We the Teachers: Resolved to Make Content Relevant while Advocating for Students
As a new year begins, we are often filled with thoughts about how we
want to improve, and so traditionally we set our resolutions. As I reflect
on my 26-year career, I am pleased to share two personal resolutions
and focus on content relevancy and advocacy.
Making Content Relevant
Last fall I introduced students to a lab that uses an ELISA to simulate
testing female pandas’ urine to determine whether they are ovulating
and began class with students reading a short introduction to the lab.
When I initially read this same introduction, it elicited many questions
in me, a revelation I shared with students. As they reviewed the introduction, I asked students to write down three questions that came to
mind and share these questions in their groups. Students investigated
their questions on the Internet and then we reconvened as a large
group. One student asked, “How long is the gestation of a panda?”
(95–160 days). Someone offered, “How large is a baby panda when it
is born?” (only 100 grams). Students were highly engaged as we built
a foundation of communal knowledge based on personal interests.
We learned that the United States leases pandas from China and that presently there are only pandas in the Atlanta, Memphis, Washington, D.C.,
and San Diego zoos. At a recent conference in Atlanta, I carved out a trip
to the zoo to take pictures of the pandas for my students and did the same
at the recent NABT conference in San Diego. Building relevance works for
After attending a workshop about the bioethics of gene editing,
I considered the potential of CRISPR-Cas9 and its impact on society
in a more profound way. In the past, I have challenged my students
to consider whether this and other reproductive technologies, such as
screening of embryos, are a modern-day form of eugenics, but I moved
beyond this into the realm of current social constructs that cause us to
even consider the need for gene editing and other interventions. For
example, are we potentially creating a society that fails to value a spec-
trum of abilities? We may be inspired by a video of a child with special
needs doing something thought to be impossible, without considering
that we may be operating from a position of pity, which in turn deval-
ues the human being. In the documentary The Life According to Sam,
the film’s subject, Sam Berns, a teen with progeria, states:
I didn’t put myself in front of you to have you feel bad for
me. I put myself in front of you to let you know you
don’t need to feel bad for me. I want you to know me.
This is my life, and progeria is part of it. It’s not a major
part of it, but it is part of it.
Making the curriculum relevant may require us to reframe our
thinking about topics we have taught for years and delve deeper into
the social realm of that topic instead of merely focusing on an exciting
technology such as CRISPR-Cas9.
Each year since I began as a teacher, I spend the summer reflecting about
how I can improve and enrich the learning experiences for my biotech
students. I have become increasingly convinced that I must constantly
and overtly reinforce the value of every student in my care. I often order
several stickers with inclusive, positive messaging to place on the biotech
lab refrigerator. The current set includes more than fifty different messages
such as “You Are Safe Here,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Inclusion: It’s Everybody’s Classroom,” “See the Able, Not the Label,” and “Celebrate Neuro-diversity.” These messages do get through. Last year I noticed a senior
student with a semicolon tattoo on his wrist and he revealed that it was
for Project Semicolon, which strives to “present hope and love to those
who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury.”
This year, when the student visited during his college fall break, he added
a semicolon sticker to what he called the “legendary biotech fridge.”
Advocacy for students will always be one of my professional goals.
This year I surprised the assistant principal with a new element of
advocacy – menstrual equity – the position that all women should have
free access to feminine hygiene products in restrooms, just as we have
access to toilet paper and soap. California and Illinois have enacted various versions of laws requiring schools to provide free supplies in the
restrooms. A handful of schools in Indiana do this too. With the backing of my supportive assistant principal, I devised a diverse student
committee who are working toward supplying free feminine hygiene
products at our school, while raising awareness about access and taxation of feminine hygiene products and their impact on the poor, the
education of girls, and a range of related issues.
Responsibility as a role model often extends beyond the classroom
to include advocacy for science literacy. I stood for four hours in the rain
and cold at the March for Science in Washington, D.C., on April 22,
2017. Bill Nye, Mona Hanna-Attisha (who exposed the dangerous levels
of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan), Denis Hayes (cofounder of the
first Earth Day), and others discussed the need for evidence-based policy.
On the march from the rally at the Washington Monument to the U.S.
Capitol, I couldn’t help but think I was doing this for myself, our nation,
and our students in a shared quest to fight for facts.
THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER GUEST COMMENTARY 1
Sherry Annee, NABT President