Thursday, July 31, 2008

On the way to Cape May...

Trading access to the internet for access to ghost crabs, cabbage head jellies, dolphins, Harpoon Henry's, Pee Wee, Tiny Tim, brandywine tomatoes, oystercatchers, skimmers, and isopods.

See you next week!

On being a Dawg

A preface:

When I still practiced medicine in projects and homeless shelters in Newark, we had a parade of folks come visit us on our medical van. Administrators, politicians, potential donors, medical students, local community groups, pediatric residents, the press, and an occasional NBA star or two (one of whom gave away OUR toys while showing off to ESPN).

Most had good reasons to be there, but many gawked with a look-at-me-I'm-actually-in-the-'hood, and my occasional offer to tour the neighborhood was usually turned down quickly, as though I'd just asked them to step off a cliff.

I grew a bit weary of folks observing us as though we were some sort of archaeological dig site, gawking at a bullet hole, taking photographs of cute children dancing amidst the rubble, then (people just can't help themselves) offering advice on how to improve things.
So now, after teaching for less than three years, I'm going to be one of those people....
End of preface

I stumbled upon Teaching in the 408 a bit late--TMAO's profile ends "I am no longer a teacher." In his latest post, he notes that:
Instead, I’ll get to do a wide array of work in both practice and policy realms, straddling that great divide, and harnessing the experiences of the last six years in countless new ways.
Ayep. Beats harnessing the colts in the classroom. I'm not being fair--TMAO did wonderful things in a tough environment with a ridiculous commute, and he showed what's possible. But...(come closer, I need to whisper)...he doesn't teach in public school anymore.

I recently read Erin Gruwell's "Teach With Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from The Freedom Writers." I haven't seen the movie, and likely won't any time soon.

Ms. Gruwell did good work, but the dog and pony part led her to leave. I don't want to jump on the Stomp Erin Gruwell bandwagon. She did wonderful things, changed lives, and has been knighted by Oprah. But...(come closer, I need to whisper)...she doesn't teach in public school anymore.

For every Erin Gruwell, thousands more struggle in classrooms, fighting the good fight, doing what they can to improve a life. Quiet miracles occur daily.

I call them Dawgs. I'm proud to be a Dawg. Put me in the classroom and let me teach my puppies how to howl cogently.

And as I was drifting off to sleep last night, I smugly tossed all the erstwhile educators out of the Dawghouse. Let them spew forth in books and on blogs and on Oprah how to improve education. Let them be rich and famous, free from the red pen--they're not true Dawgs.

So this morning I was ready to fire up the puter, write a smug treatise on Dawgs while drinking my smug coffee from my smug mug, creating a list of requirements, bulleted and bold, the first of which is:
  • You must be a teacher in a public school who actually faces gobs students every day, every week, every year. ("Day", "week", and "year" are loose terms in this industry,but you get the idea.)
I'd show them!

Clay Burrell stopped me dead. He has a very interesting blog Beyond School, despite the incongruous Yoda inside the scrambled eggs (perhaps yet another pop icon I fail to grasp). Where'd it go? In "On Leaving Teaching to Become a Teacher" Mr. Burrell presents writes a very short post; it elicits a wonderfully cogent discussion, well worth the read.

I would love to get John Gatto and Clay Burrell in the same room, and just listen.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How do we know stuff?

I told myself I'd get the first two weeks of lesson plans done by August 1st. I also told myself I'd lose 10 pounds, floss regularly, and stop cussing, too, so my lesson plans will be in plenty of good company of things not done. Still, it got me back to thinking of how to introduce science.

I'm not a big fan of the scientific method as a springboard for high school science class, at least the dogmatic form presented in textbooks--smacks of religious fervor, but I'll save that for another day.

I want to hit the kids with some version of this: how do we know what we know? (Do not call it epistemology, you'll only frighten the children.)

I don't want to go the existentialist route either, I'll only feed this generation's version of Trent Reznor fans.

In the past I gave a quiz involving a variety of scientific myths, and while it's fun, and it's big on the "Oooo..." factor, I get the sense that it the myths return into their universes before the exit bell rings.

So here's my vague notion of what I want to do. Pick something they "know" all about, then ask them to "prove" why it's true. (I have a sudden infatuation with quotation marks.)

I'm generating a list of questions. I want to know how the students know the answer beyond appealing to a source beyond their senses and their brains. I want questions that can be at least partially solved without leaving school grounds.

  • How do you know the world is round?
    • Might take a few months to develop the data, but I think we can do this in class
  • How do you know something is alive?
    • I need to bring critters and plants in early this year, first day if possible
  • How do you know how old you are?
    • This could get interesting if I outlaw birth certificates--could lead to a good discussion about sources (parents) and how reliable they are ("My Dad says evolution is devilspeak!")
  • How many toes are in the room?
    • Don't think I'll allow them to go for direct observation here, don't want to embarrass anyone, but does make for a good discussion on inductive inference.
I'm open to suggestions....

Classroom toys: rattlebacks

I'm a float, which means I wander from class to class just like the students do. Since my travels take me to 3 different stories, I need to travel light. (I occasionally lug bowling balls--I only have two--so "light" is a relative term).

Still, toys remain on my list of science class essentials--I'd toss the textbook before I give up marbles, Jacob's ladders, drinky birds and the like.

I have a magic stone. Oblong and deep gray, smoothed by years of massage by a local stream, the stone nestles well in a worried palm. That by itself makes it special, but not magical.

One day, while idly spinning it, it awoke. It spun a few circles, shuddered to a stop, then reversed itself and spun in the opposite direction.

I spun it again. Again, it rattled to a stop, and spun the other way. Spin. Wobble and rattle. Counterspin. I found myself a rattleback.

Rattlebacks have a long history. Stones of similar shape have been found buried in Egyptian tombs (hey, a good toy helps pass away eternity), and people have played with them long before anyone understood Newtonian physics.

The rattleback is also known as a "wobblestone" (for obvious reasons), and as a "celt." As per the OED Celt comes from the Latin word celtes, meaning stone chisel, and is used to describe certain chopping tools used by prehistoric peoples.

I imagine a bored archaeologist spinning a celt as she sat in her tent during bad weather at a dig site. "Why, look, Professor James, this bloody implement is possessed!" If anyone has an idea of the real etymology, I would be much obliged.

You can find rattlebacks sold as scientific toys, sometimes at outrageous prices. Some rattleback merchants wrongly tout the toy as a model demonstrating the coriolis force. Even physicists have a time wrapping their minds around the toy's mechanics. Sir Hermann Bondi wrote: "Many people, even trained scientists, find it hard to understand that the behaviour of the toy doesn't violate the principle of conservation of angular momentum."

When I lend them to students, I try not to tell them what to do. Just let them play.

The Big Idea

New Jersey has an End of Course exam for all high school biology students. Well, it actually has two separate exams, developed by two separate entities, measuring separate goals. Neither is (yet) required for graduation, though apparently one counts more than the other. The exam is given in May, so it's more an Almost the End of Course exam. With two separate tests given more than a month before our district breaks for summer, our kids got a little beaten up this year.

Still, the folks down in Trenton seem to be headed the right way, at least on paper, and good people are working hard to fine tune the curriculum, leading to documents like the New Jersey Standards Clarification Project, Phase I with a video describing the concept of the Big Idea.

I'm a little nervous when clarification requires projects that come in phases, but at least I sleep better knowing that I'm not the only one confused by the state core curriculum standards. And I like broad statements like this one in the NJ DOE's High School Biology/Life Science Course Guidance:
The content of the course should be organized around Enduring Understandings .... Essential Questions for the Life Science course should be at the heart of the curriculum. The Essential Questions are deliberately open, promote inquiry, and may produce different plausible responses.

Unfortunately, the document later gets into specifics, such as lists of terms (but don't worry, "Biologically Speaking is a list of terms that students and teachers should integrate into their normal daily conversations around science topics. These are not vocabulary lists for students to memorize").

Uh-oh. I had just taught my kids how to fluently weave "condensation reactions" into their normal daily conversations around science topics and the State calls them "dehydration synthesis reactions."

I'm thrilled with any normal daily conversation around science topics with my students that does not degenerate into which alien is having which celebrity's baby, so if they want to toss "condensation reaction" in there, I'll take my chances and defy the State.

But back to the End of Course exam(s) and Big Ideas. Here's a sample question. I am not allowed to see the test the students actually take even as I proctor, but the state DOE doe
s give practice exam questions on their website.

At first glance it's a good question, no doubt refined by hours of committee work. The conclusion Adrian draws, however, subtly implies a few unscientific biases I just spent 9 months trying to break. Some Big Ideas I like are:
  • Plants do not need animals, and were here a long time before critters arrived on the scene
  • O2 levels have been bouncing around for over a 3 billion years--starting from virtually none, then rising to levels even higher than today.
  • Humans invariably underestimate the complexity of even tiny ecosystems, and should resist the temptation to "fix" things
  • Life depends on the influx of energy
My pond's CO2/O2 ratio bounces daily as the elodea converts carbon dioxide to plant stuff, snapping oxygen atoms off few gazillion water molecules as the sun shines. At night, my fish and the plants keep burning up organic compounds, using up some of the O2 and releasing lots of carbon dioxide.

Heck, in the northern hemisphere, our O2/CO2 ration bounces with the seasons, up in summer, down in winter.

Most of my kids will not go on to become scientists, but I hope more than a few of them go on to be critical thinkers.

Questions like this do not help.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I have two holes in my backard,each one dug by a child of mine at an age when digging holes was still fun. I filled them up with water, plopped a few fish in them, and spontaneous generation took care of the rest.

Wiggly red worms, squirming ostracods, larvae of all sorts. Dragonflies thrust their asses to the sky like tiny winged mandrills. A muskrat spent its last hours in my son's pond--I doubt it drowned, but its carcass confirmed its death.

While the economy hums along, while trades get made, folks consume, and as we continue our descent that will make lemmings look prescient, I must confess that I wile away sunny mornings staring at ponds. Oh, I might contribute to the local economy by downing an ale or two (no sense wasting time), but mostly I just sit and watch.

Late spring I played God and altered the local flora--I bought 3 sprigs of elodea. I use them in biology class, and I figured I could grow some over the summer. Like similar projects on a much larger scale, introducing a new species tipped things over a bit, and frogs can now walk over the pond barely moistening their toes.

No new lessons there.

In late June, on a particularly bright day, I noticed bubbles coming from the pond. It's not unusual to see the pond burp now and then--muck builds up on the bottom, and the mud belches some methane

This was different--it looked like a string of champagne bubbles, tiny but furiously active. The top of the pond had pockets of fine foam.


I (rather pedantically) ran off to tell my son, then I tried to write. "Awe" does not fit the cerebral cortex well. It's a funny word, and the jaw drops when it is spoken. If the limbus had a conscious vocabulary, "awe" might be its second entry (right after "angst").

I still cannot find the right words. Meanwhile, I'll stare at bubbles.

Musing on mufflers: introducing aerobic respiration

Kids know a thing or two about cars. Or pretend to. It’s not like the olden days when you’d fidget with a carburetor (“Oh, so that’s what a gasoline fireball looks like” with singed eyebrows, looking more surprised than your already very surprised look.)

So I no longer ask sophisticated questions about cars. But I still ask questions.
What makes a car go?

After a variety of answers, you work your way to gasoline as fuel, planning to eventually work your way to hydrocarbon bonds and photosynthesis and all that. But not yet.

Some students are already in over their heads. Not every family has a car and kids have better things to ponder than gas stations. So make it even simpler:
What comes out of the tail pipe?

Again, you plow through a variety of answers, go through a side discussion on smoke, break up the fight when someone comments on someone else’s family hoopdie, then finally get back to a refined version of the question:
What do you observe coming out of the tailpipe of a well-tuned 2008 Honda Civic on a 70 degree day?

Well, now the answers are fewer. “Um, nothing…?” Before you get any farther, explain to your Wackadoodles that you are not looking for them to go play with a tailpipe. They’re hot, and even a finely tuned car may spew out more than carbon dioxide. Maybe when I have tenure I’ll go there, but not yet.

So now I stand there, waiting. The Pause©.

The students know something’s up. It’s an easy question. What do you see coming out of the tailpipe? “Nothing” is not cutting it. Finally, someone will offer that well, once they saw some water come out of it, maybe leftover rain, but water nonetheless. (I do not ask them how they know it’s water—no sense encouraging the Wackadoodles).

Give them the dead stare. Nod.
Yes, that’s right. It’s water. But it’s not rain.

Again, The Pause©

“Er, Doc D....OK, so it's water...what's that got to do with biology?”

You know they don't believe you, but students pacifying teachers in awkward moments has a long tradition in classrooms. You think it's a teachable moment. Time to throw aerobic respiration at them.

Before you get too enamored of your fine contextual scaffolding, admiring your anticipatory set setting the stage for authentic learning by cognitive apprentices, remember it's actually just a room of children trying to deflect their delusional teacher back into their reality. They'll say anything at this point to steer your delusional butt back to the classroom.

The Sirens are calling—you want to be the Erudite Educator, instilling the Krebs cycle into the masses. The kids win, anything to get their teacher away from this silly nonsense about water in tailpipes.

Don't do it. Take two deep breaths. Forget about NCLB, NJASK, HSPA, EOC Biology Exam. Forget about tidying things up. Silently say over and over:
No confusion, no science, know confusion, know science....

I grab my handy-dandy propane torch, fire it up. Now the kids think I've completely lost it—some are texting wildly under their desks, thumbs moving for dear life.
What's coming out of the torch?

“Well, Doc, um, fire?”
What do you observe?

“Doc, I just said, um, you're holding it.”
I rephrase the question--
What besides fire is coming out of this propane nozzle?

“Ah, gotcha Doc, I know where you're going—carbon dioxide!”

I shrug. I can't see it, smell it, taste it, so I'll admit that's what the books say, but give a look like I'm not convinced.
What else?

Silence. The Pause©

I point the flame at a cool mirror and write my name in condensation.

“That's soot, Doc.” My name fades away.
Nope. Water.

And I let them spend the last few minutes of class trying to disprove it—and, of course, they cannot, and we have a grand time trying to figure out if the condensation from the flame is the same stuff as the condensation on the bathroom mirror, and away we go.

They still may not believe that the tailpipe has water in it. But they're closer than they were an hour ago. And maybe, just maybe, mitochondria will be a tad more interesting this time around.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Science is about stories. Really. Without diving into Campbellian mumbo-jumbo, or pulling a Barth, we construct stories to help us figure out the universe. And so here is a story I tell my Freshman science class, my PCP’s, the ones with the revolving labels.
My clan comes from west Ireland, where folks still speak Gaelic and live under thatched roofs. (For those of you who know me, remember, this is a story—the truth matters more than the facts). My clan is dark, we are black Irish. And (shhhh…) we have travelers among us, gypsies, Romani….

Now at this point, the class is a little skeptical. I point out my nose—way too big for the classic Irish look. My skin is dark in September, hardly the fair stereotype of leprechauns. (“You're a brother?” “We’re all brothers—but yeah, black Irish.”)

By now the class is hooked. Hey, it’s science class, and I’ve taken them back to storytime. Kids love storytime. They’re ready to break out their blankies. So back to our story.

My great-grandmother would tell us about a mystical force, a powerful force, called savallah!. We are all connected by this pull. All of us are pulled towards one another, indeed, pulled to all the objects in the universe. The moon, the sun, the farthest planets, indeed the farthest star the eye can see on moonless night all exert a force on us. Savallah!

It helps if you say the word a bit louder with some vague foreign accent (mine sounds Indian, it’s the best I can do). A few look skeptical. I carry on:

The closer two things are, the stronger the force…savallah! The larger the objects, the stronger the force…savallah!

By now I’m practically spitting the word, my eyes wide. A few students look nervous. I’d like to believe they fear this mysterious force, but more likely they fear their teacher has lost it, and they’re not sure what to do.

I then break out of character, resume my Authentic Teaching Voice©, and ask the class if they believe savallah! exists. Of course not, it’s ridiculous, this is America, only peasants come up with ridiculous ideas like that. A few may even have grandparents at home who still chatter on about similar nonsense.

I ask how many “believe in” gravity. All hands go up.

And then I substitute gravity for savallah!. And they’re hooked. I tell them to go home and share the myth. When I get that phone call, I know they did.

Now I’m a Flat Earth Society member and teaching religion. I keep the administrators busy.

Christopherian Encounters of the Third Kind

Cristian could not accept what his eyes told him; his brain rejected the obvious. (“Obvious” is a wonderful word—look at its roots.) Howard Gardner is a charismatic education guru, and favored by many educators. He was a Harvard professor, wrote well, but most important, coined the term “multiple intelligences”, developed a thesis around it, and hit the circuit making teachers feel good. He is a cult hero to a few of my mentors, and he looks like a mensch on video, so bashing him for mediocre thinking feels petty. I must be an emotional learner.

In The Unschooled Mind Gardner talks about Christopherian encounters, moments when a child’s education bumps up against what he believes (“knows”) to be true.

I encourage the creation of “Christopherian encounters,” where students must directly confront evidence that contradicts their intuitive theories…. (p. 227)

Any science teacher paying attention (a few don’t) sees this regularly.

Gardner introduced the term “Christopherian encounter” (or confrontation) before revealing its etymology, and I was hoping he wasn’t referring to Christopher Columbus, and hoping even harder he was not referring to the myth that Columbus “proved” the world was not flat. (Columbus could not prove the world was round—he had to turn around to get back to Europe.) Gardner credits Columbus as “the first human to demonstrate unequivocally that the intuitive impression that the earth is flat had to yield to the alternative conception of the earth as spherical.” I think that’s a high-falutin’ Harvard-speak for saying Columbus prove the world is round.

I think Howard Gardner could benefit from a Christopherian encounter of his own. Take him to the Jersey shore, let him watch a tanker on the horizon—watch as it slowly “sinks”. A lot of Europeans had access to beaches, even “way back when”—the “spherical” view of the world was not a radical concept. At any rate, Columbus turned around. Most one can safely infer is that the world was not flat, which is a whole lot less than calling the world round.

A fun classroom activity is asking the class if the world is round—and just about all my kids are culturally astute enough to say yes. But then ask them to “prove” it, while I attempt to prove that the world is flat. Caveat: make sure your kids catch what you’re doing before dismissing the class—getting called down to administration to explain why a parent complained you’re teaching Flat Earth Society science can be dicey, especially before tenure.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Butler Device

I had a child in class this past year who was obviously misplaced--he belonged at least in College Prep, maybe even Honors, but here he was, in the PCP class.

It takes more than a mite of courage to say anything original in a freshman class. Oh, it does take a bit of chutzpah to tell the teacher to "fuck off," and the dramatic "this class sucks and why do we have to take science" blow-ups require Dale Carnegie tactics (who suggested speakers pick a topic that make them angry, but adolescents already know how to draw from their amygdala). Still, toying with an idea, especially an original idea, in front of one's peers, peers who have already been labeled stupid and worse, requires brass gonads.

And Andy had brass gonads.

So here's the device. And if you credit it, credit Andy's uncle from Cal State, a fictitious character whose existence protects Andy's cool factor. (If you want Andy's real name, write me, and I'll ask him if it's OK to credit him.)

Take a plastic bottle, and drill a small hole in the bottom. Blow up a balloon within the bottle (the hole allows you to do this--if you don't believe me, try blowing up the balloon without the hole), then tie off the balloon. Drill another hole into the bottle cap, large enough to fit a tire valve snugly into it.

Now you can play--using a bicycle pump, and covering up the tiny hole in the bottom with a finger, you can make the balloon shrink. Open the tiny hole, the balloon inflates.

Great stuff!

The Wackadoodle Club

My brightest student two years ago was a freshman in the "Career Options" track. Everyone knows what Honors and College Preparatory means, and the remainder end up in the bargain bin. (This year the Career Options track has been renamed the Pre-college Prep, or the PCP track--bet it doesn't take a month before students start calling it the Dust track.)

Cristian had a track record--bright students in the PCP track had to work to get there. Cristian was the King of Whatif. "What if we try this...What if we try that?" Cristian, however, was also the King of Contraptions, and would quickly follow his questions with workable set-ups.

So we tried them.

Of course, other students seeking fame or attention or a way to blow off a lesson would also interrupt, but without the flair of Cristian.

Over time I discovered more Cristians in my low level classes. Brilliant, impulsive, and (well) unstructured young adults with curious minds. Because it's public education, because it's the world of jocks and nerds and dirtbombs and goths and geeks, and because I had no way to classify my bright but behaviorally challenged Cristian types, I gave them a name.

To be a Wackadoodle, you need to take a hands-on approach to science, not a problem for many of my students, who somehow made it through their first 14 years without maiming, blinding, or deafening themselves with a variety of home-made "experiments" gleaned from YouTube.

You also had to practice Safe Science. Otherwise, you're in the less-publicized Knucklehead Club. (I never put any individual students in the Knucklehead Club, though I would occasionally admonish someone that their behavior might get them into the club.)

And, finally, your idea had to be in the same universe as the unit lesson.

My own two kids, now adults, were both charter members of the club. My daughter, now on this Earth for over a quarter century, proudly called me one day to report she had done some silly, dangerous stunt (which I won't describe here, for obvious reasons). After she told me all the cool things about it, she paused as I inhaled deeply for the Father Knows Best speech.

Before I could induct her into the Knucklehead Club, she said "And I was wearing safety goggles!"

Spoken like a true Wackadoodle.

Are you a jock, punk, nerd, geek, prep, goth, or wackadoodle?
wackadoodle you experiment with all kinds of crazy stuff and you come to your own conclusions and refuse to let the dominant culture make you what you're not

Trusting your senses....

Bernoulli's principle is one of those things even many (most) science teachers get wrong, or at least use the wrong examples. A curveball tossed by Josh Beckett does, in fact, break (or bend) as it approaches home plate, but Bernoulli's principle alone doesn't explain it. Airplane wings do get some lift, but not sufficient lift from the effect of Bernoulli's principle to lift up the plane. (There's a lovely reminiscence by Jef Raskin, who was sent to the principal's office for questioning his 6th grade teacher's version of Bernoulli and wondered how could planes fly upside down?)

But that is not the point of the story today.

One nice demonstration of Bernoulli's principle is simply holding two strips of paper side by side about an inch apart, then trying to blow them away from each other by blowing in between them.

One of my test questions was this:

If you blow between two sheets of paper, what is most likely to happen?

a. The sheets move apart.
b. The sheets move together.
c. It cannot be predict
The students were allowed to do it during the test, and I was willing to model during the test.

I had one student in my class Fernando, a peripheral member of the Wackadoodle Club, properly do the demo. The papers clung together. He did it again. I smile and nodded. He asked me if it was a trick question. No, Fernando, it's not. He did it again. And again. And again.

He was getting more and more agitated each time he did it. I finally told him to pick the answer that reflected what he saw.

He got it wrong.

I asked him the next day what happened? And he looked upset--"I know what I saw, but what I saw couldn't be right, so I picked "a"--I thought I was doing something wrong."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Bloomfield menagerie: leopard slug

Capturing critters for the classroom is, understandably, frowned upon. I'm more concerned for the critters than the students, not because I'm a heartless educator, but because there a few ways most of the local critters are going to inflict anything more than an adrenaline surge in the classroom

This is a slug found in my garden. While it is "humongous" as far as slugs go, just about all of my students outweigh it by at least a few stone.

This particular one is a Limax maximus, a leopard slug, but telling the kids that really tells them nothing about it. Seeing a picture of one doesn't tell them a whole lot either. Handling one changes the picture, and the slime will last well into 5th period.

And maybe mention to them that the slugs are hermaphrodites. And that they lick each other while circling end to end before mating. A lot.

Not sure my kids will remember the Krebs cycle, but slugs will take on a whole new life for them.