New Books, Science in Our Schools

Here are the books I’m reading right now:

Facing Future by Dan Kois (terrific music journalism/history about Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and his famous album)
Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss (elegant, thoughtful, tough-minded essays)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (really seamless historical fiction)
Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South by Patrick Huber (fascinating)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (lives up to the hype!)

Actually, I just finished the Rebecca Skloot, so I’m excited to pass it along to my friend Jen, a talented book designer and great reader. HeLa (for short) is a fascinating and heartbreaking story about a family’s attempts to understand how their mother’s cervical cancer cells, taken without her knowledge, have become famous, important, and “immortal.” While some reviewers have focused on the book’s justifiable critique of science, it made me think a lot about science as cultural literacy. How can you make informed choices, stay healthy, problem-solve, participate in society and politics and the economy if you don’t understand fundamental scientific principles? If you don’t know what a cell is?

And yet our public schools, at least at the elementary and middle school levels (particularly those in poor, urban areas), routinely treat science as something less important than math and reading, as something separate (at my school in Brooklyn, it was a “special” most kids saw twice a week; the science classroom for my D.C. fifth graders was bare and ill-equipped for their needs). Science testing often “doesn’t count” in schools’ AYP results.

The most exciting thing I’ve heard about Michelle Obama’s attempts to eradicate childhood obesity is her hope that schools and teachers can be freed from so much math and reading testing pressure, integrating more recess and P.E. time into the school day. Maybe this will make more room for meaningful, inquiry-based elementary and midde-grades science education–clearly a component of healthy living–as well. We certainly can’t wait for high school to get kids interested in science.

Henrietta Lacks’s children are in their fifties before they meet Ms. Skloot, seemingly the first person to try to help them understand exactly how their mother has contributed to science. They have been frustrated, bewildered, and taken advantage of for many years at this point, and are understandably angry and suspicious. And yet they are curious–Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter and the book’s hero, is especially so–just as most people are, naturally, about science. The journey Deborah takes to understanding  her mother’s life and the science behind her immortal cells helps to relieve the burden of anger and resentment and fear she’s carried her whole life.

HeLa would make a terrific cross-curricular (biology, history, journalism) read in a high school or college. It’s also beautifully written! I love that one Skloot’s most prominently-featured blurbs is from Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, one of my favorite nonfiction writers.

Here’s an excerpt of the book, from Skloot’s website, where you can also find her extensive readings schedule:

http://rebeccaskloot.com/the-immortal-life/excerpt/

I’ll write more about the other books soon (once I’ve finished with them)!

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “New Books, Science in Our Schools

  1. WOLF HALL is effing awesome, also.

  2. Darcy

    Hi Belle,

    You convinced me, thoroughly and totally: I’m gonna go pick up the Henrietta Lacks book tomorrow!

    Hope you and Richard are so, so well.

    Darcy

  3. Jennifer

    you are nice. I’m looking forward to reading the HeLa.

  4. Belle Boggs

    Thanks for your comments, guys! Dan: yes, I’m loving Wolf Hall (and your book, but I’m reading both slowly). Darcy: you will love HeLa–and I know you’re an awesome science teacher. Jennifer: it’s true. Hope you like the book.

  5. Pingback: “The Science of Citizenship” in Orion | Belle Boggs

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