Putting Reading Back into Your Science Classroom
As I look around at all of the technological devices in my high school student’s ears – from cell phones to ipods, I sometimes wonder if young people read any more! One of my goals as a biology teacher is to have them read more than just a textbook. I find the many new discoveries in biology to be incredibly exciting. And I love to read! So my students are the recipients of both my passions. Over my many years of teaching I have tried to capture the excitement of learning biology by having my own students read and listen to articles that relate to living things. My ultimate goal is to both help my students stay current and to keep the passion for learning science alive (as well as getting them to read!). I hope that I am helping in a small way to encourage “life-long” learning.
Biology in the News
One of my regular assignments is called “Biology in the News.” My students are asked to find an article about biology – it can be from a newspaper, a magazine, or the Internet. Students are required to summarize their articles and then also explain how a knowledge of biology would help someone understand the article in more depth. I usually require two “Biology in the News” entries per quarter and let them turn in one more for extra credit. I try to respond with enthusiasm to their choices – so I add comments on their entries to encourage them. I also use many of the entries at the beginning of a class to engage my students in a lesson.
There are many good sources for articles in magazines that are appropriate for high school students. I subscribe to several of them and bring them in for my students (Scientific American, Discover, Smithsonian, Popular Science, and Natural History). Some of these magazines are available online. All of the below have at least some free articles, and many are completely free.
Paper isn’t obsolete yet. I bring my daily newspaper into my classroom for students to use. (The New York Times has a great Tuesday science section.) Many of them come in at lunch to peruse the newspapers for articles that they can use. Sometimes even they are surprised by what they find. So many times a student will call out, “Hey, Ms. Jones, listen to this…….” and he or she will tell me about some interesting discovery. That is when I know the assignment has value!
Reading within the Curriculum
I also like to have my students read science selections from anthologies. I merge these into lessons and develop questions that can be used to help them process the stories and articles.
I use “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury when I am teaching about evolution. This short story can be found in various anthologies of Bradbury’s works and there is even a copy online sometimes. This is a story about time travel. The hero signs up at Time Safari, Inc. to go back in time on a dinosaur hunt. But there are rules. The dinosaurs have been carefully selected–-they are just about to die. The hunters must not disturb anything else or this will cause a ripple effect and things will have changed when the hunters return to their actual time. I won’t tell you the ending, but this wonderful short story is a great way to teach your students how small changes can have big effects.
When I teach about the recycling of matter, I use Aldo Leopold’s “Odyssey” from A Sand County Almanac. This is the story of molecule X traveling through time and through the biosphere. Here is an example of Leopold’s rich prose. "The break came when a bur-oak root nosed down a crack and began prying and sucking. In the flash of a century, the rock decayed, and X was pulled out and up into the world of living things. He helped build a flower, which became an acorn, which fattened a deer, which fed an Indian, all in a single year." What a way to teach about matter and ecosystems!
When my students study the structure of DNA, I like to have them read the original Nature article by James Watson and Francis Crick. I think this reading points out the beautiful simplicity of the DNA molecule (and my students feel pretty smart to be reading an article from a journal as prestigious as “Nature”!) Click here to access the articles.
The Internet is full of wonderful excerpts from the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin as well as his journals. I sometimes have my students write their own journal entries in the style of Darwin and they use the sample of his journal writing to guide their own.
I start the year by having my students read the speech by Chief Seattle (from 1854). There is a lot of controversy about who actually wrote the article but the words are wonderful and the controversy itself is fun for the students to discuss. I think this article sets the tone for the year. We will be learning about the “web of life” and the many interesting organisms and processes that energize the web. Here is a link to the first version of this speech.
There is an outstanding website devoted to Gregor Mendel. This site has many of the remaining original publications by Mendel with some of his data.
The Great Books Foundation has two terrific anthologies which include several of the readings already mentioned: Nature of Life and Keeping things whole: Readings in Environmental Science.
The first anthology has readings from Aristotle to Charles Darwin, from Gregor Mendel to Loren Eiseley, from Rachel Carson to James Watson and from Stephen J. Gould to E.O. Wilson (among others).
The second anthology has readings from Rene Descartes, Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Garrett Hardin, Barry Commoner, Lewis Thomas and many others.
Each of these books costs about $25 but they provide hours of wonderful reading for your students. Most of the articles that I use come from these books. (But you can find many of them in other places.)
On the NEA website there is a quote:
In 1985, the Commission on Reading's report, Becoming a Nation of Readers, presented among its findings that “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” The commission backed up its conclusion with research that indicated reading aloud in the home is an essential contributor to reading success, and that reading aloud in the classroom is “a practice that should continue throughout the grades.”
I used to love when my teachers would read aloud and my students are always eager when I pull out one of my books. For example, I will read some of the stories from The Woman with a Worm in her Head (and other true stories of infectious disease) by Pamela Nagami. These are lively, gross, true stories from a woman who is a parasitic disease specialist. I don’t think anyone is ever too old to enjoy this way of learning. (Look at the popularity of books on tape!).
I try to hone my skills as a reader and put a lot of energy and drama into my reading. It is fun for me and for my students. Sometimes, I have students who are eager to read aloud to their peers and I gently encourage this. However, I don’t require it, because I want our read-aloud-sessions to be relaxed and pleasurable.
I encourage you to put original writings and reading into your science classroom. Please email me with your suggestions! I am always collecting ideas.
me if you have questions or comments about this article.