Thursday, July 12, 2007

Science Literacy (Or, What $288 Can Buy)

I have a long list of books I’d like to read before I leave this world. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is on it, and I took great satisfaction recently in checking it off.

Five years ago, when my daughters were newly enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, I chose to become involved in that system through volunteering. I’m not really a School Picture Day kind of mom or a Lunch Duty mom (though I have been, on occasion). As a reader, I’m more interested in the books my children bring home, and the kind of work my children are asked to do.

The curriculum—the exposure to various subjects—is the thing.

So I got involved in the school’s Barnes & Noble Book Fair for a few years. This is an advertised shopping day, when members of our school community spend money at Barnes & Noble with a percentage of sales coming back to our school. We typically earn about $900. I would then divvy up that money (through book purchases) between all the teachers who provided me with a wish list of books for their classrooms.

The science teacher’s list was incredible, and eyeballing it, I guessed the cost of providing it would extend beyond our tiny budget. The list included classroom sets (30 copies) of various Golden Field Guides (tree, fish identification) and a set of Silent Spring for an eighth-grade environmental science unit. I suggested the teacher prioritize the list, and Rachel Carson came out on top. Nevertheless, that year I went a little heavy in the science department, and spent $288 on 30 paperback copies of Silent Spring. I went to our Parent-Teacher organization to request additional monies for the purchase. Parents voted and agreed to give me a bit more money for book-buying. In the school newsletter I listed every book title I purchased for the teachers and how much I spent. No one complained how the money was spent. Some people even thanked me for keeping them informed.

I suspect, though, that there are parents in these United States that would complain about spending PTO funds on books by Rachel Carson. I hope I'm wrong about that, for the children's sake.

On the most recent Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISATs), my daughter’s school vastly out-performed the city and the state averages on their basic science assessments. I’m not surprised. One teacher can have quite a ripple effect.

And even though many years will pass before my daughter is asked to read Silent Spring for class, her teacher generously loaned me out a copy of the book for the summer.

That’s how I came to read Silent Spring and how I came to blog about Rachel Carson and science literacy.


Ed Darrell said...

This spring, after I became aware that Utah Congressman Rob Bishop had become victim of the "Rachel Carson was wrong" hoax," I stopped by our son's high school, and waiting for an appointment I dropped into the library to check out a passage in Silent Spring.

The school had not a single copy in the library. The librarian had never heard of it, and wondered what sort of fiction it was -- romance? Young adult?

"Educational standards fiction," I said.

Kathy said...

I want to add that my point is not to make a direct causal link between Rachel Carson and high standardized tests scores (though there may be one). Lots of things contribute to those scores. I mentioned test scores because people pay attention to them.

Mostly, I wanted to point out an example of competent, whole teaching. People don't pay so much attention to that.

htai1 said...

Kathy - I'm sure your daughters' schools performed well not only because of the teachers, but also because of parents who get involved, like you. Not only do Elena & Nora benefit from your literacy, but all the kids who go to their schools. I hope other schools are lucky enough to have a concerned parent like you. Helen