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

Learning by Shape-shifting

It’s not just children who organize their lives and experiences, and transcend them, through storytelling. It’s definitely not just for fun. The ability to feel empathy, informed empathy–an understanding of another that begins in earned, respectful knowledge of the other–lies at the heart of our moral understanding. We practice that, in so many ways, through storytelling.

We use storytelling to hold onto memories of people we are heartbroken to have lost, and begin to heal our hearts in the process. We work to cross barriers of time and distance and race and class and gender. We hold our own selves coherent in our minds—all with the help of storytelling.

Storytelling can also go wrong. We can tell a child a story about how he is wrong and bound to be wrong, and that story gathers power with every retelling. We can do that same thing, each of us, to ourselves. We can construct stories that hold an entire group accountable for the acts of a few, or revisions of history that scapegoat the blameless. We can cling tenaciously to old stories about the world around us, rather than let new evidence start us spinning new versions.

Storytelling is like fire. We have to carry it and keep it alive, or we lose something essential–but we also have to carry it, and use it, very carefully.

arthur and C.T. editedStorytelling gave power to our classroom learning at Touchstone in so many ways. For example, after my class had watched each video episode of The Voyage of the Mimi, kids wrote journal entries in the voices of the characters. At first, I asked all the students to write as C.T., the young character who is our surrogate within the video story. The second year, when I broadened the choices, I saw how much it could mean to a kid to write as the chief scientist on the expedition, responsible for both thorough data and respectful treatment of the whales they were tracking and observing. Some chose to write as the captain of Mimi, responsible for everyone’s safety and for the boat itself, but also committed to the success of the scientists who had chartered Mimi for their work. Many chose to write as the young black student intern from New York City, initially clueless about everything nautical, but an expedition-saving whiz at electronics–above all, willing to step out of his city-smarts for a new experience.

Taking on these roles and perspectives gave students broader understanding of the trade-offs and decisions in real work. At the same time, creating that shape-shifting experience for themselves, they could feel their own imaginative power.

Our first storytelling connected directly to black studies built on one of the accounts in Freedom’s Children, one of the resources I mentioned in the preceding post. In 1955, Claudette Colvin was just 15 years old when she refused to give up her seat on an internally segregated Montgomery city bus, nine months before a similar action by Rosa Parks drew national attention. Claudette’s learning, as a high school student in a segregated high school, contributed to her bravery. Years later, when she was interviewed by Newsweek, Colvin said, “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat,”

Using her account in Freedom’s Children, my students improvised and discussed and revised dramatizations of Claudette’s story. Several different classes did this over the years, often sharing that year’s version of the skit as our contribution to the annual community meeting honoring the concerns of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a result, I have vivid memories of various completely plausible Claudettes hollering out, “But it’s my right! It’s my constitutional right!”

colvincoverThe day I saw, in a Cambridge bookstore, a whole book devoted to Claudette, I hollered out myself, just thrilled. Seriously, find the book or at least read the Wikipedia entry linked above: you’ll be fascinated by all the reasons she wound up a mostly unsung heroine, and I hope you’ll feel as grateful as I do for the example of her Mighty Girl spirit.

One year we had a little more time for this kind of work. I copied several accounts from Freedom’s Children, which described a variety of situations including a lunch counter confrontation. Then small groups of kids worked with the different stories.

Before we shared with the class as a whole, we took time to have the participants in each group switch roles, and then run through the skit again. How did it feel different to be the white store manager? How did it feel to be the kid who took part but never spoke? How did it feel to be the one who stood up–or sat down and stayed sitting?

A memory of a pivotal point in my own learning: a child started playing an elderly character in a stereotypical old guy way, shaky hand on cane, croaky voice–playing it for laughs. I can’t remember whether I just intervened briefly, and reminded kids of our purposes, or whether I conducted the kind of group discussion that often serves those purposes best. Sometimes quick and light is good; sometimes taking time to go deeper is good.

Either way, over time, I realized that I wanted kids to carry themselves, collectively and consciously, the responsibility for real empathy in our role-playing. Informed empathy, considered empathy. Such a challenging thing, for them and for me: to enlist the playfulness and inventiveness of the imagination, and give it a sense of responsibility, all at the same time.

To carry and use the fire of storytelling carefully.

We do that best when we’re open with kids about the power we’re giving them, and its risks. Can people who’ve grown up in the invisible insulation of white privilege really understand what it’s like to be looked at askance every time you walk into a store, or to be pulled over every time you drive through a white neighborhood? I don’t think so, actually–not fully, although each of us has experiences on which we can draw, to move towards partial understanding of someone else’s story, and we have the power of transmitted language, stories others have told, to guide us.

Still, I’ll stake my soul on the conviction that it’s worth trying; that what we gain from role-playing or from writing in persona is worth the risk–no, in fact the guarantee–that we won’t get it all right.

Welty, Sunday School, Holiness Church, Jackson, 1935-1936Working with high school students as creative writers, I’ve use photographs (like the one to the right by Eudora Welty), other people’s poems, artist’s manikins, all sorts of prompts to encourage writing in persona, writing out of what we’ve learned but not consciously owned about what it’s like to be someone else. Again and again, I’ve been floored by the results–just as with my younger students. It’s never felt anything but risky, or anything but essential.

Ultimately, because it’s right at the heart of human experience, we want students to understand both the power of storytelling and the risks. We want it to be not just the teacher who asks, “Wait, should we be playing this for laughs?” We want a kid voice to be ready to challenge a quick and stereotyped version: “Wait, what evidence do we have for the way we’re representing this?” We want them to grow up to say, “Wait, it just doesn’t make sense to say that all Arabs are terrorists.”

The questions are part of the learning, and the caution is part of the imagination’s voyage–for all of us.