Jill Madden teaches earth and environmental science at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Watsonville, California. In July 2013, Jill and six other teachers accompanied Bruce MacFadden to Panama to engage in authentic research experiences collecting fossils along the Panama Canal. This summer, Jill is working in the education division at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In this article, Jill describes how she incorporated what she learned into her classroom practice—and how her students responded. You can read media coverage of what happened at http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/News/ci_25868326/Watsonille-student-museum-offers-Blast-from
Stories of the Past
The human animal is deeply connected to story. And young people are the ones who delight the most in tales told or written. How do fossils enter into this?
Folks of any age are intrigued and delighted by fossils I think because they are a hidden treasure with many stories to tell us. By working with scientists through the PIRE Teach program, I not only collected fossils but engaged in scientific conversations with a number of paleontologists to be given the initial stories.
I had the opportunity this past school year to use those ancient fossils and their stories to teach my middle school students about evolutionary biology with a richness that I had not been able to offer them before. We explored the stories of the changing life on Earth through fossil evidence by studying actual fossils of marine invertebrates from the Gatun formation in Panama and the bones of ancient horses from Thomas Farm in Florida. They held, studied, illustrated and replicated fossils which led the students on deep explorations of the past. The result was180 young people who wanted to share what they learned with other students by creating a fossil museum at our school site.
Every aspect of “The Blast from the Past” fossil museum was entirely crafted by my students from the title to each exhibit. They worked tirelessly for a three week span to make games and posters and activities to tell the stories the fossils had taught them. There were posters sharing such creatures as megalodon and saber toothed cats. There were sorting stations with tiny horse bones. And what was agreed to be the favorite activity station—a fossil bed to dig in and uncover actual fossils.
My students became docents and curators of their own museum. They proudly and with a huge element of fun devoted the last week of the school year to sharing their museum with adults and younger students. They stepped into being scientists instead of simply studying it. And the stories the fossils told taught them that science was not just something one read about but something they actively did. They connected to studying fossils in ways that were exciting and meaningful to them. As their teacher I was able to step back and smile. The stories shared through the fossil remains of ancient life had become their own.