The Daily Texture of Progressive Education

My Year to Think It Over took almost two years, actually. Every week or so I looked through my overflowing boxes of teaching souvenirs, revisited twenty-five years of life in an extraordinary learning community, and returned to these questions:

  • What did I learn, over time, about collaborating with young adolescents?
  • What learning adventures were particularly memorable, and what seems to have helped them work?
  • What am I still learning from the comments of past students, now adults?
  • What can I give back, out of the gift of all that time doing what I loved best?

Alhambra Caroline and IsyWhen I started the blog, I had stopped teaching. Finally I could write more: savor wonderful moments, and reflect on them; give credit to people who deserved it; give voice to ideas and practices that had guided me; honor students whose descriptions of their experience had transformed mine.

I began writing posts one by one without any realistic schedule–I really thought a year would do it!–and without any overall plan. Very soon threads of continuity began to emerge, willy-nilly, and those stretch across the screen up at the top, below the butterfly.

If you click on those headings, you’ll find an introduction to each strand, with links to posts exploring that strand. You can also click on the topic headings below.

reading on floor croppedPower in Literacy   I worked mostly with kids who were 11 or 12 years old. Often, in our mixed-age class, I spent two years with students. Across any time we had, students developed real and flexible fluency as readers and writers. With increasing confidence, they used reading and writing to explore the world and their own emerging identities. This heading title includes the word power, because that’s what I saw: I watched kids–in a world and at an age in which they can so easily feel powerless–taking up the effectively magical powers of literacy with contagious pleasure.

Journey of Man portraits 2 editedBeing Human   Within an interdisciplinary approach, we could draw on both science and social studies–and anything else–to explore our human evolution and the voyage leading to who we are. We could grapple with issues our species still struggles to work out, about how to live together. Eventually, students often dragging me along, we arrived at questions this basic: “Can we come to see each other, all over the world, as cousins? Over time, could that change the way we view the notion of race? Or the costs of war? Or the goals of economies and governments and communities?” If you give them the chance, young adolescents will tackle amazing things.

Our Places Max 2bA Sense of Place  What do we mean by “a sense of place” or “place-based education”? What can kids gain from exploring and coming to know the places they call home, and the places they share with others, including school? How far can a vivid sense of place reach, and what skills support that reaching? How can we respect and honor–and take responsibility for–the places that nourish us? These posts explore the teaching and learning of geography in its largest meanings.

Serious Playfulness  Here I gathered posts about our explorations of mathematics, projects river model0001various branches of science, and some related matters. Obviously “serious playfulness” is my own wacky term, but it means what it says: we were serious in our goals, but the ways we pursued them were playful oftener than not. Playful didn’t mean games based on television quiz shows. It meant true inquiry; open-ended questions; working together, taking risks, and getting dirty; discovery and surprise.

playground sprinkler run croppedTogether  This overview gathers posts that explore social and emotional learning: learning to care for each other, learning skills for working in a group, learning both kindness and resiliency. This strand also includes a series of posts about not using grades, because, in our experience, other kinds of assessment worked better to support authentic collaboration and community.

average 2010 betterWhen I first began this blog, and composed the About page, I wrote out of that clarity that can come from life in the trenches. “The world is full and busy and loud with ideologies about what works in education. I want to revisit some real experiences that worked for real live students, and think about why and how.”

It would be thrilling if my school’s approaches became–soon!–the norm not only in published research results, but also in mainstream practice. None of us should hold our breath. In the uphill battles we still face, I’m going to keep these posts available as long as they seem to be useful. Rereading, I’m deeply grateful for both experiences: to have lived that richly challenging and rewarding teaching life, and to have taken the time to “think it over” afterwards. I’m grateful to everyone who felt that this was an important thing for me to do, and said, “You can do it.” (Alex Brown, you’re at the top of that list.)

hands and imaginetsThrough this writing, things I’d learned from teaching reached forward into my present.  Attending writing workshops at UMass Boston’s William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences, I felt again how overwhelming and exhilarating learning can be for the learner. Visiting my dad as he slipped further into dementia and spoke much less, I watched him learn to play a game oriented around spatial relationships. My math teacher self talked to my daughter self, helping her.

Am I done here? I’m not sure. I haven’t explored some topics, or told some stories that feel important. But at this point I am more involved in other adventures.

Meanwhile, however you’ve found this blog, I’m glad. I feel like the host of a fabulous potluck feast. In effect, I’ve spent years working with wonderful cooks. Enjoy! Be emboldened! You can reach me, if you want, at the most obvious email address for someone named Polly Brown. I don’t like to write it out, because robots search for such things–but you’re very unlikely to guess wrong. Or you can share a comment.

From my new adventures, I wish you well in whatever you may be exploring or daring to try, in your own learning life.

Teaching Evolution: Three More Thoughts

Here’s a link to my post about the Evolution Treasure Hunt. I’ve kept thinking about all that, and my thoughts right now have been shaped partly by my father’s very last journey, in process as I write.

A Particular Kind of Walk through the World

Helen York on Adams HillNaturalist Bernd Heinrich now owns the old hill farm on Mount Blue’s shoulder, where one of my great-grandfathers tended cows and apple trees, and where my grandmother posed one Fourth of July for a photograph taken with the Kodak Brownie camera she’d been given by her students’ parents.

In one of his books, The Trees in My Forest, Heinrich explores the woods that took over my great-grandfather’s pastures. He describes an isolated apple tree, far from the old orchard. How did it get there? Did a bear carry and drop an apple, or deposit scat containing a seed?

Eventually, Heinrich describes a game he himself played, growing up with some of my grandmother’s cousins, another branch of Adamses. Each child skewered, on the end of a supple sapling, an apple too wormy to eat, and then, with a practiced flick of arm and hand, flung the apple as far as it could go.

They weren’t planting; they were playing. Some of the world can only be explained by play.

Elsewhere in the same book, chewing his way through observation after observation, Heinrich tackles another kind of mystery. Why do deciduous trees drop their leaves? He explains how expensive this is for the tree, to produce a new crop of leaves every year, like a manufacturer building a whole new set of factories—and then trashing them.

Here’s a piece of the answer: if the leaves were retained, in a place like Maine, they would hold snow and overload the branches, breaking them. Yes, I thought, remembering the destructiveness of unusually early autumn snowfalls, the sound of maple branches crashing to the ground.

evolution Lisa Westberg PetersDid someone design trees that would drop their leaves? My great-grandfather and my grandmother would have answered, resoundingly, yes: God designed and created every natural thing around us, chose all their shapes and functions. As a child, I believed that myself, sang hymns that said so. (I still sing them, with my parents’ and uncles’ and aunts’ voices–and the photographs on the top of my grandparents’ piano–vivid and treasured in my mind.)

As an adult, though, I have come to understand another explanation that seems to me equally wonderful. Mutations that led to leaf drop gave an edge toward survival and progeny. The mutation persisted, generation by generation, because it did something useful for the species.

Here’s the translation in my heart: letting go of all those leaves, all those creations, lets the tree live on.

If, like me, you feel the importance of evolution Steve Jenkinsan evidence-based, scientific understanding of how the world we see came to be—

if you want to share that with your students or children or just the many daily wandering-around versions of yourself, but the real texture of that understanding is still pretty fuzzy in your mind—

and if you have an allergy to abstractions, as I tend to—if abstractions just don’t stick to your ribs as well as specifics do—

you may want to read Bernd Heinrich, or other evolution-informed naturalist writers, who will take you on a very particular kind of walk through the world, noticing things and thinking through how they came to be like that, doing a steady series of experiments with bumblebees, ravens, squirrels, weeds; observing the tracks and traces of evolution in detail.

(If video works better for you, here’s a link to a brief video from the HHMI series called The Making of the Fittest. This one describes the effects of natural selection, as observed in the coloration of rock pocket mice in the American southwest. It’s short, vivid, and persuasive–and there are many more where it comes from.)

evolution Piero VenturaFor me, that kind of walk through the world is ultimately full of joy, true joy in the rich diversity and beauty of what works. When you can come to that joy in the reality of the world, whatever your religious beliefs may be, you will be part of our culture’s growing up, part of our species’ reach into clearer understanding. Teacher / scholar / student / parent / citizen—we’ll all be lucky to have you along on that voyage.

Squabbles in a Transitional Time

In so many places, evolution is minimized, or outright skipped, in elementary or middle school teaching of biology.

Even at the college level, some students do their own censoring. Here’s a piece by a professor at the University of Kentucky, who knows that some of his introductory biology students will storm out of the lecture hall and slam the door behind them, when they wake, in shock, to the news that evolution is the organizing principle of modern biology–not a minor topic that can be side-stepped, but the key to everything we know about the nature of life. It might have been better for them to hear some version of that sooner. Maybe when they were five. Or three.

Here’s another link, to a lecture by Kenneth Miller, cell biologist and faithful Catholic, who answers high school students’ questions about religion and science by affirming the powerful evidence for evolution, and at the same time expressing compassion for students’ confusion about how we define meaning in life.

evolution David Peters cAt my own very progressive school, parents of whom I am enormously fond turned to me and said, “But evolution is just a theory, right?”–misunderstanding the word theory to mean unproven and unreliable. But a scientific theory is a huge concept that makes sense of overwhelming evidence–not something less strong than a fact, but something held up by, and holding in a coherent whole, thousands upon thousands of facts.

Students I prized–exactly because they worked energetically to hold in one mind everything they were learning–asked, “But what about God? This is so different…”

Accepting religious teaching as scientific authority can put people of any age in a jam. My father, a biologist, told me a while back that an emotional and mental breakdown while he was in graduate school had been triggered largely by those conflicts.

Commitment to my students and their parents, and affection for them, encouraged me to keep thinking carefully, not about whether we would explore evolution–but about how. Still, now, I’m always looking for voices that honor the evidence for evolution and also explore ways we can all absorb it–because absorbing it is an unfinished task for my people (by which I mean all of us), and it’s not so easy to do.

“Go find a good children’s book…”

My mother, a retired children’s librarian, still says this to anyone who’ll listen. “To begin learning about almost anything, go find a good children’s book. A picture book, if possible.” I’ve illustrated this post with the covers of four children’s books that played important roles in my own effort to understand. You’ll find the bibliographic information down below, at the bottom of the post.

Eventually, I read Stephen Jay Gould, a selection of Darwin’s letters, an entire volume about the extinct arthropods called trilobites, book after book after book about human evolution. This winter I’ve been reading Bernd Heinrich’s latest book, The Homing Instinct.

I started, though, with picture books and other non-fiction for young readers. I knew that I would be in honorable company, a learner among learners, a voyager among voyagers.

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story, by Lisa Westberg Peters with illustrations by Lauren Stringer. Harcourt, 2003.

Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution, by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Darwin: Nature Reinterpreted, by Piero Ventura. Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

From the Beginning: The Story of Human Evolution, by David Peters. Morrow Junior, 1991.

The last two books listed work best for older children supported by adult fellow learners. They’re both out of print, which makes me sad–but I’ve just confirmed that they can be found used online.

The Evolution Treasure Hunt

I get a huge kick out of a Facebook group called I Homeschool and I Teach the Science of Evolution. In their posts, members ask each other, “How do you approach concepts like evolution? What about the Big Bang?” They trade recommendations for resources, including, for example, Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s incredibly rich BioInteractive resources, or the Big History Project.

When I started exploring evolution with ten to twelve-year-old students in 1991, the resources available to me were few, but fabulous. Our experience as students and teachers of evolution began with The Voyage of the Mimi. Published by the Bank Street College Project in Science and Mathematics in 1984, this sequence of video story episodes and documentaries engaged students with fundamental biological concepts by focusing on the evolution, physiology and behavior of whales–and kids ate it up. Aspects of the series feel a little dated now, thirty years on–but the Mimi remains an excellent platform for evolution studies, for children even as young as five or six.

Below, in a photograph from the student book published to accompany the series, Ben Affleck, one of the actors, meets with a scientist at the Smithsonian Institution:

evolution ben and whale fossils

The right books and videos can be such a boon–especially if children and adults are able to explore them together, working at a pace that allows for plenty of mulling and questioning. Still, if you stop with just reading and watching, talking and writing, you’ll miss the benefit of more active, hands-on learning. In order to construct their own real understanding of challenging topics, kids need chances to build, create, arrange–or jump up and pretend to be a jellyfish. If you’re going to tackle understanding our strange and wonderful universe, you need some serious playfulness.

The Evolution Treasure Hunt took a hands-on approach to the history of life on earth. Working together, we created and set up a series of stations–some in our own classroom, some in other classrooms (by teachers’ consent) or in public areas of the school. (I imagine a network of homeschoolers going from house to house.) Weather permitting, we located some stations outdoors. As they moved from station to station, students followed a series of innovations affecting body-plan, reproduction, metabolism, and behavior, over the past 3.5 billion years.

Here are four kids in the Common Room, learning from the Land Arthropods station, about the radical innovations of breathing air, and flying.

evolution treasure hunt learnersThe power of this experience lay largely in the kids’ role in its preparation. I did put together some of the stations, often using materials generated by students in previous classes. As many stations as possible, though, were researched, designed, and created anew, by groups of students in each class.

Here’s the sequence from one year:

evolution treasure hunt chart 1

evolution treasure hunt chart 2

If you’ve read much of my blog–or if you were there!–you can guess that we worked on the station displays in projects time. The chart also shows that we ignored plants that year, which is sad–but teachers and students are always having to leave things out, in order to explore other things in satisfying depth.

What could work as a display? Even at the beginning, we tried to do more than just point to some target classification of plants or animals and say, here, this came next. (In fact, that could be a misleading thing to say.)

The simplest display consisted of representations of the target group of plants or animals, and the approximate time of that group’s first appearance, along with a brief written summary about particularly important innovations for surviving and thriving.

Here’s a group of students at the reptiles station, with Bili the dinosaur, one of the class mascots, reading along.

evolution kids at reptiles

This version of the text for the reptiles station came from a year when I was responsible for it. (I’m mixing and matching evidence from different years, because that’s what I can find!)

evolution treasure hunt reptiles0001

Sarah Stein’s Evolution Book served as a spirited and comprehensive reference for all this history of life on earth. At first, I assigned full sections of the book as background reading. Then, in a year with a somewhat younger class, I created simplified versions of the text by copying, cutting and pasting–a lot of work, but worth it, to make this excellent resource usable for my students.

Each group, in turn, created their own very simple version, with their sense of the high points, for their station in the treasure hunt. Below, one of those cards I kept reusing for later classes.

evolution treasure hunt bac card(Yesterday, when I exchanged messages with Addie Kemp, one of the writers of that card, she was holed up in a cafe in Austin, Texas, writing the proposal for her thesis in anthropology and evolutionary biology. I’m not kidding. She actually can’t remember doing the evolution treasure hunt–but maybe it had some kind of subconscious influence?)

Each student read several pages of challenging text very carefully, with small group support. Then they worked as a group with that chunk of information, to summarize it on behalf of the full class. During the treasure hunt, each student observed and interacted with the displays, read a summary for each group of animals, took some notes on a specially designed chart, and also collected, station by station, a set of summary cards to keep.

Here’s one group’s poster about some crucial characteristics of sea arthropods.

evolution posters bThis might have been the year we had a live lobster present, thanks to parent volunteer Carol Liasson. A favorite memory, from a projects time sharing: drafting enough other students to make it work, the sea arthropods group embodied the jointed appendages of a lobster, bending and swaying in articulated splendor.

Another group showed fish in a tank, along with drawings of important characteristics of fish such as the swim bladder. Beyond that, though, they had made a model with wooden blocks and pipe-cleaners, and invited treasure hunt participants to play with the model and feel for themselves how a jointed spine could help a fish maneuver more quickly and flexibly in search of prey, or avoid becoming prey. This might be their fact card:

evolution treasure hunt fish carIn order to create an effective display, a group had to understand the payoff for the evolutionary development they were representing–and they had to figure out how to make that evident to other students.

evolution jelly fish jelloAlmost always, groups came up with displays that provided for active viewer participation: a model to manipulate, or a microscope view of water from Julie Olsen’s swamp tank, full of protozoans; or jello to touch, as evidence of the state of matter, somewhere between solid and liquid, of jellyfish.

Early in the evolution of the Evolution Treasure Hunt, students convinced me that I couldn’t call it a treasure hunt without some kind of treasure at the end. So we munched on animal crackers from individual boxes, while holding the invaluable end-of-treasure-hunt debrief. I asked, “What new ideas stood out for you? (In other words, in your new-formed opinion, what are some surprising moments in the history of life on earth?) What were some things you especially admired in other groups’ displays?” To make sure everyone got to be evolution critic for a day, I usually went around the room, kid by kid. As always, their synthesizing comments were the very best part of the whole shebang.

Other experiences helped students think about other aspects of evolution, including the mechanisms and processes by which it happens. Other books and videos helped them, and me, arrive at clearer and clearer understanding. Maybe I’ll come back to that?

A last photograph for now. One year, after the treasure hunt was over, we compressed simplified versions of all the stations onto the largest available bulletin board. So here’s a partial view of that colorful grand parade of life, for sure and certain a cause for celebration.

evolution posters all together