“Teachers are not there to show the light, but to unlock the chains.”
Teachers pose a variety of definitions for what constitutes a great project. For some, what makes a project truly authentic is a final product to be exhibited outside the school community. Others believe that the true learning and growth happen in the process of the project and the final product is unnecessary. Our thoughts on this have varied over the years. This year alone, we have exposed our students to both kinds of project-based learning. On one hand, our students created and published a book about cells and the cellular process, as well as a graphic novel about teen issues in America. On the other, we have held discussions and seminars where no end product exists. As we started our unit on evolution, we decided to let the learning and the process be the exhibition, but were proud to see it became much more than that.
In biology our students began talking about evolution and natural selection, while in humanities they began to hear about various themes and symbols that exist in literature, specifically in the play Inherit the Wind. We gathered the entire team to read through the play and share in the experience of presenting a play for the first time. Seeing the students on stage reminded us of how important coming together as a team of seventy students and three teachers can be to set up a climate and culture of academic excellence. Students were willing to “get on stage” and read—some of them reading aloud for the first time that year. The following day in their biology class, students were exposed to different readings, from NPR articles to readings of biology textbooks from 1914, as well as Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods. Once students had background information about evolution and the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee, they watched the documentary titled What A Piece of Work Is Man: Science and Religion in the 21st Century by Blind Squirrel Productions. After watching the film in class, the students prepared responses to the following three questions that would guide their Socratic Seminar the next day:
By the end of the Socratic Seminar discussions, many students had formed concrete opinions on science and religion, while it was clear that some still had no clue what to believe or how to go about deciding. In any case, we were reminded just how thoughtful and compassionate our students are towards one another, even while discussing controversial issues.
Later, our students had a chance to videoconference with the director and producer of the film, Scott Strainge and Eric Constantineau, both educators at Timberlane Regional High School in New Hampshire. This was the students’ opportunity not only to make a real world adult connection with the content covered, but also to ask these men about their lives and work. In the hour-long conversation students asked questions ranging from curiosity about Scott and Eric’s own personal religious viewpoints, to what it takes to produce a film of this caliber, to how to present all ideas and opinions objectively. The thoughtful dialogue between seventy high school students and these two professionals continued for an hour, without pause.
After the conference call we took time to debrief with the students, asking them to reflect on what they would take away from the experience. Many of our students mentioned the mother in the documentary who did not want her son to “think for himself” as something they will take with them after this conference.
“One recollection [from the video conference] was about the mother who pulled her son from one of [the authors’] classes because he was ‘teaching him to think for himself’ and how she [insisted] ‘he knows what to think’…. You’d think the right to think, the freedom to conjure our own thoughts and ask our own questions would be protected and granted to us. Yet as minors, we live under the jurisdiction of one or more authority figures who have the ‘right,’ in a sense, to take it all away.”
Many spoke of the importance of hearing and understanding perspectives different from one’s own.
“What struck me was that the producer of the film said that he thought creation and evolution cannot co-exist. Personally, I believe that they can and should co-exist so that it ends the controversy. This struck me because it really influenced how I now look at this debate between religion and science. I can understand his opinion and respect his answer. I do not agree with it, but at least I got to look at this from his professional perspective.”
“Honestly, I’m still a believer in Jesus and I think that evolution and the word can co-exist and even connect. But the two speakers today only reinforced this ongoing battle I’ve had ever since I decided to become a Christian. The words “hypocrite,” “one-sided,” and “blind” bite into me with a painful sting everyday, from Atheists to Agnostics and followers alike, and I know why. We put ourselves up on a pedestal saying ‘we’ love everyone and when ‘we’ say everyone, it only means those who share similar beliefs….Sometimes one needs to take a step back and examine one’s own personal actions and how they affect those around them, instead of focusing on one’s self.”
“I’m really glad they made this documentary with the idea that people can form their own opinions; in fact that was one of their purposes. It’s nice that they got multiple perspectives and didn’t disrespect those that they disagreed with.”
As the day concluded, we felt proud of our students. Not only did they present themselves professionally and academically to the adult world outside of our school, but they challenged themselves and each other in what they believe as truth. If our students gained nothing else from this unit but the ability to be critical and inquisitive about what they believe and what they are told, that would be more than enough.
As Matthew Harrison Brady, the charismatic Biblicist who ran for president multiple times, says in the play Inherit the Wind, “I do not think about the things I do not think about.” If our students understand the danger of this statement and thoughtfully avoid falling into the trap of limited perspectives, then the time we spent was well worth it. This unit asked our student to do exactly that, and in fact, many of the students brought their questions and ideas home to share with their loved ones. We did not produce a book or a play or even a formal exhibition. In this instance, the most authentic exhibition of their learning occurred at home, at church, with friends, or simply at the dinner table.