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’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.