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FOR EDUCATORS

Rachel Carson

This lesson includes activities that would be suitable for Science, English, and Civics classrooms, grades 6-12.

Lesson Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Read and respond to the first chapter of SILENT SPRING, by Rachel Carson.
  • Use viewing skills and note taking strategies to understand and interpret a video clip.
  • Participate in a class discussion about the risks that Carson took when speaking out about established practices, as well as how science and society influence one another.
  • Watch a slideshow of photographs that highlight important aspects of Carson's life and career.
  • Write a paragraph that describes how Carson's personal qualities helped her to be a more effective scientist.
Estimated Time

One 50-minute class period. Extensions are provided for classrooms that wish to study this topic in greater depth.

Materials Needed

  • Copies of Rachel Carson's book, SILENT SPRING. This lesson will feature the first chapter, "A Fable for Tomorrow," which can be previewed online. (Tip: Do a search on the chapter title to find the full text, which is available from various sources.)
  • Method (varies by school) of showing an online video clip to the entire class
  • Transcript of BILL MOYERS JOURNAL (for planning purposes)
  • Handout: Viewing Guide (PDF file)
Relevant Standards

Source: "Content Knowledge"
(http://www.mcrel.org/compendium/browse.asp) by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)

Civics, Standard 19: Understands what is meant by "the public agenda," how it is set, and how it is influenced by public opinion and the media.

Language Arts, Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

Language Arts, Standard 10: Understands the characteristics and components of the media.

Science, Standard 11: Understands the nature of scientific knowledge.

Science, Standard 12: Understands the nature of scientific inquiry.

Science, Standard 13: Understands the scientific enterprise.

U.S. History, Standard 28: Understands domestic policies in the post-World War II period.

Background

Rachel Carson's book, SILENT SPRING, touched off a major controversy in 1962 when it alleged that man's frequent and indiscriminate use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals were poisoning the Earth. Chemical companies and other opponents waged a campaign to discredit her, but she remained calm and firm in her convictions, confident of her facts.

Her writings helped people recognize that human actions affect the environment, an idea that forms the foundation of modern environmental movements. They also inspired later policy changes restricting the use of chemicals and pesticides. She is considered to be one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century. This lesson uses a variety of media to introduce students to Rachel Carson and her work, including her writings, a video story showing the historical context of SILENT SPRING and an actor's portrayal of Carson, as well as a slideshow of photographs showing scenes of Carson's life and career. Students will synthesize their learning in class discussions and a series short writing assignments.

Assumed Student Prior Knowledge

This lesson assumes that students have solid reading and writing skills since explicit instruction in these areas is not provided as part of the teaching strategy.

Teaching Strategy

1. Ask the class to read the first chapter (length: about 3 pages), "A Fable for Tomorrow" from Rachel Carson's SILENT SPRING. Have students react in writing to what they've read. What "evil spell" could have settled on and silenced the community? How could the people have brought this destruction on themselves?

2. Explain that the author, Rachel Carson, used "A Fable for Tomorrow" to get the public's attention about the dangers of indiscriminate pesticide use. She then used the remaining chapters in her book, SILENT SPRING, to present her scientific findings on how man's use of pesticides and other such chemicals was poisoning the earth, and that chemicals need to be used selectively and carefully. But Carson was harshly criticized for what she wrote.

3. Show students an excerpt from the BILL MOYERS JOURNAL special on Rachel Carson that explains why she wrote SILENT SPRING and describes how Carson was attacked for her book. Tell students that part of the clip shows a performer named Kaiulani Lee, who plays the role of Carson in a play called, "A Sense of Wonder," and that her lines are taken from Carson's writings. Use the provided Viewing Guide to focus your students' attention as they watch.

  • Watch Video

    4. Ask students if they would have written SILENT SPRING if they were in Carson's position. Why or why not? Discuss whether or not scientists have a responsibility to speak up when they perceive a threat to the public good. In what ways do science and society influence one another?

    5. Show students a slideshow that highlights Carson's life and career. (To launch the slideshow, click on the photograph of Carson at the Web site for the BILL MOYERS JOURNAL special on Rachel Carson: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09212007/profile.html). As the class looks at the photographs, explain that Carson's writings are credited with helping people recognize that human actions affect the environment, an idea that forms the foundation of modern environmental movements. Her writings also led to policy changes restricting the use of chemicals and pesticides. She is considered to be one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century.

    6. Wrap up the lesson by having students write a paragraph, perhaps for homework, that describes how Carson's personal qualities helped her to be a more effective scientist. Students might note characteristics like Carson's courage to challenge the status quo, her love of nature, her detailed observations, or her talent for writing.

    Assessment Recommendations

    Students may be assessed through:

    • Written reaction to, "A Fable for Tomorrow."
    • Answers provided on the Viewing Guide.
    • Participation in class discussions.
    • Paragraph descriptions of Carson's personal qualities.
    Extension Ideas

    • Watch the entire BILL MOYERS JOURNAL special on Rachel Carson (length: 53:56). Then, do one or more of the following activities:

      • Draw from student notes taken while watching the program to create a class timeline that features major milestones on Rachel Carson's life and career. Have students conduct research and extend this timeline to include events that they believe reflect the impact of SILENT SPRING on science and society. (Possible additions might include the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the banning of DDT and other policy changes, etc.)

      • Develop a monologue or mini-play about an historical figure that quotes primary source documents from that individual. Kaiulani Lee (http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09212007/profile3.html) provides an excellent model of how to do this with the play she wrote and performs on Rachel Carson (featured in the program). Allow time for students to provide written critiques of each other's plays and then perform them.

      • Write an analysis of how Carson used the media and her skills as a writer to achieve her goals. How did her poetic scientific observations and translations of technical material help her to reach a larger audience? What specific techniques did she use in SILENT SPRING to sound the alarm about the indiscriminate use of chemicals? Where and how were her writings featured?

    • Debate the question, "Is Rachel Carson responsible for millions of malaria deaths." Students can begin their research with the BILL MOYERS JOURNAL resource, Rachel Carson and DDT (http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09212007/profile2.html), which explains the uses of DDT, summarizes Carson's perspective about pesticides, and outlines charges by critics who believe that bans on pesticide use in reaction to Carson's writings have led to millions of malaria deaths worldwide. Students can find additional viewpoints for their research in the JOURNAL's References and Reading listing (http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09212007/profile.html).

    • Read SILENT SPRING in its entirety and identify the strengths and limitations of the evidence Carson uses to back her scientific explanations. Consider also the criticisms and praise of SILENT SPRING in the articles listed in BILL MOYERS JOURNAL's related References and Reading list (http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09212007/profile.html) and DDT Controversy page (http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09212007/profile2.html.) Why does Richard Tierney, for example, in THE NEW YORK TIMES characterize SILENT SPRING as a, "hodgepodge of science and junk science," while a Congressional resolution sought to honor Carson for her "legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility?" Have students then write reviews of SILENT SPRING that focus on their opinions of its scientific validity.

    • Learn about the efforts of some modern-day environmental crusaders in West Virginia by showing students a 17-minute BILL MOYERS JOURNAL story, Mountaintop Mining (http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/09072007/profile.html) that features the efforts of those against surface mining, including Christian evangelicals who aren't typically associated with environmental activism. Compare and contrast the viewpoints of those featured in the video with Carson's reverence and respect for nature. Have students write a one-page description of how they personally view the natural world.

    • Identify current government attitudes toward pesticide use by exploring resources from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (http://www.epa.gov/pesticides) and state agencies listed on this Pesticide Use Map (http://www.pbs.org/now/science/pesticidemap.html). Then, write opinion papers that use evidence to support whether or not current pesticide use reflects Carson's call for the "selective and intelligent use of chemicals."

    • Introduce younger students (grades 3 and higher) to Rachel Carson with books like, RACHEL CARSON: PIONEER OF ECOLOGY by Kathleen Kudlinski and RACHEL CARSON: VOICE FOR THE EARTH BY GINGER Wadsworth. Have the children respond to what they've read by writing about one contribution that Carson made to society and then illustrating it.

    • Conduct an in-depth study of Carson and other scientists, such as Galileo or Charles Darwin, who had the courage to challenge accepted beliefs and practices and stand up for their work despite intense personal attacks. Create profiles of these scientists and feature them in a school library display, articles for the school paper, audio podcast series, or another type of media presentation.

    Related Resources

    For additional online research, see our Reading and Resources listing.

    The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson This Web site features photographs, a biography, an obituary, and other resources detailing Carson's life and career.

    Rachel Carson - SILENT SPRING
    The Online Ethics Center at the National Academy of Engineering provides background, analysis, and other resources related to Carson's environmental advocacy.

    About the Author

    Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in broadcast journalism, secondary education, and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource Web site (now PBS Teachers), and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

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