Earth Day and Interdisciplinary Projects #scichat #engchat


On Earth Day my students were lucky enough to Skype with Dr. David Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.  Over the course of the school year the students have adopted their own mandalas, a square meter of forest space, and made monthly observations.  I work with my biology colleague and the students have been learning how to communicate scientific knowledge to a general audience through informational writing, narrative writing, and poetry.  It’s been a magical experience and one I can’t wait to continue next year.

How did this all come together?

In October 2012 my former colleague Jon Olsen and I read an article in The New York Times Science Times about Dr. Haskell with our freshmen.  The article struck a chord and we reached out to Dr. Haskell on Twitter.  He spoke with the students and eventually we set up a brief Skype session so he could talk about the overlap between the humanities and science.  The Skype session went so well that we decided to use his book as a touchstone text between English and biology this year.  We placed an order for 80 copies of the book and started planning.  We knew we wanted a field study and writing component to go alongside the book and we worked on ideas for the next few months.

In September we introduced the book to our students.  They were a little unsure at first because we were telling them that biology and English would work together during the year, combining our classes at least once each month.  Thankfully, my school embraces interdisciplinary work so they “saw the light” very quickly.

Over the course of the year our current freshmen have read a variety of essays in Dr. Haskell’s book.  In September we broke them into 2 groups of 40 and within the groups broke them into triads.  Those triads worked together all year, finding mandalas close to each other and relying on the buddy system during our field studies.  They observed organisms, practiced using specialized vocabulary, wrote poems, and sat outside during the polar vortex.  We’ve been rained on, sleeted on, snowed on, and now it’s finally starting to warm up.  We’ve seen the circle of life, complete with a dead deer carcass in one mandala and a fierce cardinal defending its turf in another.

Before each class we settled on a seasonally appropriate focus and the students read at least one of Dr. Haskell’s essays.  You can see our schedule below:

  • Sept – perception / selecting & mapping mandalas (preface, April 14th & Sept 23rd): Mike and I chose the same readings and challenged the students to figure out why an English and Bio teacher chose the same ones (without planning it that way).
  • Oct – respect  / identifying a resident organism (March 13th & April 22nd), writing a descriptive paragraph modeled after Dr. Haskell’s.
  • Nov – ecological succession / change / spectrophotometry & color / wavelengths (Nov 5th), writing a poem modeled after a few nature poems we studied in class.
  • Dec – adaptations (structural & behavioral) / breathing / your response to cold (Jan 21st & Dec 3rd,) writing a description of the way the cold infiltrates the human body.
  • Jan – patterns / Kepler’s snowflakes (Jan 17th), studying snowflakes and writing haikus.
  • Feb – habitat / food + cover + water (Nov 15th), creating a photo slideshow and brief description of their mandalas
  • March – equinox / seasonal change, preparing for Dr. Haskell’s visit.


You can see a sample of the instruction sheet here.  Each month it changes based on the focus.

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This is one of the best projects I have ever been involved in.  The biology and English combination is pure magic and I love having the opportunity to teach a bit of science communication.

Dr. Haskell took an hour out of his day earlier this week to read some of the students’ writing, look at their Flickr group, and share his expertise.  It was fabulous and I couldn’t ask for anything better as an English teacher!  Thank you to Dr. Haskell!

Interdisciplinary work is the best.  The world isn’t divided into neat little subject boxes like the constructs we model in schools.  Life is messy, subjects mingle together.  But communication, reading and writing, is vital regardless of the field students may choose to pursue. Appreciating the environment that surrounds them is also vital to our wellbeing as a species.


My Science Story

Earlier this week Jon (my co-teacher) and I published a guest post on Scientific American’s Budding Scientists blog. As a citizen scientist, this pretty much made my year. Then it got picked up by Yahoo. Then Scientific American tweeted this:

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I’m thrilled because storytelling has fascinated me for years and I think we can do so much more with it, especially in schools.  The effect stories have on the human brain has been well-documented and it can help all students learn more, dig deeper, and retain more.  It’s not about dumbing down the curriculum or attracting people to jobs they aren’t meant to do.  It’s about making learning interesting and meaningful and it’s about keeping students engaged.

I’m a science geek.  Always have been.  In middle school  I went to science camp during the summer.  Yes, I am a big geek.  In 8th grade, I made the decision to apply for entrance to the local STEM magnet school.  I was lucky enough to get in and was thrilled.  In high school I was blessed to have an amazing biology teacher, and today I am lucky enough to call him my colleague.  He taught me freshman biology and I was hooked.  Then I had an amazing AP Bio teacher my senior year and my love affair continued.  Both of my biology teachers presented the narrative of science, sharing more than “just the facts”.   I designed research experiments, analyzed data, created my own content.  I loved biology and envi sci and scored high on both AP exams. I headed off to college with 8 science credits.

But after high school, I hit a wall. See, I did really, really well on my SATs.   My verbal score was perfect. My math score was not perfect, but still pretty darn good.  I went off to college and was part of the women’s science initiative there.  I spent the summer before my freshman year as part Project SUPER at Douglass College, visiting pharmaceutical companies and touring labs all over campus.  I took a science class or two my first year, but I couldn’t decide on a major. I love English.  I love literature, writing, speaking, and everything involved in the humanities.  And I love biology.  I love observing, making connections, studying genetics.  Like many of the girls cited in the study, I ended up choosing a non-STEM career.

But I’m still a scientist.  Maybe I didn’t major in science and I don’t have a PhD, but I participate in science on an almost-daily basis.  Why? Because of the narrative that was given to me in high school and through college.

And the narrative that has kept me in science is that of the monarch butterfly.

In 2003, I was paired with my mentor teacher for my first student teaching practicum.  We worked together for a year and she made me the teacher I am today.  One of the first activities I did with her?  Cleaning frass (otherwise known as caterpillar poop) from the cages housing her monarch butterfly caterpillars.  Over the course of the first month of school I helped find eggs, clean frass, spray chrysalids, and release monarch butterflies.  I fell in love with them as our third grade class oohed and ahhed, watching the pupa dance or the emergence of a butterfly.  Sue told me that she was a member of the Monarch Teacher Network, which “network of teachers and other people who use monarch butterflies to teach a variety of concepts and skills, including our growing connection with other nations and the need to be responsible stewards of the environment.”.  I promised her I would take the workshop before starting my first teaching job.

In 2005, I finally signed up for a (semi)local workshop.  I drove 1.5 hours each way for 3 days in August and it’s the best professional development I have ever participated in.  Over those three days I realized the power that storytelling has on the human imagination and humanity as a whole.  I had watched my third graders study the monarchs and as a result learn more about math, language arts, and geography.  But the workshop showed me how to do the same with middle schoolers and high schoolers.  It even showed me how adults could get wrapped up in the story of the monarch butterfly.

The monarch butterfly migrates thousands of miles each autumn, from the eastern US and Canada to a small mountain range in central Mexico.  These small insects then survive the winter on these mountaintops, which their great-great-great-great-grandparents left the year before, before heading north again in the spring.  They lay eggs on milkweed plants in the southern US and then die before the eggs hatch and their offspring continue the journey north.

This story, which unites the people of Canada, the US, and Mexico, has had me hooked since the first time I watched a monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis.  And it hooks students just as much.  Using the monarch, I have taught students about biology, migration, populations, genetics, symmetry, the Fibonacci sequence, citizen science, measurement, weather,  Mesoamerican cultures and traditions, physics, chemistry, poetry, critical reading, grammar, writing, and so much more.  The story is the anchor.  Using it, we can cast a wide net and bring students to a variety of subjects and topics in an authentic way.  I have former students who still raise monarch butterflies with their families!  A student who left me 6 years ago emailed me last year and mentioned they plant milkweed every year and tell their family about the importance of pollinators.  Six years later!  That’s a whole lot better than memorizing a list of facts and figures just to forget them when it’s time to study for the next test.

Today I am an English teacher who participates in citizen science projects.  I track the monarch butterfly migration and milkweed growth each season.  I teach a science enrichment class at a local university, geared towards getting middle schoolers interested in science.  Without amazing teachers who used stories to hook me, or a workshop that continued using stories, I don’t know if I would be the citizen scientist I am today.

Story matters.  It matters in language arts, in history, in math, and in science.  It matters in life.  Humans communicate through stories and we have since the dawn of civilization.  Stories activate our brains and help us make deeper connections.  And I’ve watched those stories keep students interested in every subject.  The world is cut out into little sections, this part for science and this part for math, this part for history and this part for art.  The world is real, it’s messy, and it requires us to be engaged.  Story can help us get our students ready for that.