Last year at this time I took the risk of proposing a workshop for the National Science Teachers Association (http://www.nsta.org) convention with Michael Lowry, my team teaching partner. To my surprise, they accepted our proposal, which meant that I had to attend my first science convention the weekend after giving a workshop at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (http://www.ncte.org/cccc). Now, we are talking contrasts here. From beginning to end, the experience proved to me how important it is to get out of one's comfort zone and attend a conference in another discipline.
When we talk about WAC/CAC, we bravely describe how we learn about other disciplines from our colleagues. I work with history, math, science, and art teachers all the time to create writing assignments with assessment criteria. I'm even learning about Frieze patterns to apply transformations and symmetry in mathematics as I help a colleague with a grant in math and science. But being able to understand the language, foundations and philosophical underpinnings of another discipline like science takes more than this. One needs to get down with the living creatures, both plant and animal, traverse the universe with NASA (http://www.nasa.gov) and swim the deepest oceans with NOAA (http://www.noaa.org).
From the time I first registered for the NSTA convention, I noticed an immediate difference between this one and the CCCC convention. I started receiving weekly email updates of conference events and notifications of what I had reserved. Rather than a chance to hear a well-respected writer/speaker at an opening banquet, they offered a multitude of pre-conference free activities on Thursday night and breakfasts with intriguing interactive presentations for Friday morning. For instance, I decided to attend a tribute to Carl Sagan on Thursday night. Three science professors shared stories and personal videotapes of Carl Sagan from 6:30 till midnight with refreshments midway and hourly door prizes of Sagan's books and complete sets of the Cosmos series sent to the winners with a note from his widow. The A&E biography of Sagan was followed by rare footage of Johnny Carson Show segments with Sagan and an hour-long CNN interview of Sagan by Ted Turner. I came away with a clearer understanding of the man, as well as his scientific, political and personal views. Not only that, I was in a room full of strangers who became acquaintances that shared a common respect for a great scientist.
On Friday, I attended the secondary science teachers' breakfast because I wanted to hear the presentation on the Physics of Dance by Dickinson Emeritus Physics Professor Kenneth Laws, who brought a young ballerina to demonstrate. The presentation was lively, full of information that the physics teachers around me understood yet clear enough for me to comprehend, too. Author of a book with the same title, Laws made a point of demonstrating good student-centered teaching and learning that applies across the curriculum. No one was reading a prepared speech or standing behind a podium; it was an interactive learning experience!
This point brings me to the next part of my science convention experience-the exhibit area! Yes, there were pens and post-a-note pads at some booths like an English conference, but the majority of the exhibits were lively learning dialogues. That is, I could hold a creature to learn more about it, talk to someone about environmental issues and get seeds to grow in my own classroom if I wanted. I had my picture taken and superimposed in a space suit at the NASA booth section on Biological and Physical Research, talked at length to two representatives at the NOAA booth about what we were doing in the Oceans class I team teach (http://www.mccallie.org/science/mlowry/OceansClassFolder/Oceansweb.html), got ideas and materials that related to what we were currently reading, and discovered how many of the science teachers use writing in their classrooms. The exhibit area was divided into sections on physics, biological sciences, chemistry, earth sciences, and general science. What if English exhibit areas were divided by genre, language arts, literature, writing or some other divisions? It might actually be easy to find what would be most helpful. The same was true of the plethora of mini-workshops, sessions, half-day workshops, and special research programs. With more than 12,000 attendees, this conference clearly offered something for everyone, usually many opportunities for each person. Rather than pre and post workshops at English conferences, many half-day workshops during the regular convention gave everyone a chance to participate in specialized sessions, some away from the convention site. We English teachers could certainly learn a great deal about running a conference from our science friends.
Finally, I saved one distinction for last. We English teachers have clear plastic little nametag holders with our first names printed large and bold to hang around our necks. Walking to the convention center to register, I noticed people coming towards me with big black badges hanging from their necks. There was a little flap in the front where I could put my badge with bar code (all vendors could swipe bar codes for school address information to save time and effort) and a large flap for tickets to special events and hotel key. On the back of the badge were places for two pens and another larger zipper flap for credit card, ID, money. In other words, no one had to carry a purse or wallet with this badge, leaving one's hands free to read, participate in an interactive session or exhibit demonstration. This was revolutionary compared to the old pocket protectors for science teachers. What a great idea that teachers of any subject could use!
So, how does all of this relate to writing and communication across the curriculum? I didn't even start on that yet. Our workshop involved a group of science teachers and administrators from diverse schools. One person was the entire science department as his school serving at-risk students, and he was eager to learn how to implement writing across the curriculum in his first year of teaching. Another had been teaching for over thirty years and willingly shared research she had done as a curriculum supervisor. We talked about ways of assessing learning using oral communication to supplement written assessments. Janice Shaw, my NEH colleague who teaches physics in Philadelphia, chaired our session and suggested new perspectives. Our participants also offered questions and gave us ideas to help us revise what we are currently doing. For instance, they asked if we could conduct these interviews in the middle of the year so that we could get more formative assessment on our teaching of content. In the process, I discovered how many of them are already effectively using writing-to-learn activities in their own classrooms. Also, they recommended scientific studies for us to investigate and got some other new ideas for our research on assessing learning. Would I have gotten the same kind of feedback from a group of English teachers? Would the specific examples and questions have been as diverse as they were with this group?
We all need to force ourselves to get involved with colleagues in other disciplines and participate in their conferences. My experience at the NSTA convention has convinced me that I want to return once more to this group before moving on to another discipline. After all, there are at least five more evening programs I'd like to participate in and several half-day workshops I'd like to attend, so my team teaching partner and I have once again submitted a proposal for next year's conference. I might even hold the snake in the exhibit area but NEVER the cockroach!
Publication Information: Childers, Pamela B. (2003). WAC/CAC in secondary schools: Learning from Our Colleagues. Academic.Writing, http://wac.colostate.edu/aw/secondary/column7.htm
Publication Date: June 3, 2003