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Tag Archives: teaching evolution

New classroom setup and projects

Still living the privilege of working with fine professionals who are also amiable and fun, and serving students particularly willing to learn and unusually respectful to us and one another. Still wondering if it’s a long term calling, or a place on the road toward working more with at risk youth. Still working hard to teach five different subjects and thankful for ample planning time. I have my new classroom painted (covered the institutional pasty yellow with sky blue to counter the lack of windows), chairs, projector, and whiteboards set up. It’s so much easier to teach in one room all day, no more carrying laptop, text, and paperwork back and forth.

Students are really getting the hang of things, incidences of failure to hand in assignments are falling, people are doing corrections to bombed quizzes or homework they didn’t understand. They are grasping the connection between practice, participation, perseverance, and success (mostly reflected by grades, in the math classes). If I have the same students for a second math next year, they should be able to roll with my system pretty well, as I will haveĀ  tweaked it to align with what they need to accomplish and what is practical in the time given. I hope that all the quieter students who need help will realize I’m eager to give it, and that extra tutoring is worth the time spent.

In environmental science, we’re getting into an experimental design on decomposition. In the process of learning how to properly design a controlled experiment, I plan to cover the cycling of matter, the chemistry and biology of decomposition, municipal solid waste management, and the effects of solid waste on the environment. Also connecting soon with a study of current waste production at school and home, and problem solving around that. I started too late last year to do much at the other school, but even the “reluctant learners” there were pretty enthusiastic about cutting down on waste, and all but two took turns at weighing bags of garbage. I’m thinking it would be interesting to post the daily and weekly amount of the different types of waste we generate to raise awareness first. I’m sure the students will have good ideas.

In biology, I decided that we were getting seriously bogged down in the chapter about the nature of Homo sapiens, so I skipped forward to look at the essential characteristics of all living things. I gave a project borrowed from last year’s colleagues and adapted it. After choosing a species of organism (from an assigned category) and researching it, the students are to create posters illustrating and explaining how their species show evidence of each essential characteristic. They can use any reasonable list of characteristics, and since the list in the text specifically names evolution in terms of common ancestry and species evolving into other species, I gave the option of focusing on shorter term evolution within populations as they adapt to changing environmental conditions. Nods all around.

I think the common ancestry idea is pushed a little too heavily, anyway, without even offering a definition of “species,” so Bible believers just assume it’s the same as the biblical “kinds’ (Hebrew min), which they are taught were created distinct by God and don’t morph into one another. Sure would be interesting to go into a discussion of that with the Hebrew text and commentaries and all, but, oh, no, not in public school! I really think the teaching of evolution should start with the evidence right in front of us not the overarching theory that took years to emerge once Darwin and Wallace got to thinking about their findings. Darwin was certainly bothered by it all, and I’m sure had a real conflict between his desire for intellectual honesty and his traditional biblical teachings. As it was for Darwin, evolutionary theory is a great candidate for inquiry based learning, but in the text, which is usually so oriented that way, the end findings are stated up front before fossils, or Darwin, or comparative embryology, or DNA, are even mentioned.

I’m looking forward to seeing the visuals some of these artistically talented/practices students will create. Now that we have lots of wall space of our very own, they’ll be a nice addition to the decor. When I saw the other teachers punching staples through the expensive vinyl wallpaper, I knew it would be okay to cover the place with posters and bulletin boards. I even put up the evolutionary tree of life poster, reminding myself that I need not, should not, feel apologetic about it. And hoping that if anyone does object, they will come directly to me and have a conversation. The principal has alluded to the fact that he would always advise that if parents have issues, and that he has my back as to teaching public school biology.

To tell the truth, from our school website, you’d never know it is a public and not a Christian school. I wondered if I should mention the presence of two very obvious Christian signage items on the front page of our website, but being new, I don’t want to be the one who tries to scratch the Christian image–I would probably get surprised stares from all but maybe one of the staff, and rumors might get about to the parents that I was anti-Christian. Still, I do think we should make it known that the school is a public school and welcomes all homeschooling families. The name even sounds private school-ish. I wonder how the non-religious students are feeling (if, indeed there are any decidedly non-religious, or even less theologically conservative).

 

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2016 in Education

 

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Faith and Science

I had to decompress today with a few colleagues, after the two strange biology classes I had. Same students, attentive and courteous, but we approached, a little too close for comfort, the idea that humans and chimps could be related. The question was (how could I be so naive?), What do you think humans and chimpanzees share so many similarities? They were to talk in groups and all they came up with was variations on because God made them that way. Either God made them that way, period, or God gave them some of the same characteristics because they were good adaptations for a similar lifestyle. One boy did offer the possibility that they might have a common ancestor, so I added that to their ideas. No one thought of genetics, but when I mentioned that genetically the two species are very similar, there was a pause, and “that doesn’t prove anything, though.”

I feel like these are just ordinary, evidence-based ideas, and that I don’t need, in fact should not–in the name of providing a science education–avoid them or couch them in creationist terms. Plus there’s so much that could be discussed about the reasons for the religious reservations there are to seeing connections between species, and especially to seemingly undermine the special status of humans in creation in any way. But I don’t think I’m really supposed to bring up what I know about biblical teaching on creation or how there need not be such a sense of threat at all. I wish I could talk with the parents away from the school, tell them I believe in God, have great respect for the Hebrew Bible, and can read it pretty well in the original. We have an entire library of commentaries (in storage), and are not godless pagans. The reason I thought God was so awesome as a kid was because of the wonderful things made by the Creator, and how much great design I recognize in both the big picture and fine detail. The theologians call this “general revelation,” which is available to all (as opposed to “special revelation,” available only to those to whom it revealed throughout history).

Instead, I fell I am coming across as anti-religion. I want to counter that, subtly but somehow, but it might not be possible. Can I direct those who are interested to sources from within the Christian community that have a more evidence-based view of biology, and a more literary, this-is-not-a-science-text view of the Bible? Maybe the best approach is, if it seems like there are barriers to learning growing, or that it seems to families that I am not respecting their majority culture, to ask questions. I could even offer the option that they research any biology and science-related passages in the Bible, and see how it relates to scientific evidence. Which passages of Genesis, for example, run parallel to science’s view on the origins of the planet and its life, and which seem to run contrary? How have theologians tried to work this out?

But time is short, and they still have to learn about cellular processes, ecology, homeostasis, inheritance, and physiology. But first we have to get through the evolution chapter with some semblance of integrity and harmony.

Here’s the piece I wrote to try to address parents on the issue:

In several of our discussions in biology class, it has come up that a majority of students in the classes consider faith in God, belief in the soul, and the special status of the humans species as very important. This was in the context of a discussion about how humans are unique, and the characteristics they share with other primates, based on their observations. The way I addressed this is to say that there are different ways of knowing, some accessible and testable by science, and others not, but known or believed very deeply in other ways.

Sometimes the scientific evidence presented in class may conflict with religious views of students and/or parents, and I am very aware of the need to be mindful of my role as public school teacher delegated by this community. Off and on I’ve had good conversations about this with parents, staff, and others as I work out the best way to proceed. I have really appreciated the opportunity to better understand views of both students and parents here in the area. I have also appreciated the openness of both to learn and converse in a respectful and thoughtful way.

Okay, so I’m in ——-, and I knew what I was getting into when I took on this job. I homeschooled my own four children for many of the same reasons our ——– families do, and have had reservations about the way a public school must by law provide a religion-free education, and so, by default, appear to communicate a low value for faith perspectives, while trying to respect all citizens’ religious, or non-religious, views.

In science classes, I must refrain from engaging in teaching even about religion, although it is permissible by law in social studies or history classes. The ACLU’s interpretation of the law is that “[I] may present only genuinely scientific critiques of, or evidence for, any explanation of life on earth, but not religious critiques (beliefs unverifiable by scientific methodology). Schools may not refuse to teach evolutionary theory in order to avoid giving offense to religion nor may they circumvent these rules by labeling as science an article of religious faith. Public schools must not teach as scientific fact or theory any religious doctrine, including “creationism,” although any genuinely scientific evidence for or against any explanation of life may be taught. Just as they may neither advance nor inhibit any religious doctrine, teachers should not ridicule, for example, a student’s religious explanation for life on earth.”

This respect for the law about my duty as a public school teacher has made me reluctant to directly address any of the faith-based views I have encountered in class. On the other hand, discussing the apparent conflict between religious and scientific views is very interesting to me personally. I also wish I could provide resources that could help families to understand the ways in which scientific scholars of the Judeo-Christian faith have tackled these areas of conflict. But once again, I hesitate due to the constraints of the law. I also realize that other than asking questions to help students develop their own thinking as related to biology, it’s not my role to address about religious views about science.

I will be teaching evolutionary theory in the next month or so. This will include presenting the scientific evidence that has accumulated from many sources for the theory of common ancestry, as well as teaching about the biochemical drivers of evolution on short, medium, and long time scales. I will do my best to continue to nurture a respectful forum for discussion and individual interpretive work (in writing and projects), where that can lead to a greater understanding of high school level biology. I appreciate parents’ and students’ patience as we go through this sometimes uncomfortable process.

I also want to communicate here some of the things I have said in class about the value and limits of science. I have said that science is a great tool and way of knowing, but that there are other ways of knowing and being sure of things. Science attempts to be objective and relies on evidence–lots of it, to develop theories. I point out that although a theory, as the term is used in science, is well supported by evidence, all theories are subject to testing, revision, and falsification if there is enough contradictory evidence. No theory ought to be spoken of as “true” or “proven” in science. Science is also not useful for verifying or disproving any type of knowledge for which observable or measurable evidence cannot be gathered, and so can never be used to disprove, for example, ideas about God, or whether there is a divine force behind both evolution and the day-to-day life of molecules and cells.

The only area I see a direct conflict between faith and science is in the view that the Bible, Hebrew or Greek testaments, are sources of reliable, sufficient empirical evidence to counter scientific views about the age and history of the Earth. I cannot present the young Earth view as a viable alternative theory, simply because there isn’t enough evidence for it. That said, there are many alternative faith-based ways to view biblical teaching relating to creation, and there are good books, lectures, and websites that offer guidance for those who want to inquire. I hope that students in conflict will seek these out rather than either simply refusing to consider scientific evidence on the one hand, or, on the other hand, doubting their faith because they believe it is incompatible with scientific evidence. Mostly, I hope that they will gain an appreciation of how amazing, intricate, and interesting the world of living things is, and as much knowledge about how it works as possible.

 

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2016 in Religion & Spirituality

 

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But I didn’t ask them, Do chimps have souls?

I’m still on the fence about whether I could be content teaching at this school for the long term. Still not sure if helping open up a certain percentage of minds to valuing scientific methods and evidenced based conclusions is important enough, compared to maybe working with marginalized students.

My biology classes are in the midst a unit for which a key question is “What makes humans unique?” I had the students watch “Among the Wild Chimpanzees,” about the work of Jane Goodall, and gave reflection questions as homework. Back in class, I asked them to share their answers to the last question, “Has watching this film changed your views about the uniqueness of humans or our relationship with other animals in any way?” I expected a few different responses, but instead, got a resounding, “No!” from a chorus of voices, accompanied by smiles of what looked a little like triumph, though more impish than defiant. I was actually taken aback, and said, “That’s okay.! You don’t have to.” They are definitely on their guard, those conservative Christian youth, in case I might relativize their truth in some way.

In the prior small group discussion in which students were challenged to come to consensus about what makes humans unique, and then to narrow these things down to what was scientifically testable and verifiable, it came out that there was a strong consensus that humans have a soul. I said, okay, the fact that you all believe that is because you live in a community full of families that have brought you up that way. I asked what it might be like for someone who publicly declared that they disagreed. They started a bit at that idea. So, I said, you believe that, you know that, as have most people from all over the world, in various ways, for thousands of years. But the reason you know it is outside of the tools of science, in a different way of knowing. This type of knowledge is not discoverable by science.

The idea here is that humans are unique in their ability to use symbolic language, pass on cultural traditions, and develop complex technologies, and in an extended childhood through rites of passage, but that they also share lots of characteristics with other animals, especially chimps. They all saw how the chimps use intelligence to solve problems, made and used tools, educated their young, and maintained close emotional bonds with members of the community. They also made war and sometimes engaged in cannibalism and other kinds of nastiness not generally acceptable in the community, but also present in human society. I sent them home this time with the question, WHY do you think we have so much in common with chimps? Most of the students (maybe all) believe, that scientists will tell them that humans descended from apes, and that’s not okay. Will they say really, we aren’t similar to chimps, it only looks that way because of scientists’ bias? Or that God created the chimps the way they are just like he created us the way we are?

And so then we’ll move on to interpretations of human culture, to the way human communities foster children through a long childhood, and then, all bets are off as we move to identifying the characteristics of all living things, and then evolution and Earth’s history, both hot potato topics. Stay tuned.

 

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2016 in Education, Religion & Spirituality

 

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Notes on the new teaching job at the end of the first month

It’s past my bedtime, but I dare say tomorrow I’ll get up past my waking time. I’m tired, looking forward to extra rest, but in general I’ve been getting recharged by teaching. Moving a little more away from that edge where one can barely plan one day at a time except on long weekends and holidays. Last year’s work on biology and environmental science have provided a bank of materials I like to go with major topics in bio. In the case of environmental science, which I patched together into a hodgepodge of a course last year, I can see the long view and how things ought to fit together. Plus the three different math classes seem to be going pretty well and the students like the pace (though apparently the science homework has been too heavy). I guess I like teaching math after all.

Really like the people I work with. I share my desk room (teach in a different one) with a fellow who was a lawyer before this and has a small farm, He plays electric guitar and brings his acoustic to play after school with anyone who wants to, including a few students who drop by to learn a few things. The other teacher down the hall was in a band, maybe more than one, in Australia, and brings his “axe”(just learned that term from my office mate) down for a jam. I’ve only participated once so far, but now I keep my acoustic on site and once I feel a little less behind after school, will pick up some tunes again. We all know a bunch of the same folk and rock, and lawyer farmer is going to bring in some bluegrass & roots, while I hope to learn the science and history songs the Aussie has written over the years a a teacher.

The other high school teacher is super supportive and positive, and is the lead teacher and a principal in training. Then there’s the crazy middle school teacher everyone loves best of all, because he yells at them, acts all gruff, does track and field, and doesn’t always follow protocol. They see through him pretty quick. He said teaching was life-changing for him. Started with coaching football, then when he applied to work in the school district he grew up in, a complete rascal all the way, they said they’d hire him on condition he never pulled any of those kind of stunts again. The other teacher said he went back and apologized to all his former middle school teachers after he started working. The other day I overheard him shout, “I’m going to make you write ’till your fingers bleed! Mwahaha!!!” Incredibly high energy too, says he’s always been kind of ADHD.

The principal is just very kind and supportive, humble as he climbs his own huge learning curve, and and also effective at what he does, so has earned the staff’s respect.

Parent volunteers have been great, too—one who has this huge nurturing gift, who I can tell is energized by reaching out in genuine ways to inquire about and bolster the state of our souls. Another was the one from Nova Scotia I met early on, though I haven’t seen her much. The three office staff are very hard working and efficient, though kind of in a different circle.

Getting to know the students has been slow but steady–twice a week and packed with content, have to figure out a better rhythm for the science classes. I’m realizing that the students know very little about the environmental systems of the Earth–didn’t know what the atmosphere was, for example, and I’m pretty sure an in depth look at climate change has been outside the purview of their homeschool education. So I’m looking forward to opening that and many other doors.

Speaking of doors, I’ve already opened the door into learning about evolution, and have had several conversations with one parent of two of my students about how I plan to teach on it, starting before classes even got started. Others are quietly buzzing around the periphery, so I much prefer her direct approach. There seemed to be a feeling that such parents are overly involved, but it sure beats the sudden and unexplained exit of a family over unknown concerns, which I’m told happens a few times every year. I invited this mom to come listen to the classes where I teach on Darwin’s ideas, though I said evolution is a thread throughout the whole year.

I’m excited to bring what I have to the table, or whiteboard, but I had to remind myself to take it slow–both for my own need to do only so many new or big or in depth things at a time in my first year her, and to keep from shaking anything up before I’ve established myself as a person who has a solid understanding of science, math, and high school students, as well as an appreciation of and respect for parents’ role as their kids’ primary educators. Like I told one mom when we were speaking about her son, who has communication problems yet to be filly diagnosed, she is the boss, and if teachers don’t get him or lay on too much work without enough support, she should protect him from that and let him learn from a space of peace, not stress and unreasonable expectations. As a high achiever herself, she seemed to need that reminder that school work was the servant, not the master.

Homeschool parents talk to each other a lot. I hope to send the word and have it spread that they can bring up concerns and issues and I will not be offended or feel interfered with, that I see myself as their delegated stand-in teacher of certain subjects. Also that I regard my role as a public school teacher as one from which I teach science from a scientific standpoint and do not plan to avoid any important aspect of well established scientific theory or practice, whether or not it seems to conflict with conservative religious views. Finally, that my main agenda as a teacher is the same as that of anyone of the Judeo-Christian tradition and many another tradition, to be a blessing to the people I serve.

 

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2016 in Education

 

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