Performing Darwin

By Guest Blogger, Melinda Mueller, Science Teacher at Seattle Academy

At Seattle Academy, we talk about our school’s “culture of performance.”  We mean more than delivering lines on a stage.  As students in our “Learning and the Brain” class recently defined it, “A performance is an activity that is a demonstration of learning or of a creation that involves an integration of skills in front of an audience.”

In my Evolution Seminar class (a one-term elective for seniors & juniors), the students have recently collaborated on a web-page—a “Virtual Museum” of Darwin’s seminal book, The Origin of Species.  Their work is a performance, precisely as defined above: They demonstrate their learning, in a manner that integrated many skills, and whose audience is all those who view their webpage.

Hannah as Homo habilis

I will summarize some of these learnings and integrated skills (including a number of IT skills) below, but you may wish to visit and browse their “museum” first: http://sites.google.com/site/virtualmuseumoftheorigins/home

  • We spent the first several weeks of the term discussing the historical context of Darwin’s ideas.  Students read short excerpts from original documents of Darwin’s time, and used a Moodle forum to discuss their ideas.
  • As a class, we then read the chapter of Origin which is at the heart of Darwin’s theory (Chapter 4: Natural Selection).  Students used Moodle to share questions and comments as they read.
  • Each student wrote Darwin a letter, responding to Chapter 4, and asking further questions.  Oh and by the way, “Darwin” replies.
  • Next, each student selected one of the other chapters of Origin, for which that student (or pair of students) would be “curator.”  Students read their chapters, and—using Moodle as their “time portal”—asked Darwin questions (and “Darwin”—I had such fun imitating his writing style—answered).

Rachel as Homo-neanderthalis

  • To get a sense of their chapter’s salient points, students used “Wordle” to create “word clouds” of their chapters.  The more often a word was used in the chapter, the larger the word appeared in the “cloud.”  Each student was able to use various options on the Wordle website to create particular artistic expressions of these clouds (which also appear in the “Virtual Museum,” on the “Word Art Gallery” sub-page).  Students were struck, for instance, that the word “evolution” never appears in the book—but the word “species” is the most commonly used word in almost every chapter.

  • After reading their chapters, each student wrote an essay about his/her chapter. See the museum entry hall.
  • Meanwhile, I used Google Sites to build the framework of the Virtual Museum.  I designed the homepage, and created (but did not “fill”) pages for the Wordle Art, for “curator profiles,” and for each chapter.  I curated Chapter 4, and made a model of how an “exhibit” might look (but it’s important to note that, once my students started building their own exhibits, they gave me fresh ideas for improving my own!)
  • For the curator profiles page of the Virtual Museum, each student used the free website MorphThing.  They uploaded a photo of themselves, and a photo of a “reconstructed” face of an ancestral hominid species, and the website “morphed” the two photos together.

Poster for Chapter Six

  • For one “wall” (subpage) of their chapters, students used “Glogster” to make a digital poster of their chapters’ key elements.  (Glogster offers this  free version for educators, in which you can enroll your students). And another important note:  It was one of my students who figured out how to embed these “glogs” into the Virtual Museum pages, and taught me the skill—it involved building a “gadget” at http://code.google.com/apis/gadgets/docs/legacy/gs.html. Notice the posters include embedded video which expands the concept of poster.
  • Finally, students used the tools in Google Sites to create their exhibits (adding images, text, embedded videos…).  They used Google Documents to upload their chapter essays, and then embedded them in their exhibits.

Comment right inside the website

  • We proofread and critiqued.  Then I added a Google gadget for viewer comments to each of their pages, and we made the site public.

From the time when students first selected their chapters of The Origin of Species, to the time when we made the completed Virtual Museum public, was four weeks.  We spent lots—but not all—of our class time on

Now the students’ homework is to comment on one another’s exhibits, and each student is to get a parent or other “outsider” to explore his/her chapter exhibit, and comment as well.  The students would love your comments, too—these comments are the “audience” portion of the performance!

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2 thoughts on “Performing Darwin

  1. Earlier this week, I sent an email to Larry Arnhart, a professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University, whose specialty is Darwin, and who is a longtime advocate of having students read Darwin’s works (I quoted Arnhart’s article, “Fear of Teaching Darwin,” in the Evolution Seminar’s “Virtual Museum”).

    I sent Dr. Arnhart an email because I thought he might be interested in what our students had done after reading Darwin, and I included a link to the “Virtual Museum” website. He sent back a kind reply, AND he has posted a comment about the students’ work on his website (which is a running discussion of Darwinian philosophy and pedagogy):

    Here’s what Dr. Arnhart wrote on this webpage (http://darwinianconservatism.blogspot.com/ ):

    “It is regrettable that so few people actually read Darwin and see the power and poignancy of his mind at work. A few years ago, I suggested that the best way to resolve the dispute over the teaching of Darwinian evolution in high school biology classes would be to allow students to actually read Darwin himself. Most of the criticisms of Darwin can be found in Darwin’s own writings–especially, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Darwin openly confronts what he calls the “difficulties” for his theory, and he shows how the alternative to his “theory of natural selection” is the “theory of special creation.” If high school students were allowed to read Darwin’s writings and then read some of the writings from the proponents of “intelligent design,” the students could weigh the evidence and arguments and make up their own minds. But when I proposed this, I was attacked by people like Chris Mooney–author of The Republican War on Science–who insisted that high students were not smart enough to read Darwin for themselves and then reach their own conclusions. Instead, Mooney insisted, they should read only textbooks that tell them what the “experts” think, and they certainly should never be permitted to read any writings criticizing evolution from the viewpoint of “intelligent design.”

    My original proposal was laid out in a short article for Inside Higher Ed, which can be found here.

    Recently, I was delighted to hear about a high school course on evolution at Seattle Academy taught by Melinda Mueller. She agreed with my proposal for teaching Darwin, and she has organized her class around having her students read Darwin’s Origin. She found that these high school students were quite capable of reading Darwin for themselves and assessing his argument. As a final class project, she had her students create a webpage–“Virtual Museum of the Origin”–for which each student “curated” a chapter of the Origin.”

    In his email reply, Dr. Arnhart said, of the Virtual Museum website, “You have much to be proud of.”

    I agree! Congratulations, Evolution Seminar students!

  2. This is such great stuff!! I love the meta-analysis that you provide, Melinda, for how the project unfolded. This gives everyone a nice inside-view of all the many “corners” of the website and the project. Congratulations to you all.

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