Bedrock

Bedrock (noun): 1) Solid rock underlying loose deposits such as soil or alluvium

2) The fundamental principles on which something is based

It is the third week of the semester, and one of my unruliest classes of high school students is struggling with geologic time. It’s immense and intense and I dared ask them to do some calculations along with the vocabulary. They’ve already worked their way through a version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar activity, where they’ve crunched all of time from the Big Bang to the present day into one year.

Today, I’ve handed out props with rough dates attached, and asked the class to physically arrange themselves in order of appearance in the fossil record- a stuffed black plague microbe stands in for the first life-forms; a plastic Buzz Lightyear represents modern humans. After I separate the monkey (representing first mammals) from the dinosaur (representing dinosaurs, but intent upon the destruction of everything in his path; note to self, next semester, hand the dinosaur to a quiet, calm student), the kids arrange themselves in a straight line, equally spaced from one end of the chalkboard to the other. Here is where it gets tough, when I ask the remaining kids to “fix” the line.

“Amphibians came before reptiles!” shouts one student, and the classmate holding the tree frog’s terrarium obligingly switches places in line. A few more shuffles, and the sequence of fossil emergence is in rough time order. The kids are still in an equally spaced line, however, and I’m still waiting for someone to realize that the formation of the Earth and the accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere shouldn’t be able to hold hands.

Welcome to the world of high school earth science- I teach 10th -12th grade students, and it’s a diverse bunch. Strangely, the vast majority of students that are enrolled in my geology class are not excited to be there on the first day. They whine and complain about being forced to learn about rocks. By the time they leave, I like to think that the same majority have both come to some scientific and geologic understandings, and enjoyed themselves along the way.

Along with the typical struggles of public education, high school geology is routinely treated as a dumping grounds by school counseling staff and, to a lesser extent, colleagues, for students who desperately need science credit and are seen as being problematic, lacking in foundation skills, and have been generally unsuccessful in science in the past. This makes the teaching of earth science particularly difficult- how do you manage disengaged students with challenging behaviors and inspire them to connect with geology content? How do you keep the subject matter relevant, rigorous, and robust while working within the reality that many of my students can’t read at grade level and need not just foundational science skills, but foundational life skills?

I don’t know the answers, but I am certainly trying to make geology and oceanography come alive for my kids. My contributions to Earth Science Erratics will focus on my challenges and successes connecting students to earth science, and my own occasional sojourns into the realm of field geology.

Oh, and the geologic timeline? A student finally recognized that by placing themselves in front of the chalkboard in such an evenly-spaced line, they were throwing off the scale of both geologic and biological events. Everyone grudgingly squashed together towards the classroom door marked ‘present day’ and we re-emphasized the immensity of the time that had occurred since the formation of the earth to the first appearance of well, Buzz Lightyear.

I like to set the stage during the first week of geology by opening with really big questions about how the Earth formed and what it took before we could be sitting here in fifth hour, pondering our place in time. Geologic time and Earth’s fossil history form the bedrock of the course, placed firmly beneath our metaphorical feet, allowing students to have a frame of reference for everything else we cover. Now, if only I could keep the dinosaur and the monkey apart from one another…

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Erin Parker

About Erin Parker

Erin Parker is still sometimes surprised to find herself in front of a classroom, where she teaches earth sciences to 150 boisterous students each semester in an urban public high school in Wisconsin. She also can’t imagine herself doing anything else, even on the tough days. Erin’s posts explore earth science through the lens of a public educator and advocate for a scientifically-literate world.
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Comments (6)

  1. Anne Jefferson says:

    Fantastic post! Welcome!

  2. Julia says:

    Welcome! I’m another earth scientist teaching at high school level, though I spend most of my time teaching biology! I find I get the same attitude to the plant sciences and evolution – the students come in hating it, but leave thinking it’s awesome.

    Looking forward to reading more of your commentary!

  3. RJackson Jackson says:

    Really amazing post, my high school earth science teacher was my absolute favorite and one of the most important influences on my life. Thank you for the post, that sounds like a really interesting classroom activity

  4. Erin Parker Erin Parker says:

    Thanks for the warm welcome, everyone! I appreciate the comments and am enjoying being part of the “all geo” community.

  5. Nick M. says:

    I am so glad to see the addition of your insights and experiences to this blog! I’m currently an out of work New York State earth science teacher stuck working in IT currently (not uncommon in this state, teachers are getting canned by the dozen lately – schools seem to think that teachers are expendable, but administration is not). Your blog reminds me so much of my own experiences, and gives me reason to keep on searching for a teaching position wherever they’ll take me – at this point most likely another state. Us earth science teachers have a tough job, we here in New York also get the underachieving and disinterested students shoveled out of the guidance office. Luckily the earth sciences are so diverse you can almost always find something to grab a student’s interest; who doesn’t like explosions, lava, mass extinctions, planets and stars, and most of all, shiny rocks?

    I’ll be visiting often to read any new posts, keep up the great work!

    • Erin Parker Erin Parker says:

      Hi Nick-
      Thanks for the comments. Earth sciences are so fascinating to teach at this level- both because the content is so interesting but also because working with “challenging” students is really, really rewarding. Good luck with the job search!

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  1. Pingback: New at Erratics: the challenges of teaching geology in high school | Highly Allochthonous