Evolution (but not Religion) in the Biology Classroom

“Now that I’m homeschooling, I’ll be teaching the boys creationism, of course.”

The chuckle I’d expected from my father didn’t come. He paused, unsure what to say. My decision to homeschool my older had somewhat unnerved him, as it wasn’t the typical path, but he was never one to meddle in my life. I’d rarely even seen him pause like that, processing thoughts that were likely previously thought unthinkable. Creationism? How could that be?

“I’m kidding, Dad,” I reassured him, a bit surprised he’d even thought it was possible.  He exhaled but still looked a bit shaken. He was then a Biology professor at a state university and is still today a liberal Presbyterian. He is committed to science while believing in God, and he finds no conflict between science and his religion. I was raised with both, understanding evolution and believing in God, never seeing conflict between them. And while I left my belief behind about a decade ago, it wasn’t because of science.

What does it mean to understand biology through the lens of science? It means to understand that from the simplest species to the most complicated, natural selection drives the changes to that species. Genes copy with errors, and errors can wreak havoc with life or increase the chance of an individual surviving to reproduce. And that’s what life (in the biological sense) is all about — making more of a species. From antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the form and function of the mammalian eye to the modern human today, evolution is the driver. It’s wily driver, without direction or purpose. Every slip of DNA’s copying mechanism is random, with ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ relative to where the alteration occurred, what (if any) effect it has on the organism, and even the environment in which that organism lives.IMG_0986

To teach biology without this understanding is to miss much of what biology is. To limit evolution to that bacteria’s antibiotic resistance or the finch’s beak is to mangle the very mechanism of change in the living world. It’s akin to teaching composition without discussing grammar. Evolution is how change happens, and biology can only be fully understood by appreciating that overarching truth in science.

So a few weeks back, when I tucked into evolutionary biologist’s David Barash’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class, I found myself nodding along. Barash begins his undergraduate animal behavior class with what he calls “The Talk.” This lecture affirms that his class with look at all of biology through the lens of evolution, a statement I make on my biology syllabus for the classes I’ve taught my sons and their friends and that other families have used as well. I admittedly have an advantage, as my students are known to me and from families where creationism isn’t part of the curriculum. And so evolution simply permeates the class, with religion rarely brought up. It is, after all biology class.

Barash’s classes are more diverse than my tiny home classroom, and I imagine my father’s were similarly diverse. College biology may be the first place conservative Christians rooted in creationism or, its euphemism, Young Earth creationism, may first experience biology through that lens of evolution in a way that affirms the process rather than denies its validity. That could easily put a student on guard, worried about veracity of the rest of the course or thinking about at least part of his or her faith. I’d agree is seems wise to warn — or at least inform — the class of the lens in place. That should be sufficient.

IMG_0538I can’t recall any reference to religion in any of my biology courses in either my Catholic high school or Catholic university. Religion wasn’t mentioned, and no one every asked, as far as I recall, if it should or shouldn’t be discussed in the science classroom.  Barash takes the offensive, as he starts with a talk about religion and science. He doesn’t stop at stating that evolution is the underpinning of biology, and that all will be discussed through that lens. He does not hold, as I do (and as does Stephen Gould) that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they have separate domains and are, therefore, compatible understandings in a single human being. Instead, Barash tells his students that religion and science do overlap in domain, and that accepting evolution demands deconstruction of any belief in “an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.”

After discussion of the complexity created by natural selection and the illusion of humans as central in the living world, Barash settles into theodicy, an issue far afield of the evolution he sets out to explain. Problems with theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering in the world occurring in the presence of an omnipotent, caring deity) contribute to many a person of faith’s loss of that faith. Veering from science, Barash steps broadly into religion, confronting students with the news that if they buy evolution, their faith will likely fall, provided they’re thinking deeply enough:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator. (Barash)

As an agnostic who sees science through the lens of evolution and the universe as a mystery we ever so slowly unwrap, origin somewhat understood, but only with the most tenacious grasp, I find myself irritated with Barash. Like other militant atheists (and I’m assuming he is an atheist), he forces a narrow lens on what God must be to the believer: God, it seems, must be creator of all, simple and complex, pulling each string and guiding each change. God must create humans as separate, with some of God’s supernaturalness in humans but not other creatures. God must be absent given suffering in the world.DSCN0653

About a decade ago, I left my faith behind. But I didn’t lose it in the science classroom, and I didn’t lose it because I understood that the complexity of life is due to evolution, the roll of the genetic dice paired with environmental pressures. I didn’t lose faith because I understood the long arc of evolution that brought humans into being. I lost it in part to the theodicy question and in part to long thought about what made sense to me. Science wasn’t part of my musing.

My father, a biologist who understands and teaches science through the lens of evolution, a man of faith who is dedicated to helping others of faith, understands that science and faith need not be in conflict. He hasn’t lost his belief, despite decades of science study as a researcher, professor, and interested human being. He, like Barash and I, understand the complexity produced by evolution’s often slow hand, and he is unbothered by the lack of supernatural gene in humans. And the theodicy question? He’s obviously found a way through that one, all while appreciating the science of evolution. And at what cost to his science classes? None.

Barash’s mistakes, in my opinion, are two-fold. First, his view of what God is to a believer is myopic and simplistic. Views of God, gods, goddesses, and divine forces in the universe are as diverse as there are people who believe. Second, his approach is arrogant and presumptive. To tell people who believe just how their faith will be undone is an act of assumed superiority and completely without regard to the personal nature of an individual’s faith. Will some conservative believers, steeped in the absoluteness of a seven-day creation myth struggle as they take biology in a college classroom where evolution is the common currency? Probably. But many believers of all flavors won’t struggle one bit, content with their separation of science and religion.

DragonflyBarash wants to warn his students that, should they retain their faith, they will do so only with “some challenging mental gymnastic routines.” How a nonbeliever can begin to step into the mind of a believer and predict whether the wonders of evolution will deepen or destroy the faith of another is beyond me. Yes, science can challenge faith, especially a conservative faith resting on a supreme being pulling the strings and putting humans above all else. But faith, in many forms, can sit comfortably with the scientist, causing no sacrifice to the scientist’s understanding of the universe and the living things inhabiting it. Barash’s talk forwards his own atheist agenda, and that, in the classroom, is going too far.

I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but when at the front of the classroom, I believe you have a responsibility that includes knowing your boundaries. If you’re a biology teacher, teach science. Unabashedly teach evolution and say that you’ll do so. Talk about complexity. Ignore creationism, as it’s not science. And ignore God, whether you believe or not, as faith isn’t part of science. Encourage students struggling with the concepts to discuss their struggle with classmates, their religious leader, their God, or anyone who will listen and let them sort through. But stay out of the wonderings and wanderings of their faith.

I teach biology through the lens of evolution. I’m an agnostic. My father, on a far larger scale, did the same for decades. He’s a Presbyterian. It works.


Cross-posted on Finding My Ground, my personal and religious blogging home.

October 16: Opposing viewpoints are welcome as long as they are on point and respectfully presented. I’m glad to have a conversation that is respectful. All comments will be held for moderation to assure conversation remains civil. 


Curriculum for Teaching Science and Scientific Thinking (Essential Skills Series)

See Essential Skills for a Modern World for an overview of this series on science and critical thinking skills.  I discuss science and scientific thinking in the post Follow the Ant. The recommendations below are based on my experience educating my sons and myself over the last decade. In my next post, I’ll explore other resources for fostering scientific thinking and increasing scientific understanding. 


Okay, you’ve followed the ant. Well, perhaps you’ve considered sending your kids out to follow the ant, asking them to return and fill you in, but hopefully you’re thinking about your children’s science education in more practical terms. Here’s a bit of assistance.

Choosing curriculum

Formal curriculum isn’t the most essential part of a child’s or adult’s science education , but I do know it’s what comes to mind when we think about teaching science. For the youngest students, I’d not bother with formal curriculum. Explore the world together. Follow your child’s interests or introduce him to yours. Go to the library and explore the science sections for children and adults. Watch science shows for kids and for adults, but mostly DO science by interacting with the natural world.

When you start selecting formal curriculum, be choosy. Insist on a curriculum that puts science at the center and avoids other agendas. (The scientific process is quite different from theological thinking. Mixing them makes for a poor education in both. Don’t do it.) Look for curriculum that requires the student to ask questions and to think about possibilities. Many texts intended for schools simply don’t do much of that, nor do many of the big-name publishers for homeschoolers. Inquiry science is the formal name for science that puts questions and thought before answers, and, frankly, it’s hard to find. Worry less about tests, as far too many ask for facts rather than concepts applied to new situations, and scientific thinking is a process, not a series of facts. Yes, facts are important, but divorced from doing science, they don’t create scientific thinkers. Look for questions higher up Bloom’s taxonomy, where questions require application of facts, analysis, evaluation, and creation.

Hands-on experiences that do more than show a taught concept are crucial to teaching the observational skills and thought processes necessary for developing strong scientific thinking. After-the-lesson demos may strengthen fact retention but they don’t stimulate the “why” brain as well that the same demo before the lesson. At least some of the labs and hands-on opportunities should require the learner to design the experiment, ideally formulating the question from observations they’ve already made. It’s fine if not all do. There is plenty to learn from cookbook labs, including technique and the range of possibilities of how to answer a question.

Many lab manuals and texts don’t have this focus, either because of the classroom logistical issues when children ask questions and figure out a way to search for answer (for standard curriculum) or parental ease (homeschoolers are often looking for ease of delivery, understandably). If your favorite option doesn’t do this, alter the experiments a bit. Instead of passing the lab worksheet to your child, read it over and think. What’s the question the lab asks? If I give my child that question and the materials in the lab (plus a few — be creative) without the instructions but with plenty of time and some guidance, could my child find a way to answer the question? (In a later post, I’ll give some guidance on altering labs to be more student-driven and aimed at developing scientific thought.)

Even if your curriculum is full of cookbook labs that you’re uncertain of how to alter, don’t despair. Just ask questions not answered by the text directly. Don’t be afraid to ask the ones you don’t know the answers to, and don’t worry about settling on a single answer. You’re better off wondering and wandering to more sources to search for more answers. After all, a good amount of scientific work is research in response to a scientist’s questions. Again, refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Model asking questions that apply, evaluate, and analyze rather than simply require remembering and understanding. Your children will soon do the same.

Here’s a short list of options to consider. It’s not exhaustive. All assume parental involvement. (I’ve not looked for early learner science curriculum in many years.)

  • Building Foundations for Scientific Learning (Bernard Nebel, PhD): Written for parents and educators, these books are designed for non-educators with little science background guiding learners in pre-high school science. Suggested materials are inexpensive and easy to find. This is NOT a workbook or text but rather a source for the instructor.
  • Middle School Chemistry (American Chemical Society): While designed for schools, this curriculum is an easy-to-use, sound introduction to the fundamentals of chemistry for young learners. The materials are easily obtained, and the lessons are clear for both learner and teacher. Here’s my review and materials list.
  • Biology Inquiries (Martin Shields): A full complement of inquiry-based biology labs for middle and high schoolers with clear directions for the instructor and plenty of questions for the students. The materials are generally available through Home Science Tools and your local drug store. (I teach out of this book when I teach Quarks and Quirks Biology.)
  • Exploring the Way Life Works (Hoagland, Dodson, Hauck): This is a text, but it’s the friendly type. This is the text for my Quarks and Quirks Biology course, used along side Campbell’s traditional Concepts and Connections to fill in some details. You’ll not find any fill-in-the-blank questions at the end of each chapter of this thematically arranged book that moves, in each chapter, from the very small to the very large.
  • CPO Science: CPO’s labs offer some fine opportunity for inquiry learning, and the texts are clear and easy to use. However, they often require specialized lab materials. The science-comfortable homeschooling parent can often improvise, but this may be a barrier to some. It’s worth a look on their student pages, however, at the student record sheets for examples of how questions about observations can lead to deeper thinking. (Here’s my review of CPO Middle School Earth Science. I’ve used Foundations in Physics and Middle School Physical Science as well, and find them all similar in style and strong in content.)
  • Just about any curriculum you like to use, with some modifications: Inquiry can happen alone but it’s fostered by community, even if that is just parent and child at the kitchen table or in the backyard. Take the curriculum you’re using now and read through it ahead of your child. Before your child reads, ask questions about what your child thinks now, or perhaps ponder together how something might work. Search online for a demonstration that will encourage thinking before the informational part of a lesson. Ask questions that reach beyond remembering and understanding. Yes, this is harder than presenting the book and some paper for answers or simply doing the labs as given, but scientific thinking isn’t fostered by multiple choice and fill-in-the blanks. It takes conversation.

There’s more to learning science and scientific thought than curriculum, and even a terrific inquiry-based curriculum only the starts the gears of the young scientific mind. My next post will discuss other tools for teaching scientific thinking that you just might want to include in your science learning at home. While you’re waiting, go outside. Watch the ants or the clouds (and see where the ants go when the clouds come). Ask questions. Look for answers. Science is everywhere.




Eleventh Grade: Plans for 2013/14

This is late. School has started, and I’m still putting my fingers in my ears and humming, “It’s still summer,” which really doesn’t help me prepare for what is upon me. My younger son, now twelve and theoretically in 7th grade, started one of his online classes yesterday, with another starting in a few days. Handwriting (his request) and math (my request) are also somewhat on the schedule. And my older son, sixteen and on track to graduate in 2015 never really stopped for the summer, completing a few programming courses and an electronics course while occasionally servicing computers. But it’s August. Late August. And that means it must be time to post some sort of schedule for the fall.

A.D. (16, 11th grade, dual enrolled)

With a transcript written and rewritten and a few colleges visited (Oberlin College and the University of Detroit Mercy), I’m seeing the homeschooling finish line for my older son. At this writing, he’s decided to study electrical and computer engineering, and given his dedication to both this summer, I have little doubt that dream will turn reality. He’s spent the summer dismantling speakers, amplifiers, computers, and more, learning Python and HTML on his own, and walking through an electronics course, all largely on his own. I’m not sure I recognize him, this rapidly maturing young man who once smitten with a topic absorbs it endlessly. It’s been years since I’ve seen this drive and passion in him, and it’s the first I’ve seen it take root this deeply. I’m both gratified and relieved.

So some of his fall with extend his current independent study. He’ll take C++ (a programming language) at a local community college. I’ve a few hesitations, as this is so-called Open Entry/Open Exit course, which allows one to start and finish the class at one’s own speed, albeit within a 15 week window. My older isn’t known for planning and organization, and it will take discipline to follow through. If this weren’t a subject he loves, I’d likely guide him elsewhere, but with his current drive, I think he’ll be fine. (See the crossed fingers?)

He’ll also continue to Calculus III at a local University where he’s studied before. The class will be small with only a handful of students, one other dual enrolled, with a teacher he now knows well. I’d not say he’s excited, as Calculus has provided a good deal of challenge in the study department as well as offering a fair amount of homework, but he does want to complete the Calculus cycle this year. In the spring, Differential Equations will finish the cycle, a point he’d be pleased to reach.

We’ve returned to Biology for science, although via a somewhat less formal study than he pursued in 7th grade. (See the page on top, HS Biology, for that curriculum.) He’ll use Plato High School Biology, along with a Campbell text, but the meat of the course comes from the  MAKE lab book, All Lab, No Lecture Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments (Thompson and Thompson). We can’t get enough of MAKE’s lab books, and I’m pleased with the looks of this one. I have a weak spot in the budget for science supplies, and I’m a sucker for meaningful and REAL labs. I’m excited, and he is interested.

For English, which is not his favorite subject, he’ll start with a Toastmaster’s class (public speaking) with a local homeschooling co-op and a literature class of sorts from Coursera — Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative. Okay, that’s not terribly traditional literature study, but I’m coming to embrace my computer/engineering teen and realize that deep literary analysis isn’t likely going to play much role in his future other than convincing him that good literature is torture. I don’t want that. We’ll also continue to work on writing in a way that has yet to be determined. Two more credits of English, I remind him. Two.

History is a bit vague and will likely be an exploration of the history of science and technology. (See what I’m doing there? Yep. Making it palatable and relevant. Why did it take me so long?) No, I don’t have a syllabus yet, although I did stick a reading list somewhere. Yes, I know we’re only two weeks from starting our formal school year. Eek!

Along with the formal curriculum, he’ll have time for tinkering and programming, the stuff that makes him the happiest. He’ll continue to repair computers for those in need, including our own machines. Sadly, he’s decided that after a decade of study, he no longer wants to study piano. I’ve hopes that he’ll plant himself at the piano for pleasure, but a few months after his last lesson, he’s yet to play a note. I’m struggling with his decision, having made the same one at the same age, but it seems to be the right one for him. Oh. He’s taking physical education, also at the co-op. Hey, a kid has to get out the basement and move sometime, right?


Teaching Other People’s Children

Thompson Lab 10.2:  And the color change after

I never planned to teach children. At different points as a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist,  an astronaut, a brain surgeon, and a social worker (although I didn’t know what they did). So naturally, I spent college as an English major. My inner scientist emerged a few years later, and I found myself as a Physician Assistant with an inkling that writing professionally and teaching in a PA program would come later.

It’s eighteen years later, and I write for free, don’t teach at the Univeristy level, and do teach children, my own and Other People’s Children. Oh, and I still practice as a PA. Of all those, it’s teaching other people’s children that’s stretched me the furthest and taught me the most.

My movement into the education of offspring other than my own (beyond a bit of Sunday School) started four years back, beginning what is now known as MacLeod Biology or Quarks and Quirks Biology.My older son, then 12, was ready for high-school level biology, and I had a history of flaking out on labs and formal science study. His buddy, another gifted kid, needed Biology as well. I knew I’d not flake with two, so after a summer of reviewing biology books, chatting with my biology professor of a father, and making then unmaking plans, I started teaching my two charges.

October 2010 031I’ve not looked back. Teaching someone else’s child increased my follow-through as well as my drive to find supporting materials for classes and labs. I did, after all, have two hours once a week to fill, and being responsible for the education of another’s offspring brought out the more responsible  me. I kept a list of labs, videos, assignments, and readings on a website, thus (ideally) fostering some independence on their part as well as a record of what we’d done.

Delighted with our success, the boys and I moved on to high school level chemistry. I was nervous. Where biology offered the comfort of the familiar, chemistry brought the promise of review. My chemistry over 20 years old, dusted off only in the context of medicine and revisited only lightly as a homeschooling parent of children under the age of 13. I expected a rough time of it and was surprised how quickly the material returned. My son and his friend brought enthusiasm for the subject matter. I brought the discipline that comes with maturity and far better discernment when working with fire and potentially hazardous materials. They distilled spirits, made black powder (not an official lab, but safely done), and regularly reviewed lab safety while learning an impressive amount of Chemistry. As a teacher, I honed my test design skills and learned when to stretch my students. It was a fabulous year.

Last year, without a science to teach (having drawn the line at physics), I taught six weeks of bioethics and team taught six weeks of research paper writing. With a group of ten, classroom management issues appeared. Faced with a spectrum of skills and experience, I was stretched further than previously to make a concept clear in several different ways for the varying learning styles of my students. When teaching them to write a research paper, I learned to discard global expectations and simply work with each student individually, attempting to improve a few skills during our six weeks of writing.

The lessons learned with those students led me to start teaching writing one-on-one this school year. Most of my writing students are profoundly gifted, and some also have a learning disability. Familiarity with my home-grown versions of twice exceptionality gave me only a hint of how to start approaching other people’s children with similar challenges. The first weeks or even months with each student can be littered with my missteps and mid-course corrections, and patient parents, tired from the battle, become my allies as we pick our way through the labyrinth of their children’s complicated minds. Generally, we find a way through, a pace that works for the family, and perhaps even a bit of rhythm.

Teaching writing to other people’s children informed my work with my own sons’ writing. As one who loves to write, my older son’s writing challenges and resistance have frustrated me. After teaching other people’s children,  I began to think differently about the process of teaching him to write. I now work with him through Google Docs, making notes in the margin and through the text, just as I do with my distance students. This seems a bit less personal than red marks all over a paper. It provides some distance we both need, which helps both of us.

IMG_0162This year also found me teaching physics and physical science. Both boys needed the material, and both had a friend or two also in need. My one and only physics class was 25 years back, but, alas, several of the topics we’re covering were not in that semester of coursework (electricity seemed to be a second semester offering, for example). It’s work. Hard work at times, explaining what I’ve just only figured out. But teaching as I’m learning drives me to reach deeper understanding faster than if I were learning the material on my own. Additionally, I’ve become more familiar with the workings of the universe. More of the world makes sense, and that delights me.

Teaching other people’s children offers an opportunity to share what you love, to hone a skill that’s been dormant, or to learn new material, even the type that scares you. It broadens your appreciation for the differences between kids and between homeschooling families. It can even help you educate your own children more effectively, if you can bring the patience cultivated from that experience back home. That’s the benefit the whole family can appreciate.

Summer Break?

I’ve moved past the “Whew! It’s over!” stage that began Memorial Day weekend. The first few weeks of summer, I luxuriated in my new freedom from coaxing kids through assignments and planning lessons. Then I started to approach a few of those nagging projects: the doors that needed painting, the mounds of paperwork on my desk, and church committee work. Once the fun of all that wore off (yes, there are still more doors needing a coat of paint), I moved on to start preparations for fall. No, they aren’t complete. No, I don’t know exactly what each subject will look like for my kids (although here’s my guess for my older and my younger). Specifically, I have two new projects (and another hatching project) that keep me occupied and occasionally stressed during these hot and hazy days of summer.

As mentioned in my preliminary plans for my older son, I’m teaching Physics this fall. No one could be more surprised than I. Biology was my first foray into planning and executing a lab science course for more than just my own child, and I had fun. It is my domain, scientifically, and I thoroughly enjoy the exploration of the living science and sharing that exploration with others.

Chemistry was the logical next step, and I felt some trepidation planning that one. My last Chemistry class was two decades earlier, and while I understood the basics of the science, I didn’t have the same passion about it. But my son and his friend had an enormous amount of excitement about the course, which promised dangerous chemicals, controlled explosions, and liberal use of flames. Their excitement was contagious and made planning easier.

But after Chemistry, I swore I was done. No Physics, I told them and myself. And last year, my older took a year off from lab science, instead doing a Meteorology and Earth Science study while I focused my energy on subjects other than science.

But Physics was due. With nine other credits at a local University scheduled for my older son this fall, I knew college-level physics at the same institution would be overwhelming. I also knew we’d both fare better if his Physics study included someone other than just him. Science is collaborative, and bouncing ideas off of lab partners mirrors the intra-lab confabs that occur in professional science. Plus, I’m more consistently prepared when my audience extends beyond my offspring. (Call me a bad mom, but it’s true.)

So mid-August, I’ll begin an Algebra-based Physics course for four high schoolers, ranging from 14 to 17 years old. We’ll meet weekly for three hours or so, spending time on assignment review, lecture, and labs. Once a month, more or less, another dedicated homeschooling parent will make the class sing, encouraging experiment design and implementation with plenty of support and wisdom. With a true love for Physics, he’ll provide the heart for the science that I find a tad intimidating. I’m grateful beyond words.

As the lesson plans unfold, I’ll add them to a page on the top of this blog. This may not happen every week, so if you’re interested, visit Don’t Touch the Photons for the most up-to-date lesson and links. Keeping a webpage for a class keeps crucial information about assignments in the hands of students and forces me to plan ahead, which are both convincing reasons for me to make the effort.

My other summer endeavor falls well within my comfort zone. I’m offering writing coaching/tutoring to a handful of students. A few are local, but most are scattered around the country. While I’ll rely somewhat on Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town and Essay Voyage, I’ll likely create my own materials based on the needs the kids present. For some students, I’ll be planning a course and carrying it out, available via email and Google Hangout (a Skype-like setting where documents can be shared and marked up together). For others, I’m assisting on a project assigned by someone else. I’m quite excited as I start this journey, anticipating steep learning curve for me while hopefully delighting in the growth of young writers.

My own writing projects often takes a back seat, and this summer proves to be no exception. This is avoidance, of course, and a fear of starting without the whole picture in front of me. I have a few larger projects in mind (read: books that want out of my head), including one that would likely spring in one direction or another from my writing here. I see some holes in the books available for homeschooling families, and I’d like to try to fill one. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is still fuzzy to me. I’m not sure what I’m waiting to have happen — what moment of clarity I await  — but I seem to be in a holding pattern.

As I watch myself procrastinate, I understand my children a bit better. Their stalling and occasional downright opposition to assignments (often the writing sort) stems from a similar place. Both admit to fears about starting when the whole project isn’t clearly in mind. Both suffer the sort of perfectionism that makes task initiation difficult or even impossible. I’m open about my own “stuck” times, sharing what worries me when I can’t start and what, if anything, I find to help me along.  And that, perhaps, is a perpetual fourth project: better understanding my children. The stakes feel high, but the timeline is long.

There’s plenty to do this summer. Along with two definitive projects, one incubating work (with duct tape on the egg as a precautionary action to ward off failure), and a lifelong quest, there are vacations to take, friends to see, gardens to tend, books to read, and clouds to watch. And those other doors? They’re not looking that bad after all.

Review: Real Science 4 Kids (Chemistry 1 and Biology 1)

We’ve been through plenty of science curriculum and learning supports.  From living books to documentaries, Bill Nye to NIH free resources, Singapore Science to mom-designed courses, we’ve tried a range of ways to bring science to life while teaching sound scientific thinking. For the evolution-teaching family, the options designed for homeschoolers (simpler labs, generally) are fairly slim.  Even with a disturbingly well-equipped home lab, it’s a stretch to use regular classroom texts at home.

So initially, I welcomed Real Science 4 Kids, by Dr. Rebecca Keller.  It didn’t teach evolution (see more on her and my musings about her approach in Curriculum Choices of Conscience), but it didn’t teach creationism or intelligent design either, and since our introduction to the series was Chemistry Level 1, I wasn’t initially concerned with that omission.

At this writing, Real Science 4 Kids consists of 3 levels, each with a varying number of topics.  I’ll limit my discussion to Level 1 Chemistry and Biology, since these are the only books I’ve used with enough rigor to evaluate them.  My older son did the first chapter of Chemistry Level II some years back, but that’s an insufficient experience by which to gauge that series and is under complete revision.

All the Level I subjects require a textbook, a lab workbook, and a teacher’s guide.  The teacher’s guide contains some notes on running the experiments, answers to all the questions, and some additional information on the subject matter.  The texts are attractive, multi-color hardbacks with large font, which is easy on young and old eyes.  Each text consists of ten chapters that align with ten labs and a few brief questions about the chapter, both of the latter found in the lab book.  At full retail, a year of science (Chemistry, Biology, and Physics) for Level I runs about $216 new (Astronomy is available without a teacher’s guide).  That’s a pretty pricey elementary science curriculum.  Used copies abound, but a new lab book for each student is necessary unless the child uses a separate notebook to do the written work.

Keller has numerous additional books, called Kogs, that extend science into vocabulary, philosophy, art, technology, critical thinking and history.  Samples online didn’t impress me, although I was taken with the idea of extending science across the curriculum, as some programs do with literature or history. My borrowed copy of the Language Kog to accompany Chemistry I didn’t hold my interest enough to introduce it to my son.  It introduced some roots, used them in words, and asked kids to give the definitions.  I expect more from a $27 book (and that’s just for one 10 chapter softcover consumable book)  For a full set of Kogs for Level I Chemistry, language Kogs for Physics and Biology, the tests (available soon), and study folders (available soon), and you’re in another $350.  Whoa.

The books are attractive for kids and parents and hold resale well (good, given their high price).  The experiments are highly homeschooler-friendly, requiring (mostly) basic household items, although a bit of specialty shopping online is needed for a few labs (a voltmeter for Physics and living protists and Red Congo stain in Biology, for example).  Two of the labs for Biology require planning and introduce animal life into your home: raising tadpoles into frogs and observing butterflies develop from caterpillars.  The first results in pets that are likely to live beyond when your children go to college (We did the tadpole thing on our own four years ago.  The frogs are still with us, and, according to a biologist friend, likely to spend up to 30 years with us.  No more experiments that require estate planning.)  The second requires timing your lab to meet shipping regulations of butterfly egg sellers.  These are exceptions, however, and one could omit growing living creatures that need prolonged care with a decent video or book on metamorphosis.

The labs book also contains a few questions about the text material.  Most of these are definitions or classification questions, and only on the most basic parts of the books material. Few if any require any critical thinking about the subject, making connections between topics, or analysis of information.  This is a serious downfall of the series.

I think Real Science 4 Kids continues to grow in the homeschooling community because it introduces high-level vocabulary to young children.    Sure, throughout Chemistry, you’ll see atoms and molecules introduced, however there’s no discussion of states of matter, a basic of any chemistry education.  Instead, this text includes titration, polymers, starches, cellulose, kinesin, along with dozens of other chemistry topics.  They’re interesting, but without a better grounding in chemistry basics, they’re like building a house on a sand — it’s just not going to stand.

On the whole, I found the chapters to be little more than 4 to 5 page introductions to a large subject with little focus on the hows and the whys.  Science is far more that what.  Science requires an understanding of how the world works and a grounding in scientific thinking.  I’d rather see far less terminology and far more grounding in the basics of the way the world works along with the tools to think like a scientist.  I’d like to see more inquiry based learning, where the learner asks a question and, with a good amount of guidance initially, figures out how to design an experiment to answer the question.  I’d like to see discussion of controls and variables as well.  Singapore Science does these well, teaching  scientific thinking grounded in the basics of matter and energy.  (That’s another review for another day.)

In short, Real Science 4 Kids is an attractive product with labs geared toward the homeschool lab.  It’s expensive and won’t span too many years of science education, and it tends to focus on vocabulary acquisition rather than deep understanding.  It’s free of any references to evolution or the origin of life, which sells books but also, in my opinion, leads to an incomplete education if used as the only biology or astronomy text.

I’d like to say I’ve found something equally easy to use at home with greater depth and an undercurrent of evolution, but I haven’t.  Singapore Science, with modifications to many labs, is a better bet, in my opinion, but that’s a fairly large task.  A recent find from the American Chemical Society, Middle School Science, is a far superior chemistry offer, and is online for free.  It’s inquiry-driven, the supplies for labs are easy to obtain, and it is the most sound chemistry program I’ve ever seen.  More on that when we’re farther along.

Disclosure:  I’ve received no compensation in money or materials for this review.

AP Tests: Changes are a Comin’

Changes are coming.  The College Board, the parent of the AP (Advanced Placement) line of tests that allow high school students to test for possible college credits in subjects like Biology, American History, Music Theory, and Calculus, is making significant changes in their AP US History (APUSH) and AP Biology exams.  The January 7, 2010, New York Times notes the changes, which will be reflected in the 2012/13 school year, with more emphasis on depth of thinking and somewhat less on rote memorization of facts.


As my older son approaches traditional high school age with several high school level classes under his belt, homeschooling high school and what happens after what we’re calling “high school” weighs heavily on my mind.  Should he take classes at our local public school?  If so, which classes?  Should we just skip ahead to a conveniently located, welcome-to-homeschoolers, affordable university for dual enrollment classes?  Should he do Advanced Placement courses, and, if so, should he study on his own, online, or in a classroom?  Caught up in the desire to assure that he has myriad options open, these questions swirl around my brain at inconvenient times, such as 4 am.

Despite the Advanced Placement fever that consumes much time, energy, and pixels on some of the homeschooling high-school related list serves, I’m not an AP fan myself.  I took the AP Calculus BC some 20-plus years ago, received a 4 and commensurate college credit, and pursued a highly desirable in the want-to-be-unemployed set English degree.  My high school AP calculus class was well-done, not rushed, and inspired me to work hard, think thoroughly, and enjoy math.  I have no complaints.  I still hold that AP, for math at least, is of value in the right circumstance.  I feel markedly differently about many of the other AP offerings, especially outside of math and physics.  Especially in literature, history, and biology.

The 8th edition of Campbell's Biology for AP is 1393 pages long.  And any of it could be on the test.

The 8th edition of Campbell's Biology for AP is 1393 pages long. And any of it could be on the test.

History and biology at the college level do require a fair amount of rote memorization of facts, dates (for history), and terminology (for biology).  Unfortunately, facts alone aren’t sufficient for a college-level understanding of these subjects.  When treated as vast memorization projects, I think the bigger picture is missed.  Biology is, after all, a science of living systems, operating together, influencing one another.  Last year I taught high-school level biology to my older son, then 12 and his 13-year old peer.  Both are exceptionally bright boys, ready for higher-level content.  Both learned a vast amount of terminology and facts.  But they never could have taken the AP after my class alone, and that’s fine with me.  Unlike the rather cookbook-like labs required for AP Biology study (one doesn’t have to actually do the labs but they are fair game for the test), the boys did largely inquiry labs.  Inquiry science involves asking questions or being posed with questions and designing a suitable lab to answer those questions.  Such work takes a fair amount of factual knowledge, but additionally, it requires critical thinking, planning, and (what is, in my opinion, missing from the current AP Biology courses) true scientific thinking.  In real life science, there isn’t a plan set in front of you.  There are questions, often self-designed, but no recipe to follow.  It’s up to the scientist to design the experiment, report results, and, generally, ask more questions and design more experiments.  And if that’s what scientists do, that’s what we should be teaching our children in schools and at home from the start.  To quote Ms. Frizzle,”Take chances! Make mistakes!  Get messy!”  Hopefully the new AP Biology will allow for more of that philosophy.

While experimentation with history is not yet a possibility, thinking critically and relating historical events to each other and to present day happenings is mental equivalent.  After all, why do we study the past?  The fascinating tales of events of centuries and millennia ago is a compelling reason, but the best reason to study history in-depth is to better understand our world now be seeing where we (and everyone else) comes from.  Through history study, we gain appreciation for the sheer variety of ways to approach living in society, along with each way’s strengths and weaknesses.  Certainly some memorization of dates, names, and events is necessary, but far more important (in my opinion) is the ability to explore the past with the aim to improve understanding of the present.  When so much teacher and student time is dedicated to memorization of facts,  the forest is easily missed for all the trees.  While little of the NYT article discussed proposed APUSH exam changes, the move to categorize history into nine time periods and seven themes hopefully will aid students (and their teachers) in thinking more holistically about history.

APUSH for Dummies? I doubt the new exam changes will make that true.

I’m not against memorization, but I do hold that learning a subject well involves far more critical thinking and “playing” with information than rote learning.  A class dedicated to pushing mass amounts of facts into a child’s head is likely to have little time remaining for these same facts to be explored in-depth and chewed over.  As with of American education, the AP system perhaps sacrifices depth for in favor of breadth.  American education is often said to be “a mile wide and an inch deep”, and my take is that many AP classes (which, like or not, teach to their corresponding AP test) are largely about breadth.  I’m sure there are exceptions (even beyond math and physics), but biology and US history, very popular AP classes, are so broad that deep thinking is likely a casualty, at least for most students.

I know AP courses are necessary for applying to some colleges.  I know students count on AP credits to lower their college bills or just create more room for advanced or interesting material in college.  I am aware that, for the brightest students, these courses hold the only challenging material in many high schools.  Fine.  But for my home schooled, gifted, and inquisitive learners, these aren’t a priority as we map out our years before college.  We’re more likely to use college courses for dual enrollment (and I know controversy about that abounds) distance learning, and self-designed coursework, assuming both stay home through high school.  I realize that as they grow and the AP tests evolve, I may change my stance.  Also, since this is their education, not mine, they’re welcome to take AP classes and tests if it suits their needs and wants.

I’m encouraged by the changes in AP proposed by College Board, and encouraged for what those changes could mean for high-ability high-schooled aged learners learning in and out of school.  Changes are coming.  May they encourage our brightest children to think critically and deeply.

Have an opinion about AP testing, the new or the old?  Share away!

Biology 2009/2010 Outline Completed

I’ve finally gotten around to posting the complete outline for Biology, as taught to my son(12) and his friend (13).  I’d like to call it a labor of love, but it was sheer determination and stubborness on my part that saw the project through.  They learned a ton, easily passed their unofficial New York Regents test for Living Environment/Biology (which my father, a professor in Biology, assured me was a good standard to hold for an initial (non AP) biology class).  Neither child loves biology despite my efforts, and that’s okay with me.  They’ve been exposed, thought deeply, learned to write excellent lab reports, and worked on their study skills.  I’m proud of both of them and honored to be indentured on for their exploration of Chemistry this fall.  Plans for that will appear when I stop waffling about which text to use.  I’m looking at least three, including Thinkwell, and completely undecided.  I guess I know what I’ll be doing in August.  I hope these plans are helpful to someone out there.  Please feel free to contact me with questions, as I’m sure I’ve left some lab links and the like out.  Enjoy!

Rougher Still: Plans for Fall 2010 (Age 9)

My plans for my older son, now 13, are pretty much set.  Plans for my younger, who will be 9 this fall (4th grade by age) are less certain.  He’s more of a challenge now — less independent (than I want him to be, than I think he should be) in areas that he fears making mistakes, like math and composition.  I’d like to see his independence increase come fall, but how to gently assist that I’m not certain.  Anyway, here’s what I have planned so far.

Math: Singapore 5B, 6A, and 6B are on the schedule for fall, including the Challenging Word Problems, which are pretty darn, well, challenging, by this level.  We’re both happy with Singapore in content and format, and he’d like to finish it up next year.   With my older, we moved directly to Jacob’s Elementary Algebra after Singapore.  It’s a progression that worked for him, but I’m not sure it’s what I’ll do with my younger.  Possible next steps include Art of Problem Solving, Volume I  or continuing with Singapore’s next level (New Elementary Math).  As always, ideas and comments are appreciated!

Science:  Since my older’s doing chemistry this fall, my younger’s interested in going along with that plan.  Whew.  I’m considering Ellen McHenry’s The Elements:  Ingredients of the Universe and it’s sequel, Carbon Chemistry.  Both are heavily activity based, which, honestly, isn’t my favorite way to teach.  That may be part laziness on my part, but my boys learn quickly, and several times I’ve put far more effort into creating a material or setting up an activity only to find they master the information so quickly that the material is barely touched and the activity is unnecessary.  So I’m undecided here.  Again, ideas are appreciated.

History:  With Story of the World IV behind us (well, in about 6 chapters it will be), we’re ready to move away from the chronological approach to history and onto thematic and topical studies.  My younger has no interest in the music history program his brother will pursue and has plans of his own.  He’s determined to study World War I and World War II in greater depth.  He avoids holocaust study because, as he note, it’s just too disturbing.  I’ve no desire to explore that topic with a nine year-old, so that’s fine with me.  However, he long ago exceeded my knowledge of those wars and their times (and so many other historical periods and events), and I’m not sure how to proceed.  He’s unwilling to watch many of the videos about those wars for fear of running into video including blood, and while I don’t desire to expose him to that much violence, I’m stumped at how to assist him in this study.  Now for the chorus:  Ideas are appreciated!

Language Arts:  We’ll move on to Michael Clay Thompson’s Town series, the second level of his amazing language arts collection.  I’m hesitant about using Paragraph Town with a child who rarely agrees to write a single sentence, but having watched one non-writer (reluctant would be too kind a word), I’m fine with a watch and see approach.  For reading, I’m planning on using Suppose the Wolf Were an Octopus, another Royal Fireworks Press publication.  None of us care for the read-and-answer-the-content questions approach that followed me through school and still seems to be the basis of most literature curricula, and the questions posed by this intelligent series reach far beyond content alone.  Handwriting practice continues with the second of the cursive series from Handwriting Without Tears.  My younger says he’s forgotten how to make some of the cursive letters.  Shocking, given his writing frequency (note maternal eye roll). 

The Rest:  Piano continues with 30 minute lessons weekly and daily practice.  Like his brother and I, Tang Soo Do lessons twice a week keep him on the path for black belt.  He has no interest in competitive sports at this point.  We’re abandoning Spanish for an assortment of reasons, which I’ll delineate in an upcoming review of Spanish for Children.  Spelling plans are lacking, and I’m still not convinced that focused study on spelling is terribly valuable.  Or, perhaps, I just hate directing spelling instructing.  That, too, is another post. 

Join me in the chorus one last time:  Ideas are appreciated!

Digest This

My small biology class (two boys) left the world of prokaryotes and jumped to animal form and function, although given my bent, it’s largely human anatomy and physiology.  This week, the digestive system. I love the digestive system.  Basically, we all have a tube running through us that isn’t us.  We’re like a stack of bagels, with the holes lined up to be our digestive system.  Sure, we secrete enzymes and the like and absorb nutrients, but much of what comes in the top goes out the other end, never becoming part of us.

It’s a pretty easy system to teach due to our intimate personal experience with it.  We all eat, we all excrete, and we’ve all had the system go wrong on us.  Experimenting with it, however, presents a bit more challenge.  We’d already chewed a bland cracker for long enough to taste the starch break into sugars thanks to amylase (a digestive enzyme secreted in the mouth).  After they’d read on the system, and I’d lectured on it a bit, I set them to design labs to explore amylase activity and ideal conditions for pepsin activity, (an enzyme that breaks down proteins in the stomach).  Each boy took a subject, and, after some research on their particular enzyme, asked a question to answer with an experiment of his own design.

Despite some initial anxiety from my own child (that blank page gets him every time), the boys did a brilliant job.  I’m quite a fan of inquiry learning, although I can easily get lazy and give the kids cookbook labs — instructions of what to do and why you’re doing it, outcome predictable.  Cookbook labs have their place, especially to teach a specific laboratory skill or to work with potentially dangerous materials.  I’m all for creative thinking, but safety comes first.   But one of the most important reasons to teach science is to foster scientific thinking.  “Real” scientists study the world, ask questions, and then experiment.  The results of the experiment lead to more questions and more experimenting.  Scientific knowledge occurs in context, not in a vacuum.  When I read, I forget; what I do, I remember, and all that.

I’m eager to hear their lab presentations next week.  They’re terrific boys with amazing minds and boundless energy.  Some of that energy found its way to biology on Wednesday, and the minds followed.  Gotta love it.