Thursday, March 5, 2015

CCSS: Creative, Competent, Social Students

I teach biology, but teach little about living.

You do not need to know anything about mitosis to know how to live.
You do not need to know anything about how to live to learn mitosis.

Too many of us strive to do whatever it is we must do without a thought to why we do anything the way we do it.

It's not learning that matters, it's living. Learning is an evolutionary tool shared by a lot of species better at this living thing than the current version of H. sapiens. Animals who choose to ignore the world around them do not last very long. Humans are no exception.

We have fetishized education as some sort of independent structure, institutionalizing what we think matters without thinking about what actually does matter. Why else care who graduated from where, or class ranks, or SAT scores?

Why do we let a few strangers dictate a "common core" defining what should be learned?

Here's my CCSS--we need to foster competent, creative, and social students. It's not my place (or anyone else's) to dictate a child's life path, but if we must have common standards, here are a few I think are worth sharing:

  • Students should know what's edible in their area, and how to prepare it. Around here it could be wild cherries, dandelions, squirrel, deer, clams, or hundreds of other fine food sources. Not saying they need to forage like Wildman Steve Brill, but using primary sources for food ought to be at least as important as using primary sources for some term paper no one will read besides a teacher.
  • Students should know the basics of their dwellings, and be able to use truly digital tools like hammers, screwdrivers, and saws to make and repair the things we need within our dwellings. Knowing how to approach a simple plumbing problem (or any mechanical problem) matters more than knowing how to "apply the Binomial Theorem."
  • Students should know what they need to stay alive, what goes into them (and where it came from) and what goes out of them (and where it goes). If they don't know this, they literally don't know shit. 
  • Arne and his pals would like your children to Serve Man....
    Our economy depends on sustaining learned helplessness; our current way of schooling does just that.

    Our children need to learn to read, to write, to develop reasonable number sense, and to solve problems. They need a reasonable sense of what's real (and what's not), and a reasonable chance to live a happy and productive life.

    They also need to live as the animals that they are.

    Sunday, March 1, 2015

    The PARCC and the Pope

    "When he listens to his conscience,
    the prudent man can hear God speaking."

    I'm a fallen-by-the-wayside Catholic with misgivings. I miss Confession and Communion, and there's still the hint of fear of eternal damnation--one does not easily escape the clutches of Sister Barbara Mary, even almost a half century later. Heck, I studied Latin.

    If folks ask me now about Catholicism, I get a hazy warmth recalling its better aspects--it encourages fearless activism for social justice, it is a deep part of my Irish-American culture, and walking out into the sunshine after confession lit up my limbus.

    But then there's the power thing--too few folks dictating deciding what's right for too many people. "The Judgment of Conscience" matters, of course, and for me it would be the heart of The Church, should I return, but in day-to-day living, culture trumps conscience. We hide in our unconsciousness.

    A student asked me what I thought about the PARCC exams this week--our schedule has been bent out of shape, and will be for 5 more weeks later this year, and the kids are getting hammered taking an officious test that may (or may not) count.

    The question is a loaded one, of course, especially for one charged with carrying out the will of the state--I am, after all, a government agent. Still, I promised my lambs I would not lie to them in a world where most adults do just that, so I answered.

    The gist of the "new" standards, when viewed from a step or two back, are not awful--we want children to be able to figure things out through analysis of available evidence using the tools of language, logic, and mathematics. We all want that (so long as it, um, complements our magical views of capitalism). Who sitting in the pews could have a problem with article 1777?

    But the The Church steps in with a few (mostly) white, (mostly) male, (mostly) pale power players, and Article 6 gets treated like a mouse nibbling on the Host in the Tabernacle.

    Look at the folks who run Achieve, the National Governor's Association, the original players who wrote NGSS, and the money men at Pearson pushing the product. They'd fit right in at the Vatican.

    Pope Glen Moreno, Chairman of Pearson
    Oh, I'm sure there are a lot of good people with good intentions (with concomitant good salaries) doing what they believe is in the interest of the economy children, but while I'll buy their faith, I'm going to look hard before dropping a nickel on the collection basket.

    "It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience.
    This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection:
    Return to your conscience, question it. . . . Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness."
    Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1779

    Tuesday, February 24, 2015

    What are you living for?

    Every living critter under and over you, in and around you, has a lineage just as long as yours, stringing back billions of years, with the same basic daily goals and needs as you.

    Except most of us in our culture have forgotten what those goals are. We've also forgotten (or spend our hours trying to forget) our mortality.
    When was the last time kids in your classroom discussed "what are you living for" with a reasonably rational adult?

    Lazy ass jelly fish lolling in the Delaware Bay at dusk.

    Animals (besides humans) never plan for the future beyond taking care of the business that needs to be taken care of in order to live. Beyond that, most animals fiddle away the day socializing, eating, snoozing, or just watching the shadows move as the sun glides by, the antitheses of the good capitalists and consumers humans cherish in these parts.

    Time for Achieve to start cracking down on all those lazy ass squirrels!
    Common Core Squirrel Standards, anyone?

    Monday, February 23, 2015

    Whose stories are we teaching?

    For part of  chilly February afternoon, a chunk of the frozen bay perilously perched itself by the edge of the sea.

    It held my attention, this lifeless form, a half ton of water balancing on a small pedestal.

    Our minds create stories upon stories, stories that help us survive, help us live, but stories are just that, and the intensity of my interest at this random block of broken berg makes little sense.

    Rationally, I know that this is just chunks of ice from the fresh Delaware River above, coalescing from the forces of the tides, but it became my altar of unhewn stone, an evanescent idol.

    Delaware Bay, North Cape May, February 22, 2015

    We worship patterns, and see gods where none exist, but our stories have been, until now, based on the larger world around us.

    We let others manipulate us and our children, replacing our stories of nature with the stories of the abstract, of global economies, of currencies, of hubris. We encourage our children to play with the screens that distort and manipulate our view of the world.

    And then we wonder what's wrong with them.....

    Wednesday, February 18, 2015

    Daphnia dance while the children cry

    The anger, the sadness, the tears of students are real.
    It's been a long February, but it's more than that.

    I spent some time yesterday gazing at a colony of daphnia dancing among the elodea in the last hour of sunlight angling through the glass world they live in. Bubbles of oxygen streamed up from the plants, bubbles made up of broken water molecules, slashed by the sun's energy, now used by the same daphnia as they go about doing whatever daphnia do.

    Paul Hebert at the Public Library of Science, via wikimedia (CC)

    Eat, rest, move, have sex, make more daphnia, and sometimes (so it seems) doing nothing at all.

    I don't do much for the daphnia--just add a little bit of water to the container now and again. I do not know where they came from, and if I were not a modern sort, they'd be enough evidence to persuade me that spontaneous generation is real.

    Been an interesting couple of months, reminders of my mortality marked by a heart that beats to its own drummer, and I am no longer so blasé about the tears of the young ones in front of me. I am part of a system that is breaking the kids.

    I put no pressure on my daphnia, who dance the day away. They already know how to live.

    I put too much pressure on my lambs, who no longer see the daphnia, and would find it strange to see an older man spend so much time staring at a watery world on  a windowsill.

    Too few of us know what matters, yet we insist on dictating to young humans just that.

    Saturday, February 14, 2015

    Culling the hearts of children

     (First posted last March, but as I see more and more children falling part, worth posting again.)


    A total of 13%–20% of children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year, and surveillance during 1994–2011 has shown the prevalence of these conditions to be increasing.
    "Mental Health Surveillance Among Children — United States, 2005–2011"One in
    Children at Risk Foundation (CARF), via CC

    One in 6 children "experience a mental disorder in a given year." We know something is wrong.

    The brain we have, the one that got us through untold generations of the folks before us, does not change because a few of us now worship the global economy. What has kept us alive for millions of years has been paying attention, close attention, to the earth we (literally) walk upon.

    The hormones that surge through us now and the thousands of generations before us responded to real threats, real people that shared the air we breathed. Now we seek our lusts through flat screens, manipulated by strangers, and we respond with symphonic surges, weaving dopamine and oxytocin, cortisol and adrenaline as we wile away our time, emptying our wallets and our souls.

    Arne Duncan wants us to train our children for the global economy, an oxymoron. I want to teach our children how to live happy lives right here in Bloomfield, or wherever else they lay down their roots.

     Brookdale Park, Bloomfield, by Eric shared via CC

    I do not teach 21st century learners, I teach human children.
    I do not teach biology as a discipline per se, I share with young humans our connections to the earth, the air, the water, and the organisms around us.

    Until a child knows the life in her neighborhood,  under her feet, in her very gut, teaching biology as just another mandated high school course is a waste of her time and mine.

    We plant a lot in our classroom--most of the plants do not do well, not at first. Still, the seeds and the pots are available every day, and a few students persist. Right now there's some lettuce, one carrot, about a dozen basil plants, and several pea plants wending their way up makeshift wooden stakes.

    And in our specialized, detached world, even something as simple as planting a seed has become "professionalized"--another sign that we have lost our way.

    Sunday, February 8, 2015

    Clamming in February--A Teacher's Tale

    Dr. Harrison had opened a quahaug a moment before our arrival. it was lying in the half shell, pink-and-white and inviting, on his laboratory table, adjacent to an apparatus of moderately complex appearance. "This is the heart."Dr. Harrison said, extracting a bit of something deftly with a pair of tweezers. The muscle he showed us was smaller than the nail of a child's little finger. He placed it in a small bowl of sea water. "If this quahaug is like other quahaugs, and I presume that it is," said Dr. Harrison, "the heart will continue to beat for about two days after being removed from its parent body."

    "The Heart of a Clam," New Yorker, May 26, 1951. 

    Local quahogs, their hearts are now breath again.
    Clamming requires no schooling--just a rake, a bucket, and some sense of the world around you. You get to take a piece of the world home with you, slaughter it with a prayer, then eat it with grace.

    Clamming in the waning sunlight in February has its own pace--the hands are too cold to work quickly, no greenheads to test your reflexes. The clams will keep just fine in the cool February air.

    You get what you need, put back the few that you don't, head back to the car where the asphalt feels foreign under your now bare feet as you strip off your gear, then drive back home, heater on, the clams rattling with the road's rhythms. The radio voices remind you of the world you just forgot.

    In the warmth of the kitchen, your numbed muddied hands warm up, and the evanescent earthy breath of unseen creatures float into the air, the smell of the flats you just left, incongruous indoors.

    I know the clams too well now--of beating hearts stilled by the boiling water heated with the methane stripped off organisms that died millions of years ago.

    And tomorrow I will go back to teaching book biology, of mitochondria and DNA, to children whose breath feeds the growth of the plants on our windowsill, children who know nothing of this world that belongs to all of us.

    We're teaching children about edges in a world made of spheres.