Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blue moon blues

This is not science, no matter what NASA says.

This is about folks who miss regularly spectacular events such as the ever-changing moon phases getting excited because a "full moon" happens twice within an artificial division of time. Turns out we create even bigger, vaguer excitement if that month happens to mark the culturally designated new year.

The word "month" comes from menses, an old word from an older language. "Menses"comes from the same old word. Whether menstrual cycles were tied to the moon before artificial light changed our culture is not clear, though women may be more likely to ovulate during the full moon.

Many critters remain romantically tied to the moon: grunions, newts, and coral have kept their ancient pact with natural cycles.

Thomas Edison allowed us sever our ties to the moon; that we continue to do so is our choice.

Ultimately, what you do with the choices you have today, what you do with this moment, defines who you are. We have years, decades, centuries as constructs in our heads, but we can only act in the moment. This one.

It's all we ever had, despite our tongues that confuse what we create ("blue moons" and calendars) with what exists in the natural world, a huge chunk of matter revolving around the Earth, affecting our tides, and perhaps our bodies.


If you believe tonight's blue moon is news, you need to get reacquainted with our gravitational neighbor. You can pretend to do this by looking at the Farmer's Almanac, or go high tech and download a moon phase widget.

Or you can step outside and look up. Tomorrow night, do the same. A week from now, look up again. Two weeks from now, you'll need to look during the day if you hope to see the moon.

Do this for a month, for a year, for a lifetime, and you will learn, as Robert Frost knew, that time is "neither wrong nor right" for those of us "acquainted with the night."

Forget Happy New Year! Time is in our heads, and you only get a few dozen New Years in your adult life.

Start celebrating Happy New Moment!, an infinite string of "nows" celebrated by everything in the natural world.

The photo is by Tom King, taken October 2003 and lifted from the NASA website.
The Robert Frost lines were taken from his "Acquainted with the Night," New Hampshire, 1923.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Moving on up!

We start evolution soon.

I've already had enlightening literature left on my desk:

If you reject Jesus, your Creator, that will be your worst mistake ever! You'll be in the lake of fire with billions of others who believe we evolved from monkeys.

I never tell anyone we evolved from monkeys, because it's simply not true. Half of teaching descent with modification is unteaching the nonsense people already believe. I'm not talking about religion; I'm talking about bad science.

Again, I will start with a seemingly simple question: which is more evolved, a sophomore high school student or an earthworm?

It's a trick question--humans and worms have been descending from a common ancestor for a long time now, but neither holds an advantage in time.

I suppose the correct answer would be that neither is more evolved than the other. Since earthworms have had more generations to evolve, though, I'll give the edge to them this year.

That will go over well at dinner--"Mom, Dr. D says earthworms are more evolved than you are."


Our universes collided yesterday, human and earthworm. I was doing a human thing, diverting water using my brains, my fingers, and my credit card. The earthworm was doing its thing, munching through soil, warmed by the composting earth I just dug up to bury a discharge pipe.

Which of us is better adapted for its environment? Which of us will successfully reproduce ten thousand more generations?


The mysterious appearance of Moving On Up, as creepy as it is, does have a bright side--at least a few of my students will be unusually attentive, looking for chinks in my armor.

Hey, they're only 15 years old--there's hope.

I fear more for my students who believe in evolution, and try to rise to my defense when the monkey muckers start tossing pamphlets at me. Their smug acceptance of a theory they do not yet grasp is ultimately more dangerous.

The heart of Darwin's work, the dark and terrible beauty that makes On the Origin of Species such a powerful work, is the overwhelming evidence that natural selection is sufficient to explain speciation from common ancestors.

Chance variations in heritable characteristics separated me from the earthorm, both of us from a common ancestor, both of us now reasonably suited for our respective habitats.

When you grasp this, your universe shifts.

Best I can hope for now is to expose my kids to the evidence, and at least keep monkeys out of the equation.

I don't need believers. I need skeptics.

Maybe I'll even shift a universe or two.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"Are you a martyr? A Modest Checklist"

I found this indirectly via Tom Hoffman's In My Head sidebar. (I check his site SVC Tuttle daily for his posts, and hourly for his finds--it's like using Digg without the nonsense.)

Go read Dina's blog, then get back to me.


I am punch drunk at the moment--I spent half the night combating the relentless rising water table that threatens to wash us away into the bay. The other half? Writing a grant proposal for a set of netbooks for my classroom.

If the proposal succeeds, I will have a lovely set of netbooks, wireless access to the internet, and hours of unanticipated headaches.

Should I succeed, my students will be better equipped to be effective citizens when they leave our hallowed halls.

I am not a martyr, but I do bust my ass way above and beyond what the contract requires, as do most teachers around me. (A few manage to squeeze their teaching lives within the contractual hours--you know who you are....)

You want to be a professional? Do what you need to do to do what's best for the kids. Here's my modest checklist for accomplishing just that:

*Know what you're trying to teach, figure out how best to teach it, then address the reasons why a good chunk of your class still does not grasp your objectives.

*Devise a personal development plan geared to your first priority above. If you have other priorities ("become an administrator, rule the world") fine--just do not count those hours against the time you spend on the first priority.

*Know your limits--a tired teacher is often less effective than a rested one.

*Remember why you're here. It's OK to imagine you are wearing a cape--it's what professionals do.

*Professionals have a duty to their clients students above and beyond their contractual duties to the board of education, beyond their mandates from their superintendent. Indeed, they have a duty to openly challenge any directives that counter their primary duties to their students.

Are we true professionals? I am not sure that's possible so long as we work to dual purposes.

I am a bona fide dues paying member of the Bloomfield Education Association, the local union. I get what unions have done for us. I get that there may be times I need union representation. I understand the need to present a united front.

But I also get why many members of my department snuck back into the building a few years ago when a job action "required" teachers to leave on the dot of 2:45 PM.

"Profession" is a slippery word. A key point, I think, is autonomy within the guidelines proscribed by the guild, or "professional association." We have the NEA and the AFT, both useful groups that work to promote our profession, ostensibly to serve teachers, children, and (at least for the NEA) administrators. When push comes to shove, what order does the union serve its clients?

We are not required to meet the standards of any national, independent body for certifying professional standards--we leave this up to the states. (The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards may become a big player in this soon.) We are paid by our towns, our states, and (in some cases) the Federal government.

I love teaching, and I feel a duty to work hard to provide what my kids need. What I need to get better at is resisting the efforts of others to impose huge chinks of time on things they do not need.

It's what professionals do. We get paid reasonably well to do what we love--can't beat that.

And here's a dirty little secret--just about everybody works hard, not just teachers. If you break it down into hourly wages, factoring in benefits, I make about the same now as I did when I was a pediatrician working ungodly hours. I was happy then, I am happy now. If my happiness disturbs you, so be it--I'm not here for you.

I'm here for the larval humans that will succeed my place on the planet.

The NEA logo is owned by the National Education Association; the Superman logo is owned by DC Comics.

Monday, December 28, 2009


The good news is that given the flow of water into the basement, we're not likely to float away.

The bad news is that my mighty maple tree next to the house is sleeping. It's still a good 5 months away from opening its May leaves, transpiring hundreds of gallons of water a day into the air.

Meanwhile, we'll keep pumping.....

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Home Depot physics

Granted, it's a parochial problem, but a real one--our water table has risen as high as it's been in a few decades.

Week after week we get rain; week after week we get nor'easters. Bay water gets pushed up, rain water flows down, and now we have more water than we know what to do with.

I happen to love water, beyond its obvious life-giving qualities. I love to play in puddles. I love how it sticks to things. I love that it's (mostly) transparent. I love the way it gives, but barely, when you run your fingers through it. I hope it is kind when I drown in it. It is, indeed, life.

Still, a rising water table can be a problem, especially if you're foolish enough to have a basement just a foot or two above the usual water table.


I used to be a stevedore, a very brief period in my life, made briefer by my bride, who convinced me not to sign a two year contract as a foreman for M.J. Rudolph way back in the 70's. I loved working on the waterfront, and I was vain enough to appreciate my growing pecs even more than the substantial money shoveling iron earned you back then.

I learned how to fix things. I learned that school smart ain't worth shit when a crane boom goes down. I learned that if a man threatens you with a shovel, and you have one in your hand, responding in kind may ease the threat. I learned that being learned is not nearly the same thing as being smart, and neither of has much to do with being wise.

They (we) know stuff you do not. Stuff that matters. How to fix things. How to build things. How to kill things.

Two of the brightest men I know never went to college, and one never made it out of high school. Both are happy, both are productive.

My basement has a small sump pump basin, about 10" in diameter. The basement has been dry since we owned the home, and the sump pump basin had been hidden by a metal cover painted to match the color of the basement floor. There was no pump in the basin.

A couple of weeks ago, the sump pump basin, normally dry all the way down, was half full of water. Uh-oh.

More rain, then snow, more rain again. Today the water rose a half inch above the basin's edge. Water seeped from crack in the basement floor. More uh-oh.

Water seeks its own level. Water is as destructive as fire, just more patient. We have a problem.

I wandered over to Home Depot--I needed a sump pump that could squeeze into a 10" diameter, and the internet site assured me that Home Depot carries it--and it does. But I was about 32 customers behind.
Yep, we got the peak of a 30 year cycle--one guy just came in for his 4th pump today--the first three are just keeping even.

Fair enough--I need a narrow pump.

Last one went a few hours ago. But we got a pedestal pump. Might try that.

I took it.

We finagled over what kind of joints to get--the associate (correctly) pointed out that a few 45 degree joints will get you the same place as a few 90 degree elbows, at less work for the pump.

Less bend, the less force needed. Keep the pipe at 1 1/2 inches--any less will eventually kill the pump.

Conversation drifted over to water--if you grasp water, you grasp Newtonian physics.

Another associate ambled by--men love to talk about water, and problems we cannot solve.
Man came by and reported his neighbor's house just got lifted up--it's all about displacement--you displace enough water, you get enough lift to raise a house. It's the same reason steel ships float.

And I didn't doubt him, because he was right. In my head I tried to calculate the basement square footage, and the buoyancy force created if the water table rose a half foot higher than the floor.

We have a lot of smart young people who can solve quadratic equations but cannot change a tire. We have a lot of smart young people that can ace the SAT's but cannot grow a head of cabbage.

Acing the SAT's is a useful skill--it will get you money, and power, and maybe even better sex. But you will still depend on the someone who can figure out the head pressure for the sump pump you need when things are less than perfect.

I spent a night in Brooklyn keeping a barge afloat.

Barges have two skins--the outside, and the inside. There is enough space in between for a man to crawl through, squeezing between cross struts and through hatches.

My orders were simple--do not let the barge sink. Refuel the pumps. Clean their filters. Just keep the damn thing afloat until the commercial divers could fix the hole punched through the side by an errant crane.

What did I learn?

I could work for 36 hours straight.
I could fix just about anything that could go wrong with a simple 2 stroke engine.
That dawn in Brooklyn can be lovely, even over the din of 2 stroke pumps.

Tonight I am manning one pump, an electric 1/3 horsepower machine, with a roof over my head instead of stars. I am drinking decent ale instead of spiked coffee from John the Pollack's thermos.

I am almost three times as old now as I was then. I have two wonderful kids. I have lost half my immediate family over the last dozen years or so.

And yet Orion rises overhead, and yet the tide falls below, and yet solstice returns as it has, as it will, no matter what I pretend to know.

And should my home rise like Noah's Ark upon the rising tide, no degrees will stop the flood, no certifications will part the sea.

And after 40 days of rain, the practical knowledge of how to run and maintain a simple 2 stroke pump will trump anything Ludwig Wittgenstein has written.

Ordering seeds

The week between solstice and the New Year, I stare at seed catalogs, gardeners' pornography.

The sun set a tad later yesterday than it did the day before--while this has been going on for a couple of weeks now, last evening was the first time I felt it in my bones. Time to order seeds.

(Yes, I know I can gather my own seeds, and I do--I have thousands of seeds scattered all over tarnation tucked in baggies, many with indecipherable code. Stamp collectors buy stamps they'll never lick, anglers buy lures they never cast, I save seeds I'll never plant.)

A seed is about promise, a tiny being put together by another, not without cost. Each seed has some stored energy, a few sleepy enzymes ready to be activated, and a tiny embryo.

Within this tiny, living plant rests strings of nucleic acids, with instructions for how to create living mass from air, from water. Mostly from thin air.

There is wilderness in a seed--reminders of the edge of life that we depend on yet cannot control.

Monsanto is the world's largest seed seller. Monsanto can (and does) manipulate the world's food supply. Monsanto is a publicly owned American company. As such, its primary duty is to maximize profit. If you want to read hard-core plant pornography, go visit Monsanto.

In the meantime, I'll continue to use Pinetree Garden Seeds for my seeds, one of many small privately owned companies that exist to sell seeds. I'm sure they make money, too, but I'm also sure that they won't sue me if I save some seeds next year.

Plants will be making seeds long after Monsanto crumbles. On a late December day, when the world outside waits patiently for life-giving sunlight to return, it's good to remember what matters, and dream of Carouby de Maussane pea flowers dancing in an early June breeze.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Guilty as charged

How many times have I used this as an excuse?
We have to cover the material rapidly--
we have a state test in May.

So what do I do? I fly through material. I shorten labs. I guide students through discussions with a machete, slicing down errant thoughts for the sake of time.

Yes, I know kids are the masters of the sidestep, and can take a tangent from Kansas to Oz, but a good teacher can usually tell the difference between a stall move and a thoughtful (but flawed) discussion point.

The result? My version of the Race to the Top guarantees that my lambs will know less of a whole lot more.


Our latest superintendent left a couple of months ago to go back home after cutting his teeth here. I don't get too involved with the machinations of administration--no sense vibrating over things I cannot control--but he said something at the beginning of the year that disturbed me, and still does.

He essentially announced that no matter what we think, no matter what our opinion of the state testing, no matter how illogical it is to expect 100% compliance with NCLB by 2014, we must do the things we must do to increase our scores because that's what the government mandates.

I am sure others have heard similar speeches in their districts.

That bothers me. A lot.

If we truly believe we are doing our kids a disservice by teaching to a test that I doubt most U.S. Senators could pass (or even, alas, a few teachers), why are we complicit?

Here in New Jersey, teachers do not work for the state, nor do we work for the Feds--we work for our local Boards of Education, and we're paid by the folks who live in the town where we teach.

If I am not doing what is in the best interests of the children of the citizens of Bloomfield, I had better have a good reason.

We can fairly argue, Mr. Superintendent, whether striving towards meeting NCLB is in our children's best interests. We can debate whether losing a small percentage of our funding will cripple our school system any more than the mindless pursuit of a mythical measurable standard.

What we should not tolerate, however, is blind acceptance of a flawed law using logic that smacks of Befehl ist Befehl.

Farmer wielding a machete photo from the National Archives.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Professional development: xkcd

I love xkcd, and I love Richard Feynman. I'm fond of zombies, too. I've spent several hundred posts and perhaps a quarter million words to say what Randall Munroe dashes off in a few stick figures above.

The guy's a comic genius, he loves the Pleiades, and he happens to be a physicist, too.

Randall Munroe generously lends his creations out to the bloggers. Really.

A secondhand second hand

High schools are ruled by bells, or rather, a variety of tones still called "bells."

In many classes, students jump out of their seats at the sound of the bell, eager to accomplish the many tasks adolescents perform between classes--flossing their teeth, calisthenics, philosophical study--whatever it is that students do before they saunter into their next class 5 minutes later.

In other classes, such as mine, students sit until they get their Pavlovian clue (Mondays through Thursdays--"have a great day" and on Friday, "What do we practice?" Safe Science!)

I have an ancient analog clock in my classroom, just a few feet from, the digital school-issued one. My clock has a second hand. I can tell when the bell is going to ring. I often count down.

Like many older clocks, my clock has not been scrubbed of error. A few seconds off each day adds up over weeks and months. No big deal, there's a little knob in the back for correction.

The state-prescribed science curriculum is sometimes boring (*gasp*), and I've gotten pretty good at spotting texting, so my clock becomes, at times, an object of inordinate interest.

Once a child becomes familiar with the second hand, the interminably long last minute becomes slightly less so.

The second hand creeps to the appointed dismissal moment--and nothing happens. The bell rings a few seconds later than expected.

"Hey, the school clock is wrong!"

And we are now set for a lesson in relativity.

The school clock, being the arbiter of school time, cannot be wrong. And I know my old clock has picked up a step or two over its digital cousin.

The school clock cannot be modified by me--somewhere in administration someone has the task of keeping time, but given computers and quartz, it might be decades before anyone has to make an adjustment.

I frequently adjust mine, even when it's fine. Just enough to make the second hand change in relation to the school bells.

Evil? Not sure. Sneaky? You bet. But my kids are watching it, and commenting, and thinking. They inadvertently form hypotheses, most of which assume my clock is as accurate as the NIST official US time.

Some days I spend 47 minutes teaching pseudoscience, teaching vocabulary or models as gospel. During the last minute, the kids get the real science, watching an ancient clock's wobbly second hand tick towards their predictions for the bell. I listen to the side conversations but do not interrupt.

"Geez, the bell was early! Dr. D, how come the school can't get its clocks straight?"

I shrug. They'll figure it out sooner or later.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A solstice time out

The days are shorter around these parts this time of year. The ground is covered with snow. It's winter.

Grasping winter is not easy, but with a globe and a flashlight, most of my lambs "get it," at least for a few minutes, and if nothing else, they know we are not colder because our planet drifted too far from the sun.

If I ask the usual questions, I get the usual answers, and everyone's happy. The kids are happy because good things happen when they say the right things, I'm happy because I get to use a kinesthetic exercise (looks good on the lesson plans and gets the kids out of their seats), and administration is happy because my kids are more likely to pass the HSPA.

Still, I have a bad habit of peeking under the hood even when the car's running just fine.

So I peeked....

I love the Naval Oceanography Portal--it's like my beloved Old Farmer's Almanac on testosterone.

The shortest day of the year (here, anyway) was yesterday.
The latest sunrise won't happen until early January.
The earliest sunset occurred weeks ago.

In the olden days, long before I was born, noon meant the time of day when the sun was highest in your town. That it no longer means that surprises people.

A day used to mean what a solar day still does--the time it takes the Earth to spin so that the sun appears to return back to a particular position.* A day now means 24 hours. Not the same thing.

No big deal if it's the 16th century, the daylight hours are brief, and you want to meet on the Town Green at noon. Clocks killed our connection to the sun.

If you do not grasp this, you do not "get" time--and most folks don't.

The sunsets have been later and later for two weeks now, and the dawn continues come later, as it will for another week. The state won't test that, though. Sad thing is, few folks notice. We are teaching young adults concepts before we teach them how to see.

*Since the Earth has the habit of orbiting the sun in an elliptical orbit, and moves faster through its orbit when closest to the sun (and right now we're almost as close as we're going to get for the year), winter solar days are longer than summer days.

Club card flyer physics

Walking to school this morning, I noticed about a dozen club flyers sitting on the snow-covered street. Seeing scattered club cards on the street is not all that unusual--we live near a college, and even in the age of digiterati, some partays are still announced through cards, personal "invitations" so exclusive you have to bend down to pick one up to get in.

The young woman featured on some cards occasionally catches my eye, the incongruity of her clothing clashing with the cold pavement.

But not today.

Every single card was upside down, with the edges touching the ground, like this:

And if you think about it a moment, it makes sense, and if you think about it a moment more, you have a neat little trick for a physics lab.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter solstice

Some days I let my limbus rule--the solstices fall in this category.
I love Christmas, and I love the Christmas story.

Still, the story predates Christmas (if not Christianity), and the story told today has been adulterated.

Not sure straightening out a few myths by referring to the source of the myths counts as science, but it's a good lesson in looking at sources, and the solstice gave me a good excuse to drag out a globe in class to explain the seasons.

(And no, we are not farther from the sun this time of year--we will be as close as we get in about two weeks.)

The Christ was not born in the winter.

The Wise Men were not at the manger.

The current version of Christianity is not in danger of extinction. It has the strength of the United States military behind it. Just ask Mr. Obama, General McChrystal, or the children of Chowkar-Karez .

The Christ did not tell Constantine to put the cross on the shields of his soldiers before his battle against Maxentius. Constantine may have believed this, but it is our shame that we accept a myth utterly contrary to His words.

We move with energy from the sun, our mass built from the breath of the life before us. Carbon dioxide and water and sunlight play with a few strands of DNA. We are special, but no more special than the yeast that taught Jesus how to make wine.

Christian privilege is real. Try greeting a Transportation Security Administration agent with "Assalaamu Alaikum".

These are the shortest days of the year in this neck of the woods. Life needs sunlight, and the light is dying. The longest night of the year looms.

The sun will return.

Merry Natalis Solis Invicti--the real reason for the season. The sun starts its inexorable journey northward, and those of us who survive the winter will be saved again, as we have since before we could speak.

And that is reason enough to celebrate.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A ton of CO2

Sophomores have firm convictions:

Neil Armstrong never walked on the moon.
We will all die in 2012.
Aliens walk among us.

In class I try to avoid opinions. In the short run, many of my lambs will remain confused.

It is not my job to convince Amanda that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon--as soon as I use my position of authority to make a point, I've lost my chance to teach a child how to think.

It is my job, however, to make them skeptics, to have a sense of what we do not know, to suspend judgment while using their God-given senses and rationality to come to their own conclusions, conclusions that might change should new evidence become available.

As a result, I fear that some day a mother will tell my principal that I did not vigorously dispel the notion of aliens, of rigged moonwalks, of the impending doom 3 short years away.

Or maybe the parents believe these things, too.

One of the hardest things in high school science is convincing kids that gas is made of stuff. Bring in a chunk of dry ice, place it on the teacher's desk, and let it sublimate its way to nothingness.

"What happened to the dry ice?"
(My students look puzzled at the idiot asking the question)
Um, it, uh, disappeared?

"Yes, but what happened to the carbon dioxide?"
(Eyes roll. The teacher is either really deaf, really slow, or reaaaaaalllly annoying.)
We already told you.

And they did.

An American artist (from L.A., in a dish of delicious irony) has sculpted a giant box of flashing images, to represent a metric ton of carbon dioxide. It was unveiled for the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, and will travel a bit for the next few years, proving that all sides are capable of lunacy.

I would be impressed if the box swelled up with rising temperatures, or shrunk when a high pressure weather system passes through. But it doesn't.

A reporter or two has mentioned that the cube represents the volume of CO2 at standard pressure--but fail to mention temperature. Maybe the ideal gas law is too complicated to discuss.

(It's not. But it's more fun to be mesmerized by flashing boxes of lights than to think.)

If you want to show children how much a ton of carbon dioxide weighs, show them the solid product of a very common reaction.

Show them a block of oak, a cup of sugar, or a bowl of salad. Ask them where most of the plant "stuff" comes from.

Take them outside and show them your town's largest oak tree. Comes from the same stuff.

CO2 + water --> plant stuff and (bonus!) oxygen

The oxygen comes from the water, it turns out. All the carbon dioxide ends up in the wood.
It works the other way, too. Burn sugar completely, and you get this:

plant stuff and oxygen --> CO2 + water

You can show this in class. I keep a propane torch handy. Light it, briefly aim the flame at something cool and non-flammable (the faucet on my desk makes a good target), and see the water vapor fog up on the object.

It amazes me every time. Water from fire.
(When you hold your hand over a lit grill you can get the same effect--that's not sweat on your palms.)

The global warming "debate" has broken down into camps of rival religious groups. You can still read the science behind the news. Good science requires skepticism, a point lost in the noise from the mob.

Science gives us knowledge, but not wisdom.
Technology gives us power, but not principle.

Power without principle, knowledge without wisdom, will spell the end of our species, though perhaps not through global warming.

There may be a reason intelligence per se is not an adaptation found in most species. Life has been around for here for over 3 billion years, and I've no reason to believe it won't be around for billions more.

I know I won't be around to see it. It would be nice, though, if one of my descendants does.

The cube photo is all over tarnation,this one from LA Curbed, which credits Obscura Digital.
The footprint is from NASA, and is in public domain.

And this is my 400th post here--go me!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Eels, Arne Duncan, and education

I've got eels, Arne Duncan, and education running through my head.

I spend a good chunk of my awake hours with larval humans. I enjoy it, and so far as I can control what I am doing, I think I am useful, no small thing in today's culture.

Today, on the coldest day of the season, we talked about global warming. Yesterday we talked about a local company that employed over a hundred folks in my town while legally spewing tons of a probable carcinogen on my neighborhood.

These are good lessons for a lot of reasons. These are bad lessons for one reason: they will not help my lambs pass the mandatory state exam given in May.

Too bad. I teach for Bloomfield, not New Jersey, not the United States. Most of my salary is subsidized by my neighbors, many, maybe most, working hard to keep their families intact while the economic world collapses around us. And make no mistake, the world of the working class is collapsing.

But first the eels.

We really don't know much about anything.

Eels matter. We eat them, we sell them. (Nordstrom's will sell you an eelskin purse for $1580, but no worries, "At Nordstrom, we are committed to offering you the best possible prices," and to be fair, they're not American eels--but the elvers poached here in Jersey will cover your heating bill.)

The north end of our town is its wealthy end. The North End likes causes--one of the local causes is cleaning the Third River. We live by the Second River. (There is no First River--it remains an etymological mystery.)

A few wealthy Northenders hired a biologist to help their cause, to prove that the Third River is a viable stream. The biologist was paid good money to point out the obvious--eels live in the Third River.

My kids found adult eels living a few blocks away under a foot bridge that crosses our Second River. I mentioned this to the mercenary biologist after he pontificated about the virtues of the Third River, the river of the monied class here in Bloomfield.


Well, nobody bothered to tell the eels. They're there yet. Come by and I'll show you.

The biologist took our Bloomfield money and left. I offered to show him the eels, but I suspect it was not the eels that motivated him to come to the meeting.

And he's an idiot, a well-paid, respected, professional expert idiot.

Peerless Tubing employed over a hundred locals. It also spewed over 12 tons of trichloroethylene in my neighorhood in 2001. You could look it up.

The CEO was not a bad man--he got himself elected to the New Jersey Assembly, he made decent money ($196,000 in 1996), and his company kept a lot of families afloat here in Bloomfield.

But he released over 12 tons of a probable carcinogen in my neighborhood in 2001.

We discussed this yesterday, me and a few dozen adolescents. And they got the subtleties--they like to eat, they like heat, they like shelter. They knew the implications. They were upset that toxins were dumped on their homes, but they also knew the value of a paycheck.

I do not have an answer. I just want my lambs to be aware.

This is a Bloomfield issue. No other community in the world is going to teach this lesson, and the state is certainly not going to test it. I taught it anyway.

Arne Duncan controls less than 10% of the money coming to this town for education. He knows nothing of our eels, of Peerless Tubing, of anything local.

Any man that would move his two young children 600 miles for personal ambition is not to be trusted. Arne Duncan did that. And he's an idiot, a well-paid, respected, professional expert idiot.

I would gladly give up the 8% of my salary subsidized by the Federal government to teach what I know about our town, in the context of science.

Heresy, of course--it's the American Way.

But it's not the Bloomfield way.
Family matters above ambition.

The road to national power, to D.C., is littered with the bodies of folks who decided that the eels in their local streams mattered more than the opinions of experts, that their children's lives mattered more than ambition, that knowing a tiny patch of the world mattered more than ruling a mythological piece of the universe.

I am a teacher, and I am becoming a good one.

Not because I am nationally certified. Not because I follow the tenets of a confused Secretary of Education.

Because I live, and love, the town I chose to live in, the town I chose to raise my children. My adult children do not have to travel 600 miles to return to their 1st grade classroom.

Parochialism has become a bad word. Arne wants my children to succeed in the global marketplace. I want my children to see the eels in the stream just a few blocks away.

The photo is from the state of New Jersey--that's our state record eel--
I bet the ones in our local stream, are bigger., but we aren't saying....

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.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Another badger moment

I grew up in a new suburb carved out of the woods near the Sandy Hook Bay. We spent most of our waking hours outdoors, not necessarily by choice. As soon as you got home from school, you changed out of your school clothes and went outside.

Every day.

And we stayed out until dinner, ate, then stayed out again until dark.

Our division was new enough then that we still had woods. We had our myths--the "strippers" would make you undress if they ever caught you. The murderers would kill you. We were more worried about the strippers.

We had tree forts. We learned not to saw off the limb we were sitting on, logical enough, but not so logical that we did not test it empirically. We gained wisdom through concussions our folks never knew about, mutual silence.

Every child on Bayberry Lane could find their way through Turtle Woods and Grasshopper Hill. We were the wild things our parents, most of them city children, and many of them immigrants, were not. We knew the moon, we knew the tides. We caught turtles and frogs and snakes and toads.

And then one day we cornered a badger.

Badgers did not read the ecology journals, and neither did we. I do not know how we figured out it was a badger, but at least two of us had the Zim's Golden Guide to Mammals. What we lacked in cell phones, iPods, and GPS's we had in time. If Zim's said it was a badger, it was a badger.

We chased one into its hole, found its alternate route, and started digging. And digging. And digging some more.

Dinner time approached. We were busy. We sent a scout to tell Mom and Dad what we were doing.

Our parents, being adults, didn't believe us. "There are no badgers in New Jersey."

But we knew better. There was, it turns out, at least one.

We see what we're trained to see.

My CP Biology classes are studying ecology now. Today I had one of my favorite labs. Various critters, some alive, some pickled, are placed on the lab tables. A live cockroach next to a scorpion trapped in acrylic, a live snail next to a pickled pig. Potatoes and young pea plants failed miserably trying to seduce my children from the siren song of strange critters.

I ask the kids to describe features of two organisms. Sharks and horseshoe crabs and sea horses and scorpions compete for their attention.
"It's an eye."
Pretend I'm an alien--I have no idea what an eye is--describe what you see.
"Uh, a circle with a black dot in the middle."
She walks away puzzled. This was too easy.

No questions, and I resist judging. These kids grew up surrounded by a human universe, I grew up in a larger one. I need to be kind.

I have a large, live cockroach in class. It's actually the second one I've gotten this year--the first one died from student exuberance and my clumsiness.

This one is very much alive.

It's long antennae search the borders of its universe under a stereoscope. A couple of girls watch it.

The antennae undulate, probing as delicately as snowflakes on a calm winter midnight. Then the cockroach does something unexpected. It cleans its antennae, like a cat licking its paws. The girls are mesmerized.

It took hours, but we finally caught it. One fierce, slashing badger, true to Zim's Golden Guide. We marched home, our prized mammal as badgery as a badger can be, and we were promptly told to return it to the woods.

I learned two big lessons:

Parents can be wrong, and badgers don't read books.

Last week my daughter and I continued our futile search for a legal striped bass. Saturday was a gorgeous late November day--we watched the sun settle over the ocean, snuggling far south of where it should be.

Just before the sun touched the horizon, when our shadows were longer than our imagination, the few minutes before sunset when a Jersey beach makes Alice look sane, my daughter screamed the triumphant cry of a child with a striper on the line.

But her line was slack.

A half foot creature writhed on the beach. It looked like a shrimp with an edge.

My daughter went to pick it up. I stopped her. And I'm glad I did.

On a late November Saturday, a very live and active mantis shrimp, as impossible as a badger in a Jersey suburban woods, tossed itself on the beach,creeping and clambering.

And I was again reminded of my badger.

My cockroach, our cockroach, sits in a Chinese take-out dish in Room B362. It will be released tomorrow, or maybe Monday if the promised snow arrives tomorrow.

My mantis shrimp, our mantis shrimp, may well be dead now--it's too far out of its range, and December has started acting like December, as it will.

The sun fades south. I am not sure it will return, and for some of us, it won't.

But today, a few children here in Bloomfield became attached to a creature that does not know they even exist.

It won't help their test scores. It won't even get them past the midterm. It might even be the only thing they remember three decades from now, long after they've wrestled with whatever homework comes home with their children from biology class.

But if they remember the casual cleaning of a cockroach's antennae years after I am dead, I will not have wasted my time here.