Thursday, January 27, 2011

Have a heart!

Dylan, my 5th grader, informed me yesterday that he would be missing class today. "Really?" I responded.  "Why's that?"

"They're going to dissect a pigs heart, mom."

Damn. I knew this would come one day, but not today! He'd mentioned it earlier in the year, but I blew it off as something we'd deal with "when the time came". Well... the time is here! Lesson learned.

My first instinct was to conform. "It's part of the curriculum; part of your education." I told him that he did  not have to participate, but that he could observe. Yes, I asked my son to be a passive bystander in the mutilation of an animal. "Mom - no way. I will walk out of class; I don't care if I get suspended!"

I was feeling really conflicted, and luckily for us, we were at my BFF and fellow blogger, Tami's house. I asked her opinion, since she's often more thoughtful about these things than I am. "Really?" she said skeptically. "You know there are alternatives, right?" I looked it up, and she was right!

"If you’re in grades kindergarten through 12 and attend public school in the following states, just say “no” to dissection: California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia. These states have dissection choice laws or policies in place. Private schools, colleges, and universities are not covered by those laws, but you can still get an alternative.

So into the car we went, driving to the school to speak with his teacher about this. It was a while after school, and she'd gone home for the day. Luckily, our school Principal was there. She's awesome, very thoughtful, and there are rumors that she's vegetarian :-)

She sat down with us as we explained that Dylan was "highly uncomfortable" with the lesson. She listened to our concerns, and then reviewed the requirements for 5th grade California standards, which read "Students know how blood circulates through the heart chambers, lungs, and body and how carbon dioxide (CO2) and oxygen (O2) are exchanged in the lungs and tissues".

The key word, she explained, was the students "know". There are many ways to know something, so she was supportive of us seeking an alternate lesson. She did encourage him to observe, and mentioned that at some point, he may have to in school. She explained the value of research on animals has provided, which, while in agreement, allowed me to use my new favorite argument. "You're right," I said. "Science has gained a lot from using animals, but I think at a student level, it's unnecessary. I hear what you're saying, that it's a good way to learn, but he feels it's unethical. I hope one day we can teach the information learned, rather than replicate the experiments; kind of like we do since they found the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments unethical?" (Argument stolen from the  amazing Megan Rascal of Vegansaurus - check out her rebuttal to animal experiments here:

I let the principal know that we'd research and come up with something that night. When we got home, I explained to Dylan that, while I would support his decision, we had lots of work to do. We made a list of pros and cons. It was about equal, but the cons included staying true to our ethics., and a notable pro was when Dylan said "I won't get made fun of like last time".

I didn't want him to look at this as an easy way to get out of an assignment, so I had him watch a video of a pig heart dissection on YouTube, and we looked up alternative lessons online. I decided we'd make a clay model of the heart,  and have him write a paper on why he chose to do an alternative assignment, and demonstrate what he'd learned.

That's when he said....."Mom? Maybe I'll just observe and see how it goes."

Oy vey! Was it because it seemed easier than doing all the extra work? Probably. Is there value to letting him participate? Yes... and no. Did I make the wrong decision, choose the easy way out? Probably; I should have been more on top of this, and supported his original decision more.  Am I a good parent? Who knows! Did I just allow my child to be scarred for life? I guess I'll find out tonight how it went, and be able to make a more informed decision next time. Damn, this parenting stuff is hard!

Here are some resources we looked at:




  1. I think you did a great job of modeling a solution for Dylan. You worked through the issue while taking his opinion into account and showed him how to approach the process with respect. Student voice isn't always taken into consideration by administrators, so consider yourselves very lucky to have a partner in that principal. Be proud there momma, you thought it out and gave Dylan the tools he needed to make an informed decision.

  2. I'm glad you liked my scary cartoon! Sounds like you handled the situation pretty well--I like the clay model idea. Cutting it open is one thing but if you actually had to recreate the heart, seems like you'd learn more. Did you see those embroidered mollusks? Art+science!