Saturday, April 30, 2011

An afternoon on the dredge spoils

It's silly season--a pope getting beatified, royalty getting married. We need costumes for these, lots of costumes. And music! And, oh, isn't it all so grand!

And under the Delaware Bay stir the ancient longings of ancient critters, crawling up from the cool, dark muck, to dance under the moon again, as they have for millions of years.
I spent the afternoon atop a mountain of dredge fill, surrounded by the skeletal remains of horseshoe crabs and scallops, fish and whelk. Tiny flies congregated in the cracks, worshiping the death that keeps them alive. A hawk hovered a hundred yards away, eying the last moments of its prey below.

In the garden sits a robin's egg, intact but fading under two weeks of sun. A few volunteer basil plants erupted a few feet away. Last year's Brussels sprouts are now a riotous yellow.

Each time I wander outside, I am reminded how the story ends, as I am reminded how the story starts, a story without fine linen or fine music, and a story without end.

Every day I share pieces of the story with my students, and every day it surprises them, as every day, it surprises me.


Photos by us, use them as you will. Another beautiful day.

Perennial projects

At the start of the school year, back when the sunlight was fading and squirrels were fattening up, each student picked a tree to watch. Call it phenology, call it botany, call it whatever you want, but it's really just observing, and few of us do that well. I call it the Perennial Project.

Some wise people back in the 1890's decided that biology should be the first course of science for high school students because biology was, back in the day, all about observing and categorizing living things. If you care to study the world, you need to learn how to look.

[T]he elements of biology serve specially well as a means to cultivate the power of accurate observation (i.e., the exercise of perception regulated and clarified through direct subordination to reflection) specially adapted to exercise of judgment.

That biology is now taught as something else does not deny the wisdom of the Committee of Fifteen.   Learning how to look is particularly relevant in a culture that encourages others to do your observations for you. Judgment without observation may be good for a consumer economy, but has predictably disastrous results for a functioning democracy. (I said functioning....)


Kids occasionally need to be led by the nose, and asking them to spend a few minutes outside each week staring at a tree does require some external motivation, as prickly as that has become in the ultra-chic eduworld. I toggled the grades in a way that doing the observations helped a bit, but screwing up did not sink them.

Kids need room to screw up, lots of room, especially when asked to stand outside staring at a stupid tree making this stupid drawing for this stupid class. Most students trust me, as they trust most teachers, despite a steady stream of evidence that the trust may be misplaced; I take advantage of this.

This will go somewhere, I tell them. I promise.

Then winter comes, and the trees, mildly interesting to some in autumn, "die." Now the stupid teacher wants me to stand in the stupid cold to draw a stupid picture of a stupid dead tree.

A lot of them fake it. They do not know that I know, but (for the most part), I let it go. They put their drawings in a folder, and come mid-January, I stop asking for reports.

Early March, I started it up again. Find a bud on your tree, measure it, draw it.

They resist.What's a bud? I can't find one my tree doesn't have buds I can't reach it I have to catch a bus I have to babysit my little brother my tree is dead nothing is happening this is stupid it rained all week my tree is dead it's too small to measure I don't have a ruler....and I push back, a little. 

A small change--a bud gets a little bigger, a little tighter. Kids are inherently curious. They start to watch.

Then it happens--someone's bud blooms, and a child is astounded to see a flower from a tree, astounded enough to share it with the class. Then another child's tree blooms, then another. And they talk.

I'm not going to pretend that all of the children get excited, nor that more than a few continue to fake it (and I continue to pretend I don't know this), collecting a paltry 9 or 10 points each week.

Here's the unexpected part (for me): a few of the children are now writing voluminous reports, wonderfully descriptive logs with multiple drawings, because they want to, reminiscent of the meandering mind of Thoreau when he describes a particular plant:
I observe the peculiar steel bluish purple of the night shade i.e. the tips of the twigs while all beneath is green dotted with bright berries over the water.
This is how kids write when free from the 5 paragraph essay, from the fear of my grade book.

This is how kids write when they take a moment, a long moment, to observe something that interests them. The words matter, and they struggle to find the words, because the observation matters more.

We have a new superintendent here in Bloomfield, Jason Bing, who officially started less than 10 days ago. He's my 4th superintendent in the less than 5 years I've taught here. I expect good things from him, as he does from us, that's what professionals do.

I have a concern, though, and it's not about him, it's about his contract. According to the local news, and it's all I have to go by at the moment, he can earn up to 15% more (over $25,000) "if the district meets five state testing benchmarks set by the BOE."

State testing will not measure, cannot measure, the effects of my Perennial Project. Indeed, the flowery Thoreauesque descriptions interjected with pieces of a child's humanity could hurt a student on the writing portion of our state exams.

The superintendent has been "incentivized"(Arne's word) to push up scores. Scores matter, for some very good reasons, but some things not (yet) measured by the tests matter more.

Much more.

I would love to post some of the students' work here--I'll see if I can get permission.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A day in the life

Been busy, as we all have been, and maybe a tad cranky, as some of us have been.

And when I get busy and cranky, I forget what I should not forget. All of this happened in a day, this day, and this was not an unusual day.

  • I found 3 northern brown snakes this morning, and brought one of them to school, possibly the crankiest brown snake I've ever handled, and I've handled plenty. When I released him this afternoon, he struck not once, not twice, but three times. A snake with a grudge.
  • I dug up a dandelion to show seniors its roots, and an earthworm scurried under my fingers as I did. The seniors were outside looking at dandelion flowers more carefully than most of them ever had before, so I looked more carefully, too.
  • One class witnessed what happens when a slug crawls on the head of a cranky snake. It happens fast, and it does not end well for a slug.
  • I watched a young woman watch a slug as it crawled on her finger. If we spent more time watching how young humans react with the world, we'd all feel better,
  • I peeked at a drop of pond water I brought to class yesterday--it was full of critters. Most of them were returned to the pond water.
  • We released some more fruit flies today--the kids are growing attached to them now. They're not "flies" anymore. Familiarity may occasionally breed contempt, but my experience has been otherwise. It's why I teach.
  • A few of us in the BHS Astronomy Club set up a telescope on the sidewalk outside our school and saw Saturn tonight, always a treat, and a great way to end a day teaching science.

None of this will be "on the test," whatever "on the test" even means. I worry a lot, too much, on what is "on the test." The AP Biology test looms in less than two weeks, the state biology exam a couple of weeks later.

Not sure the students are quite as worried as I am--maybe I need to learn a thing or two from them.

Yep, it's a wonderful world out there beyond the words and images we wrap around ourselves every day.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mucking rules

Rule Number One: No drowning.
Rule Number Two: No bleeding. 

And the second rule is more of a guideline.

Mucking season again. 
We found a few live (and mating) horseshoe crabs, one of which ran away faster than I have ever seen one run, hermit crabs, razor clams, jacknife clams, terns, egrets, periwinkles, oysters, herring and laughing gulls, and a couple of stranded jelly fish.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Naked truth

"The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale."

Ms. Weiss is the Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The empress not only has no clothes, she's apparently flaunting it.

I don't know how I missed this....
The woodcut is from here, but I suspect it's in the public domain by virtue of age.

Formalizing informal science

I got an email from Education Week this morning that prompted this.

Conclusion 1: Across the life span, from infancy to late adulthood, individuals learn about the natural world and develop important skills for science learning.

I'm taking my lambs to Sandy Hook in a month to watch horseshoe crabs mate, to hold a few fiddler crabs, to seine the bay and see what they find, and to pick up a little trash while they're there.

For at least one day, I do not fret over my biggest classroom fear--killing curiosity. (I fret over a bazillion other things--bleeding, sunburned, and drowning dreams will haunt me for the next month.)

A 2009 National Resource Council report suggests that informal science--going to museums, watching Mythbusters, or looking under rocks in the backyard--matters if the goal is to spark lifetime interest in science.

But we have a problem--no immediate way to measure the effects of informal science, at least in a way that compels the data-driven drones who have co-opted our schools:
Without a common framework specifying outcomes and approaches, it is difficult to show gains in learning that occur across localities or across time frames, and attempts to portray the contributions of infrastructure for science learning that exists across varied institutions and activities will continue to be hindered

Our data-driven ed culture does not  accept what it cannot effectively ostensibly measure. So we continue to do what we know doesn't work! How do we know? We have a decade's worth of NCLB data....

Conclusion 8: Designers and educators can make science more accessible to learners when they portray science as a social, lived experience, when they portray science in contexts that are relevant to learners, and when they are mindful of diverse learners’ existing relationships with science and institutions of science learning.

Conclusion 14: Learning experiences across informal environments may positively influence children’s science learning in school, their attitudes toward science, and the likelihood that they will consider science-related occupations or engage in lifelong science learning through hobbies and other everyday pursuits.
Here's an idea--why not try this inside the school building? We have the students for a good chunk of their awake hours.

Every science teacher, and every school administrator, should read the report. You can read it free online.

The conclusions were lifted directly from the 2009 report Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits,

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Tao of now

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Robert Frost, "Fire and Ice"

There is some evidence, maybe enough, to conclude that life was here on Earth at least 3.7 billion years ago.

There is some evidence, maybe enough, that the sun will use up its hydrogen in 5 billion years, expanding into a red giant. At any rate, it gets hotter and hotter as it consumes its core, and Earth will be dessicated billions of years before then.

What does this mean?

Were more than halfway through our story, at least here on Earth....and that, oddly, saddens me, when sitting inside on a rainy April evening, locked into a human universe.

But when I'm outside, the breakers crashing on the beach, the wash of froth licking my chilled feet as two oystercrackers stare at me over their preposterous red bills, linear time dissolves. For most of the living, there is nothing but now.

More importantly, for all of the living, there is nothing more than now.

Worrying about how it all ends is a human conceit.

I teach about the natural world, or rather, how we think about the natural world. There are moments when the classroom is humming, particularly when students tend their fish, their wheat plants, their sow bugs, or their slugs.

Before I attempt to cram their worlds with models of what exists, they need to know what it means for life to exist. They need to be able to see it, sniff it, touch it, and follow it--for hours, for weeks, for months.

The above question, a sophomore biology classic, is not particularly difficult to answer, not particularly difficult to teach, but is not particularly science. Not even close....

If my lambs spent several weeks with fruit flies, crossing this phenotype with that, analyzing the results, and then (maybe) coming up with a reasonable approximation of Mendelian genetics, maybe a question like this makes sense.

But they don't--we don't have time. We don't have time, because we have a laundry list of things that need to be covered. So our kids learn how to do Punnett squares. They enjoy doing them--they really don't require a lot of thought, at least not at the level of mastery expected, and the kids think they are doing science.

The parents think they are doing science.
The Board of Ed thinks they are doing science.
The state thinks they're doing science.
Arne and Eli and Joel and Bill think they are doing science.

They're not. They're doing Punnett squares.

Truth be told, much of high school sucks.If it didn't, Punnett squares wouldn't be so appealing.


Every now and again I get kids caught in an existentialist trap--what is the meaning of life, the point, the goal, the end, and it's little wonder. I bet no child gets through a day without hearing someone ask what they plan to do with their lives.

I bet no child gets through a day without hearing that ""these are the best days of your life, you better enjoy them" from aging adults who have yet to start living.

We compound this with tests we pretend matter. Knowledge matters, thinking matters, but most of these tests do not (beyond their extrinsic consequences).

Let's play a thought game: if a test existed that could objectively measure happiness ten years after a child took my class, would it matter more (or less) than a test that measures my lambs' collective ability to do a Punnett square?

Ah, Dr. Doyle, you are lowering the bar! You are diluting the product! You are condemning your students to a life of poverty and ill-breeding!

No, I'm not. The current tests do not encourage me to teach science. They do not encourage my students to learn science. They will not lead to a better informed citizenry pursuing jobs or happiness.


We have a lot of life in class, which means we have a lot of death, too. I worried about this--will I trigger more existentialist angst?

I'm sure that long after I'm dead and my voice no longer a memory, a few students will remember the moment they witnessed their favorite shrimp in the world happily munching on their favorite hermit crab. These things are not planned, but are bound to happen in a classroom such as ours.

I was worried, but I needn't have been. They were enthralled. They were in the moment.

And yes, I still worry about what will happen in a few billion years. Except when I don't. Like now.

This one will likely get chopped up into a few pieces before I'm through.
The photos all taken today under a gloomy sky--the robin's egg is the same as the one seen last week. It is getting duller.

Late April phenology

Just a few reminders for me.

First dolphin of the year today, surfacing about 20 yards from me as I tossed a piece of plastic at the ferry jetty. There was also a report by a local of a whale a mile off, but I missed it.

Oystercatchers sighted at two different spots.  One was preening, making an already ridiculous looking bird look even more ridiculous.

Water temperature is about 56 degrees in the bay.

The intact robin's egg still sits at the edge of the garden, more gray than blue now, a reminder amidst the budding exuberance.

The holly trees are flowering, promising red berries come next winter.

Photo by Alan D. Wilson, released under CC.

"Right hand on the rail"

"Single file, right hand on the rail."

The Newark Museum is a lovely place, and it's just a stone's throw from Bloomfield. It has "the most extraordinary collection of Tibetan art in the Western Hemisphere," as well as wonderful collections of African and American art; it has a wonderful summertime jazz series; the planetarium is cozy with state of the art projection.

I get why we cannot bring water bottles or chew gum in the galleries. And now I get why kids often hate school.

Single file, right hand on the rail. Why? Because it's museum policy.

I didn't last long in parochial school--made it to March in 1st grade. I bet I'd last only half as long in a KIPP school.

Next time a child looks like he's going to lose it in class, I'll try to remember how I felt when ordered to hold the rail. If I had a morning full of "holding the rail," I might be cranky by 7th period, too.

Yes, I get it, less injuries, better crowd control, protecting the art--
but that's not what our students were told. They were told it's policy--as if "it's policy" serves as a cogent explanation for any rule.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sugar and spice and everything Zeiss

I had a chance to go to the Newark Museum planetarium, and I jumped on it. I fell in love with the Zeiss projector the last time I was there. Hard.

I spend most of my time in Bloomfield, NJ. I love my town, but we cannot see the stars. The Zeiss ZKP 3/B projector gives me as close a rep as I can get. It's a fine machine because it mimics what I have already experienced.

It's still there, but today's show was driven by "a state-of-the-art full dome digital projection system"--glitzy, flashy, sexy, and just plain wrong.

The Zeiss orbs sat there fixed at 180 degrees, useless as an astrolabe on a NASA Space Shuttle (or teats on a bull). Our students do not know what they missed. They have never truly seen the stars.

Our models have fallen prey to modern disease. We have forgotten that they are models, shadows of a greater universe. They now are the universe, a human universe, a limited universe.

My human hand is imperfect. My scrawl on the board betrays my age, my frailness, my humanness. I trust my drawings because they reflect something bigger than me. They are the shadows on Plato's cave, a means to a truth larger than the human that hopes to share the truth with yonger humans.

The SMART Board that replaced my whiteboard reduces the universe to human forms. It can translate my handwriting into perfect fonts. It professionalizes my humanness. The universe is not about us. Not even close.

My imperfect whiteboard  was a tool, not an end.

I love tools. I do not love my SMART Board.

What are we trying to do in the classroom? What do we need to get there?

OK, this one may not last long--just frustrated by our upward and onward dive into a very limited human universe.
Picure of the Zeiss ZKP 3/B from the Newark Museum.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Local matters

The cherry blossom petals are gently falling now, as the faint fragrance and pink light give way to the green leaves. After the burst of sex, the trees get down to the business of living.

As old as I am compared to my students, I've only lived two extra years for each one of theirs, plenty of time to collect scars and wrinkles and gray hair, but not nearly enough time to pretend I've learned anything they do not already know, except that they, too, will be surprised at the older face staring back at them in the morning mirror.

One of my students was surprised to learn today that I had dissected a cadaver, that I had seen many people die, that all this is expected for anyone in medicine. Death still surprises them.

Death still surprises me, truth be told, but it's no longer novel.

The cherry blossoms, too, surprise me. They are exuberant beyond imagination. I cling to my incomplete memory of them every February, My catechism: Does spring exist? Yes, it does, and it will return to reign the Earth. Amen.

And each spring, we are blessed, again.

When I was a child, two things mattered--the weather report, and the tide table. I got real busy raising a couple of kids, and the weather reports and the tide tables no longer mattered. They matter again.

I suspect they always mattered.

New Jersey just signed up for  the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test. You won't find tide tables on a standardized test. Too parochial, too provincial. PARCC is part of Achieve, an organization supporting corporate interests "to make college and career readiness a national priority."

They don't pay our bills here--my salary is paid by my neighbors. They don't know about the cherry trees on Liberty, the turkeys that showed up on the Green a couple of years ago, the lichen on the ledge of our century old high school building.  They don't know about our children, nor, quite frankly, care about them, either.

I'd daresay most members of Achieve couldn't pass their own algebra test.

This is bull crap.

Local matters matter. We know this even if suits who gladly pull stakes and move from state to state dragging their itinerant clans about for the sake of "national priority" do not.

The Victory statue is ours, the photo borrowed from the NY Times--click on photo for link.
The cherry blossoms are from BranchBrook Park last spring, via

Schools are for our children, for our towns.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fear, fatigue, and failure

Despite a kick butt east breeze blowing at 20+ knots, pushing the water back into our back bays, I  managed to rake out a few clams today. The near full moon helped. I like raking clams almost as much as I like eating them.

Last week's clamming was a disaster. Two of my rake's tines loosened up, and my crankiness was exacerbated by a neap tide. I don't mind coming home with less than a pailful's worth of dinner, but last week I felt defeated. I was racing against the sunset (Jersey law uses sunset to define the end of a clammer's day), and, for the first time in years, I questioned grace.

When I got home, I dropped two clams, shattering them. I returned the remaining few to the bay. Seemed puny of me to eat them while questioning the universe.

So I "fixed" my rake...


...sort of, but enough to make it feel right in my hands again. The sand and mud yielded, gracefully, and I accepted the few clams we will eat in an hour or so.

We will eat the very last of last year's kale and Brussels sprouts, both bolting towards the April sun.

This year's peas have already broken through the ground just a foot or two away from the kale.

Our schools are in a crisis now, but not because of spoiled children or bad parents or awful teachers. We are failing because we are trying to meet standards that are inherently impossible. No state will meet 100% compliance with the NCLB by 2013, because 100% compliance is simply impossible.

Impossible. Look it up....

I worked in pediatrics for years. Not every child is blessed with a brain that works well enough to jump though algebra's hoops. Many children cannot speak at all. Most of you will never see these children.

Trying to do the impossible leads to fatigue, and fatigue leads to fear.

Fear kills education.

I was interviewed by Dina Strasser at The Line last summer. She's wonderful--she had no agenda, she really just wanted to talk--and we discussed what it means to be a professional.

Here's where I think teachers fall short. If we really believed that the testing demanded by NCLB harms the education of children, and a lot of us do, then we should not participate.

Docs are an ornery lot. I used to be one. If any President issued a proclamation we believed harmed our charges, we'd have simply ignored it. That's part of being a professional, knowing more about what you do than governors, presidents, and emperors. The other part is acting on what you know.

We (teachers) got the first part down. We won't be true professionals until we get the second part.


My failure last week, one borne of fatigue, will help me become a better teacher. My students are tired--I've pushed them hard, and I have no problems with that. I do have problems with judging them while they're tired.

State testing for biology is coming up. They will be judged, I will be judged. Fear is the expected, and the wrong, response.

Historically my lambs have done well. I hope that they do well again. If I fret, though, I stop teaching what matters.

I'm not paid enough to teach bull crap. So I won't.

I found a robin's egg in my garden today. It's not just humans that screw up.

There are no trees overhead, and the egg was intact--I think it was laid where it lay.There's a story attached to the egg, but the robin cannot tell me.

Was she scared? Stupid? Just plain indifferent? Does it matter?

I considered taking the egg to school, but if it hatches, then what? So it sits in my garden, a reminder that pretty much everything with mitochondria bumbles its way through this universe as we do. None of us chose this, few of us would willingly give it away.

I think, in the end, celebrating failure is fine, as long as it's an exuberant failure. Too often we confuse fear and fatigue with failure, and that's not the same thing.

Not even close.

Photos are mine, all taken today.
A Wizard of Oz kind of wind is blowing today. These things affect me. As they should.

Friday, April 15, 2011

We're here to share stories

While I'll leave it to the great philosophers to figure out the meaning of life, and there are as many words as stars trying to do just that, this much seems obvious:

Humans are, in this neck of the woods anyway, the best at telling the story of our universe. We are critters of awareness.

I just wandered back from a quick jaunt to the beach to watch the sun set on the Delaware Bay. The sand was ridiculously cool, the water a tad warmer than last week, the sky pale pink, and the soft waves resonated one with the next. The air, well, nothing clears out the conscious brain like a whiff of bay air. I'd describe it to you if I could. I cannot.

No one can.

I saw an old friend this week--we've known each other for longer than most humans around today have been alive.I didn't used to believe age meant anything--I do now. We came to the conclusion that maybe we're just here to share stories.

Stories are about awareness. Being human is about awareness, as good a reason as any to teach science.

Here's a list of simple things any of us can do today to increase our awareness:
  • Plant some basil
  • Walk barefoot.
  • Brew some mead.
  • Grind some flour. Mix it with yeast and honey. Knead it. Bake it.
  • Clam or fish or hunt or gather from the wild.
  • Stare at some stars
  • Sniff cherry blossoms
Yep, a bit slanted, and likely not the same list you'd generate. That's not the point.

You cannot define the universe, but you can become uniquely aware of your tiny chunk of it. Or not.

I think education is about preventing the "Or not." I doubt Arne Duncan or Governor Christie would agree (or even have an idea of what I am talking about), but I doubt either get Keats or Yeats, either.

OK, not a science post per se, but Yeats and biology are more closely related than biology and engineering.
Kudos to Tom Hoffman for turning me to Michael Ruhlman.

Proust in the classroom

I love cherry blossoms, and we live a stone's throw away from Branch Brook Park. At dusk I got my nose dusted yellow from sniffing hundreds, maybe thousands, of flowers.

Photo by Cathy Elliott-Shaw

As I sniffed one tree's flowers, then the next, hundreds of people were taking photos in the ethereal light, the sun sitting snug just below the horizon, a bulging moon high up in the east.

We are (mostly) visual creatures. We analyze light, look for patterns, capture it digitally so we can show others what we think we saw. We have art shows comparing our various abilities to capture light, to hold the world in a frame. We can discern a good photograph from a mediocre one, talk about contrast and angles and resolution.

Me and my nose live in a different world, a world of sinuous curves instead of angles, smudges instead of contrast, a world where time and distances dissolve into layers of fog swirling into each other. The cameras capture the sensuous, pleasing the cortex, blending thought and analysis and the beauty of order; my nose triggers the sensual, flaring up the olfactory lobe, part of our more primitive brain, visceral, without language.

The art of observing, the crucial first step of science, requires all of our senses. Schooling focuses on the visual. For all the talk of various learning styles, our standardized tests focus on what can be seen, what can be analyzed, what can be fairly assessed.

Photo by Colin Archer

I encourage my lambs to use their noses in class--we sniff basil, gingko ("vomit" fruit), dirt, sea water, elodea--and by the end of the year, I see students routinely using their noses when examining something new in class.

This is not something they are ever likely to face on a standardized exam in public schools. Not everything worth learning is easily assessed. When we reduce our classes to laboratories of the easily assessable, we reduce the natural world. When we reduce the natural world, we reduce science.

Alas, odors can be a problem-ever smell a rotten starfish?

First Branch Brook photo NJ photo courtesy of Cathy Elliott-Shaw via; 
Second photo  by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey via NJ Monthly

If you live within driving distance, it's worth the hike--
more flowering Japanese cherry trees than anywhere in the States--take that, D.C.! 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Unintended consequences: King Ludd was right

Natural science has a funny way of bumping up against high tech. While we are way past the point of  rationally discussing whether we'd be better off without automobiles, industrialized agriculture, or Auto-Tune (I'd vote against all three), not all high tech gadgets are irreversibly entrenched in our culture.

King Ludd--waiting for rain to wash his hands
Hands-free sinks have always annoyed me--I like being able to alter the water temperature, and I have a bad habit of setting my papers down on the sink's edge, with predictable consequences. They make sense, though--less touching, more sanitary. The last thing a hand touches before turning on a bathroom sink may be a less-than-pristine orifice.

Hospitals have spent oodles of dollars installing the sinks for this reason. Nosocomial (hospital-acquired) infections are a huge expense, and despite occasional evidence to the contrary, hospitals want their patients to get better.

Alas, turns out the money may be wasted. A Johns Hopkins study shows that automatic faucets may increase risks of nosocomial infections; the fancy valves used in the high-tech sinks serve as breeding grounds for Legionella bacteria.

As a result, "hospital leadership elected to use traditional fixtures – some 1,080 of them – in all patient care areas in the new clinical buildings currently under construction at Johns Hopkins’ East Baltimore campus." Yep, they're removing the high-tech fancy doo-dad sinks and replacing them with, ahem, traditional fixtures.

How many high-tech devices in the classroom truly improve education? 

Maybe if they look at the morbidity from cars, they'll consider removing the parking lots, too.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cheap tools for kindergarten (Part 6)

Yes, I know, and I will get back to part 5--language trumps all--but I'm jumping ahead for the moment.

I got to spend some time with a couple of Real Live Scientists® yesterday, and it turns out that one of them does curriculum work for the pre-pubescent set.

We compared notes, and I'm stealing from her today.

I've known her husband for over 30 years. When we were younger, much younger, Joe (I'll call him Joe) used to take everything apart. Everything. He was pretty good at putting things back together, but not nearly as awesome as he was at taking them apart.

I scrabbled up some money, and bought me a Tekna regulator back in 1979--Tekna was da bomb. Joe got his hands on it while it was still in the box, and took it apart. That's what he did, and still does, though he gets paid handsomely now for figuring out how to put things back together.


Kristan (I'll call her Kristan) married a nut, but it's a shared trait. He builds Tesla coils, she sleeps in tepees, they both trek off to Antarctica more frequently than I leave new Jersey. She wants little ones to get to know the world better.

She lets her students take things apart. Here's the object, here's a screwdriver, take it apart. Kids quickly figure out that old stuff is a lot more interesting than the newer solid state stuff. The kids don;t even have to put things back together--it's all about figuring out how something works.


(I'm going to start doing this at the high school level.)

Exploded typewriter by Todd McLellan, permission pending--I was impatient.

"Four legs good, two legs bad!"

"The only reason to oppose these bills is if you believe the status quo is acceptable."

Parse that sentence. Tell me if it makes sense.

Maybe he got misquoted--these things happen. But if he did not, he's playing a dangerous game.

Other possibilities I considered and dismissed, maybe too quickly:
  • He believes what he says, and is incapable of seeing any point of view bar his own.
  • He's not quite as bright as your average U.S. Attorney.
  • He's a huge fan of Animal Farm.
  • He does not have a great grasp of stats, and cannot see the problems with using the testing as data for evals--to be fair, a lot of folks have trouble with stats, but he's got people who can brief him, if he cares to listen.

Dr. Baker says it so much better here:
"Let’s make this really simple - IT’S PLAINLY ILLOGICAL TO BLAME SUCCESS OR FAILURE ON A FACTOR THAT DOESN’T VARY ACROSS SUCCESSFUL AND FAILING SCHOOLS. That’s just middle school science logic. Perhaps we should fire the middle school science teachers who taught the current crop of ed reformers?"

 Does put a new spin on the bully pulpit.
Pic is file photo from same article linked above.

On spreading myths

"The lenses o' his eyes, wi' so much divin' intae the water, get hardened, an' he loses his sight" said John Turner MacCrindle.
from The Gannet (Bryan Nelson), via Bookworm on the Net

I spent yesterday's gray afternoon with an old and a new friend, both Real Life Scientists®, wandering around Sandy Hook, climbing bunkers, skipping stones, and sharing stories. A couple of ospreys eyed us from their new nest. Once you get past the debris that floats over from the Staten Island landfills, the Hook is stunningly beautiful.

Offshore dozens of gannets were diving, their white wings reflecting light, seemingly fluorescent against the gray skies. Gannets crash into water headfirst when feeding, sending up plumes of spray.

I shared some local shore lore--gannets eventually go blind from diving, which, of course, kills them.

It makes for a great story. Turns out it's plain wrong.

Myths define us, more than most realize. Not so long ago, we survived by our senses, and by our wits. Oral language swirls as our perception of truth swirls. Stories got passed down through our clans, back when stars still mattered, when rivers were still filled with fish, forests with trees. We needed each other, but we needed the Earth's grace more.

Just a few thousand years ago, long after we became human, we developed the written word. Language, already powerful,  now had  the power of permanence. Oral language reflects truth, and waivers, imperceptibly, through generations.

We worship the written word, granting it powers far beyond the first vague firing of neurons that generated the thought that preceded (and transcends) the word.

I saw it in a book...I read it's published can look it up.....

The strength of our belief in the written word has fueled beliefs in the the inerrancy of the Bible or of the Qur'an or, no doubt, of other religious texts. These beliefs are not universal, of course, even among followers, and at least one major religion (Judaism) cherishes oral tradition.

I am not a religious scholar, nor do I care to engage in a discussion of inerrancy or infallibility except to mention that huge swaths of modern culture will bend perceptions of the natural world to fit a fixed ideology, with often disastrous results.

Less extreme examples of word fixation may be harming us as much as the obvious religious ones. I let my gannet myth blind me to the more likely truth. I probably do this several times a day, without awareness.


Much, maybe most, of what I do is pierce through the misconceptions of our students--only after I kill this worship of "I know it as a fact" can I hope to teach children to think. If you cannot accept the possibility  of error, you cannot make rational choices. 

Public education is in the dogfight of its life, getting peppered with myth after myth, most blatantly (and certifiably) false stories accepted as truth.

So here are some words to ponder:

  • NCLB does not work--we have a decade of evidence showing such.
  • Poverty matters, above and beyond whatever happens in the classroom--we have decades of evidence showing such.
  • "Zip code is not destiny" makes for a catchy slogan, aimed at the mantra that poverty matters, but solves nothing--it's a contrived (and ugly) attempt to deflect the fact that poverty matters.
  • Our current republic faces a huge threat within our borders, and it's not some caricature of a bomb-wielding Bedouin, or Mother Earth LiberAL, or Willie Horton, or Che Guevara, or the Latin Kings, or yet another child snatcher hiding in your bushes--it's the deliberate shifting of monies and power from public spaces to the private, from the "bottom" 90% to the political (and, sadly, cultural) elite.
It hardly matters if anyone says it aloud, so few folks bother to wrestle with the incongruities between reality and words.

Matters to me--it's why I teach. I want to teach kids how to think. Who knows where that might lead?


Bryan Nelson himself, despite the myth, knows his gannets. In a letter to the The Observer he gently corrects Richard Dawkins: "I have concrete evidence from marked individuals that gannets can survive more than 30 years with perfect eyesight. The blindness myth probably arose because gannets and boobies have an opaque 'third eyelid' which they can draw across the eye to protect it from the impact of diving."

Where does our blindness come from? Who controls your opaque 'third eyelid'?

Hah! Four scientists mentioned in one post about myths.

I am not anti-religion, not by any stretch. I am anti-anti-thinking.

The 3rd picture is of one of yesterday's scientists, Joseph Mastroianni, 
taken by the other, Kristan Hutchinson,while in Antarctica--it's NSF, so I figure it's PD.

Monday, April 11, 2011

My Google-approved, high-tech, zomgilicious overhead projector

We have interactive whiteboards in our classrooms. They are relatively expensive, and a real pain in the arse if you're left-handed, especially if there's any delay in the projection. (This may not seem obvious, go ask a southpaw...)

The Amish do not have anything in particular against technology, but they do have issues with anything that separates the community. Much of modern technology does just that.

I am not opposed to high tech in the classroom, but I am opposed to tech that is no better than what it replaces, especially if it's more expensive. There are some things I can do with a blackboard that cannot be done with a whiteboard, and the interactive whiteboard, despite its flash, is more restrictive than my whiteboard when I am helping children learn how to think.

On a recent post, I wondered aloud about the use of the word "bitch"--I think it's offensive, many young folk disagree, and a brilliant young adult who happens to work for Google sent me a chat given there by Randall Munroe, the author of xkcd. The talk is fascinating, of course, but even more interesting (to me, anyway) was how Munroe illustrated his work. He used an overhead projector.

It was a fancy camera over an oh-so-cool desktop, but still, it was, in essence, an overhead projector.

I still have an overhead projector, and I still have acetate, but I have not used it, mostly because I cannot hear anything over the fan. I have a camera I use just about every day, projecting various objects on the board as the students wander in to class.

And now I have a Google-approved, high-tech, zomgilicious overhead projector--I simply aim my camera at a piece of paper, and I write. The writing gets projected onto a whiteboard where I can scribble some more. Students can scribble on their own whiteboards, or they can scribble on mine. ("Mine" gets less obvious every day in my class.)

Phenology notes for myself: first ospreys seen diving for fish on Saturday, April 9;
the cormorants are back, the loons have yet to leave.

Randall Munroe screen shot from video cited above.

I still think the word is offensive, so I deleted the original xkcd cartoon 

Sorry, Amanda, I just found your letter--it got stuck in the spam section.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Not even a real degree"

Cerf said that only 22 percent of incoming high school freshmen in Newark ever graduate with a diploma, and even then "it's not even a real degree."
Addendum (April 13): This was a misquote by the Asbury Park Press--the 22% refers to those students who graduate within 4 years and passed the HSPA, our state exam.

Central High School, 2008--Bill Cosby spoke

We have a problem.

Newark has a long, proud, and complicated history. Newark Bears, Ballantine Ale, patent leather, Sara Vaughn, Steven Crane, Melba Moore, Redman, Paul Simon.

And the riots.

I've worked many years in Newark, briefly in Port Newark, mostly in the projects and the hospitals and shelters and clinics. I've treated children destroyed by lead, by AIDS, by asthma, by violence. I've seen a lot of people (and I'm on the list) make a decent living treating people who had no hope of the same.

And through it all, I saw resilience. Children still smile, parents still bust their butts making the rent, and students still get themselves to Weequahic and Technology and East Side and Shabazz and West Side and Central and Science and University and Arts and  Barringer High Schools, many of whom have climbed over mountains to get there.

And now they hear our State Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf say their diploma "is not even a real degree."

I'd like to know the source for the 22% graduation rate--I hope Cerf was misquoted.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Stemming STEM

So, yes, improving education in math and science is about producing engineers and researchers and scientists and innovators who are going to help transform our economy and our lives for the better. But it's also about something more.

It's about expanding opportunity for all Americans in a world where an education is the key to success. It's about an informed citizenry in an era where many of the problems we face as a nation are at root scientific problems.

Our problems are not, at root, scientific problems--our problems reflect cultural problems, a society that makes fantastic promises that defy natural limits. 

Lumping natural science education together with engineering is like putting coffee on your eggs--they both have a place at the table, but are best served separately.

President Obama fails to see this. Arne Duncan fails to see this. Bill Gates, Eli Broad,and many others handsomely rewarded by our cultural problems fail to see this. Their "education" has served them well.


I cut my teeth at Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. I could (and did) wander from Fourier to Frost, from lab benches to a benches in the Museum of Art. Though it sounds quaint today, we, the learning community (students, professors, locals, and more than a handful of colorful street performers--remember "Shakey Jake"?) sought truth through inquiry.

Seeking truth through inquiry is how we learn about the natural world, about the human condition, about pretty much anything that matters.

There is no better other way to teach a child.


  • One was a was a physicist, a theologian, a  natural philosopher, an alchemist, and  an astronomer.
  • Another a monk, a gardener,a  beekeeper, an astronomer, and a meteorologist.
  • The third was a failed medical student, a bug collector, a marine biologist, a geologist, and a taxidermist who happened to spend a few years on the British survey ship the HMS Beagle.

You do not create scientists by pushing "science" on them-- Newton, Mendel, and Darwin did not pursue science--they were interested in the world, and how it works.

If you know how the story ends, you are not practicing science.
If you tell a child how the story is supposed to end, you are not teaching science.

That we worry more about a young child's access to software than soil shows how confused we have become--no one ever got rich pushing soil to school children.

Someone's getting rich pushing iPads to kindergarterners, though. The Superintendent of that district, Tom Morrill, thinks it's something that "absolutely" must be done: 
“When you take a look at what the IPad 2 can do and you look at the wealth of apps that are out there, everything from learning your letters to books that can be read… fingerpainting, you name it. It’s absolutely something that we must do.”
Only someone disconnected from the world could equate a fingerpainting app with its messy, sensuous reality that teaches so much more than making pretty "art".

Imagine that--"books that can be read...."
The various vocations of the famous scientists were lifted from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Trust me, I'm a science teacher

Am I going to teach the history of science?
Am I going to teach science as a seemingly static list of what we know today?
Am I going to teach science as a seemingly static list of what we know when the textbook was published?
Or am I going to teach the process of looking at the world with our God given senses (and yes, "God" is an incomprehensible word), looking for patterns, testing predictions, and expanding what we know?

If you do not "get" science, please step out of the way.
If you are not in awe of the universe, or humbled by its very possibility, please get off the stage.
If you think science can be learned from a monitor, please move over.
If you confuse technology with science, please get off the curriculum committee.

Science is not defined by school boards, governors, or even Presidents. It leads to where it leads--unpredictably but consistently.

I have two goals in class--to teach science, and to preserve a child's wonder. When they become contradictory, something is very wrong....

Ain't xkcd just grand?
And maybe I'm just too old, but "bitches" sounds misogynous....

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tomato seedlings

That a tiny tomato seed grows at all still amazes me, in a cerebral, Robert Frost kind of way.

The first time I brush against the new leaves, though, the earthy aroma swirling around my limbic system, Frost will no longer do.

William Blake gets close, Galway Kinnell closer still, but the words only get in the way, and what I know, or think I know, float like motes in a ray of sun, perceptible, for the moment, before sliding into the darkness that defines the edge of the light.

Tomato, just recently sprouted, sitting in the basement....

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A science experiment

Wash and tumble two flash drives containing oodles of information, at medium temperature, then tumble dry in a gas dryer.

One of the two still works.

What conclusions can you draw?
  • Flash drives are amazing devices!
  • Washer and dryer motors do not emit much magnetism.
  • Thinking about backing up isn't quite the same as backing up. (We have a fancy external hd--did I use it?)
  • I'm an idiot.
  • 50% of flash drives can survive a trip to the laundromat.
Only the last one is questionable, and that's only because of a ridiculously small sample size.

And yes, I will use this in class tomorrow....

Horseshoe crabs redux

I saw that someone Googled "can you pick up a horseshoe crab" today to find my blog.
I found a half dozen tiny horseshoe crabmolts on the beach today, the smallest the size of my thumbnail.
I rescued an ancient old female, caught high on the beach, twice today. Flies had settled on her the first time around, she shoved off the second. This may well be her last year, but not her last day.

So I brought this back....

Spiders, really.
And like spiders, feared.

Kids, really.
And like kids, fearless.

I was 8, old enough to know better. The lifeguard, bronzed and confident, draped in red, asked us to slaughter the horseshoe crabs.

"Hold them by the tail so they can't sting you, then smash them on the wall."

The wall--a creosote bulkhead jutting into the beach, already slimy with the blue blood and cracked shells of these fearsome creatures.

It was mating season. Not yet old enough to understand a desire that drove these beasts onto my beach, Ideal Beach, I smashed one creature on top of the others, picking the same one up over and over until the shells splintered and the sky blue blood soaked the shells underneath.

Sea gulls pecked into the soft flesh of our dying prey as the legs were still scratching at the sky.

When we were done, tired, stinking, and proud of our aching muscles, we jumped back into the water, washed ourselves, then went home.

Hemocyanin: blue blood. We wore it that day like war paint--stinking of death, sweating under the early July sun.

20 mg of high purity hemocyanin will fetch $175.00

20 milligrams.
Less than the weight of a fat housefly. Less than the weight of our soul. Our blood runs red from the iron in hemoglobin; a horseshoe crab's blood runs blue from copper.

Hemoglobin is cheaper.

Every spring the she crabs come to the beach, several smaller males trailing behind. The bayshore teems with horseshoe crab eggs, tiny bean curds at the lip of the beach. Millions upon millions, so many that none mean anything at all to me. Birds crowd along the beach, feasting. I used to think the birds were what mattered.

A female crab can lay 80,000 eggs in a season. She creeps up onto the beach, riding the spring tide on the full moon. She crabs reach sexual maturity in 9 to 12 years, not much younger than when humans do. May is crazy with life everywhere. Within 2 to 4 weeks, they are ready to hatch. I never really looked at the eggs closely, until last year.

It took me a long moment to believe what I was seeing. Horseshoe crab eggs do not remain opaque. Soon before they egg splits, the tiny pale crab spins wildly. Half the egg is clear, the other half white from the curled embryo. If you look carefully, you can tell that this tiny critter is a curled up horseshoe crab. As it spins, it looks like a tiny blinking eye.

If you watch one long enough, you will catch its birth. It will already have survived longer than most of its siblings. And it will not likely survive the next high tide.

Still, catching the exuberance of a newly hatched critter the size of an ice cream sprinkle on a warm, June afternoon changed me. Strangers saw a wild-haired middle-aged man squatting by the water's edge, staring intently at nothing, gesticulating a bit too much for others to come share his excitement.

I would not have let my kids close to me, either, had our roles been switched. Fortunately for my kids, I am not a stranger.

The smell of a dead or dying crustaceans can overwhelm a kitchen. On an open beach, however, mixed in with the salty life-teeming spray, a balance is reached. At high tide, the smell is almost too clean; at low tide, whiffs of the decaying mud is sharp, but not repulsive. The tide washes over us twice a day, the rhythm of mortality.

I occasionally find horseshoe crabs stranded on the beach. I will gently pick them up, and return them to the water. I may have returned thousands by now. I cannot make up for the hundred I slaughtered. That is not why I do it.

Every summer I show children how to pick up a horseshoe crab. Cradle the carapace with your hand. Do not carry them by their tails. I touch the point of the tail, show a child there is no stinger. They are gentle creatures. Omnivorous, true--clams, worms, and algae, so perhaps not so gentle, but certainly not harmful to humans.

Young loggerhead turtles snack on horseshoe crabs. Humans use their blood in medical research. Otherwise, they have few "enemies." Not sure being higher up in the food chain makes one an enemy. Someday I will feed the worms, unless some stranger stuffs my veins with formaldehyde and buries me too deep to be useful.

Horseshoe crabs live an average of 19 years, or so the scientists will tell you. I doubt the average longevity matters to a horseshoe crab--the mad, exuberant spinning of horseshoe crab embryos one June afternoon reminded me what matters.

Ask me someday....ask me in June. I will show you. Words will not do. I bet you smile like an idiot, too.... 

Personal observations.
"The Horseshoe Crab,(Limulus polyphemus)," Maryland Sea Grant Schools Online Network
A.G. Scientific, Inc., Product Catalog,

Duncan does it again

Arne Duncan may well be tone deaf, but his handlers must know how he sounds. That they have made no effort to sweeten his swill suggests that the monied people already know how this will go down.

Our local paper's editorial board interviewed him, though "interviewed" may be too strong a word. Mr. Duncan's heart may be in the right place (though I'm not convinced), he may be charming, and Lord knows he's got power--but the Star-Ledger's board needs to remember that they are journalists, not flacks.

I worked in Newark for years--in shelters, in clinics, in hospitals, and in the schools. I now work in the town next door, but would welcome an opportunity to again help change the lives of devastated children. Mr. Duncan's approach, however, makes substantial change unlikely.

Here are pieces of the interview:

"I ran Chicago schools and had about half the money Newark has, literally."
 Where's the follow-up question pointing out that the Chicago miracle was a mirage?

"What’s been lacking is the courage to demand and expect excellence."
This is an insult, "literally," to every person who has dedicated their lives to helping others in dire conditions:
the teachers, the Sisters of Charity, the Children's Health Fund, the CAC of NJ ,the Newark Community Health Centers, Newark Emergency Services for Families, the Community Food Bank, CASA, La Casa de Don Pedro, Link Community School, the principals, Covenant House, Renaissance House, Greater Newark Conservancy, Ironbound Community Corporation, Gateway Northwest, AD House, and so many others, some recognized, most not.

To call us cowards, to insinuate that we ever expected less than excellence, defines you.

If you want to help make things happen, you're sincere, and in it for the long haul, and if you can be bothered to learn a bit of the history of Newark and its citizens, you will be welcomed. None of those are obvious.

"The data on charters is very clear."
Yes, it is. Is there anyone on the Star-Ledger staff looking at the data?

"Linking student performance and teacher evaluation is hugely important."
"Hugely" is an odd word there--push him on it. Does poverty matter? Lead burden? Untreated asthma? No decent teacher feels threatened by folks judging our classes--we do feel threatened by the use of improper data by disingenuous (or just plain slow) administrators and politicians. Duncan lives in a world of straw men--I expect journalists to challenge his myths. "How about a little fire, Scarecrow?"

"But this isn’t about outsiders controlling anything."
 This is either very dumb or just plain disingenuous. Really, Arne?

Bob Braun, contrary to his editorial board, has been doing a bang-up job following the money in the Newark school reform effort.
The quotes in bold are Duncan's.