The BEST Reason to Know Biology

As a science teacher, I never had a difficult time integrating literature into the curriculum. It seemed to me that what scientists and all people related to the sciences wrote about is important, not merely because I was the teacher, more so because it lent itself to efficacy and agency for my students.  Some examples include excerpts from Sherwin Nuland who wrote How We Die  (National Book Award),  Stiff by Mary Roach,  specifically the physics section on why to use cadavers instead of crash test dummies for car safety testing, poetry and non-fiction writing by Diane Ackerman, writings by Annie Dillard and Rachel Carson, Stephen Jay Gould,  The Best Science and Nature Writing – usually the edition edited by Natalie Angier in 2002 (notably The Most Important Fish in the Sea/Discover Magazine) and poetry galore. I did not lack for material to integrate considering how ghastly text books have become.

What was interesting to me was getting my colleague teachers to read a piece and use it in English, so we would be integrating across the curriculum. It  was  sometimes a nuisance as the English teacher then had to read about science. On the occasions when my English teacher counterparts could get past thinking the word science meant geeky, they would read and integrate these pieces.   And when the English teachers did integrate, something amazing happened: there was a great deal of discourse in science and English as the topics I selected lent themselves nicely to debate, to quality writing, to extrapolation and so forth.  Most importantly, these pieces allowed me to really talk with my students beyond all the memorization (quite a bit in the sciences, sadly) and think about the impact of learning SCIENCE applied to everything in our lives.  These written pieces made science real and made the sometimes painful dryness of science bearable.

The students who had me for science were made to think about the bigger picture – how does one decide if a vaccine is good or bad? How do we determine what kind of surgery we want to have or who should do it….because we have a choice.  Is there value to chemotherapy? When  drugs are not approved by the FDA, should we have access to them – why/why not?  Do you want some one doing open heart surgery on you if they never dissected a frog or worked on a cadaver, two things which always seem to be huge gross outs to students. Isn’t Chitosan awesome?  Why would Chitosan be difficult to use at home……?  I would have to look back at old lesson plans to see what I noted down that we talked about at school as it was the only sure way I knew students were interested in science -they kept asking questions and coming back for more.

Of all the science I taught, the most important piece I wanted students to take away was the knowledge which would impact their (and their family) quality of life.  I was hoping that if they lived well, they would know how to choose to die.  We never talked about death in any way other than completely respectful – I insisted as there was so much to be learned from the dead. We did discuss things like brain death and donating organs as I often taught in places where there was a higher than average frequency for violence.

What I hope I got across to my students was they had a choice in how they lived and how they died. I wanted my students to respect the sanctity of life.  If I happened to interest a few in becoming science geeks, even better!