Saturday, December 13, 2008


I started reading a book this morning, a good one.

This particular book was printed in 1903, sat in our high school library for about 30 years before checked out in May, 1934, then sat on the shelves unmolested another 45 years. "L. DeMatteo" checked it out in December, 1979--read under the same dull December light that glows now.

I fetched it out of the library discard pile two years ago, then forgot about it.

It's alive again.

Spoken words define humans. We tell stories, create our universes, through evanescent sounds repeated again and again, never quite the same way twice.

To hear our stories, we needed to sit close. I saw your face, you saw mine. I touched pieces of you inside my nose, and you felt pieces of me. Voices rise and fall as did the light from the sun, then the fire. The dynamics of our voices mattered--adagio complemented allegro, pianissimo then forte and back again.

Our limbic system, the seat of emotion and memory, worked hard--a good storyteller reminds us we are more than our cerebral cortex.

Written words are dangerous. They are static. They take on power far beyond the fleeting thoughts of the one who writes them down.

They are so powerful that people get paid well to tell the rest of us what a string of written words mean. Lawyers, judges, and professors earn power and prestige debating the meaning of words held fast in stone, on paper, words written yesterday, words written millennia ago.

If you cannot read you cannot participate fully in western culture. This often gets misinterpreted as meaning you are less than fully human. Reading opens doors, true, but it also closes them.

We sometimes forget this in the science classroom.

When you are reading, truly involved in a book, the only sense that's being used is your vision. Reading is a wonderful thing, of course, but we forget its limits. Words represent meaning, meaning ultimately attached to something beyond the photons bouncing of a page.

I can unleash your memories of eating an orange, but only if you've ever eaten an orange.

A lot of kids in school are reading about oranges without ever having tasted one. This is fine if a child really needs to know about them, and if there's no better way to do this.

Best way to teach a child about an orange is to give each child an orange. The only way to know the taste of an orange is to eat one. Too often we confuse "knowing about" something with "knowing." Forgetting the difference contributes to what Clay Burell school calls "schooliness."

The kids use a different phrase for the same thing: school sucks.

There is too much sentiment in our passion for nature. We make colored plates and poems to her. All honor to the poets ! especially to those who look carefully and see deeply, like Wordsworth and Emerson and Whitman. But what the common run of us needs, when we go a-wooing nature, is not more poetry, but a scientific course in biology...the fearful and the wonderful have a meaning and a beauty which we ought to realize.

Dallas Lore Sharp, A Watcher in the Woods

We do not need more written words in science class, we do not need more text books, we do not need more photographs. All are too static.

We need more sounds of children gasping as a hydra grabs a tiny piece of fish food while they watch under a microscope, then realizing the universe is far larger than the words in a classroom.

Until the students realize that words merely reflect something much larger than ourselves, science class will remain terminally interminable as students stare at the clock instead of the nifty Powerpoint slide you diligently crafted last night.

In December I trust words far more than I do in June, one more reason to hibernate. Dying light scares me, so I hide in the world our culture creates. It is not healthy.

Much of what we do in the classroom is unhealthy.

We know this and do it anyway.

I may invite Galway Kinnell's words into my classroom this week. I'd invite him, but I'm guessing he's busy this week.

If he should happen to wander into my class, I would ask him how much he trusts written words.

I'm guessing he'd raise those magnificent eybrows of his and say "not much."

In a brief bio of him on
Kinnell felt what he called in one interview "a certain scorn that there could be a course in writing poetry."
Here's a piece from one of his poems, "Under the Williamsburg Bridge," that says more successfully in 33 words what I babbled on above:

There on the Bridge,
Up in some riveted cranny in the sky,
It is true, the great and wondrous sun will be shining
On an old spider wrapping a fly in spittle-strings.

It is true.


Ben said...

I am often awed I walk into a large library or book store at the huge amounts of wisdom and experience that sits just waiting for me to discover.

Our science education system has always seemed odd to me. Let's teach ecology while sitting in a classroom, astronomy during the day, and geology in a man-made environment. I wrote a post a while ago about a school that met out in the woods everyday. That makes so much sense it's crazy.

ertzeid said...

Hi Dr. D! I just happened upon a video about particle physics that reminded me of an entry you posted a few weeks ago. Your post was about atomic energy levels. The video didn't mention this (at least not in the first half), but it explained really complex physics in a fascinating way. Of course, I'm a 26-year-old who's starved for the kind of learning about the world that happens in high school, so I'm not sure a bunch of 10th graders would care at all, but you might like it:

ertzeid said...

oops, that was the completely wrong URL. hope you enjoyed that glimpse into my internet use. here's the correct one:

doyle said...

I love that post!
Hubris is easy indoors, almost impossible outside if you pay attention. (A lot of us are incapable of paying attention.)

doyle said...

I enjoyed both videos!

The BBC one is fascinating--I just watched Part 3 and think it would be fine for my freshmen except Professor Jim uses a pint of Guinness for a demo. (He never says Guinness, but if one kid recognizes it, I've no leg to stand on.)

I'm going to blame you tonight when I'm writing lesson plans at midnight--I should be grading now, not watching physics videos.

Anonymous said...

if i could only teach history by taking the students THERE(wherever that particular there is)!!! they all want field trips and we live nowhere near our state standards. the woods, the world...the duomo is not the same in pictures...