ThinkThankThunk

Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

20

It’s Not Really Teaching Unless It’s a Required Class: Biology

…Things really are getting busy. This is literally the first time I’ve looked at ThThTh in two weeks. Perhaps taking on four jobs was a mistake, but, beansashow I’m not one to complain, it’s been unbelievably rewarding to work with so many different types of students. More on that later...

I often get reminded of this post’s title when I’m in a philosophical discussion in the teachers’ lounge: I’m not a real teacher. No one says it, but everyone’s thinking it. You teach physics and calculus, you pompous, assessment-obsessed twit; kids choose those classes. Try teaching Algebra I (I tried, my department won’t let me), try teaching sophomore biology. Done.

So, I’m going to have 60 bright young cherubs ready to learn all about DNA, Digestive Systems, and Drugs. I’m very excited, but, of course, I’m questioning the standard curriculum pretty heavily. Not because it’s bad, but because that’s what keeps me interested in the job.

If everyone has to take biology, then it must be assumed there’s a certain amount about living creatures that people are supposed to know, BUT if everyone is not going to end up as a medical doctor, dentist, biologist or otherwise, then should we be prepping them as if everyone plans to enter that track? I hope you just shook your head.

To be clear: I wholeheartedly reject the professor mill, and I have some good company.

So, what’s worth teaching in biology? Moreso, how can I change lives, and help the future accountants and brick layers of America maintain a functional understanding of how their bodies and evolution work?

My curriculum is going to center around the following topics:

Food

Duh. We’re going to use the Omnivore’s Dilemma as a textbook. Too liberal for you? Get your own class, then; the corn growers of America have all sorts of handouts and worksheets, I’m sure. No, I will not provide a link.

If you’re going to teach people about their bodies, you might as well start with the most common biological task: taking in calories.

Students will understand–in context!–the relationship between their digestive system’s parts, the evolution of Zea mays, how farms work, how to cook, the biochemistry of pesticides (and biochem in general) and a gaggle of unpredictable yet important things about life.

Most importantly, I will teach my students to cook. Rending an animal into its primals and then eating it should be spiritual. You should get to ask the question, “why does this cut taste different?” and then be able to trace it back to its function on your steer. Do you think my school will let me spend my dissection budget on a side of beef? Asking for forgiveness is easier than for permission, they say.

I think you see where I’m headed with this.

Ethical Treatment of Women

To contrast the liberal unit on food, I’d like to present an even more liberal unit on feminism and the ethical treatment of women. As you can probably tell, this all culminates in a giant oohhhh-evolution-makes-sense-now!, but just hang on.

My points are many and touchy are they.

Women in America are treated worse than the steers in the previous unit. Especially because my class will not be buying any feedlot-parasite-dung-heep beef.

The socially accepted norm for women includes: face paint, a floor-less weight requirement, premature sexuality, and–to top it all off–two full-time jobs! (their career, and motherhood)

What can we learn about biology, psychology, and evolution from this sad state of affairs? A lot.

Why do the female students in my school wear pants that appear to have been painted on and shirts that appear to restrict pulmonary activity? Why, as a male, am I supposed to accept this, or even encourage it?

Where did this come from, and why has it been so systemic in so many cultures? If that’s not biology, I don’t know what is.

I hope you can imagine the typical biology-class topics we’ll cover in this: sexual reproduction and meiosis, evolution (sensing a trend?), child rearing, developmental biology, and so on.

Evolution

Well, it was all leading up to this, wasn’t it?

Evolution is the black eye, the shining jewel, and the creepy kid in the corner all at once, isn’t it?

Zealot-like reverence by technocrats, hated by those who have never taken even a single semester hour to study it, and held at an arm’s length with a lukewarm “meh” by most. This is the crowning achievement of modern biology, and an active area of research.

I want my students to understand evolution not as an idea that Texas can have its way with. I want them to understand that most of its central tenets are irrefutable laws of nature. No. I don’t want them to understand that, I want them to derive it from first principles. And we will.

What’s it all mean, Basil?

It means I finally get my shot to teach the “other” kids. Don’t worry about the hundreds of freshman I’ve taught in Geology, Programming, and general science. It’s time to put on the darwin pants and teach about sex.

I believe, based on a mountain of anecdotal evidence, that students learn from the inside out. They get interested in something specific, and then the whole general world of whatever-it-is will blow open to them when they’re frontal cortex stops spending all its time wondering if people are looking at their new shoes (or worse). If I can get kids to bite on Food and the Ethical Treatment of Women, I know I can engender an understanding of genetics, cytology, and any other dry life science material.

I also believe that teachers cannot be replaced with smoke and mirrors (Khan Academy, robots, or Robots that assign Khan Academy videos). If you’re not bringing your uniqueness into your room everyday, then why isn’t someone else in there with those kids? I’m terrified everyday that someone worse could replace me if I quit. There’s a lot of ways to read that, and I hope you consider each one.

vivre.

Shawn Cornally • September 4, 2011


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