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Earlier this week, in the media build-up to the one-year anniversary of the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick wrote a thought-provoking column in which she offers a long tally of incidents from the previous week when schools in America went into lockdown to ensure the safety of the students. A few of these lockdowns occurred in response to legitimate causes for concern, but, in hindsight many of them, maybe even most of them, were overreactions to marginal threats. A domestic dispute in a nearby residence. A bank robbery in the local area. Likewise, writer Lenore Skenazy, on her wonderful Free Range Kids blog, reported last year about a school that went into terrifying lockdown in the days after Sandy Hook because some boys using an umbrella as a prop in a video project about the immune system were thought to be acting suspiciously.

At my school we have gone into lockdown twice that I can think of in the past couple of years. My understanding is that both were prompted by police chases in the general area. And once we evacuated the building because something was making noises in a locker.

Dahlia Lithwick levels the following charge at this lockdown culture:

We routinely terrify and traumatize kids to spare them terror and trauma.

I don’t know that any of my students were alarmed in the least during any of these incidents except for those who needed to go to the bathroom, but Lithwick raises an important point, that there are often unexamined costs to our attempts as educators and parents to make our kids safe. To prevent the abnormal tragedy of school shootings, we’ve normalized turning our school routine upside down on a surprisingly regular basis. Based on the extremely small chance that they might be abducted by a stranger, we make it 100% certain that our kids will miss out on the physical and psychological benefits of walking to school on their own. We no longer allow kids the independence of roaming the neighborhood with their friends, telling them “just be home for dinner.”

I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t be prepared. Lithwick writes, “Let’s agree from the get-go that doing nothing in the face of lethal school shootings is not an option.” When the Atlanta Police Department calls our school switchboard to warn that a suspect in a police chase is headed towards campus, I agree that erring on the side of caution and locking everything down is probably the right thing to do. And I’ve written before about how hard it is as a parent to imagine letting my kids explore the neighborhood woods on their own like I did growing up. When it comes to keeping our kids safe, we may not examine these costs as carefully as we should, but that doesn’t mean these costs are too high. We’ll do anything for our kids.

And yet.

When I read Lithwick’s column, I thought immediately back to a passage in A Natural Sense of Wonder, by Rick Van Noy, where he wonders about the threat of climate change to our kids’ futures:

As a society, we have been good about preparing kids for other kinds of dangers. We have “red alert” days in school when the kids have to duck down and crowd in the coatroom. When I was young, we hid under desks in case of a bomb or a tornado. The principal and teachers are worried about strangers coming in, the man in a dark van driving near the school, but about this heat-trapping blanket in the sky we say very little. Kids study maps and geography, but if sea levels rise as predicted, because of ice melt and heat expansion, the maps would need to be rewritten. The man in the van has been out there all along.

We say very little, indeed. We earnestly guard against tragedies that thankfully have almost no chance of happening to our kids—I have been in faculty meetings where we have had discussion about which classroom wall is best to cower against in a Code Red situation (bullets will pass right through sheetrock, you know)—but don’t talk at all about how to prepare them for the much higher likelihood of serious climate disruption.

It’s not something we talk about as parents and educators. And someday our kids will ask us why.

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I’m way overdue in putting up a new post and giving an update on the Environmental Writing class that Peyten Dobbs and I are teaching. It has been, without question, one of the most interesting and challenging teaching experiences of my career, and we’ve both admitted to each other that, relatively speaking, we’re a little bored teaching the conventional English curriculum in our regular English classes. (If you’re interested, you can access our class blog here and see what the students have had to say about it.)

At any rate, I’ll write a thoughtful and thorough update at some point, but for now I’ll just say that it’s been exciting for us to go through something of the same learning process as the kids. I’ve followed the climate change issue fairly closely for a decade or so now, but teaching this course has pushed me to dig deeper and question my assumptions, to examine loose ends and fill in the gaps in my understanding, and to follow developments in the scientific arena more closely than usual.

Among other things, watching the science unfold in real time gives one a perspective on the media that you don’t otherwise get.

Yesterday’s big news? Well, I’ll use the headline of the column in today’s WSJ, written by the lead researcher of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature team (BEST), to sum up the very latest research findings: The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism: There were good reasons to doubt, until now. The BEST team undertook a series of studies designed specifically to test questions raised by climate skeptics about the validity of global temperature data sets used by climate scientists (regular readers of Nealz Nuze, for instance, will remember breathless revelations about temperature stations sited next to heat sources like airport runways) and came to the following conclusion (in the words of lead researcher Richard Muller):

When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups [of climate scientists]. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections . . . Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.

Anyway, if you want to know more about these findings, you can read the summary report released by BEST.

What I found particularly interesting and want to comment on, however, is the media coverage of these findings. I first read about it yesterday in The Economist. The Washington Post has reported on it. The New York Times has reported on it. CNN has reported on it. The BBC has reported on it.

And FOX News? Nothing.

We’ve been having an interesting discussion in class over the past couple of weeks about whether or not it was ethical for Peyten and me to create a sense of false equivalence about the science of global warming by giving equal time to “both sides of the story” when the scientific community has reached a remarkable degree of consensus about the issue. False equivalence in the name of “balance” is actually a form of bias, after all. But FOX News doesn’t even seem to reach this level of objectivity. They’ll gleefully report on and hype a single study by a single scientist (one so flawed that it led to the resignation of the editor of the journal that published it) that questions the scientific consensus on global warming, but when a research team—formed in the wake of “ClimateGate” and headed by a noted climate skeptic—releases findings supporting the scientific consensus, there’s not a peep from them.

Fair and balanced? You decide.

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Earlier this week, I gave an overview of the new Writing Workshop: Environmental Writing course that Peyten Dobbs and I are teaching this semester. Today I want to address a pointed concern about our methodology as expressed by a colleague from our Science Department and then echoed by a commenter on my last post. They raise some terrific questions, and indeed we’ve had some of the same questions ourselves.

Physics teacher (and award-winning edublogger) John Burk first pushed back when Peyten tweeted the first writing prompt we used with the kids:

He was quick to point out that scientific understanding isn’t a matter of “belief” but a matter of evidence and investigation:

Soon afterward he expanded on his reservations in an email:

I find what you guys are doing to be very interesting, and it really sounds like one of the most exciting courses in the school. But I also would love to learn more about the decision to show both An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindle. The self-righteous and professionally trained scientist in me doesn’t think that the facts of GW are something that really has two sides . . . I just worry about the the idea of trying to teach about global warming by pulling out two controversial films staked at opposite sides of the spectrum, since this might heighten the “controversy” students perceive, which might be counterproductive for developing a deep understanding of the subject.

Science journalist and blogger James Hrynyshyn chimed in with more of the same after my last post:

Academics and the media have for far too long given climate denial far too much credit. The simple facts are that 98% of climatologists agree with the basic science of anthropogenic climate change. We’re long past the point where that’s a subject of legitimate debate, so why imply otherwise to your students?

Indeed, when climate science gets taught at our school within our Science Department, there is no “equal time” given to perspectives not supported by the scientific consensus.  So why are we going this route in Writing Workshop? Are we doing our students a disservice?

My initial response to these questions is that we’re not teaching a science course but a writing course, and so an understanding of the political debate and the public confusion around the issue is a part of better knowing both the issue and the audience. Moreover, experiencing and understanding and working through this confusion is great fodder for writing and thinking.

As I responded to Hrynyshyn earlier, this is in some ways as much a course in practical epistemology as anything else, as can be seen in the list of “Guiding Questions” that we’re asking the students to continually think about through their writing:

  • What do I understand about the sustainability debate? What do I have certainty about? Where do I still have questions? What would it take to change my mind about my current stance?
  • How do I know what I know? How do I know this? What are my sources of information? How do scientific facts and cultural values influence my opinion? How do I know who to listen to? 
  • What are the personal implications of this knowledge?

Moreover, the list of “Essential Learnings” that we will use to assess our students has language describing their developing skills in writing, research, discussion, collaboration, and presentation—but no expectations for scientific understanding or environmental ethics. We took this stance partly to diffuse potential criticism; we’re not science teachers, after all, and we can’t weigh in as authorities on a politicized subject. But we also don’t presuppose outcomes of scientific understanding because we want to allow space for authentic “uncoverage” (to borrow a term from Grant Wiggins and Jay Mctighe) precisely because we do care about our students’ having a better understanding of the issues in question.

We won’t simply be showing the two films and then turning the kids loose to go with whatever opinions they may have at that point. Wiggins and McTighe propose five steps toward discovering depth, and that’s the journey that we want to attempt together:

  • unearth it
  • analyze it
  • question it
  • prove it
  • generalize it

When Hrynyshyn asks “why expose students to [sources that dishonestly portray the science], unless you have the resources to fairly critique them?” I have to point out that they do, indeed, have all the resources they need. In today’s world, we all do, anywhere that we have an internet connection. As our students try to sort out the claims and counterclaims of the two films, they can email actual climate scientists for clarification! The problem today isn’t that we don’t have access to information but that we don’t know how (or don’t have the inclination) to dig and filter and sift and evaluate. In this respect, the most precious resource that we’ll be making available to them is time. Our role is not to teach them about environmental issues. It’s the (sometimes long, sometimes messy) process of writing and researching and thinking and discussing that will help them learn.

If we presume to predefine the destination, then we shortchange the process. We’re hoping, by starting with controversy, to supercharge it. But it is, admittedly, a little scary to set a ball in motion without having certainty as to which way it will roll.

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Last October, I wrote a post thinking about the 21st Century Education movement that concluded with an idea for a new course:

What if you started a course exploring the issue of climate change with back-to-back showings of An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindlenot in some lame and fallacious attempt to provide “balance” to the topic, nor in a transparent end-run around the integrity of science under the guise of “teaching the controversy,” but as a springboard for sustained and rigorous transdisciplinary inquiry?  Imagine spending the subsequent weeks and months methodically tracking down the claims and counterclaims, learning about the science and evaluating the rhetoric, and devising strategies to separate “signal from noise” in the flood of information about a contentious topic . . . think how many 21st Century literacies—ecological, scientific, media and information, political, economic—such a learning expedition would build and call upon.

Well, I quickly managed to ensnare my friend and wunderkind colleague (and edublogger) Peyten Dobbs to help me propose, develop, and teach the course, and my principal leapt at the opportunity when we presented it to him (having Peyten on board no doubt helped). So here we are, two and a half weeks into just such a learning expedition, one that will likely rank among the most interesting of my career. It’s high time I put up a blog post with a few details and some early observations.

The official title of the course is Writing Workshop: Environmental Writing, and it’s one of a slate of semester-long writing courses that our 8th graders can sign up for as a supplement to their year-long English course. Workshop has been a course offering for at least the 15 years I’ve been here, but this year marks a substantial (and needed) revision in that we’re offering themed sections (others include screenwriting, journalism, and literary magazine) with an emphasis on publication to an authentic audience. Compared to the previous incarnation of Workshop, which had the students writing a series of short papers with perfunctory purpose (a descriptive paper, a persuasive essay, etc) and an audience of one (the teacher), Environmental Writing looks to capitalize on the the allure of real-world relevance and controversy and provide compelling reasons for writing—writing first as a tool for learning about complex issues and later to communicate our findings and positions about what we’ve learned.

True to the blog post that started us on this path, we’ve started the year by jumping straight into the political controversy and cultural confusion surrounding the issue of global warming: on Friday we completed our viewing of An Inconvenient Truth, and this week we’ll begin The Great Global Warming Swindle. We’ll follow these two films with a short piece by science writer Peter Hadfield that takes a critical look at both. By this point we expect the students to feel both bewildered and bestirred, suffering from some serious cognitive dissonance and ready to dig a bit deeper to find out just who is telling the truth, so we’ll set them up in groups to identify and investigate their questions and make sense of the confusion. Ultimately, each group will tasked—after choosing a format and audience—with communicating what they have learned, both about the issue in question and learning in general.

At least that’s the idea. There are lots of details still to be worked out as we go, as we’re not entirely sure what directions the class will want to take and want to leave the options open. So far, we’ve settled into a comfortable routine of watching film for about half the class period and then quietly writing to process our individual thoughts, feelings, and questions. Then again, perhaps “comfortable” is exactly the wrong word—already, I think, the students have a sense for just how much of an intellectual and emotional roller-coaster ride they have ahead of them. Conversely, Peyten and I are pleased that relevance and controversy have animated the classroom and ignited learning as we had hoped. Starting later this week, we’ll inaugurate a class blog where two students per day will give updates, sharing what we’re up to and what they have to say about it—I’ll be sure to provide a link once we have it up and running.

Well, I started this post promising some early observations, but I see I’ve gone on long enough (and the hour is late enough) that I’ll just have to save them for now. I’ve already got several months’-worth of blog fodder after just the first couple of weeks, so watch this space. And fire away with your questions—one of my favorite things about blogging is how comments and push-back from my readers (all five of you) help me question my assumptions and hone my thinking.

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a simple vision

Another day, another film trailer . . .

In the Keynote slideshow he sent out to all of us before tomorrow’s first faculty meetings of the new school year, my Principal asked “How can we use campus for PBL [project-based-learning]?” And our simple assignment for tomorrow afternoon is to come with a few ideas in mind.

I wrote last fall about how we might undertake restoration of a little stream valley on our campus to benefit native plant species, and about how this watershed restoration project would organically support and ignite learning and growth across disciplinary boundaries. Check out this inspiring trailer for a film about kids doing similar work in California:

So that’s my idea.

By the way, we have a copy of the full DVD in our JH Library.

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Well, we’re days away from the start of a new school year, and I’m in need of an attitude adjustment, having just come across the trailer to the film Mother Nature’s Child:

I just finished six-days worth of Apple training to build up my digital teaching skills in preparation for our one-to-one MacBook rollout next week, and I had been positively salivating at the thought of what my English students will be able to do with iMovie. So this little clip hit me like a punch to the solar plexus.

The quote in the trailer from Stephen Kellert of Yale University says it all:

Children, in a space of a generation or two, have had a profound change in their experiential contact with the natural world. Children today spend on average over 44 hours a week in front of a monitor of one sort or another . . . children just don’t go out in nature.

And we’re about to give every student in the Junior High a new laptop and markedly increase their screen time as a result?

I’ve written before on my divided mind when it comes to the 21st Century education movement’s fetishizing of technology, and I think if we’re honest with ourselves we’d admit that this boosterism is supercharged by the desire to market and sell product. I’m struck by the astonishing rapidity with which we moved to go one-to-one. If only we had devoted a small fraction of comparable energy and resources to the kind of experiential learning we have spent years talking about.

My Principal and friend, Bo Adams, likes to advocate “both/and” over “either/or” thinking when it comes to balancing outdoor, experiential learning and digital roaming, and last October he commented on my earlier rant by saying “I hope that our school’s push for 1:1 laptops (or other mobile devices) is at least partly for the purpose of facilitating such place-based learning.” I share that hope, and I appreciate that one of his first questions to the faculty this year is as follows:

In the often confusing world of educational acronyms, “PBL” here means “problem-based-learning,” not “place-based-learning,” but Bo is spot-on that the two are an excellent fit. Given the degree to which we’re about to increase our students’ screen time, taking intentional and sustained steps to give them a sense of balance and connect them with the real world isn’t just a cool idea. I think it’s a moral imperative.

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Earlier today, reading some lively back-and-forth comments on the blog written by my principal, I came across this statement by a chemistry-teaching colleague of mine:

At this age there’s a LOT of boring, fact based learning that needs to take place BEFORE deeper, more meaningful, creative learning and problem solving can take place.

Well, I strongly disagree (albeit respectfully, because I really like and respect this particular colleague). I don’t have any problem with his contention that a good education includes a lot of “fact-based learning”—even in an age of hyper-available information—but I disagree that this stage needs to come first or that it’s inevitably boring.

Perhaps the most powerful learning experience I ever had as a student was my original WMA Wilderness First Responder certification class back in 1993 at North Carolina Outward Bound School. From the very beginning of the course, we would start each new topic with a hands-on simulation, where “rescuers” would try (and fail) to make sense of what was going on with injured/sick “patients.” Only after struggling with a new problem—like a patient with abdominal bruising, elevated heart rate and respiration, and dropping blood pressure—would we start to learn the “boring” details of exactly how the circulatory and respiratory systems worked in tandem, or the implications of hypovolemic shock’s progressing from a compensated to decompensated stage. The basic learning sequence was exactly reversed from what my colleague maintains is necessary. Nonetheless, I’m pretty confident I learned far more “facts” in that week-long course than I could have in a whole semester of traditional lectures, and, in this context, none of them were boring. More to the point, nearly twenty years later I still remember most of what I learned. Vividly.

All the research about contextual and constructivist learning tells us something we should already know to be gut-level true, that new information is most readily assimilated when the learner has some sort of internal frame of reference, like prior knowledge (or lack of knowledge, a need-to-know), that gives it a place to stick. Starting with the “facts” before moving on to “meaningful, creative learning and problem solving” seems both woefully inefficient and, yes, boring.

So what does all this have to do with last week’s trip down the Oconee River with Paddle Georgia 2011? Well, I happened to come across this blogversation today as I was editing together some trip video with a focus on my boys’ river education. If you sat them down and asked them what they learned, they’d have plenty to say, I think, but I’ve been thinking a lot in terms of future dividends. Nothing creates a richer, more receptive frame of reference for future learning than direct experience and emotional connection:

For starters, esteemed chemistry colleague, Will and I both agree that we’re ready to learn just what’s going on at the molecular level when we learned how to test for dissolved oxygen in the Adopt-a-Stream training sessions.

Let me say it again: nothing creates a richer, more receptive frame of reference for future learning than direct experience and emotional connection. Which is why I’m still a little skeptical about the headlong rush to embrace technology in education (while my school takes small steps towards more experiential and-place-based learning, we have moved with astonishing rapidity to provide every student with a MacBook).

Anyway, enough soap-boxing . . . let me make a couple of remarks about the video clips.

First, they capture budding naturalist Andrew’s eagerness to pick up critters. He never stopped trying to grab frogs, tadpoles, lizards, salamanders, dragonflies, grasshoppers, fish, water striders, unmentionable squiggly things on the bottoms of river rocks. At base camp in Milledgeville, he proudly informed me that earlier he had “caught something-that-looked-kinda-like-a-scorpion-but-wasn’t” but couldn’t find me to show it off and had to let it go. I’m wondering if I went wrong somewheres in my parenting duty.

Second, I should mention that the tire we barged out was only one of about 70 that Paddle Georgia folks removed on our designated clean-up day. One guy had something like 13 tires either stacked on the deck of his sea kayak or hanging off the sides like tugboat fenders.

Third, who knew kaolin was so cool?

And finally, the last clip is a hat-tip to colleague and educational über-blogger John Burk in the spirit of recognizing and celebrating failure.

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