Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Nothing is enough"

This is a short post, and likely a transient one--my children are in Galway, and this is a Galway story.

Last July, Leslie and I found ourselves in Monroe's, a crowded pub on the locals' side of the canal in Galway. We were a bit lost, and a bit more hungry. Ordering in a pub is different than in the States--you order at the bar, and your food finds you.

The place was crowded, and a waitress took us under her wing--that she happened to be stunningly Galway beautiful did not escape me (and, thankfully, Leslie). Her hair was black, her eyes blue, and I suppose I cannot fault her for her western Oirish accent. I fell in love.

The lass found us a quiet spot, and made sure we got fed. We wanted to tip her, though tipping in pubs (at least outside Dublin) is frowned upon--the waitstaff are not servants, and many take pride in what they do, and they do it well.

Still, we felt we had to offer something, and so we asked--what is the custom?

Her reply: "Nothing is enough." I heard it one way, Leslie another, and indeed, nothing is enough.

And with a roof over our heads and Guinness in our bellies, nothing is more than enough.

What does this have to do with science? With biology? With education?

Take a walk outside--nothing is indeed enough. We are animals. We eat, we breathe, we move, we live. The sun, the air, the soil, all gifts. Do our children see them this way? Can you commoditize something that's been given to us for nothing?

I am drinking another bottle of my daughter's mead--yeast, water, and honey now blessed with time. She was born 27 years ago, and her brother followed her 3 years later. Neither took much more than the mead to make, and both, I think (and I pray) know that for happiness, nothing is enough.

And should you find yourself in a pub with the woman you have loved for over three decades, you realize nothing, indeed, is enough.

"Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God's sight."
Luke, of course, and perhaps an odd thing for a science blog.
Take wisdom where you will.

And more wisdom, from a Galway lad no more than 11.
He was fishing in the bay, when a man asked him if he planned to eat any fish he caught.
He looked genuinely surprised. "What else would you do with a fish?"

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Leslie and I took a walk along the edge of our world, as we do most Saturdays. The tide was out.

At the edge of our universe, we witness miracles. Today we saw a 1" horseshoe crab the color of sand, not quite a yearling, making the universal horseshoe crab tracking pattern. I rescued an older one, at least a decade old, flipped upside down, a gull nearby eying its gills.

The beach is littered with blue crabs recently dead, their murderers betrayed by the tracks of webbed feet.

The February wind whipped through our coats.
It's still winter here.

And then I stumbled on this:

Its earthy marine aroma seduces me, and repulses Leslie.

I think I've found a good chunk of ambergris, worth something back in the days before chemists played gods. A decade or two ago, a sperm whale wrestled with a giant squid, perhaps a mile deep, and won. The squid's beak took one last stab at the whale's gut, which formed a protective coating of, well, whale excrement around the squid's last charge.

The beak was eventually expelled, either as poop or vomit, neither method particularly charming, and after years in the sea was tossed up on our beach.

If anyone wants to buy it, let me know. In the meantime, I'll keep sniffing it, drawing up images of death and delight in the deepest recesses of my hind brain.

It was 2 years ago February that I tossed a whale's tooth back in the drink.
I wish I held onto that. Far more interesting than a piece of poop.

Horseshoe crab photo by Leslie, of course.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Science on the rocks

An iceberg the size of Luxembourg broke off from Antarctica after being rammed by another giant iceberg.

Where to begin?

Who knew icebergs behaved so badly (well, other than the rogue that sank the Titanic)?
How big is a "Luxembourg"? A thousand square miles?
Will the AP report this in "Rhode Islands"?

UPDATE: the AP reported that "a big chunk of ice, slightly smaller than Oahu, broke off from a place it wasn't supposed to." I had no idea Oahu and Luxembourg were close in size.

If I had my physical science classes this year. I'd sic them on this--figure out what happened and why it might matter.

Beats memorizing the Periodic Table....

Five inventions that have doomed humanity

I just read a fun post tweeted by dtitle, "Five amazing inventions that will doom us all!"

Why wait for the future, though? We already have all kinds of technological doo-dads that have doomed humanity (if not humans):

(Runners-up: Automobiles, telephones, and the incandescent lamp. And record players (recommended by John Spencer).)

Number Five: Television (and other forms of e-media)

Very few folks control television, and very few appreciate how this medium has altered our minds. Democracy depends on discourse, and folks who spend hours a day "consuming" visions produced by very wealthy people with very narrow objectives effectively remove themselves as true citizens (though they can, alas, still vote).

Democracy is essentially dead in the States, and hasn't flourished in most parts of the world anyway, so as influential as televison is, I relegated it to fifth place here.

Number Four: The Haber Process

Prometheus gave us fire, Fritz Haber gave us nitrogen fixation. We were now one with the gods.

Before the Haber process, only bacteria and bolts of lightning made nitrogen available for life. Without nitrogen, we have no proteins, no nucleic acids. Haber gave humans control of the nitrogen cycle. We are gods now, able to make ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen.

We no longer had to rely on poop for fertilizer. Our huge human population depends on fertilizer made possible by the Haber process. Ammonia can also be used to make lots of explosives.

Why is this on the list (aside from my innnate hatred of golf courses)? Haber's process created industrialized agriculture. We disconnected ourselves from the mystery (or so we think), and now believe we can continue to grow food relentlessly, without thought.

Haber helped trigger the Green Revolution. In the end, it will only mean that many more carcasses to burn when our fossil fuels are depleted, and artificial fertilizers become too expensive for all but the elite.

Fritz Haber also developed chlorine gas for use in warfare, and personally oversaw its use in France.

Number Three: The written word

Yep, I use them. I read, I write, I even (*gasp*) blog. I'm a hypocrite.

Words are abstract. They freeze moments. Our collective oral memory evolves through generations, tailoring the needs of the clan with the needs of the community. The written word changes all this.

NONE of any of the rest of this list happens with oral tradition alone. The written Bible does not happen, nor the written Koran. Old conflicts dissolve with time in the oral tradition. The written word keeps grudges alive forever.

In my best moments, words disappear.

I'm OK with burning books, as long as we burn all of them.

Number Two: Computers

We can now process thought faster than we can think. Every one of you reading this post can be traced. Databases record your keystrokes. There is no longer privacy for anyone committed to living the 21st century life.

I'd like to pick my nose and maybe even savor the results without anyone knowing. (That was allegorical, folks.)

Computers allow telecommunications, allow nuclear weaponry, allow large hadron colliders, allow genomic typing, allow pretty much every foray into risky high tech hi-jinks without an iota of thought.

OK, they allow Zelda, too, so it's almost a wash.

And number one:
Nuclear weapons

We got 'em, lots of them. So does Russia, and China. The Brits. The cozy buddies India and Pakistan. Did I mention France? France!?

Well that's OK, no rogues states, eh. (Ooops...almost forgot. NORTH KOREA!)

Maybe Israel. And soon, perhaps, Iran.

But it's OK, we all love each other, and would never use them, right?

Yoshihiro, the baby died 11 days later.
Tanaka Kio, the mother, lived until December 9, 2006.

Their story, our story, is here.

Television pic from, via CC 3.0
Fritz is from wikipedia
The open Bible is from wikipedia, too
Univac via Georgia Gwinnett College
Yoshihiro and Tanaka's photo was taken by Yamahata Yosuke.

Am I serious about this list?

I'd love to hear your opinions....

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Death of a daphnia

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is

I hold it towards you.

John Keats, "This Living Hand"

A couple of days ago, I slid a daphnia, a water flea, under a cover slip and peeked at it under the microscope. You could see its antennae sweep the water, its eyes, even its frantic heart beat through its translucent body.

After a bit of time, the heart slowed, maybe hypoxia, maybe exhaustion, time to put it back.

The daphnia came from a jug of water that has sat on the windowsill for over two years now, a jar with elodea and translucent snails and some odd jelly-like organism sticking to the side.

Daphnia reproduce every few weeks--over 20 generations have passed their lives in this bottle, their universe.

While trying to put the daphnia back in the jug, I screwed up--the daphnia stuck to the cover glass, and as I tried to coax it into the water, I squished it.

No one else noticed the death. I'm a loon--I spent hours pondering it.

I come from a clan of loons. We travel, we bark, we dance, we live. Mary Beth made friends in the Hunza Valley of Pakistan, and saw a valley of bonfires during an Ismaili Muslim celebration. John tackled a 20/20 cameraman, and got a spot on The Daily Show with John Stewart, and Marnie holds center court no matter where we go, and may be the funniest person on this planet.

I'm the wallflower, and I'm no slouch.

My mom was talented and crazy, but most of all, she was Oirish enough to remind us daily, hourly, that we are mortal. She gave up a shot at the professional stage to raise us, but we were audience enough. She loved us to death.


We live in a culture that denies it.

If a child learns anything in biology class, she ought to learn that in the end, death is as relentless as life, and life as relentless as death.

Our own death remains unknowable, of course, and I fear it in proportion to my love of life. Still, I saw both my parents finally give in to long illnesses, and both laughed, laughed, in their final moments of consciousness.

Not sarcastically, not smirkingly, not even ironically. They both laughed joyously. Neither believed in heaven, and both prayed there was no hell. Their faith was in the herenow.

Faith has no place in science class, but mystery does. Science is about pushing the borders of what we can know.

I know the daphnia I observed under the scope had some sense of awareness. I know the sun provides plant with the energy that keeps me alive. On rare, too rare, occasions I know that I will die.

And on those days I remember this, moments clarify, and joy deepens, not for what I will lose, but for what I have. In a culture that teaches children to fear their own shadows, I hope to show them the ultimate shadow, the inexplicable end that puts things in perspective.

Dozens of daphnia still dance in the windowsill jug, eating, seeing, being.

I want my students to have daphnia moments.

The Daphnia photo is by Paul Hebert at the Public Library of Science, via wikimedia.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ecstasy in a classrooom

I remember
coming to the farm in March
in sugaring time, as a small boy.
He carried the pails of sap, sixteen-quart
buckets, dangling from each end
of a wooden yoke
that lay across his shoulders, and emptied them
into a vat in the saphouse
where fire burned day and night
for a week.

Donald Hall, from "Maple Syrup"

I am drinking some fine mead made by my daughter and her beau--they had almost given up on it a few months ago. Honey, water, and yeast, when left alone long enough, make one feel like a part of a universe that matters. We play a part, but just a part.

This week's Perennial Project, my year long observation project, is for the kids to go stare at the tree they picked way back in September. The leaves gave up their nutrients, sugar flowed into the ground, and the trees "died."

And now the sugar returns, last summer's bounty fueling this spring's growth. We don't tap trees in this neck of the woods, but we could. Maybe next year we will.

Miracles continue to happen in the classroom. I ate the freshest rattlesnake bean possible in February--Dina brought it up to show me the bean, concerned that her plant was dying. And it was. Somehow her plant had gotten fertilized, and the bean sprout poured its energy into this lovely bean pod.

Without a thought, I ate it, and it was delicious. Another teacher eyed my basil patch this afternoon and offered to "thin" it out. My student teacher has already confessed to gnoshing on some others.

Dina will get extra credit for getting her bean to fruit, but long after the points dissolve to nothing, she will remember her bean, and the ridiculous look of joy on my face as I ate it, the freshest produce in Bloomfield, righ under her nose.

Mead, basil, and rattlesnake beans make the last week of February tolerable. We teach order and restraint, as we must in a public school setting, but wildness creeps through anyway. We share our room with yeast and daphnia, basil and fish. We've raised E. coli that fluoresce with jelly fish protein. We have tomato plants that are threatening to fruit.

And what will a child's heart follow a decade or two from now? Will it be influenced by a battery of tests designed to create super-citizens who will "outcompete" workers from around the world?

Maybe, just maybe, a heart or two will be influenced by the few moments of pure joy experienced by the oldest in the room, eyes rolling up as he savors the explosion of flavor available to anyone who cares to know. Life consumes the living, and all living today will be consumed by life.

That's science.
Just ask Donald Hall.

The photo is of Palestine, the great great grandfather of Willow of Willow Manor, via Creative Cmmons 3.0.
Isn't it a great photo?
It's reason enough for a post....

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Less than an hour ago I found my first crocus spears of the season, one even poking through the snow.

I wrote this February 16, 2004. This post is for me. Again, the crocus rises.

I tend to mark the seasons by plants. Some connections are obvious, strawberries and honeysuckle in June, apples and pumpkins in October. After the hard freeze in November, time seems to stop. By January, even kale has given up the ghost. By then, I no longer notice.

Deep winter, rhythms cease. Some of us lose our way. Age teaches me little but patience; sometimes that is enough.

Now in mid-February the ground remains frozen, and will be for another month. In a week or so, however, impossibly green slivers of grass-like leaves will break through the ice, marked with silver stripes down their middle. And in two weeks, egg-shaped cups of purple and yellow and white will flare open with the sun, exposing bright yellow stamens, the first smell of sex since the world died.

Crocuses flower from February to April--the earliest flowers defy logic, brilliant bursts of color calling bees still slumbering in hives.

By this time of year, I have just about given up on prayer. Nothing seems possible. This early bright drop of color reminds me just how little I know.

And here they are, back again.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Eating in science class

Religion is about origins, stories about why we're here, great mythologies to explain greater mysteries.

I teach in a public school. While religion is not shunned as much as professional haters would love you to believe (it is perfectly legal for kids to pray in school), I do make a conscious effort not to tip my hand on matters of myth, even myths I happen to believe.

Still, when you dance with energy and life, you rub shoulders with the inexplicable.

If my lambs learn nothing else, they learn that food comes from the air (CO2) and water, molecules joined together by plants, using energy from the sun. We have a riotous collection of assorted (and often misidentified) plants sprouting all over the classroom.

I needed to thin my jungle of basil this week. As I plucked out a small seedling, the roots still holding on to bits of peat moss, I (again) reminded them where plant stuff comes from. The leaves I was about to eat were formed from carbon dioxide that was formed in the deepest recesses of their cells, inside mitochondria deep in their brains, in their muscles, in their bones.

The warm moist breath each student releases every few seconds carries this evidence of this primal act, food back to water and carbon dioxide, so we may live.

As I eat the leaf, I hear a stifled ewww.... My world briefly dissolves into riotous deliciousness that surprises me every time I eat basil. I hope my eyes do not look unfocused. Professionals do not exhibit ecstasy in the classroom.

There is nothing to eat,
seek it where you will,
but the body of the Lord.
The blessed plants
and the sea, yield it
to the imagination
intact. And by that force
it becomes real,
to the poor animals
who suffer and die
that we may live.

William Carlos Williams, excerpted from The Host

I teach biology. And while I thrust nonsensical sounds and cycles at the children--NADPH and Calvin and ATP and Krebs--the miracle happens around them, as they breathe, as they eat.

They live in biology--they piss and eat and shit and breathe and some even fuck, all acts tied to life, and we reduce it to safe, nonsensical syllables, which will be tested by something as abstract as "the state" in May.

The simple act of eating a leaf in class becomes a memorable moment because it is tied back to life, to who or what we are.

It's a rare thing in class, going back to origins, and it is a dangerous area in a world where folks kill each other over which myth matters most. So I teach the religion of empiricism, of reductionism.

But even in a public high school science class, using a standardized curriculum polished to a safe sheen through decades of catering to political and religious influences, reductionism occasionally fails to hide what's true.

In moments of clarity for those who pay attention, the world can become incomprehensibly (and beautifully) connected even in a boring science class, taken because you have to, because the old folks around you said so.

The photo is from last summer, fruit from our gardens. A gazillion basil plants, and I can't find nary a picture.

The Technorati disconnect

I'm hijacking a side conversation started by Doug Johnson, a mensch, on his Blue Skunk Blog. Go take a peek.

Doug recently posted a letter by Janet HasBrouck, a teacher librarian lamenting the limitations of e-textbooks. ("Lamenting" may be too strong a word--I have an awful attachment to alliteration.)

"We seem to make assumptions about students and technology that are often not true, and there seems to be a lot of them about e-texts especially. I don't think we can necessarily combine the discussion about e-library books, including fiction and reference, with the discussion about e-textbooks at the high school or college level."

Meet Scott McLeod, a rising national figure, one of the "emerging voices that will shape the future of education technology." His dangerously irrelevant blog is challenging and in-your-face. He loves to tweak teachers, or at least a mythical version of teachers, and his blog is big fun to read, especially if you sprinkle it with a few grains of salt.

He wrote a pithy response to Ms. HasBrouck's piece, and ends it with "I feel like I'm missing something....."

Scott is bright and educated. Yet here we go again, folks squinting through telescopes in their ivory towers, judging us sowing in the field, wondering why we keep sowing by hand instead of using the John Deere 1590 Seed Drill that is so much more efficient.

So here's my reason, a tiny section of an on-line textbook used by my school, cut and pasted from the Holt, Rinehart, Winston website it came from:

To be fair to the Holt, your view of this may be adulterated by technological glitches beyond Holt's control, but the image has a slight pixelated feel when view directly on the computers at school and in my home.

Maybe it will be better next year, maybe 5--call me when it works. If cars were rolled out the same way technology is rolled out in schools, Ford's first Model A cars might have lacked wheels.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Another bird story

I never saw a wild thing

sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

D.H. Lawrence

I regularly check on Patrick Higgins' blog, Chalkdust101. He writes well, consistently. His latest got me brain roiling, and here's the result.

But first a bird story.

Most people, if pressed, would tell you that birds, at least the wild ones that go mostly unnoticed outside, instinctively fear humans.

Now I do not doubt they fear us, and with reason. I do doubt, though, that it's instinctual. You don't buck instinct.

I spent most of today digging out the driveway. We have almost three feet of snow that never happens down here. While rescuing what's left of the rosemary bush (with its ridiculously optimistic purple flowers looking bright against the snow), I exposed a tiny patch of earth.

A robin hovered nearby.

I turned around to grab another shovelful of packed snow, then when I stepped to throw it over to the side, came this close to stepping on the robin snooting around the dirt. It flew a few feet away, not far, and waited for me to grab another shovelful.

Had you seen us from a distance, you'd have thought I had brought my amazing trained parakeet outside to help me shovel.

Higgins' most recent post has a brief TED talk towards the end. You can tell its a TED talk even without the video--the speaker has the bright, bouncy voice of someone interested in their subject yet educated enough to tailor it just so for the audience. TED talks are the Chautauquas of the net--content matters, of course, but performance matters more.

Jump to 2:40:

We now have a generation or two of children (and not nearly all of them, to be sure) who value the recording of an event more than the event itself.

One sad scene in the clip shows a young woman taking a picture of her kissing her beau. Sad because she's wasting the use of a perfectly good hand. Even sadder because she is removed from the moment.

If you're going to share, really share, a passionate kiss, you're eyeballs should feel like they're going to twist inside out. Time drifts away. Touch blends with smell and warmth as self-awareness melts. No time. No self. Just. This.

The only reason a kiss is worth photographing is because of the stuff we cannot see--we can only hope to imagine the infinite moments. If you're multitasking during a kiss you've missed the point.

My robin may not have much self-awareness; really no way to tell. He did have, however, a splendid understanding of his situation. Hunger refines interests and awareness of the moment.

If it had instinctual fear, it would not have weighed its hunger over the large mammal carrying a shovel no more than a foot or two away.

So why do we record anything? Why write?

There's a danger when we let the story, the picture, replace the moments when we lose self to a broader sense of awareness. Humans have only recently mastered the written word, a Faustian bargain.

We create stories to help explain our (in a broad sense, not the limited ego factories we've become) place in the world. It's a confusing place. Even a simple walk outdoors overwhelms our imaginations when we pay attention.

And, of course, we die. Words and photos do not. We place an awful authority on the things that we think define us beyond our lifetime. Alas, we think wrongly.

I've lived a charmed life--flying off motorcycles, working on the docks of Newark, in Athens right after the earthquake, practicing medicine in the projects.

I have many stories in a clan that of folks who all lived charmed lives. When we get together as the sun sets on a late June evening, we share our stories, reframe them, shaping them for the next time we share a sunset.

But the stories are not the lives. They are reminders that we all live charmed lives, that none of truly grasp what the world brings to us, and that we like sharing the sound of our own voices.

At the end of the ferry jetty, the waters swirl in a large eddy as the tide ebbs. Cormorants seek fish tumbling in the odd currents. I see them surface briefly, occasionally with a writhing flash of silver in their beaks, and imagine what they know.

Imagine the cormorant as it plunges into the gray-blue shadows looking for flashes of silver, then feeling the writhing of muscle in its beak.

But, of course, we cannot--if we create the story as we live it, we lose it.

And when I find myself outside putting together stories, I stop. I am not the story. My death will not be unique. My clan will continue to live, and tell stories, hopefully for thousands more years.

And when I start to put the stories ahead of the living, I stop telling stories until I remember what matters.

I teach science. Science is all about creating myths, in the broad sense, to help explain our universe. For science to work, we must pay attention to the universe, or else it's no longer science. That's not to say other kinds of stories are pointless, but it is to say that stories can (and do) get in the way.

The hardest thing about teaching science in a public school under a curriculum dictated by committees is that many of those in charge of science education act as though the stories themselves are what matter most.

Memorize this theory, that equation-both are special kinds of stories that help us grasp what we see. Too many children, even (or maybe especially) the bright ones, confuse the story for the universe.

The universe is ultimately unknowable to creatures like us. A good story gets us closer to the truth, but cannot replace it.

The amazing cormorant shot through the Seafloor Mapping Project.

I'm boycotting Scholastic Books....

I am reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for the second time. I read The Mayor of Casterbridge for the last (in this lifetime, anyway--we're finite, you know) last week. Should I live another decade or two, Bury My Heart will be read again.

Conquered cultures have few options--fight and be killed, or acquiesce, and lose your identity. The end result is the same. At least the latter option gives some hope your story will be told.

We live in interesting times.

Scholastic (the book company) exudes fuzzy warmth. They sell books to children. They are, in their own words, "the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books and a leader in educational technology and children’s media."

Do not be fooled by their cute logos--they are a publicly owned company, listed as SCHL on NASDAQ. You can buy a piece of the company, and because of that, the primary purpose of the company (at least according to our Supreme Court) is to maximize profits for shareholders.

I wouldn't give half a hankie's snot's worth of interest in their company if they continued on their merry way, selling books, making money, and allowing folks with more money than fortitude to stuff their portfolios with more cash than God. (Well, Jesus, anyway....)

Two things changed this:

Scholastic squashed a blogger, Marc Dean Millot, who suggested that the grants awarded by 's Race to the Top may not be as transparent as the administration would like us to believe. He posted his comments on Mark Russo's website This Week in Education, sponsored by Scholastic. Russo, under pressure from Scolastic, deleted Millot's piece, despite a contract that asserted Millot's editorial independence.

Scholastic pays the Superintendent of the Los Angeles school district Ramon Cortines $151,000/year to sit on their board of directors. He also owns chunk of stock in the same company.

Yet he does not recognize the conflict.

I've railed on about the monied folk taking over public education in past posts, boring, dry stuff. It is happening, under our watch.

Under Arne's watch.

Under Obama's watch.

This is not going to end well. In the meantime, I will teach science to my lambs as best I can while throwing enough bones towards the state test to keep my job. I'll post news as I hear it, and hope a reader or two shares with others. As for me, I'm boycotting Scholastic.

If that's not enough, I'll go rake clams for a living--muckraking of a different sort.

There's currently a program for science teachers to teach their lambs about bugs--
sponsored by Terminix. You can't make this stuff up....

Friday, February 12, 2010

Rose Mary Woods and the "Erasure Problem"

"This is the biggest erasure problem I've ever seen."
Professor Gregory J. Cizek
University of North Carolina Cheating Expert

The poor have been accused of a lot of things, but this one takes Marie Antoinette's bakery to a whole new level.

Georgia has an erasure problem--a closer look at Atlanta's results in Georgia's version of state testing reveals that a lot of the tests had incorrect answers erased and changed to correct answers at a far higher rate than can be reasonably expected.

"The amount of cheating is staggering."
Ben Scafidi, Director
Center for an Educated Georgia

I have not seen the data, so I've no way to assess the accusations, though clearly this warrants investigation. That districts are cheating to meet the NCLB requirements is hardly news these days.

Here's the news--apparently Atlanta has an erasure problem because of its disadvantaged children, at least according to APS spokesman Keith Bromery. In an explanation that makes Rose Mary Wood's explanation for the 18 minute gap in Nixon's tapes seem plausible, Mr. Bromery explains that disadvantaged kids "might easily stall on a question and fail to finish a test...They were told, 'Feel free to erase and change your answer because there's no penalty for that.'"

Oh, reeeaaaalllly....those darn pesky poor kids, erasing away and stealing answers, just like they steal Food Stamps and TANF funds.

Oh, it gets worse--each and every school on The Journal-Constitution list of schools that had extraordinary test gains show an erasure problem.

All quotes and information relating to the inquiry were lifted from the New York Times today,
"Georgia Schools Inquiry Finds Signs of Cheating,"page A14

And yes, I know Marie Antoinette never said "Let them eat cake." Doh. She spoke French.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Jerry Mander would be proud

In 29 fell swoops, Westley Strellis advanced education in Atlanta today.

He took out 29 televisions at an Atlanta Walmart using an Easton baseball bat he borrowed from the sporting goods section.

Eight days before the Braves open training camp in the Grapefruit League, Mr. Strellis struck a blow for small businesses, for education, and, by golly, for baseball.

The "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" ought to be mandatory reading for anyone contemplating teaching. The Case Against the Global Economy: And for a Turn Toward the Local ought to be mandatory reading for anyone interested in maintaining our republic. Both were written by Jerry Mander, once a Madison Avenue guy, and a hero of mine.

I know, I know, I shouldn't encourage this kind of nonsense. And maybe those Boston dudes should not have tossed the tea overboard.

The police report was lifted from The Smoking Gun

Algorithms for Algernon

OK, this is a long one, mostly scattered thoughts written on a snow day, after reading The Mayor of Casterbridge for the last time. It's mostly for me. If you want to come along for the ride, bring a steaming Thermos of coffee.

People degrade themselves all the time in order to make machines seem smart. Before the 2008 stock-market crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before the bank makes bad loans; we ask teachers to teach to standardized tests. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species' bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology good, but every manifestation of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous.

Jaron Lanie, Harper's Magazine, February, 2010

I find it fascinating that as information becomes cheaper, we worship it more.


There's value in owning things in your mind, as opposed to relying on social networks or Google or Wikipedia. The brain does not work in programmed algorithms. We screw up. Ideas mutate. We make leaps and bounds that often fail, but occasionally resonate.

There's value in owning things in your mind. You cannot connect ideas, or things (thank you, Dr. Williams), lying loose all over the place. You can only shuffle file cards so fast, you can only link so many web pages before losing the gist.

We are privileged to have sensations, neural connections to this world, and a brain to know it, so far as it can be known. The machine is the product of an imperfect animal. If there is perfection, it lies outside the machine.

In Thomas Hardy's time, scythes and hay-rakes and mattocks ruled the countryside. No electricity, no phones, and social networks were formed at pubs. The economy of Casterbridge depended on the earth--livestock, corn, wheat, and all the labor and tools that went into reaping what our land can grant us.

Despite our conceits, our algorithms, our nanosecond technology, the gifts of the true economy have not changed. We still reap what we sow. We still eat and shit, we still woo and reproduce, we still depend on others. That the others are now strangers and driven by profit and not love has changed us, for now.

Bacteria communicate with each other. They have different signals for those of their own kind, and share universal signals with other clans/species.

Squids "talk" through light. Humans "talk" through smell.

Nothing can replicate the utter joy and sorrow I felt seeing the eerie dying glow of a comb jelly on a warm August beach, so contrary to what I know that I could not see it for what it was. Until my imagination exceeds the possibilities around me, I'll trust my thoughts, my clan's stories, our collective, flawed understanding of a world that exists before I plunge into the grid that frames a limited, knowable world.

(And I will add the story of the "talking" bacteria....)

I see bright senior high school students struggle with basic tasks subsumed by the network. Seniors who cannot look words up in a dictionary. Seniors who "know" calculus, but cannot solve simple arithmetic problems.

These are among the kids that will easily pass the state exam.

I suspect (or rather hypothesize) that most folks in charge of detailing curriculum at higher levels do not grasp science. Or perhaps they grasp science but are under unprecedented pressure from the Feds to ignore what they know and develop something that results in more money.

I get that real biologists need to speak a common language, a professional language, to communicate cogently and efficiently to fellow professionals. I get that kids need a basic understanding of the language of science to grasp (and critically assess) the technical leaps and bounds now more dependent on profit than promise.

Most of my students, however, need to grasp how science works. We are creating a generation of children who look cute spouting off big words and phrases, yet do not wonder why a light goes on when you hit a switch.

We need to cultivate wonder.

Our former Superintendent told the teachers, publicly, that it does not matter what we think about NCLB, it's the law, and we must comply. Had he said that 8% of our budget depends on Federal funding, and that the district has weighed its options and decided that imposing certain tasks, odious (and ultimately useless) as they may be, matters more than the value of real education, well, I'd have more respect for his decision.

Mr. Digesere was a music teacher before he was superintendent. Lucille Davies, our prior Commissioner of Education, is a lawyer whose teaching experience was as a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) teacher at her local parish. Bret Schundler, the new guy, cut his teeth over at Salomon Brothers, and most recently was COO of The King's College, so at least he's rubbed shoulders with educators.

Don't get me started on Arne....

All believe in the algorithms, believe in the standardized test, believe in an infinitely growing economy if only we can find the right algorithm. Pick any wonk in control of education policy today, and you'll get the same results. Growth. Standards. Competition. Economy.

I'd bet a 6 pack of my best home-brewed mead that none of them could explain respiration or photosynthesis or meiosis, or even half the things dictated by the 2009 state standards. (I would really like to hold on to my 2008 blueberry melomel--only 20 bottles left--but I've no doubt they're safe with this offer.)

If you're a bit stir crazy today, go out and find a tree. Trace its branches. Imagine the wind, the light, the forces that shaped that tree.

No two trees have exactly the same branch pattern--the tree's branch pattern tells a story of seeking light, or bending to wind, of battles with bugs and fungi and and perhaps lightning or a child's tree fort.

Two acorns with identical DNA will produce two very different oak trees--trees are designed to respond to their environment. Each new branch arises from a complex combination of triggers. Each tree is unique.

Humans and trees share a common ancestor. We have errant children--one of the joys and frustrations of a functioning classroom. I need the to pass the state exam, and I want them to learn science.

We are going to learn the hard way that the true economy is based on life, on the dirt we walk on, on life itself. I plan to keep on teaching science. It's what I'm paid to do.
I am going to a conference March 1, sponsored by the New Jersey Dep't of Education. I am dragging along a fellow biology teacher, almost as cranky as me, to Module D: Aligning Biology Curriculum to the End-of-Course Assessment. (I have no idea what "Module D" means, but it sounds, um, serious....)

Read the title of the workshop--we have put the cart before the horse, an analogy that no longer works in a universe of bytes instead of bits. We are expected to align the course to fit a limited exam that must fit within a class period or two.

If I had to test my lambs on whether they grasped anything new this year, I'd give them a few pill bugs, access to the various pieces of equipment in the classroom, and ask them to learn something about their behavior. I'd expect them to develop hypotheses, and set up replicable experiments. I'd hope they can examine evidence. And most of all, I hope that when they're done, they realize how little they can know about a pill bug trapped in a Petri dish, how little they know about anything.

I'd furtively trail them as they walked home--and if one lifted up a rock to find another pill bug, they pass.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Space invaders!

It's February.
Snow is racing by the window sideways.
I'm transmogrifying into a psoriatic komodo dragon.

Time for a curmudgeonly crankfest!

Fluoridating public water supplies with industrial waste.
Stuffing fertilizers with industrial waste.
Mandating HPV vaccines for school.
Letting coddled clueless elitists corporatize our public schools.
Spending billions on banks.

And the winner is....


Now here's something for my students to chew on!

The Hubble Telescope shows us an obvious alien ship, and NASA wants us to believe it's the remnants of a recent asteroid collision.

(It would be a fun exercise to spring in science class--form hypotheses as to just what we're seeing. It wasn't until my grandfather was in his twenties that astronomers accepted that the Andromeda nebula was a separate galaxy.)

AP claims credit for the photo, but they're full of poop--
Hubble took it, I helped pay for Hubble, its our photo.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Business Roundtable teaches biology

A quality science education fosters a population that...applies scientific knowledge and skills to increase economic productivity.

I am a science teacher, and occasionally a good one. I am certified by the state of New Jersey (Liberty and Prosperity), and paid by the Township of Bloomfield, which was bought from the Yancetaw Indians. Our first public school opened in 1758.

This makes me a government agent.

Prosperity (from our state motto) keeps getting confused with economic productivity, which smells like part of the Business Roundtable's undemocratic take-over of a public institution.


Tonight I made a butter run (salted, of course) to the local A&P; I said hello to Michael, now a man whom I've known since he wore diapers, while he lassoed some carts, working at the same place his brother has for years. While in line at the checkout, a young child, perhaps 5 years old, shyly made eye contact.

I knew the checkout lady, she's been there forever. I've been going there forever. The store has been there forever. My grandfather, born in 1898, used to work at another A&P when he was still a young man. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company has been around forever.

Forever's about to end.

The Business Roundtable folks may know how to run a business (though the recent evidence suggests otherwise--we're in for a long slide), but they know jack snot about biology.

All economies are ultimately based on reality, on the natural world. Soil. Water. Wood. Oil. Corn. Cotton. Wool. You can still follow the price of pork bellies in the New York Times business section.

If we continue to define prosperity by growth, even prettied up "sustainable growth," our children will be harmed.

Carrying capacity is the number of organisms of a particular species a given patch of Earth can sustain indefinitely.

In class I try to make connect my lambs to the world, to what's real, to what matters. I do not, however, want to give them nightmares--there's time enough for that in early adulthood.

If the NJ DOE continues to kneel down to the Business Roundtable and Achieve, Inc., and other groups who do not have the best interests of my students at heart, then do not be upset if I start sharing the truth.

Humans are animals. The land, the seas, have limits. The economy cannot (and will not) grow indefinitely. The living world is collapsing, and it's going to get ugly, real ugly, in a generation or two if those with money do not pull their heads out of their collective (and full) sigmoid colon.

The young girl I saw tonight, smiling as the checkout lady chatted in a dying store, does not deserve the education the Business Roundtable wants.

She deserves better. She deserves the truth.

The Business Roundtable lifted from their site.
The Monopoly photo from Life collection at Google.
And yep, I'm serious....we cannot handle the truth.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Thomas Hardy, science teacher

I’m reading The Mayor of Casterbridge again—it has long been my favorite novel, though I only read it every decade or so. This is my first time reading it in my 6th decade.

Thomas Hardy sees things, obvious things, I fail to see. That's why I read fiction.


Yesterday I wandered out into the our version of Snowmageddon to look for crocuses. (That we’re now referring to snowstorms in Biblical terms fit for the National Prayer Breakfast makes me shudder.)

I didn’t find any crocuses, but I did see a patch of gold under the ice of the pond. I waited long enough to see it slide ever so slowly. Still alive.

Still alive. As I am. And you. As none of us will be in less than a lifetime.

We are threaded together as part of the living, a patch of gold sliding under the ice, a crocus yet unseen, you and me. Most things alive start out as single cells.

I teach to the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards (NJCCCS), and (occasionally) teach science. The standards were written by a committee, and committees, like corporations, are immortal.

We are starting the cell division unit. My lambs will learn the stages of mitosis (“I pretend my apple talks”), memorize a few words, and maybe, just maybe, a few will see mitosis as it is instead of arbitrary divisions of a process that has occurred trillions of times within themselves.

If you do not grasp the awe, the joy, the fecundity of life within your own carcass, memorizing the action in anaphase won’t do much for you.

So here’s my task—tying the process that got each one of my students from the size of the period at the end of this sentence to the spectacular creatures they are now, then tie that to every other living thing on this planet at this moment.

The NJCCCS opens the science standards with a quote from President Obama:
“Today more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation.”

The sentence makes no sense, unless we have some top secret technology capable of literally blowing the planet apart.

We are not planets. Science will not save us. And security for organisms as individuals is a mirage.

Michael Henchard, the Mayor, is dead, or perhaps was never alive, yet he affects me. Those of us immersed in words live in a mirage even as we pretend to know otherwise. Ambition does funny things to us.

And so I wait for the crocus, and settle for the flash of gold beneath the ice. The fish breathes under the ice, feeling a world beyond my comprehension, but feeling it nonetheless. We are tied to life, not the other way around.

That's science, not fiction, but until we learn how to teach science, the novelists will lead the way.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Assistive technology for southpaws

I'm not a fan of SMART Boards™ for a few reasons, not the least of which is my left-handedness.

Left-handers push words when we write. It's not a natural motion, and the SMART Board™ takes southpaws back to the fountain pen days, when our hand would smudge the not-quite-dry ink.

When I write on a SMART Board™, my hand blocks the light. As I continue, my wrist, then my forearm block the light.

Many left-handers can write backwards, though most may be unaware of this. If you're lefty, try it for a few minutes. You may amaze yourself more than you already do.

Some of us can write backwards faster than forwards. I occasionally took notes in medical school backwards, then reverse the paper and hold it up to a light to read it.

So here's my idea for a new assistive technology--program the SMART Board to flip my witing into its mirror image as I write!

Take that, Sister Mary Barbara!

Other reasons I don't like SMART Boards™:

That lag (try drawing lots of dots in a diffusion lesson
Hogs up my whiteboard space
The culture (All caps? Really? How precious....)

I secretly take it down for some periods...lots of glorious whiteboard underneath!

Drawing by DaVinci--I tweeted him, but he never wrote back....

Creo ergo sum

I'd argue that school should be less about thinking, and more about creativity. In schools, creativity often means pulling out the crayons and posterboard and letting them draw.

Barry Bachenheimer lights up a room--he's energetic, charismatic, and bright. I've been to two of his presentations, and know he likes to tweak folks into thinking.

A couple of days ago he tweaked me in his response to my last post.

"Drawing with crayons" is to creativity what punching calculator buttons is to thinking. Both are tools. (I'd argue that creativity is a subset of thinking, but it's February my brain's hibernating until that woodchuck gets his facts straight.)

Back in the 70's, our junior high class took some silly test, and a few of us got pulled into an experimental class designed to expand our creativity. I remember meeting Frederik Pohl and the Amazing James Randi (who made a career out of debunking the Amazing Kreskin), but the nonsense we did to enhance our native abilities was, well, stupid.

We creatively figure out ways to subvert our not-so-creative teacher, and we were disbanded a few months later.

Real creativity involves solving problems. We, the kids on Bayberry Lane, once built an 11 foot snowman. We spent a whole afternoon figuring out how to get the midsection on the base.

Too bad we had to go to school the next day....

The poster is from Graphic Expectations.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Gatto got it

Schools were designed by Horace Mann and Barnas Sears and W.R. Harper of the University of Chicago and Edward Thorndike of Columbia Teachers College and other to be instruments for the scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended to produce, through the application of formulas, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.

John Taylor Gatto
NYC's Teacher of the Year, 1989

If public education truly created a thinking citizenry, it would be outlawed.

Arne wants CEOs to run schools. Arne wants 15-year-olds to save the economy. Arne grasps desperately at gravitas.

I want a dying republic to toss off the corporate crap. I want my kids to learn how to think. Mostly, I just want to teach science.

Not technology. Not engineering. Not complaisance.

I want assertive, thinking, engaged children who will tell me (eloquently, I hope) to fuck off once they're ready to remove their training wheels.

Democracy is dangerous. Thinking is dangerous. Public education should be dangerous as well.

(Yes, I've gone over the edge into full crank mode--if I don't find a crocus soon....)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Imbolc, again

Halfway through winter, again.

An Cailleach Bhearra wandered around back in the 10th century in western Ireland, eating "seaweed, salmon, and wild garlic" (my kind of woman), looking for firewood.

If the day was bright and sunny, beware--she had gathered plenty of wood and was set for many cold days ahead. If the day was gray, she didn't bother, and she will make the days warm up again. Sound familiar?

Last summer Leslie and I left Dingle Doolin on foot, and headed up the trail to the Cliffs of Moher, Cailleach's country, climbing over stone walls and electrified fences, keeping an eye out for bulls, as we wend our way up to the cliffs.

A few times we crept carefully along trails just inches from a fatal fall. We were foolish, and were rewarded with the gift of life and shared love.

(You can, of course, go to the "official" Cliffs of Moher, and pay your euros for safe walkways, clean bathrooms, and an interpretive center to tell you what to experience.)

We live in a linear world, or pretend so. We try to teach our children to live in the same world, the world in our heads, the safe one. They buck this, as we did when we were young.

Winter lived well reminds me I will die. So will you. So will our children. Cailleach, the goddess of winter, destroys what is useless to make room for new life, and makes spring possible again.

My children will be on the west coast of Ireland this dreary month, and should they wander over to Dingle Doolin, my brain will urge them to stick to the sanctioned trails.

My heart, though, hopes otherwise. I want my children alive, of course, but I also want them to live.

Photos by Leslie: winter jetty taken Sunday, my leg over a cliff last summer (maybe I took that one).
And Leslie reminded me that our eldest has already walked the same trail--we did something right.