© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Dear Mr. Taylor (Part 2)

(Continued from Part 1, or start at the beginning)

NCSEFirst, a mea culpa. Richard B. Hoppe of the brilliant Panda’s Thumb blog took me to task for failing to mention (yet) the National Center for Science Education, the premiere organization defending the teaching of evolution in the US. I’ve been a close follower of NCSE’s work for ten years (my funny first meeting with NCSE’s Eugenie Scott is described here) and have a well-thumbed stack of their newsletters and reprinted articles.

My plan was to profile and recommend NCSE at the end of this series. But by leaving it to the end, I give the false impression that my approach comes straight off the top of my head. In fact, it comes from years of absorbing the stories of others and the hard-earned advice of NCSE.

Parents unfamiliar with NCSE should go there FIRST to get tips on responding to challenges to evolution education, suggestions for testifying effectively at a school board meeting, direct advice for a particular situation, and insight into the state of things both nationally and in your own backyard. (Thanks, Richard!)


Previously on MoL: Mr. Taylor, my son’s now-former science teacher, had asked me a common creationist question: wouldn’t you trust the evidence of your eyes more than circumstantial evidence? I answered no, explained why, then asked for a copy of the overhead to which my son had referred.

After three days without a reply, I dropped Mr. Taylor a note:

Dear Mr. Taylor,

I’m guessing my reply to your question about evidence didn’t get through, and I didn’t want you to think I was being rude by not responding. Here it is again (below). Is that the answer you were looking for?

I sure would like to see that overhead when you have a chance so I can show Connor that he misunderstood.

I appended the earlier message.

He answered quickly:

I have been working on a couple of research projects with two chemistry professors at two universities. Like my self they do research but they are both teachers as well. They have not been able to answer my emails to them recently because their school year has started. They are now both extremely busy. As I am.

If you wish to continue this conversation I would like to hear from. Please call me at […] during the evening sometime. Or if you want we could meet some evening in a StarBucks and discuss science and related topics.

Sincerely,
Harold Taylor

I had thought he was unable to effectively respond. I had thought he was unwilling to share his overhead with someone other than a captive high school student — someone who might be able to trace it to the teacher resources available on several creationist websites.

Turns out he’s just busy.

I wasn’t interested in discussing science generally, and certainly not “related topics.” I had made a simple request about something that happened in my son’s science class. I received similar requests from parents when I was teaching, and a prompt provision of context and content was always well-received. Mr. Taylor chose instead to bob and weave, then to faint with busyness.

I am achingly sympathetic to the actual busyness of teachers. Marry one for a while if you doubt that the demands are often impossibly high. But a central part of the job is responding to the reasonable concerns of parents. And despite every opportunity, Mr. Taylor has declined to do that.

I signed off:

That’s very kind of you, Harold. I wouldn’t think of bothering you any further.

If you ever do find the thirty seconds it would take to attach that overhead, I’d be happy for the (pardon the pun) transparency it would provide. Have a good year!

Witty bastard.

So — my son came home with a troubling story of non-science in the science classroom. I responded just as I would if he told me his math teacher called pi controversial or his history teacher insisted that the Holocaust never happened — I asked the teacher to confirm or deny the red flag. By bobbing and weaving, then cutting me off before I could raise the follow-up (about “evolutionists”) that he surely knew was coming, Mr. Taylor essentially confirmed Connor’s account and my suspicions.

Having shown him the courtesy of hearing from me first, I can move on to the next step — getting the principal in the loop. And again, I pause for a minute to wince.

I’ve watched and admired school principals for years. They are busy on a level that would wake Mr. Taylor from his dreams of research in a cold sweat. And a big part of that busyness is a constant stream of outrage from parents on every imaginable issue. I hate to add to that barrage.

But I also know that by speaking up, I am doing the administration an immense favor. Feedback from parents and students is often the only way the administration can learn about malpractice in the classroom. And this particular brand has cost school districts millions in litigation. No sane administrator wants or needs that expensive distraction from the task of educating our kids, so they tend to be extremely responsive to this kind of heads-up — especially since the Kitzmiller decision.

Judge John E. Jones III
judgejones

If you haven’t read the Kitzmiller decision, I’ll have to insist. It’s an incredible document. In clear, gripping, and often frankly pissed-off language, Judge Jones’s decision recounts the legal history of the debate, lays out the stark imbalance between the two sides, and deals an unprecedented blow to future attempts to insert “intelligent design” into the public school science classroom as an alternative to evolution.

Judge Jones — a Lutheran and a Republican, btw — went far beyond the narrow confines of the case. He wanted to give the rest of us somewhere to stand and to rob ID of its time-wasting toehold in the courts. And he did.

No time for 139 pages? Start on page 136, letter H. You’ll suddenly find time for the rest.

Watch the NOVA documentary JUDGMENT DAY: Intelligent Design on Trial

(Next time: Up the ladder.)

Comments

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This was written on Tuesday, 07. September 2010 at 09:21 and was filed under action, Atlanta, belief and believers, Kerfuffles, My kids, Parenting, Science. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Continuing to follow with great interest.
    Judge Jones is my hero. His clarity was such a relief, and an excellent reminder that religious fundamentalism is not the only voice or power in the Republican party. (although I sure wish more like him would speak out!). Thanks for reminding us about that case.

    Comment: niftywriter – 07. September 2010 @ 11:40 am

  2. Wow, Dale,

    I love that you’re sharing this with us. It’s a great example of how to proceed should this happen to others. I don’t expect I’ll ever have this problem, as my daughter attends the Los Angeles Unified School District, and we know *exactly* who to call should something like this occur. It helps that we’re in a predominently Jewish neighborhood. I know we’d have a good number of people who wouldn’t want their kids taught Christian fundamentalist pseudoscience.

    A few pieces of background that would help me understand your story…

    Is this a public school, or private? I’m guessing from your most recent post talking about costly lawsuits that it’s public. But it wasn’t clear before… and I started to think about the different way one would handle the situation at a private school…. it would be more one of persuasion about academic excellence, and less one of “here, let me help you avoid a lawsuit…”

    Also, where are you located? If you don’t want to share, then tell us what’s the makeup of your school district? Are you in a place where there’s general acceptance of science teaching? is it a liberal type of place, or a conservative one?

    And I was also wondering if blogging about this while it’s happening is necessarily a good idea… or if maybe you thought the same thing, and this actually happened a few months ago and you’re blogging about it now.

    I mean, you aren’t anonymous, and (for example) the teacher might be reading this and take it as a bad-faith part of the conversation, knowing you’d be blogging his email to you.

    Anyway, keep sharing. I’m very interested.

    Comment: Siamang – 07. September 2010 @ 11:48 am

  3. @Siamang: Public school in a mostly but not completely conservative part of Atlanta.

    I thought quite a bit about whether or not to blog in the midst. Yes, it’s unfolding now, and yes, I think there’s an excellent chance he’s following along. “Live-blogging” this constitutes a kind of radical transparency that keeps everyone honest. If I distort the record, he can call me on it right here and now.

    It’s also an antidote to the kind of curricular sneak that started this in the first place. He needs the privacy of the classroom to attack evolution, but I can defend it in the light of day.

    Plus we get the thrills and chills of the unknown ending.

    Comment: Dale – 07. September 2010 @ 12:04 pm

  4. Thanks for your kind words, Dale. This is providing a textbook example of how to handle the problem in a way that protects everyone involved, including (believe it or not) the teacher.

    And being married for 44 years to a public school teacher who just retired this summer after 43 years of it, I know that a teacher’s second professional responsibility (after his/her duty to students) is to the parents of the students. No amount of “research” with chemistry professors at universities can take precedence over that.

    And in that vein I found “Taylor’s” remark about those chemistry professors being too busy to answer his emails to them a little peculiar. I wonder if they might be his coaches in creationism. Pure speculation, of course, but it wouldn’t amaze me to learn that it is the case.

    Comment: RBH – 07. September 2010 @ 12:42 pm

  5. Thanks RBH. And I’m glad you mention protecting the teacher, which is very much on my mind. Even though his games get under my skin a bit, I try to keep the transgression in perspective and imagine what it feels like to be caught in this way. Hence the pseudonym and a few other cautions.

    Comment: Dale – 07. September 2010 @ 12:52 pm

  6. I am bothered by the disingenuous posturing of his email. Is he trying to insinuate that he’s too busy doing science to be bothered with teaching science? This I-was-busy-playing-in-the-big-kid-sandbox business is trying to flash credentials in place of answers.

    Re: live-blogging the situation, I also think this maintains a kind of transparency of motives. It gives you a chance to shows exactly where you are coming from as a parent, and demonstrate the fact that you and Mr. Taylor both-presumably- want the same thing: an excellent science education for Connor this year. What remains to be seen is whether he will work with you transparently to achieve that goal, or undermine court rulings, state standards, and the best current science by pussyfooting around his own subject material. Refusing to engage in candid, constructive, honest discourse about your classroom points to a conscious evasion of responsibility. It’s not just bad science, it’s a lack of professional integrity.

    Comment: Allison – 07. September 2010 @ 1:02 pm

  7. You say “my son’s now-former science teacher” — so Connor is no longer in Mr. Taylor’s class? (Maybe you covered that already and I missed it?)

    I’m so glad that a) you’re seeing this through and b) you’re sharing the details with us. My kids are just entering the wide world of public schools, and I dread having to deal with situations like these down the road. But after reading these posts, I feel much more confident about being able to resolve similar disputes with a positive outcome. Thank you, Dale! Can’t hardly wait for the next installment.

    Comment: kjcwright – 07. September 2010 @ 1:42 pm

  8. That’s right — he transferred out at the end of the first week. The class was not what he had expected (in more ways than one). He’s now in chemistry and enjoying it.

    Comment: Dale – 07. September 2010 @ 1:51 pm

  9. “It’s also an antidote to the kind of curricular sneak that started this in the first place. He needs the privacy of the classroom to attack evolution, but I can defend it in the light of day.”

    Yes, exactly!

    I am glad Connor is out of that class. Quite apart from the falsehoods and misinformation he seemed likely to receive from this teacher, I would be loathe to leave a young teen in a class with a teacher of such questionable character. He has proven himself to be a sneak and a liar – just for starters.

    Comment: niftywriter – 07. September 2010 @ 2:13 pm

  10. wow–that was fast! Hooray for Judge Jones–for he’s a Jolly Good Fellow! I’ve read through (most of) his decision. It makes a body want to stand up and cheer.

    With Siamang, I wondered, too, whether the teacher in question might not be reading along with the rest of us. I notice you’ve kept the rest of the blog post pretty much snark-free. Excellent decision, since snarky comments in the blog might render him suddenly deaf:))

    I applaud your courage in tackling this, Dale, and wait with bated breath the outcome!

    Comment: yokohamamama – 07. September 2010 @ 3:01 pm

  11. I am waiting anxiously for the day when the two chemistry professors have the time to answer Mr Taylor’s e-mails. Presumably then all will become crystal clear, and his snide remarks about evolutionists will be seen to have been fully justified.

    Comment: Hamilton Jacobi – 07. September 2010 @ 4:19 pm

  12. My guess is he responded the way he did to eliminate the paper trail going forward. He knows you are going to use his words against him. Or perhaps he thinks he is mismatched in the arena of words.

    Comment: Charles – 07. September 2010 @ 6:23 pm

  13. @Charles: I imagine that’s the case, yes — the paper trail doesn’t cover him in glory. I can now proceed knowing that I extended him the courtesy of first contact and the benefit of doubt — a doubt now very much diminished.

    Comment: Dale – 08. September 2010 @ 9:34 am

  14. Just read a large chunk [though not all] of Kitzmiller. I was impressed with the thoroughness of the analysis, references to precedent, etc., but then, i am not an attorney. Maybe I would be equally impressed by most such judgments. But I am frightened by the perception that most people who hold fundamentalist religious beliefs will dismiss or fail to understand what is being said in this document. If you believe firmly that there is a god, and that yours is the only true god, then all of this is gibberish to you. How do we overcome this?
    When we take away their god, how do they deal with their inevitable passing? The brain is a very complicated thing which has EVOLVED at different rates in different individuals…are we banging our heads on a thick, hard wall?

    Comment: bossross – 08. September 2010 @ 12:28 pm

  15. @bossross: Fortunately they don’t need to understand it — only its legal finality. The reason Kitzmiller is so powerful as a tool is that it slammed the door on ID legally. It says to school administrators, “Believe whatever you like, but allow ID in the classroom and you are advancing a religious agenda, one based in a particular religion at that, and you will be sued for that constitutional breach, and you will lose, expensively.” It would be lovely to convince them as well of the beauty and power of the document, but it’s not necessary.

    Comment: Dale – 08. September 2010 @ 12:53 pm

  16. Dale said: “He needs the privacy of the classroom to attack evolution, but I can defend it in the light of day.”

    Beautifully said.

    This is what amazes me – people who probably consider themselves very moral, yet close themselves off from the truth and try to lie to children. That’s the fundamental message of Judge Jones’s opinion: “Stop lying!”

    And if Mr. “Taylor” is so concerned about evidence, he should consider that not one word of the Bible was put on paper by the hand of God. And not one bit of the evidence for evolution was created by the hand of Man.

    To paraphrase Augustine of Hippo, if your interpretation of scripture doesn’t match the facts found in nature, then it is your interpretation that needs correcting.

    Mr. “Taylor”, the Bible is poetry, not journalism.

    Comment: RickK – 08. September 2010 @ 10:21 pm

  17. […] Up the ladder (Being the ongoing story of a parent responding to non-science in the science classroom. See also Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.) […]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » Up the ladder Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 09. September 2010 @ 10:03 am

  18. Possums feint by fainting. I’m not convinced that Taylor did the homonym you chose. Or is this a nitwit nitpick?

    But I’m following your continuing adventures in sanity with glee.

    Comment: Dan Klarmann – 10. September 2010 @ 8:55 am

  19. @Dan: Ha! Works that way as well, doesn’t it? But I meant to evoke a swoon, a passing-out, a case of the Victorian vapors — a faint.

    Comment: Dale – 10. September 2010 @ 9:20 am

  20. @Dale,

    I’m sure you know this, having been in the teaching profession yourself, but I am REQUIRED to respond to email from students or their parents within 24 hours of the time it was sent. I think you’re right to leave it out of the correspondence with the principal right now, but you could likely nail him on several days without response if you wanted to be petty.

    Comment: awolfga – 12. September 2010 @ 1:44 pm

  21. Sorry, I was composing while you posted. Onward, agreed, onward.

    Comment: AgentLG1 – 29. September 2010 @ 9:17 am

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