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Claire McKinney: A Teacher's Perspective


Q: How did you feel when your students petitioned to have creation science taught alongside evolution?

A: I was curious from an educator's point of view. There is a large part of me that felt, my gosh, we haven't done a very good job with the nature of science if we have this many students who don't understand the difference! And why creation? And you know any supreme being can't be addressed in a science classroom. And I kept thinking, gee, it seems like we try so hard to really hit home with what makes a particular event science, and the fact that there seems to be a lack of understanding about that was disturbing to me.

Q: How did you deal with the science curriculum controversy?

A: Steve [Randak] and I and Amy [Heath], the three of us that teach together, we're fortunate in that [we work closely together]. I think it would have been difficult if I had been a lone teacher in a small school corporation without a large support network. And I know that there are teachers who just avoid evolution. They just act like it's not even a part of the curriculum, and they just don't teach it, because it makes them uncomfortable, because they know they may be challenged about that. So we're fortunate in that the three of us work very closely together in a team situation. We can kind of help support, guide, address those kinds of things as they come up.

I have yet to hear of a case where they've given equal time [to evolution and creationism] in a science classroom. However, I have heard of cases where they've removed evolution from the curriculum. And many of those have happened just at the local level within a school corporation. I don't think the three of us would have continued teaching here had that been the case. I can't speak for them, but I really don't think as an educator I could teach biology and do it well if I couldn't talk about the natural processes that make it work. To take that element out would be removing one of the... well, the major pillar that supports that whole field of science. And in good conscience I couldn't have slighted my kids that way in my classroom.

Many [students] are willing to accept micro evolution, but not macro evolution. [But] to say that there's a natural process that only works in some situations but not all situations negates natural processes, period. The assumption is gravity will work all of the time -- not just some of the time, but all of the time.… [Look at] the rate at which we're altering the environment in which living things live. We need to know just how efficient is this process, because we're changing it more quickly than history would tell us we can, because animals and living things are not going to be able to adapt as quickly as we are changing the environment around them. So we have some things to learn about that, or we're going to be in big trouble. We've identified a lot of environmental things we need to do differently, but we're very slow to respond.

Q: How did you respond to your students involved in the petition?

A: After I had said that I was unable to sign their petition, they continued to bring me folders and folders of [photocopied] information from different texts. And I could have predicted what most of the information was going to be -- the creationist response has been very similar year after year after year.

It's always been kind of interesting to me that the way that the creationists' viewpoint works is, "We'll look at the evidence indicating an evolution and then we'll oppose it." Instead of just collecting data and looking at what it means, it's always in opposition to existing data, and I find that an interesting way to proceed. That's usually not how science works.

If some data or information that I'm aware of negates or opposes information or data they've given me, I will do that. As far as attacking an individual, or a church, or a congregation, or a group of people, I don't feel that's the appropriate approach. I guess maybe that's my Christian upbringing that tells me that would be an inappropriate approach. Because then I would almost feel that I'm doing the same [as the creationists], and I try to stick very much to "this is what science is, and this is what science is not." That's what I use as my guideline.

I don't feel that those individuals that hold to a literal creation are stupid, because stupidity in my mind is more of an unwillingness to learn. And I don't think it's an unwillingness on their part to learn. I think they're just very narrow in what they're willing to expose themselves to. I know that for our students, it's real hard for me as a parent and as a teacher to know that not only are they dealing with their own faith issues at a very young age -- 14, 15 years old -- but they're also dealing with the issues of being disobedient to their parents. And these are good Christian kids who feel that that's important, and I admire that. And I know that for many of them it's not only the "evils" of evolution, it's that "my parents don't even want me to hear about this or listen to it, much less participate in the conversation." And that's a real tough spot to be in when you're 14 and 15. That's real hard for me as a mother and as a teacher, because I know that's the issue they're struggling with, because they don't want to do anything that's disloyal.

I think in some people's minds there is a war going on between evolution and creation. I personally don't see it that way. It won't be the first time wars have been fought over religious viewpoints, that is for certain, and it won't be the last time. I think it's unfortunate that religion, which should propose so many other different attitudes and lifestyles, oftentimes conflict arises out of that belief system. And I think that's very unfortunate. As far as it being a war, I think that students who are really interested in coming to terms with it themselves, will.

I don't see too many students that, if they really look into both aspects of the issue, come out of it being one or the other. I don't usually see that as an outcome. I usually see students and adults [taking sides] that have basically refused to really seriously consider the evidence across the board that represents both lines of thinking.

Q: Can you relate to what your students are going through?

A: When I was the same age as the students that I now teach, my experience was much the same as theirs -- coming from a strong Christian home, and active involvement in my church. And in my church upbringing, I don't know that literal translation [of Genesis] was really directly addressed. However, I did accept that the Bible was the word of God and not to be challenged. Then, as a teenager, when I really started having an increased interest in the sciences, and really started looking at the scientific method and what makes science science, they seemed contrary to me at that point in time. And I was like, oh my gosh, these things don't seem very well aligned to me.

Q: When did you begin to see a conflict?

A: I was probably 14. And I remember thinking, gosh, how can the evidence that we see in science… you know, it really seems to undermine the Bible. And I had a very, very intelligent pastor tell me once, I asked him what he thought, and he said, "What I think doesn't matter -- it's what you think." And he said, "Here's what I recommend. You learn a lot about both and then you make your own decision."

And that's what I did. I went to Bible studies and I pursued careers in science and just fell in love with them. And I would say that probably by the end of my senior [year] -- or maybe I was even in college -- before I really came to terms with the fact that, in my mind, and in my heart, there was no conflict. They answer very different questions. They address very different things in our lives. And I think as an individual, for me, they are very supportive of one another. I can't really see that one could exist without the other, at least in my mind.

Q: How do you prepare your students to explore for themselves?

A: We try to teach the students that [with] any piece of information -- regardless of the source -- you need to really think about where it came from and why that piece of information has been given to you. We actually, early on in this class, will fabricate articles, data, and give them to the students, let them do all the work, let them sort through that, we'll grade them, hand them back and then say, "We made this all up." That's very disturbing to a lot of kids. And we will have students, with every activity that they do in here, we have them evaluate the data. They have to rate it one through ten, and then justify their response. At first they said ten for everything: "Well, it came out of the book." "The teacher told us." "We got it off the computer." "It was in the lab." And it only took a couple of times for us to pull their legs, that now it's, "Well, if the teacher told us, for sure we need to look into it in greater depth." And that's been real good. We try to teach them to be critical.

You know, they used to think the earth was flat. Dare to doubt. Dare to challenge what you know to be true. And that's important. They need to be able to do that.

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