Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Wheat does not grow on trees

“We need at least a 3 percent to 4 percent increase in total wheat production.”

I just ordered a bunch of seeds, something I do every year. I save some seeds from last summer's garden, but I'm a sucker for cute little seed packages, and it makes it easier to use the left-overs in class.

We grow all kinds of vegetables, and we're still nibbling from the Brussels sprout stalks that survived the heavy snows. We like to eat. Most animals do.

We like to drive, too. Most animals don't. And our driving habits are biting into our eating habits.

Wheat and corn cost about 50% more than they did a year ago. That's not such a big deal (yet) here in the States, where we casually drop a dollar to buy a box of Candy Sweethearts for our love, less than 10 minutes worth of minimum wage labor.

A few years ago, all of our grain went to feed us, or the animals we planned to eat. Now a chunk of it goes to fuel our vehicles.

Teasing apart the stories can be tedious, and the corn-based ethanol folks will be quick to point out that the corn they use is feed corn, that it saves lots of petroleum that would be used otherwise, and that, by golly, it's the American way. Food prices go up for a lot of reasons--drought, speculation, floods. In the next few months you'll hear a drumbeat against the Chinese "hoarding" wheat.

To be fair, a lot of stomachs reside in China, and it's been hit by drought. It's easier (and so much politer) than blaming the SUV your neighbor drives.

It's pretty simple, really. So long as our population and grain yields go in contrary directions, our food prices will rise. So long as Americans can buy candy for a few minutes of work, we won't notice. And so long as economists keep getting paid to announce the blazingly obvious, they'll keep shouting about it instead of tilling the earth.

It gets down to biology. We are graced with just so many calories a year from our sun, with more stored as petroleum from millions upon millions of sunny days that preceded the arrival of humans.

I got a class full of children who can recite the stages of mitosis, and I get paid reasonably well to make sure this happens. If my lambs cannot make the connection between the corn in the Candy Hearts, the biofuel in their mother's SUV, and the effect of rising food prices in Egypt, well, I've not done my job, no matter how well my students perform on a state test.

I need to do better. It starts with the packets of tiny seeds.


John T. Spencer said...

One of my breakthroughs this year involved the story of science. It was the notion that students needed science to make sense out of character and setting and conflict and plot - even the themes (though many scientists scoff at science getting into that dangerous place of why instead of how).

A kid yesterday pointed out the class taking all of our recycling bins and how they looked so proud and how we all pad ourselves on the back for recycling and yet we never ask why we had to consume so much in the first place.

Then he looked at our netbooks and our lack of paper and said, "It's scarier when you never see what's been destroyed."

Was it science?
It definitely had observation.

Was it social studies?
It connected to civics

Will it be on the test?

This Brazen Teacher said...

"I got a class full of children who can recite the stages of mitosis, and I get paid reasonably well to make sure this happens."

One (not the only) question that I've thought about for a thesis is why (for example), is mitosis the focus of schooling/testing, instead of the (MUCH) more meaningful "connections between the corn in the Candy Hearts, the biofuel in their mother's SUV, and the effect of rising food prices in Egypt."

I mean I guess I know the answer, and of course you do too. Seduction with compartmentalized knowledge sure makes quantification easier. It sure gives us warm fuzzy feelings of progress when we see the test scores rise on charts.

I've discovered historical research "ain't my thang" but did a little reading on the Scientific Revolution last semester anyhow.

Prior to the Enlightenment subjectivity was running rampant. Making connections between knowledge lead people to turn all kinds of falsities into doctrine... burning witches, the Inquisition, the earth is the center of the universe... yayaya....

And the pendulum swung pretty far the other way when Newton's theories created such a worship of the material world. Don't trust anything that's not measurable. Don't trust anything you can't experience w. the 5 senses. Don't trust anything that doesn't fit into a flow chart....

And we've been doing it ever since.

Mitosis you can measure. Trying to make all those fancy connections is less so. And if you can't measure it... how can you prove children are learning? Or that you're doing your job?

Obviously if you can't PROVE that children are learning and teachers are teaching... then they might be, which is the same as saying they aren't.

Chris Kemp said...

Hey there, I just saw your post about ambergris from last year. I'm currently writing a book about ambergris for HarperCollins Publishers and so I'd like to know more about your find. I'm interested in whether you still have the object too.

If you could write back to me at cjkemp@gmail.com, that would be really great.



doyle said...

Der John,

Science is about observations, of course, and about figuring out which variables are the ones responsible for affecting these observations.

At our level, making observations and rational connections is a big (and new) deal for many of our lambs.

The more I do this, the more I worry about the way we compartmentalize subjects.

Good things are happening in your classroom. If you;re not careful, you;re going to cultivate more than a few scientists. =)

Dear Brazen,

Interestingly (for me, anyway), the great ones did not fall into the trap of reductionism. I suspect the concept of emergent properties would ring true with Newton. (It clearly resonated with Einstein.)

I think the connections are measurable, just not cheaply. We get what we pay for--we live in a (largely) throw away culture. For the moment the yahoos are winning. We're mortal, it turns out, so we may as well go down fighting.

(OK, far too many imaginary conversations before I responded. I may need to write a post around your reply to do it justice.)

Dear Chris,

I wrote a quick note back. Let me know if you want your post here deleted--your email hanging out there might be a spam magnet.