Thinking and writing about biology

Sean Nash created a biology NING. One that even I want to join. Why is that so remarkable? Because I’m not a science person.

Sean Nash has created a NING called ‘Principles of biology: bringing life and living things into focus’. Yes, it’s about science. Yes, it contains lots of scientific facts, but it also approaches the teaching of science in a different way.

When I clicked the Forum tab at the top of the NING, I chose a discussion called ‘Synthesizing Respiration and Photosynthesis’. It doesn’t start with a long dry paragraph full of scientific facts. Instead it goes like this:

Take a good, solid read of this blog post. Read it again after thinking about it for at least five minutes. Then come back to this forum and scribble a bit creative commentary on how our study of photosynthesis and respiration allows you to really get at a deeper meaning of the post entitled: Grinding Grain by Dr. Doyle.

What is remarkable? The topic is introduced by a blog post. A blog is a discursive thing. The blog is called Science teacher: breaking out of the classroom into the world. That already tells you something. The blog begins with a poem about grinding grain by Antipator of Thessalonica, 85 B.C., and it’s descriptive in a way that makes you feel the process physically.

I love the fact that the instructions that go with the reading of the blog post recommend a second reading after a few minutes of thought. Thinking is part of the instructions! And what follows is not a summary, not a copy and paste of facts, but instructions to

scribble a bit creative commentary on how our study of photosynthesis and respiration allows you to really get at a deeper meaning of the post entitled: Grinding Grain by Dr. Doyle.

That’s ‘how’ and ‘deeper meaning’ in the same sentence. Now, brace yourselves, but here’s what follows as instruction:

A description in less than 100 words that is sufficiently creative that at least two classmates leave thoughtful, vote-like comments to… would be worth a measly few (yet potentially powerful) extra credit points to add to your pile.

What’s amazing here?

Description, not summary.

Creative. Enough said.

Requiring response of others. Interaction, whereby your description is required to initiate response in another person. Writing about your response, effecting a response in someone else.

Can this be science?

And here’s the clincher:

What do you get from this? What does it make you think of? Does it allow you to see, or understand anything in a deeper way?

Thinking, evaluating, deeper understanding.

Here is one of the students’ responses:

The knowledge we gained through learning about cellar respiration and photosynthesis really helped to understand what he was saying. As he described what it felt like to turn the wheel, “First my right arm, then my left. I can feel my biceps swell. My legs work, too, shifting my weight back and forth with each pass of the milling wheel. My breathing picks up.” I can now easily understand why he begins to breath more readily, and when he begins to describe photosynthesis, and the creation of the wheat I can really follow what he says instead of being more lost than anything else (paragraph 7). The best place I could see that the knowledge was very relevant was when he begins to show how photosynthesis works in one direction, and that cellular respiration sort of reverses the process ((paragraph 7)

I love the reflection on the learning process at the end of the lesson. There are so many things I love about this way of teaching.

Who said that science was separate from literacy?

10 thoughts on “Thinking and writing about biology”

  1. You summarize this topic about cross curricular literacy so well. A science teacher creates a Ning and encourages his students to write about relevant topics in meaningful ways. It reminds me of an article I ran across which stated that science can be seen as narrative, with unfolding stories. Reflecting on the learning process is an essential part of empowered learning.

  2. I doubt that I could have even wished up a kinder review of our little classroom network. I’m certainly humbled and delighted that someone else sees small items like this one in much the same way that I do.

    There are two things worth mentioning here…

    One is that I try to deliver an environment that allows kids of all strengths and weaknesses to stretch themselves in different ways. Personally, I was not cast in the typical “science & mathematics” sort of mold. In fact, I feel sad that it is always characterized in this way. There really is a very literal side to science. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only “right-brained” scientist in the world. One needs to look no further than Michael Doyle’s blog to see this truth. And besides, my own experiences in the classroom certainly tell me otherwise as well.

    Secondly… the students in this class are a very mixed bag. We tend to imagine that all students enrolled in a “Dual-Credit Biology” course are the top science fans in the school. In fact, that really couldn’t be farther from the truth. I would agree that my students love to think and to be challenged in different ways. However, many of my kids are not going forth with a science career, and find themselves in my classroom with the mission of: “nail down the final science class of my schooling with a trusted teacher.”

    I conversationally poll my students early on to find out who we are and where we are as both learners and people. Knowing that I truly will be the last shot of formal science education for many of these future citizens is a task I do not take lightly. I would have to say that cresting toward the final half of my teaching career, I hold myself even more accountable to these students than to my hardcore science fans.

    Science and literacy had certainly better go together. We are in a heap of trouble as a species as it is. We can’t afford to continue to create a scientifically-illiterate populace. Where science and literacy are separate, science is but mystery and mythology to even our brightest.

    Thanks again for noticing. My students will get a kick out of it as well.


  3. Now I just want to jump on a plane and join your class! Thanks for taking the time to explain what you’re doing and what you believe about teaching. Are you on Twitter? I’d love more conversation, and I think some of my friends would too. Keep up the good work.

  4. This is my classes website! I’ve always loved science, but this year was a whole new experience for me. In our class Mr. Nash gives us multiple ways too look at science. There are so many new things to learn that it’s truly fun to experience it in different ways. I came into this class thinking it was going to be him lecturing and us taking notes. This year was the first year that it’s all been so hands on.

    This class really makes us think. Mr. Nash will just give us something, for instances a visual, and ask us to write about it. Like what we think it represents and our thoughts and opinions on it. I really enjoy doing this. It allows us as students to share what were thinking. That’s one of my favorite things about the website. Were able discuss and blog about the things we do in class. We each get to share as individuals, which is pretty amazing because each one of us think differently. This also allows us to learn on a completely different level.

    I’d have to say that if there is one thing i’ve learned this year would be that science is not black and white. Thats a big misconception i’ve had. Through the year though i’ve began to learn and realize that there is always a gray area. The site gives us the opportunity to talk about it and understand more.

    Tori Scott 🙂

  5. I am a student in the dual-credit biology class that uses the blog you have been discussing. I just wanted to let you know my thoughts on our use of the blog.

    I really think it is a beneficial way of learning, and would recommend it to any teacher in order to get their students to actually think about learning.

    I will admit I was one of the students who took the class just to get this major required science class out of the way before college. However, this coming from a person who really doesn’t enjoy science at all, I have found that I enjoy this class. I feel like I can analyze what I learn and discuss things with other students rather than simply fill out a work sheet and answer test questions.

    I honestly think I will retain things from taking this class, and I can say I have benefited a great deal from it.

    I also like the idea that other people, such as yourselves, are actually reading this blog and looking at what we are learning and how we are learning. It makes me think about what I will post because I know someone from the other side of the world might read it.

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