I did it for the first time a few months ago. I had to work up my courage. I worried about the ramifications. I agonized about possible responses. I wondered what my family, neighbors, and coworkers would think. Finally, I just had to do it. I wrote my first letter to the editor of our local paper.
When our paper started running articles from local and nationally syndicated columnists, commentary pieces, and letters to the editor about the debate on teaching evolution in our schools, I felt as though it was time for me to write in. After all, I am a science educator. I saw this opportunity as the perfect chance to educate the public about science.
You can take advantage of this opportunity, too. In fact, I think it is our responsibility as science teachers to do so. I learned some things from my brief foray into public writing I want to share, in the hopes that it will encourage some of you to join the discussion. Below are some tips you may want to keep in mind when writing and talking about the evolution debate.
First, keep your message positive. The letter to the editor I finally responded to was in support of teaching “intelligent design” in school science classes. The letter was filled with inaccuracies, misleading statements, and downright untruths. My first instinct was to go through the letter and take it apart piece by piece. That, however, would have accomplished very little. Even though you may have reason and objectivity on your side, if you have a negative, nasty tone, you will end up antagonizing people who may otherwise be willing to listen to what you have to say.
Second, look at the opportunity as a “teachable moment.” Here is a chance to extend the reach of your pedagogy beyond the classroom to the whole community. Science is the study of measurable, testable phenomena. Let your community members know this. The letter that I responded to asked why we teach theories in school—why don’t we stick to the facts and laws. I replied that the word “theory” takes on a different meaning in science. It’s not the same thing as saying “I have a theory about why the Eagles lost the Super Bowl.” I explained that a theory does not “graduate” to become a law when there is enough proof gathered to support it. A theory explains a law. We teach a lot of theories in science class, including germ theory (communicable disease is spread through microorganisms), cell theory (living things are made up of cells), quantum theory, gravitational theory, and, yes, evolution.
Third, use your own terminology. Do not allow supporters of creationism to frame the debate. If you allow yourself to be drawn in to debating the fine points of intelligent design or irreducible complexity, you will have lost the debate before you started. Focus on promoting your message. Do not simply negate someone else’s statements.
And finally, keep an open mind. You will probably get some response to your writing. I did! Some of it was positive; some of it was very negative. Allow the positive comments to give you the incentive to keep writing and speaking. A woman who works in our school cafeteria thanked me for explaining the issue. That kept me going for weeks. If the negative comments are cheap personal attacks, ignore them (I know, easier said than done). Try to learn from the negative responses. I was very surprised to learn that one of my letters to the local paper was featured on some science websites and then proliferated across the internet. Boy, did I get some negative responses from that exposure! Some of my best insights about how to get my point across, however, came from the negative responses that I got.
Science educators, you have the unparalleled opportunity to teach science to a community who is paying attention. Write! Don’t wait. I am sorry that I procrastinated as long as I did. If I had known that it would feel this good, I would have done it much sooner. Participate in the debate. You have something worthwhile to contribute, so speak up!
Laurel Hess (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a chemistry teacher at Warwick High School in Lititz, Pennsylvania.