Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fruitful Failures: *Frankenstein* Drafts and Capstone Questions

View along the LBSP "Bog Walk" Trail on 10/18/14. Those are Tamarack needles on the water.
A couple Saturdays ago, I drove up to the Bemidji area where I like to take photos of Lady Slippers and other orchids. I knew there wouldn't be any orchids blooming at this time of year (it's a bit too late now even for Autumn Coralroot, I think), but I thought I might get a head start on my goal for this spring.

I've only been hunting for Minnesota orchids since about 2010 when I first spotted a patch of Yellow Lady Slippers on the Munger Trail. And it's only been a couple years since I started driving up along the Lady Slipper Scenic Byway and exploring the Pennington Bog Scientific and Natural Area (SNA). But even then, I started setting goals for each year's orchid (and wildflower) season. 

My goal for last year's season, for instance, was to take photos of the Stemless Lady Slipper, and I was able to fulfill that goal during a visit to Lake Bemidji State Park. There's a lovely little "Bog Walk" Trail there which is beautiful in all seasons. Lots of Stemless Slippers grow there. 

Stemless Lady Slipper, Lake Bemidji 
State Park, spring 2014
My goal for spring 2015 is to find a large colony of Ram's-Head Lady Slippers that grows in this region. (I'm told there are about 2,000 plants in one area.) I've had a couple folks tell me about the general area of this colony, and my research tells me that I'll find the Ram's-Heads in Barott Bog, a place I have yet to see on any map. I think Barott Bog is between Pimushe Lake and Little Moose Lake, somewhere in the vicinity of Forest Road 3862, but that's all the information I have...
Ram's-Head Lady Slipper
photo credit: 
aposematic herpetologist
photopin cc 
I drove up to this area a couple weeks ago to try to get better acquainted with it, and I thought that maybe, if I walked around in the woods along FR 3862, I might be able to glimpse some Ram's-Head seed-pods which form after the blooming season is over. I thought it would be easier to navigate this area after some of the vegetation had died back...

It was a nice idea, and I had a lovely day, walking around in the woods--which were golden with the Tamaracks at the peak of their fall color--but I didn't spot any Ram's-Head seed-pods. They would only have been about four inches off the ground, and rather tiny. The woods were still so thick with life and color that I didn't really have any chance of finding the colony. But I did get a better sense of the place, and I really enjoyed the attempt, even though it failed. On the drive up and back, I saw NINE Bald Eagles (I almost got a photo of one), four Swans (two pairs, in flight), and lots of lovely Pitcher Plants. 
Catching my reflection in the Pitcher Plant's reservoir
Tamarack Needles in their golden glory

Will I find the Ram's-Head colony this spring? I don't know. Maybe. I hope so. Maybe it will take several years. I'm okay with that. Sometimes--usually, really--that's how it goes when you're working on a project, when you're doing some research, when you're trying to solve a problem. You have a goal; you think you have some ideas for reaching that goal; you try some things. Some strategies work; others don't. But you don't give up, and you don't get upset. You appreciate what you learn from your failures, and you try another strategy. --And you enjoy every step of the process. [Update:  I found a colony of Ram's Heads in the spring of 2015, thanks to a tip from a friend. You can read about it here.]

* * * * *
Right now, my AP Lit students are struggling with their Frankenstein drafts. It's been taking them longer than they expected to get their ideas figured out, and I've asked them to do some difficult thinking about some really challenging topics, but that's the way it always is, and that's the way it's supposed to be. Some of them have had to scrap their original thoughts and start over, and try another approach. I've had good conversations with Ethan F, Megan C, Jeremy S, and others who have come in for help.

The Pennington Bog, with cedar fronds partially covering the still-green moss
Some seniors are experiencing a similar process as they complete their college essays. I was talking to David K yesterday during lunch, and he was telling me how he had abandoned his original drafts and started fresh. That's what you have to do. If you only ever stick to your first thought, you're selling yourself short. You'll never discover what you're truly capable of if all you ever do is cling to rough drafts, first thoughts, spur-of-the-moment ideas. It's only when you keep thinking, trying, and working, that you find out what you can really do.

I remember back when I was working on the first chapter of my dissertation: I thought I had finished it, and I was very pleased with it, but then I discovered that another scholar had already published my idea! I was devastated. Six months of work down the drain. My dissertation director John Dings, one of the best teachers and mentors I've ever had, helped me to see this as a great opportunity to strengthen my idea. He urged me to see this other scholar, not as a rival, but rather as a helpful source, as a positive influence on my work. John made me realize that if I could find the vulnerabilities in this person's work (and therefore, of course, in my own), I could use this experience as the foundation for a new, and much better, idea. And that's what I did. Was it easy? No! But John was right--my work was stronger and better because I met this challenge. I thought much more deeply and discovered a line of thinking that carried me through the rest of my dissertation. 
This time of year, the Pennington Bog is carpeted with a multi-colored mixture of live, dead, and dying vegetation.

In Advisory, seniors are beginning to work on ideas for their Capstone Projects. They're just beginning the same kind of process. Here, however, we're asking them to start with what they love, with what they enjoy, for "a true Capstone Project has its roots in the students' genuine academic and personal interests, pulls together past experiences and future goals, and generates intellectual curiosity and creativity" ("Senior Capstone 2015," emphasis added). Whenever I get some free time, I get out in the woods somewhere and try to find interesting plants, beautiful flowers, and fascinating fungi. It's what I love best, and every time I make a discovery or see something new, I laugh out loud with joy--I can't help it--it makes me happy. It never feels like work, and even my "failures" are fruitful. 

Whether you're working on a paper or trying to come up with a Project idea, try to develop the right "Habits of Mind." Be willing to think creatively and ask lots of great questions. Set some goals, throw out some ideas, take some risks, start over (and over, and over), and try again (and again, and again), laugh at the joy of discovery, and fail fruitfully!

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