Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Compare and contrast...

The road to student failure is littered with teachers' assumptions.

I thought I had prepared a decent lesson. We looked at a "compare and contrast" open-ended question. I carefully reviewed what each term meant. The students seemed to get it.
Compare and contrast two categories of pure substances,
and give two examples of each.
One of my bouncy but bright students (think Tigger in Winnie the Pooh) screwed his face into an improbable knot of flesh.


Um, do you know what "compare and contrast" mean?
He gave a reasonable answer.

So what's the problem?

"There's no question here."

It's right here Tigger. See?
I read the question to him

"But there's no question!"

And then I realized what he meant--there was no question mark. And he was right--there was no question posed.

This is my third year--most of my students are not the bouncy fellas Tigger is, and most would have sat there in silence.

This is a humbling business.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Another friend with breast cancer

A friend has just been diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer. She has a young daughter.

While I pretend to teach science in the classroom, quite a few of the young women I teach today will lose a breast (or two) in the next few decades because of environmental factors.

I remember the first breast I saw no longer attached to the body it once helped define. I had seen body parts in various forms before, but this one was fresh. A flap of sallow skin with a wizened nipple defining it, a long trail of fibrous fatty tissue trailing off the slab.

The pathologist, smoking as he dictated, handled the breast like a butcher handles meat about to be weighed, though not as kindly.

Incidences of breast cancer change in populations as people migrate from one area of the world to another, suggesting that environmental factors contribute to this disease. There is a continuing effort at the NIEHS to identify these environmental factors and the role that exposures to specific chemicals could play in this disease.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH


I shaved my mother's head when her cancer recurred--bony metastases in her skull made the shaving more difficult. She walked like a marionette the weeks before she died. In a radiology reading room, we'd call them "goobers." Goobers on the brain.

Unless it was one of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends--then they were metastases.

Since 1985, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals has been the sole funder of October's National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM). Zeneca has promoted a blame-the-victim strategy to explain away escalating breast cancer rates, which ignores the role of avoidable carcinogens. Zeneca's parent company, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), is one of the world's largest manufacturers of petrochemical and chlorinated organic products -- including the plastic ingredient, vinyl chloride -- which has been directly linked to breast cancer, and the pesticide Acetochlor.

In addition, Zeneca is the sole manufacturer of Tamoxifen, the world's top-selling cancer drug used for breast cancer. In return for funding the "awareness" campaign, ICI/Zeneca has control and veto power over every poster, pamphlet and commercial produced by NBCAM. "A decade-old multi-million dollar deal between National Breast Cancer Awareness Month sponsors and Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) has produced reckless misinformation on breast cancer," said Dr. Epstein.

"Chemical Industry Funds Breast Cancer Campaign"
Cancer Prevention Coalition

The media focuses on the strength of cancer survivors, and I have seen tremendously strong women live and die graciously through months and years of chemotherapy and radiation and surgery. The magazines will show glossy pictures of proud women, and these things matter, of course. Avon will sell "Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer Lipsticks," Mars, Inc., will sell you pink and white M&M's, and General Electric will sell you a Senographe 2000D mammographer.
They do not show a mother cowering in her bathroom, her bald head bare, blood all over the toilet from a nosebleed that will not stop, her teen-age son standing awkwardly, bravely holding her head.

They do not show the vomiting, the pain, the fear. They do not show a mother with her arm in a machine trying to squish out the fluid building up from lymphedema. They do not show the bony protuberances on a skull, the smell of dying cells.

They do not show a child wiping her mother clean because she is too proud to use a bedpan and too weak to use a toilet.


polychlorinated biphenyls


polychlorinated dibenzodioxins.

In 1991, these were the 6 most common carcinogens found in breast milk. The news has gotten worse since then. We are at the top of the food chain--toxins accumulate.

It has been known that breastfeeding reduces your chance of getting breast cancer. The longer you breastfeed your babies, the lower the risk. This has been attributed to hormonal changes related to breastfeeding--breastfeeding women cycle less, and had less exposure to estrogen.

There has been speculation (and it is only speculation), that breastfeeding may help reduce the chemical pollutant load on the mother. Guess who gets the chemicals?

The lifetime risk of a woman developing breast cancer was just less than 10% in the 1970's, or 1 in 10; it is now 13.4%, or almost 1 in 7 (NCI, 2005). In the 1940's, the risk was 1 in 22. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death in women 34 to 54 years of age.


Janet Jackson flashes a breast, and our Federal government rushes in to redefine obscene. Certain words and phrases will cost lots of money.

Here's an obscene phrase that won't cost anything--in fact, every October you hear it dozens of times:

Early Detection is the Best Protection.

This makes no sense--once detected, you already have it. The best protection is prevention which, admittedly, would require massive, radical changes in the way we live.

The NBCAM folks got wise--they now say "Early Detection Saves Lives"--if you go to their website, they pretend that this is what they have always said.

So it must be true.


I'm tired of cute images generated by multinational corporations pretending to save the world.

I am tired of AstraZeneca playing us for fools.

This is what a double mastectomy looks like. Laura Ellis is a remarkable woman who has shared her photos so the world can see beyond the "pink fuzzy teddy bears."

She gave me permission to use the photo.

You can read her story here. I don't have permission for the Zeneca photos, but I figure this all falls under education.

Thank you, Laura.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Raising the bar in New Jersey

New Jersey has a plan.

New Jersey has a plan to require all students to take pass chemistry, to pass Algebra II, to be ready for college or the workforce.
In order to ensure that students succeed in college level courses without remediation, or they are ready to enter the workforce to learn job-specific skills, their preparation must be the same.
No, it need not be.

I do not need to know quadratic equations to fix pipes, teach history, repair a car, enforce the law, raise chickens, sell appliances, lay down asphalt, write a book, practice medicine, or put out fires.

And while the pursuit of higher education can be useful beyond the "MAKE MORE DOLLARS!!!" mentality, not everyone benefits by going to college.

I happen to love clamming. Maybe I'll pursue it professionally someday. I bet I learned everything I need to clam (and be happy) by the time I finished 8th grade.

The vision statement of the NJ STEPS starts with a lovely sentiment:
New Jersey will educate all students to prepare them to lead
productive, fulfilling lives.

My mistake was interpreting "productive, fulfilling lives" to mean the students' lives--turns out our job is to produce "productive" workers "fulfilling" orders for the lives of others.

A couple of years ago, I had a nice chart with Dave, my apple farmer friend. Dave is bright, and he knows a lot (they're not the same thing). He is a self-educated man, or rather, a man educated by great minds without the filter of an "expert." I've had a few Daves in my classrooms--my hope is not to turn off their curiosity.

Dave never turned off his curiosity, and as a result never finished high school.

Dave knows a lot more than just about anybody else I know who did happen to finish high school. And college. And post-graduate programs.

A lot of somewhat bright people with shiny degrees developed an economy based on derivatives and other types of peripheral madness (if you define madness as no basis in reality).

In my chat a couple of years ago, Dave pointed out the obvious--the economy was rising on an empty house of cards.

Farmers have a bad habit of reducing economics to tangibles--food, water, energy, love. OK, the last is not so tangible in economics, but it's certainly tangible in his home.

"Mike, it's all based on [excrement]. It can't last."

It didn't.

An economy based on its citizens buying (on credit) things they don't need (or even want) could not survive if Dave's approach to life ever took hold again in this fine land.

Dave, of course, was right. And just as his family has survived a few other recessions in their 160 years on the same acres, they'll survive this one as well.

Farming's based on shit, too. At least it used to be.

I want every person pushing for high school students to have a working knowledge of quadratic equations (which is what you're asking for in Algebra II) take the American Diploma Project Algebra II test.

A little rusty? Drop $500 and take a review course.

"But I'm a Senator/doctor/lawyer/teacher/plumber/mayor/candlestick maker....I don't need to know this stuff."

Now tell a 17 year old kid he needs to pass a course the POTUS couldn't pass with a calculator stuffed into every one of his silk-lined pockets.

This is not a diatribe against education, the elite--we have FOX news for that.

A few students have the tools and the drive to become fine scientists and mathematicians, and they need all the love and support we can give them (both of which can be found in most public schools).

The funny thing about the top, say, 1% of the population in intellectual ability--it excludes, by definition, the other 99%.

We cannot all be there.
Nor need we be.

The photo is stolen from Bill Bynum's site--buy the CD. Dave is picking up Dobro tips from Mogli.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why I fear the American Diploma Project

I've been reading Wendell Berry again. He's a teacher, a farmer, a writer, and a prophet. He gets me thinking, and thinking gets me trouble.

I teach high school science. I also prepare students for the New Jersey End of Course Biology Test. While these are not mutually exclusive activities, there's no sense pretending that preparing for the test does not diminish real science in my classroom.

I may be misguided anyway.

The state is pushing for children to take Algebra II, and our commissioner announced in April, 2007, that our children will be taking a joint Algebra II test shared with 8 other states, part of the "American Diploma Project Secondary Math Partnership."

“This new exam will help to ensure that our children are learning the math skills that are becoming more and more essential in an increasingly competitive job and secondary education marketplace."

The "American Diploma Project" is a joint effort of Achieve (a partnership between government and business executives), the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (whose mission is promoting school choice), and The Education Trust, which believes "all children will learn at high levels when they are taught to high levels."

I suspect the first group's primary aim is to create workers for the corporate world, the second's to dismantle traditional public education funding, and the third, well, I'll put them in the Lake Wobegon School of Ridiculous Optimism, where all children are above average.

And naive me, I thought public education was about creating a functional citizenry.

Again, our stated goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Still, take a few moments to look at the boards of these organizations. Look at their goals. Analyze what they mean.

And tell me I'm not being paranoid.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Instant safety

Hallowe'en is coming.
I love Hallowe'en--death in small doses can be fun.
The dead reach across the dying sunlight, to tell us what?

The occasional glimpse at death, your death, your inevitable death, can tilt your priorities a bit. Most of us could use having our priorities tilted.

If you read any national, family-friendly magazine this month, you will see the usual, family-friendly articles about Hallowe'en and safety.
Know the neighborhood
Check the treats
Make sure no razors are in the apples (or else just chuck the only decent nutrition in the bag)
Don't wear costumes that drag on the street
Make sure your child can see through the mask
Don't carr
y a candle (this must be left over from the 1903 edition of Parade Magazine)
Wear reflectors
Don't trick-or-treat alone
Wear flame retardant costumes.

I don't have any real problems with most of the list--even the blade in the apple adds a certain pizazz to the Hallowe'en joy of fear. A fearful citizenry also helps keep Demagogic Party in power, and the world free from democracy.

I do have a quibble with the last one, though: wear flame retardant costumes. Flame retardant clothing (at least the kind found in the I-wanna-be-Hanna-Montana outfit in a box off the shelf in Walmart) may contain PBDEs, a toxin in large doses.

PBDEs may affect development of the nervous system, reduce thyroid function, and mimic estrogen. PBDE levels are higher in children than in adults.

Products containing more than 0.1% PDBE are outlawed in Michigan. It's the "Mary Beth Doyle PBDE Act." You could look it up.

If you're afraid to wrap your child in a plastic Hanna Montana outfit, just make sure she avoids lit candles.

Or you could just make a costume out of wool--I never saw a lamb burst into flames.

I've seen a lot of people die, most of them slowly, in buildings reeking of death and bleach. I've seen a few die quickly. Gunshots, MVAs, embolisms, arrythmias.

Dying doesn't look like a whole lot of fun, but dying quickly seems a bit more convenient than lingering.

I have smoke detectors all over the home. I do not want to die in a fire.

Each detector has some Americium 241 in it. I paid decent money to put some leftover stuff from a nuclear reactor in my home. It emits radiation.

My detectors will last about 10 years; the Americium has a half-live of over 450 years. (I love that it is called Americium.)

As a science teacher, I have a responsibility to teach my children how to think.

Is Americium dangerous? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? How do you decide?

As a science teacher, I might want to remind children that aged smoke detectors are supposed to be sent back to the manufacturer. (Bet you threw yours away in the garbage.)

The Americium in your home sits inside a disc wrapped in gold. The radiation is "minimal"--it is extremely unlikely (whatever "extremely unlikely" means) that it will ever harm you personally.

Americium happens to be water soluble. The Americium in your home will eventually end up in a landfill if you throw it out.

It is reasonable to assume a bit of it may leak into the food web within its lifetime of a few thousand years. You'll be dead before it's a problem.

It has been estimated that "if ionization-type smoke detectors were placed in every U.S. home, they'd result in one additional cancer death every seven years."

No doubt smoke detectors save thousands of lives.

Now for the gruesome, meaningless question: If you were the one who developed the fatal cancer, would you rather die in a fire, or from your cancer?

I am a science teacher. I cannot answer the question for anyone except me, but I can at least point out to students why it's an absurd question. (I'd rather die in the fire.)

It's also an interesting question, not because it solves anything about smoke detectors, but because it exposes how we look at risks.

If anything can save our culture, it will be the return of a sense of mortality. All safety is momentary.

When you think of the dead this Hallowe'en, think of the dying. It's a process. What we do to our environment does not affect our chances of getting out alive. They are zero.

Our choices do affect, however, how we go about dying.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Late October

The morning glories stay in bloom all day--the sun too low to coax them to close. A few bursts of flowers— nicotianas, wild aster, and marigolds beckon the slow, more-bumbly-than-ever bees. The ground is cool and wet, and occasionally mud squishes up between my toes.

The tomatoes are gone. I pulled them up today, skeletal remains still hanging on their stakes as though crucified and forgotten. The basil plants, usually the first to go, stand defiant among the rust-rotted tomatoes. Too much rain this season.

A mason jar with green-tinged rainwater emerges from the bean patch, the receding leaves ratting out a watery universe of euglenas and parameciums and copepods, spontaneously generated.

When the garden looks dead, and I no longer believe life is possible, I will peek through a microscope and watch the tumbling exuberance. But not yet--let the critters toss and tumble until November, when I need to see the show.

The grapes explode in my mouth. Most huddle shriveled on the vine, scrotal remnants. Some taste like beaujolais, some need to be spat out. The ground is stained with purple bird shit, the reminders of last week's drunken choir.

When I was younger, the October garden frightened me. Honeysuckle buds that would never open, basil flowers beckoning bees that were too chilled to care saddened me. When I was younger, I suspected I was immortal... the garden whispered otherwise.

No longer. Winter is coming. My winter is coming. The irrational bloom of an annual, a flash of a fuschia the night before its last frost, makes no sense to a seedling in May. In May, the seedling has work to do--grow and flower, seduce the bee, make seeds.

Mid-October, too late to seduce the bees, to make new seeds.
Never too late to flower. A single red zinnia glows in the low October sunlight.

Leslie and I have been together 31 years. Gray hairs no longer surprise us, and we are past making any more seedlings. The leaves are changing colors.

Still, in the faintly warm light of the setting October sun, she glows. It's not winter yet. I am not ready for winter. I am starting to love autumn, though.

This was written a few years ago. Last weekend I found a tiny snow pea pod, and gave it to her. She told me it was delicious. I believe her.

Monday, October 20, 2008


When I pour the pints of flocculated yeast left in the bottom of my carboy down the sink, I feel a twinge of regret. As the scummy sludge burbles its way down the drain, I say a brief prayer, thanking the little guys for their work, hoping each bud survives its passage through the sewage system.

I am a home brewer, a yeast farmer. I have felt the cool release of carbon dioxide on my palm held above my airlock as it rhythmically clacks away, marking the work of millions upon millions of yeast, busy converting sunlight into alcohol.

I love the end result as much as anyone who breathes, but I cannot romanticize away the burden I put these critters through. So pour yourself an ale, let the foam caress your upper lip, and relax--it is time you know just how much that beer cost a fellow organism.

Yeast is a facultative anaerobe--that does not mean, however, that it does not appreciate a breath of oxygen now and then. As any decent home brewer will tell you (and I confess few of us rise to the category of "decent"), the wort (the lovely malt, hopped extract that feeds the yeast--fetal beer) should be aerated prior to pitching the yeast.

Despite the high falutin' language, "aerating" involves nothing more than sloshing the wort around, rolling the carboy on the kitchen floor for a few minutes. With good nutrients, and a dose of good air, the yeast go into an asexual frenzy, budding like there's no tomorrow, producing gazillions of fellow yeasts, so that soon each cc of wort contains 50 million yeasties.

But (and this is THE key point)--happy yeast with lots of nutrients and oxygen do not make ethanol. They (like you and me) breathe, respire, and convert carbohydrates into water and CO2. They screw like mad, play and live and (perhaps) whistle delightedly to themselves but (again I will repeat the take home message, as a teacher will), no ethanol. No hooch. No demon alcohol.

Making alcohol requires, ironically, stress. To make alcohol, the yeast must be put in an environment that has little oxygen.

So I torture them.

I put an airlock on my carboy, and the little critters consume the oxygen they have. In order to survive, they switch over to anaerobic metabolism--you and I, we'd take the easy way out and suffocate, but the yeasties are far more evolved than we are.

So they say:
"Ha, ha, ha, Mr. Doyle, despite your diabolical airlock, we can still screw with impunity in your carboy, happy, happy, happy critters we are, with our sophisticated facultative anaerobic metabolism, that will allow us to supercede humans when the atmosphere is nothing but charred CO2 and sulfur dust...."

This makes me sad. If I were power hungry, I suppose I might glean some glee from this, but I know this will end with me sharing bottles of ale with my obligatory aerobic friends. You see, as the yeasties play joyfully among themselves, they neglect a small problem. When they switch to anaerobic metabolism, they make alcohol.

And while the yeasties are more advanced than most humans, like most humans, they are susceptible to ethanol. Once the wort reaches a certain level of alcohol, the yeast pass out and sink to the bottom of the carboy, dazed but not quite dead.

And like the male of our species, a drunk yeastie can no more reproduce than a tonerless xerox machine.

So a toast to my finely evolved buddies, and an appreciation for the complex life cycles these little guys have gone through so that you may enjoy your ale.

I hope that an ale will never be just an ale to you, my friend, for knowing the struggle that went into that bottle can only make you more versed in the complexity and relatedness of this universe, too beautiful to comprehend.

A water question. Any takers?

Water is weird.

I love the story of Erasto Mpemba, a high school student in Tanzania who (back in 1963) trusted his eyes more than his teacher. Mpemba noticed that his warm ice cream mix froze faster than cooler batches.

Aristotle apparently knew this already, and even up to Descartes' time, the cognoscenti accepted it, but part of being modern is being sensible, and Mpemaba was ridiculed by his teacher.

This phenomenon is now known as the Mpemba effect, but it's still not well understood. ("Not well understood" in sciencese means "not a clue.") That's not my question, but if you want to tackle that one, feel free.


In biology we've been playing with water. Today's opening question was "why is water wet?" ("Wet" does not mean "liquid.") That's also not my question--I can handle that one.

We looked at Brownian motion, watched a charged glass rod make a stream of water bend (and leaves of wheat dance), played with dropping water on a penny, and used wet yarn to transfer water from one beaker to the next. So far, I'm fine with my chemistry and grasp of hydrogen bonds and polar molecules--I'm feeling like a philosopher king, a rare moment in teaching.

What's not so rare, however, is the crash that follows 17 seconds after assuming the role of philosopher king.

We floated paper clips on water--very easy to do with dry paper clips, pretty much impossible if the paper clip is wet. When you float a paper clip, you can see the water dimple around it, like a thin film. I know about surface tension (though not in its florid post graduate physics form).

So here's my question. Does the paper clip remain "dry" while floating? That is, do the water molecules only cohere to each other and not adhere (at all) to the paper clip?

If you stare at that floating paper clip, it looks like it is resting on a film of water without actually getting immersed. My chemistry and brief observations say it's staying dry, my students think I'm nuts.

Any thoughts?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tastes like (organic) chicken

That's my sister-in-law Gail.
She's slaughtering organic chickens. She looks happy!

Organically raised chickens taste good, don't require antibiotics, make good use of the land, and promote sustainable living.

They don't, however, slaughter themselves.

Some people in our county are protested the slaughter of deer in a local park. Most are decent, thoughtful folks. A lot of not-so-cute critters got slaughtered by their vehicles as they drove to the protest.

We are all part of the chain, there's no way around it. Some opt out of the carnivorous aspect, and that's fine--much cheaper to eat food lower on the food chain, and vegetarians do leave a few more calories around for other
humansliving things to consume.

Organic farming worked before the second great war, and it continues to work where it's practiced today.

You might even feel a bit smug paying the extra dollar for locally raised organic livestock.

But someone's still got to slaughter the chickens.

I don't think I'll see any slaughtering of livestock in the classroom in my lifetime. I do think, though, that it would be a valuable experience.

I bet Gail does, too.

The first picture was sent by Gail, the second one is from Real Time News, January 29, 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Titrate until comfortable

Autumn has arrived.

The leaves are falling like colorful snowflakes. The sweet, sharp smell of autumn's decay reminds me death is inevitable, an unpleasant thought in the spring--makes sense in October. An occasional large raindrop splattered the ground.

I walked past the Park Manor Nursing Home as I do every day--large windows frame the elderly bathed in fluorescent lights, gazing out at the fall blizzard of leaves. I imagine the smell of isopropyl alcohol, of antibiotics, of death delayed too long. I am glad to be outside.

I have seen a lot of people die, even helped a few along the way. A good death in a hospital is rare.

Somehow I want my students to know this.

The doses of morphine were now high enough that the nurse assigned to the dying young man in the adolescent ward would no longer administer it. Titrate until comfortable was the order. I titrated.

His mother was at his side. His lungs were now near useless from cells that no longer recognized boundaries.

He stopped breathing. I went in to pronounce him. Until I pronounced him, the state of New Jersey would continue to recognize him as alive. I put my stethoscope to his chest.

The state of New Jersey was not alone. His mother quietly, adamantly told me he was still alive.

It was almost dawn. It had been a long night. I hope my face did not betray my frustration, but I kept silent.

A moment later, the dead boy's chest heaved in a last agonal gasp, a deep groan shuddering his body, his bed, my soul.

"Now he is gone," she said gently. "Now you can listen."

She was kind when I had forgotten what kindness meant.

I want my students to know this.

I no longer practice medicine. I teach. I probably have seen more people die than anyone else in Bloomfield High.

I had a man bleed to death under my hands, his heart ripped apart by bullets. We pumped on his chest to keep the gathering crowd satisfied. He died anyway.

I gave mouth to mouth to a baby whose parents begged me to keep her alive until someone figured out what obscure metabolic disease wracked her body. We got her back. 12 hours later, her specialists confirmed they had enough tissue to make a diagnosis. We let her go, 12 hours too long.

Lester's valve gave way from rheumatic fever. 6:30 AM, just before shift change. Some of us cussed at his timing. Lester was 6 years old.

Dying is not easy. Dying is not comprehensible. Dying is what we all are going to do. We do not do death well in this culture.

I want my students to know this.

I teach biology. We call it the study of life. In our culture, we tend to think of life as discrete packets called "organisms", which go about their business until they die, when other organisms make sure that the parts of the dead organism get back into the game.

We don't actually talk about life. If we did, we'd be (justly) accused of talking about religion.

My mom died at home. I titrated her until she was comfortable.

On the weekend she died, her oncologist was away. I needed to boost her morphine. The covering doc resisted my frantic efforts to increase her dose.

I am a retired doc. I know how to hurt other docs. Appealing to a doc's sense of humanity might work, but threatening his time works even better.

"Tell me the code to the morphine pump, or I am going to call you every half hour until she dies."

He told me the code, and my mother died two days later.

She laughed the day before she died. I want to laugh the day before I die. I want each of my students to laugh hours before they die.

As I walked home today, thinking about autumn and death, I knew apples would be waiting for me.

As I walked up my porch, I smelled them before I saw them. A crate of apples from the orchard that holds my sister's remains sat on the porch. The apples will taste wonderful, as they always do.

Teaching biology to students who live on concrete can be maddening. Food today is an abstract concept. Death is something that happens in hospitals, that happens in processing plants. What matters is presented as some reward in the future for their hard work.

I rarely assign homework over the weekend, but I might assign it tomorrow.

Get an apple. Go outside. Sit down. Close your eyes. Listen. Sniff.

Then take a bit of the apple.

Monday, October 13, 2008

More evidence these are the last days....

Just when things were getting really on the above image and read the last headline.

This is the Google Science news.
It now includes horoscopes.

And yet I continue to hope to teach science in this culture.

Save the Earth (er...wait...I got a date with St. Peter)

This week I am tackling human influence on the environment.

Language does odd things with ideas--that we can separate "human" from "environment," as though we were superimposed on a world made just for us, says a lot about the way we view the world.
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 1:28, KJV
We got the subdue part down pat.

Most of my students were raised in the dominant western culture here (call it European, call it Judeo-Christian, call it whatever creed allows us to exploit life in the name of God, in the name of capitalism, in the name of Manifest Destiny, in the name of freedom).

Americans live unsustainable lives. Children do not want to hear this. The parents paying me to teach their children do not want to hear this.

The logo at the top of this post means a lot to me.

Mary Beth is my sister. She was killed by a Christian missionary who accidentally ran her off the road, but it's OK, I guess, because it was God's will. The missionary told me so.

Mary Beth did phenomenal work as an environmental activist. You could look it up.

She was unfaltering in her conviction that the individual can make a difference. Her work is proof of her belief. She helped shut down Michigan’s polluting medical waste incinerators. She did some of the most effective initial organizing and educating that led to the enactment of laws limiting out-of-state trash and promoting recycling. She was a key strategist in the effort to protect women of child-bearing age from poisons in fish when the State of Michigan tried to do away with science-based advisories.
Dave Dempsey, Michigan Environmental Council

This is my fourth attempt to bring Mary Beth into my classroom. I hope I am ready this time.

Wendell Berry, a farmer, a writer, and a thinker (a religious one at that) tackles our cultural icons head on.

In Genesis, the living soul is made of both the Earth's clay and God's breath.

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
Genesis 2:7, KJV

According to the myth, God did not stuff a soul into a human body made of clay. The soul is the clay, the soul is the breath.

"Living soul" comes from the Hebrew word nefesh. A lot of Americans do not realize that the Genesis was written in ancient Hebrew. No vowels. No spaces. The original text has been missing for a couple of millenia.

A common perception among dominant Christian sects is that the body and the soul are distinct elements; the body is a temporary vessel holding the more valuable soul. It has led to a pervasive themes in Western thought:

The Earth has little value; we exist to get to Heaven.
The body has little value; it exists to (temporarily) hold the soul.

The present has little value; our souls will exist for eternity in Heaven or Hell.

I am not about to tackle the meaning of soul in a classroom, but I am obligated to discuss life. That I do not see much of a distinction between the two (and that I pray for the clams as I steam them to death) no doubt influences the way I see the world.

The major denominations in these parts will tell you that they do, in fact, care for the Earth.

"Look! We have a social awareness committee!"
"Look! We recycle and drink fair trade coffee after service!"
"Look! The pastor drives a Prius and even walks to church!"

So in class I will say "Look!"

Look, children, and know that stories told by old men and old women of seas full of fish and skies full of carrier pigeons are not fairy tales.
Look, children, and see your grandmothers felled by breast cancer, a disease much rarer before industrialized farming.
Look, children, the ice caps are melting....

And I will try to get Mary Beth's voice in there when they start to feel a little desperate.

Mary Beth's empathy was always with the individual citizen, or small group of citizens, fighting against the odds to stop environmental health damage or promote an environmentally-sound alternative. She was unfaltering in her conviction that the individual can make a difference,and was the most ethical advocate I've ever known.
Dave Dempsey, Michigan Environmental Council

Enough ram
bling on a day dedicated to a man who marveled at the generosity of the Arawaks who greeted him in the New World, then enslaved them.

For a brilliant dicussion on the artificial dichotomy of soul and body (and one I generously borrowed from) see "Christianity and The Survival of Creation" in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, Pantheon Books, 1993 by Wendell Berry. Berry notes that while Western culture behaves as though body + soul = man, allowing us to debase our bodies and our planet while holding on the hope that our spiritual component (soul) will live forever in bliss, the original view of man in Genesis is dust + God's breath = living soul.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What I want to teach in biology....

For all the biochemistry and taxonomy and gene technology my kids have thrusted upon them in Room B360, there are very few things I truly care whether they take with them as they wander away in June.

1) The ability to think critically.

2) First hand knowledge that seeds will grow if you plant them, water them, and give them a source of energy.

3) Clams are out there for the taking--wild critters within New Jersey, some decades old, just there for plucking.

Maybe I should award my top student with a clam rake, a $10 bill to cover the license, and a map.

We are growing wheat in class. In a few months I will grind a few wheatberries fed by the CO2 of my students, and offer it to them.

If they sort of get biology, they will be grossed out as they contemplate where the CO2 came from. ("It came from inside Billy? Gross!")

If they really get biology, they will break the bread with the solemnity of a newly ordained Jesuit priest, and the joy of a zealot.

I get one or two a year like that. It's why I keep teaching.

While Nero fiddles....

Clay Burrell's blog
resonates--every time I find myself bumping up against a thought of his, I take it seriously, and occasionally even modify my behavior, a big deal for someone in their fifth decade.

Mr. Burrell has taken edubloggers to task for sticking their heads in the sand as the world burns (see "What Crisis? Edublogging as Rome burns"). I am not going to disagree with him on the fact that Rome is clearly burning. My question is what do we, as teachers, do about it?

Clay's question/challenge:

So how many education bloggers show the slightest indication, on their blogs, that they find addressing these crises worth “suspending their edublogging campaigns”?

Answer: a whopping 17 - out of the 130 blogs with over 600 posts on Alltop’s education page.

I am going to post my response to his blog here. Yes, it's a cheap way to post an entry, and an even cheaper way to see if anyone is reading my words. Still, I take teaching seriously, and it's an interesting question.

Rome’s been burning for awhile, now. I’m guessing my last comment suggesting that you keep sharing thoughts on Gilgamesh for me (and Nero) to enjoy did not fly.

Anyone who pays any attention to history, to politics, to our society can see what’s been going on–and it has been going on for several decades now.

My daughter was beaten by a police officer back in October, 2001. She was jailed. Officers had badge numbers covered up. She was in a peaceable assembly protesting the Bush administration’s plan to bomb people who had nothing to do with 9/11.

Thursday at lunch, one teacher said that voting for a Democrat is akin to inviting terrorists to bomb the US. [Another teacher suggested that perhaps Saddam should not have hung alone, mentioning the leader of a country dear to me hang with him.]

I read Naomi Wolf’s words years ago, and they rang true. I kid about my tinfoil hat, but these are troubled times. In the classroom, I (attempt to) teach children how to think critically. My own views do not (or should not) matter.

I have faith that if I teach children how to think, they will reach reasonable, humane, and (dare I say it?) loving answers to the ills around us.

I hold a position that wields tremendous power over other clans’ children (loco parentis is a big deal to me)–if I espouse my positions publicly, it betrays my faith in the rational approach, and undermines what I am trying to do.

I am not saying we should not be screaming from the rooftops, though it is a shame that we are such a nation of sheep, blind sheep at that, that only the loudest get heard.

I am saying, though, that once I start screaming from the rooftops in an edublog forum, I am betraying my trust in the ability of a republic to educate its children.

(Not that I am not almost there already–but if I give up my faith that humans can think and love, and that we can teach humans how to think and love better, then I am not only giving up on my livelihood, I am giving up on life.)

I do scream and shout, just not in the ed world. If you ever visit my classroom, you’ll hear some very interesting things from children once they are allowed to think on their own. You will hear views contrary to my own, but that are on their way to being reasonable.

I had a very engaging months/years long on-line discussion with a brilliant young man studying at Oxford, a man who held some views obviously pushed on him. We disagreed on just about everything political, but I told him that given his mind, he and I would be much closer to agreeing on things as he got older than he knew.

And, years later, the transition has been startling to some, but not to me.



Nero fiddling comes courtesy of National Geographic.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The cost of tools

I don't wish to abandon technology.

I love pencils and pens. A ream of paper weighs a lot less than a ream of clay tablets. It's nice to be able to read after sunset. Trudging off to an outhouse is not much fun in winter. Even a red corncob serves as a piece of technology in the right circumstances. (See above.)

I obviously use the internet. I blog. I know how to align an IWB.

Still, all tools have a cost.

The original Luddites did not fear technology--they were weavers, after all, and used tools. They were against a technology that mass produced a cheaper (and inferior) cloth. That their jobs were on the line played no small part in the movement to destroy industrial looms.

All tools have a cost.

Learning to use a new tool costs time, time usually well spent if the tool is going to be used frequently of for a long time. I don't mind learning how to use the SMART board--I will use it a lot, it helps the students learn, and it looks like it's here to stay.

Still, there are downsides. Sometimes the board does not work. Projectors break. Upgraded versions require more time investment. The SMART board takes up a good chunk of the whiteboard, space I value. The whiteboard is easier to erase.

Someone gets to clean the filters for the projectors that use the whiteboard. That someone happens to be me.

All tools have a cost.

High technology can get expensive. If administration or the board of education spends a lot of dollars on a project, they expect it to get used. Using it costs time.

We have a curriculum. I use a daily plan. I have a set of tools for the classroom. Pens, paper, markers, microscopes, glassware, and lots of other goodies. My district blesses us with an abundance of tools.

I love toolboxes, I have several in my basement. If you want to make me happy, buy me a toolbox for my birthday, loaded with tools.

If you want to disappoint me, however, buy me a gold-plated heavy duty shovel and expect me to use it on my next project, no matter what that project is.

When I get observed, I make sure I throw in a minute or two using the latest gizmo. Even if the gizmo is not the best tool for the lesson. This makes me a cynic.

I'd rather be a Luddite than a cynic.

All tools have a cost.

The best teachers I know can squeeze their lessons into just about any new technology thrown down from on high. The best teachers I know can teach the same lessons just as well using a crayon on the back of a paper towel.

Public schools will never be able out-wow the technological toys kids carry with them. It costs too much, the learning curve is too steep, and it's also besides the point.

We are here to teach.

All tools have a cost.

Here's where I am supposed to stomp my feet (I do that a lot), proudly announce I do not own a cell phone (after years of being on call as a doc, last thing I want is more access), and condemn the flow of high-tech methodologies flitting through the schools.

That would miss the point.

All technologies have a cost, but sometimes the benefit outweighs the cost.

Last week, I had my students plant seeds. Old school technology. Every single one of them had used a computer before, and almost every single one of them has a cell phone.

Most of them had never planted anything before in their lives. They are excited by something new.

In the next few weeks, I am going to have a class create wiki pages. I have my supervisor's blessing. I am using a class of freshman, a Level 1 CP Physical Science class, a fancy way of saying our lowest level offered.

My turn to be excited by something new.

The top photo is called "Outhouse," taken by mexico 2000, originally posted on Flickr, taken in Stamford, South Dakota.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Winterfylleð and clams again

I have a few problems with October. I prefer Winterfylleð--at least the etymology makes sense.

Many of my colleagues have an unabashed love for science. I don't--not because I don't trust rational thought (I (mostly) do). I have a problem with humans.

I am not talking about misapplications of technology. No one is going to argue that detonating nuclear bombs over cities is, at best, a dubious activity. "Pure" science, however, gets a free pass. It has always bothered me, in the way fishing for sport does. It's fun, sometimes productive, but something doesn't smack right.

I love clams. I kill them, true, to eat them, but I have a fine affinity for my shelled cousins. They are delectable dollops of sunshine, and if there's anything to this human superiority link-to-God thing, well, my clams at least get the benefit of a prayer as they taste garlic. ("My" clams betrays my hubris.)

Last October National Geographic reported that researchers had found the oldest known animal ever. A clam.

A 405 year old quahog.

Hamlet was just published. Sir Walter Raleigh got arrested. Queen Elizabeth died. And a quahog siphoned water in waters off Iceland.

A team of scientists was analyzing clams to study climate changes. They stumbled upon the clam. They counted its rings. The article makes no mention of whether they ate it.

If I found a 405 year old clam, I'd chuck it back into the water.


I studied etymology while a student at the University of Michigan. I wanted to be a bugologist.

We were asked to decapitate a live cricket under a dissecting microscope. It acted just like you'd expect a live cricket to act while getting its head yanked off. I am still not sure what we were supposed to learn, but I did yank off its head.

The legs continued to strum the air.

I left my microscope and a piece of my heart a few minutes later. That I plucked off that head to further my undergraduate career in science shames me. That I walked away from the scope a few moments later helped define me. Didn't do the cricket any good, though.


I teach science to children just old enough to have opinions. My opinion should not matter in the classroom. I said as much today when introducing descent with modification ("evolution" in the coffee klatsch crowd). I am not trying to convince them of anything, just trying to get them to think.

I paraded around a petri dish dotted with bacterial colonies from grown from the students' washed hands.

Say hello to your distant cousins! Can you believe you are related to bacteria?

Some nervous assent.

How many truly believe you are related to this stuff?

Someone muttered "not me."

A start.

I wouldn't believe it either if I knew only what you know now.

I am not a raving Creationist. Evolution is the key to understanding biology. Still, teaching by dogma is not science. Until someone doubts me, I cannot teach science.

We have doubt in the classroom now--not blind faith against evolution, just healthy doubt.

Do not trust your teacher. Make him show you evidence. Make the teacher work. Make science come alive.

And don't kill clams just because you want to see your name in print.

October again.

October again. Daylight shrinks, shadows return.

Another friend diagnosed with breast cancer, just in time for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Thank you AstraZeneca, another ribbon for my car.

Early detection is the best prevention. Early detection is the best prevention. Early detection is the best prevention. Early detection is the best prevention. Early detection is the best prevention. Early detection is the best prevention. Early detection is the best prevention. Early detection is the best prevention. Early detection is the best prevention.

The best prevention is avoiding the carcinogens that cause breast cancer. Women are disposable, breasts even more so.

My life's love and I agreed I would go first, that's the deal. She has a cyst the size of Kansas on her brain, perhaps a result of her getting struck by a car a decade ago, perhaps congenital, who knows? It's October--these things happen in October.

The brain surgeon told us she's OK, so I'm better now. A deal's a deal. We spent the weekend playing on the beach. Beaches are good places for playing. Every low tide reminds us of mortality--you can smell death. Every high tide reminds us of redemption.

In Old English, "tid" means "due time"--folks still died back then, but I hear we've been cured of all that death nonsense now.

Back at the shore, the sweet stench of death alternates with the fresh flood of life, twice a day.

I picked up a few dried carcasses of horseshoe crabs. They've been around a bit, and will no doubt be around long after humans are gone, a reminder that our cerebral cortices and opposable thumbs may be a bit overrated.

Low tide is around noon this Saturday. I will dig up a few clams from the dying mud, and eat them.

It's that time of year again.

This was written a year ago today. Breast cancer killed my mom. AstraZeneca was once part of Imperial Chemical Industries, a producer of vinyl chloride products associated with (you cannot make this stuff up) breast cancer. I'm too old to play nice anymore. The Pink Ribbon campaign is cynicism at its worst, naively perpetuated by people who hope for the best.

Monday, October 6, 2008

I teach ancient Greek philosophers

It finally hit me--high school freshmen think like ancient Greek philosophers.

In Period 1 history class, the students are told that ancient Greece is the birthplace of western civilization; by Period 4 science, they're being told that their Aristotelian views of the universe are silly.

No wonder the kids resist science.

A few nuggets of ancient Greek wisdom:

We can see in absolute dark.

Objects emit particles that are detected even in the dark. Democritus believed objects emitted eidola, replicas of the object an atom thick, that hit the eye.

I suggested to one class that they spend some time in a totally dark closet. One student said he didn't need to, he knew he could see in total darkness. Reason over observation--if Aristotle could reject experimentation over pure thought, well, can hardly blame a child for thinking the same thing.

When was the last time you put yourself in absolute darkness. Are you sure you cannot see in the dark?

The sun is a big, hot rock.

If it's good enough for Anaxagoras, it's good enough for my students. The stars are also rocks, but are so far away you cannot feel their warmth.

So now instead of debating what I once considered a foolish point with Sergio or Briana or Louis as they fumble with their iPods and phones, I pretend I am talking to Anaxagoras.

Try explaining plasma and nuclear fusion to an ancient Greek philosopher, a very bright one at that.

Imagine inviting Anaxagoras to dinner. Most of us would use the finest china, serve filet of mignon and the best wine, and only after some initial small talk even consider questioning his position. We'd give him lots of latitude (for how can we expect him to grasp modern physics) and give him room to stumble. He announces at dinner that the sun is, indeed,"a red, hot stone."

Now imagine a 14 year old child who says the same thing in class--there'd be laughter by students, an eye-roll from the teacher.

Until someone offers evidence otherwise, I think a 14-year-old who thinks the sun is a hot rock has good reasons for believing it. It's not our job to convince him otherwise; it's our job to show him how we came to our current understanding through the available evidence. (This translates into getting the right answer on a multiple choice question, true, but I can dream.)

Reading it in a textbook is not a good reason to believe something.

Heavy objects fall faster than light objects

Imagine Aristotle in your class--he's getting to be a real thorn in your side. He says heavy objects fall faster than lighter objects.
Heavy objects are made of "earth" (one of the 4 basic elements), and the object's natural place is back in the earth. Take a big chunk of earth away from its proper place--it needs to return. Do you have a better idea, Mr. Teacher?

How many of us would retort with "Did you read your assignment last night, Ari?" You have a 24 children in class, you have standardized tests breathing down your neck, why won't Aristotle comply?

Oh, well, that's different--he's from ancient Greece, we're more sophisticated now, everybody knows that gravity is this force that no one understands that causes every object in the universe to be attracted to every other object in the universe.

Imagine a thinking 14-year-old student weighing between a simple Aristotelian version of gravity that says heavy things fall faster because they want to return to their proper place against the teacher version that's telling you that a star millions of light years away exerts a slight pull on you.

The same teacher, by the way, who just told you astrology is nonsense. Even though you had good luck last Friday, just as your horoscope predicted you would.

So I drop my keys and paper clips and lab stools and heavy science books in class--and we all marvel that they hit the ground at the same time. It amazes me every time. I've been dropping things for almost 50 years, and after a few decades I finally accept that at low velocity many objects do in fact drop at the same rate.

I expect my kids to unlearn ancient Greek physics in less than a class period. Took western science about 2000 years to unlearn the same concept (thank you, Galileo).


Teaching my lambs does not get any easier realizing that their reasoning rivals that of historic geniuses. Does make me a little more patient, though.

The drawing is of Anaxagoras--the writing is loosely translated as "A classroom full of Anaxagorases"

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mr. Clam visits my mitochondria


I am now breathing out carbon dioxide, made from atoms that were once part of Mr. Clam and his clammy buddies, who kindly provided me with the energy to keep my heart beating, my limbs moving, and my fingers typing.

(For the kiddies out there, "typing" is what we used to call keyboarding.)

Of course, Mr. Clam got his energy from tiny critters and pieces of other critters that got their energy from other critters, or pieces of critters.

Where did they get their energy from?

Algae and green plants and protists clever enough to make their own food.

Where did that energy come from

Sunlight--caught by pigments in algae and green plants and clever protists.

And how does the sun throw off so much energy?

Protons colliding in our nearest star, hydrogen banging against hydrogen, then banging against hydrogen again. Four protons converted to a nucleus of helium (two protons, two neutrons).

4 protons weigh a tiny bit less than 2 protons and 2 neutrons, no matter what your elementary school teacher said. And that tiny bit of matter had to go somewhere.

Where did the matter go?

Turns out Einstein was right (as far as he went, anyway):


Matter and energy are different versions of the same stuff.

Where did that matter come from?

Go ask your local physicist, priest, or street pharmacist. It's all a mystery to me.

Some things are unanswerable, or rather unknowable. Plenty of charlatans with plenty of answers.

If you want to know the answers to the mystery, ask a clam.

Pictures taken by Leslie, who now wants to get her own clamming license so she can join in the fun. The gentleman in the bottom photo is Bob. We both have licenses, all our clams were bigger than 1 1/2", and we finished before sunset.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


While biology class in New Jersey is a race against the EOC (End of Course) state exam coming mid-May, I learned last year that pushing kids at full throttle towards the goal of hitting every fine point in the curriculum a month before school ends costs more than it's worth.

Kids, like machines, shut down when overworked.

(I'm not talking about the kind of shutdown where a student makes the big "You can't make me do this" challenge. The student is right. I can't. I'm talking about the serious student who approaches their work as a rational 15 year old (not an oxymoron) who simply cannot synthesize concepts as fast as we're tossing them out.)

In our district, biology precedes chemistry, for a variety of reasons, some even valid. Teaching biochemistry to a child without a background in chemistry is like teaching fish how to fly.

This week marks Yom Kippur. For most of my students, this means nothing more than a day off. We are in the midst of the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim). I am not Jewish, but this time of year's as good as any for big-time introspection, and hat's off to calling the time Days of Awe.

We just finished our first month of school. I threw a lot at the kids--we defined the characteristics of life (wowzers!), explored major themes in biology (interdependence, biodiversity, and evolution), talked about how scientists classify this big buzz of life (not very well, it turns out), and are now discussing ecology, literally the study of where we dwell, or home.

In a week or two, we hit biochemistry.

If the kids do not get a good grip on what we've covered so far, they will have no reason to care about huge molecules tagged with mysterious names.

Almost every day I light a candle in class. Now I keep a sprig of elodea, a fast growing water plant, next to the candle.

Where does wax come from? Petroleum. From what? Plants millions of years ago. How did The energy in its bonds? Sunlight/photosynthesis. What gases are released? CO2 and water.Where do they go? In the air--green plants will use it. What is this stuff called elodea? How did it grow? Carbon dioxide and water and energy. Where does your "stuff" come from? We eat other stuff. That came from where? Ultimately green plants. On and on and on....

We covered a huge chunk of ground.

Many of the students still believe in spontaneous generation. ("How come I found worms in my cereal when I opened a new box?")

Many still believe evolution is nonsense because they believe I believe humans came from
chimps. (I never said that, of course.)

Many would rather do multiple choice questions than think.
(I don't blame them--thinking exposes things we rather leave buried.)

So this week I'm trying to synthesize all we've learned into a lesson. I might be observed during this particular lesson.

And I may start with an ode to poop.

Is poop alive?
Anything alive in it?
What qualifies bacteria as living?
Does being alive involve consciousness?
Can we know if bacteria have a sense of awareness?
If "the stones themselves cried out", would that be enough to define life?

OK, the 1st Amendment makes the last question moot in public school, but it would be a fun discussion.

I'm pooped. Still, it's a lovely October afternoon, and I'm going clamming with my Don't-Call-Me-Uncle Bob in a couple of hours. And I hope my next post is fueled by clams who grew by capturing energy filtering some organic material from the water.

Possibly even (*gasp*) poop.

The top photo is from the National Archives--it's a mill in Paterson, NJ, back in 1937, run by Jackson Winding and Warping Company--ain't that name just perfect?

The bottom photo is also from the archives, titled School boys with manure for their garden. Really.

And I bet they knew more about biology than some of our children in the fanciest prep school with the fanciest tools and technology.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Apple season

(This has nothing and everything to do with teaching--if you're looking for pedagogy, won't find it here today. But you might find some wisdom under an apple tree.)

I just got a call from the man in those boots. He's a farmer, and a good one.

He lives on a good chunk of land in Lenawee County, in the state given up by McCain today, and he grows apples. His family has been on the same piece of land for over 150 160 years, and it's in as good shape now as it was before anyone reading this was born.

His family could have sold it years ago, and every Keeney for the next seven generations could have lived high off the hog.

They chose not to. Instead, the man in those boots chooses to work a full-time job so he can keep the other full-time job as farmer.

He just called. It's been a bumper year for apples. A few years like this one and...

I interrupt. "You sound like a farmer. If you didn't, you wouldn't be doing what you're doing."

He laughed. He's sending me a bunch of apples. He sends them every year, no matter how his crop did. Northern spies, jonathans, macs.

We talked a bit about the gyrating stock market, but he reminded me that the apples grow the same no matter what the market does.

Hail storms, well, they matter. So does drought. A lot of things can go wrong--scab, rust, mildew, bugs--and they do.

Still, his family survived the 1930's on the farm, and I reckon they'll do just fine in the current crisis.

And I'll keep getting sunlight disguised as northern spies.

The boots belong to Dave Keeney, and I lifted the photo from Bill Bynum and Co.; the apples are from the USDA site. While you're at the Bill Bynum site, listen to Sinners and Saints--"every sinner has a future, every saint a past"--thanks, Dave.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"I am a molecule, I cannot stop moving..."

Occasionally I'll bounce around the room, muttering "I am a molecule, I cannot stop moving." I'll walk until I hit something, anything, then ricochet in some reasonable approximation of a billiard ball, eventually bumping into something else. Sometimes I get wedged between two rows of desks, vibrating like a pinball stuck on a bumper.

It makes the kids nervous. Doesn't help that I use my robot voice. I AM A MOLECULE I CANNOT STOP MOVING I AM A MOLECULE I CANNOT STOP MOVING I AM...

If I am feeling particularly brave, I get the students out of their seats, cram them in a corner of the room, then ask them to all do what I was doing. Chaos ensues, but within a minute or two, you have fairly random dispersion of the human molecules (except for the 3 or 4 males chasing Polly McMuffin), and I ask them to freeze.

I ask the lambs to look around--how did the particles get so spread out?

If I am feeling maniacally brave, I repeat the exercise, but now walk around with a lit candle, asking the students what they would do if they were heated up a bit. (Yes, I felt maniacally brave once, and hope not to feel so brave again, at least not until tenured.)

If I am feeling not so brave, I'll dilute a drop of milk in water, and have the kids look at it under a microscope. Once the fat droplets settle down, they wiggle and jiggle about, reflecting Brownian motion. Evidence of molecules in motion.

I know someone is thinking when a voice rises above the chaos--"but why do molecules keep moving?"

I can give a fancy pants answer, mumbling about the kinetic theory of matter, but when you push the issue, no one really knows. It wasn't that long ago that physicists argued whether molecules truly keep moving. Boltzmann, a prominent physicist pushing the idea that they do, committed suicide. I'm a passionate teacher, but I draw the line.

So in my best science teacher voice I say:

Beats me!

Students don't like that answer. I give the same answer when they ask why gravity acts the way it does (perhaps better phrased as why does mass act the way it does, but hey, these are freshmen).

Most just figure I'm clueless, but when surrounded by kids who have been told they're a bit slow enough times to start believing it, some find comfort that some things just aren't known, even by teachers.

If they only knew how true that is....

The "I am a molecule" routine was taught to me by Ms. Maria Rinaldi, my cooperating teacher back when I was still in the embryonic stage of pedagogy. I got a million dollar education from her.

The beans on Wall Street

OK, I'll clam up about the quahogs for now, though I might not resist a report on the Great October Clam Hunt coming up in a few days.


We are spending time in biology talking about biogeochemical cycles and energy transfer.

Carbon is cycled. So is water. Nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium. We use stuff over and over, yet we depend on other organisms to get it.

We rely on plants to recapture carbon dioxide and merge it with electrons and protons from water. We rely on bacteria to capture nitrogen from the air, to break it back down when organisms decompose.

Energy, however, cannot be recycled. We are creatures of the sun.


Each year, plants make enough stuff to keep more than a few billion primates alive. Each year we come closer to learning about limits. While folks panic over a volatile stock market, the local trees are breaking down chlorophyll, preparing for winter. Organic molecules are moved back into the roots, their energy, stored sunlight, held over until February when the sap starts to run again.

I walk to school. By mid-October, I am mostly walking in the dark.

For the last 3 years, I passed a maple that held onto its leaves on a few branches, long after the other leaves had fallen. The leaves bunched around a street lamp. Most of the tree lay dormant, yet a few hundred leaves stayed green, capturing light, making sugars.

This week darkness returned to my morning walk, and I remembered my tree a quarter mile before I got to it. As I ambled to school, I decided I'd take a picture a day, to show students in minutes what I'd seen over months. I could structure a good lesson around my persistent tree.

The tree was gone—sawdust surrounded its hollowed stump, likely cut down within the past week. Judging by the stump, it needed to come down. Still hurt to see it gone.


On Friday, my biology classes will plant seeds bought in the local grocery store, seeds still in their packages sold as food. I'll call it a lab. I'll toss in a few critical thinking questions, we will discuss cycles, but the real objective is to get the kids to see something grow over time in front of their eyes.

If we get lucky, if the light is just right, if the plant survives the winter break, and if pollen gets fortuitously dislodged, we may have grow a new bean pod by February.

Carbon dioxide from teachers cajoling students to try a little harder, from kids telling secrets to each other, from sighs, from laughter, will join particles ripped off the water molecules poured on the plants by the students.

And when the students start to pick up on the fears of the generation that mortgaged their futures, as another cycle of greed ends, maybe they will find solace when their bean plants flower in January.

"New Economics" still relies on the old economics--everything we need comes from the soil and the sun. There are limits.

A bean plant never loses its value, no matter what the market's doing. And by late winter, even Wall Street might not amount to more than a hill of beans.

Both photos from the National Archives--the bean picture was taken around 1938. If the boys are still alive, I'd love to hear their story.