Last night I found myself sitting next to an elegant woman dressed in white.  Her delicate hands rested on her lap highlighting a perfect French manicure. It was quite clear that her hands would never find themselves where mine had been that day. I glanced down at my appendages hoping were no remains of dried blood under or around my nails.

That morning our lab assistant appeared in my classroom doorway with a heavy plastic bag and a huge grin on his face: his mission had been successful. He handed off the bag and I immediately took it to a lab bench. The items inside were contained within a series of thick plastic bags. As I removed each layer it became apparent why. The mounds of pig tissue within were dripping with blood. Untangling entwined trachea and esophagi, I lifted the first set of lungs from the bag and placed them on a work area on the lab bench. Dabbing off blood as I worked, I arranged the bright pink lungs so that the trachea and esophagi extended neatly from the top.

Then I covered them hoping to mask the rawness of the scene from those entering my classroom and giving myself some mental preparation time with the students before they had to handle the organs.

Some students literally fled the room upon the unveiling of the lungs. However, they quickly realized there was no threat and succumbed to their curiousity which was heightened by the “ooh”s and “aahs” of their peers within.

With gloved hands they carefully handled and explored the tissues. Eventually EVERYONE touched the lungs, followed the trachea to the bronchi, studied the pathway of the esophagus, and made observations on the differences between the structures. Several students were brave enough to insert a straw into the trachea, squeeze down and blow air into the lungs.  The inflating lungs were indeed an impressive sight drawing exclamations of amazement from all observers!

My Grade 10 Bio class was the intended recipient of this lab activity as they have just started a unit on the Respiratory System. However, my grade 11 General Science class studying the human body also benefitted from those lungs. Then, my Year 2 IB Biology students were able to review some of their assessment statements from last year as they investigated the organs. As one of them said following her time with the lungs, “That was a really good class”.  The bottom line? The Respiratory System became real to them.  Now they can imagine it. Now they can discuss it. Now they will remember it.

I’d much rather be part of this kind of journey than sporting beautifully manicured nails!  And as always, I advocate to all, risk the mess and find every opportunity to bring learning to the realest level possible.



Overcoming the Gross Factor


“Do we have to touch it?”

“Do we get gloves?”


The mounds of pink flesh silently wait as the students conquer the “gross factor” in preparing to approach the lab benches. Admittedly, the subtle stench of death doesn’t help.

Some students are loud and adamant about the disgusting task in front of them while others silently observe in quiet dread.

We read through the procedure and then the pairs are assigned. Students reluctantly line up to receive an organ. My handling of the hearts without gloves awes them. These hearts came straight from the slaughterhouse and there is nothing to fear.

One of the loudest opponents snaps on the latex gloves and, with attitude, approaches the heart, assuring me this is the grossest thing she will ever do in her life. However, as she wraps her gloved hands around that pig heart a transformation takes place. With sudden tenderness she exclaims, “Oh, it’s soft” followed by, “…this is actually cool” and before she knows it she is completely immersed in a pig heart dissection, her nose nearly touching the raw flesh that moments earlier had repulsed her.  Eagerly she identifies the vena cava and pokes her finger through the opening explaining how the deoxygenated blood enters the heart at this point. She easily follows the flow of the blood through the heart,  her hands becoming more and more familiar with the organ. At the end of the lab she claims, “I think I want to be a heart surgeon”. And from that day forth she becomes a serious student of science evolving from a laissez-faire B/C student to a straight A engaged, conscientious pupil. The metamorphosis is both dramatic and inspiring.

Recently, my IB students did a similar lab. This time the hearts came from the local butcher but these students also had the moment of “overcoming the gross factor”. However, they quickly immersed themselves in the dissection. Carefully they drew and labeled diagrams of their observations really trying to understand the function of the heart as they proceeded. Following the lab each one remarked how helpful that was and how clear their understanding had become.

Why do I bother tromping around trying to find pig hearts for my students? Why do I encourage them to touch the heart, get dirty, and “go for it”? Because I know there’s value in seeing and handling the real thing. Students become excited, they learn, they gain deeper appreciation for their own amazing body and all its functions. In stepping out of their comfort zone they discover that they can tolerate more “gross” than they originally anticipated, new interests are unearthed, and they receive a deep satisfaction in learning.

It’s always worth the effort to provide hands-on learning, even for IB students. Also, lets follow the example of our students and take on something new to learn! We might discover hidden talents and new passions. So, go for it!