We are currently teaching the evolution unit in Biology at my school and I wanted to share a couple of interesting changes one teacher made this year. Jesse Craig started the discussion surrounding evolution with a live blog, where students could share what they knew – or thought they knew - about evolution. This was before they had talked about it in class at all. A little bit later he continued the conversation with a post around the idea of a spectrum of beliefs, asking students to try to place themselves on the spectrum and share their beliefs.
A little further along in the unit, when the kids had a little bit more scientific knowledge, Jesse set up a live blog with one of his former professors at Hastings College. This was from 8:00 – 8:30 pm our time one night, and he made the professor a panelist on Cover It Live so she could see all the questions coming in. The process wasn’t perfect, Jesse tried to pick and choose questions to approve to keep the conversation somewhat coherent (there were well over 300 comments but he only approved a small subset), but the professor could see all of them and sometimes chose to respond to ones that he hadn’t approved (which meant only the student that asked the question really knew what she was responding to). After talking with Jesse, we’re thinking that perhaps next time we might have the professor ustream her responses. This would allow her to respond more naturally and not be slowed down by having to type her responses. We’d still have the kids live blog their questions (and/or perhaps submit some questions in advance), but she could reply more “naturally” for her. All in all, though, it worked pretty well, and we had a good turnout among the students considering it was 8:00 at night.
Separate from his Biology classes, Jesse and two other Biology teachers also made guest appearances in our ninth grade honors English classes. They were discussing Inherit the Wind, so the English teachers invited the Biology teachers in to talk about what it was like to be a modern day Biology teacher. While some of those students were also in Biology, most were not. It was a rare chance for us to teach/learn cross disciplinary (and I’m frustrated with how rare those chances are, but that rant is for another time). Interestingly, several of those ninth grade English students who were not in Biology also participated in the live blog with the professor from Hastings College.
So, nothing revolutionary here. (Do I dare say it was evolutionary?) But another interesting example of ways to use some of these tools to broaden student thinking. First, it allowed them to explore their thinking and beliefs about an often controversial topic in a way that felt safer for most students than having to say it verbally in class. Then they were able to state where they fell on the spectrum of beliefs, again in a way that felt fairly safe. As they began to learn more about the science of evolution, they were then able to converse (at least to a limited extent) with an “expert” from the college level. Now, Jesse is pretty darn knowledgeable himself, but – just like a parent giving advice to your own child – often hearing it from someone other than your classroom teacher resonates more. (I think bringing in “experts” virtually is something we are going to try to do more and more of at my school.) And finally, for a few students at least, the ability to think about evolution in the context of history and literature.
So, I think there’s a lot more we could do with this, but it was a great start. The other interesting part, for me at least, was that I had nothing to do with it. Typically a teacher trying something new like this would ask for my help with the tech side, but Jesse just ran with it. I think that’s a very positive sign that perhaps we are slowly getting past the idea that these are “technology lessons” but instead are just good teaching and learning.