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:
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.