exactly accurate but I suspect that having to walk for two hours after 7 miles of jogging meant that I gave my body time to flush the lactic acid out of my system. If I had jogged for eight hours then went home my body wouldn't have fully metabolized the lactic acid which would have led to all kinds of cramps and discomforts in the days to come. So I am pretty damn pleased with that.
I happened to meet a lovely young woman named Jacqueline who was starting her running journey more or less at the same time as I had begun it. We seem to be on similar journeys at the moment and it was a real pleasure to just talk with her the entire time. I couldn't have asked for a more gracious and lovely running partner.
The marathon was a big part of my personal journey this year. It really helped me see the value of setting a goal and then just working towards it. I don't train well for things unless I have a goal. I became a better runner because I had to become a better runner. There was literally no other way on this planet that I would ever have begun to develop that skill if I hadn't forced the situation.
It's made me evaluate how I should go about structuring my physical development. I kind of hate going to the gym for the gym's sake. Yes I want to lose weight and show off some abs at the beach but I don't think I will ever set myself up directly to do that. However I can set up a series of races and other such external events that force me to continue to work out and develop a skill. I think that has to be a big part of my life from now on. I will sign up for marathons but also for other kinds of things that require me to train aspects of my life that I want to develop. This is an incomplete thought but I suspect that if I set a goal for every 4-6 months where I have something I can't back out of I will make significant progress.
Off the top of my head I am thinking; marathon/ultramarathon, Iron Man, some kind of body building competition, some kind of powerlifting event, some kind of fight. I won't train all of those but I think some combination makes sense. Something physical/aesthetic like a bodybuilding competition and something cardio like a fight might work. I need to flesh this idea out to think about how much time I can put in and how to best synergize the two events every year but I think that this will probably amp up the value of my working out significantly.
Reading 40 books this year
I am reasonably pleased with my reading this year. On the one hand I read far more than most people ever read but on the other hand I think that I could have read more. This reinforces my previous point that we can accomplish significantly more if we are actually aiming at a target that we can see. I am setting my goal this year to be 52 books. I like the idea of a book a week and I think if I make sure that I read about 20 pages a day that becomes a more than reasonable goal depending on the length and challenge of the book. At 20 pages a day I can read about 600 pages a month which amounts to about 3-4 books a month. This works nicely with my previously stated challenge of reading all of Shakespeare since his plays clock in around 80-150 pages or so.
So a mix of Shakespeare, light fiction and maybe one big volume a year (something that might take a whole month to read - probably the only way I will ever get around to reading the Power Broker) should put me right where I want to be.
Writing this blog
Writing is definitely the weakest link and the biggest gap between the man I want to be and the man I am. In some ways this blog is a bit of a cop out from what I want to do which is focus on writing fiction. This feels "safer" I guess - I have something that I can put out in the world and get some kind of feedback from and that helps motivate me. I wish I was more internally motivated but the positive feedback I get from people and even my imagining the positive feedback I might get helps to drive this positive behavior. I think if I can find a way to incorporate that more into my fiction writing it would help get my ass focused on writing more fiction. Maybe putting my short stories on this blog might work. A part of me wants to get into the whole "rejected by Asimov and the whole gamut of sci fi magazines'" but that also sounds like a project that will take a lot of work. This is still an incomplete thought that I hope I can crystalize within the next month. I haven't been writing this blog long enough to make this a habit but I think the analytics that I am able to access offers what I need as the motivator. I have no idea who the 40 people are who have read at least one thing I've written are but I like knowing that some small group of people have taken time out of their busy lives to skim my thoughts. There is something very invigorating about that and it makes me look forward to spending time in front of this laptop clicking away in a way that the fiction isn't not quite doing yet. I think that is because I have much less confidence in my ability to entertain than I do in my ability to make people think.
Completing a teaching fellowship
This summer I completed the Regeneron STEM teaching fellowship.
The collaboration was between the NASA-Endeavor STEM teaching program and Regeneron.
One of my goals for awhile has been to improve my laboratory teaching experience. Like many biology teachers, I am perfectly comfortable lecturing to students. The truth is that most of what I teach will be retained just long enough to pass a test.
The fellowship consisted of three graduate classes and an internship at Regeneron pharmaceuticals. The experience was fantastic! It was wonderful to work in a lab and spend a couple of weeks experiencing the laboratory.
With the goal of improving my lab teaching in mind I had applied for this teaching fellowship in 2020. I wasn't accepted the first time around but that was a blessing in disguise. If I had been accepted in the first cohort then I would have done the pharmaceutical internship part entirely online instead of at the Regeneron campus.
This program was so wonderful and worthwhile. I plan to write up the experience as its own post soon.
Doing hands on labs
My biggest weakness as a teacher has been my avoiding doing labs for most of my career. It's not entirely my fault; most biology teachers aren't trained to do labs. We also rarely have the kind of schedule that makes lab work doable - a 40 minute period is barely enough time to get started much less accomplish something meaningful. Also kids are annoying and most of the lab period is a never ending repeat of teenagers shouting your name over and over again asking the questions that you answered before you began the lab but they didn't really listen.
But now I have a lab manager to help me! Having someone who I can brainstorm with and who will take care of the set up and clean up of the labs has reduced the friction of doing a lab to the point where I have done a lab almost every single week. I am doing far more labs than I ever have and it is keeping me very engaged as a teacher. This has been far and away the best part of working at a new school.
Improving my drawing
I have been able to do significantly more drawing this past year. I've spent at least an hour a day, 5x a week, drawing while at school. I am focused on drawing Partly as a way to improve my teaching but also because I think that drawing is just something that is such an important tool to really capture reality.
When you start drawing you have no idea what to do. You tend to focus on trying to get the details right of a little thing; like trying to get the eye perfect. The problem is that when you spend all this time focused on the eye you have no idea how the eye is connected to the rest of the face and body. What inevitably happens is that the piece you focus on becomes bigger than everything else and the whole work is completely out of proportion.
This is exactly what it is like to be a high school science student! They don't see how what I am teaching interconnects. For them it is a barrage of information that isn't connected. So they try and figure out how to focus on one thing. Then it gets out of proportion to all the other information as they try and memorize what they think are important facts.
If can help them see that these ideas are connected and to help them grasp the bigger picture then I will have served the students well. The challenge is that just like art they need to practice learning science outside of class. It wouldn't be enough for me to sit in an art class listening to an art teacher I need to practice sketching. I need to make mistakes and then actively figure out how to improve the subskills that I am weak on; how do I draw symmetrical eyes? How do I draw an ear?
I don't know if freshmen are capable of taking control of their learning. The best students tend to be focused on getting good grades. That usually involves cramming and forgetting and not focusing on actually learning the material because it is interesting or useful to learn. There might be a couple of students that get lasting value but that is rare. But fundamentally isn't excellence, by definition, a rare quality? Yes everyone can be excellent in their own respective fields but particular excellence within a population has to be rare otherwise it wouldn't be considered valuable. It is because of the rarity of excellence and the number of domains in which someone can be excellent that everyone can potentially shine.
But the fact that I am having kids who hate drawing tell me that they are enjoying science class for the first time really is a treat.
Validating my teaching quality
It is also really valuable that I have two other biology teachers to discuss things with. Besides the fact that I have a direct collegial interaction with peers there is a benefit of having two people who understand my field who have given me feedback that suggests I am a really good biology teacher.
Don't get me wrong I know on some level that I am a pretty good teacher. Student feedback is kind of the most honest and accurate gauge of who is a good teacher. Students might like a teacher regardless whether they are good or not but they know who is good at what they do.
But having a medical doctor turned high school teacher and having a former virologist tell you that they really like your test questions and love the hands on approach to my class is a kind of feedback that I simply never had before. It is very valuable and appreciated in a way that you can't get when you are the only person teaching your subject. Not that their feedback is qualitatively better than the feedback I might get from an English teacher who sits in on my class but it is a more objective kind of peer assessment that means something different.
All in all a net positive year. There were setbacks and left turns of course. That is a part of life. I am fortunate that the biggest negatives of the year were not to my family and health so ultimately they were all issues from which I recovered fairly smoothly.
I am invigorated to make 2023 a banner year for me. While I have always had high aspirations I think this year I have a clearer sense of vision for what I want. Having that clearer vision should mean, I hope, that I waste less time and that I make greater forward progress on my goals.
Now that I have done a decent assessment of the past year I can think a bit more clearly about what I want for this coming year. I'm looking forward to fleshing that out here.