Friday, December 31, 2010

Napkin ed

If you cannot teach someone with no more than a napkin and a pen, or less, you should not teach.

A few reasons why the napkin and pen (or beach and a stick) method is superior to anything that requires electricity:

  • The nature of napkin ed requires one to one teaching. Both the teacher and the student are exposed, limits of knowledge tested. As uncomfortable as this may be, it's the heart of education--the ledge of ignorance for both the student and the teacher is an integral part of the process.

  • It's cheaper. I like cheap. Cheap! Cheap! Cheap! I'm not blowing off mountaintops, damming rivers, or splitting atoms.

  • Any drawing used requires intimate knowledge by the teacher. Hand-made drawings matter more than any fancy illustration you can toss up on a Smartboard. The value of the process of etching a drawing live, with the student watching, cannot be overstated. It's not an easy thing to do without an exquisite knowledge of the point you are making. Electric palettes cover a lot of ignorance. (Darwin's On the Origin of Species had one illustration, a crude, hand-drawn picture of a branching "Tree of Life.")

Most of us doing this gig for any length of time can wow our young charges with flashing lights. We are performers, entertainers, dragging bored children through curricula they see as pointless.

So long as our job is to instill a common cultural litany, well, high tech pizazz works just dandy.

If you want to teach a child how to think, though, be careful with the new tools. If you are letting an electronic third party make a point in your classroom, and it does a better job than you can, well, draw your own conclusion.

You can do better. It might take time, it might require more work, it might even cause you to burst out in tears now and again.

You wanted to be a teacher, no?

The first drawing above is by Francis Crick, a doodle of his impression of DNA, a concept he shared with his pub brethren.

The second is by Darwin.
Ironically, neither is likely to be featured in a high school science class.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Late December on the beach

A late December walk on the beach, feet exposed to sand and snow and sea, fixes just about anything.

I found a live pipefish on the edge of the sea today. I tossed the writhing critter back into the surf, saw its silhouette in a wave just before it broke, swimming along the surface, then saw it no more.

Every walk on the beach is different, every walk reveals something new, every walk renews the human animal that houses my mind, that is my mind.

There is nothing abstract about a tiny fish tossed at your feet on a December beach. No truths to be revealed, no alliances to build, no money spent.

Just a fish on the wet sand, now cupped in my hands, now swimming in the crystal green crest of a wave highlighted by a late December sun, then nothing.

I have never seen a bored child by the ocean's edge.

How do I bring that back to class?

Both pictures ours, taken today, the shell on the Atlantic, the setting sun on the Delaware Bay.

The real war on Christmas

I don't care if folks at Target say "Merry Christmas" and those at Home Depot say "Happy Holidays." I love the returning light, however it is celebrated, and anyone who ties The Christ to merchants' manners needs to go poke his head back into the Gospels.

Heck, if we got back to our New England's Puritan roots, publicly celebrating Christmas would be outlawed. No nativity scenes. No Santas. No merrie.

One enthusiastic English 17th century vicar, "Blue Di
ck" Culmer, "climbed up to the stained glass windows in the Martyrdom [of the Canterbury Cathedral]and smashed the stained glass windows with a pikestaff," part of his duties to eradicate the church "of all monuments of superstition."

Meanwhile, when no one was looking, long before the Puritans polluted our shores, a couple of dead Roman Emperors gone done slipped their names into the calendar. Julius believed he was a demi-god, and now we celebrate him in July. Augustus was accorded the same honor, but his month, Sextillis, was a day short of Julius', so a day was stolen from February.

We continue to worship Mars, Juno, Janus and Maia without a peep from Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly.

Meanwhile the real war on Christmas, and every other day, continues thousands of miles away, with our young men and women serving in a war few of us understand. Cpl. Tevan L. Nguyen was killed in combat Tuesday, one of 498 American soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year.

And what does any of this have to do with teaching? Maybe very little.

We can use Google Earth to study the terrain of Helmand province where Cpl. Nguyen was felled. We can search online databases and follow the body counts. We can use YouTube to see the damage done by IED's.

Or maybe everything. Maybe grasping what matters is the heart of what matters. Maybe a Walmart greeter's choice of words, dictated by his employer, carefully chosen through market research, matters less than knowing how hard and cold the ground felt under Corporal Nguyen's face, a man who died for us this week, 21 years old.

Cpl. Nguyen graduated with the Class of 2007 Hutto Hippos, ran track, part of a 4 x 100 meter relay team that took 3rd place in the 2006 Texas State Regional Qualifiers Meet. Here's more about him here:

Tevan's life, for most of us who even hear about him, can be summed up as a casualty, a moving but ultimately abstract tribute to abstract ideals.
Corporal Tevan Nguyen was a brave Marine who gave his life in service to our country. Maria and I were deeply saddened to learn of his death and we will forever be grateful for his sacrifice.

Tevan, for those who knew him, leaves a huge hole in their hearts, because he was real.

We keep our amygdalas raging about how the Giants are doing, about who says "Merry Christmas," about Justin Bieber's newest haircut.

It's evening in Afghanistan now. A gentle breeze from the southwest chills a soldier's face in Kabul, as she gazes up a Jupiter through the haze. She's not thinking about the astract--she's thinking about home.

Information on Richard Culmer from P. Blanche here.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

An American rant

In that land the great experiment was to be made, by civilized man, of the attempt to construct society upon a new basis; and it was there, for the first time, that theories hitherto unknown, or deemed impracticable, were to exhibit a spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1821

What is my role as a teacher?

Let's lay it on the table:

I don't give a rodent's orifice what your child grows up "to be"--I got her in front of me every day now, a human being, one who lives now, a good lesson to be learned by all of us.
I would like her to be happy, of course, but that's not my charge. I am charged with helping your child learn how to think in a Peter Pan culture. A functioning republic depends on it.

I don't give a rodent's orifice what your child's potential earnings will be, beyond her ability to reasonably clothe, feed, and house her clan.
Bigger forces than public education are conspiring against her. Just look at the distribution of wealth the past decade or two. I am charged with helping her understand the myriad ways science and technology affect her, and her children, and her children's children.

I don't give a rodent's orifice what her test scores are beyond getting her through graduation requirements.
I do care about what she understands, and how she gets there. If she runs off with John Travolta and I see her expounding on the benefits of Scientology on the local news, well, I failed. I suspect even a decent score on her SATs won't make her less immune to that kind of nonsense.

I don't give a rodent's orifice what your or your daughter's politics are.
I do care that she can sort out various sources of information, critically analyze data, and make reasoned conclusions based on thinking. She should save exercising her amygdala for NFL football and such.

I don't give a rodent's orifice about how your child tests against a child in China or Singapore or Great Britain or The Antilles.
I do hope she can find China on a map, that she grasps enough economics to make reasonable choices when she shops, and that she has a sense of how large (or small) Earth is.

I am an American public school teacher. We are teetering on the edge of failure of the greatest social experiment known to Western culture. We sit on fabulously fertile ground, in a moderate climate, with plenty of water and sunshine, and we judge wealth by how much we earn in cash.

I have no problem if your child should grow up to be a ridiculously rich derivatives trader on Wall Street, so long as she does so deliberately, and so long as she continues to support this American experiment.

I also have no problem if she grows up to be a park ranger, a casino dealer, a greeter, a plumber, a salesperson, or anything else that lets her live her life, contribute to our community, even pursue happiness.

Oh, and maybe remember the equation for photosynthesis along the way....

Altars of unhewn stone

Late December, slanted sunlight, frozen beach.

The edge of the bay is slush now, uncountable crystals reflecting the low sunlight with each wave. Three months ago we were swimming here. Now we climb the frozen ridges defining the edge of the sea.

We walked a couple of miles along the edge of ice, Leslie and I, poking around for seals (we saw none), ghost crab holes (we saw a few), and for light. Back home last summer's tomatoes thawed on the counter, tonight's dinner.

When we got back, I plucked a few Brussels sprouts to go with the tomatoes, maybe the last fresh meal we get until May now.


I'm sipping some peach melomel, brewed last summer, made from local peaches and honey by yeast I bought at a store. Next week I will be teaching my students about NADH, and fermentation, and ethanol, but we won't, of course, be sipping melomel.

We teach science backwards--here are the rules, now go make the experimental data fit them.

When we worship the monitor, the digital, the binary, we will lose sight of what matters.

I think I can teach. I can get kids to bubble the right answers to our state test, I can get kids to parrot the Krebs and the Calvin cycles, I can pacify a couple dozen adolescents with procedures and stories, I can run a classroom.

I went to school yesterday to water the plants.

In our tiny garden in the back of the classroom grow basil and peas and squash and dill. While watering the plants, I saw the golden shoulder of a carrot as it poked through its peat.

On Monday, I will show the children the carrot, and a few of them will be mesmerized by it--bright golden orange erupting from brown peat. Most have never grown anything. It's a powerful thing, growing food.

There's a pot of basil growing as well--tiny black seeds now bright green leaves with an impossibly rich basil aroma, arising from the earth born of our breath. I've been growing things for decades, and each and every plant still amazes me.

Wes Jackson is a biologist, and a good one. He is also a gifted writer.

I lifted the blog title from one of his books, Altars of Unhewn Stone. After Moses came down from the mountain with the commandments, he was to build an altar made of uncut stone--if any human attempted to shape it, it would be "polluted."

Our monitors have become our man-made altars, whole worlds created and maintained by humans. We risk losing our imaginations by limiting them to what we ourselves can produce.

Walking on a 3 foot frozen ledge over a sea that is rising, as it does twice a day, with the sun dancing in a million directions on the liquid icy waves, cannot be conveyed in words.
It cannot be conveyed in pictures.
It cannot be conveyed by sound.

I am inside now, warm, drunk with words, feeling cleverer than clever, while the ghost crab sits in its winter hole, waiting for the tide to rise, so it can soak its gills once again, long enough to stay alive until the next tide returns.

I teach by telling stories of NADH and cytochromes and ATP and DNA, all of which matter, at some level, in some human space.

They do not (and should not) matter to a young human who has never planted a seed, who has never slaughtered a lamb, who has never felt part of this whole whatever it is we are part of.

To speak of altars of unhewn stone makes no sense to a culture feasting on Justin Bieber and Oprah and the NFL, no more sense than speaking of NADH and ATP.

So here's the deal. Put up with the state's biology curriculum, and I will show you a few things your grandparents knew before they were in kindergarten: plants come from seeds, meat comes from animals, life moves in cycles, everything worth anything comes from the ground, and none of this is truly comprehensible.

Or maybe I'm just too simple to grasp how a golden carrot erupts from nothing more substantial than a seed and our breath.

Pictures taken today.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The fire within

I warmed myself up tonight, shoveling snow off a patch of concrete. Orion, lying awkwardly on his back, shivered above as he aimed his bow at Taurus snorting high in the southeastern sky. On my way back in, I grabbed a handful of Brussels sprouts, plucked off the plant now surrounded by snow.

Winter is here, as good a reason as any to talk about our inner fire.


I love blasting my propane torch, flashing flame on steel faucets, a blush of condensation dulling the metal, water from fire. (Yep, a lit propane torch emits water--go ahead, check for yourself.)

Electrons trapped in high energy states tumble into the welcoming arms of oxygen, screaming with delight, releasing light and heat as they settle into their pajamas, ready for rest.

Yes, of course, I broke a few rules there. And, yes, of course, it's not quite accurate.

It's closer than you might realize.


Our cells need oxygen gas for one reason only--to accept electrons released from food as they travel down their energy gradients, settling into basal states of energy.

The oxygen accept the electrons (and associated protons) to form water. This happens in the innermost regions of our mitochondria, ancient critters subsumed by our forbears.

When you get down to it, we really don't need oxygen at all. Our mitochondrial slaves need it. If a cell doesn't have mitochondria, it has no need for oxygen.

Our red blood cells, designed to carry oxygen, use none of it themselves. They have no mitochondria, no need for oxygen. That's why you can keep RBC's packed in plastic bags waiting to be transfused.

Mitochondria are organelles, membrane wrapped particles in your cells that help convert food into a useful form of energy called ATP. Think of ATP as cash energy--no matter where you need a shot of energy in a cell, ATP can provide it.

(ATP works by adding instability to compounds--it's like when your crazy Aunt Margarita crashes onto the Thanksgiving table. Things are going to happen.....)

Mitochondria have their own DNA, most closely related to bacteria than to you. They reproduce on their own. They are an ancient life form that have been coexisting with larger cells for a long, long time.

This is so freaky I don't think it registers with most of my students. Mitochondria allow us to "burn" food down to carbon dioxide and water, releasing the energy caught by chloroplasts in plants.

What is fire? What happens to the fuel, to the oxygen?

Most adults here cannot answer this question, and it's pointless if your goal is to make money or get the girl or glom power.

Children love the question, and I doubt most ever get a decent answer. Heck, I know my students don't.

We teach chemistry as if it was handed down by Moses himself, the 10 Commandments in one hand, the Periodic Table of Elements in the other. I show them over and over and over again that water comes from a flame, and few can remember this two minutes after the demo is done.


Oxygen gas gets to your mitochondria by bouncing randomly around the inside of a cell. Since most of our cells burn a lot of food, their oxygen concentration is low relative to the fluid bathing them.

Just as fart molecules bumble their way across the room to embarrass their producer, oxygen molecules bounce around inside cells until they wander into a mitochondrion.

Red blood cells carry the oxygen molecules through our vessels, and they get dumped off where the oxygen concentration is lowest, needed only by the mitochondria, to produce the ATP needed to keep us alive.

This all happens very, very fast.

How fast? Cyanide blocks electrons from reaching oxygen inside the mitochondria. killing within minutes.

No oxygen, no fire, no life.

I have felt bodies quickly cool moments after death, no longer warmed by the trillions of mitochondrial furnaces within.

The shot of Orion is by John Gauvreau found at NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day."

Mitochondrion photo from Allen L. Bell, Ph.D, UNE COM here.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"Like confessing a murder"

At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.


Gallup poll, December, 2010

40% of Americans believe that God created humans "pretty much in their present form at one time" within the last 10,000 years.

As in 4 out of 10.

Another 38%, again about 4 in 10, agreed that "human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process."


The sheer terror Darwin faced when he developed his theory was not that God did not exist, but that He did not need to, at least not to explain human beings.

From a science standpoint, a guiding hand is not needed once life starts. (How life started remains, of course, a mystery.)

There is comfort in rejecting Darwin's conclusions, as there is comfort in good whiskey and Harry Potter stories.

When I teach biology well, I alter worlds, and wake children to the terrible and wonderful beauty that lies beyond human imagination.

I hope to help children become rational adults. It's why I teach.

I am not sure some of us who support Darwin's ideas grasp the profound way they shake a child's universe.

Like confessing a murder indeed....

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Walls matter

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast

Robert Frost, from "Mending Wall"

We are teachers. We focus on what it means to teach, to learn, at the risk of missing our larger work.

We break minds, crush idols, destroy worlds. We push children into a cloud of vulnerable veracity. To build new ideas, to create humans capable of their own thought, to teach, requires a tremendous faith in both our students and ourselves. We had better know what we are doing.

We risk indoctrination, though some of us find that acceptable.
We risk blurring borders, and even more of us find that acceptable.

A healthy child lives in at least three distinct worlds: home, school, and social. Integrating the three requires maturity and wisdom. Children need to recognize the boundaries before they can test them.

The rush to make school 24/7, to make "knowledge" instantly accessible, breaks down boundaries. Cell phones create electronic leashes. Social media blur social lines. The edublogging world (mostly) cheers the dismantling of walls.


Walls matter.

A good teacher occasionally leaves a child extremely vulnerable to manipulation, particularly at the moment of true learning, a potentially dangerous intimacy if no boundaries are set.

There are reasons for walls, even (or maybe especially) when we forget why.

Preaching boundaries between children and adults does not make me a Luddite, nor should it imply that I think teachers are potential molesters.

That teachers will use private sites such as Facebook that flash ads, mine data, and exist for profit because it's convenient exposes our ignorance of duty, an old-fashioned word.

The farmer in Frost's poem "The Mending Wall" twice mutters Good fences make good neighbors. He is portrayed narrowly by the narrator (though I suspect less so by Frost):

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~

There's more going on in that old farmer's culture than the narrator knows--Frost plays with the reader's quick judgment.

Too many of us in love with the narrow electronic world we have created fail to see the value of ancient walls derived through a cultural wisdom we're slow to understand.

The old farmer's response deserves to be dismissed, of course--doing things a certain way just because they have been done that way does not deserve a response.

Still, the wall was built for a reason, even when those of us maintaining them have long forgotten why. Its existence alone is not reason for its destruction.

Child leash photo from

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A science teacher's gift guide for the larvae in your life

I'm a retired pediatrician, a high school teacher, and a Dad. I'm on the short side of this mortal coil thing now. I ignored decent advice when younger, and I expect you'll do the same. Still, it's a chilly late December eve, and I'm in the mood to pontificate.

Stuff you should get your kids before they sprout pubic hairs:


A cheap instrument that is easy to noodle:
Harmonica, kalimba, maybe an ocarina. While mastery of a fancy instrument gets you glory and a better shot at a decent college, being able to bend notes on a mouth harp will give anyone about as much joy as she can handle.

Cheap joy's hard to beat.

A $2 magnifying glass changes the world. Microscopes are clunky, require prep, and can freak out any child who's paying attention. A decent loupe gives a child just enough new stuff to stimulate the mind without careening into existentialism.

The Kids' Paper Airplane Book let's your child build 16 paper airplanes. Or get grandpa to show her how it's done. Flight fascinates even the cynical among us.

Get a book on origami. Few of us use our hands for anything more useful than banging on a keyboard. Let your child experience the joy of human evolution--fingers were made for folding.

A garden:

Plant a basil seed in a Dixie cup. Put a carrot top in a bowl on a windowsill. Scatter wheat berries on a vacant lot.

Maybe, just maybe, your child will grasp that a farmer matters more than a financial analyst (or even a teacher).

An instrument of death:
Every child who eats critters should slaughter at least one before they get too cynical to fully appreciate the sacrifice made by the animal he eats. There is an instant just before the moment of slaughter that hangs frozen forever.

I don't like to kill. I like to eat.The connection matters.


Both kinds. 'Nuff said.

Maybe the best gift you can give is one that takes away. Destroy her television, disable his X-box, toss the iPad into the fireplace.

Share your stories, share your time. Trust what you know to be true. None of us get out of here alive.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Yuletide daphnia

There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

Jane Kenyon, from "Happiness"


My glass kettle of pond water sits on the windowsill, where it has for years. Were I an empiricist, I'd have deduced years ago that life springs spontaneously from water and light. Thankfully, I'm a 21st century mythologist, and glibly accept what others tell me.

It's the secret to success in my field.

It's easy to get cranky during Christmas. We have words, which tailor our memories, and our culture focuses on what we don't. Our economy depends on this.

We run and run and run and run and run, chasing what?

If we cannot grasp the cycles at the solstice, we are lost.
If we cannot feel the daylight shift, shadows changing, we are lost.
If we cannot take the time to share our stories with our families, with others, we are lost.

I saw an exuberant daphnia swim as the setting sun shed a ray through the tank. I waited a minute, then another. Another daphnia.

In a week or two, I may have hundreds, or thousands.


Daphnia can reproduce without sex. When life's fine, the females can clone themselves in a reproductive frenzy.

When things get a little tougher, the males appear. Sex begets variety. When things are good again, the males die out. Males are more trouble than they're worth when things are good.

This all happens in a 5 gallon tank that's been sitting on my sill for years.

I don't know what kind of lessons this teaches, but it does make Wall Street seem a bit silly.


I teach for a lot of reasons, and many of them are important, I think hope, but the primary reason I teach is pure selfishness.

How much time do you spend with young adults?

They're energetic, bright, skeptical, bundles of joy. That they continue to come to school, every day, no matter what nonsense awaits them, speaks to their optimism.

I'm no Pollyanna. Pediatrics teaches even the giddiest docs that much of life is phenomenally unfair. You try pumping adriamycin, big red, into the veins of a child, knowing you're destroying much of a child in hopes of destroying all of a tumor. I know what it is to kill hope. I left medicine, but the shadows of dead and dying children have not left me.

Still, my students skirt around ideas like daphnia in the solstice sunlight.

None of us knows why we like to dance anymore than the daphnia I watch jitterbugging in the dusk's light. Few of us dare ask. Fewer dare dance.

Humans have celebrated the return of the light for thousands of years.

Take a few moments to watch a starling, a squirrel, a sparrow, a daphnia. We share the same chemistry, the same dependence on light, and (I suspect) the same joy. Let the lights and the music and the joy wash over you.

Happy First Day of Winter. Merry Yule! The crocuses will be breaking through the earth in two months.

Until then, I'll share my joy with the daphnia and anything else that has a beating heart.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

6:38 P.M.

6:38 P.M. here--the sun stood still, shifted its mass*, and headed back north.

6 months ago, when we sat on the opposite side of the sun, I celebrated the summer solstice, a joy tinged with the weight of knowing the sun would start its slow, long course southward.

Winter is only hours old, and winters can be brutal here. The light, however is returning.

When I was a child, winter meant cold, summer heat. I did not, could not, grasp why the elders got so excited late December, at the cusp of winter, when we faced long wintry days.

I get it now.

I stood outside last night in the chill with my youngest, now a quarter century old, watching our shadow drift across the moon, a wavering copper-gold washing in from the moon's left.

My mom used to tell me she could see me as an infant even as I stood before her as a man. I laughed, of course. I am big--over 200# big.

I get it now.

I still give tests, more out of habit than sense now. Performance on science tests a few days before the Christmas break follow a predictable pattern, and my students did not fail to fail.

We do a lot of things because we do them. If mastery's the goal, then a class average of low 70's with a bell-shaped curve, a science teacher's dream a generation ago, marks my failure.

On my board today two-foot numbers announced the time of the solstice--6:38 P.M. Solstice literally means the sun stands still.

Very few students notice how far the sun has shifted since class started just 3 1/2 months ago. There's no need. Food comes in boxes, heat in radiators. The whole world of technique is magic to them.

In Ireland this morning, the sun rose, as it has, as it will. A shaft of sunlight flashed through a chamber in Newgrange built thousands of years ago, before the Great Pyramids, before the Celts arrived, before Stone Henge.

We will not study this in science, nor will our students study this in history class. We will create a class ready for the 21st century, for the abstract, for a culture that confuses bank profits with economy.

If children owned the winter solstice, the dying light, knowing what waits for each of us before a 100 winter solstices pass, would they come to school?

Would you?

I believe schools can be worth the time children invest in them. I am not convinced we're there yet.

At least not as long as I keep practicing education as religion, using a script written generations before me.

*The sun may indeed change direction if we use Earth as the reference point, but "shifted its mass" is, of course, incorrect, since it implies uneven forces were applied to it. Since I have yet to find a better explanation for "mass" beyond "the amount of inertia stuff has," even a poetic license does not give me permission to spew such nonsense.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Quahogs in winter

The water is cool now, 42° F.

I sit in my warm home, the Christmas tree lit, with various sea ornaments hung from the balsam tree. Sharks, shells, crabby crustaceans, dolphins, and even penguins swim through the fir green branches

Outside my quahogs sit in Richardson Sound, dormant now, waiting for the sun to return, to warm up the shallow waters that feed the back bay mud.

Last week I cast into a strong breeze, the waves crashing on the beach, the foam rising to my feet.

One bump, no fish. The steel skies would have shamed El Greco with their beauty. The breakers glowed against the gray water. No one else was on the beach. No one.

The sand pipers skittered about my feet, ignoring my presence, glomming what few calories they could on the cold edge of the sea. A loon surfaced, glanced my way, then glooped back under the gray water.

The quahogs are home, as they will always be. A clam might move a few feet here, a few feet there, maybe an inch or two for every year of its long, long life.

We struggle against deadlines, we eat food from fields we cannot imagine, we drive using sunlight caught millions of years ago, and we race across time chasing time.

And my clams rest in the mud, eating, growing, being, in the dark mud inches below the cold bay floor.

One day I will eat my last quahog. The great mystery, one too nebulous to discuss in polite company, is this--why is there a last one?

Have I already eaten it?

Above is the Lady Mary, a local scallop boat that sank under mysterious circumstances March 24, 2009, killing 6 scallopers, possibly hit by a passing freighter. That's me just under the bow.

The Lady Mary now rests on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, 200 feet of water over her. Scallops still appear in the market, every day. The names of the fallen fishermen will be carved in the Fisherman's Memorial, overlooking the harbor, where they will join too many others.


Dinner tonight helps me claw through the winter dark. Pesto made from basil picked months ago, Brussels sprouts just picked last week.

I want to live like the clam, resting in the rich muddy bottom, eating by the grace of the sea, by the Grace of God. The tide rises, the tide falls--my faith straining every few hours as the whole sea slips away, twice a day.

Like the clam, I have faith the sun will rise tomorrow, as it has, and that I will be here to see it. Unlike the clam, though, I do not have the sense to slow down with the dying light.

The pictured quahogs were harvested in November, along with the tomatoes.
Leslie took the picture of the Lady Mary in port. The other was taken by Bradley Sheard, found in The Star-Ledger

The "i" in iPad does not stand for "infant"

In unadjusted and adjusted analyses, duration of media exposure at age 6 months was associated with lower cognitive development at age 14 months...and lower language development .... No significant associations were
seen with exposure to young child–oriented educational or noneducational content.

"She loved the animation and music right away and very quickly began to touch the screen and interact with the moving bees, bugs and cows."
[Mother of 8 month old.]

No, she's interacting with pixels on a flat screen. Really. I got a nice loupe you can borrow. Better yet, get your child one once she's old enough not to choke on it.

"Parents will believe, and correctly, that using an iPad will better prepare their children for the future than watching TV." [PC World, best place for parenting advice on the net!]

Um, yep. And milk is better than whiskey for the teething crowd.

"An iPad is an ideal kid pacifier."
An iPhone probably fits better, though.

"Children learn with their fingers."
[Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Software Review, pushing the iPad's appeal in discussion with Will Richardson--listen at 0:52.

The screen is flat, like the new world we're making for our children. Good Lord, they'll be marketing virtual mudpies while their parents sip virtual martinis with virtual friends.

I'm a retired pediatrician. I know a little bit about children. And it's not just me. The American Academy of Pediatrics made these recommendations back in 2001:

Pediatricians should recommend the following guidelines for parents:

  1. Limit children's total media time (with entertainment media) to no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality programming per day.

  2. Remove television sets from children's bedrooms.

  3. Discourage television viewing for children younger than 2 years, and encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, andreading together.

  4. Monitor the shows children and adolescents are viewing. Most programs should be informational, educational, and nonviolent.

  5. View television programs along with children, and discuss the content. Two recent surveys involving a total of nearly 1500 parents found that less than half of parents reported always watching television with their children.

  6. Use controversial programming as a stepping-off point to initiate discussions about family values, violence, sex and sexuality,and drugs.

  7. Use the videocassette recorder wisely to show or record high-quality, educational programming for children. Support efforts to establish comprehensive media-education programs in schools.

  8. Encourage alternative entertainment for children, including reading, athletics, hobbies, and creative play.

If you're going to pay for something more expensive than a set of blocks or a few lumps of clay, be a parent and make a reasonable effort to see if it will harm your child.

Good information is out there, once you get past the hucksters.

Photo of electrode baby by Eve Vagg, found on Live Science.

Photo of iPad baby from odeedoh here. Not sure who took the photo.

Embedding digital tech makes our children scientifically illiterate

A Crooke's radiometer measures sunlight intensity, which sounds all scary and scientificy, until you see one in action. It's simpler than a Talking Elmo.

The more intense the light, the faster the radiometer's vanes spin inside its glass bulb. It looks like a toy.

I keep one on the windowsill in our classroom. On sunny days in September, it spun so hard it rattled. In December's dying light, it moves like an elderly statesman--steadily, slowly, with a hint of what once was.

Sunlight is not abstract. The spinning radiometer is not abstract. Telling my lambs that the sun barely rose 25 degrees above the horizon is abstract. I can show them fancy solar data charts on the internet, teach them algorithms for interpreting the data, and get them to bark like trained seals.

We need the abstract. I get that. Focusing on the imaginary before children grasp the real, however, will create a generation of idiot savants.


Our children live in an abstract world. They bop along life with personalized song sets, immerse themselves in virtual worlds with personalized avatars.

We used to worry when kids held on to imaginary friends a bit too long. A toddler talking to a giant imaginary squid is cute; a 13 year old doing the same thing is disturbing.

Constructing the abstract is a special kind of imaginary thinking, but the abstract is still imaginary. If I describe my Christmas tree, a lovely balsam afflicted with minor scoliosis now covered with ornaments, some made by hand by my children years ago, I am talking about something real.

If I tell you that the average balsam sold in Bloomfield this year is 2.11 meters tall, weighs 20.3 kg, and has 533.7 branches, you might be able to imagine it in your head, but it does not exist. Anywhere.

Yet when we teach science, we focus on the imaginary average, often at the exclusion of looking at the bent-over balsam sitting in the room.

Using a machine that helps a child grasp the abstract version of a Christmas tree may improve test scores (though there's evidence that it won't); it cannot, however, help a child see the real tree.

There is a huge push to use "technology" in classrooms. By technology, I am assuming most folks mean the digitized high-tech expensive stuff, or else the discussion is just silly. All of us use some sort of technology in class, even if it's just paper and pencil.

The Innovative Educator blog is a fun read, with lots of good ideas. It has almost 1800 followers. It carries clout. A few days ago, Lisa Nielsen, The Innovative Educator, headlined her post:

Tech Doesn’t Make Us Illiterate.
Not Embedding it Into Instruction Does.

In it, she discusses reactions to The New York Times article discussing the failure of 1:1 computing in some schools, then reconstructs the false dichotomy tossed about in the ed tech world: tried-and-true old skool ("readin', ritin', rithmetic") vs. the visionary new big thing.

What gave me pause, however, is her suggestion that we turn classrooms into video games:
What would happen if rather than lament what our kids loved to do, we re-envisioned school. They love games. What if we stopped fighting it and the adults changed and started looking at School as Video Game?

Ms. Nielsen does not stand alone. I read similar words every few days, hers just happened to be the latest I stumbled upon.

What would happen?
Science in the classroom would die. Science requires contact with the physical, with the real. Until children know the ground under their feet, they cannot hope to grasp models.

I use plenty of technology in class: our Crooke's radiometer, our Drinky Bird, our Newton's Cradle, our classroom garden (hey, we even use fluorescent lights!), our prism, our aquaria filters...and on and on.

I agree with Ms. Nielsen that tech doesn't make us illiterate. Embedding digital technology into science too early, before our children get a decent handle on the physical world, does make our children scientifically illiterate.

It's why my class has an analog clock. It's why I threaten to smash calculators in class.

Do I use a computer? Yep. Sometimes I sip a good Oirish whiskey as I do so. Neither belongs in the hands of a child.

Radiometer pic by Nevit Dilmen, used under CC.

The cost of one laptop buys a lot of tangible science gadgets.
Bet a young student learns more science from a bag of magnets than from a puter. .

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Turns out Sue Ohanian beat me to the punch in her Outrages blog.

N.J. education czar nominee appeals to union, Dems
"...and is already being praised by educators."

I'm a registered Democrat.
I'm a card-carrying member of the NJEA.
I trip on the word "educator," but I think teaching science in a public high school qualifies me as one.

Governor Christie will nominate Christopher Cerf (alas, not the muppet music guy) as the next education chief here in Jersey.

Before we get all gooey with joy, let me speak for at least one Democratic unionized teacher here in Jersey. If the Ledger is right, and the union and Dems go gaga on this guy, I'm going to put my considerable union dues to good use, buying ale instead of politicians. I'll even share a pint or two with Bret Schundler, who always struck me as a decent and reasonable man even when I disagreed with him.

• Mr. Cerf was the President and Chief Operating Officer of Edison Schools, Inc., a for-profit corporate invasion of public space, for eight years! He led them through the years when their stock was publicly traded on NASDAQ. The Edison Schools, Inc., record speaks for itself.

• Mr. Cerf showed questionable judgment in 2008 when he sought a contribution from Edison Schools while he served as Deputy Schools Chancellor in New York City.

• Mr. Cerf was a partner in the Public Private Strategy Group, a company that claims on its site that PPSG "[led] the successful turnaround of over 100 underperforming public schools in major urban centers across the country." If you look for the evidence on the "Education" page of the website, you get a picture of flying mortarboards and the words "This section is currently under development."

• Mr. Cerf was trained by the Broad Urban Superintendents Academy, founded by Eli Broad, a real estate mogul, who believes that business executives can turn around failing schools through their extraordinary management skills. Broad has joined with master educators Bill and Melinda Gates, Arne Duncan, and Michelle Rhee to teach us slow-witted teacher folk how to do our jobs. Billionaires can influence policy, and they can influence the press. Still, take a good look at the numbers, then draw your own conclusions....

• Mr. Cerf served as senior policy advisor for Bloomberg's latest run as mayor.
“What has happened to schools under Mike Bloomberg is one of a kind,” Mr. Cerf said in an interview. “It really is a national model for reform.”
If juggling statistics to fudge perceived results is the kind of reform you want, you'll love Mike Bloomberg's plan.

None of these disqualify Cerf from the nomination. Heck, he's perfect for Christie. Cerf's tinfoil Democrat badge works in Christie's favor.

Still, if you value the public in public school, value democracy in Democratic values, value union in the NJEA, you should be frightened by Christie's choice. Especially if The Star-Ledger tells you everybody else thinks otherwise.

In a week that Democrats gave the super rich a huge tax break, I have no idea what "Democrat" means anymore....

Credit Sue Ohanian for digging out the article on Cerf's conflict of interest.

Image of Christie and Cerf from The Star-Ledger.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Top 10 Rants of 2010

1) Fluoride, an OK idea at best for protecting teeth, should not be dumped into the public water supply. Dumping hydrofluorosilicic acid, an industrial waste generated by the phosphate industry, into the water supply makes as much sense as putting rocket fuel in breast milk.

2) Vaccines, a great idea, should not be mandatory for school unless the disease it prevents is communicable in a school setting. Unless the students are involuntarily boffing in the hallways, Hepatitis B vaccine and Gardisil should not be mandatory. Not saying they're not a good idea--just saying they should not be mandatory.

3) College should be for expanding ideas, sharing thoughts, and learning. If you're going to college to get a job, well, don't look at the statistics. You'll only get depressed. If you're going to learn about snake poems, you're in luck. D.H. Lawrence's words haunt me still.

4) Bottled water, tainted by BPA and a ridiculous price tag, should be sought by the same people who seek Trinity Yachts and Sevruga caviar. Those of us who paddle and drink ale should just use tap water. Not only is it safer, it's a magnitude cheaper as well. And no, there is no (as in NO!) evidence that you need 8 glasses of water a day.

5) SMART Boards are fun, as are yo-yo's, and about as useful in a classroom. Once you get past the groovy factor, neither contributes much to thought. Invest your money in the poor man's white board instead. If you can't teach well using the back of a napkin, you can't teach well.

6) Walk. Really, just walk. Driving will get you killed.

7) Milk is for baby mammals. Cow's milk is for calves, human milk for infants. This should be glaringly obvious. That it's not is a testament the National Dairy Council's financial clout. Got Milk? should be replaced by Got a Brain?

8) Only an industrial society could think that developing a vaccine from a healthy aborted baby merits no debate. The rubella vaccine here in the States uses cell lines from abortuses. This is not the rant of a mad man, nor the rant of a frothing Catholic.

9) If your young child spends more time in front of monitors than at the family dinner table, you will get the child you deserve. Parenting is hard, but it matters. Get it right.

10) The designated hitter rule destroyed Major League Baseball.

The cow boob is from Natalie Dee, of course....

Runners up? Howard Gardner's intelligences,
BP's cleaning efforts, the NJEA, American Exceptionalism, unmanned drones,
the raised ceiling on estate taxes, and the striped bass' insistence on staying just off shore this fall. Really....

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas crank

Years ago a verbal scuffle broke out in the back of my classroom.
"Six days!"
"Seven days!"
The crux? How long it took G-d to create Earth. I calmed them down, and learning that each used King James as her source, suggested that they settle this by actually reading the Good Book instead of barking.

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

Mammals foolish enough to dance under electric lights go, well, bonkers. Much of my life exists outside of science, as it should. I come from a family that fed me the dominant mythology, a beautiful story that helps us get through these dark days. Other cultures have similar myths for similar reasons. The fading sun frightens us.

Our nation is careening towards cultural chaos as we blend the myths of American and Christian exceptionalism into a story that serves neither well.

I am a science teacher, but the words that follow are not science. They are, however, based on how the myths were constructed over generations, for good reasons.

The Christ was not born in the winter.

The Wise Men were not at the manger while The Christ was an infant.

The current version of Christianity is not in danger of extinction. It has the strength of the United States military behind it. Just ask the Afghans.

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

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

Christian privilege is real. Try greeting a TSA agent with "Assalaamu Alaikum."

OK, I'll get off my high horse now.

Yes, another repeat. But, Lord, I get tired of the "War Against Christmas" myth.

The illustration is by Tripod2282, found here at Uncyclopedia, released to the public. I think....

Monday, December 13, 2010

Uncle Arne Pennybags

But the findings, I'm sorry to report, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.
Arne Duncan

And I'm sorry to report that our knowledge economy--our bankers, masters of derivatives; our brokers, masters of the 30 millisecond trade; our mortgage lenders, masters of the liar loans; our MBA's, masters of the mega-mergers--is what got us into this mess.

We still grow a lot of corn, wheat and soybeans. We still have abundant sunshine, decent soil, and plenty of people willing to work.

We still have an aging infrastructure, plenty of iron ore and coal, and plenty of people willing to work.

We still have thousands of miles of coastline, sturdy boats, and plenty of people willing to harvest the grace of the sea.

The only things worth even a nickel in a true economy come from the earth. Water. Wheat. Lumber. Ore. Corn. Petroleum. Cotton. Wool. Soybeans.

The only things worth even a nickel in a true economy are tangible. You can hold them. They are not abstract.

Real gross domestic product--the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States--increased at an annual rate of 2.5 percent in the third quarter of 2010.

A lot of knowledge-based professionals made a lot of money the past few months extracting money from the "real gross domestic product," money made from the incredibly fruitful land under our feet here in the States.

The unemployment rate "edged up" to 9.8% in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fewer people working, more money made.

I live a few miles away from the Goethals Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, and Port Newark. No one pretends to hide the infrastructure in urban areas; the deterioration is obvious.

"More than a quarter of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Leaky pipes lose an estimated seven billion gallons of clean drinking water every day. And aging sewage systems send billions of gallons of untreated wastewater cascading into the nation’s waterways each year."

While those in power continue to siphon the goods of a growing economy, using fancy paper from fancy schools to lead fanciful lives, we keep telling the kids education matters because it will get you a good job.

Teaching a new generation of children how to take a piece of the pie they did not bake themselves will not make us stronger.

We do need children who can think, who can create, who can see the fallacies spewed by those now in charge by virtue of birth or connections or money.

A decent public education goes a long way to creating that kind of citizen. Education matters, even if Arne is confused as to why.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Science pr0n

No 8 year old in her right mind is curious about Neptune.
She does like to make Mommy happy, though.

If a young adult told you in class that she does not believe that the Earth revolves around the sun, what would you say?

Who's the better scientist, the child who accepts heliocentrism by the time she's out of elementary school, or the high school student who trusts her eyes over her teachers?

It's all relative, this motion thing, and, of course, heliocentrism works well for those who have the background to understand it.

But geocentrism works, too. It's just slightly more complicated.

The ancient Greeks could predict eclipses. As far as I know, none of my lambs can (yet):

A piece of science shatters each time child builds a model of our solar system while still in grade school. We are asking children to accept something beyond their comprehension on faith alone, surrounded with rites developed in school, rites that preclude thought.

Children have more evidence that Santa exists (cookies eaten, NORAD, and, of course, presents) than that the sun is the center of our world (pictures in books, balls on wires, and the teacher's word).

None of my students believes in Santa Claus anymore, but just about all of them believe the Earth revolves around the sun. Many of them also believe we never landed on the moon, that the world will end in 2012, and that evolution is bunk.

Because people of authority told them so.

Google "solar system science fair projects." You will find pictures of children, smiling with that I-made-an-adult-proud grin, standing next to their work. The projects are flash and glitter, science pr0n, rites of passage that reward children who bleat baaa.

My young student lives in the universe of Aristotle and Tycho Brahe. She's still thinking.
Despite being trained not to....

Again, Tom Hoffman's "In My Head" got me going this morning, this time a link to here.
Image of solar system model from here.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Thoughts shared after hearing Galwall Kinnell speak in his 9th decade

19° degrees outside, and the furnace decided to nap. A reminder, but not an omen. There's a difference.

I love Galway Kinnell. I am fascinated by snot. The two are not unrelated. I saw Galway speak last night, which is like saying I saw Pavarotti sing, or Frank Lloyd draft.

I last saw him over three decades ago. We're both still here. We'll both be gone a few decades from now. When I remember this, I behave differently.


Eating is part of the deal.
Defecating is part of the deal.
Chlorinating is not....

I grab my rake when the tide and the winds are low. I paddle my plastic boat out to the flats, lugging a rake older than me.

I work the mud knowing that it will give up its secrets.

Quahogs quietly eat, quietly grow, quietly drag tiny organisms into their guts. Do zooplankton ("wandering animals") drifting in light, suddenly tossed into the dark, struggle against the siphon's current?

Before the sun rises again, a few clams will be killed, and eaten, and then shat. Bacteria will feed on the remnants of molecules spliced together by plants and clams. My shit will pass under the street in ancient pipes, delivered to a wastewater treatment plant, and slaughtered as the chlorine rips through the lipids in the cell's membrane.

The clam gave its life, as I will, as you will, knowing that it will remain, in pieces, part of the whole of life.

I pray no one pumps my veins with formaldehyde when I die. I want my carcass to burst from corpulence as the bacteria, freed from the tyranny of my immune system, rip the energy from complex molecules I will no longer use.

Chlorination works. I like safe water. I am not against chlorinating our water. (Don't get me started on fluoridation, though....)

If a lot of mammals squeeze themselves into small areas, excrement and water find each other. Excrement is dangerous because it's alive. Given a chance, the critters in scat will eat, grow, and reproduce, living life with the same impunity and unawareness we all do. Holy shit.

Humans are special, true. Only humans have the ability to consciously and utterly remove ourselves and other critters from the cycle of life. Formaldehyde, mercury salts, and chlorine mark our progress.

Chlorinating water works. It was developed by the U.S. Army as a way to make a lot of water safe in a hurry for our soldiers as they wandered away from the American tap water we take for granted. 3 ampules of calcium hypochlorite are added to 36 gallons of water in a Lyster bag, releasing chlorine gas.

Proteins work because of their specific shapes. Any function in a live organism that requires a particular shape, which is just about everything, requires proteins. Change the shape ("denature"), and the protein no longer does what it's designed to do.

Chlorine changes the shape of proteins in bacteria, changes their nature, and they die. The proteins in humans are made of the same stuff as bacterial proteins.

On April 22, 1915, in Ypres, France, thousands of men, and innumerable other creatures, had their proteins denatured by a yellow-green cloud smelling of "pepper and pineapple." The gas destroyed the cells lining the airways.

Suddenly down the road from the Yser Canal came a galloping team of horses, the riders goading on their mounts in a frenzied way; then another and another, till the road became a seething mass with a pall of dust over all.

Plainly something terrible was happening. What was it? Officers, and Staff officers too, stood gazing at the scene, awestruck and dumbfounded; for in the northerly breeze there came a pungent nauseating smell that tickled the throat and made our eyes smart. The horses and men were still pouring down the road. two or three men on a horse, I saw, while over the fields streamed mobs of infantry, the dusky warriors of French Africa; away went their rifles, equipment, even their tunics that they might run the faster.

One man came stumbling through our lines. An officer of ours held him up with levelled revolver, "What's the matter, you bloody lot of cowards?" says he. The Zouave was frothing at the mouth, his eyes started from their sockets, and he fell writhing at the officer's feet.

Anthony R. Hossacks memoirs
Soldier, Queen Victoria's Rifles, 1915

Chlorine gas strips away functioning proteins, irreversibly disabling your cells. It is not an easy death.
One nurse described the death of one soldier who had been in the trenches during a chlorine gas attack. “He was sitting on the bed, fighting for breath, his lips plum coloured. He was a magnificent young Canadian past all hope in the asphyxia of chlorine. I shall never forget the look in his eyes as he turned to me and gasped: I can’t die! Is it possible that nothing can be done for me?”


Leslie and I love to paddle. We have kayaked as far up the Passaic River as you can, until the water becomes too shallow to allow even a 10" draft.

A few miles before you reach the shallows, we pass a sign facing away from the river, just above an active discharge pipe.

The pipe belches out sickeningly sweet water, pepper and pineapple. The smell reminds me of a mall, where the aroma of too perfect cookies mixes with the aroma of too perfect perfumes and too perfect people.

I beached my kayak so I could get out and read the sign.

The sign announced that the effluuent was the shit and pee and spit and snot and blood of the good citizens of Livingston, caressed with chemicals, now safe for the river.

I got back in the kayak and headed upstream, my paddles dredging through the shallow muddy bed. I dragged my fingers over the paddle blade, the mud sliding back into the water, and then held my hands to my face, the mortal mud's smell reminding me who we are.

One of my lambs ran an experiment to see if water would start to smell if left out for a week. He was startled to find that water smells right out of the tap, like, well, chlorine. In a day or two, the chlorine smell dissipated.

Decades from now, I doubt he'll remember much of anything in class, but he will remember that.

We do not talk about "shit" in class. We talk of excrement and E. coli and waste, but never of shit, sacred shit, Holy Shit.

If high biology were truly the study of life, of death, of cycles, we'd read Galway Kinnell's Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, or Mary Oliver's poem "Oxygen," or W.B. Yeats, who asks the essential question of science, of life: "How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

I would give up an eyetooth (or two) to have Galway Kinnell teach my students biology. I talk of ecology, Galway talks of life:

The black bear who swatted down the apples
from the lower branches began before first light
expelling foot-long cylinders of apple-chompings
—some apple nectar removed, some bear nectar added—
which could almost be served up in a restaurant
in Lyons or Paris as Compote de Pommes des Dieux.

Galway Kinnell
From "Holy Shit"
(Imperfect Thirst)

Until we teach biology as the study of life, we have no real hope of pretending we are not those young men who tossed the chlorine gas at other men, and whoever else happened to be in the way, back in 1915.

Until then, I will sink into tidal mud flats, filling the air with the molecules of the dead, a pungent smell we've been trained to fear, scratching for clams, each one reminding me of impermanence, of what matters.

In May, I will again be trekking over a hundred young humans to Sandy Hook Bay,
where many will smell tidal mud for the first time.
Biology cannot be taught indoors.

Lyster bag photo from Olive-Drab, which posted the photo
"courtesy Family of Jack Chriss, veteran of Co. B, 129th Airborne Engineer Bn., 13th Airborne Div."

Clam and tomato photo taken on my windowsill. Both were eaten soon after.