Friday, July 3, 2020
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Biology teacher requires public statements by students

A biology teacher at Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge and Latin High School, a public school, requires not only that her students learn the science behind climate change, not only that they give a presentation in class about climate change, but also that they go on the public record as citizens to inform the public about climate change, Cambridge Community Television reports.

Students are required in Barbara Dorritie’s biology class to write a letter to a government official, design and launch a website, develop a public service announcement, organize a flash mob, or take some other public position describing climate change or advocating for some course of action on the part of government officials, corporate executives, or the general public.

“Coming into biology, most of my students don’t know what’s causing climate change, but they are interested in it,” she was quoted as saying. “They also have almost no idea of what the actual consequences are, and how it will affect them.”

When that curiosity meets one of the school’s expectations of students—that they understand and exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democratic and multicultural society—an assignment is born that touches the First Amendment in a fundamental way, the New York Times reports.

Now, it’s one thing to require students to read a book, even write a book report. However, forcing students to put their personal beliefs about the book on the public record and grading them on their professionalism is another thing entirely, in my view.

In order to receive a grade on this assignment, students must show proof that the public was engaged. Changes in personal behavior would also fulfill the assignment, but most students report being highly engaged by the more tech-savvy options—see a music video here, for example. As far as public engagement goes, Cambridge Community Television reported that Mayor Henrietta Davis and other public officials were invited to watch some of the creative output.

Keep in mind, the civic action has nothing to do with students’ understanding of climate change, the science behind it, or anything related to the study of biology. The teacher in this case is latching onto a global expectation of students at the school and incorporating it into her biology lesson plan.

Ordinarily, I would think engaging students in science and seeing the important role science plays in our world would be a good idea for a cross-curricular project, if it weren’t for the fact that students are being compelled to put their beliefs on the public record. Once those beliefs hit the public, such as in the YouTube video above, they tend not to go away—ever. The right to speak also includes the right to say nothing at all, and that choice should have been left up to the students here.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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