Sunday, March 29, 2015

Science vs. Religion: Evolution

This morning I read "Teaching Evolution to Students to Students Who Tell Me They'll Pray for My Soul," an article written by James Krupa, a biology professor at the University of Kentucky. Krupa describes many of his students' reactions to his teaching human evolution, and argues, among other things, that religion and science are not necessarily mutually exclusive, a position with which I agree.

I've had students in my English classes tell me that evolution was wrong because it's a "theory." However, what I can't quite seem to explain well is that, like with many words, multiple definitions exist, and in different contexts mean different things. (Evolution might be a theory, but so is germ theory, and we know germs exist.) As Krupa notes:
To truly understand evolution, you must first understand science. Unfortunately, one of the most misused words today is also one of the most important to science: theory. Many incorrectly see theory as the opposite of fact. The National Academy of Sciences provides concise definitions of these critical words: A fact is a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it; a theory is a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence generating testable and falsifiable predictions. (para. 9)*
Using the Bible as a means to scientifically explain the development of the world negates the complexities of scientific research, and ignores the scientific and cultural development having taken place since the time of Christ. The Bible was written in three languages over a period of roughly 2,000 years by 40 different authors from three continents. Not only was it written during times when there simply wasn't the same level of scientific understanding, it was written by and for people who tried to explain and grasp the origins of our world in ways that an uneducated and illiterate population would understand (not to mention that so many authors writing over that many millennia in multiple languages is bound to lead to mistranslation or other linguistic inconsistencies). We've moved past that, and to continue to argue, for example, that the world was created in six 24-hour days, or that the world is about 10,000 years old, is a discredit to actual scientific data and critical thinking, and projects modern notions of time and narration. The Bible was written and preached for a lay audience in a historical context; these people weren’t scientists or journalists, so it's illogical to treat the text as a tight chronology.

The purpose of science is different than that of the Bible's. The purpose of science is to explain how the world works. The purpose of the Bible, to my mind, is to teach people how the world should work:
Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:37-40).
They're not mutually exclusive. Be kind to others. Help others in whatever capacity you can, when you can. A belief in evolution specifically or science generally doesn't detract from that.
Krupa, James A. "Teaching Evolution to Students to Students Who Tell Me They'll Pray for My Soul." Slate. Slate. 26 Mar.   
     2015. Web. 29 Mar. 2015.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Case of the Mondays

Even though today's Friday, I'm having a massive case of the Mondays, à la Office Space.

This morning I woke to discover that over the course of the past day or two, someone had charged several thousand dollars to one of my credit cards, include multiple large purchases from Amazon,, and a $985 donation to charity. At least they're using the stolen funds for good, I guess? (And of course, I still have the credit card, so it's not like it was lost.) This also explained the text I got regarding how close I was to reaching my credit limit, which I am simply nowhere close to. Fortunately, I got to school a bit early and could take care of this issue; I'm not responsible for these charges, and a new credit card is on its way. I have a new appreciation for the credit card fraud alert, despite my previous experiences in which one of our joint credit cards was frozen because of a routine grocery store trip and iPhoto purchases.

Then first period arrived, and I had me some feisty students. One student, whom I wouldn't allow to go to the library because someone else asked first told me she was going to make things difficult for me. (Good luck with that.) Another student who wasn't here all week, and therefore had a lot of work to make up, muttered a question about the point of all this work. No, my dear girl, there's no point to poetry as such, but there is a point to writing, being coherent, and understanding linguistic patterns. Any decent job that's worth having requires you to be able to communicate (and probably even write) well, so that's what I'm trying to teach you, even if you won't see that for a long time. (Of course,  I didn't see that in high school either, because I couldn't envision what type of career I'd have.)

I started to develop a cold a few days ago; it began with a slight earache on Wednesday, then progressed to a sore throat and usurping all the household tissues yesterday. I'm so glad today is Friday. Next week we finish our poetry unit, and the week after that is Spring Break.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Food in the Classroom

A few semesters ago, inspired by one of my colleagues, I began incorporating food into my classes. We read articles about different facets of food, including topics like poverty, agriculture, school meal programs, and culture (National Geographic has a very good series of food-related articles that I incorporate). Students create their own podcasts, a series that is then disseminated through the iTunes store - meaning anyone can subscribe and listen.

We also spend a class or two discussing food in the media. For example, an examination of food advertisements leads to a good introductory discussion of Aristotelian appeals and what constitutes good, persuasive arguments - and how these ideals change.

I also play some short videos; TED talks feature good speakers who integrate humor into their speeches. Jennifer Lee's talk is one I play near the beginning of the semester; it helps segue into a discussion of food, history, identity, and how we define culture.

Similarly, Ron Finley's talk get students thinking about food, poverty, and social justice. In many cases we'll spot check these videos for use of the aforementioned Aristotelian appeals.

One of the more popular assignments in my class, though, are the recipe memoirs. Students write about a family recipe and the memories associated with it, then bring in the food. It's a relatively relaxing class in that aside from the students who cook or bake (and they are highly encouraged to make something from scratch, but not something that is financially exorbitant), students only need to come to class and eat. It tends to be fairly popular; students are very encouraging and like being fed. 

And the food students bring is very good! Today was the second day in the semester in which students presented their food: One student brought in homemade pizza that he had made himself, down to the crust. Other students brought tuna salad, funeral potatoes, and stuffed grape leaves, while various desserts such as flan, zucchini bread, brownies, sugar cookies, and carmelitas were shared. It tends to be a popular class not only because of the free, homemade food, but eating alongside others leads to conversation and, hopefully, relaxed students. With the right group of students, too, it can lead to questions about the students themselves or the recipes (sometimes even a request for the recipe).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Making College Computer Classes a Requirement

The more I think about it, the more I wish all incoming students were required to take some manner of introductory computer class. I haven't come across any of these labels in awhile - possibly because they're finally out of fashion, or just not as widely publicized - but the cliché that all students under a certain age are computer literate (in and of itself a difficult term to define) or, even worse, digital natives is simply not true. (It's about as true that all students above a certain age are hopelessly and functionally computer illiterate because computers weren't present in our Kindergarten classes.)

These assumptions are frustrating for a number of reasons, not the least of which being related to ageism. There's also a mistaken presumption that simply having been exposed to computers means students know how to use them. One doesn't become literate just because there are books in the house; one needs to be taught how to read. Similarly, people need to be taught how to use computers and navigate the relevant programs.

I remain frustrated by one of my undergraduate professors who insisted that because of my age, I was a "digital immigrant," whereas my classmates, most of whom were five to ten years younger than I, were "digital natives," an assumption based solely on age. Because I had maintained my own website and multiple blogs for years, I was familiar with basic HTML and several blogging platforms. Most of my classmates, on the other hand, created website that looked terrible, the type I'd seen a lot of in mid-1990s. I still encounter students whose knowledge of what I'd consider basic computer skills is minimal; one student I had last summer didn't know how to attach files to e-mail.

This came back to me this past week when I was helping a student with her podcast, one of the assignments I require for my college students. Knowing that most of my students have never created their own podcasts - some students have never heard of the term, and the number who listen to them is similarly small - I use Audioboom. a fairly simple and intuitive podcasting platform that requires minimal software (one can upload one's podcast via a free smartphone app, or record and/or upload an audio file through a browser). It can take a little getting used to, but by no means is it designed to be prohibitively complicated.

The student just got temporarily tripped up and saw relatively quickly how to resolve her questions, but noted that she might consider taking a computer class. This led to a brief discussion of how helpful a first-semester computer class might not only help the students, but help the teachers, who are often required to provide tech support to students who don't know how to use Canvas, the learning management system (LMS) we use, and which I use extensively in all my classes. (I make announcements, post assignments, have pages for each assignment, and require students to upload all assignments on Canvas.)

Providing an introductory class could help students make sure they know how to navigate Canvas and upload files; perhaps teaching basic tenets of ePortfolio platforms and word processing, among other basics, could help reduce or eliminate many of the problems I have to resolve in my class. No matter how many times I encourage my students to seek help for their ePortfolios or get tech support from the appropriate departments, many wait until the very last moment to get help, at which point, more often than not, it's simply too late, because they need more time than they'd realized. Some students are simply frightened of the technology and put off familiarizing themselves with it, which exacerbates the problem.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Theories, Practices, and Changing Relationships

This was my last forum post for my research class. There were quite a few others I didn't include in this blog - among other reasons, it quickly became repetitive including those posts, and complicated to provide enough background information for those who would have been unfamiliar with the readings and topics - but I wanted to include the last post.

For this last post, we were tasked with considering what we had learned about how different theories and practices influence our understanding of how to engage in research, and what we learned about the changing relationships between writing, language, culture, discourse community, context of writing, etc. when doing our research projects.  We were to discuss, too, the readings that have influenced our thinking, and how the online conversations have changed or confirmed our perspectives on the topics discussed.

My knowledge has been stuck in the realm of undergraduate research, which is to say that since I teach first year comp classes, I’m familiar with teaching this level of student how to research – introducing them to online databases (a new concept for many of them), etc. (I haven’t taught my high school students how to research, something that would have provided a new level of challenges.) With my having limited myself to undergrad research practices, though, I realize that there are more formal research strategies, both in terms of research itself and presenting this research, that I haven’t paid attention to. Just today I was paging through the most recent Writing Center Journal, and I realized how familiar that presentation is: Many these things we’ve been doing in this class are largely reflected in those articles. I had no advanced knowledge about the theories and practices of research, how to engage in this level of research, etc., nor did I know much about practices affect research.

On a related note – and I see this even more clearly, since I’ve been teaching junior high and high school students this year, in addition to my college teaching – I have a deeper understanding of how difficult it can be for K-12 teachers to stay apprised when it comes to new teaching strategies. I’ve known this for some time – my parents were career high school teachers – but this is the first I’ve experienced it myself. I share the frustration there that there is not the time and certainly not the funding for teachers to interact with national colleagues, to update teaching strategies and content knowledge. I’m still frustrated by stories of K-12 teachers who teach the same content the same way for decades, but I can see how easy it is to slip into a rut. I can see how research strategies might also not be updated to reflect current methodologies.

When it comes to the changing relationships between writing, language, the context of writing, etc., what comes to mind is changing all this based on audience, and that is something of which I am well aware. (We discuss this at length in my classes.) The readings and class discussions have confirmed my thinking; how I write here, and interact with my classmates, is much more informal than how I wrote and spoke during my Skype presentation, and it’s much more informal than my project and write up. The learning communities are different, even if they overlap.

I can't say that there was a particular reading that influenced my thinking; rather, what influenced me more was the research process itself - the doing of the thing tends to stay with me much more than the reading of the thing. (Perhaps I simply do not respond to the theoretical as much; a priest at my former church once noted that I am quite task-oriented, which I hadn't realized until that moment is true.)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Teaching Middle School Is Not The Worst, Despite Reports To The Contrary

I'd say that I'm behind in my blogging, but things have been simultaneously busy and not interesting to share unless you're going through it yourself. I am a week away from finishing my Master's degree; this semester I have been enrolled in the last class needed, a 10-week research class. The past few weeks have been especially busy. I had a project that needed planning, completely revamping,  and revising, which Ed helped me with extensively; I revised said project for a presentation, for which I also wrote a script, practiced and revised that a lot, and gave a presentation over Skype; and am currently revising a more-than 22-page write up of said project.

I'm also still dividing my time between two schools - three days a week at the high school, and two days a week at the community college. Things are slowly coming to a close, though, especially with the imminent end of the research class.

In the meantime, today I read "Teaching Middle School is the Worst," and was once again frustrated by the stereotypes that go along with it. For starters, the first picture's caption ("Pity the teachers; clearly these kids are up to no good.") made me wonder how those kids are up to no good, exactly. Simply because they're talking? What are the surrounding circumstances? Is it the very beginning of the class, a time when students are just getting settled? Is this an extra curricular project? Are students working with a classmate or otherwise encouraged to move around? Are we to assume that the teacher had already spent months' worth of class time telling the students to hush? Why are we to pity the teacher? In other words, what evidence is being presented to confirm that these kids are "up to no good"? Two kids talking! The horror.

I will say that teaching middle is, in fact, not necessarily "the worst," a term that is extraordinarily relative. Any specific set of circumstances could be "the worst." Furthermore, such statements of there being a singular "worst" oversimplify the situation, and doesn't take into consideration the factors that go into happy teachers finding a fit:
  1. Individual teachers' personalities are extremely vast, as is the case with the overall human population. Individual school culture is also extremely varied, more so than perhaps non-teachers might realize. One of the reasons K-12 teachers tend to wash out (and there are many reasons that there aren't as many decades-long career teachers as there are those who last 5-7 years) is that an individual teacher's personality, teaching style, etc., is not a good match for a particular school's culture. This does not necessarily mean that a teacher is "bad" (although sometimes that's the case), nor does it mean that it's a crummy school (although sometimes this is the case, too).
  2. Experience and other life events affect the grades in which teachers may feel comfortable teaching; I remember hearing one now-retired teacher say that when her children were small, she enjoyed teaching middle school, but as her children grew, her preferences changed and she ultimately wound up preferring 11th graders. I have heard other experienced teachers say, too, that there was one particular grade, perhaps two, that they really connected with.
Any given school, or any given grade, could be "the worst" for a particular teacher. I wouldn't want to teach elementary school. Given my own temperament, that would be the worst, but I would argue that happy, successful elementary teachers would feel differently. As long as people argue that any aspect of actually teaching is the worst, we're not doing the profession any favors.