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Doug Chadwick, wildlife biologist and author, spoke last night at the Patagonia store in Westport CT, sharing excerpts from his new book, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies. I enjoyed Doug’s last book, The Wolverine Way, which I wrote about in 2010. I was excited to hear about his work with the Gobi Bear Project, and I’m looking forward to reading more about the Gobi Grizzlies, what he calls “the dustiest, thirstiest, and rarest bears in the world.”

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Theirs is an improbably existence, in a wind-swept rocky and mountainous desert that ranges from -40 in the winter to about 120° F in the summer. There may be as few as 35-40 of these bears in the world, and they are the only bears that live exclusively in deserts. The Gobi Grizzly is the same species as the North American Grizzly Bear, Ursus arctos, but a smaller subspecies, called Ursus arctos gobiensis.

The study and conservation work takes place in southern Mongolia, and efforts are focused (not surprisingly) on minimizing conflicts with humans and livestock, and reducing both competition for water resources and impact of land development and mining operations. The bears’ current range is contained within the “Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area”, which is about 5 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Efforts of biologists from the project are focused on learning more about the bears, protecting the ones left, and protecting wildlife corridors for the bears to move back into habitat that may have been in their historical range, but is now separated by land that may be developed for mining. This is similar to work that Doug has been promoting for some time now, with the Freedom to Roam and the Yellowstone to Yukon initiatives.

I enjoy Doug’s writing voice, and it was nice to hear his storytelling voice as well. He’s a self described optimist, and while he recognizes the obstacles and hard work ahead, he has hope for conservation efforts to support biodiversity in the long run. Doug heads back West soon with upcoming talks in Dillon, Montana and Seattle, Washington, and if that’s your neighborhood, it’s worth popping in to say hi and give a listen. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

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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.

 

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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.

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A few reflections as I read through Suzie Boss’s book “Bringing Innovation to School” (reflections that I think are fairly in line with what she’s saying so far, but applied to my particular setting in school and in my science classroom):

First, in order to TEACH and coach the ability to innovate (which has future potential in the world, for kids to be ready and willing to MAKE something, or to make things better), we have to BE innovative ourselves as teachers. This idea of teaching the importance of innovation strongly resonates with our school’s mission, in that we’re charged with preparing students to go out and “make a positive contribution to the world.” This is not a light charge, nor one that will be easy for some who are used to delivering information, used to doing things the way they’ve always done them. That’s not to say that ALL are doing that.  How are we innovative? Many teachers are doing terrific things in their classrooms, asking students to come up with new ideas that have value (Ken Robinson’s definition of creativity), and to solve real world problems, and to demonstrate proficiency in various areas, by practicing and using skills in math, languages, writing, communication, and science. But, many teachers are comfortable simply delivering content. Sal Khan can deliver content, and his reach is MUCH wider than yours. Khan Academy provides an important role in the universe (because so many children on the planet have not previously had access to that kind of information), but if that’s the only thing that you’re doing as a teacher, you can be replaced by the Internet.

The only way to effectively teach what have been dubbed 21st Century Skills, we must innovate. We’ll also have to collaborate with colleagues. The only way to train students to do the things we want them to do, in the limited time that we have them, is going to be to come up with creative ways to check multiple skills of the list, preferably while checking off multiple disciplines as well.

What I like so far about the book is that she provides great examples of what’s going on in dynamic classrooms around the country, with teachers that are pushing the envelope in different disciplines, thinking big, and asking a lot of their students. She also presents how to APPLY these kinds of projects to your classroom, or to consider how you might do something similar. 

Now with a bit of a an airport layover, I’m going to take in another chunk…

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Image: W. W. Norton & Company

So, there IS a new David Quammen book! This one deals with the crossover of infectious disease into humans; a fascinating, terrifying, and all-too-common process called zoonosis. Diseases such as bubonic plague, swine flu, HIV, and Ebola fall into this category. It’s important to note that transmission by an organism doesn’t make a disease zoonotic; rather, zoonoses involve a “jump” of a species-specific pathogen to a new species (in this case humans). Swine flu is a good example. Normally, we don’t catch the flu that pigs catch — the virus is great at infecting pig cells, not ours. But when that influenza virus mutates (which it does often), some of those mutated versions may be able to infect us (note: some of those mutations might also be harmless to us; some mutations will render the virus ineffective entirely — but we don’t hear about those versions. This is natural selection, of course.). This situation can be especially problematic because that recently mutated virus, in addition to being “new” to the world, is also totally “new” to our immune systems (advantage: virus). Throw in the fact that we’re putting ourselves in contact with more and more potential “new” pathogens all over the world (travel, exploration, destruction of rain forests, etc.) and we end up with a lot more potential diseases to combat. My seventh graders do a project on infectious diseases after studying bacteria and viruses, and the subject of this book ties in nicely with that project. So, in addition to new books this fall from Chabon, Helprin, McEwan, Ruhlman, and Kean, now I’m looking forward to finding some time to read Quammen’s “Spillover.”

Here’s the trailer for the book from the publisher, W. W. Norton:

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I’m tempted to lean towards the overblown and pronounce something like, “Everyone should read this book.” But I realize that not everyone is going to read it, and that’s okay. It’s non-fiction, pretty dense and scientific, and it’s hugely interesting. Maybe you’re not into that. It’s brilliantly presented, by the way. Parts are thick, with a multitude of hormone and receptor names, other sections with references to neurological and psychological research that spreads over the last century, and parts could be construed as depressing (not in the clinical sense of the word), but only if you stop halfway through the book, because there’s hope at the end (more on that later). Sapolsky’s writing is engaging, detailed, at times humorous, and it’s accessible, despite the depth and complexity of the subject matter.

I do feel like all kinds of people should read this book: if you are a teacher (and not just if you teach science); if you have kids of your own; if you’re married; if you work; if you’re curious about how the brain works; if you’re curious about stress; if you have stress; or if you really want to know what stress does to your body at the chemical and biological level… the list goes on.

I didn’t know about Robert Sapolsky until just recently, when I read that his Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology course at Stamford was available to watch online for free (thanks to OpenCulture: Biology That Makes Us Tick 3-28-11). I’m curious about his other books, A Primate’s Memoir, and The Trouble With Testosterone, because I really enjoy his writing style, (and I teach biology, so I happen to be interested in those topics). I also find him to be a fascinating lecturer. And once you watch the intro to Behavior Bio linked above (or watch the lecture on stress and depression below), you can absolutely hear his voice come through his writing. I imagine that when you write a book about a topic in your field (and revise it twice) that it becomes pretty familiar material. Whether it’s explaining the subject in front of a class or presenting his ideas in writing, he lays the case out clearly and persuasively (down to the same examples and phrases). The lecture below pretty much summarizes chapter 14 on stress and depression, which is staggering:

It’s incredible how far-reaching are the effects of stress and its attendant chemicals. They can save your life if you happen to be running from an actual lion (like the zebra of the title), but the case of humans is a bit more complicated because we tend to overthink things; the same chemical stress-response can get your hormones and body all worked up if you’re just anxious about running from a lion (or running from some metaphorical lion in your actual life). Elevated levels of glucocorticoids (a major focus of the book) can wreak havoc on your heart, blood vessels, reproductive and immune systems, sleep patterns, and general well-being. Elevated levels of stress hormones have been shown to have the same effect on your body that years of aging has. Oh, and they can also shrink your hippocampus and screw up your memory. Great.

But there’s hope.

The last section of the book is on dealing with stress. It’s possible. People actually do it, effectively even. And with the goal of “aging well” — not letting stress beat you down — Sapolsky presents some suggestions. Some of this stuff is unavoidable, due to the circumstances (genetic, environmental, and socioeconomic) that a person is born into — we don’t have much control over those things, and they are major influences (or potential risk factors, frankly). But under the heading of “control what you can control” he presents coping strategies that include exercise, maintenance and growth of positive social relationships (which do make a difference), meditation, religion, social support networks, and the importance of maintaining perspective. It doesn’t really end with fluff, and I hope I haven’t made it sound like that. It’s not a self-help book. Throughout the book Sapolsky presents clinical research, case studies, and work with rats and baboons that illustrate in remarkable detail how our brains and hormones (and those of all mammals, really) work. I feel that understanding the ways that the body deals with changes in the outside world (stressful things) can help influence the way we approach them. It might be tough to tell a “type A” personality to keep an even keel, but it turns out that it’s one of the more important things you can do.

You should totally read this book.

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A quick post to say that the Learning & the Brain conference (Web-Connected Minds) last weekend in Arlington VA was terrific. A whole lot to think about. And in order for me to process all the information, I’m going to start working through my notes and get some stuff out here over the next week.

First, I was happy to meet some new colleagues in the field. Conversations and emails swapped during individual sessions, new connections made through the Twitter (search hashtag #LB32 for the stream of tweets from the conference), and a face-to-face “tweet up” on Saturday night made the experience all the richer. A tangible benefit of the workshops, keynotes, and conversations is that my stack of books-to-read has grown tremendously. I started an open Google Doc to get all the recommendations down in one place, and I got plenty of input from presenters and other teachers at the conference. Please take a look, add your own suggestions, or comment on the ones that are there (or write in the Comments section below). I haven’t read all of these books, but I’ll try to work through some of them this summer. I’m going to start with Play by Stuart Brown, and Brain Rules by John Medina. I’m also interested to read Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It after her fascinating talk on Sunday morning.

Thanks to @fitzwits, @plugusin, @reyjunco, @tobyfischer, @kjongtech, @henesss, @bradfountain, @mSchlemko, @raviniareading, @jennifercottle, @snbeach, @CathyNDavidson, @tkraz, @AVIDbrian, @lottascales, @rfmoll, and @learningandtheb for book recs, thought provoking tweets, talks, and great ideas.

Also, Maureen Devlin (@lookforsun) writes the blog Teach Children Well and she put out a tweet this morning, looking for teacher summer reading suggestions. Feel free to chime in there as well.

So, what’s on your reading list?

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