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Making a Difference in the Classroom and on the Stage

Jeff Polish (Credit: Tom Sloan)

On a January evening in Durham, North Carolina, Cary Academy science teacher Jeffrey Polish stands on a raised platform in a crowded restaurant. The audience roars with laughter as Polish tells how he initiated select new members into the cell biology lab he worked in after college with strategically placed miniature dry-ice bombs fabricated from plastic Eppendorf test tubes.

"We moved without jobs. We wanted a lifestyle change." -- Jeffrey Polish

The 39-year-old Polish, who has a Ph.D. in molecular cell biology from Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), left the lab bench to teach high school biology after finishing graduate school in 2004. Since 2008, he has also been living out a dream, to tell personal stories to an audience, as founder and director of The Monti, a successful, live storytelling event for and by adults.

"Before I was pursuing science of any kind, I was telling stories," Polish says. "I love an audience. I love people who want to listen to what I have to say." Whether he's using a story from his childhood to set up a lesson for his ninth-grade biology students or telling an edgier story at The Monti, Polish knows how to engage his listeners. His goal is not merely to entertain, though that certainly is part of it; Polish aims to make a difference in people's lives.

Finding his way

Polish, who has a B.A. in biology, started college at WUSTL with his heart set on being a physician. But he struggled academically and did not get accepted to medical school. Demoralized, he got a job as a lab technician after graduating in 1993. That's when he "started to fall in love with research science."

After 3 years as a technician, Polish applied to several graduate programs. He decided to stay at the WUSTL School of Medicine, eventually choosing the yeast genetics lab of Mark Johnston for his Ph.D. research. "About 4 years into my graduate career, I realized that research was not for me," he says. He needed more interaction with people. Polish found that he was happiest when teaching.

Then came his epiphany. Why not teach high school and help turn kids on to science? He considered quitting graduate school but decided to stick it out. "I thought I had 2 years left, and it ended up being four more years," he says ruefully. "I never doubted myself more than in that time. ... But ultimately, being there for 8.5 years and not quitting is something that I'm extremely proud of."

One thing Polish never doubted was his ability to relate to young people and to explain complicated scientific concepts in a simple way. His first teaching job was at Whitfield School, a small private school in St. Louis, Missouri, as a long-term substitute for a ninth-grade biology teacher who was on maternity leave. The teacher decided not to return to work, so Polish was hired to replace her.

At last, he was in his element. "When I got my first [teaching] job, I was off and running," he says. "The kids really enjoyed their time in my class, and I really enjoyed being with them."

Polish married in 2001, during his fifth year of graduate school. His first son was born in January 2006. In 2007, at the end of his second full year as a teacher, he and his wife, Allison, moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to be closer to her parents and her hometown of Greensboro. "We moved without jobs. We wanted a lifestyle change," Polish says. Allison, who works in marketing, found a job first. Polish found himself as a stay-at-home father, a role he never anticipated but ended up cherishing.

Near the end of the 2007–08 academic year, the couple had a second child -- another boy -- and Polish found a job at Cary Academy, a private school in Cary, North Carolina. A third son was born in August.

Polish says he likes "dispensing information" to his students but adds that "what I really enjoy is asking the kids to take what they've learned and apply it to something that they're not familiar with. ... There's a pivotal moment between myself and the student where I'm challenging them to leave their comfort zone and all they want is the answer. [And] all I want is for them to think about it. I don't even care if they get the right answer."

When a student perseveres and figures something out, he says, "I feel like I've done something right, and they feel like they've discovered something along the way. One of the most important things I've taken from my research experience [is] that science is not these little units or modules that they have in these lab books; science is coming up with interesting questions and answering them."

Following a dream

The year between teaching jobs gave Polish "a lot of time to think" and consider other options. It was then that he was inspired to launch The Monti. But the seeds for The Monti were planted much earlier, when Polish was in college and saw a live performance by monologist and writer Spalding Gray. His immediate reaction was, "that's what I'd like to do," but going to medical school seemed less scary than pursuing a passion "to write one-man shows and perform off-off-off-Broadway," he says. "So I just left that dream behind until I was pushing my child on a swing."

Jeff Polish (Credit: Tom Sloan)

Polish learned that the Chapel Hill-Durham area is home to many authors with national reputations. "So I started to contact them via e-mail, and they were crazy about the idea [of] a forum for oral storytelling," he says. "I had a bunch of great writers show up to our first event [in April 2008], and we sold that out and we've been selling out shows ever since."

Each event in The Monti series has a theme, and storytellers must tell a true story without notes and keep to a 12-minute limit. The storytellers include people from all walks of life, including authors, area scientists, and local celebrities. Since its launch, the series has expanded to include less formal "story slams" and as many as two or three shows a month.

Polish, who tells a story at most of The Monti shows, credits his Ph.D. adviser with teaching him how to tell a tight story without loose ends. When Johnston gave a scientific presentation, "He was so good at framing things in a way that was coherent and clear and concise, and ... everything he said was important to the overall picture," Polish says. "Being concise was the most important thing I learned in graduate school."

Two hats

Polish often works stories into his teaching. To introduce a unit on photosynthesis, for instance, he launches into a story from his childhood about building a fallout shelter with a friend after seeing a TV movie about a nuclear attack. He asks the class to consider what they would need to survive for a month in a fallout shelter. It's a way to get them thinking about the critical role of oxygen and where it comes from.

Why tell stories? "I want my experience to be validated, ... and I want people to understand my life. [That's] really important because I didn't feel that understanding growing up. I felt alone and isolated." People are drawn to stories and storytelling, he says, because "stories are what unify people. ... [They] create intimacy between strangers. People who have never seen each other before can become thick as thieves just in the telling of stories."

Ever the teacher, Polish meets in advance with The Monti storytellers and gives them tips. At a show in September, one of the storytellers was Greg Taylor, who recently was exonerated after serving 17 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. "Jeff worked with [Taylor] on that, on setting the story up and so on. This guy never thought of himself as a storyteller," says German Urioste, who heads the English department at Cary Academy and has teamed with Polish to teach two short courses there. "Jeff is very good at helping storytellers craft their ideas and organize them."

When Taylor told his story, with TV news cameras rolling, Polish says, "It was one of those moments when I felt I'm doing something important here. I'm not just telling silly stories in front of people that want a laugh. I'm facilitating the telling of stories that matter in our society."

Asked about his goals and dreams for The Monti, Polish deadpans, "world domination," adding, "I do want to be recognized nationally ... as an organization that does something that is important, interesting, entertaining, and provocative."

After some false starts, Polish has found two occupations he's good at and loves doing. The result is a future that appears bright with opportunities: "I thought I was going to run out of stories within the first couple of months. ... But what I've realized after 2.5 years is that I'm just getting warmed up."

Elia Ben-Ari is a science writer in Arlington, Virginia.