The Writer as Scientist

In my Young Adult Literature class, the last two texts we’ve read, Markus Zusak‘s The Book Thief and Deborah Heiligman‘s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, have encouraged discussion about how the English/Language Arts teacher can support student learning in history and science. These two books are very different: The Book Thief is long and sprawling and poetic while Charles and Emma is grounded in historical research and fairly straightforward in its narrative. Both are books I couldn’t put down, I think because they told stories that gave me new insights into topics I was already familiar with. I love that The Book Thief can help students understand the variety of reactions to Hitler’s propaganda about Jews and why/how a few people resisted. And I love that Charles and Emma allows students to explore the different perspectives on evolution that have caused so much controversy even today. On a side note, the new Science standards address the evolution/intelligent design divide head on.

We also read a really interesting article by Timothy and Cynthia Shanahan, “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy.” This article describes research that focused on delineating how different disciplines process text and then how teachers can create tools to help students learn to read like experts in the discipline. I decided to create an activity in connection with Charles and Emma that would mimic the reading strategies one might use in reading scientific texts. First, I gave some biographical information about Deborah Heiligman, then the students shared their initial reactions to the book. Several students found the love story at the center of the book quite compelling–they felt that it humanized Darwin, changing their understanding of who Darwin was. We agreed that our ideas about scientists usually depend on their scientific importance, that it’s difficult to think of them beyond their work.

Next, we talked about what a hypothesis was and what role it played in scientific research. I asked my students to come up with some hypotheses about what they thought Heiligman’s intention was in writing the book. They came up with four. One was “would Darwin be able to make a leap of faith in marriage and in work?” My students felt that this hypothesis might have grown out of Heiligman’s own relationship with her husband (she has a religious studies degree while he is a science writer) and that she might have wondered how Darwin’s research affected his relationships to his family, community, and society. Then, we discussed what methods Heiligman used to prove her hypothesis. The students generated a list of things like looking at historical documents (letters, reviews, published works, diaries, Emma’s calendar, notebooks), considering the cultural context, focusing on relationships rather than science, and considering Darwin’s reaction to loss. (Of course, these are the techniques that historians use, so this is really a lesson on both science and history writing).

This way of approaching the text was interesting. When we’ve discussed other texts, we’ve focused a lot more on the stylistic and rhetorical choices that the author made. With this activity, we were considering the thinking that ultimately influences those kinds of choices. I liked that the activity moved us away from doing what we normally do with literature, though I have to admit that this type of approach might actually confuse students when it comes to science–my title for the lesson was “The Writer as Scientist (or, How the English Teacher Can Infuriate her Science Colleagues).” Overall, though, I think it’s valuable to ask our students to take different stances towards texts because doing so helps them become more flexible readers and thinkers.


One Comment

  1. debbie dean

    Kathy, I found your blog tagged on the INK post by Heiligman and couldn’t resist coming to read more about what you were doing. As usual, you find the best ways to think about new ideas. Thanks for sharing.

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