Category Archives: Teachers Know the Content that They Teach

Climate Deniers Sending Sketchy Science to EVERY Public School Science Teacher in America

A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit about a book filled with sketchy science titled  Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming that showed up in my school mailbox.

My thinking was that the book had been dropped there by a parent, colleague or community member who was opposed to my argument that teaching science had become a form of political bloodsport.

But the truth is that my book came from a far scarier source: It was sent to me directly by the Heartland Institute — a group heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry that actively questions climate science.

And what’s even scarier is that the Heartland Institute has just started a campaign to send a copy of this book to EVERY science teacher America’s public schools.

The authors of the book and the leaders of the Heartland Institute want teachers to “consider the possibility” that climate science is not settled, which is simply not true.  They also argue that even if human activity is causing climate change, it “would probably not be harmful, because many areas of the world would benefit from or adjust to climate change.”

#sheeshchat

Now I know what you are thinking:  Why are you still writing about this, Bill?  We want you to point us to some really great tech tools or to share a few free lessons with us.  We don’t want political mumbo-jumbo about climate science.

Here’s why I’m still writing about it:  If you are a teacher or a school leader in a public school in America, these books are going to start to roll through your schoolhouse doors en masse over the next few weeks.

Some of your teachers will see right through the title and chuck their copy straight into the trash where it belongs.  But some will fail to fact check the source and fall for the fake science that fills its pages.  Then, they will start pushing the flawed notion that the science around climate change really isn’t settled yet to the kids sitting in your classrooms.

That ought to concern everyone in Radical Nation.  As my buddy Joe Henderson — who has learned a ton on this issue from his colleague Randall Curran — pointed out to me recently:

“1. A sound climate science education is so basic for understanding the world we live in that students are entitled to it.

2. Such an education is also a fundamental aspect of civic education, because it is foundational to the most consequential collective decision humanity has ever faced.”

So what should your next steps be?  

If you are a principal, my argument is that these books should never make it into the mailboxes of your classroom teachers.  Find them and filter them out.  Can you REALLY defend a decision to place a piece of political propaganda from a group funded by the fossil fuel industry in front of the people who are supposed to be educating the kids in your classrooms?

If you are not comfortable with filtering mail sent to your teachers, AT LEAST point your teachers to this PBS article detailing the Heartland Institute’s efforts or to my recent bit teasing out the truth about just who Heartland is.  While teachers should do this leg work on their own whether you provide them with context or not, the truth is that we are flat slammed with tasks to complete in any given day, so falling for pseudo-science that lands in our mailboxes is more common than you might think.

And if you aren’t comfortable getting involved, AT LEAST make sure that the people in your district who are responsible for science instruction and curricular decisions are aware of what’s going on.  My guess is that they will want to send out some kind of “Heads Up” email that reminds teachers of just what your curricula says about teaching climate change and/or start a conversation with department chairs about how to address these new books popping up on campuses across your county.

Whatever you do, do something.  We can’t just ignore a paid political attempt to influence the thinking of thousands of teachers around the most important issue facing our planet.

#trudatchat


Related Radical Reads:

When Did Teaching Science Become Political Bloodsport?

More on Teaching Science and Political Bloodsport.

 

More on Teaching Science and Political Bloodsport.

So something REALLY interesting happened this morning:  I found a brand spanking new copy of Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming in my school mailbox:

That’s a HECK of a coincidence, isn’t it?  

LAST week, I write a post about the lunacy of EPA Director Scott Pruitt — who somehow doesn’t believe that carbon emissions are leading to climate change — and THIS week, someone just so happens to drop a copy of a text designed to eviscerate climate science into my mailbox.

I’m not a big believer in coincidences, though.  

My guess:  SOMEONE — a colleague, a parent, someone from the broader community that just so happens to read my blog — decided that I needed to broaden my views on the science behind climate change.

I have NO idea who sent me the book, but I DO have a few choice words for them.  Here they are:

The Heartland Institute — the group responsible for publishing this book — has taken a TON of money from the fossil fuel industry, including from the Koch Brothers AND Exxon Mobil.  Don’t you think that cheapens the value of ANYTHING inside this book?  Can you REALLY believe that research funded by the fossil fuel industry is going to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth about climate change?

Need more proof that the Heartland Institute is a heavily biased organization?  Then whaddya’ think about the fact that they have an entire line item in their annual budget — to the tune of $200,000 — to develop a curriculum aimed at public schools that is designed to “cast doubt on mainstream climate science?”

Need MORE proof that the Heartland Institute is a heavily biased organization?  Try this on for size:  This is the SAME group that created a billboard that compared people who believe in climate change to the Unabomber — and who had ANOTHER billboard ready to go that substituted Osama Bin Laden for the Unabomber.

Still not convinced?  Then what would you say if you found out that the “climate experts” who wrote the book that you sent me were on Heartland’s payroll, making anywhere from $5,000 to $11,000 per month?  Are you REALLY going to believe that guys who are being paid THAT much cash are unbiased and impartial observers that are giving us the whole truth and the nothing but the truth?

Heck — I’d say darn near anything if you want to pay me $11 K per MONTH.  That’s more than double my teaching salary.

Want me to keep going?  These are the same yeah-hoos who were defending Big Tobacco back in the 1990s, arguing that the damage done by smoking — both through first and second hand smoke — were completely overblown.

Seriously.  They said smoking wasn’t all that bad.

#sheeshchat

Now, needless to say, I’m peeved.

This “drive-by-booking” was a perfect example of what I was talking about in my previous post.  Folks who are living in the Breitbart Bubble — mainlining Alex Jones for hours every day while they scroll through their hyper-partisan Facebook pages — are actively trying to shape the conversations that our kids are having about science by shouting louder than anyone who sits squarely in the mainstream.

That’s frightening, y’all.  

And the only way that we fix it is by pushing back.  Make sure that the science teachers in your lives know that you stand for objective science built on fact and not bought by people like the Koch Brothers, Exxon and the Heartland Institute.  Be louder than the people who have learned that shouting every time a teacher mentions “evolution” or “natural selection” or “global warming” is the best way to stifle facts and to advance a fringe agenda.

Most importantly, quit pretending that this isn’t a big deal — because it is.

I am a real science teacher working in a real science classroom and I hesitate every time I talk about these topics because I know that I’m likely to take more than a little criticism.  I can’t be the only one, can I?

And let’s quit pretending that our kids don’t need to learn that there are TONS of organizations just like the Heartland Institute that are trying to “muddy the waters” on important scientific issues.  Their motives are shady on a good day.  They represent powerful, wealthy interests that stand to lose a lot if “the truth” comes out.

Every kid in every classroom should be taught to question every piece of science published on controversial issues — and to identify the questionable organizations producing that science.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that the Heartland Institute was biased times ten.  It shouldn’t take kids long to figure that out, either.

#trudatchat

(A final PS to my anonymous, book loving, climate-change denying friendNo matter what the Heartland Institute says, most practicing climate scientists really DO believe that carbon emissions are causing climate change.  There’s no “scientific dispute” about any of this.

And even if you DON’T believe in climate change, can you at LEAST agree that carbon emissions are causing extreme pollution?  

If not, I’ve got a nice condo in Beijing I’d like to sell you.)  


Related Radical Reads:

When Did Teaching Science Become Political Bloodsport

 

 

When Did Teaching Science Become Political a Blood Sport?

Did you see what Scott Pruitt, the Chief Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency said today?

Despite almost a century’s worth of scientific evidence, the consensus of the vast majority of the scientific community, and the scientific opinion of national groups like NOAA and NASA, he made the argument that carbon dioxide ISN’T a primary contributor to global warming.

Pruitt’s argument aligns nicely with the argument of the fossil fuel industry — who he has a long history of supporting at all costs.  “I think that measuring with precision human activity on climate is something very challenging to do,” he said.  “And there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of the impact, so no, I would not agree that it is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

Now, Pruitt is definitely in the minority here:  There’s NOT “tremendous disagreement” about the impact that carbon dioxide is having on our climate.

Need proof?  Then check out the Climate Change Consensus page on NASA’s website.  You’ll find that:

  • 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.
  • 18 scientific associations — people like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of America — believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.
  • 11 international science academies believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.
  • US Governmental Agencies — INCLUDING Pruitt’s EPA — and other international governmental bodies believe that human activities are having a negative impact on our climate.

So you can either believe the guy who has taken thousands upon thousands of dollars in donations from energy companies and their Political Action Committees OR you can believe thousands upon thousands of scientists who have spent their entire careers researching this issue.

This should make for a PERFECT lesson in my sixth grade science classroom, y’all.  

My standards require that I teach the carbon cycle — which includes the impact that excess combustion (think burning coal to create electricity and oil and gas to power vehicles) has had on the balance of carbon in our atmosphere AND that I teach students how to “distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.”

Think about that for a minute.  Climate change is very public example of how an imbalance in the carbon cycle is having an impact on our day-to-day lives.  More importantly, Pruitt’s statements are a very public example of a place where students can distinguish between facts, reasoned judgment based on research and speculation.  I’d LOVE to let them decide whether or not Pruitt’s argument is believable.

Isn’t that EXACTLY the kind of lesson that today’s students need to learn if they are ever going to be scientifically literate?

After all, we live in a world where politicians let donations govern their decisions — and those decisions end up governing our lives.  We also live in a world where the value of scientific research is regularly denigrated if it stands in opposition to positions that are going to cost businesses money or politicians donations.  Lobbyists whisper in the ear of guys like Pruitt, making promises in order to gain influence.  If kids aren’t prepared to recognize those conflicts of interest and aren’t able to interpret the meaning of scientific findings when making personal decisions about who to support, our planet is screwed.

But here’s the thing:  I won’t mention Pruitt’s comments to my class at all.  

Why?  Because over the past decade — ever since Al Gore started talking about our world’s Inconvenient Truth — I’ve been buried time and again by complaints from angry parents who ALSO believe that there is “tremendous disagreement” over the role that carbon dioxide plays in our changing climate.

It’s the exact same criticism that I get when I talk about natural selection or evolution — topics that are ALSO in my required curriculum AND scientifically settled, but widely panned by a small handful of people in America.

Most of the complaints that I get parrot talking points that you hear on radio programs hosted by guys like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin.  People suggest that “I’m teaching climate science as if it is fact instead of opinion.”  They argue that, like most public school teachers, I am a part of a “left-wing conspiracy to brainwash children.”  And they ask if I’m going to bother teaching both sides of the story, even when there really AREN’T two sides to any of these stories.

Think about how frightening this all is.  

Essentially, I’m admitting to you that I shy away from introducing my students to scientific fact simply because I know that there’s a good chance that I’ll be attacked when I do.  Maybe I should be ashamed of that.  Maybe I should teach controversial topics no matter how much flak I’m likely to take.  Maybe I’m failing my kids and my community by keeping silent even in a situation where silence isn’t warranted.

But it’s just not that easy.  

Somehow, teaching science became political blood sport — and sometimes, I just don’t have the energy to fight.   

 

 

 

 

 

Buy a Kid a Book for Christmas!

Hey Radical Nation:  As you start to work on your holiday season shopping, I hope you’ll consider picking up a book for an important kid in your life, too!  There’s something special about having your own books lined up on your own bookshelf.  It sends the message that reading is important — that it is something that we believe in and invest in and spend time doing!

Have a middle school son, daughter, nephew, cousin or neighborhood friend on your shopping list?  Need a few suggestions?  

Here are some titles that have been really popular with my students this year:

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen is a dystopian novel — which means it is set in a screwed up future world!  In this world, people are divided into two classes:  Those with silver blood and those with red blood.  People with silver blood ALSO have remarkable powers that they use to keep those with red blood in their place.  Discontent grows among the “reds,” and that discontent leads to a rebellion and the beginnings of a civil war.  It’s the themes of fairness and justice that resonates with middle school readers — that and the incredible superpowers that the Silvers have!  Better yet:  Red Queen is the first book in a series — so if your kid digs it, there’s PLENTY more to read.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

I like to describe Cinder — and the remaining books in the Lunar Chronicles series — as the book you would get if you mixed Star Wars with your favorite fairy tales.  The story of Cinder — a cyborg with an evil stepmother who falls in love with the Prince of her kingdom — starts of the series.  And while she’s unappreciated, Cinder plays a HUGE role in keeping the earth safe from Levana, the evil queen of the moon who has her heart set on world domination!  The story is fast paced and full of characters that you learn to love and hate.  That by itself makes it engaging to middle school readers.  What’s REALLY fun, though, is finding the parallels to Star Wars — and there are TONS to be on the lookout for.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

I’ve spent the better part of my career reading young adult literature and few stories have captured my attention like Steelheart.  Another dystopian novel, Steelheart is set on earth in a time when ordinary humans have been bestowed with super powers.  Some can create intense heat.  Some can turn buildings to steel.  Some can generate electricity or cause plants to grow at ridiculous rates.  But here’s the hitch:  Every time that one of these “Epics” uses their super powers, they grow a little more corrupt.  The result:  Tyrants who rule the world with impunity.  That’s where the Reckoners come in.  They are a small team committed to figuring out what the weaknesses of each Epic is and taking them down one at a time.

The Elements by Theodore Gray

One of the concepts that we talk about at length in science class is that everything on earth — the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, the friends we have, the foods we eat — is made up of elements either on their own or working in combination with one another.  Need an example?  Water (H2O) is the result of Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms joining together.  Kids are SUPER fascinated by this — mostly because they haven’t ever heard of most of the elements that we have on earth.  That’s why The Elements by Theodore Gray is such a cool book.  Gray worked to build an incredible collection of every day materials that are made of elements.  Then, he photographed and wrote about his collection.  This book is visually stunning and filled with just enough text to teach good lessons without flying over the heads of middle school readers.

Where Children Sleep by James Mollison

One of the lessons that I try hard to teach my own daughter is that no matter how bad she thinks she has it, our life here in the United States really IS #blessed.  Sometimes I think we forget just how lucky we are to have been born here.  That’s why I love James Mollison’s Where Children Sleep.  Mollison traveled all over the world photographing the bedrooms and detailing the lives of average kids in different countries.  Readers can quickly see drastic differences between rich and poor nations — and that forces some pretty deep reflection.  Given how passionate kids are about their bedrooms, this is the perfect book for introducing the notion that global poverty is real!

Spy School by Stuart Gibbs

If you scanned the desks in my classroom, you’d see three or four copies of Spy School at any given time.  It’s the story of Ben Ripley — a decidedly average middle schooler living a decidedly average life until he comes home from school one day to find a real live spy from the CIA sitting in his living room.  Turns out that Ben has been invited to Spy School — a school for kids in grades 6-12 who have shown some real talent in the arts and sciences of espionage.  What Ben DOESN’T know is that he has no real talent.  The leaders of the school are just using him as bait to try to capture a mole that is trying to destroy the school from the inside out!  I think Ben resonates with middle school readers simply because he is just like them: Funny and hopeful and struggling to be liked and falling in love all while trying to learn new skills in a new school.  This is a light-hearted, funny series that is an easy read.

Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly

My students made me write about Deep Blue for one reason:  I’m a dude — like literally all boy — and it is a Mermaid book.  I know, I know:  That sounds RIDICULOUS — and I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own.  But I lost a book bet to one of the girls on my team and she chose this one for me.  What’s REALLY nuts is that I’m LOVING it.  It’s the story of Serafina — a mermaid princess who is forced to marry a prince from another mer kingdom to strengthen a family alliance.  While performing her Doemii — the ritual required of princesses before getting married — assassins attack, Serafina’s mother is killed, and her kingdom is destroyed.  The rest of the story is all about her attempts to rebuild her kingdom.  While I haven’t finished it yet, I can tell you this:  Every time I talk about this book in class, my kids — boys and girls — sit up and pay attention.  It’s THAT good.

Unbroken — the Young Adult Adaptation — by Laura Hillenbrand

One of the messages that I try to get across to kids is that nonfiction stories are WAY cooler than fiction stories simply because they are TRUE.  Sure, you can read about the heroic acts of Silverbloods, Epics or Mermaids.  But you can ALSO read about the heroic acts of Louis Zamperini — a real live pilot during World War II who was shot down over the Pacific and forced to survive in a life raft surrounded by sharks and salt water for longer than any human castaway had ever survived before.  And that was BEFORE he was sent to a Japanese Prisoner of War camp.  Zamperini’s story is an amazing story of the human spirit and survival, but it can be pretty intense.  Hillenbrand does a good job making it approachable in this young adult adaptation, but be sure to check this out if your child is a novice reader or still recognizing that war is a horrible thing.

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Related Radical Reads:

Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas – 2015

Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas – 2013

Three Fantasy Series Your Middle Schoolers will Dig

 

 

What SHOULD Teachers Tell Kids about Elections?

I made a HUGE mistake today.  

After checking out this Washington Times article about an elementary school in New York that cancelled its mock election because students were showing open disrespect towards one another based on nothing more than the political party that they “supported,” I read through the comment section.

#badmove

Here’s a sampling of what I found there:

 “Nice going ‘educators’…you don’t realize it now, you think you’ve won because you stopped the Trump chant. You’ve lost, and lost big. The students just got an up close and personal experience with what marxist/communist/fascist tyranny feels like.”

“Agree with you. I taught my son the opposite. He knew that he was there to learn to read and write not for the opinions of the weak teachers or students. If one of his teachers started preaching their brainwashing, he knew to tun out!”

“It’s nice to see the youth of this island haven’t been corrupted and indoctrinated by the damn liberal teachers. To you “teachers”, what’s the matter, it didn’t work out the way you hoped it would? Children have figured out early that there is no assimilating the barbarians into Western culture? Why don’t you liberal dipschits move to Sweden and then you can write about how peachy everything is.”

“Go, kids, go! Lookit how their politically correct lefty narrative teachers scramble to cover it up. No doubt they all went to the transgender bathroom to make themselves feel less “offended”; the teachers, I mean. Fools. Morons. Idiots. It’s why all children ought to be home schooled.”

“It really is a necessity to check with your children about what was taught at school each day.  So you can correct the garbage fed to them by liberal-left unionized teachers.”

I wasn’t all that surprised by the hate being hurled at classroom teachers in these comments.  After all, the “teachers are trying to brainwash students to be slaves to the Democratic party” line of thinking — which makes me chuckle given that I’ve voted for as many Republican presidential and gubernatorial candidates as I have Democrats in the last three decades — has been a part of talk radio shows ever since  Rush Limbaugh first started calling people Sheeple.

But those arguments are pretty darn crazy, y’all.  Seriously.

I’ve taught for over 20 years and I’ve never tried to brainwash the kids in my classroom to support and/or oppose a particular candidate for public office.  More importantly, I’ve never had a supervisor order me to brainwash the kids in my classroom OR been handed sets of curriculum materials that were designed to trick me into brainwashing the kids in my classroom.  Turns out most of us teacher types actually dig the idea of helping kids to form their own positions.  In fact, my guess is that most teachers would flat out celebrate a student that made an articulate, informed argument in favor of positions that we personally opposed.

We call that critical thinking.

What drives me nuts is just how little people really know about the kinds of conversations that teachers are having with students about elections.

The fact of the matter is that the VAST majority of classroom teachers say little to nothing about elections to their students.  That’s mostly a self-preservation strategy.  Read enough stories filled with angry comments calling you a “politically correct lefty narrative teacher” or a card carrying member of a “Marxist/communist/fascist tyranny” and you’d keep your mouth shut, too.  The risk of being misunderstood by the wrong person and dragged head first through the professional mud far outweighs any potential reward that can come from talking to students about elections.

And that should FRIGHTEN anyone who REALLY cares about America.

You see, one of the primary goals of schools has always been to prepare students to be educated, respectful participants in our democracy.  Accomplishing that goal depends on teachers and other important adults — coaches, parents, preachers, neighbors, uncles, grandparents — who are willing to show students what “educated, respectful participation” looks like in action.  After all, “power to the people” is only an effective governmental strategy when “the people” understand how to use that power in positive ways to move our nation forward.

So what SHOULD teachers tell kids about elections?  

We should start by telling kids that the first step towards being an educated, respectful participant in our democracy ISN’T identifying candidates or parties that you believe in.  Instead, educated voters identify the causes and issues that matter the most to them.  For example, I care most about the economy, the environment, education and equality.  Those aren’t the ONLY issues that matter in an election, but they are the issues that I will use as a lens for focusing my study of the candidates that are running.

Then, we should tell kids that becoming educated about the issues that matter to them depends on studying a wide range of sources.  The saddest truth about the digital world that we live in is that it is all too easy to find content that is heavily slanted in one direction or another.  In fact, it’s darn close to impossible to find content that’s NOT slanted.  Kids need to be able to identify bias in the sources that they are studying and have a plan for countering that bias when working towards making important decisions.

Finally, we should tell kids to remember that people we disagree with are reasonable, rational people too — and that instead of demonizing them, we should sit down and talk to them.  Being educated means fully understanding what people who disagree with you feel about the issues that matter the most to you — and accepting that there are elements of truth that are worthy of consideration and respect in the positions of people who see things differently than we do.

If we could use election season conversations to convince our students that studying politicians and parties should ONLY happen after a voter has a clear sense of the issues that matter the most to them, has sought out unbiased information on each of those issues, and has had substantive conversations with people who see things differently, we’d leave our kids AND our country in a better place than it is right now.

#enoughsaid

 

If teaching students about managing information, thinking critically and engaging in collaborative dialogue resonates with you, check out Teaching the iGeneration — Bill’s book on using digital tools to introduce students to essential skills like information management, collaborative dialogue and critical thinking.  

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Related Radical Reads:

The Curse of Our Online Lives

Pushing Against Incivility

Bill’s Resources on Teaching Kids about Collaborative Dialogue