Turn My English Classroom Into a Science Lab?
While it doesn't seem natural, English and science can mix
Welcome to From the Teacher’s Desk, where we take turns further reflecting on our episodes and applications to the classroom.
“But Styf, this is an English class.”
If I had a dollar for every time I had heard a student say or suggest that, I might be able to take early retirement, or at least a nice European vacation.
While I’ve always said I believe in interdisciplinary education, that has usually meant occasionally turning my English class into a history class. After all, I will find nearly any excuse to put my Bachelor’s degree in history to full use. But the reading and writing that we do in our English classrooms goes beyond so much more than historical context.
If we are serious about promoting a culture of literacy in our classrooms, our students need to be shown that literature study relates to every area of academia, and that includes the sciences. Thankfully, pop culture helps us make those connections in a lot of different ways.
Science and literature study are both about discovery
Reading prompts us to ask questions and seek more knowledge. Observation of the natural world spurs us to do the same. In both English and science, we may start with a hypothesis about what we think we are going to discover and learn through exploration that we were wrong. Even when we were right about our initial hypothesis, we are often surprised by what we learn along the way, discovering that our initial hypothesis was correct but for very different reasons.
We can make these connections in a lot of different ways. When we teach about transcendentalism, we discuss the human connection to the natural world, something that is clear in movies such as The Lorax and Dead Poet’s Society (which we discussed in one of our earliest episodes) and books such as Into the Wild, Wild, and The Life of Pi. These are all texts that we can bring into our English classroom and study both humanity and the science we experience around us.
Both ELA and STEM courses require us to be observant
When students consider science, they think about bubbling test tubes and cutting open worms and frogs. They ignore one of the most important elements of the scientific process: observation. This is also an important skill for English students to regularly practice. Mysteries are an excellent place to turn when looking for stories that highlight the importance of both scientific and literary observation. The second season of Only Murders in the Building (we covered the first season during season two of the podcast) keeps highlighting the role of observation in putting together the pieces of a murder mystery puzzle. Enola Holmes created a Sherlock Holmes story for a new generation. Big Hero 6 challenges viewers to pay attention to details while also asking questions about ethics in technology. And as we come out of a global pandemic, there are many films from the last couple of decades that show the importance of observation in solving big scientific problems that impact humanity.
Studying the humanities teaches us the human impact of scientific advancement
This is not always negative. When students read books such as The Jungle, they learn that science saved lives by pointing out to the government the dangers of then-current meat processing practices. Over the last two decades, documentaries such as The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and feature films such as Hidden Figures tell us the stories of scientific progress and the positive impact on humans. Even a movie such as The Lego Movie teaches students to understand the role of creativity in engineering, which in the real world makes our lives better.
We chose to talk about the final chapter of the Jurassic Park/World franchise because we’ve always seen the classroom connection to novels such as Frankenstein and the impact of progress on humans and our environment. While the English classroom is not an extension of the science classroom, we should certainly see them as partners in the greater task of preparing our students for global citizenship.
After all, English teachers aren’t the only educators trying to change the world.
*For additional reading on interdisciplinary learning and technology, visit this piece from The New York Times.
I have used this particular faux lab assignment with my students when reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” which I found online years ago. I regularly assign this bioethics project when I teach Frankenstein and last year created this characterization chart, a pop culture pre-reading activity, and an activity discussing the creation of the female monster.
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On the same sort of lines, I love the idea of mixing maths and literature, which the Oulipo movement partly does: https://terryfreedman.substack.com/s/oulipo I've also written about using a spreadsheet for literary criticism! I think at the very least such mixing up prompts questions, and makes people consider an alternative perspective. Great post, Sarah
I love the melding of science and english. It's like the reverse of Bryn Robinson's post about PhD students and scientists needing to embrace storytelling to help communicate their ideas. https://brynphd.substack.com/p/change-the-world-with-a-story-campfire