First Person

Reanimating Ötzi The Iceman In Forensics Class

Kelly Houston teaches juniors and seniors at Brooklyn’s School for Democracy and Leadership. She and other recipients of grants from the Fund for Teachers are sharing the stories of their summer fellowships, which took them to far-flung places.

A memorial to Ötzi the Iceman stands close to where his body was found in the Alps in 1991.

Forensics is a relatively new science course with limited curriculum available.  For the last three years, I have been teaching a course I developed from scratch, and I am always looking for new and interesting ways to engage students. This summer, my search took me to Ötzi the Iceman, one of the most significant discoveries in forensic science.

Ötzi the Iceman comes from a distant and mysterious past. Twenty years ago, he was pulled out of the Alpine glacial ice in almost perfect condition, complete with clothes, tools, and visible tattoos. And there are unanswered questions surrounding his death, which took place thousands of years ago. He was originally thought to have been a lost herder that took a fatal wrong turn in the snowy Alps. But recent evidence points to a more sinister explanation, making Ötzi the earliest human for whom we have direct evidence of a possible murder.

Ötzi’s story encompasses what forensics is all about – using the scientific method to interpret and weigh the relative importance of the evidence found on a subject and drawing conclusions about the cause of death. I wanted to bring him to my students.

So with the support of the Fund for Teachers, I visited Ötzi himself in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. Vital to processing a (possible) crime is to document the scene of the death: For me, this meant visiting Tisenjoch pass, along the Italian-Austrian border in the Alps. I was able to hike to where Ötzi died and was discovered with two mountain guides. The hike consisted of a six-mile round-trip hike from Vernagt village in the Schnalstal valley to the pass between Finail and Similaun peak.

In addition I also visited Egolzwil, Canton Lucerne in neighboring Switzerland because it is one of the best-preserved sites of the late Neolithic. These lakeside-dwelling people left behind stilt houses and used many of the same plant and animal species that were found on Ötzi. This UNESCO World Heritage site provided an excellent insight into how people lived in Alpine valleys during the late Neolithic period.

During my travels, I learned more about the recent research that has been done on Ötzi, and the questions that remain unanswered about him. As with today’s crimes, there is evidence to be examined such as the fatal arrow wound and the hair and fibers that were found on him. I learned about the techniques and equipment scientists are using to examine Ötzi and how they compare to what we use in our forensics class in Brooklyn.

My students have never studied Ötzi in depth before. But this year, the story of Ötzi and the subsequent research done on him by teams of experts will make for an excellent mastery project for my forensics class.

In my experience, students naturally like forensics because it is inquiry-based and allows them to explore their own hypotheses by examining evidence and utilizing the scientific method. When students put the pieces of evidence together into a narrative they have the opportunity to be creative, as long as their conclusions can be supported. I have found that students love to compare conjectures of reasons for a death with each other. There are a multitude of possibilities to the story of Ötzi’s death, which will allow students to engage in a real-life forensics investigation with the pictures, descriptions, and notes that I brought back from my trip.

They will begin their journey by researching the Ötzi and his people lived. They will hypothesize what Ötzi was doing when he was hiking so far into the mountains. They will examine the evidence using the primary resources I brought back and begin to draw their own conclusions. Most importantly they will share their thoughts and discoveries with one another through an online discussion.

My pictures, interviews, and experiences will give my students access to one of the most exciting scientific debates happening today. For example, an arrowhead that was found in Ötzi’s shoulder in 2001, 10 years after his discovery, has opened up a whole new dimension of his story. And with the recent extensive autopsy, there are sure to be more exciting discoveries. My research will allow students to see firsthand how science is a constantly changing subject.

This unit will also allow students to see real-life opportunities in science including basic research as well as technical equipment and preservation work.  Students will learn about my experiences and about all the different jobs surrounding the Iceman.  I am hoping that this information will either confirm their hopes for a career in science or spark an interest.

In addition students will use Wikispaces, an online discussion site, to have conversations online about Ötzi and other forensics topics. They will be required to respond to an open ended question such as, “If Ötzi was found to have meat in his stomach hypothesize what sort of mood was he in? Was he in a hurry or do you think he took his time to eat his last meal? What does this indicate about the circumstances around his death? Was he running from his killer or was he ambushed?” Students will also be required to react to at least three other responses from their peers. I will also look to connect with other forensics teachers who are studying Ötzi and see if we can have our students connect and debate over Wikispaces with one another.

Every year I teach 75 forensics students. An inquiry based mastery project in which students are playing the role of forensic scientists will surely be an experience for them to remember. My students will be participating in interpreting one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time, from the closest perspective they can get, without actually visiting the sites or seeing Ötzi’s body themselves.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.