Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

They Blinded Me With Science

Hello, dear "Teachers at Work" readers! I hope all is well, and that you, unlike me, have not yet begun to calculate how many days are left in the summer before school begins again. What can I say? I like to know my limits. But everyone else should chillax, as my students would say, were they not asleep on the beach.

Last column, I promised to give you an update on an exciting project that will be a major part of next school year for me. I think you'll be interested in it, and I'd also love to hear your thoughts about it. You see, my colleague Kelli Buck and I won a grant! It's one of the prestigious 2010 – 2011 Goldie Anna Awards for Excellence in Education. The idea behind these awards is that an "Anchor Teacher" (me — and yes, I have chosen to ignore the seafarin' imagery that brings to mind) takes a practice that has proven successful in his or her classroom and teaches an "Innovator Teacher" how to use it in his or her work. We won with our idea that I'll teach Kelli how to incorporate Playwriting into her Earth Science classroom. The title of our project? "Science Misconceptions, Rewritten." Copernicus, ho!

But Shannon, Have You Secretly Been a Science Nerd All This Time?

Um, that would be a no. I am not a Science Nerd. I am a Word Nerd and a Theatre Geek. And a bit of a History Nebbish. But not a Science Nerd. So how did this happen?

As so often happens in teaching, it happened because of circumstance, fate and/or luck. Kelli, a first-year teacher, was my official New York City Department of Education mentee last year (although I'm forced to admit that she very rarely needed my insights and the majority of my mentoring consisted of long-winded discussions about boys). The DOE pairs new teachers with "veteran" (ahem) teachers in their school. It's unusual that Kelli and I were paired; it's more likely, for obvious reasons, that teachers get paired up by their subject matter. But Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School is commendably small, and we had quite a few new teachers last year. When Kelli asked me to work with her, I was glad to do so. We worked well together on a number of projects, and when the opportunity to apply for the grant came my way, it seemed to be a perfect match.

OK. But Science?

Part of our school's mission has always been to incorporate theatrical technique into every class. We've been able to do this quite thoroughly in English Language Arts and Social Studies, and a little bit in Math and even Gym, but the Sciences have eluded us. So that was the second impetus, beyond our desire to work together (and win lots of money). If the theatre stuff sounds odd to you, think of it in terms of incorporating literacy, performance and creative skills into all the classrooms, because that is what theatre incorporation, when done well, achieves.

We also felt that Science wasn't connecting with our kids. They were learning, with varying degrees of success, facts about scientific phenomenon but the concepts – the story, if you will – of Science wasn't landing. Although we had to submit the grant proposal before our students took the Regents, the results on the Earth Science Regents backed up Kelli's inkling that our kids wouldn't do well on questions that required writing (and, as always, thinking), not just factual recall. We wanted more for our students than a basic understanding of a few types of rocks and some vague remembrance that fog is caused by, uh, air? And cold? But not too cold? Um...

Great. So Why Playwriting?

Readers of this column know that I began teaching Beginning Playwriting to the juniors at BTA last year. My curriculum was adapted from Epic Theatre Ensemble's Citizen Artist work. It was begun, not precisely on a whim, but perhaps on a hint – my principal and I thought taking the class would lead the students into writing more, and thus improve literacy.

Because of the due date for the grant fell before my students took the Regents, I had to predict how I thought Playwriting helped them, minus the actual statistics. I wrote that I expected to see that Playwriting helped them write at length; research with purpose; improve vocabulary and grammar skills; and inhabit different ways of thinking through character creation. Luckily, I turned out to be right: 85% of my students passed the ELA Regents, a number that doesn't tell even close to the entire story of our year together, but that still feels pretty darn good for everyone involved. That percentage was also the highest passing rate in the school for any Regents exam thus far. I remain convinced that the immersive qualities of writing plays is what made the difference for many of my students.

I've beaten the Playwriting drum in this column before, so I won't repeat. Suffice it to say, I'm hooked, and I wanted to see how adding another wrinkle (content from a core class) would affect the work. I can't wait to see if we can pull this off!

You Sold Me. But Playwriting and Science? Together?

Yeah. We know. When we tell people this, almost all of them smile supportively and then tilt their heads slightly and say "Wow! Cool!...How?"

That's the part we're figuring out. Kelli and I are lucky in that Jim Wallert, an Arts Education Consultant who's worked at our school before, has agreed to work with us, and is, as it turns out, quite the Science Ner—uh, Aficionado. The three of us are now deep into the information-gathering and curriculum planning stage. One nice thing about doing something not much of anyone (that we can find, anyway) has done before is that there's no pattern you're expected to follow. The reverse of that is that there's not much to go on, so we're inching along. I presented a unit plan at our last meeting, and three hours later, cheerfully ripped it up.

But, yes. We think it's going to work.  

So, What Have You Come Up With? Anything?

You mean besides really intense conversations about Star Trek, Star Wars and District 9? We have. We know we need to support Kelli's curriculum; she's got too much to cover in the year to allow for random tangents on, say, the development of the atom bomb. This means hewing closely to the Earth Science content.

Also, we know we want the kids to produce a variety of playwriting work – work in groups and individually, work in scenes and monologues, work in adaptation and original stories. This is what I did last year, and I think it benefits the students since not everyone is bound to be successful in every style of working or writing. We are also asked to present to our funders throughout the year, and we want to have something to show each time. Our goal is to end in a Student Scientific Playwriting Festival, directed by my school's stalwart teaching artist (and professional director), Johnmichael Rossi, which we hope will be an intellectually, emotionally, scientifically and theatrically empowering event for all involved.

Additionally, we know we want to pose ethical questions as foci for the units that Kelli is teaching. This grows out of a natural playwriting instinct to ask the larger questions about humanity's actions, as well as my intense desire to more actively involve my students in questions of social justice and good citizenship. I don't think I'm doing my kids, or the world, a favor, if I send them out from my classroom knowing how to spell "ethical dilemma" but not knowing how to approach one.

And we know we want to introduce them to literature that deals with Science. There's lots of science-fiction out there, of course, and I'm already planning to teach Ray Bradbury's short stories "There Will Come Soft Rains" and "All Summer in a Day." We also want to show science in plays, so we're reading lots of scripts: An adaptation of Arthur Miller's adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People might be our core text, and Inherit the Wind, Proof, A Number, QED, Copenhagen, Einstein's Gift, and Brecht's Gallileo may play a part in the class as well.  It's fun – well, for me, anyway – to read these works and discover that Science and Theatre have met before, after all, and sometimes they win Pultizers.

Where Do I Come In?

Excellent question. Here, I'm hoping to continue to share our work, both in its successes and failures (Wait, am I supposed to call them "Learning Opportunities"?) throughout the year ahead. (I'll write about other things of course, but I thought I'd check in with you on this a few times.)

I don't want this to be a one-way conversation. Do you have any ideas for how incorporate literature, literacy or theatrical technique into a Science classroom? Let me know, whether by commenting or sending me an email. I'm very intrigued by the entire process, and I'd love to hear from people with good ideas to further it along. We especially are interested in finding works of literature that do not feature a white, male scientist, so if you've got insight there, love to hear from you!

One Last Thing: Are You Learning Too?

Oh, you betcha. I was never a science buff, nor a science-fiction fan (I did watch "Star Trek: The Next Generation," but that was due to an unseemly affection for Patrick Stewart). I'm not against science or stories about science, but my own high school education in that realm was not so good. This gives me great sympathy for the kids at my school who are not especially interested in, say, the types of rocks. Honey, I've been to the Grand Canyon five times, and I still could not tell you even one type of rock that's found there.

But the more I talk to Kelli and Jim, the more I'm interested in science. Questions about how we got here, and when we're leaving, and what is Out There are naturally compelling, and I find myself wanting to know more about what is happening in science today, from cloning to climate change to computers that are so sophisticated they could have my job someday soon.

It's a little embarrassing, I admit, to not understand some very basic things. Just the other day, Kelli was noting that some of the kids think that the Earth is filled with water. I know enough to chortle at that, but thank goodness no one asked me what the Earth actually is filled with. (Ok, ok, so I can come up with magma and soil, but I think there's more than just those two layers). I want my students to not be embarrassed adults, shut out from reading entire sections of magazines and newspapers. I – we – want them to be Scientifically Literate.

It makes sense, then, that I'm finding I want to be the same.

What do you think? Let me know.

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday July 26th 2010, 5:48 PM
Comment by: Anonymous
Perhaps you could do something about Percy Julian. His work was maybe too much involved with organic chemistry (plants not rocks), but his life, and the science he explored, were both full of drama.

In Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Lavon_Julian

Some clips from a documentary:
Tuesday July 27th 2010, 11:14 AM
Comment by: Cathy W. (Limerick Ireland)
Hello there, very interesting article.
There seems to be an insurgence of theatre meeting science at the moment, what with ethical questions of cloning etc. which you touched on. A friend of mine recently revived a piece called Vesalius about the scientist who was one of the first to dissect human bodies for medical study. It has been performed in England, Italy and most recently in Australia, it might be worth having a look at. The venue they performed in is dedicated to bringing science to people and people to science. It's definitely worth a look!
Enjoy, and good luck with you're work.
Saturday July 31st 2010, 9:36 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I enjoyed your article, and congratulations on the grant! And it brings to mind a basic prevalent premise that troubles me.
It seems to me there is a fundamental confusion between "fact" and "presupposition" when it comes to the explanation of life by "Science".
No confusion about what and how, but only why.
So vast is the current accumulation and availability of scientific knowledge in today’s world, one can be overwhelmed by it.
These are the facts upon which Science is based.
But devising a scheme of facts to prove an assumption is not true Science.
Without even considering well established theories, true or not, such as “Evolution” and a "Five Billion Year Old Earth", when science serves the theory and not the other way round, Science is no longer science.
The fundamental scientific approach to the Cosmos with its cold, hard facts about the material universe is honest, but is often limited by the difficulty obtaining unassailable, laboratory-proven truth.
But when that truth is orchestrated to explain the things that we do not know, then it is misleading and intellectually dishonest “science”.
When Carl Sagan pronounced, at the beginning of his TV series "Cosmos", "There is nothing more," he was actually saying, "There is no God."
This is an example of his personal philosophical view, and cannot possibly reflect the view of every scientist, nor anyone else who chooses to believe in a Creator.
Stating his assumption about cosmology as fact, degrades the entire premise of his scientific credentials. Is he Philosopher or Scientist or both?
When theoretical details about the origin of life, the nature of man's thinking brain, moral nature, and possible progenitors are presented as factual, proven information, that is the type of "science" that is simply misleading and often only supposition!
Monday October 18th 2010, 11:45 AM
Comment by: soledad (IL)
Northwestern University's engineering department recently moved a few things around its faculty cafeteria, put in a faux fireplace and tossed in several precisely positioned piles of papers (and a white board to scribble equations) and transformed the place/space into Richard Feynman's office in their production of QED (written by Peter Parnell).

It was an evocative and I daresay inspiring theatre-in-the-semicircle tribute to the tangible and terrific outcome when science and the dramatic arts fuse into a synergistic whole.

Roger Dee, above, makes an empirically verifiable point (chuckle) and one that also touched QED, with several "binary" threads of dialogue revolving around Feynman's dilemma of his own dying and treating it, and scientific puzzles, as very much an un-theological exercise. Einstein's quote that "God does not play dice with the universe," while certainly not a positron of proof for a divine being, does show a scientist can use the God term with some sensibility.

There are so many unknowables in the scientific realm; that of course provides the impetus for science. But to deprive the questions an answer that may provide tangents to a theological or spiritual "theory" or conclusion deifies the scientist more than the bugaboo of a "God" that so many scientists presuppose doesn't exist.

Shannon and her team have a great responsibility to make science fun. If they do it by removing a free-minded spirit for students to delve into scientific discovery while also retaining their religious/faith convictions, they will have succeeded.

If, though, they create the impression that a person of faith cannot be taken seriously or "scientifically," then I think they'll have failed. Miserably.
Tuesday October 19th 2010, 3:18 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for your ideas.
It just seems to me that both Faith and Science are equally legitimate realms of study.
The confusion arises when the dialog seems to shift from an assumption into fact.
In our liberal educational system, the preponderance of evidence ignores what is truly only THEORY.
The tenets of FAITH are generally looked upon as of lesser value.
Wanna talk?

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