Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

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teaching

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.

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20 thoughts on “It’s Not Really Teaching Unless It’s a Required Class: Biology
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  • teaching evolution from first principles is really the only way to teach evolution and generate any meaningful understanding.

    I’m not even sure how anyone can teach the concepts any other way. Poorly, maybe?

  • Love it! Meanwhile, my public school released me from the AYP-determining math dept one class period a day to teach physics. A course that can’t help my school make or break AYP?! Dude, I am sooo lucky. So are you.

    I’m eager to follow your first year as a “real” teacher.

  • Dev Idgunji says:

    Bravo! I’ve been teaching biology for 15 years and I love to hear your passion. Especially, during this time when teachers seem to bear the brunt of negative publicity on the topic of what’s wrong with public schools. I can’t wait to read the two selections that you’ve mentioned. Good luck this year! I look forward to finding out how your experiment works out. Teach on!!!

  • Malyn says:

    fantastic post in many, many ways:
    - teacher, be a learner and try something new
    - rethink education purpose, there are multiple career pathways
    - science is interesting
    - science overlaps/ pushes boundaries of ethics
    - teaching as evolutionary practice
    ….
    awesome. awesome.

  • Anna Moore says:

    ohhhh yea! I cannot wait to follow you over the course of this year. I love the books you are using and your approach to the class. I started our Parents’ Night last year by asking how many of my parents could recall the steps of the Krebs Cycle. (none). Then I asked how many ever went to a doctor or thought about their health. (all). Similar to your points above, I used that to demonstrate why I approach my class the way I do. I’ve not read Killing Us Softly but will do it right away. I might actually be able to incorporate it next semester… it would be cool to use that book for the first time along with someone else so we could share feedback, etc.
    I use The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in my classes (www.ayearwithhenrietta.com) and we talk about racism, politics, economics, and health-care access issues (among other topics) and how these things impact science/ medicine. My dream bio class uses no-text book but “regular” books (as the students like to call them) instead. Thank you so much for this post and the awesome work you are doing. So cool.

  • It feels SOOOO good to read about this! I’ve been teaching Bio for 10 years and struggle everyday with this insane curriculum we have. I hear kids saying “well, phys and chem are so hard because you have to think, in bio you just have to memorize” and I want to die. Because it’s true. The books. the curriculum. The semester exams. The IB exams. The entrance exam they have to take here in Brazil. The level of critical thinking is pathetic and the amount of content they want kids to learn is ridiculous. They’re not all becoming doctors. I have to choose not to “cover” some topics so kids can spend more time learning others (=developing critical thinking, connecting ideas, elaborating conclusions, deriving processes, etc).
    Can’t wait to hear more from this new adventure of yours!
    PS: have you read The Survival of the Sickest? When you mentioned your ‘textbooks’ this one came to my mind right away. It’s awesome.

  • Guy says:

    All this sounds great. A few questions…1) do you have a state end of course test? 2) are you evaluated based on how your students score on that end of course test…not on how well you actually teach? 3) if the answer is no to these questions…then is Chemistry required for every student? Assuming the answer to that questions is no, then lastly…Any openings for a chem/physics/biology teacher around you?:)

  • Brilliant writing and concepts. I would LOVE to be in that classroom for the side of beef dissection. Maybe they’ll let you take a field trip to a butcher shop? Please post about these experiences. Bravo.

    • Harry Wood says:

      @Barbara Freedmen – I have. Despite the grossness factor, the kids enjoyed poking through a cow’s heart, arteries, and whatnot. That was a fun time!

  • Mike Soskil says:

    Great post & great plan. We desperately need more teachers to actually teach instead of instructing from a text, and a system that allows them to do so. I’m excited for you and your students, yet feel a bit sorry for the masses in “regular” Bio courses all over the country who are going to spend the year drooling on their textbooks. Thanks for leading, and for blogging about it so that others may be influenced.

  • MBP says:

    “I don’t want them to understand that, I want them to derive it from first principles. And we will.”

    This is what got me most excited in the post. How you planning on doing that?

  • Mark Davis says:

    Questions instead of a comment: 1) What are your sources for the books? Are the students purchasing their own copies? Are you teaching with passages and not the entire texts? 2) By first principals do you mean the tenents of natural selection (variation, heredity, more individuals born than will survive to reproduce, etc.) or molecular biology (self-replicating molecules, mutation, etc.). Or do you mean both…? Thanks.

  • Mark Davis says:

    Beautiful. I’m teaching biology for the first time this year, too (the whole reason I got a degree in the field, but I spent four years teaching Integrated Science first). Now I’m spending all my extra time figuring out how to teach the big essentials while also trying to get away from the state-standardized-multiple-choice-test-of-”biology” or whatever they call it now.

  • Wesley Fryer says:

    Sounds like it will be an exciting year!

    Your students are exceptionally blessed to have you as their teacher.

    Good luck.