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Ebola Coverage: In the News, In Our Classroom

By Kimberly Berndt, Science Department Head

Do we have the time? It is the first, last, and interminable question educators ask when considering whether they should divert from their intended plans. This question came to mind immediately when Lindsey Lohwater and I considered pausing midway through our current Advanced Biology unit in order to focus entirely on the Ebola epidemic – not for one day, but for more than one week. But, to this (somewhat) rhetorical question, my mind, or perhaps my gut, immediately responded. No, we don’t have the time– but we can’t NOT do this.

 There exists a palpable tension between meeting the expectations of an Advanced curriculum and providing students with unique, relevant, and dynamic learning opportunities. The expectation that our students will be prepared to perform well on pre-designed exams, such as many AP exams, that are devoid of current events often limits the opportunities that we feel we can afford to extend to our students. Time, simply put, is the major limiting factor. As a school, we can become consumed by the proximal result – external metrics at the end of a course,when perhaps our primary attention should be focused on the ultimate result: the development of life-long learners who care about and deeply understand the world around them.

I shudder at the thought of how many times I have been consumed by the proximal result and ignored opportunities to make learning real and relevant. But not this time…

The Advanced Biology students spent the entirety of last week, and will continue into this week, studying the multifaceted story of Ebola. Organized into research teams these scholars are exploring class-determined questions including, but not limited to:

  • What is the history of Ebola
  • How does Ebola cause disease?
  • How has Ebola spread during this outbreak?
  • Should there be a global response?
  • What is the role of the United States and the CDC?
  • What is the treatment for Ebola? Is there a cure?
  • How is Ebola transmitted?
  • Why are Liberia and Sierra Leone struggling to contain this outbreak? Why has Nigeria been successful?

Rustling among us, within our student body, are scholars who are becoming experts on the current crisis. I acknowledge that I use the term expert with some latitude. However, these scholars are experts among us. They have evaluated resources, discarded unreliable information, and devoured credible material. As a collaborative team, these students are developing an understanding of the complexity of the Ebola outbreak – reaching beyond the isolated domains of science, history, politics, anthropology, and economics and resulting in interdisciplinary scholarship.

How does this scholarship affect our SM community? It makes us a more informed community that by default will be a more compassionate community. This type of scholarship enables our students to become reflective consumers of information and not passive recipients of sensationalized media. A cursory exposure to the Ebola outbreak can result in the acceptance of distorted facts, desensitization of the importance of the matter, hyper sensitization to the hysteria, or even worse, allow us to accept comedic value in a dramatic and serious event.  For those who understand this epidemic the deaths are not simply a statistic mentioned on CNN. Rather, we feel the frustration because the news is a reminder of the complexity of the outbreak that reflects limitations in science, infrastructure, economics, and education.

While we are still in the midst of this educative experience, student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Students mentioned that they appreciate the opportunity to “move outside of the SM bubble”, that they are now “checking the news every day” to keep up with the epidemic, and that they are questioning “whether what they are hearing in the news is entirely factual”.   And for a metric of student engagement – I found myself forcing students out of the classroom at the end of both the 45 and 80-minute blocks last week.

I know that once this project comes to a close my focus will return to meeting the curricular expectations of Advanced Biology – eternally feeling as though I am falling short in my responsibilities. At the same time, I expect that I will reflect upon what opportunities I have ignored in the past that would have better educated, inspired, or engaged my students. Perhaps the question I should have been asking all along is not whether I have the time, but rather what is lost if I don’t take the time?

Considering the question is a step. And, at least I think we grabbed the right opportunity this time.

Kimberley Berndt entered the teaching profession as a Teach For America Corps Member after graduating from Oberlin College in 1993. She is now in her 22nd year of teaching in total and her 45h year at St. Mark’s. When not working you will likely find Kim watching her children play soccer, cooking, or laughing at her lethargic cat, Olivia, or rambunctious miniature dachshund, Austin Powers. 

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