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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.