PIG HEADS, CADAVERS AND 16,000 BEADS
To prepare for the first week of school, high school biology teacher John Ison heads out to farming areas near Carlton, Oregon, to buy pig heads.
He usually buys six — one for each of his classes at Tigard High School. He brings his students outside to review the various parts of the head, then dig a hole and mark the spot.
Around the last day of school, the classes unearth the decayed heads.
Ison said it’s not so much a science lesson — although the class does examine the decay rate — but he does this to set the tone for the rest of the year.
“It’s something they won’t forget. And the smell, they will not forget. It is pretty horrid,” he said. “Another thing it does is it kind of set me up as, ‘OK, this is going to be one of those classes. It’s not going to be a textbook class. We’re going to see stuff and do stuff, and he’s a real science teacher. He’s not afraid of any of this stuff.’”
Ison has taught biology at Tigard High School for 12 years, mostly teaching ninth-graders but up to the 11th grade occasionally. Before that, he taught for 16 years at Fowler Middle School in Tigard and for six years in California.
The key to successful teaching, Ison said, is forming relationships with students outside of class.
“When you show interest in knowing them, then they’re happy to be there,” he said.
During the first week of class, Ison makes time for one-on-one conversations to get to know students and “shoot the breeze.” When you know what they like to do and where they come from, you can form deeper connections, he said.
Plus, a fascinating class makes students want to be there, too.
For the last 20 years, even when he taught eighth grade, Ison has also brought willing students to work on cadavers.
“My eighth-graders — 13 years old — they were up to their elbows in death,” he said. “That’s a heavy experience. They handle it beautifully. They do a great job, and they will never forget it.”
Even when classes went online, Ison went above and beyond to come up with activities for his students, including mailing out activities for the DNA unit with the help of Holly Paris, a former science teacher who worked with Ison for more than 10 years.
“We stuffed 200 envelopes. Each one got six different colors of 80 total beads, then there were three different wires of different lengths, and then I made some YouTube videos for my channel that shows them how to make it,” Ison said.
All their work was worth it, because the students had fun.
“It took some time, but I don’t mind doing it. I don’t want to be (a bad teacher),” he said.
Paris said Ison makes his students fall in love with science.
“He makes it relatable to life. It’s skills that you take in and stuff that is useful to make you a responsible human being, a citizen that can make critical decisions in life,” she said.
Even without a pandemic, middle school and early high school are hard for students. Ison feels he has been able to help his students navigate through difficult times while still helping them appreciate and understand science.
“I want to change their views of their universe around them … I want to give them a science lens to put in their tool belt. I want to foster critical thinking, logical thinking, rational thinking,” Ison said. “I want to change who they are.”
And if he just creates some dinner table conversation, he’ll take it.