It’s Not a Science: How a Biologist and Jane Austen Saved Graduation

Jennifer Bush, National Board-certified Teacher at Deer Creek High School

Jennifer Bush grew up a military brat. She moved often and attended many new schools in many new places. So, at the age of 30, when Jennifer left a medical career to step into the classroom, the new school in a new place seemed ordinary. What was not ordinary was her new position — teacher.

Standing in front of 35 worn desks, with a tattered textbook in her hands, Jennifer surveyed her workspace. Striding through the door, the assistant principal dropped a ring with a single key onto the desk near the front of the room.

“This is your room; that’s your book and your key,” he said, gesturing toward the desk. “Good luck, Ms. Bush,” he continued as he walked away.

Years later, Jennifer explains her first teaching experience.

“I was excited! And scared. And still excited. It was a teaching job. I was hired to teach biology, and that’s what I did!”

Jennifer jumped-in headfirst. She assigned readings, handed out worksheets and explained concepts to her students. Against the backdrop of a typical high school classroom, Jennifer attempted to communicate the wonderful awe of biology — the intricate workings of a cell, the bold diversity of ecosystems and the absurd creativity found in every life form.

Jennifer Bush (left) at a Deer Creek game.

And yet, it didn’t take.

Some students caught on. They participated in discussions, asked thoughtful questions and enjoyed the subject. But just as many students were disconnected. They fell asleep at their desks, forgot about readings and worksheets, or just seemed uninterested. They weren’t ready to learn.

This vague yet simple insight — They weren’t ready to learn — took hold in Jennifer’s mind. And, as it would turn out, fundamentally changed how Jennifer understood education.

They Weren’t Ready to Learn
After a few years on the job, Jennifer accepted a teaching position at a new school where she was promptly introduced to Andrew* — an outgoing, musically inclined, messy-haired drama student. Technically, Andrew wasn’t just a drama student. Andrew was a high school sophomore required to take all the usual sophomore classes, but his life revolved around drama. His electives were drama, his extracurriculars were drama, his free time was drama, and—according to first-hand accounts— his dreams were drama.

Biology for Andrew? Not exactly Shakespeare — not even Planet Earth
No matter, each day Andrew bounded into Ms. Bush’s class ready to participate, offer a perspective, make a joke, add a witty comment or mutter a snide remark. Whatever happened during those 50 minutes each day, Andrew enjoyed it. And yet, just like many of Jennifer’s initial students, Andrew appeared disconnected. He enjoyed the class but wasn’t engaged in the material; he wasn’t ready to learn.

This truth was evident after the first exam and verified by the second. Andrew’s grades were slipping. After a bit of thinking, and one or two inspirational movies, Jennifer switched the script. She broke down difficult concepts into stories — dramatic ones:

  • “A retrovirus attacks a cell only to highjack the cell itself.”
  • “Ephemerals lead the way as an ecosystem bounces back following destructive fire.”
  • “Novel camouflage adaptation gives moths in industrial London new hope!”

Jennifer communicated biological concepts in a dramatic way that resonated with Andrew. Biology was no longer a boring, technical, jargon-saturated discipline. It was vibrant, thrilling, dramatic. It wasn’t Planet Earth, it was Shakespeare! Or… at least, Shakespeare-ish.

But the challenge wasn’t over. Although Andrew’s grades were steadily improving, he still needed a high score on the comprehensive final to pass. He studied hard. Jennifer held extra study halls and tutoring sessions. On the day of the final, Andrew failed.

Actually, Andrew didn’t just fail, he failed miserably. It was bottom-of-the-barrel, let’s-never-speak-of-this-again kind-of-fail. It was as if all the studying had actually made him do worse. It didn’t make sense.

Jennifer consoled this “young Lin-Manuel Miranda” as best anyone could, the whole time wondering where she had gone wrong; how she had failed. And yet, it was strange. In his shocked agony, Andrew was correctly answering biology questions from the exam as he grieved his poor performance aloud.

Jennifer couldn’t take it. She grabbed a copy of the exam and started verbally quizzing Andrew. Jennifer pulled Andrew’s graded scantron from the overflowing stack. Covered in red marks, Andrew’s answers seemed correct. She double checked and then triple checked. The scantron machine had misfired — like 50 times. It had imploded on Andrew’s scantron.

After 10 minutes of nerve-racking silence, Jennifer held-up the hand-graded final: A.

Andrew passed. 

The tears flowed. Andrew called his mom and dad, and mass texted his friends. It was over. Summer had officially arrived. Andrew was headed to theater camp, not summer school! Jennifer congratulated him and prepared to undertake the arduous task of regrading 200-plus scantrons by hand.

“If it wasn’t for you, Ms. Bush,” Andrew said grasping his newly scored scantron, “I never would have passed. You believed in me.”

Breaking Down Barriers
From then on Jennifer committed to identifying barriers that prevented her students from learning. For some students it was an over-loaded schedule, for others it was about developing healthy and reliable study habits, and for more still, it was simply about building up their confidence — believing in them. Jennifer’s class became a place of true exploration. A place where students could build up their confidence and academic abilities, where topics were broken down in unique and relevant ways that allowed for true understanding. Her classroom became a place where students not only learned but came ready to learn.

In recent years, Jennifer started helping with her district’s homebound program. She met one-on-one with students who could not attend in-person classes for either health, academic or disciplinary reasons. In early January 2020, Jennifer received notice of a new homebound student for whom she was responsible.

Will was a pensive senior with a tight group of friends. Corey was Will’s best friend and closest confidant. Both had recently developed a habit of skipping class. And as a result, both had been suspended for 12 weeks. Will was assigned to work with Ms. Bush.

Walking into the public library, Jennifer immediately eyed a slim teenager slumped over at a table near the back. He wore loose fitting jeans and a dark shirt. He was unaware of Jennifer’s entrance. Tossing a thick stack of assignments onto the table, Jennifer’s upbeat and positive tone startled Will from his slumber.

“Let’s start with chemistry. What do you know about valence electrons?” Jennifer asked.

“Uh…yeah… not much,” Will mumbled. “I mean, I know about the different levels and stuff if that’s what you’re asking?”

“That’s a good place to start,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer explained the Octet Rule, moved onto Government and explained gerrymandering, and finished with World History — ­Woodrow Wilson and the formation of the League of Nations. And yet the whole time, Jennifer wasn’t just teaching; she was listening and observing, looking for barriers and obstacles that would prevent learning. She was studying Will’s reactions, noticing when his attention spiked and when it faded.

Jennifer Bush (left) during pajama day at school.

After a few weeks, Will was flourishing. The tutoring started a bit slow, but under Jennifer’s focused guidance, Will was engaging with the material: asking questions, posing hypotheticals, and relaying personal experiences in discussions. However, Will seemed depressed at the end of each tutoring session. Will would graciously thank Ms. Bush and trudge out of the library with his head down and shoulders slumped.

Not one for diffidence, Jennifer addressed the problem head-on.

Corey, Will’s best friend, had not been assigned a homebound tutor. He did not qualify. Corey was expected to communicate with all his teachers personally and collect his assignments on his own. Will felt guilty that he had a tutor helping him while Corey, his best friend, was left to struggle alone.

“Will he do the work?” Jennifer asked. “Will he study with us if he’s invited?”

“Maybe,” Will said. “I mean, probably while he’s here at least.”

“Bring him.”

The next day Will walked through the door with another teenager following close behind. Corey was tall and lanky, wearing a ballcap with dark hair springing out the sides. They both sat down and Jennifer started the session — hydrogen bonding. The next several lessons progressed nicely. Will continued to improve and Corey benefited from the positive environment. And then, Will and Corey hit a roadblock.

Pride and Prejudice was the last required novel for English 4 — ‘Senior Lit.’ The students were required to read the novel by Jane Austen, complete associated writing assignments, and pass a comprehensive final exam following spring break. For Will and Corey, this comprehensive final would determine if they graduated. If they failed, they would be forced to retake English 4 and miss graduation.

Will and Corey were floundering
Pride and Prejudice features the Bennet sisters: there’s the oldest Jane followed by Elizabeth, Mary, Catherine (a.k.a. ‘Kitty’), and Lydia. Lydia runs off with George Wickham to marry and changes her name to ‘Wickham,’ not ‘Bennett;’ and Jane ends up with Charley Bingley — the new and wealthy tenant of Netherfield Park — now ‘Jane Bingley;’ and Elizabeth marries the other wealthy guy, the stand-offish one, Dobby? No, Darcin? The nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Or Lady de Bourgh — no, Lady Catherine (that’s important) — the one who is a foil to Elizabeth, the protagonist.  

The complicated character web, the on-again-off-again weddings, and the subtle insinuations that only make sense in the context of Victorian England were taking a toll on Will and Corey. But Jennifer was insistent on helping them. They created flashcards, drew character trees, discussed significant symbolism and cultural critiques. They watched Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley, the BBC’s mini-series with Colin Firth, and thought about watching the 2016 rendition Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As spring break approached, things were looking up. And then, nothing.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit
The one-week spring break turned into two weeks, then three. The Homebound program was paused. Will and Corey’s suspension officially ended. They would both have to take the Pride and Prejudice final via their online proctor.

Two months passed before graduation was scheduled: a voluntary drive-through ceremony in which the students would drive parade-style past a large group of their social-distancing, mask-wearing teachers. It was in this line of vehicles that Jennifer spotted Will and Corey for the first time in two months.

“We did it! We passed!” Corey shouted from the passenger-side window of a moving SUV.  

“What kind of a name is Fitzwilliam anyway?” Will called, leaning over from the driver’s seat.

Jennifer jogged alongside the car (at a safe distance), shouting through her mask. They discussed the final, future plans, and the upside of being suspended — learning from Ms. Bush.

“Seriously though, thanks, Ms. Bush,” Corey said as the car pulled away.

“We’re graduates!” Will yelled as he repeatedly mashed the car horn.

Will and Corey had completed their senior course work. They had graduated.

So, did a biologist and Jane Austen really save graduation?
I guess it depends on who you ask. But if Andrew, Will or Corey were telling the story, I’m guessing they would leave out Jane Austen and speak only of Jennifer Bush, their teacher.

“The classroom, my classroom, is a messing place,” Jennifer said. “It’s a struggle, it’s fun, it’s life. Somedays are about biology; somedays are about just getting to biology; and somedays are about much more.”

Teaching, for Jennifer, is not about professing knowledge. It’s about connecting and engaging with students. It’s about meeting each student where they are and helping them succeed. It’s not an exact science. It’s messing. There’s failure. There are unforeseen challenges and struggles. But it matters. Each day, each student matters. It’s not about biology, it’s about helping students learn.

“That’s why I love teaching,” Jennifer said.

_______________

Jennifer Bush is a national board-certified teacher at Deer Creek High School. She teaches Biology, Advanced Placement Biology, and is a tutor in the Deer Creek Homebound Program. She has been teaching for 16 years.

*This article is based off a 2020 in-person interview with Jennifer Bush. The names of students, particular dates, and specific locations have been altered for the purpose of anonymity.

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