I prepared a web display for my current science students in the COVID-19 school closure time as a chance for them to know more about me and my lifelong hero Dr. Jane Goodall, for a chance to connect to my passion for travel and education, and for a chance to remind us all to wash our hands.
Stay safe and healthy.
Unawezawanafunzi. You can, students! Unaweza. You can.
When I first wrote to my school families, school was closed for at least 14 days. Now, due to Governor Inslee’s order, it’s six weeks.
Let’s do the math. That’s 40+ days. I teach middle school science in one of Seattle’s largest public middle schools. I tell my students regularly that math is the language of science. It is (one of) the language(s) to communicate patterns. [the other being art] Even when, like now, we are blind-sided by rapidly changing data, patterns and procedures aren’t easy to process. This is an unprecedented moment in our world history and science.
Science requires math, sure. But science also takes creativity, courage, collaboration, and community. In short, it takes integrated thinking and a tolerance for ambiguity. It requires one to seek evidence to support challenging questions. It takes courage to recognize what the eyes don’t see. In fact, that’s the title of a remarkable memoir of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha whose research helped expose widespread lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water. She saw patterns, and problems, and had the courage to speak up.
Data is changing daily. New information informs new protocols and new policies. There is much ambiguity. Even from trusted sources like the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Yet, just like the CDC and WHO now, in the 1960’s NASA was also dealing with constantly shifting data in the space race. Recently, my young science students watched the movie Hidden Figures and witnessed how Katherine Johnson’s courage put her in “the room where it happened” just so she could keep ahead of the changing numbers. Students reflected on those acts of courage and creativity exhibited by her and other notable women in math and science throughout the movie. Thus, we also explored barriers due to racism and sexism. Perhaps it’s this recent lens of February’s Black History Month that dovetails into March’s Women’s History Month and onto April’s Earth Month (most of which my students and I won’t be together) that I see integrated connections more than usual. Perhaps it’s this pandemic that is prompting my power to connect the dots and speak up about doing things differently.
There are a few other important heroes in integrated thinking and courageous communication. My lifelong hero, Dr. Jane Goodall was also able to see what the eyes don’t see. Her patience and persistence in observing wild chimpanzees use tools redefined what it means to be human. Rachel Carson communicated what the eyes don’t see, and what the ears wouldn’t hear, when she wrote Silent Spring about the bioaccumulative affects of environmental pollution. Greta Thunberg leads a movement of youth activists through her courageous school strike for the climate and encourages us all to #unitebehindthescience. These three women are heroes of science and action for a better planet.
This current pandemic also requires creative solutions, tolerance of ambiguity, and integrated thinking. While science makes sense, it’s not always straightforward, there is often no checklist of what to do.
Middle school is an important time to develop a tolerance for ambiguity, and it seems we have the collective opportunity to develop this skill in young people now, since there is no precedent for what we are going through, and how to guide our young scientists through this time. We have to be solutionaries.
In the last few days I have seen some incredible links and resources stream through the internet, ideas of what parents can do with their kids in this “homeschool situation.” Parents have seen more than they know what to do with and maybe now, have a sense of what teachers wade through to create daily experiences for your students. Even I curated a few tips and ideas for teaching a tolerance of ambiguity, maintaining and developing routines, and activities for integrated thinking and independence in this blog.
Yet, despite all the resources, I think that this is an incredible opportunity for children to be bored enough to come up with their own ideas, without screen time (obviously). This is an unprecedented time where they are NOT required to be followers, sit in desks and rows, and follow directions, or follow some YouTube or Instagram. This this is a time where they can be leaders, discover their own passions, and develop skills, tools and strategies to grow them.
One does not go about a day and have a particular language arts experience or social studies experience or a math experience. Learning is all integrated. It’s integrated through the process of discovery, which is itself science. This is an incredible time to wonder, to watch, to ask questions, and then make more observations, (like Jane did). To gather data (like Dr. Mona did) and read, write, draw, design, and communicate (like Rachel and Greta). Above all, science is a think, it’s not a thing.
So if there is anything that you can do to support your students in the weeks ahead, it may be to simply rediscover wonder. It may require slowing down, hunkering down, listening to their interests, allowing young people the time to think, to tinker. It may be you’ll need to provide tools to plan their progress, but let them do the work. Rachel Carson said, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, (s)he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
As a teacher and mentor, I am here to be one of those adults. I’m here to help young people wonder about themselves, about the natural world, about a particular science topic, or about the arts and ways communicate their discoveries. You are too.
In short, don’t let school get in the way of your education. You don’t need to be in school or out of school or in online school, or in rows, or in front of a screen with directed activities to be curious and to be thinking. You can keep learning and growing. You can remain curious about the world, and use creative integrated science to figure it out. You are a person who solves problems, even among confounding ambiguity.
We can do science, and we can do it together.
I’ll be there to help.
Please reach out for assistance or to share what you’ve discovered.
On the Friday morning of the Global Climate Strike, as I geared up my camera equipment to head to out, I had only one song in my head. It was Midnight Oil, Beds Are Burning.
I’ve been listening to that song as a mantra for my passionate work in the environment since high school. I cranked it up really loud as I packed my lunch, water and then walked to Cal Anderson Park for the youth rally.
Last week Greta Thunburg made a passionate decree to the UN, saying, not only “how Dare You”, but more importantly, “For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear.”
30 years and I asked the same.
30 years of teaching the same stuff because it’s still matters, and little change, indeed, has happened.
30 years, when I too, was 16.
That Midnight Oil song I know so well has really been in my repertoire and in my heart since the 80s. The song was released in 1987 during my freshman year of high school. Before I would graduate the Exxon Valdez would spill billions of gallons of oil into Alaska’s water, images of crude oil on otters and sea birds would be burned into my mind, and the US would declare war on Iraq for fossil fuels. Our high school friends talked of a draft for the Gulf War, and I swore, if it came to that, I would drive a van full of kids over the Canadian border.
In my first year of college, where I was already a declared science and environmental studies major, I remember Severn Cullis-Suzuki speaking at the Rio Summit in 1992. She was 12 year old. Meanwhile, I was reading the works of her father David Suzuki, and his colleagues in conservation Wendell Barry, Aldo Leopold, E.O Wilson, Jane Goodall, and more. Even my music was influenced by digging in to the earth, as the band Arrested Development was singing about the way children were living was positively European. Dig your hands in the dirt. Children play with earth. That’s right. Children, it is the Earth’s time. We can stop being washed away.
I’ve been teaching environmental science and physical science through a lens of sustainability for more than 20 years. Ten years ago, I taught alternative energy, and had students watch the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car. Five years ago, while teaching climate science to high school students in the Canadian Arctic, mind you with temperatures recorded in Churchill at 30 degrees C, we watched the compelling documentary by James Balog Chasing Ice.
For 25 years I’ve had hope in my students. Yet, Greta makes it clear do not ask for her hope, do not look to or listen to the youth; listen to the science–the science we have known for 30 years. She doesn’t want hope. She wants us to panic. you should act as if your house is on fire, because it is.
I panicked 30 years ago, when the data was crystal clear. In grad school I would protest the second Iraq invasion–and commit to bike commuting. Recycling is only the THIRD step in REDUCE, REUSE, Recycle–and most Americans merely sort their waste, not really recycle it anyway. There is no away.
In fact checking Midnight Oil’s hit song I discovered a remix was made in 2009 for the UN Summit in Copenhagen. Kofi Annan sang on this remix and pledged to be a climate justice ally.
I participated in the Global Climate Strike because “young people asked us to. In a well-ordered society, when kids make a reasonable request their elders should say yes–in this case with real pride and hope that the next generations are standing up for what matters.” I am a climate justice ally.
I was striking because science is real. Physics exists. Chemistry matters.
I have always let my students be my teachers. I will not let them down. It matters.
How can we sleep when our beds are burning? The time has come to take a stand.
updated to include this photo of Greta Thunberg and Severn Cullis-Suzuki in Vancouver, BC, Canada October 2019, copied from Greta’s FB page.