Last week, my science classes learned about fossils and fossilization. The lessons were meant to be a brief introduction and support our study of superposition and relative dating of rock layers. Out of all of the geology topics my science classes have explored since November, fossils was the topic I looked forward to teaching about most.
I was the kid with the dinosaur book in elementary school. Although my love of math led me to specializing in that subject in college, I took paleontology and a mix of other science courses, too. I’ve always loved Earth history and I wanted to have another endorsement on my teaching license. Along the way, I got to examine a bunch of fossils in labs, went on a trip to the Field Museum to visit the off-exhibit areas where scientists conduct research, and I dug up fossils at a quarry. Besides these experiences, I traveled around Arizona over the course of a few summers and paid close attention to how many of the impressive natural sites formed.
Unsurprisingly, I brought genuine enthusiasm to my lessons about fossils. My questions started off simply asking students about prior knowledge, getting them to reason that most fossils record the densest body parts of an organism, and relating the ages of fossils to the rock layers within which they are found. I showed a video from the Field Museum, then I followed up with questions about what students watched and I shared my personal stories. In all of this dialogue, I reflected later that my voice was stronger, my eyes opened wider, and I moved slowly about the room with a swagger that I haven’t felt in a while when teaching.
After sharing about the effort required to find and collect fossils, I directed students to work on a summary page as I showed smaller groups my fossils. Even though it meant a lot of repetition on my part, I talked to group after group of 4 students about my Silurian and Ordovician fossils. I reminded students of the effort it took me to get the fossils as they carefully held the fossils and examined the specimens. I used the opportunity to reiterate the concepts we discussed earlier. I questioned students about what they noticed in the rocks, explained what organisms living today are similar to the fossils, and answered student questions. I had students asking me questions about the fossils that I haven’t seen raise a hand for weeks of class instruction. I was brimming with delight as students asked me why everything looked like it came from the ocean, where I got the fossils, why I studied paleontology, and how come some fossils looked broken.
I owned that lesson. I knew it, but students knew it, too. Looking back at that day, I definitely point to enthusiasm as the determining factor of the lesson’s success. The same activities (short Q&A, lecture, video, worksheet, and small group hands-on activity) would have flopped if they were devoid of the personal stories, confident delivery, insistent questioning, and opportunity for students to wonder.
I share this reflection as a reminder for myself. Regardless of the subject matter, I need to find more of the content I teach that provokes genuine enthusiasm on my part. Even if it’s just a short personal story about how I’ve used a concept, why I value something without applications to everyday life, or my experience learning something for the first time, I need to bring that human element into my teaching. Enthusiasm will make my delivery stronger, my questioning more inviting, push me to make lessons more interactive, and invite students to question more. While adolescents can mask their enthusiasm and attempt to derail even the strongest of lessons, it’s hard to ignore (or disrespect) a person who is obviously passionate at the moment. Even if a student doesn’t love math or science as much as I do, hopefully my enthusiasm will at least get students to respect the subject matter, respect people who are passionate, and feel a little better about being passionate about their interests.