Thursday, January 26, 2012

A science teacher's challenge

 "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."
Thoughts on Rachel's Challenge.

Atoms, as most adults know them, do not exist. Never have. Our models are human constructs, useful but little more than organized patterns of neurons firing away, as we try to make sense of the world around us.

Yet most reasonable adults in these parts will tell you that they know what an atom is.

Quahogs, on the other hand, are as real as these hands upon this keyboard. Beautifully curved mollusks that live with as much purpose as most of us, tucked away in mud flats just a few miles away. Good eating, too.

Yet most reasonable adults in these parts could not find one with a GPS mounted on a bull rake.

Which matters more?

The abstract matters, of course. Without it, language dissolves and bridges fall. Still, the point of language is to share our collective grasp of the world around us.

 We worship our words, our images, more than the ground we literally walk on, the dirt that keeps us fed.

Today our lambs got exposed to a cacophony of sound and images--Chuck Norris and bullets and Sean Hannity and smiling babies and Hitler and  white coffins and Anne Frank and moving anthems and stories of coincidences that defy logic all to send a simple message: be kind.

The show was designed to rip at the amygdala, an organ already pretty charged up in the adolescent crowd. I don't like seeing truth and children manipulated, even if (or maybe especially if) the message is kindness.

The models of science ultimately rest on our understanding of the ground beneath our feet. As abstract as science can get, it's ruled by what can perceive of the physical world. Science requires evidence, and it requires open discussion of how that evidence can be fairly interpreted.

Maybe I just don't like Chuck Norris.

I'm a science teacher. I worried a bit about my students accepting the stories told today at face value simply because their emotions were twanging like Duane Eddy's guitar.

I needn't have worried. My students have been mostly kind this year. I kept quiet as I listened to their conversations.They're adding a healthy skepticism to their kindness.

The kids are all right.

Oh, and a suggestion--if you spend an hour telling the kids how everyone matters as much as everyone else, don't end it by announcing a "select" few will get together later to start a club.

Chuck Norris photo from Amazon.


John T. Spencer said...

I don't have a problem with kindness. I do, however, have a problem with propaganda. I didn't see the video (obviously) but it sounds as if the implicit message wasn't "be kind" so much as "be nice."

Violence is often confusing in terms of causes and consequences. Chemical imbalances, mental illnesses, bullying, marginalization - all of these played a role in Columbine.

Then again, there is more dangerous collective craziness that lead to World War I and World War II, the genocide of our own indigenous populations, slavery, etc. And the scary thing about those tragedies is that they are done with a smile. They are nice. They are committed through compliance. They require propaganda. Nice propaganda. The kind with smiling babies and bombs dropping and "we're better by accident of geography."

It's Mickey Mouse and Diet Coke and Lady Gaga in a culture trying to keep their own identity. It's a get-to-college-free scam that allows a former student to sit in a room, drinking a Red Bull, flying a drone that accidentally bombs a wedding and now a four year old is paralyzed for life.

If I had to watch a video like that, I would ask kids to analyze it as an act of propaganda. We would discuss the tension between social unity and individual rights and the difference between nice compliance and social justice-infused kindness.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I always enjoy your commentary, and, as usual, you're spot on.

As a science teacher, I can ask the kids to examine the evidence, but I'm a bit out of bounds discussing propaganda and such. I hope our social science classes take a few moments to look critically at this.

Anonymous said...

I think propaganda has been placed firmly into Science, beginning with the Scopes trial, through "room temperature fusion" and continuing to global warming. Discussing the differences between propaganda and science, between scientific theory and delusional ravings, is surely the purpose of science in public schools.
I don't mind if people want to look at information and interpret it in a different way than everyone else in the world - heck, it's the basis for innovation. I do object to looking at data and dismissing it because you'd prefer to believe something else. I strongly object to students being exposed to peer pressure and brainwashing by adults in power.
I say you have carte blanche...

doyle said...

Dear Anonymous,

I just go back from a walk on the beach, and I had a chat with a crow. Or rather, he chatted at me.

And I came up with exactly the same conclusion--I could have written your comment myself.

So yes, you're right--I will challenge the challenge.

Kathryn J said...

I attended a Rachel's Challenge presentation when my now HS junior was in 6th grade. I thought it was awful - poorly done, sensationalistic, thinly veiled religious overtones, etc. You can research the organization to find that they started as creationists but didn't find as good a market as this vehicle. The hair on the back of my neck still stands up when I hear the "club" mentioned.

I kept my child home that day until the assembly was over. We went out to breakfast together and talked about Columbine, kindness, and manipulation of others by both adults and kids. It was a better use of his time.

I'm glad that your students have learned to be skeptical. You are a great teacher!

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

I suspect my kids are skeptical more because this is north Jersey than because of anything I did.

I am glad you responded as you did--the more I dwell on what happened in or building, the angrier I get.

Rachel's Challenge is offensive on multiple levels.

Mary Ann Reilly said...

I think I recall reading in the book, Columbine that the depiction of Rachel via Rachel's Challenge was an error (or a lie).

Talking with crows is most likely more enlightening than most assemblies.

Anonymous said...

Most importantly, listen to Derrell Scott’s congressional testimony. He spoke out against gun legislation in response to school shootings and promotes instead the idea that if kids are kind and believe in god then bad then their school won’t get shot up. It plays on fear and shock. Just imagine if he’d spent 20 years advocating for gun law changes. Bullying happens all over the world. School shootings are an American problem because guns are an American problem.