Conversations about Creativity
Establishing the Right Foundations
September 19, 2017
Shannon Pogoda grew up in the wine country of California before it became popular, and where, as a young girl, she spent many days hiking the walnut and olive tree scattered hills. Always outside, living in rural areas, has suited her more than the heart of cities. Living in California, Montana, the Marianas Islands, and traveling about the globe has only increased her deep-seated appreciation for open spaces and public lands. As a single mother of two sons, she learned how to perform her own home repairs, so when she met her life partner and carpenter husband, Rob Pogoda, building their own home in a remote area seemed like the natural thing to do.
Shannon earned an undergraduate degree in education, a master’s in English linguistics, had an essay regarding Saipan’s women’s position in society published in a humanities journal, wrote a green building and living column for her local newspaper, and published a book that walks readers through the steps of designing and building their own home, whether they are do-it-yourselfers or whether they hire a crew. She currently teaches elementary school and continues to design and build small projects around her home. Shannon is always happy to talk building, rural living, or the great outdoors with anyone.
Ellen: Shannon, let’s talk about two seemingly different yet connected aspects of yourself – Shannon the Builder and Shannon the Educator. Both require the establishment of firm foundations. Both require creative thinking. So let’s start with the creation of your straw bale house and why you chose to build it from scratch together with your husband Rob. Was this something you had always wanted to do – to actually physically build your own home?
Shannon: Ellen thank you so much for inviting me to answer questions regarding building, teaching and creativity. I always knew I’d build my own house at some point. My parents built two main houses when I was growing up and my brother also built his houses. My parents however, hired builders, whereas my brother did a lot of work himself and hired sub-contractors like electricians and plumbers. Rob and I hired no one.
Ellen: That takes courage! I suppose though, that if you had focused only on the potential problems that you might encounter during this mammoth project, you would never have begun it the in the first place.
Shannon: I always think that if there’s a will, there’s a way. If someone wants to reach a goal or do something badly enough, they will find the way and develop the stamina and wherewithal to do it. The straw bale aspect was just an aesthetic I liked. I also wanted the home to be highly energy efficient, healthy to live in i.e. great indoor air quality without toxins of off-gasses – and feel good to inhabit. Form follows function in all things.
Ellen: I have visited you and seen your and Rob’s creation and I have to say, I loved it! It’s really aesthetically pleasing. Why did you elect to build in the remote but magnificent high desert area of Elko, Nevada?
Shannon: Thank you for the nice compliment, Ellen. The first step in building a house is finding the perfect site. We wanted more than one or five acres. We heard about the Ruby Mountains so decided to explore this area in northeastern Nevada. Elko County has everything we enjoy doing: hiking, skiing, fishing, mountain biking, open space, and privacy. We found a parcel just over forty acres which had nice southern exposure and met our criteria. Our forty plus acres is flanked by BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land which is federally owned and managed public lands that all of us can enjoy using for camping, fishing, bird watching and so forth.
Ellen: Plus the view is spectacular and keeps changing as the day goes by.
Shannon: And with the seasons. We can see the mountains, a lake, and have fantastic southern exposure for a passive solar home and longer garden growing season.
Ellen: The actual development of this project must have taken a long time. It is a major undertaking.
Shannon: I developed the design and plans for the house over a several year period beginning many years before Rob and I met. I knew that at some point, I would build my own place and kept a file over the years of ideas, notes, thoughts on floor plan layouts and exterior designs.
I had seen straw bale homes, visited Earthships in New Mexico, read up and stayed in log homes, and wanted to do something adobe-like – or straw bale – and in keeping with sound passive solar principles and healthy, non-toxic building materials. I had accumulated a few straw bale building books as well as natural building manuals and liked the idea of an organically produced home. After taking a tour of an acquaintance’s straw bale home, I had Rob on board with the idea of building with straw.
Once we purchased the land, I spent all of my free time sketching home designs to scale on graph paper. Eventually, we had a solid plan that was 1) pleasing and functional, 2) buildable for do-it-yourselfers, 3) affordable, and 4) appropriate for our desert/natural environment. I then set out to find structural engineers who could turn my to-scale drawings into blue prints that would meet local building codes. With permit in hand, Rob and I secured a construction loan and got to work. And work we did!
Ellen: Plus you were teaching too, at the time.
Shannon: Yes, that’s right. Rob and I, with zero hired help, excavated, constructed the foundation, installed plumbing, electrical, roofing, layer over 9000 pounds of Mexican tile, plastered the straw walls inside and out and so forth until we had a finished home. All-in-all, the home and landscaping took just a bit more than three years to be ready to inhabit. The planning stages and trouble shooting during construction taxed me mentally, and the actual building work pushed us both physically. Building a home by yourself, is a superb challenge for mind and body.
Ellen: So would you recommend others to do the same?
Shannon: I can’t encourage others enough to take the leap of faith in themselves and jump on the journey of building their own home, designed and erected by themselves. It is by far one of the most satisfying experiences of one’s life. We continue realizing the benefits.
The house stays cool in the summer due to adequate porch eaves that block hot summer sun from entering windows, and warm in the winter as the sun is lower on the southern horizon and floods the main body and rooms of the house with warmth. This passive solar design matrices with other elements of sound environmental design, ensure a home that is low maintenance and inexpensive to heat and cool. Even though we are located in high desert, we have no need for air conditioning, and in winter, the sun, pouring in south facing windows coupled with thermal solar generated floor radiant heat, keeps the home warm and comfortable. The floor plan is ergonomic and maximizes space usage with zero hallways or dead, minimally used spaces. In short, the house works to maintain comfort efficiently.
Ellen: It must have been tough to work on it through the freezing winters?
Shannon: Winter weather doesn’t bother either Rob or me too much. I did suffer some really frozen toes, to the point they turned a bit blackish one winter, but they eventually healed. We just bundled up and got to it!
Ellen: And now, it is also a popular Bed and Breakfast destination. Right?
Shannon: We’re on the Airbnb network. People come here to escape cities, find solace in the quiet countryside, explore the high alpine environment of the Ruby Mountains, or come for special events like the National Cowboy Poetry Festival in winter, or the National Basque Festival held over 4th of July weekend each year. We enjoy meeting the guests who come and have become pretty good at preparing simple and elegant breakfasts such as mini crustless quiches using organic, free-range eggs from our chickens. It’s been most fun meeting new people from all over the globe.
Ellen: Then there is your step-by-step guide – the book you wrote with Rob, CREATING A GREEN HOME: PLANNING AND DESIGN. I have a copy – what a useful book for anyone interesting in modifying or building their own homes with energy efficiency foremost in their minds – and pleasing aesthetics!
Shannon: Well, I wish it had been a big seller! Alas, it’s just for anyone interested in either designing and building their own energy efficient healthy home or doing so with a design and/or building team. It walks through all the fundamentals of passive and active solar principles and types, green building basics to creating a healthy structure and making a living space highly functional and personal for those inhabiting the home. I read volumes of books to glean what I needed to know to design an efficient and functional space, so I thought people, like me, may like a to-the-point more concise guide to the home design and building process.
Ellen: With the same commitment to building it right Shannon, you are intent on establishing solid foundations for the children you teach. So let’s talk about your role as an educator. A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to observe you at work. I was extremely impressed by both how you related to the individuality of each of your students in your 4th Grade class and how dedicated you were to helping each of them realize their potential. Teaching is not simply a job for you but also a mission.
Shannon: Thank you for that, Ellen. Yes, teaching is a mission. Many years ago I was listening to a radio broadcast from Stanford regarding education. One of the Professors, and I feel badly not recalling his name, stated: “The sole purpose of education is to eradicate ignorance.” This has stuck with me for more than thirty years. My “mission” is to expose students to as many broad and diverse learning experiences as I am able to in the mere nine months that I have them in class. And given that the bulk of my students come from generations with limited and/or no higher education and the consequent low income status that accompanies this, I want them to know that education, good schooling, can change not only their lives for the better but for future generations of their families.
Ellen: And I was impressed by the fact that you select worthwhile and challenging books for your students to read which led to subsequent enthusiastic and engaged book discussions. Tell us how you go about choosing quality books and why the reading of books worthy of discussion is an important part of a teaching curriculum?
Shannon: Oh this is my favorite thing about teaching – finding great books and hearing students say, “That’s the best book I’ve ever read!” It’s such a great feeling to see students, who never before liked books or reading much, bloom into prolific readers.
How I select books is initially by reading reviews primarily from the New York Times Best Sellers list and similar lists on Amazon. I also look for award winners – such as Newbury, National Book Award, etc. That’s the first step. Then I read excerpts of books to see if they would be relatable for my students, if they are relevant in that they share salient and important points that can connect students to the larger world or history while offering up beautifully written, artful language. If they do, then I’m sold. Narrative is the primary way that humans throughout history have learned, so by selecting good stories well told, students start to engage in and become part of the collective history of all humanity. Discussing historical fiction, biographies, tales of environmentalism… open up whole new worlds for students. One recent autobiographical title that is fabulous for my nine to ten-year old students is The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. This story tells of strife, survival, and grand success against all odds during famine in Gambia. Stories such as this, also lend hope to those students, and there are many who lead challenging lives full of hardship. Stories which tell of others struggles and ultimate achievements and adventures allow students to fantasize about what their own lives may be and offer hope – something to hang on to and strive for throughout their development. Books can save lives. Books help create and further our humanity.
Ellen: So you feel that reading good books and thinking critically about their content, language use and so forth is valuable?
Shannon: You’re asking a linguist and bibliophile about the staff of life! Language and thought parallel the age-old chicken and egg argument. Both evolve together. As teachers and parents we have limited vocabularies exclusive to our daily lives. Books expose children, all of us, to vocabularies and ideas extraneous to our lives, open up new worlds, and offer different pathways of viewing and thinking about the world. Critically considering new ideas and perspectives, helps students broaden understandings of the world around them. Scrutinizing sentence structures, word choice, and writing style, teaches critical analysis and attention to details.
Ellen: I am a strong advocate of creative, independent thinking for both adults and children. Educators, I feel, need to be flexible in their approach to subjects if their teaching is to be effective. What are your thoughts about that?
Shannon: I refer, to what you described, as punting. When students as individuals or as a class need to be taken in a different direction or require instructional methods outside of what may be routine, I punt. I love to try the new, discuss the controversial, take risks with stretching and going deeper into content and critically thinking about the content. Sadly, sometimes what we consider flexibility is not status quo and is occasionally frowned upon by educational peers who prefer to stick with worn grey methods.
Ellen: What about the criticism that I have heard quite often about assigned curriculum not encouraging independent enquiry or is it really about what a teacher does with the curricula? The potential for creative thinking can be found in so many areas.
Shannon: I wouldn’t say that assigned curriculums do not encourage creativity. Lesson planning and delivery is up to individual teachers. How we get the material across, at least in my teaching career, has been left up to the teacher. One benefit of Common Core Standards is the encouraging of critical inquiry and the insistence that students experiment and go deeper. I don’t see any stifling of enquiry as long as it’s developmentally appropriate for individual students.
Ellen: I feel a certain amount of prescriptive learning is beneficial to students as long as it isn’t simply a regurgitation of given information. What do you think?
Shannon: Of course it is. We all must learn to multiply and divide. Memorizing math facts goes along way in applying and having more fun with math. We learn to read via great phonics instruction embedded within or coupled with real literature and great early literacy immersion. Language must be taught as a system. No one learns to read before learning the sounds of the symbols that make up letters,
Ellen: How do you help students internalize what they have learned and what is the role of self-discovery in the retention of knowledge?
Shannon: Individuals internalize information at different rates and through different experiences. Some students internalize information simply upon one time exposure. Others need hands on experiences, repetition, visual or kinesthetic support perhaps for months or in some extreme cases, years. Encouraging students to be themselves, pursuing what they, as individuals enjoy, helps self-discovery of strengths and weaknesses. I share some of my life stories noting my deficiencies and how I work around them or how I overcome them. That we all must do, I tell them, in order to get work or tasks completed through school and life in general.
Ellen: Technology increasingly accompanies learning in schools and at home. How beneficial is this to education and do you see problems as well?
Shannon: Technology is simply incorporating the use of tools in the learning process. Gosh the Internet is great for instant access to answer questions via media. Technology helps open doors and expand worlds in similar ways to books, but perhaps more instantaneous and often tangible for students. I don’t see problems with technology use as long as, like any other aspect of curriculum, it’s balanced. One cannot focus on mathematics or literature in the absence of all other subjects such as science, history, art, music… so technology is simply a piece of the curriculum and education pie.
Ellen: Encouraging individual and collaborative creativity is important in the education of children. Also, if we listen to their budding ideas with attention, they will examine their thoughts with more depth, too. All to often, original ideas are simply dismissed.
Shannon: I think this also speaks to building children’s/students’ self-concepts. I encourage trying for tryings’ sake. I support that the only failure in life is the lack of trying. If one tries and is unsuccessful with the intended or desired outcome, well so much was learned along the path of trial and error that no experience or attempt is ever lost or futile. Every minute of one’s life and path is valuable. There’s always something to be gained by exploring and attempting. Anything worth doing, might in fact, be worth doing poorly.
Ellen: What do you think about the use of multiple-choice questions and of a standardization in approach?
Shannon: Multiple-choice question testing, assess what students know or have learned, including how well they’ve learned to understand and take multiple choice tests. These tests do not assess what students can do, or how they can extend their thinking. That said, the new SBAC, PARCC and other standardized measurements used across the country are allowing students to write, explain their thinking, and accept that there are often more than one way to solve problems and more than one correct answer to questions. Standardized testing is changing for the better, in that the assessments are attempting to assess and give credit for creative responses.
Ellen: Are we equipping our students sufficiently well for the huge, ongoing technological innovations and societal changes of the 21st Century?
Shannon: I think this is a survival of the fittest question. Some schools and areas of the country or globe are doing better to equip/teach technological advancement than others. Singapore is certainly an educational leader in this area. Some states fund and support technology education better than others. Areas that surround technological think tanks, like the south Bay Area and Seattle, seem to provide more for their students since local and regional industries tend to drive what schools offer.
Ellen: The individuality of each child is something to be celebrated and not squelched as long as it is not accompanied by disruptive behavior. Do you think that education should be much more personalized than it currently is?
Shannon: The biggest buzzword of the last ten years or more in education has been “differentiation”. We differentiate instruction to suit individual students – at least many of us do. Often, lower achieving students receive individualized curriculum in remedial forms. Higher achieving students are often my focus. I tend to teach to the upper echelons as this provides a more rigorous classroom environment and offers exposure to creative ideas and lessons that remedial activities typically don’t provide. I have never seen a remedial curriculum that is interesting. Teachers may argue about historical content contained within readings or science information, but most remedial offerings do not succeed in their intent.
Ellen: So remedial curriculum could be a lot more stimulating. Now I want to ask you about the importance of encouraging empathetic and compassionate thinking in students.
Shannon: Of course anti-bullying curriculums are mandated in most all schools now. I tend to use your lessons, in If You Can Make It, Mr. Harris…So Can I: Teacher’s Guide and Workbook, to help teach concern and understanding for others. Civility and the quest for high degrees of sophistication as part of becoming an educated person, have been largely lost in many K-12 schools. Simply being civil to one another can go a long way. I show the movie you created with Eric Cosh, Sammy the Journey, and point out Sam Harris’s never disappearing smile and good cheer. He’s such an optimist and forward thinker!
Ellen: He certainly is that and also, always enthusiastic about and engaged in life. And so are you in whatever you are doing.
Shannon: I sometimes wonder if students find me silly or not too hip when I get excited over elements of teaching – like analyzing news stories to see if we can discern fake vs. real news, propaganda vs unbiased reporting and so forth. I am passionate about language and literature. Enthusiasm and verve are contagious! Students, the skeptical consumers of schooling that they are, only catch the fever once they’ve read or listened to me read to them at least a couple of really fantastic books. Then they are sold. Each year, students thank me for the books they’ve read and for what I’ve read to them. I had one student implore me to spend more time on real vs. fake news stories – she loved the opportunity to analyze and think. Who doesn’t?
Ellen: Would you say that the encouragement of individual imagination also is of importance in educating children?
Shannon: This is the question that speaks to problems with prescribed curriculum and sets of possible answers to problems or questions. Often individuals come up with correct yet imaginative responses that don’t fit the standardized test mold or are yet unable to shape their imaginative responses into an acceptable academic form. I think of Toni and Slade Morrison’s fabulous children’s book, The Big Brown Box, where creative, playful children must be resigned to live in boxes because the grown up world cannot abide them.
So, how do we incorporate encouraging imagination within a stifling brown box? Risking. I teach that taking risks is good for the soul, good for their lives. I talk of my life, of so many great inspirational people who have taken risks, failed – which is fine and good because we learn so much from the trying of things; then we examine paths of failure leading to success.
Ellen: In closing Shannon, do you think that creativity can be taught?
Shannon: Creativity is born of passion, curiosity, necessity and will. People are more creative when educational and life circumstances provide comfort and support. Throughout history, great periods of creativity, say the Renaissance period, were periods of economic and social stability. If children or people are hungry, suffer illness, exhaustion, stress, then creativity in artistic or humanistic forms take a back seat to the creativity stemming from need or desperation. Rather than taught, I’d say, creativity can be nurtured.
Contact Shannon: [email protected]
Read all Ellen’s interviews in one place in the Conversations About Creativity Book.
Her conversations with diverse creators give readers fascinating insights into the commonalities, the differences, the passions, the persistence and the joyful engagement found in the innovative process. There is no ownership of creativity which exists in many disciplines. These interviews are inspirational and catalysts for self-reflection and creative engagement.