Rainy Day Fungus Search

img_1053Not too many people at the Nature Center on rainy Sunday mornings. But we’re glad to get out of the house and into the woods, rain or shine. On a recent outing, the kids noticed a few rotting logs with different kinds of fungus growing. This is not something I know a lot about, but we set out to explore and see how many different varieties we could find. It’s always good to take a closer look.  Continue Reading »

Jessica Lahey wrote an interesting piece last spring about encouraging teenagers to read. She shares her experience in getting her sons to pick up reading again, a voluntary activity that can sometimes flag as reading for academics and extracurricular commitments swell through middle and high school. She has a number of great suggestions, including “seeding” her son’s room with “literary bait” gathered from the non-YA section of the bookstore. Getting kids to follow their own interests (and to make choices on their own) can play a big part in instilling a lifelong love of reading. While her article was largely related to what kids read in their free time, much of what she wrote resonated with me as a classroom teacher who also wants his students to read.

I didn’t see Jessica’s article until just this week when she Tweeted Encouraging Teens to Read Nonfiction (With Cunning, Guile, & a Bit of Luck),” along with a link and a photo of a stack of books. (The books totally caught my eye, and I’m putting the ones I haven’t read on my ever-growing list to check out.)

So here’s why it resonated with me: This year I decided to pilot a non-fiction book project with my ninth grade biology class, and I’m excited about how it went. Students chose books from a long list of titles, and they each read a different book. It was my goal to engage their interest in a wide range of topics related to biology, including medicine, DNA and genetics, sports, natural history, zoology, evolution, endangered species, food and nutrition, the brain, music, and conservation. And really, I also wanted to expose them to good non-fiction writing and to see if they’d liked it. I didn’t make it optional, but I did give them choice and a good deal of time.

Here’s what they read:

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Skloot)
  • Spillover (Quammen)
  • A Primate’s Memoir (Sapolsky)
  • Inside of a Dog (Horowitz)
  • Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (Sapolsky)
  • The Wolverine Way (Chadwick)
  • The Violinist’s Thumb (Kean)
  • The Sports Gene (Epstein)
  • The Making of the Fittest (Carroll)
  • Devil’s Teeth (Casey)
  • Monster of God (Quammen)
  • Song of the Dodo (Quammen)
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Pollan)
  • Incognito (Eagleman)
  • The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons (Kean)
  • My Stroke of Insight (Bolte-Taylor)
  • Your Brain on Music (Levitin)
  • The World Without Us (Weisman)

Some books they didn’t pick that I think would still be good choices: A Sting in the Tale (Goulson), The Botany of Desire (Pollan), Four Fish (Greenberg), Cod (Kurlansky), On the Origin of Species (Darwin), Song for the Blue Ocean (Safina), On the Wing (Tennant), The Sixth Extinction (Kolbert), What to Eat (Nestle), Musicophilia (Sacks), Silent Spring (Carson), The Log from the Sea of Cortez (Steinbeck). Let me know in the COMMENTS section if you have suggestions for other books you think might work. I’d love to have a longer list for students to choose from in September.

One of the challenges of adding this on top of any course is that our students are already plenty busy. They’re reading The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, etc. in English, plus history homework and papers, Spanish projects, math, and also my own assignments for Biology, reading both current articles and textbook chapters. So I spread this project out over the first two trimesters. I didn’t want them to have to cram to finish their books as they were prepping for final exams, for example. I kept the assignments simple, but I found that I did need to assign them something. They weren’t about to just read them on their own. Assignment 1 was a 50-pages-in tell me about the book, plus a quick explanation of the author’s goal/thesis, and a notable quote (this was in a round table format, explained to the rest of the class). Assignment 2 was a middle-of-the-book written explanation of a longer excerpt, a what-I’ve-learned-so-far about this topic check-in. And finally, Assignment 3 was a larger book review; a summary, notable excerpt, and a conclusion on whether they thought I should keep the book in the hopper for next year’s class.

My takeaways: the students generally liked this project, and were interested in what they found in the books. They weren’t terribly excited that I plopped this on top of their plates, but their topics did work their way into class discussions throughout the year (The Sports Gene, The Violinist’s Thumb, The Making of the Fittest, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came up on multiple occasions when their readers were happy to chime in with something they had just read related to the class topic).

Favorite outcome by far: my students are now working through the human body systems by working backwards from diseases, and Jill Bolte-Taylor’s “My Stroke of Insight” has made its way from the girl who read it for the book project to the girl that’s researching stroke. She says, “Oh, ___, you should read the first section of my book. It explains everything you need to know. I’ll bring it tomorrow.” And she did.


Having class outside

It’s always good to get outside. And having the Long Island Sound 15 minutes away makes partnering with the Maritime Aquarium a great fit. Their new research vessel RV Spirit of the Sound is gorgeous. A plankton survey, benthic bio dredge, and otter trawl gave us plenty to measure and discuss. Students and teachers alike were happy to be out and getting their hands dirty!


Just how important is inspiration, the educational value of play, and the time to tinker?

According to brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, it began for them with a toy from France, a small helicopter brought home by their father, Bishop Milton Wright, a great believer in the educational value of toys. The creation of a French experimenter of the nineteenth century, Alphonse Pénaud, it was little more than a stick with twin propellers and twisted rubber bands, and probably cost 50 cents. “Look here, boys,” said the Bishop, something concealed in his hands. When he let go it flew to the ceiling. They called it the “bat.” 

Orville’s first teacher in grade school, Ida Palmer, would remember him at his desk tinkering with bits of wood. Asked what he was up to, he told her he was making a machine of a kind that he and his brother were going to fly someday.

        David McCullough, The Wright Brothers

Rather important, I think.


Thursday 11/12/15 brain dump

8:30 General session panel – teachers, science & societal controversy

Ken Miller on teaching evolution. 

Watch “Judgement Day” documentary on intelligent design (Nova). Read: Alan Leshner – “Bridging the opinion gap” (Science).

Bombarding people with facts doesn’t work. Information is not the key, in fact it may harden views. The problem is “cultural cognition” an unwillingness of people to identify with the scientific community because of a number of ingrained beliefs/practices (Dan Kahan).

– cultural connections to science matter.

– Is there hope? When you look at an age related breakdown, there IS. Young people are much more accepting of evolution.

Jacquelyne Gill – paleoecology at University of Maine

How did ecosystems respond to climate change in the past, and how can that inform what may happen in the future. (Forensics for the environment)

Communication requires an empathic connection. As scientists, we’re trained in factual defense, and this isn’t really the best way to go about it. Many people tend to reject the Consensus Model (statements like “97% scientists agree”). It’s not going to convince anyone. In fact, it’s important to recognize that many ideological differences are really about government and how much regulation we’re comfortable with.

In talking with people, “make an incremental push in the realm of trust.” This was a terrific talk.

Seth Mnookin – on vaccination – Putting his book “The Panic Virus” onto the stack

Do you make decisions based on emotions or truth? Both. First, find out the truth, the reality (as a journalist)

Emotions run the opposition. And the way to counter that is not by attacking it, but by an empathic connection. You can’t convince the conspiracy theorists. This connects with what Jacquelyn said. Make “I” statements about what works for you based on research.

I’m going to read this book.

Great Gray Owl 4-20-15

Great Grey Owl, Lamar Valley, YNP. Photo by Morgan Nichols.

Great Grey Owl, Lamar Valley, YNP. Photo by Morgan Nichols.


I had the opportunity to spend this week in Montana and Wyoming through Montana State’s MSSE program, studying the biology of the thermal features in Yellowstone National Park. I met science teachers from various states and countries that are all working towards using this material in their classes, and I was happy to be a part of such a rich discussion of content and pedagogy.







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