Saturday, October 4, 2008


While biology class in New Jersey is a race against the EOC (End of Course) state exam coming mid-May, I learned last year that pushing kids at full throttle towards the goal of hitting every fine point in the curriculum a month before school ends costs more than it's worth.

Kids, like machines, shut down when overworked.

(I'm not talking about the kind of shutdown where a student makes the big "You can't make me do this" challenge. The student is right. I can't. I'm talking about the serious student who approaches their work as a rational 15 year old (not an oxymoron) who simply cannot synthesize concepts as fast as we're tossing them out.)

In our district, biology precedes chemistry, for a variety of reasons, some even valid. Teaching biochemistry to a child without a background in chemistry is like teaching fish how to fly.

This week marks Yom Kippur. For most of my students, this means nothing more than a day off. We are in the midst of the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim). I am not Jewish, but this time of year's as good as any for big-time introspection, and hat's off to calling the time Days of Awe.

We just finished our first month of school. I threw a lot at the kids--we defined the characteristics of life (wowzers!), explored major themes in biology (interdependence, biodiversity, and evolution), talked about how scientists classify this big buzz of life (not very well, it turns out), and are now discussing ecology, literally the study of where we dwell, or home.

In a week or two, we hit biochemistry.

If the kids do not get a good grip on what we've covered so far, they will have no reason to care about huge molecules tagged with mysterious names.

Almost every day I light a candle in class. Now I keep a sprig of elodea, a fast growing water plant, next to the candle.

Where does wax come from? Petroleum. From what? Plants millions of years ago. How did The energy in its bonds? Sunlight/photosynthesis. What gases are released? CO2 and water.Where do they go? In the air--green plants will use it. What is this stuff called elodea? How did it grow? Carbon dioxide and water and energy. Where does your "stuff" come from? We eat other stuff. That came from where? Ultimately green plants. On and on and on....

We covered a huge chunk of ground.

Many of the students still believe in spontaneous generation. ("How come I found worms in my cereal when I opened a new box?")

Many still believe evolution is nonsense because they believe I believe humans came from
chimps. (I never said that, of course.)

Many would rather do multiple choice questions than think.
(I don't blame them--thinking exposes things we rather leave buried.)

So this week I'm trying to synthesize all we've learned into a lesson. I might be observed during this particular lesson.

And I may start with an ode to poop.

Is poop alive?
Anything alive in it?
What qualifies bacteria as living?
Does being alive involve consciousness?
Can we know if bacteria have a sense of awareness?
If "the stones themselves cried out", would that be enough to define life?

OK, the 1st Amendment makes the last question moot in public school, but it would be a fun discussion.

I'm pooped. Still, it's a lovely October afternoon, and I'm going clamming with my Don't-Call-Me-Uncle Bob in a couple of hours. And I hope my next post is fueled by clams who grew by capturing energy filtering some organic material from the water.

Possibly even (*gasp*) poop.

The top photo is from the National Archives--it's a mill in Paterson, NJ, back in 1937, run by Jackson Winding and Warping Company--ain't that name just perfect?

The bottom photo is also from the archives, titled School boys with manure for their garden. Really.

And I bet they knew more about biology than some of our children in the fanciest prep school with the fanciest tools and technology.


Betty said...

The school boys certainly look happy. I think the plaid vest is pretty cool too. I agree that information is frequently tossed at students so quickly that they forget most of what they hear. They need more time to process the information.

Anonymous said...

I have a book in my classroom called The Scoop on Poop. The kids love it.

I can't believe we are only in Oct and we are already spinning toward the end of year assessments. I say we because that's where my head is at in both History and Math. (didn't end up teaching science after all...)

...spin me right round, baby, right round...

And the kids. We're stuck in that tension between them getting it and them losing it as we spin on to the next thing.

I've got to remind myself that if they know 70% of what they need to know really well, and I mean knowing as in understanding, they'll be fine. They'll be guaranteed to at least pass,if not do well. Much better than the crap shoot that comes with trying to cram 100% of it into their brains without being sure they know it.

It's late. Time for bed.
Thanks for another great post.

doyle said...


The boys do look happy--I was searching for "manure" in the archives ("poop" didn't work), and that image turned up.

The plaid vest is cool--I hadn't noticed it until you mentioned it, I was so focused on the stuff in the wheelbarrow. Now that I'm paying attention, the clothes on these children are very similar to what my students wear today.

And you're right--the children need processing time. They also need to learn how to process information. I have spent the past week focusing on how to approach critical thinking questions. I had not realized how many kids did not grasp key words in the question--analyze, predict, explain, etc.--I though t they were just reading the questions too quickly.

I now interpret "Yeah, I misread the question" as "I didn't know how to read the question" instead of "I was too busy playing Death Race to be bothered to read the question." I know the latter is sometimes true, but ignoring the former is just bad teaching. I cringe as I realize how little I know about this business.


I've got to find a copy of that book--closest thing we have around the department is "How to Poop in the Woods", for the seniors who go on the wilderness trip.

Last year I took the 100% approach--my kids did better than I had anticipated, but could have done better than they did. Even if their scores had broken all records and put our school into the Guinness Book of Records for best scores ever, I failed.

Why? Too many got turned off. Kids are curious. Science should feed that curiosity, teach them how to learn more about the universe. Many (most?) "facts" crammed into their noggins in biology will be discarded by biologists in a generation or two, and that's OK.

And thank you for the kind words.