Thursday, January 25, 2007

Start Off Story

Channel 4 KOMO - TV news called during my fourth period math class today. We were about to start correcting homework and tackle the subject of making projections from linear trends. The phone call got their attention. I dropped the plan and we launched into a conversation about global warming.

The reporter at the TV station had read an article about my upcoming mid February trip in the local paper. The title was "When science meets controversy head-on: Middle school teacher turns arctic researcher as schools consider how to teach environmental issues." Check to see if it's still posted. My students had read it too. One of them asked, "Ms. Dean, why is it so controversial?"

The bulk of the article focuses on the decision of a nearby school district (since repealed) to ban showing "An Inconvenient Truth". I stalled for thinking time before I answered and then told them that I thought there were two reasons.

I told my students that I thought the first reason is that a lot of people don't have the science background to understand the issue. I went on to tell the story of the well-meaning anonymous 9 pm caller who wanted me to know that there were tropical fern fossils in Washington State. Someone in the front row burst out "What about continental drift?!!" Thanks to her science teacher across the hall, she made my point.

I went on to the difference between weather and climate, which are easy to conflate. Weather is the day-to-day variation in precipitation, wind and temperature. Climate consists of long-term seasonal patterns. A community member shared this analogy with me: climate is like the clothes you have in your closet; weather what you're wearing today. I'd been recently emailed a graph showing the average yearly temperatures in Washington State. The graph shows a wiggly line with a long-term trend line drawn through it. The graph is perfect for teaching about trend lines; and the line drawn shows slightly rising temperatures for Washington State. (Go to to find your own state.) I told my students that scientists are looking at lots of graphs like this to predict local, regional and global changes in climate.

"The second reason is controversial," I said, "It is both political and economic. Aside from science background, there are other reasons for people not wanting to believe what we hear about global warming. Why might that be?" I asked. Here's what they said:

Lost profits.
It's sad.
It's scary.
They don't care.
Oil companies don't care and just want to make money off us.
It's hard to change.
It's not convenient.

I didn't have the time in one class period to have the class take a critical look at all the students' ideas, but I will later. I did, however, talk about how inconvenient I'd found it to ride my bike to school one day a week. It takes an hour, but if you graph it, the 20% reduction in fossil fuel consumption adds up. I quit mid-winter when it became dangerous in the dark busy 4pm streets of my northern city. I promised to start up again as soon at it gets light enough for me to feel safe during rush hour.

Focusing on an individual an personal commitment like the one I have tried to make was easy. It will be harder to build background and thinking habits for my students to seek ways to influence the social and economic policies that keep us so dependent on fossil fuels.

Lots of questions ensued. "How will sea levels rise?" "Will Olympia flood?" "Will the ocean rise on the other side of the U.S.?" "Why will sea level rise?" I answered as best I could. I'm not usually the kind of teacher who can do a lot of lecturing and hold their attention. At one point I asked, "Are you bored?" They responded, "No! This is way more important than math!" I turned their attention again to the day's learning goal which was "to make predictions based on linear trends." Then I pointed to the graph I'd sketched on the board. "This is math!" I said.

Then a student in the second row asked, "Ms. Dean, do you think the world is going to end?"

"No way," I answered, "I'm a mother. And I wouldn't bring children into a world I thought would end. And I'm a teacher. And you young people are the future. Why would I spend time with you, the future, if I thought the world was going to end?"

1 comment:

noapologies said...

Thanks for making this happen. My students are just started to understand the impacts of our choices on this planet. This will be a good link for them.

In an email, you commented that you weren't sure how to download pictures. Blogspot makes it pretty easy. Just click on the photograph icon when you're writing your post, browse for the picture you want from your computer, and then hit upload.

I'm keeping my name and school unnamed in my comments, but will connect up via email at some point.

Thanks again...