Sunday, July 10, 2016

#BlackLivesMatter in the classroom

via Odysey, Nicole Gentile

What does biology have to do with #BlackLivesMatter?
What does teaching have to do with race?

I can do what many biology teachers do, and dismiss this whole race thing as a social construct, with little basis in biology. I'm a pale male, after all, I can "rise above" it.

The art of science is making observations, see patterns, describing those patterns, and making predictions based on those patterns.

Science does not seek "truth" as much as it seeks sense in the natural world, but because it's a human endeavor, even the stereotypical staid, data-driven scientist is ruled by his biases.

And maybe that's its value--to let students see that their vision of "reality" is skewed by the world already constructed in their minds.

Crispus Attucks, the first American (or whatever you call a fugitive slave whose homeland is here) killed in the American Revolution, was a person of color.

His killer, Hugh Montgomery, a white man, was defended by John Adams (yes, that John Adams). Adams summed up the soul of white racism, arguing that Attucks' "very looks was enough to terrify any person."

Michael Brown died for the same reason:
[H]e looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon."         Officer who shot Michael Brown

It looks like a demon.

What does teaching high school science have to do with any of this?

Well, depends, I suppose, on why science matters to you. Matters to me because I keep clawing at reality, or whatever I perceive to be reality, so science keeps me sane.

We see what we see based on the model we already hold of the universe. The same universe that allows "us" to justify our behaviors over and over and over again is a world of fear, of order imposed by our authority, of a twisted version of a dominant religion that lost its way generations ago.

I used to believe I teach young adults science because I wanted them to share in the love and beauty of the universe I know. Now I am not so sure. (Oh, I'm still sure of my love of nature, just not sure that's reason enough to impose my world view on theirs.)

So why teach biology? The kumbaya answer is to say that deep down inside, we all have the same needs, that race is not biological, then go on to mutter some nonsense about the mitochondria being the powerhouse of the cell.

Here's a better reason--teach children to develop a critical lens when looking at the world.
Claim. Evidence. Reasoning.

What makes #BlackLivesMatter so empowering is that it does just that, a big reason, perhaps the reason, it is so feared. The claim is that black lives matter less in our culture than white lives, the evidence is overwhelming.

You don't need to be a scientist to see that--but if you apply a rational eye to the evidence around us, you will arrive at the same claim.

The first step is to observe, simply observe, and find the patterns.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Staying grounded

Patch of backyard, moments ago

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,  
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,  
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
T.S. Eliot, from The Waste Land

In the end, of course, it all falls apart, reason enough to take care of each other.

The sun is just starting its journey back to the shadows, and you can smell, again, wafts of the dead and the dying among the exuberance left over from June. By fall, the air smells like rich earth again.

The ground beneath us holds a universe of stories, of critters both unimaginably complex and foreign, spinning life-stuff from the air, nitrogen to ammonia to nitrates. The story of us starts with the dust on our soles, the dust of our souls.

(We are not defined by DNA anymore than a house is defined by its blueprint--protein is what makes me me, and you you. )

Science as taught today no longer grounds us--high school science is an amalgam of abstractions, magic formulas that, if mastered well, help gain entrance to institutions that increase your odds of making a livable wage.

The Gospel of the NGSS tells us so:
"Beyond the needs of the economy, an education grounded in acquiring and applying knowledge positions students to improve their options in a rapidly changing menu of jobs, where few students will stay in the same job throughout their working lives."
My classroom extends out to our school garden, our town's Green, physical extensions of the more important extensions to the earth and life, to the dust and death. In English classes, these themes are metaphorical.

In biology, when done right, a child should have moments of, well, terror, as she realizes that this human world of images and screens and light is as empty as the promises made by the false prophets around us.

Our children need to be grounded, in the literal sense. They need mud between their toes, they need to grow flowers from seed, they need to wile away afternoons staring at the life in a square foot patch of grass, or they will be lost, as so many of the adults around them already are.

Bee by the driveway, a year or two ago.

Science starts with what's real, and nothing less.
So do a few other things that should matter.

Education should start with a clue about what matters.