Don Jolley: Learning without bounds

06/19/2019

For Don Jolley, who retired this spring after 31 years teaching in the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District, learning is boundless. Inquiry must involve both hands, span academic and artistic disciplines, and leave no stone unturned. 

Mr. Jolley taught all subjects to sixth graders for 12 years, then specialized for the past two decades in middle school math and science. His contributions to the district were recognized last month at a goodbye celebration, where a wave of teachers, past and present students, and community members spoke—many tearfully. 

“I just walked through your classroom again tonight, and the excitement came back to me, the wonder. It felt so good to feel that again,” said one former student. “You taught us critical thinking skills, math, science, dancing. You changed my perception of the world.” 

Other alumni said Mr. Jolley’s annual trips—to Utah for paleontological digs, to Ashland for the Shakespeare festival and to the Sierras and Joshua Tree for interdisciplinary explorations—remain life highlights they boast about to their friends. 

One former student described the scene at the Tamalpais High School prom this year: all of the students who attended Bolinas—where Mr. Jolley and his wife, Cenize Rodriguez, taught partner dance—got up to show off their moves. They were the only ones on the floor. 

Gohar Yervandyan, who co-taught the middle school grades with Mr. Jolley this year, said, “When he first told me he was retiring, I felt crushed and cheated. I am a learner and a new teacher, a younger teacher. Just the amount I’ve learned in the nine months working with Don has been a culmination of I don’t even know how many years—he’s amazing and I tell him that every day.” 

Looking at Mr. Jolley in the audience, she said, “You are an incredible human being, and everyone in this room knows that, and will continue to be impacted by you for the rest of their lives.” 

Mr. Jolley, who grew up in Southern California, comes from a long line of teachers that includes both of his parents. He graduated from Sonoma State with a studio art degree, and it wasn’t until partway through an M.F.A. program at San Francisco State that he decided to change course. He recounted that an advisor in that program helped him link the ideas he was learning in a conceptual design class with the practice of teaching. 

“In a way, that professor gave me permission to be a teacher,” Mr. Jolley told the Light last week. “Conceptual design is about how to work with an idea, how to let that idea evolve and take shape and trust that it is going to take you someplace exciting. It’s not compartmentalized in one way of thinking. He told me, ‘You are a conceptual designer: that is your artwork.’ That was an entirely new take on teaching that legitimized it for me.”

Mr. Jolley took his first teaching job at the Bolinas-Stinson School District, as a mid-year hire. The job suited him.

Every school day for the next three decades, Mr. Jolley woke up early for the commute from his home in Inverness Park. He was usually on campus by 7 a.m. or earlier, planning out his day. He said teaching middle schoolers was a bit like fishing. 

“You put the bait out there and see if anyone is biting,” he said. “What’s your hook? That’s what I spend the morning thinking about: what can I put out there? What lures them? Without that, it is all just a bunch of information.”

He tries to present questions from many angles and bridge disciplines. Why not explain science with poetry, or math with art?

“I want to involve students in that way of thinking, so that when they walk out the door, they aren’t compartmentalizing and instead they are available to the world on all these different channels,” he said. “For me, I’ve been paid to cultivate this, to indulge myself in learning about the world and asking questions. What a gift.”

Pursuing knowledge has been a lifelong practice for Mr. Jolley: when he was 14, his parents bought him a 1941 Ford that “didn’t even roll” and encouraged him to figure it out. After taking the car apart and putting it back together again, he left home in it at age 18. The project has served as a template for him: learning involves hands-on experience and demands patience and even risk.

Another goal has been to make his students feel as though they are a part of the quest and the dialogue of learning. As he puts it, “a lot of knowledge is sequestered by the experts.” 

Indeed, his students have made incredible discoveries. On trips to Utah over the past 20 years, Mr. Jolley’s classes have found all types of dinosaur remains: bones, teeth, eggshells and footprints. In the ‘90s, two successive classes of middle schoolers were invited to present their findings at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, and subsequently published them in a scientific journal. Their papers dealt with dinosaur thermal strategies: were they warm or cold blooded, and how can we tell from the fossil record?

Mr. Jolley also led explorations close to home. Though it was at first difficult to obtain the necessary federal permits, he and his students have collected and assembled a large variety of animal bones found in Bolinas and the neighboring Point Reyes National Seashore. He has displayed the skeletons of whales, coyotes, deer, and even horses and emus in his classroom over the years, and has loaned the specimens to universities and museums. 

He sought to engage students in other ways, too. Photography was an integral part of his curriculum; on class road trips, he set up a makeshift darkroom inside a U-Haul truck. 

There have also been challenges during his time with the district.

Two years ago, Mr. Jolley lent his voice to a chorus of school community members concerned about student behavior. At a school board meeting, he told trustees and administrators that the situation had deteriorated in recent years and that he was “out of tools” to handle it.

But this month Mr. Jolley was quick to stand up for his students. He said he thought there were environmental factors at play. The internet, and social media in particular, is shifting the way people absorb information, he said. 

“I look at this as the erosion of deep thought,” he said. “I’m worried. We would be in a lot of trouble without technology, and I don’t want to go backwards. I’m not a Luddite. But what have we lost? Somewhere, something. Somewhere, some of our soul.”

Mr. Jolley said that despite his best efforts, he doesn’t reach every student. Yet he makes sure they all experience that “something” before they set off for high school. To illustrate, he crossed the room and picked up a protractor, cut out of paper by one of his students and adorned with a drawing of a pink dragon.  

“They have to construct a protractor and they have to do it by hand. They use circles,” he said, laying it out on the table. “You first draw a circle with your drawing compass and then you draw another circle that’s the same size and then you draw another and another one until you find out that six circles fit around a circle in the middle—every time, no matter the size of the circle. If you assume this middle circle is 360 degrees or pieces, and you start dividing this thing, you start coming up with 60s: This is where 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour come from. 

“If you divide those further from the centers, you come up with 12 sections, each 30 degrees: there are 12 months in a year, and each one is roughly 30 days. You divide those further and you come up with 24 sections of 15 degrees. Guess what? There are 24 hours in a day, and a day is defined as 15 degrees rotation of the sun. 

“Out of all of these constructions, [the student] has to cut out a protractor. And all of that is in here: she has covered all that territory in building this thing. And then she has to live with every error she has made in these little tick marks, but it’s hers. Look at this! Think of what we missed if we took the fast route and gave her a protractor.” 

Mr. Jolley said he must be a fool to give up a job that pays him to do what he loves. Yet he expressed excitement about spending more time on his own projects, with his family and in his garden. 

He confided that he and Ms. Rodriguez recently bought a 1987 Westfalia and are outfitting it for living. Highway 89 from Mount Shasta to Tahoe—a less traveled, back way across the Sierras—is their first horizon.