Saturday, December 5, 2009

Essential questions

A few of my goldfish made the annual pilgrimage from my backyard puddles to classroom aquariums.

The classrooms were empty as I cajoled bubblers and filters to return to life. Saturday classrooms feel like midnight cemeteries.

Each classroom has a list of essential questions defining the ultimate goals of a unit. Our district spend gobs of money getting Grant Wiggins to talk to us, and by golly, we're going to keep posting the questions.

I have no problem with essential questions. I have no problem with Genesis, either. If we're serious about either, you might want to think twice before using them in a public school.

Grant Wiggins, the father of Understanding by Design, says that essential questions are "broad in scope and timeless by nature. They are perpetually arguable."

Indeed. I have only, alas, 48 minutes in a period.

My fish will intrigue a few students. My essential questions, which I love to develop, will not. I work with 15 year old man childs. Woman childs. Children lost in the magical thinking of brains seduced by sex hormones literally resetting their genomic activity, sex hormones that slide right past the phospholipid bilayers of their cell membranes, causing pieces of quiescent DNA to be transcribed, to wake up, to make proteins that will lead to bad decisions and dangerous behaviors that will usually result in another generation of human DNA.


I watched my cockroach probe the edge of the Petri dish with its antennae, searching for a gap large enough to escape the scrutiny of young adult humans peering through the stereoscope. The same cockroach now sits in a bucket on my stoop on a wet, snowy night, waiting for me to figure out where to release it.

In science, we learn to avoid words like "want" and "desire," because we cannot assume that a, say, proton "wants" to be closer to an electron, though we can empirically see some sort of attraction. Everything made of stuff is attracted to everything else made of stuff--we call it gravity, and maybe it no longer amazes most folks, but it still amazes the poop out of me.

So when Doreen sees the cockroach clean its antenna by dragging it through its palps, I am supposed to correct her by explaining that cockroaches do not "want," they just "do."

I keep silent. This particular cockroach on this particular day clearly wanted to clean its antenna. I wasn't going to argue the point with a 15 year old H. sapiens, not when it took me two months to get her to trust her eyes over the words in a textbook.

And what is desire? What is attraction?

It is (perhaps) a uniquely human thing to imagine a better life, and work towards a long range goal. Immediate behaviors to attain long-term goals require either a fine imagination or the jackboot up the gluteus of instinct.

I remember very little about 15, but I remember this much--I wanted Desiree, desired her, was attracted to her, use whatever verb you care to use, beyond reason or imagination or sense.

I was like an electron trapped by a proton, and about as conscious.

If desire is reduced to seeking behaviors that reduce the ache of desire, then my cockroach is capable of desire. No surprise there, tautologous as it is. No, the surprise is recognizing that what I felt when I was 15, something I may have called "love" or "lust" or "friendship" was no more (or less) real than the need for the cockroach to escape its Petri prison.

Accepting that a cockroach may have desires is not elevating it to the hallowed plane of a Harvard professor searching her cerebral cortex for the phrase that will impress her suitor with her cleverness, her literateness, her, um, humanness.

And I do not mean to belittle the professor. But aren't there days when even the elite among us would like our desires to be as simple as the cockroach's.

(And here's the dirty little secret--on most days, they are.)


And what do we know of cockroach desire before the testosterone and estrogen warp us beyond our human nature?

We know thirst.

One of the biggest mistakes I made as a resident was letting a mother be a mother. Her baby was severely dehydrated, his salt concentrations dangerously imbalanced. Correcting the imbalances too quickly could lead to his death.

His mother let him drink. And drink. The baby boy sucked on the Pedialyte with all the urgency and need of Athena emerging from Zeus' head, the need electrons feel for protons, the need I felt for Desiree.

The baby seized. The baby, now in his twenties, may not be the same person he would have been had I thwarted his desires. I do not know how much brain damage was done.

Incomprehensible want, behaviors altered for unimagined (and unimaginable) ends, for no reason beyond the attraction of desire.

So when Doreen tells me the cockroach wants to clean itself, I do not correct her, because she is right.

My essential questions in class keep drifting back to matter and energy, and because I do not pretend to have a grasp of either, drift even further back to "why?"

I see essential questions like some see democracy--if either truly worked, they would be banned. Public schools cannot tolerate children seeking answers to essential questions. We expect them to sit (for 48 minutes, no more, no less) at a desk studying a subject they did not choose.

If I want to teach science, I need to go outside, and I need to be less vocal.

That I continue to teach inside, modulating my voice like an orator (or a clown), hoping to maintain their attention long enough to skewer them with the NJ Core Curriculum Standard 5.12.1.A3 or 5.12.4.B4, shows I am human, able to thwart real desires with imagined riches given to those who persevere.

And I am failing. I am a good teacher, but not a great one.

If I were a great one, a child (or two or three) would stand up on a beautiful day, and walk out into the sun and set herself by a pond or a tree and simply observe.

And if I were truly a science teacher, I would follow the children out the door.


Kate said...

"If I were a great [science teacher], a child (or two or three) would stand up on a beautiful day, and walk out into the sun and set herself by a pond or a tree and simply observe."

You cannot know that this will not happen or does not happen. Teaching is an act of faith. We cannot have the expectation that we are John Keating in Dead Poets Society and our students will stand on their desks and recite Whitman. But I know that (many of) my students (eventually) take out a book, sit under that tree, and read for the joy of reading. And [I know] you made a difference for the horseshoe crab, the cockroach, and your students.

Just a few more days to the solstice.

lucychili said...

and you would step out into the world
a place of unthinking human mesh and inventive wildlife adjusting to changing habitats and competition. in between the experiments in economics there are still places rich with the ergonomics and social lives of other species.

Perhaps there is a way to help kids find those wonders in a context which is an adjunct to school. I have a friend Kristen who's house is home to social huntsmen, stick insects, giant millipedes, large snails carving their golden mean in personal architecture, (as well as an old dog and a chook(hen)). Kristen shows these species to school kids as a touring specialist.

I guess the problem with that model is that the wonder of nature becomes a special event to visit rather than a habitat which we share and need to respect and understand. What does sustainable human habitation look like?

How do we relearn how to live without costing the world irreparable damage to its resilient mesh of species.

I don't know but I do think you do good work at making people think carefully about how they fit. Both in the classroom and online. Thankyou.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday (?) you posted (sorry, not an exact quote) that your students were engrossed in watching a creature that did not even know they exist. I thought about that all day. We don't know what the cockroach knows. Maybe it wanted to look nice for her - it certainly preserved itself for today.
My favorite piece of science is explaining that we have a word for gravity but nobody knows what it is. The word is a description for that force that makes things come together. And that thing that makes things come together is gravity. But that's a word definition, not an explanation. You may as well say what the electron "wants" because it means whatever we want it to mean, no more no less (thanks, Lewis Carroll).

Charlie Roy said...

Another great post to read on a Sunday morning as the "essential questions" of life are pondered. Have you seen the trailers for the documentary coming out called "war on kids". It looks rather interesting and addresses the topic of school culture and learning.

I'm sure as Kate points out that a great number of your students have come to ...... "simply observe".

I know convincingly you have helped a number of your readers do this. I contemplated my own home made pickled jalapenos as I put them in my chili. I planted them, grew them, picked them, and pickled them and then sent them on their path of attack to my lower intestine. Your work and sharing inspired me to do all of that.

John Spencer said...

My wife's OBGYN said something that surprised me when we were in the hospital. Brenna smiled and I said, "it's just gas." His response was, "it's still a smile. Don't you smile at least on the inside when you fart?"

It was very un-doctorly of him to say. I've heard that babies don't convey real emotions until later. However, it seems that Brenna smiles the same smile of satisfaction when she is done nursing that I smile after dinner.

People spend a ton of money on yoga and on books and on candles and incense and all kinds of New Age emotion-candy to try and center themselves and feel content and strip away the external desires so that they can feel content. But for what it's worth, desire will always be a mystery that is so complex that poets and scientists can't understand it and so simple that even an atom understands it.

John Spencer said...

How's this for essential questions in science:

What is life? What does it mean to live well? Is it possible to be alive and not living?

What is death? How does the notion of mortality change how we live?

Matthew Koslowski said...

I agree with Kate. What we discuss with someone today or what we teach someone today may take time to grow and develop.

Recently, I spoke with a teacher at a cocktail hour for a career changing program for people who wish to become teachers in Boston. He said, "I don't understand the idea behind merit pay. How my students score on the MCAS at the end of 10th grade has as much if not more to do with what they learned in 9th."

Can you know that your 15 year olds, when they become 16 year olds, 18 year olds, or 20 year olds will not, in fact, go out and observe? You may be planting the seed for something greater. Just because you cannot see the harvest, does not mean that it does not come.

This Brazen Teacher said...

I liked the Art in this post :-)

I have this theory that children learn more from who you are than what you do.

It's not a theory based in Science or any form of research outside my own (often brazen) opinion.

And maybe I don't have the whole theory right... but I suspect I have PART of it right... that students get things from teachers just being in the same room. Just by listening to you form a sentence. Or tie your shoes.

And these are the best things... many of the things we learn just seep in unannounced. No fanfare. No welcome mat.

I had this teacher named Mr Patten. He taught 7th grade History. And I can't tell you to save my life the date of the Ghettysburg address, or which King Henry built Versailles... but I can tell you he waved his arms when he lectured... called us kiddies... wore suit jackets with tails, and had red mutton chop sideburns.

His class was 60 minutes of bliss bc he loved life, and he loved his subject, and he loved us. And he never spoke that... just exuded it. I suspect that's what your class would be like. Whether you go outside and observe or not.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

I agree that I cannot know what will happen, and if I did not accept teaching as an act of faith I'd have run back to the hospital ward years ago--I do not doubt that I am maling some kind of important changes in at least a few of my lambs.

I am still waiting for the beautiful May day when a student gets up and announces she is walking outside during my class, and dares me to write her up.

Dear lucychili,

It is my eternal (and so far impenetrable) goal to get my lambs to see nature as something they both know absolutely and yet cannot grasp--it can happen in a classroom if I have the time. A few of my students feel kinship with a cockroach. That's no small thing.

A few have been mesmerized by water fleas.

You watch something long enough, you get to know it. You know this already. It's impossible to watch a polynucleotide, and pointless as well.

But watch a pea plant grow? Time well spent.

Dear Charlie,

I've said this before, but getting just one fellow traveler gardening makes me happier than a clam at high tide.

Isn't following the short path of food from earth to home to you one of the greatest pleasures in life? We got ourselves tossed out of Eden a few millennia ago, but we never lost our taste for it. We're allowed a tangible taste of the mystery.

No words to describe it, I suppose, but eating from the garden somehow makes me feel like I belong to this wonderful place.

We matter.

Dear John,

You have a wise doc--babies smile, and babies talk before we can understand what they are saying.

It's a sad commentary on our culture that we convinced ourselves that the smile of a neonate is not "real."

And I am going to use some of your essential questions!

Dear Matthew,

Thanks for the words. As I get older, I think less of the time later, and more of the time now.

I love teaching, and I love biology. I do worry that sitting in a classroom with a focus on content to satisfy the requirements of the state curriculum, however, does more harm than good, even on a good day.

So I wait for the child to walk out. Still not sure what I'd do.

Dear Brazen,

Ah, hope. It is my dream that I am somebody's Mr. Patten.

Another teacher and I are contemplating taking our lambs to the beach in May, to see the horseshoe crabs they do not believe exist.

My Mr. Patten moment.

nashworld said...

Just so some of the rest of you know... the good doctor has been nominated:

I logged that post immediately after reading this post (not that it wouldn't have dropped otherwise)/


Mr. B-G said...

Some beautiful writing here. I'm glad I stumbled across your blog. Thanks for your thoughtful sentiments!

doyle said...

Dear Sean,

Thanks for the nomination--I managed to garner 10 votes, 1% of the votes cast, which is 10 more than I need.

That anyone besides my love reads my words is a blessing.

Dear Mr. B-G,

Thanks for the warm words!

Technology+Kids=Success said...

I'm so glad I found this blog!