Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ozzie and Harriet and Arne

"The days of telling kids to go home at 2:30 and having mom there with a peanut butter sandwich, those days are gone....the hours from 3 o’clock to 7 o’clock are a huge anxiety, and that’s why we have to keep our schools open longer."
Arne the Scarecrow

Many families have limited choices.

Daddy's working. Mommy's working. Grandma's in the old people warehouse.

And we need kids to improve their test scores so that they can compete with the children in India and Sri Lanka, to make more goods few of us need, to keep Mommy and Daddy at work even longer.

Maybe Arne should take a peek at Bob Herbert's column today. Arne keeps talking of moral obligations. Herbert today is talking of sin ("A Sin and a Shame").

"At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion.”
Andrew Sum, PhD
Director of the Center for Labor Market Studies
Northeastern University

That's called a clue, Arne.

If you want families to raise healthy, educated, well-rounded children, at least one adult needs to be home during a child's waking hours.

An adult who can show a child how to sow, how to fix things, how to enjoy life outside the classroom, outside the office, outside the car. Maybe even how to love.

Want to raise school performance? Raise minimum wage to a level that allows a child to see an adult family member for at least half the time she's conscious, doing something worthwhile besides "earning a living."

The Ozzie and Harriet photo is from a website that sells the videos.
And yes, Duncan's quote is sexist, but it's so stupid I doubt he's doing any harm with it.
I'll get back to teaching science again soon.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Twitter is creepy

I'm on my second go-round with Twitter1. It's a marvelous place to share resources, and an even more marvelous place to waste time while pretending to share resources.

It's (again) failing my death bed conversion question--were your hours being a Twit worth the time?

An interesting "chat" developed last night. (Not sure anything limited to 140 character strings counts as a chat...)

A couple of online bright online folks who also teach science both challenged my belief that we need to draw strict boundaries between teachers and students online. I respect them; their opinions matter.

Here's the gist2:

Follow your students. Follow your parents. Twitter is useful. "But don't follow leaders and watch your parking meters."
I would never follow students here (creepy) and my parents are dead (creepier)

not creepy to "follow" students. more teachers need to follow their students intellectually here and there and everywhere.
It's creepy. I see them in town. I live here. They drop by when I'm on the stoop. But online is creepy.

/We need borders, strong borders, outside the classroom.

we are the same person "online" as "offline." not sure of the distinction you need to make.
Yep, we are, BUT I fart in the bathroom, use the vernacular at the bar, scream at the stadium, and pray in church.

/ When I'm on my stoop, the whole neighborhood sees me--online, mostly strangers.

/ I realize that in the tweetworld I sound like an anomaly--but that's the way most of human society works.

/ The online world is a phenomenally difficult place to draw social distinctions, a plus at times, but a huge negative if naive.
  • You're an adult, your student a child.
  • You're paid to be in school, the student is coerced.
  • You hold the child's esteem in your classroom demeanor, and her future in your grade book.
  • You are presumably wiser, the student more naive.

We wield phenomenal power over students. We forget this at our (and our students') peril.

Twitter is a public space, I get that. So is the Bloomfield Green. I occasionally bump into students there.

Teachers have a responsibility to model reasonable behavior in a public space, I get that, too. You won't see me cavorting through the Green wearing a clown suit. OK, not more than once....

Teachers are models. Part of being an adult is recognizing social boundaries and knowing what behavior is appropriate when.

Children need to learn this. Apparently, some of us, do, too.

1Twitter is an archived chat service that let's you yammer at others in 140 or less character bursts. You can choose which groups to join on the fly, and you can link to online resources. It can be a wonderful resource, just like alcohol can be a wonderful relaxant.

2I edited out a lot of extraneous nonsense, and the "/" represents breaks in the messages. The italicized print represents one of the two teachers, the plain text is me.

The Creeping Terror may be on my top 10 favorite movie theme songs list--image lifted from Apocalypse Later.

And the answer to the first question? No, not for me....I'm done with Twitter.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

This puts essential questions in perspective

"The higher quality data available since 1950 has allowed the team to calculate that since that time, the world has seen a phytoplankton decline of about 40%."


"Phyto-" means plant. Phytoplankton, like all green plants, take in more carbon dioxide than they produce, and release more oxygen than they use.

Phytoplankton produce about half the oxygen available to us.

We have plenty of oxygen, so we're not in Spaceballs territory yet (remember Megamaid?), but if this trend plays out, we are screwed.

So how about this for an essential question? Which organisms depend on phytoplankton to survive?

Yep, we're on that list, too.

"Megamaid" picture is obviously from Spaceballs, and taken from here.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Arne's "quiet revolution"

As part of the show-and-tell of working in grant funded projects taking care of very poor kids in very devastated cities. I got to meet CEO's, sit in boardrooms, greet national politicians--I even got to spend a couple of days in the White House sitting on some sub-committee of some sub-committee.

A few things I learned:
  • Powerful people don't pay for coffee--it's just always there.
  • Powerful people have pretty fingernails. (I get bored easily at meetings.)
  • Poor kids of color with bright smiles on their faces loosen checkbooks.
  • Nobody really wants to hear the truth.
  • It's easy, real easy, to be seduced to join the other side.
I had a bad day now and again.

On one such bad day, someone got shot close to our clinic. He died, his blood on my clothes. A few hours later I was sitting with the number two person of a large, local non-profit, an agency that does good work, trying to develop a grant.

I grumbled about something, and the meeting deteriorated.

So I learned to stop grumbling. I learned to stop screaming. I learned to behave civilly. I learned how to do "that smile." And I kept reminding myself why, so I could glom money to keep us in business, caring for children few people cared about.

Our project got the money, the pols and corporations got the pretty press, and I got a lesson in prostitution.

I got a few minutes of face to face time with Al Gore, with just 3 others in the room, back when he was running for VP in 1990. He was bright, knowledgeable, and very different from the man who gave a speech just minutes later, when he was hustled out by his people.

I went home confused--how can someone separate themselves like that?

In 2000 he flat gave up the election. Maybe he was tired, maybe someone had something on him, or maybe he wanted to be that private Al Gore, the one I got to meet when he wasn't on camera.

Bill Gates. Eli Broad. Arne Duncan. Barack Obama.
None of these men spend any time listening to anyone who has not been filtered through boardrooms and golf courses, anyone who has not perfect the wile and smile needed to gain access to power.

Oh, they'll pose for the photo ops. They'll hand out the checks. They'll do all things possible to get their way.

On Thursday, Mr. Duncan will give a speech on the "quiet revolution" moving through schools. Powerful folks like "quiet." I know that. I kept quiet too many times when jumping on the corporate table screaming out the truth would ended my work, because I liked doing what I did.

And looking back, I'm not sure I changed a thing.

The Arne photo is from ABC News--the child is reading a thank you letter.

The board room belongs to International Flavors and Fragrances--
they polluted a local lake near where I grew up, but boy, look at that room!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

"The Principal's Office" misuses students

Some teachers on Twitter kept referring to SM. I googled "SM education." For the rest of my life, and for years beyond, there will be a record suggesting that I searched for sado-masochistic literature. My digital footprint is forever stained.

Such are the dangers of the internet.

(For the record, it was shorthand for social media.)

I've been playing with computers for a long time. I doodled with a Timex Sinclair almost 30 years ago, before many of the more excitable edu-bloggers were even zygotes.

My first experience with the internet was 300 bps.
I taught an elective computer class in the early 90's.
I have a clue about the power of searchable databases.

What I don't have a clue about is how to approach the pedagogical lovefest brewing on the horizon.

I've done some godawful dumb things in my life. I've been forgiven for most of them. Nobody but people I love know, and they have chosen to forget.

The internet does not allow amnesia.

I stumbled across "The Principal's Office" today, a reality series that focuses on principals disciplining kids. One particularly icky episode has an older man paddling a young woman behind closed doors.

The internet does not allow refuge.

One of the principals featured is someone reasonably local. I've read his blog, his tweets, watched a few of his videos. He's young--he was 7 years old when I was playing with the Sinclair. "The Principal's Office" bio states that he uses "a combination of humor and toughness to break kids down."

Power is part of any principal's toolbox, and I'm in no position to judge what goes on in this principal's office. Putting it on the internet, however, increases the power and harms the student.

The principal plays the young man like a fish, indeed jokes in an aside about his avoidance of the cafeteria food:
Jordan, today's Cheesesteak Day. I love cheesesteaks!

The principal plays the irrational fear card:
Are you supposed to accept packages from strangers?

Facial recognition programs will soon make it possible for employers to find you without your name. Jordan's potential employers may well see this 10 years from now.

Jordan is a high school student. High school students often do stupid things. I did a lot of stupid things in high school. I'm not even sure that what Jordan did was even stupid. But I know it's immortal.

This principal's actions pale compared to the abuse of Mr. Halter, a principal in Arizona, who paddles a young woman behind closed doors, then offers her a "sympathetic touch" on her shoulder after administering the punishment. It borders on pornography.


Ira Socol has written a brilliant piece: "Lord of the Flies: How Adults Create Bullying." Go read it, I'll wait. If you have time, follow his links and the comments.

If you don't have time, read this much:
Children do learn, after all. And mostly, they learn by watching us.

"The Principal's Office" reflects all too well what's happening in our schools. It's edited, of course, and I realize the goal is more to sell a program than share the truth.

I asked the first principal today if he had any regrets.
No regrets, but I was not always accurately portrayed.

He made $10,000 for his school. He got to go on Rachel Rae. He's an up and coming star in the new edu-media universe.

I'm sure everything was legal and aboveboard, but I've got this quaint idea of loco parentis--we are obligated to act in the best interests of the children we coerce to sit in our buildings for hours at a time.

I'd be interested in what you think.

The image is from truTV here.

One of the principals involved assures me that these were re-enactments, with proper permission.
I have asked for clarification if these were the actual students.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Darwin in the classroom

Humans evolved from monkeys.
Ask you students if the above is true. Poll the kids vote anonymously. Heck, ask other teachers in your building.

Human blood in veins is blue.
Here's the trick--I can "teach" them otherwise, but as soon as I lean down to tie my shoe or take a moment to blow my nose, the kids go right back to their previous beliefs.

We all do.

Trees get most of their mass from soil.
Teaching "facts" wastes time--my students have been trained, trained by us, to be credulous. Many, alas, believe anything I say.

Humans are more evolved than earthworms.
We live in a fantasy world. We lie to our kids. We reward them for parroting our lies. And then a few of them wake up and don't believe anything we say. Not good, either.


A good chunk of American do not "believe in" evolution. I do not "believe in" it--it's not a belief system--but I embrace it as the core of biology.

Darwin did not come up with evolution--the concept is much older than him. Darwin realized, however, that natural selection could by itself explain the great diversity of life on Earth. No guiding intelligence is needed.

Just about every shred of evidence examined since Darwin's On the Origin of Species strengthens his underlying thesis.

In a 2007 Gallup Poll, over 60% of Americans agreed that it is "definitely" or "probably true...that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years."



Here's a problem, a big problem--just about all of my kids are passing tests on evolution. A good chunk do not accept it but pass anyway. I'm not worried about their beliefs, really not my business. My business is teaching kids how to think.

I am very concerned about a system that rewards kids for spouting off what they themselves consider to be nonsense. We need to come up with a way to assess children as they wrestle with evidence, children who were told less than a decade before that Santa Claus exists.

Until we do, however, we'll continue to produce kids who believe in astrology, who blindly follow leaders who lie, and who put this Great Experiment, our republic, at risk.

The Darwin cartoon is old enough to be in the public domain.
Every bold blue statement is false. Really.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Alfie, Arne, Charlie, and Mumford

It's July--the sun still reigns, but as it slips slowly away, sordid disorder slips in. Gardens get weedy, wasps a tad touchy. June fools us into thinking entropy is an illusion.

July cures illusions.


I am reading both Alfie Kohn and Lewis Mumford this week--Kohn's The School Our Children Deserve and Mumford's The Myth of the Machine. Kohn paints a lovely picture of what is possible, Mumford explains why we do it wrong anyway:

Once automatic control is installed one cannot refuse to accept its instructions...for theoretically the machine cannot allow anyone to deviate from its own perfect standards. And this brings us at once to the most radical defect in every automated system: for its smooth operation this under-dimensioned system requires equally under-dimensioned men, whose values are needed for the operation and continued expansion of the system itself.

Human autonomy has become a quaint idea.


Arne Duncan, the quintessential Organizational Man, was predicted by Lewis Mumford--he does what he does to keep the machinery humming.

The sad thing is that a lot of folks, culturally accepted sociopaths, do as Arne does. Joyce Irvine, an effective principal by all accounts, was fired this week to keep the machine humming.

“Her students made so much progress.
What’s happened to her is not at all connected to reality.”
Jeanne Collins, Superintendent of district

The good news is this--if you treat children as "humans now" instead of as "workers later" they do as well on the standardized tests as those who get the drill-to-kill treatment, perhaps even better.

I'm busy constructing a constructivist classroom. I'm risking my career on Kohn's words and research. I'm hoping my children become happy, thinking adults.

And I pray I never have an Arne Duncan clone give me credit years later as the driving force in his education.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Breaking bread

In July, 1928, sliced bread debuted at the Chillicothe Baking Company in Missouri. The town now promotes itself as "The Home of Sliced Bread."

Chris Lehmann is the principal of the Science Leadership Academy, "a partnership high school between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. He recently spent 4 days at the Constructing Knowledge Conference (CMK), where he had the "chance to listen to, talk to, break bread with people like Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, Marvin Minsky and James Loewen,...."

"Break bread...."
Breaking bread has, for many, religious overtones. It's not a phrase you hear much anymore, and when you do, it's rarely literal.

At most conferences we share meals on our own sanitized plates using steam cleaned steel utensils to eat food made by strangers who often speak a different tongue.

Before Otto Rohwedder's bread-slicing machine became ubiquitous, we had whole loaves in our homes. We literally broke bread at mealtimes.

I think we were closer together when we did, because we did.

I occasionally make bread. I grind the wheat (a workout), then mix the flour, yeast, butter, water, and honey. I knead (another workout), let the dough rise, punch it down, let it rise again.

It's good, it's healthy, it's whole. I share the first piece with Leslie just about every time. We break bread together.

When we have close friends over, we may leave a whole bread loaf on the table, to be broken by our hands. Sometimes, sadly, the loaf stays unbroken.

One year we grew wheat in class--we had dozens of stalks on the windowsills. 2 or 3 times a week I would remind the students where the wheat stalk "stuff" came from: water and the carbon dioxide from our exhaled breaths.

The emerging wheat berries amazed the children, as it still amazes me. Kids in these parts rarely see mature grass. They saw the wheat as just a giant grass plant until the berries appeared, just like the same berries they planted.

At the end of the year, we got a handful of wheat berries and I ground them up with others, made the bread at home, and after a brief chat reminding the class where the bread came from, we broke bread.

Some of the class could not stomach the idea of trying a piece--I'm not eating anyone's stinky breath! Those who tried it mostly enjoyed it, especially a few who grew up on real bread before they came to the States.


What does any of this have to do with Chris Lehmann?

He writes about the frustration of building a robot at the CMK conference last week. His team (barely) succeeded, and he writes about the value of the process, about the value of gumption when things we try do not work well.

I've always wanted to make bread from scratch in class. Truly scratch. Grind the wheat berries. Churn the butter. All kinds of science would be involved.

I could never figure out how to do it, and am still not clear, but I'm going to try it anyway. I'm going to present the problem to the class, and we're going to solve it, or not, but learn in the process.

If we come up short, I will still end the year with a home-made loaf of bread, to break together in class to honor of our time together.

The poster is from the town of Chillicothe--you can order the poster here.

The woman baking bread and the wheat photos are from the National Archives.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

This life more 'tweet....

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp?....
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

Duke Senior, As You Like It
Shakespeare, natch


I'm diddling away my mortal coil here instead of staring at stars. Which reminds me--I need to go stare at some stars....

And then I hung around for another 15 minutes before I got out.

I'm glad I got out--a golden meteor streaked across the sky as though painted with glitter, sparks flying off the tail, a tail that extended more than half the sky. It shook me up.

I have never regretted a single moment spent outside. I've regretted plenty inside. If I believed in signs, I'd toss this machine off the kayak....


In the past couple of days I've heard two croakers complain as I wrestled hooks out of their jaws, squinched a few dozen cabbage worms, burned my feet on a hot jetty, cooled those same feet in the bay, picked tomatoes and beans, sliced open my finger, dared a harlequin stink bug to stink, stared at Vega and Venus, sank ankle deep into sand at the sea's edge, and watched tiny fish break the surface in an explosion of red light reflected from the setting sun.


My fledgling story:

I went into the garage just after supper yesterday to fetch the paddles. Some critter was flapping around noisily, but I was too busy running away to see it. (Yes, I'm a coward....)

A few minutes later, Leslie (much braver than me) found it--a fledgling robin, now exhausted, its beak gaping open, its chest billowing. The fledgling found a window--it could see the outside world, and it kept beating against the glass, its wings sprawled open against the pane.

Just a few feet away, the open garage door beckoned, but the bird was too frightened to see anything but its view from the window. It would die waiting for the pane to dissolve.

With the help of a crab net, I managed to get the bird out onto a juniper bush by the garage. I feared it would collapse from exhaustion. I cooed (ridiculous, I know) and slowly brought a hose to its mouth.

The robin drank. Then it drank some more.

In a few minutes it was gone.


As one who has trouble believing anything, not sure now's a good time to start putting trust in "signs"--but I do know this much. This computer screen is my garage window. I keep staring into it, looking at a world through glass, glass that cannot be broken, glass that will not magically dissolve.

No matter how much I tweet like the desperate fledgling.

Photos are ours, and we gave ourselves permission to use them.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Death and the web

Promissory Note
If I die before you
which is all but certain
then in the moment
before you will see mebecome someone dead
in a transformation
as quick as a shooting star’s
I will cross over into you
and ask you to carry
not only your own memories
but mine too until you
too lie down and erase usboth together into oblivion.
Galway Kinnell
Strong Is Your Hold


Cross-striped cabbageworms have devoured my Brussels sprouts, leaving shredded green skeletons in my garden. (Sister Barbara Mary awakes in the deep recesses of my memory--the stripped plants look like a mad painter's vision of Calvary Hill.)

We all kill unconsciously...all of us. I do not like to kill consciously, but I will when necessary. I pick off the worms and squish them, one by one. I squish the head first--I've no reason to prolong their pain. If the Brussels sprouts get to the point where's there's no longer any point, I will stop killing the worms.

I almost slaughtered a croaker yesterday, a frumpy but delicious fish found off our jetties here. Croakers "croak"--think Lauren Bacall at two octaves lower. (Well, OK, they sound nothing like Lauren Bacall, but no harm thinking about her anyway....)

My frumpy delicious fish kept croaking while I as unhooking it. The soft side of my brain tossed the chatty fish back in the drink.

Throwing away food is not a good survival strategy for any mammal. Throwing it away because a critter "chattered" at me is plain stupid. Still, it speaks to the power of language in humans. Our view of the universe can get trapped in words.


Our online lives, for most of us, are words and a few photos we slap up there. We share references and whittle away time, giggling at absurdities while blind to the obvious one:

We do not exist on the web.

It is not a public "space." It is not a town hall or a mall or a park.
It is a linked network of users and databases.

In life, people screw up. Big time. And if Carl happened to barf at a neighborhood block party because maybe he drank too much because his dog just died two days ago, well, it's messy and embarrassing, but it's not permanent. We know Carl. We know his history. It won't be mentioned again.

We forgive Carl's transgressions.

I made up Carl, of course, because once I mention Carl's behavior here, it becomes a permanent stain. There is no forgiving silence on the internet. Forgiveness is impossible because forgiveness is a human trait, part of the same soft-sided brain that released a croaker yesterday, or that pinches worms head-first.

In life, people die. Their daily words die with them. Their misdeeds are forgotten at the wake (unless they were truly dirty rotten scoundrels, and very few of us are).

You cannot be forgiven on the web because:

We do not exist on the web.

Databases cannot forgive. Networks cannot forgive. We are neither.


Each of us is mortal.
Each of us will die within a lifetime.
Each of us needs forgiveness.
Each of us exists on grace.

To survive death, to become part of the great life-sustaining detritus I walk on each day, that supports the Brussels sprouts and tomatoes and kale and beans thriving in my garden, I need impermanence.

Only through impermanence can I return to what I was, and am.

Poem by Galway Kinnell used without permission, though I will seek it.

The cartoon is by @tremendousnews on Twitter, no idea who s/he is--found here....
via a tweet by @Larryferlazzo, who also pointed out Herbert's column this morning: "Tweet Less, Kiss More".

Friday, July 16, 2010

Down the rabbit hole....

Beautiful July morning--I picked some purple beans with hues so deep and warm I wandered back to childhood. My fingers slipped through the vines knew what to do. There is unspeakable pleasure when we do what we are designed to do.

The first tomatoes are ripe now--tumescent with life. Four months ago they were tiny tufts of seeds I tucked into peat moss. My fingers knew what to do.

On mornings like this, one should avoid finiteness. The world holds wonderful and infinite complexity.

Alas, I'm an idiot, and logged into the internet.


I've given up Twitter before, and may give it up a few dozen times before I get it right. I follow teachie/techie type folks, and learn a lot. Today, perhaps, I learned my most important lesson. This was not it:
To folks who scream they don’t want private lives online:
Maybe you should just try to be a better person.

I am pretty much the same online as off. My Twitter account is "M_K_Doyle," not exactly a pseudonym. I stimulate annoy folks pretty much wherever my words take me. And I scream a lot. About just that....

I immediately let all 7 folks who follow me that I found that tweet scary. I tracked it down to Bud the Teacher, a marvelous edublogger. He clarifies his position a tad, but he's still scary.

And I think my public persona,
person I am at work and in the world,
be it the store, or church, or at the park or anywhere else, should be the same public persona online.

Here’s the problem, and where modeling matters. We have multiple levels of intimacy/behavior in different settings.

What I say to a colleague in an elevator may be different than what I say to her in a pew, both public spaces by Hunt's example. The database searching capabilities have smashed our online personae into an extremely public figure–one with a megaphone screaming at anyone who cares to listen.

Part of becoming an adult is learning situational awareness. Lumping our online persona into some common public space sounds great, but there is no single layer of “public” in our real lives. (It’s like “global awareness,” another impossible task that sounds so cool.)


Today I saw this: "10 Reasons to Stop Apologizing for Your Online Life" on the Harvard Business Review blog, by Alexandra Samuel, a social media expert:

In our online lives we shake off the limitations of our physical selves, perhaps even our names and consciences, too. What remains are the fundamentals: human beings, human conversations, human communities. To say that "reality" includes only offline beings, offline conversations and offline communities is to say that face-to-face matters more than human-to-human.

I keep hoping to see "America's finest news source, The Onion" at the bottom, maybe the Harvard Lampoon.

My conscience, my name, my physical self is all human. The slight resistance feel as I pull a ripe tomato off the vine, its sensuousness as it rests alive in my palm, is part of who I am.

Face to face evoke all kinds of humanness, not all visual. My neighbor's aromas just beneath our consciousness, his growly gut, the preliminary hug or handshake--all involve a complexity and richness online cannot capture.

There is more complexity in a spoonful of the soil around my tomato plant that can be found on the whole of internet. We kid ourselves when we float on the web, amusing ourselves like bored kids throwing rocks at windows, passing time until we die.

Because we all die. Even if our web personae live on and on....

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Are you too edu-conventional?

I've been spending too much time eavesdropping on edutech conversations--I'm having oral surgery in less than a week, and Twitter provides a diversion that allows me to pretend I'm actually doing something.

"Every child MUST tweet! Blog! Skype! Wiki! Ning!"

While much of it involves bleating and breast-beating tweeting, some gems break through. Bud Hunt and the EC Ning Webstitute are both gems.

Bud Hunt opened up a Google doc to the world today, and posted the following questions:
  • Who is in your circle? Your network?
  • Who's listening in?
  • What's worth talking about? What's worth sharing?
  • How are you purposefully and transparently modeling learning in your work?
  • How are you being purposeful about the behaviors and habits you model?
  • What "productive eavesdropping" are you engaged in, or helping to foster?

Guess which two questions jumped out at me.

What's worth talking about?
What's worth sharing?

This is the heart of learning, of teaching, in both PD and in the classroom. We create a lot of noise when we fail to address these questions first.

These are scary questions--not so much because of where they lead us, but because they expose what we have not been doing. If we cannot answer these questions faithfully (and I use that word deliberately), we are stealing time from our students.
They're should be a place in Dante's Circles of Hell for those of us who mindlessly teach.

These are the essential questions of education, and require a level of intimacy that leaves us exposed. Works great with the right partners, disastrous otherwise.
What's worth talking about?--For all the chatter we generate on Twitter, Delicious, Ning, Facebook, or whatever else passes for community these days, not a whole lot gets said.

What's worth sharing?--We are all pretty good at bookmarking. Oooh! Look here!!!! We're all pretty good at sharing (and borrowing) ideas. We're too quick to get lost in all the shiny objects without asking whether its worth our time.
Collaboration between folks responsible for educating children will require an intimacy that should make us blush. We are exposed, splayed open for others to see. This is hard enough even in the best of circumstances. Even a good marriage leaves behind a road of hurt and repair.

And we're expected to do this with strangers, in 2 night stands in far-away cities, sleeping in strange beds. We drink too much coffee in the day, too much alcohol at night. We leave with the rush of early love, lusting to get back to the classrooms with our new ideas. We live in a fantasy world for 3 days, where everyone believes everything is good and possible.

And then we wonder why our evangelism falls short. We return to our districts, where good people have worked hard for a long time, gray-haired and tired, leery of change.

Don't tell them everything, don't share everything--just share what is worth talking about. What happens at EduMashTechCon 2.43a stays at EduMashTechCon 2.43a, most of it anyway. As frustrating as that is as the techno-pioneers ride back home into their districts, most of what you think is valuable might not be.

If the only thing you share are things worth sharing, you will always have an audience.

Painting is the Great Orator, 1944 by Irving Norman, via Poor Leonard's Almanack.

And the living is easy....

Two summertime stories, both true, both observed this week:

Leslie, Kevin and I were kayaking in the Delaware Bay near the ferry jetty when we saw it--a mature bald eagle just over the lip of the shore. We've seen plenty of ospreys here, but never a bald eagle. We have one resident osprey that hunts around our little patch of paradise.

A moment later, we saw our osprey, laden with a live fish in its talons. The eagle saw it, too.

For several minutes we were treated to a spectacular aerial show--the osprey was more agile, even with the fish, but the bald eagle was faster. The two spiraled up and up and up to the edge of the clouds, then dove down again.

I got excited as I imagined writing to Nature about the thievery of a bald eagle. Alas, a Google search saved me a stamp and some embarrassment. Turns out this is what bald eagles do. Even Ben Franklin knew this:
For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

Another website, Stephen Caswell's travelogue, captured the intensity of the chase in both words and photos.

Second story:
Dragonflies, like osprey, are fine hunters with remarkable vision and adept flight. Some tiny insects hatched near our home, visible as flitting glowing tufts in the setting sunlight.

Two large dragonflies, each almost as big as my hands, swooped in. If you watch them carefully, you can see them catch their prey. One lit on a day lily stalk next to me. It cocked its head my way for a couple of seconds, understood I was not a threat, then went back to watching his meal.

Neither story is remarkable in itself, but both mesmerizing to watch unfold.

I suppose I could show a video in class, or make an interactive game where the child pretends she is a dragonfly, or have the kids plot food webs, or any number of things that pass for interactive and authentic education today.

But what that child really needed was a hot July afternoon, a free afternoon, and a stoop. A glass of lemonade wouldn't hurt.

The world is more wonderful than any of us can imagine--it gives back whatever you put into it, and more. While pretending to polish my curriculum this morning, I wandered over to the #LBC10 on Twitter, yet another education/technology MashCon.

Like the musicians of Bremen, everyone is in love with the sound of his own voice, everyone tweeting tweeting tweeting, hoping to be validated with the retweet by another, constructing a busy world run by and full of humans.

No dragonflies. No eagles. No time to reflect.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bill Gates the Third: Póg mo Thóin

I have an unhealthy (and perhaps unnatural) dislike of oligarchs.

Bill Gates plans to leave $10,000,000 to each of his children because he "doesn’t want to leave them the burden of tremendous wealth."

Read that again. S-L-O-W-L-Y....

Mr. Gates the Third knows nothing about my town, my children, our state, about horseshoe crabs, or about life, judging by the (limited) evidence.

So here's a fair question: what does Mr. Gates the Third believe in? What matters to him? I wouldn't give a rat's ass about these questions if Mr. Gates the Third left my children (and yours) alone.

But he won't. Neither will Eli Broad nor Arne Duncan nor Warren Buffet. So I want to know what they believe. Do they believe in God or an afterlife? Do they believe in the commons? Do they garden or brew or bake, or do they have "their people" do it for them?

People who screw with public education better have good reasons. Our local schools are the last grasp of the public commons that we have; the top 10% of Americans now control over 70% of the wealth; the bottom 50% control 2.5%. The top 1% have more than 13 times what half the nation holds.

Here's an idea--let those of us in the bottom 80% figure out what our children need, those born without "the Third" appended to their names. Those who fight the wars. Those who fill town halls and local bars and public parks. Those whose backs support the dreams of the Bills and Melinda and Warrens in our midst.

The most depressing thing about reading about Mr. Gates the Third?
Will Nelson, our Willie Nelson, played at their wedding.

The graph is from True/Slant.....

The "Bill Gates Hates Children" poster was lifted from Rudd-O,
which grants a
GNU GPL license ....

Bill Gates's view of Heaven

Please tell me this is a spoof, that the oligarchs infecting Arne's brain like earwigs* do not believe that this is what it's all about:

Bill Gates wants to dictate education in your town.
Bill Gates envisions the world above.

Why not just turn us all into hamsters?

*Yes, I know, earwigs do not really eat into your brain through your ears. What you might not know is that they don't really pinch much, and that they care for their young. Really....Which is more than I can say for Bill Gates, at least judging by the way he cares for my students.

The Habitrail photo is by JediLofty under Gnu license

"Mad science" is redundant

That's a Tesla coil. It makes lightning.

It was built by a friend of mine--here's where he talks about it. It's worth a read (or two).

We did some incredibly stupid things back in high school, and we still have all our digits (amazing) and no juvie records (also amazing).


Ms. Lehman was my high school chemistry teacher--she regularly made things gurgle, glow, boom, and smoke. She had a perpetually amazed look on her face, but maybe that was her perpetually scorched eyebrows. She loved chemistry.

We dabbled a lot in lab--not something openly encouraged, but if you had a clue of what you were testing (and not just randomly mixing chemicals), you could try it.

I wanted to make laughing gas--nitrous oxide. My chemistry was OK, but not great, and I figured I might generate some if I poured nitric acid on a penny. Something went wrong, or rather, matter behaved as matter will, and a billowing red-brown cloud of toxic fumes erupted from the flask. Pennies are not just copper, maybe I misread the metal reactivity table, who knows....

I had enough sense to get it under the fume hood. I did not get expelled.

While I still light things on fire in class, I don't ignite hydrogen bubbles. I don't (intentionally) blow things up. I don't keep snakes in the class, nor spiders, or anything else that might prove upsetting. No potassium dropped in water. No microwave plasma balls.

Heck, I went through a whole year in class without leaving a stain on the ceiling.


Would you try this in class? (I'd modify it, of course--the lack of safety goggles is appalling, and why use your mouth when a squeeze bulb would do.)

As my class leaves on Fridays, I dismiss them with a question.

What do we practice? Safe science!

But if real science about teasing the unknown, can it be truly safe? Will any of my students be building lightning boxes in their garages when their in their 50's?

A confession: Ms. Lehman was absent the day I made NO2--she wasn't stupid.
She did take into account my explanation, though, and
while she officially chastised me, I think I saw her wink when she did....

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Get a horse!

Slide rules still work.

There are good reasons to prefer calculators to slide rules if you're using the tools for production. I get that. There are good reasons to prefer cars to horses if you're using them for transportation, or word processors to pencils if writing a novel. Pencils and horses and slide rules all still work, as good as ever.

Why on Earth would a child use a slide rule?

They're too hard!
No, but they do require some more work, some number sense, on the part of the student. You cannot use a slide rule well if you do not what numbers mean. And many of my students do not.

Slide rules force the user to approximate numbers, to grasp significant figures, to sense numbers.

They're not accurate!
Well, um, yes, they are. Perhaps not as precise, but precise enough to get folks across the ocean in jet planes.

Calculators give shiny numbers with all kinds of digits--the answers look smart and sophisticated.

2 divided by 7 is 0.2857142, according to my calculator, 0.29 according to my slide rule, or more accurately (if not more precisely) 0.3 if I give a fig about sig figs.

With calculators, kids do not get that "2.000" means something different than "2." They might not get that with a slide rule, either, but there's no place to hide.

They need to know how to use calculators "in real life."
How long, really, does it take to master the functions available on a calculator? Functions that look impressive, but are incomprehensible to most students I work with.

(Yes, I know they can "do" problems with them, but with enough time and enough treats, I could teach a pigeon to punch in the right steps...)

I truly believe calculators should be banned in public school. Let children use abaci in elementary school, then slide rules in high school.

Obviously a child who needs to use the tool should be allowed to use it.
Just don't pretend any real understanding is happening.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Coffee, slide rules, and educated children

What matters?

If a child had true control over her education, and she truly understood what matters, would she sit in my class?

Ah, yes, interesting question, but it is our job as
the wise teachers to help her understand what matters....

Do we? Would you risk your livelihood by doing what's in the best interest of our children?

Of course, we're professionals, we are advocates,
can you not hear our self-righteous chest-beating?

Do you proctor state tests you noisily condemn in the faculty lounge?

Ah, well, yes, I see your point, but that's really out of our hands.

What would a well-educated, thinking young adult look like in my classroom?
Would I recognize her?

Ah, yes, the problem child, the one in black
reading Dante's Inferno, not even pretending to hide the book.

I once told a bright, fascinating student reading an interesting book that she needed to learn to be more discrete in the classroom.

Are we creating the kinds of adults we need to create?

Kids start drinking coffee in high school.
We don't use slide rules anymore, we use far more powerful tools.
What are we doing?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Eye to eye

I was eye to eye with a clear nose skate yesterday. I was disappointed it was not a fluke, but the skate's distress outweighed mine.

Its rough skin brushed against my hand I as unhooked it, apparently no worse for the wear, but the skate's starry, unblinking eyes continue to haunt me.

Look at the picture. We share a planet, but not a universe.


Last night we paddled under a fading evening sky--the water was flat, and the dusk dissolved the division between air and water.

Thousands of jellies floated around us, like clouds under our kayaks, now sailing on air. The undulating bells spoke to purpose, their herd spoke to community.

We stared at their beauty, but know nothing of them, and they know nothing of us.
We share a planet, but not a universe.

The skate eyes photo is courtesy of Dr. Mark Terasaki, used with permission.
He has lots of great shots on his website.

Leslie took the other one--and part of the paddle is in the water--it really felt like flying....

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Know your place

I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof. Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?

Aldo Leopold, 1949

Sand County Almanac
I caught a few fluke today. I picked a few beans. I saw jellyfish under my paddle, black-backed gulls over it.

The yellowlegs are already heading south for the winter--the sun blazed today, but not quite as long as yesterday. The days are shortening.

And in September I'll have over a hundred kids who know nothing, who have been trained to know nothing, and most will know nothing when they leave.
They take biology because the state says they must, if they plan to graduate.
They take biology because that's what follows physical science.
They take biology because it's what sophomores are expected to do.

I teach biology because I, even (or especially) as I age, marveling more each moment I breathe. I am drunk in July with sunshine and sea water, staggering around the garden in the late hot sun, trying to see every creature I can see.

I have never regretted a minute under the open sky. (Oh, I've regretted stepping on bees, getting caught in storms, swimming through jellyfish, but never being outside.) You cannot teach biology under fluorescent lights.

What am I doing? What are any of us doing?

That's Leslie a couple of evenings ago--we play a lot on the bay.
We all need to play. even high school sophomores.
Especially high school sophomores.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Throw away your cell phone

What's a cell phone cost these days? With messaging, $60/month? That's over $700/year--about $1000 of my wages when you factor in taxes, SSI, etc.

But that's not the true cost.

  • One of the saddest things to see is a mother walking a toddler while she jabbers on the phone. She's not there. And a child learns how much his presence is worth.
  • The most dangerous thing in most children's lives is the automobile. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "using a cell phone use while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent."
  • There is weak evidence that cell phones may be associated with cancer--not enough in itself to make most rational folks hang it up (or whatever one does with a cell phone), but the numbers warrant attention.
  • Bees may be affected by the cell phone signals--a recent study in India got a lot of coverage but it was a rather limited study. Go ahead, read it. I double dog dare you.
  • The Feds can track you--the current administration is pushing for "warrantless tracking"--it's in the courts now. The technology is already there.

OK, Mr. Luddite, what do you do in an emergency?

Well, in the olden days, I carried a quarter for pay phones--remember those? Now I ask *gasp* strangers for help.

I'll take my money and go squander it on something really important--maybe I'll buy myself a new spinning wheel.

When you see me walking down the beach, lost in the world around me, just leave a message at the beep. I'll get to you when I get to you.

The image is from MobileCommandos--no idea where they got it.

Bicycles are killing the planet!

Here's a problem I've posed to my students a few times:
I like to ride my bicycle, just for the sheer joy of it. I burn a lot of calories doing it. Where does the energy come from?
Well, um, food, no?

Very good! How does the energy stored in food get converted to my feet pushing the pedals.

Longish discussion with some hair-pulling and tongue-clicking, but we eventually slosh our way through cellular respiration and oxygen and mitochondria and all the trivia you need to master to get past your sophomore year in high school.

What happens to the food? Where does it go? (If you're lost, breathe on your hand....)
Again, some trepidation, but we get there: CO2 and water?

Excellent! Every time I ride my bike to school, I'm spewing off CO2--am I contributing to global warming?

Silence. The short ("obvious") answer is yes, but my lambs have learned this much--the short "obvious" answers are rarely so.
It's a different kind of CO2?
No, I tell them, it's exactly the same...and it is.


John Tierney flaunted his twisted knickers in The New York Times a couple of years ago--it's a fun column to read, despite his usual smugness--but he misses a fundamental point. While CO2 is CO2 is CO2, the source of the CO2 matters.

The source of our CO2 is, of course, food, and for most of us in the States, our food uses a lot of fossil fuel to make, especially meats.

Michael Bluejay bikes. A lot. He also thinks. A lot. He's developed a Bike vs. Walk vs. Drive calculator that allows you to enter all kinds of data to find you transportation carbon footprint.

Assuming I'm a regular American, the amount of fossil fuels used for the food that fuels my biking (190# at 12 mph) matches that of our Civic: a 3 mile trip uses about 9 ounces of petroleum for either trip.

And the news for eco-fanatics gets worse--I release 20% more CO2 than my car does over the same distance!

The big difference, of course, is that jamming a McDonald's milkshake into the gas tank of a car will not work--cars need fossil fuels, releasing carbon dioxide that has been trapped for millions upon millions of years back into the atmosphere.

And in early summer, I'm not a regular American--when I eat homegrown tomatoes and hand-raked clams, nibbling wild cherries and mulberries, my food bill approaches 0 gallons of fossil fuels.

I bike without a care, no matter what Mr. Tierney's smugness level is.

I am an admitted tree-huggin--squirrel-kissin' ecofanatic.
I do not, however, weigh only 190 pounds--I need to lose about 14 to get there again.

I really don't like John Tierney, or anyone else who's smart enough to get it,
but would rather sell a half-truth for his own gain than seek truth .

The old bike drawing is from Victoriana.

CO2 model from Wikimedia commons--by Jacek FH

Sunday, July 4, 2010

6th Great Extinction? (Don't scare the kids....)

What do you teach a young adolescent? How much of the truth do you dare bare?

We are in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction. Technology got us here, and I have my doubts it will get us out.

I have faith in life--creatures live in the deepest depths of the oceans, in scalding hot springs, deep within the Earth's crusts will survive whatever we might do in the next few generations.

I have faith in the sun--it will continue to beam on us for a good few more billion years.

I have faith in love--not that it will save us, but that we're redeemable, all of us.

I do not, however, have faith that the current culture has any inclination towards self-preservation. A bumper sticker on a Prius will not save us, no matter how near zero its emissions may be.

And here on the Fourth of July, in a land blessed with water and soil and a temperate climate, on a day marking the signing of the Declaration of Independence, most of us would starve to death without some sort of cash flow.

The man credited with writing the Declaration of Independence also wrote these words:

The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed... It is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785

What do you suppose he would say in my classroom today? In your classroom?

Photo from Poplicks here.

Throw away your power mower

In 19 years of practice as a plastic surgeon and microsurgeon, some of the most devastating and disabling injuries I've treated are from lawn mower accidents. It's especially concerning when children are injured since most of these injuries are preventable.
(Disclaimer: yes, I know even manual reel mowers can cause injuries--
I managed to tear up a thumb pretty good last year--but my thumb is as good as new.
I sliced it up again yesterday while cutting a hose.)

200,000 or so Americans are injured by lawn mowers each year, and over 80,000 end up at the hospital.

Lawns are an aristocratic English tradition. We signed the Declaration of Independence on this day 234 years ago, independence from the British and their obsession with mono-cultural pre-pubescent grasslands.

Ironically, the American Garden Club, no doubt run by British agents, promoted this unhealthy practice: "a plot with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green and neatly edged." The Doyle Garden Club pulled out another chunk of front lawn this week.

A gasoline powered mower is loud, dirty, and dangerous. It costs money to run. It stinks.

A manual reel mower is quieter, cuts better, produces finer mulch, and is much less likely to maim you.

Better yet, screw the aristocrats, and plant a garden. A real garden full of odd, sexually active plants sprawling all over the place. If your neighbor raises an eyebrow, give him a fresh Brandywine tomato, If that doesn't placate him, give him a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Time to go pursue some Happiness....

Painting by Fernand Khnopff, 1889, found at The Victorian Web.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Throw away your iron

You just saved a bundle of time tossing your television. Why not toss the iron along with it?
Here's an iron--it uses 1700 watts.What's a watt? A watt is a rate of doing work, which, I'd imagine, doesn't help much. Even less helpful is telling you it's a joule per second.

We could talk horsepower, I suppose--a few problems:
  • The definition varies
  • And who has any idea how powerful horses are anymore?
Let's say 1 horsepower=550 pounds one foot in one second; let's round it to lifting 1 ton up one foot in just under 4 seconds.

One horsepower translates into about 750 watts--the iron above is greater than 2 horsepower. That iron has enough power to lift a ton up 1 foot in less than 2 seconds.

Where does your power come from?
Your ironing requires a dammed river.
Your ironing requires a waste disposal site that will last beyond western civilization.
Your ironing strips away mountaintops.
For what?
To eliminate wrinkles. So you look presentable.

Toss it.