“Whereof what’s past is prologue”
Shakespeare, The Tempest – act II, scene i
In the last blog
, we found our hero Napoleon, a first year high school Biology teacher, at rock bottom trying to teach his students genetics. As his coach, I felt compelled to share The 4Ss - my philosophy of teaching. I pontificated that these elements were an oracle that could help us improve his practice.
THE 4Ss OF SUCCESSFUL TEACHING
Napoleon was in good shape with his social skills
. He has minimal behavioral issues in his classes and many positive interactions with students. I imagined that supplies, structures and story
were the Ss where he might need support.
If you carefully study and practice the craft of teaching you have a lot to offer pedagogues in any discipline. A humanities teacher by trade, I think its fun to work outside my content area because it’s easy to slip into a student point of view. I particularly enjoy working with science teachers to craft scientific details, discoveries and debate into stories with compelling possibilities.
Napoleon didn’t know it, but genetics was a story line I had explored before. In 2001, I worked with a co-teacher to make Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein
a meaningful read for high school English students. If Dr. Frankenstein were alive today, would he have been a geneticist or perhaps a Raielian
? Collaborating with a scientist at the University of Michigan, and funded by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, students created Nice Genes, Dr. Frankenstein
, a symposium exploring science fact and fiction. A diverse panel of speakers used a student produced video and clips about genetics in popular culture as springboards for debate about the scientific and ethical implications of modern genetics.
MC Popper Ali in 11th Grade with Dr. Warren Lockette and me - looking chubby. Rumor has it that Ali, who now teachers science at the university level, often wears this costume to class.
When I asked Napoleon what he was teaching, he responded with words like “nucleotides,” “replication forks,” and “base pairs.” Hearing this, I asked a few questions:
Do you think the kids know what a clone is?
Do students know they might be eating cloned food?
Do they know they might be able to customize the DNA of their children?
Do they know about the controversies of stem cell research and genetic testing?
He suspected they weren’t aware of these things, but he wasn’t sure. As the story guy, I suggested these big ideas could create a narrative thread that would interest students in the core scientific content.
Napoleon was trying to transmit a lot of knowledge at once. Most of us have done this before. We’ve had classes where students memorize vocabulary out of context, learn a scientific processes without connecting it to larger issues, plug and chug numbers into equations without understanding what they represent, and learn history as a list of dates. This knowledge-based instruction is a far cry from the higher rungs on Bloom’s Taxonomy of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. (See the Bloom's Taxonomy PDF attached at the bottom of the post).
Many teachers feel pressure to prepare students for tests and lack the collaborative prep time necessary to shift classes from a paradigm of information transmission to one where students construct knowledge from learning experiences.
Napoleon probably imagined his approach would prep kids for state tests and the pre-med courses he experienced less than a year ago at college. It would be great if all students engaged in college level science but statistically speaking only small percentage will pursue science related degrees. If that’s the case, then a reasonable goal for a survey course at any level should be to create scientifically literate citizens who have the knowledge and skills to make ethical and informed decisions around complex scientific issues.
For many of Napoleon’s students, science felt like a foreign language. For that reason, the reading and writing strategies often used in humanities were the structures that would form the foundation of my coaching plan to make genetics accessible for Napoleon’s kids.
“Reading science” is an essential long-term skill for students, but it is even more important in the short-term. The science section of many state tests and the ACT are almost entirely reading comprehension activities. Each jargon-filled science passage is followed by questions designed to see if students are able to use context clues. Almost every answer requires a little bit of background knowledge to find answers imbedded in or inferred by the text. If you teach students how to read, write and think science students will successfully engage with complex scientific ideas in the short and long term.
My short-term approach was to reset the unit. I culled a lot of teaching supplies and gave them to Napoleon. His first assignment was to watch The 6th Day
before our next meeting. I thought about suggesting the knockout film GATTACA
, but thought that The 6th Day
- an action film starting Governor Schwarzenegger about illegal human cloning - was closer to our students’ proximal zone of development
aka - the sweet spot for learning.
I’m not sure Napoleon was sold on the story, structures and supplies, but he gave me the benefit of the doubt. He was ready and willing to experiment.
How will our hero react to new story lines? Will his students start speaking science? Stay tuned as our tale continues with some wild results…