Freshwater: Dec 3 & 4, 2009, sessions

The administrative hearing on the termination of John Freshwater as a middle school science teacher in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, resumed on December 3, with truncated sessions both the 3rd and 4th. The sole witness heard on the 3rd was Ellen Button, a middle school science teacher, and the sole witness on the 4th was William White, the middle school principal. I’ll put it all below the fold.

December 3

The session on the 3rd was shortened by a two-hour wait in the morning for subpoenaed (by Freshwater’s attorney) text books to be gathered and transported from the middle school to the hearing room.

Elle Button Direct Examination

The sole witness was Elle Button, an 8th grade science teacher in the Mt. Vernon middle school, whose daughter Kate, a former student in Freshwater’s class, testified earlier in the hearing. Recall that Kate complained to her mother about several aspects of Freshwater’s teaching of evolution, and provided her mother with several handouts of questionable content. One handout, for example, implied that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time (perhaps this one or this one or adaptations of one or the other. The second includes reference to dragons, which was in one of the handouts).

To some extent I’ll summarize salient parts of Button’s testimony rather than provide a Q&A-style account, since Hamilton’s questions tend to skip around. Some things I flat missed – Button was occasionally very soft spoken and was inaudible to the gallery. Pam Schehl has a very good 500-word summary (with a truly awful headline!) in the Mt. Vernon News to which I commend your attention.

In part of her testimony, Hamilton questioned Button about various aspects of science, paying attention to controversial topics students raise in class. Button testified that students had questions about fossils and evolution, about the age of the universe and Big Bang theory. Asked how many scientific theories of the formation of the universe there are besides Big Bang theory, Button thought there were more but couldn’t name any. Asked if Big Bang theory was controversial, she replied it was not controversial in science.

Asked if both evolution and Big Bang were theories, she affirmed it. Asked for a definition of theory, my impression is that she summarized it pretty well, though I didn’t get it transcribed because my pen was running dry and I was borrowing a replacement from one of the attorneys. Asked if a scientific theory was absolute truth, she responded that it was not, but was used until being replaced by a better one. Button agreed that kids raise all kinds of questions, and that they don’t necessarily agree with what’s being taught.

Asked about the scientific method, Button outlined the stock sequence: get an idea or ask a question, define a testable hypothesis, design an experiment or study, gather the data, analyze the data, and interpret data. She’s headed the local school science fair for years and has that style down pat.

Hamilton pushed on the theory/law distinction, operating on the ‘laws are higher than theories’ notion. Button agreed with Hamilton’s statement that “The scientific method is designed to constantly evaluate ideas until they become a law, right?” Asked that a scientific law is, she said it was something known to be true. “Indisputable?” She answered, “yes.” Hamilton asked if there is a “scientific law of evolution.” She replied not that she knows of.

Hamilton asked if she was familiar with the recent finding of soft tissue in dinosaur fossils. She is. Asked further about it, she said it was of great interest and further research was going on. Asked, she said students do bring it up. She testified that most controversial issues are brought up by students.

She agreed that teachers can use supplemental materials both from the text published and outside sources to reinforce the teaching of what’s required by the standards.

Both of Button’s daughters, Mary and Kate, had Freshwater for 8th grade science and apparently had different experiences, or at least responded differently to them. Mary, the eldest, made no remarks about Freshwater’s teaching to her mother, while Kate questioned a number of content claims made by Freshwater and asked her mother about some of the material Freshwater was teaching. Button attributed that difference to the different personalities of the two. Kate, Button testified, would question teachers when she thought something was amiss. Button testified that Freshwater was the only 8th grade teacher she had questions about.

There was a long series of questions about her experience and training with the Tesla coil. She used it solely on inanimate objects, the gas-filled tubes that glow with different colors when the coil ionizes the gases. She has never used it on herself or a student and has never seen it used on a student. If students asked for it to be used on them she would refuse. Asked if it spooked or scared her, she replied, “No, it’s crazy.” When Ian Watson, the then-president of the Board of Education asked her to zap him with it she declined to do so, citing safety and health questions about that sort of use.

She testified that she probably learned to use it from another teacher when she came to the middle school,probably from Jeff George, a now-retired teacher. She was aware that George occasionally touched his own tongue and those of students with the arc from the Tesla coil. (See above: crazy.) Late edit: I should make it clear that Button didn’t testify about this from direct knowledge of George touching his or students’ tongues; that testimony was based on reports she heard from students, and from other teachers after all the Freshwater hoorah was in progress.

She also testified that she found an instruction manual– a pamphlet–for the Tesla coil in a drawer sometime after the Freshwater affair blew up, and turned it in the the middle school administration. This is the first mention of any such document in the hearing; previous witnesses, including Freshwater, have testified they weren’t aware of an instructions for the device.

Hamilton asked if she knew of religious items in any middle school classrooms. She identified the posters with scripture in Freshwater’s room. She didn’t recall seeing religious displays in other teachers’ rooms. She testified that at the time she wasn’t concerned enough about the religious items in Freshwater’s classroom to pull her daughters from it.

Hamilton turned to Freshwater’s 2003 proposal for the district to adopt the Intelligent Design Network’s “Objective Origins Policy.” She was at the meeting of the science curriculum committee that rejected it,but didn’t recall the discussion in that committee. She also attended at least one board meeting on it. She testified that it appeared to her that it was an effort to inject intelligent design into the curriculum. Shown the actual proposal, and that it didn’t include the words “Intelligent design,” she said that she still felt it was an effort to smuggle (my word) it in. Hamilton has pushed this idea that there’s no explicit mention of intelligent design or creationism in Freshwater’s materials a couple of times in his questioning over the course of the hearing. My favorite analogy here is that you can take the label off a jar of pickles but it’s still a jar of pickles.

(Parenthetically, a good deal of Hamilton’s questioning rests on, or presupposes, a sort of deification of text in which the words used to describe something are themselves the defining characteristic of the thing, rather than the substance of the thing itself being relevant. It’s consistent with the emphasis on the physical book–even the bibliolatry–evinced by those who are hyper-concerned about being able to have and display their Bibles in the workplace. Some of Freshwater’s remarks in the hearing about the Bible being his “inspiration” have that flavor. From all appearances and given the context, he is referring to the presence of the actual physical Bible, not its content or meaning. I’ve almost had the impression that it’s a sort of rabbit foot for him!)

Button testified that she was aware that the state finally removed the ‘critical analysis of evolution’ language from the state standards in 2006.

Hamilton spent some time on the relative Ohio Achievement Test scores of Freshwater and Button and their class composition. Andrew Thompson, another middle school teacher, had earlier testified that he had done an analysis of class composition that showed that Freshwater had more students on Individual Educational Plans (at risk students) than other middle school science teachers, but nevertheless his students scored highest on the life sciences portion of the OAT. Throughout the hearing Hamilton has been arguing that those test scores imply that Freshwater is a superior science teacher. It has not (yet) been made clear in testimony that the differences in test score means tells us nothing about Freshwater’s teaching, since (a) the test is over material from grades 6-8, not just Freshwater’s class; (b) we don’t have good information on the method of assigning students or any subject matching data across classes; and (c) we have no information on the variability of test scores by means of which to evaluate the differences statistically. Under those circumstances the mean differences are uninterpretable and Mr. Thompson therefore flunks elementary research design.

We then spent a couple of hours with three of the text books used in 8th grade science for the last five or so years. We learned that she doesn’t teach the astronomy text’s section on the beginning and end of the universe, because it’s not in the standards. Asked how she responds when students ask about it, she replied that it’s a hypothetical question – she doesn’t recall it arising. She testifed that kids ask about the age of the universe, though. Asked, she said the solar system is ~4,5 billion years old but doesn’t recall how old the universe is–“Forever? I don’t know.”

Moving to the “Cells, Heredity, and Classification” (life sciences) text, she was asked about the language in a section on geological eras about the chemical origin of life. That’s not in her standards,and she didn’t recall students asking about it.

Asked if kids ask, “Hey, the Bible says the earth was created by God,” she said that while students don’t typically ask in that particular form, she responds to questions in that area by saying (paraphrased) that ‘this is science and what you need to learn in this class.’

Raising the Ptolemaic to Copernican shift in theories of the structure of the solar system, Hamilton asked if it is possible that sometimes theories are wrong. She agreed.

Hamilton asked if Freshwater could answer students’ questions that challenge carbon dating or radiometric dating. She replied yes. Hamilton asked if she was aware of the formation of coal in the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption. She was not.

Hamilton noted that in the investigators’ report she had said she didn’t teach evolution in 2007-8 and asked why she hadn’t. She replied she had time just to get to some natural selection and change over time, but didn’t have time to cover it in the depth she normally does.

We spent some time on a poster that had apparently been in former Director of Curriculum Lynda Weston’s office that had a cartoon picture of a dinosaur with a speech balloon saying “I went extinct because I wouldn’t read.” We slogged through a series of questions about whether 8th graders would take that literally, whether Weston meant it to be taken literally, and whether one would need to ask Weston in order to figure out what it meant. This was in aid of Hamilton’s effort to establish that a symbolic display is uninterpretable without context, and the best way to ascertain that context is to ask the person who created the display. Hence, Hamilton implied. the only way to figure out what Freshwater was doing with the creationist handouts was to ask him, and no one did. This whole series was a muddy mess. Button finally testified that one could take the display/poster as it is, an exhortation to read.

Referring to the dinosaurs and dragons handout Kate Button had given that her mother from Freshwater’s class, Hamilton asked why she hadn’t talked to Freshwater about it. She replied that when ­she tried to have a similar discussion in 2003 when he was offering his “Objective Origins” curriculum proposal, “He shut me down.”

She was asked when the dinosaurs went extinct, and answered 65 million years ago. Asked when humans first appeared, she didn’t know,but thought it was “a long time ago.”

We then spent some time on the question of whether Kate was misinterpreting or misperceiving Freshwater’s intention in introducing the problematic material, and he was actually trying to show what bad science is. Button conceded that it was possible, but given the consistency of what Kate said with what she heard from other students of Freshwater she was quite confident of Kate’s interpretation.

Hamilton offered a new tack when he asked Button if perhaps Freshwater was just trying out materials for the new academic standards when he used the questionable handouts. Button conceded that was possible.

Button Cross Examination

In cross examination David Millstone, the Board’s attorney, asked if it was likely that Kate misunderstood Freshwater when she questioned his teaching. Button replied that it was not likely, given both Kate’s intelligence and the consistency of what she said with what Button heard from other students.

Button testified that over the years Freshwater occasionally shared his handouts and materials with her, either directly or sometimes via Kate when she was in Freshwater’s class, that had a religious leanings or implications. She was concerned that Freshwater was using classroom materials that combined religious ideas with the science, or that replaced scientific concepts with religious notions. She testified that it happened often enough when Kate was in his class to cause Kate to be confused and frustrated.

Millstone displayed a copy of the text book that Button had found in a cabinet at the middle school. She had been on the textbook adoption committee several years ago, and that committee had given sample copies of the texts to the teachers. Freshwater had returned his with comments on a number of pages, and it was that copy Button found in the cabinet when she was looking for copies of the texts to bring to the hearing.

Millstone asked if Freshwater had expressed concerns about the science texts that were adopted (a Holt series). He said that he did. Asked by Millstone do identify particular concerns, she paged through the Cells, Heredity, and Classification text, identifying half a dozen pages where comments in the marked up text expressed concerns. Specific examples mentioned included whale evolution and an embryo passage. (Haeckel was not mentioned and I couldn’t see the page from my seat.) Asked whether Freshwater had ever objected to texts based on his religious beliefs, she said that he had.

Button redirect examination

On redirect Hamilton had Button specify the page numbers where Freshwater had made marks or comments in the text. She identified (a) a passage in the section on fossils; (b) a passage on vestigial pelvic and leg bones in whales that could lead to the interpretation that humans were related; (c) an illustration that showed similarities among embryos; (d) an illustration of the basic idea of speciation by geographic separation; and (e) something about peppered moths, where he objected to “how it was proven” and “how it was photographed,” that the photograph was staged and the moths were dead, and it was therefore faked – “it really didn’t happen that way,” she quoted him as saying. She testified that she explained to him that the photo was an illustration. (I’ll note that this is straight out of Wells, and Freshwater depended almost solely on Wells in his 2003 proposal.)

Asked how specifically Freshwater objected based on his religious beliefs, she could not recall, but said it was in his room or hers.

Button recross

In recross Button testified that Freshwater did indeed give the marked text back to her. Millstone walked her through a number of exhibits that were invisible to the gallery and that were mostly not identified in testimony. I think they were copies of sections from the text, but that’s all I know. Button’s testimony with respect to them was to answer whether Freshwater had raised them specifically with her. Some he had, some he had not. Two that he had raised with her concerned comparative anatomy and skulls. That’s all I could get from the testimony.

Finally, asked if she had evidence that Freshwater taught that material in his classroom, she said just what students, including her daughter, had told her.

That ended Button’s testimony.

Three things stood out in Button’s testimony: (a) the finding of the Tesla coil instruction book, (b her testimony that Freshwater objected to a text on religious grounds, and (c) and introduction of the textbook in which Freshwater had marked his objections. The first refutes earlier testimony that the instructions were not available to teachers. And I’d dearly love to sees that textbook. There’s a bit more about the instruction book in White’s testimony below.

December 4

December 4 was a very brief session, just over an hour. I don’ t know why – there was some speculation in the gallery about Hamilton not having his other witnesses ready, but that’s not been confirmed. The sole witness was Bill White, the middle school principal. He had previously testified in the Board’s case. (My Google-fu is failing me and I can’t find my post on that testimony. That may be one of the days I had to miss.)

David Millstone, the Board’s attorney, objected to the recall of White since he had testified in direct examination in the Board’s case, and Hamilton had done cross-examination then. The referee over-ruled the objection with the stipulation that White testify only about matter that have arisen since his earlier testimony. Over the course of Hamilton’s direct examination Millstone objected whenever Hamilton seemed to be straying from that stipulation. Some objections were sustained, some were over-ruled.

White direct examination

Hamilton first questioned White about the note that Elle Button had sent him accompanying the instructions to the Tesla coil. He did not recall receiving the instructions from Button. After some palaver, Millstone described how the note was found last night (Dec 3) when a search was instituted on the basis of Elle Button’s December 3 testimony that she had found it and given it to the administration. It was found in a file, paper-clipped to the back of an unrelated document, and thus hadn’t been noticed before.

Permitted to read it, Hamilton asked White if it said anything about not touching people with the Tesla coil. It does not. (Recall that those Tesla coils have been at the school for decades, and may predate OSHA.)

Moving on, Hamilton questioned White about the sequence of events regarding Lori Miller. White testified that she has a Bible on her desk, and has a right to have it there. He testified that any teacher could keep a Bible on their desk if it is only for personal use without students present, and if it’s not used as part of a religious display or for use in instruction.

Hamilton quoted from a memo from Bill Oxenford, head ot the middle school science department, to Miller which said “devotional materials must be out of sight.” (Miller had previously had a stack of Christian devotional material on her desk.) White wasn’t sure what those materials consisted of.

Hamilton noted that the memo was sent to Miller just four days after she testified in the hearing that she had religious materials on her desk, and asked why the note was sent to Miller. White testified that it was sent based on a walk-through of the building he had conducted the week before. He said the memo was sent to Miller to clarify what is and is not permitted by way of religious materials in classrooms as a followup to a discussion between Miller, White, and assistant Principal Ritchie (concerning the walk-through? That wasn’t clear).

Hamilton asked if White had ever had a similar meeting with Freshwater, and White replied that he had. He testified that middle school staff had never been told that they couldn’t have a Bible on their desk.

Pressed by Hamilton, White testified that the memo to Miller was not stimulated by her testimony in this hearing, and that he had not been instructed by Superintendent Short or the Board of Education to have it sent.

Hamilton asked White what the definition of “display” is. Millstone objected on the ground that the topic of “display” had been covered in White’s earlier cross examination. That objection was sustained.

We were then treated to an analysis of a poster created by a child that was displayed in Superintendent Short’s office. It had “World’s Greatest Dad” on it, and at the bottom a Bible verse, Romans 12:6, identified as such. Hamilton asked if the poster was in color. White couldn’t tell – he’s red-green color blind. He was asked if it constituted a “display.” White responded that he supposed any art work that’s in an office could be a display. Asked, he conceded that having a Bible verse on it, the drawing could be a religious display.

Hamilton asked if it was in the Superintendent’s office in July 2008, was it appropriate after Freshwater had been chastised for an alleged religious display? White responded, No. Hamilton asked if it’s possible the poster/drawing is not a religious display? White replied it was possible, he didn’t know.

Hamilton asked what the best way to find out whether it’s a religious display. White replied to ask them if it’s a religious display.

Hamilton asked what would make a Bible devotional. White responded, “How you use it.” Hamilton asked if a person had several Bibles could it be for comparative evaluation and not for devotional purposes. White’s answer was inaudible.

Asked if a teacher could have more than on Bible on their desk, White responded that he would have to request clarification from the superintendent in that case.

Hamilton asked if he knew that the teacher union was reluctant to act on Miller’s behalf. He did not.

Hamilton then turned to the notes written by Deb Strouse, the classroom monitor who had been assigned to Freshwater’s classroom. He asked how often they were turned in. He replied at least weekly. As Hamilton began to pursue the topic of the notes, Millstone objected, there was some explanation by Hamilton, and the referee finally over-ruled the objection. Then Hamilton and Freshwater had a brief conference outside the hearing room and when they returned Hamilton dropped that whole line of questioning.

Finally, there were several confusing questions about whether and under what circumstances permission slips would be required for field trips. Net of the answers: It depends. I have no idea where that line of questions was going.

White cross examination

Millstone asked White If he had directed or authorized Freshwater to destroy the Tesla coil. He had not.

That ended White’s testimony and the day’s abbreviated session. We resume next week, with five days still scheduled for December, three of them next week.

I’ll add a couple of additional notes. Before the session this morning near the hearing room in the County Commissioners domain I ran into an attorney friend who has often served as an acting judge. He remarked that it appeared the referee long ago lost control of the hearing. I agreed.

Second, last week I and my colleagues in the biology department at Kenyon received what was apparently a mass mailing from an Islamic proselytizing organization in Egypt (I provide a link, but be advised that McAfee Site Adviser has a caution about downloads from the site). It was a flier and a pamphlet extolling the virtues of Shi’ite Islam. I took it along and showed it to several of the evangelical pastors who have been regular members of the gallery. Even when I suggested it would be useful to be acquainted with the competition I couldn’t rouse much interest. (Hey c’mon, I gotta have a little fun!)

Finally, I made a late edit of the title of this post to add the year. I’d forgotten (repressed?) the fact that this hearing has been going on for 14 months now, covering two Decembers. Argh!