Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thermometers, again

Thermometers work by magic, or may as well, given the  way we use them in class.

Lorin King, released under CC 3.0

We focus on how to read them, then how to convert one reading to the other. If a child barely has a grasp on Fahrenheit, it's really too much to ask her to convert to Celsius, not matter how much more sense it might make. Kelvin is just Celsius with a degree in pedantics.

A child can observe the triple point of water, at least two parts of it. (Water vapor is invisible--the fog you see is condensed water--droplets of liquid.) A child can tell when water is boiling.

Give a child a thermometer without numbers, without lines. Let her figure out why calibration matters. Otherwise a thermometer is just another talisman in a republic that cannot survive magical thinking.

The worksheet made by Lorin King, released under CC 3.0

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

It's all there for those who care to look

 This was posted two years ago. I liked it then, and I still do.

It's  late June.

Light life and more light and more life. Little makes sense, but in June the abundance pushes aside the questions.

I have tooth marks in my thumb from a fluke. A snake no longer than a ruler tried to strike me a few hours later. A lone bat heralded dusk.

School winds down in June.

Next year I plan to start with Darwin's idea of descent with modification. He did not invent evolution. He did, however, figure out that the raw beauty of life's symphony here can be explained without appealing to some central plan that places humans above all else.

It's all there for those who care to look.

If you are going to acknowledge something is unknowable or incomprehensible or too powerful to comprehend, hey, I'm right there with you. Many things will remain unknowable in any scientific sense.

When you try to explain the inexplicable, when you presume to know the "meaning" of existence, though, keep it outside my classroom door. I teach biology, not metaphysics.

I'll be glad to discuss the "unknowable" with you,
ideally by a lake at dusk,
watching bluegill sucking down lightning bugs
enamored by their own reflection.

Just not in class.

Photos taken a few moments ago--grapes, honeysuckle, and sage.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On thermometers

I got sidetracked from science for a bit. Governor Christie came to our school back in March for a private meeting; our Ed Commissioner Chris Cerf tagged along, and took exception to my opinion of his past work. We met again, and then again, though I'm still not clear why.

At any rate, my foray into politics has apparently ended--Trenton is silent, my orneriness again overwhelming what talents I may have. At least I got to spend an hour in the commissioner's glass office, overlooking the Delaware River. I like the Delaware more than I like offices, so next time I'll stay outside.

Back to science. If I should stumble onto anything that might help kids, Mr. Cerf, feel free to use it.

We teach a lot of pseudoscience. We praise Aspergerish behaviors in science class. We rewards those children who can mimic our stories, but not those who create new ones.

What does a child know measuring temperature? What do any of us know? A classroom thermometer is a disarmingly simple gadget--a glass tube with some dyed alcohol in it. The way we use them, though, they may as well be cast from the Temple of Delphi.

Alcohol, like most stuff, expands when heated. We tell kids that, and they write it down, spit it back, and wham, we just bypassed one of the most basic and interesting facets of physical science a child will ever get a chance to know.

Let's explore it a bit further....

If we shove some alcohol in a tube, leave some space, then seal off the top, we have a thermometer. Gas is far more compressible than liquid, so as the alcohol warms up, it rises up the column. At some point we need to calibrate it, but let's leave it blank for now and give it to a 7 year old.

What can she do with it?

She can watch what it does. Warm things (whatever warm means, and for mammals it's truly relative) it rises, for cool things, it shrinks.

Can a 7 year old grasp that if the liquid rises to the same point that an object has the same temperature? This is a far more difficult concept that it appears. Most adults wouldn't get it. We all talk about temperature, but few of us know what we're talking about.

But let's get back to the thermometer....

If the alcohol expands, and we did not add anything to the tube, and we accept the idea that atoms exist, then only a few things could have happened. Either the atoms got bigger themselves, the space between the atoms got bigger, or both.

We're not talking about trivial volumes. You neglect this, and bridges fall down. Our whole story about physical science depends on our concept of atoms. Few of us grasp the model, and even fewer grasp that it's just a model.  We kill science long before a child has a chance to shave unwanted hairs.

We place far more emphasis on the ability to read the thermometer than on the story behind why alcohol expands when heated. The story is not hard to grasp. The particles of alcohol vibrate more as they "warm up"--Michael Jackson needed more space dancing than, say, sleeping.

Temperature is defined as the average kinetic energy of particles in a given lump of stuff--kinetic energy is all about motion. The more actively you dance, the more kinetic energy you have. (To be fair, a physicist would argue I put the cart before the horse--the dancing reflects the kinetic energy.)

So tell the 2nd grader the story--the more active the particles are, the warmer they feel. The more the alcohol particles dance, the more space they need. Why? Because....

The "because" dictates the story--we forget this, but children do not. Everything is "because" when you're young. The stories help us sort out the "becauses"--and ultimately, much of this is unknowable.

If I were king of the world, thermometers in early elementary school would not be calibrated. They would not even have lines. They'd just be sticks of colored alcohol, lying about in class. The less said, the better....

For a high school student, this is not a trivial matter. We tell them that the molecules are vibrating more, but what does this mean?

We feel "heat"--or rather, our brain processes afferent signals, and determines that skin molecules are vibrating a bit faster than they were a moment ago. Our brains do not love our models--if they did, science would be intuitive. There's a reason, a good one, that sophomores are more interested in sex than science.

It you put one hand in cold water, and the other in hot, then put both in tepid water, the former will feel warm, the latter cold. It's an easy demo for class, and one worth doing. For survival, knowing whether something is warmer or cooler is enough. The thermometer belies our bias.

So we create our stories. If we're going to teach science, we're going to have to stumble along with our stories. There's no other way.

(Yes, I know our stories are bound by what we observe, and are often more easily represented by mathematical models--but we are talking of children, most who will fail in Arne's dream of creating a generation of technophiliacs.)

It gets down to matter, and energy, and we do a lousy job explaining either to our little ones, partly because they're hard to grasp, but more so because we fear admitting what we don't know.

If our goal is more engineers, then maybe pushing the stories as reality, concrete as the brains running ed reform, makes sense.

Science, alas, is grounded in the universe, which is to say, it's not grounded at all--the pieces are flying all over the place, each fragment related to every other, but flying all over nonetheless. It's messy, but despite the mess, possibly (possibly) reducible to a few general principles.

I could spend a month playing with thermometers and heat in class, but I do not have that kind of time. I'm supposed to teach biology.

Our high school has several patches of "dog vomit" slime mold bubbling about the school grounds, one patch oozing a bloody red liquid. I just found it today.

This is great stuff! Utterly incomprehensible oozing life forms just a few feet from our school's doors. I will fence it off tomorrow, and ask the custodians to leave it be.

Here's the catch--while we pretend that the icky stuff is what we need to capture our kids' interest, the science behind our lowly cheap thermometers would be more than enough to hold the interest of our students if we were more interested in sharing our ignorance of this universe thing than if we were trying to raise engineers.

I've got nothing against engineers--some of my best get the idea.

We got colleges for engineers. I just want to teach science, the kind based on observations of a universe we cannot possibly hope to grasp perfectly, but one that we can hope to grasp enough to know it more than most of us do.

Enough to know the meaning of finite, the meaning of enough, the meaning of *blush* love.

What do any of us truly know?
Slime photo by Ivo Antuske, who released it to the PD'
The Gov's photo from our school's website.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Thank you, MSUNER

Today I got to hang with about 300 other teachers, honing our craft, talking about what worked and what didn't, at a lovely conference at Montclair State University.

Our Governor was not there. Our union was not there. Our students were not there.

Just us, talking shop, formally and informally.

With the storm clouds rolling in, it's easy to forget why we do this. It's nice to get a pay check, true--despite the howls of the ridiculously rich, there's no shame in earning a living. Still, we get more than that. Far more than that.

I'm good. I want to be better. Most of us do.

Thank you Cheryl Hopper for a wonderful conference.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Stories matter

"Remember when..."

Late June is a great time to be an American. Stories are told during the long, soft dusk. Lightning bugs almost make up for the skeeters. Talk swings from baseball to beans, passing through epic feats of failure, now funny stories weaved between births and deaths.

"Jodie's not so well... Gawd, how Anna has grown! 6 months?... Really? She barely shows....We're hanging on, barely....What a wedding!....Goodness, it's lovely out tonight....."

We laugh, we drink, we eat, we share.

Your children are not truly competing with the Chinese children or the Finnish children or the Indian children. Our children are now seen as chattel, penned in the same cell as any other child. They are all competing against an international corporate structure that protects their own children at the expense of all others. No, it's not some sekrit international plot--it's just human nature gone amok....

It doesn't have to be this way. We got good earth, and water, and trees, for now. We have seas with fish, and plains with grain, for now. We have coal and wind and sunlight. We have a reasonably moderate climate, for now.

We also have a story, a good story, and a constitution, a good constitution. We have wonderful parables--Johnny Appleseed, Annie Oakley, John Henry. We're the goofy, kind folks who left our native lands, folks who  can solve pretty much any problem tossed our way, in unexpected ways.

When did arrogance and efficiency and misplaced elitism become our story? Why do we care what Bill Gates and Eli Broad have to say? How does a man like Arne Duncan become the national figurehead for what used to be education?

When did we stop wanting to be Americans?

I'm not raising children to be chattel. A well-educated child, one who knows where she came from, knows her land, and knows what's possible, makes for a lousy slave.

There's a good reason literacy creates turmoil in tiered cultures.

Literacy takes time.
Education takes time and room.
Living well takes time and room and wisdom.

Our national leaders spent their lives rushing to "there" without ever knowing "here"--hard to love a land you know only abstractly. Hard to love anything you know only abstractly. It's impossible to rightly care for something you don't know how to love.

Love of our land can start with the simple act of putting a bean seed in a recycled milk carton, filled with dirt scooped up by a child's hand from the ground next to the school building. It can start with a walk to the closest stream. It can start with listening to a grandmother describe what her town looked like a few decades ago, when people knew what a stoop was for.

Not sure growing a bean will help a child on the NJASK, our tithe to the NCLB nonsense. But I am sure of this:

A child who has a love of place, of life, of the universe has a better shot at happiness than one who does not. Few things are more dangerous than an educated adult with no sense of place. Right now they're running the show, and telling the tales.

You don't need a tinfoil hat anymore to be a conspiracy crank. Here's a headline from today's Star-Ledger:

N.J. hedge fund leaders create group to financially back education reforms supported by Gov. Christie

Last week we got this:

Christie's proposal would give private companies unprecedented control of failing N.J. public schools

Chris Cerf, our Acting Commissioner of Education, used to be the CEO of Edison Schools--ask him how things went in Philly and Baltimore. He knows the problems. He's bright, he's personable, and I trust his heart is in the right place. I tend to trust a lot.

Yet here we go again. How does a bright man with an intimate role in the history of failed privatization of public schools keep doing what he does?

I have a hypothesis (hey, I'm a science teacher)--I suspect that he and those he hangs with share different stories, stories framed by private schools, hedge funds, and power. While Mr. Cerf was cutting his teeth as a teacher at Cincinnati Country Day School, I was busy chelating lead poisoned kids in Newark.

Fancy day schools will pluck out an occasional child of color from the inner city--makes making the websites and pamphlets more, um, democratic. They won't be taking the child whose brain has been severely damaged by lead. They won't be taking the child whose life crises leave a legacy of outrageous behaviors. 

They don't need to--it's not part of their story. They don't know those children even exist.

But I do.


To his credit, Mr. Cerf did spend some time with me, far more than I could have hoped for.
I don't want Zuckerberg's money, I don't want to administrate, I don't care much for meetings.
I do care about the kids, and I do care about my profession.
I know a bit about both. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Solstice graduation

"The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was."

Except in June.

Just about every day this week I grabbed a few small, dark cherries from the small trees lining Liberty Street--just the right bitterness to counter the almost too rich fruitiness. The sun seems to have frozen in the north, teetering a week or two before starting our slow plunge back to darkness.

Life brims mid-June, feeding on the energy that bathes the Earth this time of year. The energy starts to dwindle tomorrow. Tonight I put my shoes away for the summer,unless, of course, there'a a wake. I took them off as I left our graduation ceremony. The ice returns in just a few months, as inevitable as the wakes that keep my shoes busy.

If you pay attention to these things, the dwindling light, the mad dancing of organisms in the June dusk, the aroma of honeysuckle drifting through your skull, the incessant buzzing of hundreds, thousands of critters aware of you, you'd go mad, of course, a Mid-Summer's Night Dream kind of insanity,

And many of us do--pay attention and go mad--mid-June, midsummer, when living requires little, as fine a time as any to toss a class of young adults out into the world.

And how many are "college and career-ready"? Not sure what that even means.

But I am sure of this--several hundred children from many different cultures, from many different lands, from many different circumstance, left our building tonight having an idea of what is possible, of what democracy can look like. A lot of them left our building "college ready" for schools they cannot afford, and "career ready" for jobs that left north Jersey a generation ago.

They are kind, they are brave, they are bright, and they are now adults entering a world Arne does not (or will not) recognize. As we turn inexorably to November, to darkness, to fear, I hope that a child's new-found knowledge of how the natural world gives her pause before she plunges into cynicism, or to self-loathing.

It's a beautiful world out there, but a world defined by limits imposed by our sun, our soil, or water. Our children are of this world, so long as they live. This matters more than any games imposed by wealthy gentlemen governing from hundreds of miles away.

Congratulations to our Class of 2011. This is your world, get to know it beyond the boundaries imposed by human words and limited ideas. Embrace it like you own it.

Because you do.

Teaching matters.
The print is Titania, by Joseph Noel Patton, 1850.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

June ramblings

I'm reading Umberto Eco, a June indulgence. He's bright, and interesting, and mostly right, but he's also, well, um, a professional dilettante. I have nothing against dilettantes. in another lifetime I'd consider being one, but in a time when honest folks can't find a job, dilettantes seem obscene.

But if you have the time, he's worth a read.

In Language and Lunacies, he argues, among other things, that we believe, "as factual truth, that the chemical composition of water is H2O." We teach it as such, but it's not true.

Imagine a solitary molecule of water--what properties could it possibly possess? It would have to be gaseous, since it has no connection with its neighbors, and even then, alone, it really has no special qualities.

Water behaves as water because water has an unusual attraction to itself--the Brittney Spears of molecules. We call this hydrogen bonding, but no matter. Without other water molecules around, the concept of H2O is a human conceit. (To be fair, it's a human conceit anyway, but not in the sense that Mr. Umberto recognizes.)

I will bore the love of my life with this tonight--I will prattle on, so I will save you the grief. But I will say this much.

If you think you know anything about water because you call it H2O, you are mistaken. Calling it "H2O" only means that you know it takes two parts of hydrogen for every part of oxygen, and few of us take the time to accurately measure how much water gets generated every time we blow up some hydrogen.

We practice a lot of pseudo-science in education. We encourage an Asperger's Syndrome culture, spouting off "facts," without any connection to the ground that's under my bare feet as I write.

We really know nothing, and that's OK, so long as we remember that the stories we tell are resurrections of the stories told by pretty much any vertebrate with a brain. "I'm here! I'm here! Listen to me! Listen to me! I have a story to tell!"

Which brings me to the Big Bang. This is a wonderful story--we have characters and drama and intrigue--but ultimately it is absolutely (and I do not use the term loosely) incomprehensible. If you tell a child that the universe erupted from a single point, and that child dutifully records such nonsense in her notebook, and you let her without letting her in on the secret, then you may as well teach astrology.

And a lot of us are teaching astrology.

Astrology's interesting, but not nearly as interesting as a teaspoon of soil, a drop of water from the Delaware Bay, the purple shit of a common robin.

If science does noting else, it should remind a child that the universe exceeds our imaginations, and that the stories derived from the natural world , our stories, exceed the stories about humans alone.

Most cultures know this. Our culture mastered metallurgy, and weaponry, and we forgot. God help any culture that is bold enough to remember. We destroyed the Amerinds, the Incas, the Aztecs, the Afri. Don't screw with us. We shoot, then let God sort out the souls.

As I write this, a robin dances a couple of yards away from me as I water the garden. He's a couple of years old--he knows me, and I know him. I could make up a tale, anthropomorphize him, but that would require a huge assumption, that I know more about him than I do.

If you're going to teach in any way that matters, you're going to have to challenge assumptions.

So this is what I know.  When I water my garden, he eats worms that erupt from the earth. He's alive, I'm alive, and we share the same mitochondria, the same ribosomes, the same ancestors. We're cousins.

If you internalize this, you're less likely to wipe him out. If you're less likely to wipe him out than the Eurodescendant next to you, you're less likely to have a seat at a boardroom table.

So I teach.

The commissioner of education in this fine state calls me an "ankle biter." I doubt that Arne knows who I am, but I also doubt that his view of me would be any more flattering than our commissioner's. '

At least one robin loves me, a few mature humans, and maybe even a child or two.

That a child even needs a gateway to the world, the natural, real world outside the pixels that damn her to a life of drudgery and limited choices, is sad. But she does. And I consider it an honor to be that gateway.

Arne doesn't know this world, nor does Bill or Eli or the Acting Commissioner of Education here in the Garden State.

But I do.

And so will every child that walks into my classroom.

I love June. I'm brave in June
Lord, please, let mebe brave when the sun runs away again....

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Arne in June


The blueberries are still mostly green, just blue enough to remind me of Uranus through our scope.

Raspberries and snow peas and basil and purple beans explode in our mouths, in our brains.

Light, light, and more light floods us daily--anything is possible in June, anything. There's enough energy for all of us who survived the past winter, more than enough.

"Enough" is a wonderful word foreign to many of us. If you know "enough," you know "content."

Less than a week ago, a dolphin eyed me, and I eyed it back. Not much to say, even if we could speak the same language. It's June, and there's more than enough to go around.


I am reading Science for All Americans, the AAAS book describing Project 2061. The second paragraph starts with this:

Education has no higher purpose than preparing people to lead personally fulfilling and responsible lives. For its part, science education...should help students to develop the understandings and habits of mind they need to become compassionate human beings able to think.


Are you listening, Arne? Bill? Eli?

In June, the words of the powerful sound silly--but come November, when darkness falls and fear, again, prevails, Arne will cast his spell again.

Without fear, Arne loses his grip. Without fear, we can teach again. Without fear, we can resume this great experiment.

Puny men can only rule through fear. I'm done worrying. I'm going to teach science.

How about you?

The key to all this is recognizing our own mortality.
Get that down, and Arne's just another semi-pro basketball player with connections.

Why "Johnny Appleseed"? It's June...why not?

And no, Chris Cerf did not invite me back. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

A modest proposal

The Science Goddess recently wrote a powerful post pointing out that we're not going to get far with the wolves running the show unless we put on some wolf's clothing.

I save that kind of entertainment for Bleeker Street late October. I got snowpeas to harvest, clams to rake. But she makes a good point. What we're doing isn't going to work.

If more than a few of us get really good at what we do, and our lambs learn to think critically, we're going to be OK. If not, we're toast.

If it's testing the Feds want, let's give it to them:
Test teachers every two months for content knowledge. Heck, test them every two weeks if it keeps the bean counters happy. Most of us will do just fine. The few of us that don't know our stuff, well, time to go.

Put cameras and microphones in our rooms. Put them in the hallways. Install a toilet-cam for all I care. Watch what we do. If you have a better plan, let me hear it. If I'm not reciting state standards while washing my hands in the bathroom, dock me an hour's pay and give to Pearson or ETS or whomever--as long as you leave me alone when I get it right.

Let's make the student testing truly high stakes--if a child fails, off to the gallows! Everyone wins! The district sheds the stragglers, the parents shed a lifetime of debt owed to child's college, and the child does not face a life of shame knowing he let the United States down because some child in Burma kicked his arse.

I doubt Arne's been paying attention, but the obsjay have been ippedshay overseasay. Maybe we can get export Arne's job over to Finland.

This song's been ripping through my head, not sure why, my cortex hasn't caught up with my amygdala, but I suspect The Science Goddess' post has something to do with it:

Joe Strummer's dead, and will be for a bit.
I'm not, not yet, and hopefully won't be for a bit.

I'll take truth wherever I can find it these days.

Truth will out.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Obvious, but not intuitive

Frank Noschese and Rhett Allain have a good on-going discussion on the Khan Academy's  work with physics. Some excerpts:

Science is obvious, but it's not intuitive. Obvious in the sense that we can observe what we observe, even as our brains refuse to accept it.

Intuition kept us alive for thousands of generations. There may be real survival value in accepting cultural illusions, even when they conflict with our empirical data. The concept of god(s) long preceded our worship of data.

We forget this at our peril. We did not survive as the simians we are by applying logic; we survived through intuition. We feel we are right, even when we're not.

The past three years, I have started class the same way. I climb up on a lab table, holding a paper clip in one hand, an old edition of the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics in the other. I feel the heaviness of the ancient book, over 2000 pages being pulled towards the Earth. I barely feel the paper clip.

The kids (predictably) assert that the book will hit the ground first. I know in my gut that the book will hit first.
They both hit the floor simultaneously. I am surprised, as I always am. Obvious. But not intuitive.

Even after hundreds of trials, I still  feel cognitive dissonance. I'm an odd duck--I like cognitive dissonance.

The visceral trumps the cerebral in our culture. One of the ironies of pushing for their new science standards is that their preamble eschews reason:

"There is no doubt that science—and science education—is central to the lives of all Americans."
No, not true. Not even close. But it feels right.

Science is at the heart of the United States’ ability to compete and lead, which of course means that all students—whether they become technicians in a lab, PhD researchers or simply consumers—must all have a solid K-12 science education.
Science matters, but not because of some abstract flag-waving piece of jingoistic nonsense. The second half of the sentence is a non sequitur--unless our being "simple consumers" both requires a solid science education (I would argue otherwise) and leads to the heart of America's "ability to compete and lead."

Science also drives innovation, which in turn drives the economy.
Science certainly drives some innovation, and some innovation has some effect on the economy, but we're still bound to the earth, to the air, to the water more than we are bound to the kind of abstract economy the folks appear to worship.

If we're teaching children science simply because we're holding them accountable for the success of our economy, we are guilty of abusing our children.

Just a few hours ago a pod of dolphins snorted just a few feet from our kayaks.

Nowhere in the preamble does speak of the wonders of this natural world, of the joys of discovery, of our human need to lift up stones to see what lives underneath.

If I do my job well, that is, if I teach a child science, she will scoff at the premises holds as sacrosanct. If I do it really well, she will scoff at any premises I hold sacrosanct.

Is there no joy in Mudville?
Photo by Leslie--looks like a shot of Nessie, true, but we were both too excited to take a straight shot.

Slow science

"[I]t is quite the rushing through and pointing at.... "
A wise woman's words upon reviewing Newark's 2nd grade science curriculum

If you spend most of your time doing things you like, there is no reason to do things quickly. I like slow. Deep, thoughtful living takes time.

Slow gardening. Slow teaching. Slow clamming. Slow cooking. Slow down.

The Framework For Science Education will be released in the next week or so. It is currently "undergoing a confidential external review by a group of independent experts," but given the track record of Achieve, I doubt much will be changed. And that's a shame.

There's a whole lot of "rushing through and pointing at."

We keep confusing attainment of benchmarks based on science content with learning science. The persistence of the flawed concept of  a STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics) curriculum shows how little science is understood.

Science is making sense of the natural world by telling stories using specific rules. Models, hypotheses, theories, simulations--all stories dependent on observations of the natural world, the world perceived by our senses, the dancing shadows in Plato's cave.

The heart of science, what separates it from other forms of story-telling, is its reliance on observation. Each and every one of us can see the shadows dancing on the cave wall, and each can challenge the stories of another, by pointing to the wall. Even children. Maybe especially children.

We underestimate the power of naming, a real danger in our early grade science curriculum. I hold sophomores spellbound describing the mysterious force savallah. a mysterious force recognized by my ancestors in western Ireland. I might even light a candle as I tell the story. I explicitly describe what gravity does, but call it "savallah." Every particle of matter tugs at every other particle that exists.

Not one student believe savallah exists. Not one. But they all "believe in" gravity.

Young children do not need to "know" gravity--the word should be banned before high school. They do not need to know engineering. They do not need to know algebra.

They need to practice observing until they trust their perceptions enough to challenge the misconceptions of others.


I spent last evening on the ferry jetty. I saw an eel swim languidly by, rising from the depths, as the gray clouds started spitting on the water, an eel perhaps never seen by a human. The world is far larger than we can imagine.

Learning science is not linear--children need not (and, at any rate, cannot) grasp STEM concepts in carefully chunked modules divided by grades. If a child learns how to observe, truly observe, she can tackle most of the standards proposed in the late elementary grades in less than a month in high school.

If she also learns how to think, truly think, she can tackle pretty much anything. Anything. Content in science becomes old news because it will always remain an incomplete story. We teach it anyway, superficially, and we test it anyway, superficially. Efficiently, cheaply, and superficially.

We don't need children who can recite the stories, we need children who can write them.

In the end, technology will not save us, nor will engineering. Seems the height of insanity to trust the methods that got us into this mess.

What will save us is a generation of children who learn how to observe, to tell stories, to know enough about this marvelous world to love it, and to care for it.

Science isn't intuitive--if it were, we'd still be ruled by a slew of false gods.
Because we do not teach it well, we are still, alas, ruled by a slew of false gods.

Photos ours, use as you will--two of Galway Bay, one from Delaware.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Toryfication of America

I teach for two reasons:
One, I have a ridiculously passionate attachment to watching the world, the one that exists whether (or not) humans exist. It's ultimately unknowable,despite its teasing patterns, and we're all part of it, all of us, no matter our status.

Two, I have a ridiculously passionate attachment to this experiment called America. What Jefferson started is still salvageable, though less so year by year. I only have a decade or two left help Jefferson out. 

A few remarkable things happened this week. I stole ripe cherries from a tree on an urban street, cherries eyed by a few birds but no humans, because humans in this part of the world conjoin "edible" with "supermarket."

And I got called an "ankle-biter" by one of the most powerful men in our state, a man charged with promoting education. Affectionately. I hope.

Governor Christie thinks it's a good idea to allow private companies to run public schools. 

I'm not surprised. He used to be a registered lobbyist for Edison Schools, back when our current Acting Commissioner of Education, Chris Cerf, also worked for Edison Schools. Edison Schools took on the Philly School System, and, well, got their butts kicked.

Mr. Cerf has a lovely office encased in glass, overlooking the Delaware River, the same Delaware River that feeds my bay. My bay. It can be your bay, too, if you care enough to get to know it.

The most important lesson I teach to my lambs is that pretty much any part of the world out there is theirs, if they care to get to know it.

The same could be said for our country.

If we continue to approach education based on some abstract notion of international standards, we will raise a generation suited for the suits, a generation that chases abstract ideas for abstract ends, leading to abstract results.

I pray one of my lambs stopped by a cherry tree today, plucking its burgundy fruit, spitting out the pit a few feet from the life-giving tree.

Most of us would choose the sidelines if we could. We love what we do, this teaching thing, and those of us who get past the second or third year are (mostly) pretty good at it. Our profession has a huge attrition rate, but given our charge, a huge attrition rate is not a bad thing.

I did not look for a fight. The governor approached our school, the commissioner approached me.I will do pretty much anything to help kids. Sometimes I get paid well to do this, sometimes I don't. Anyone who gets to do what they want and makes a decent living is blessed. And, Lord knows, I have been blessed.

But I am not just an "ankle-biter"; I am a pit bull if you mess with my kids.  Just sayin'

And I will be marching in Washington July 30th, with a pack of pit bulls because I am blessed, and because I care.

A little over 200 years ago, our Founding Fathers took on the Tories, and won. The Tories have regained control.

It's time to reclaim our country.

I just want to teach. Well. Finland, anyone?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Another year ends

We're winding down.

Tomorrow I will wander over to the windowsill, pluck a few snowpeas who know only our classroom, and eat them. I will remind the students that their breath was combined with water, using the energy of the sun.

Communion without fanfare, a miracle unrecognized.

And if a few students leave class this week, our last few days of class, pondering the mystery of biology, the flow of energy, the flow of life, well, I've done my job.

I spent countless hours as a child trying to figure out transubstantiation. The wafer tasted like, well, a wafer, but the priest assured me it was the body of Christ.

In my head I imagine molecule after molecule substituting another. I did not know the concept did not originate until a thousand years after Christ's death.

This is my body.

And it is, complex organic molecules fused together by plants, abetted by the nitrogen fixing abilities of bacteria. In physical terms, at the molecular level, we are, truly, what we eat.

And everything we eat ultimately gets back to plants. OK, sunlight. Well, yeah, to something over 10 billion years ago.

We had some births in class, we had some deaths. Most of our tanks are unfiltered, unprocessed--light in, air in, and the occasional flakes of crushed shrimp. We have 2nd generation peas and wheat and fish and third generation snails and umpteenth generation of transformed bacteria that fluoresce.

We have the shells of horseshoe crabs and land snails, starfish and whelk.

Our class witnessed a starfish consume a snail, a shrimp snack on a hermit crab. None of this planned, all of it inevitable.

I am not a particularly religious man. My faith rests in the sun, in the plants, in life. I do not pretend to grasp the why of anything in science, and I do not ask my students to grasp anything I cannot see myself.

We do a lot of observation in B362. We see more than we can understand. We form hypotheses, we see hypotheses smashed, and we form new hypotheses.

I'm not sure how my lambs did on the state test, though historically they do well enough.

They leave my classroom more confused now than when they entered back in September.
And that's OK. That was the goal.

The world is, well, awesome. A fresh snowpea of a windowsill plant tells me so.

First lightning bug

I run this every June, because I like lightning bugs.

First lightning bug tonight. I never tire of lightning bugs.


Dusk settled on the lake. I could hear the kiss of bluegills as they sucked down insects struggling on the surface.

A few lightning bugs flashed above the mirrored surface. Attracted by their own reflections, they swooped ever closer to the lightning bugs flashing below them.

Fish may not be smart, but they're not all get-out stupid, either. And a bluegill will jump if hungry enough. A few were hungry enough. Inside their bellies glowed a few foolish lightning bugs.

Lightning bug light is cool-literally. Luciferin combines with ATP, the energy molecule of life--the resulting compound combines with oxygen, catalyzed by luciferase, and light results. Even tiny amounts of ATP will cause luciferin to light, as long as oxygen is present. While man has never been to Mars, bits of lightning bugs have--luciferin is an extremely sensitive detector of ATP. If it flashes, carbon-based life may be present.

Luciferase from the North American firefly (Photinus pyralis) is the enzyme of choice for reporter gene assays. Luciferase catalyzes the oxidation of a firefly-specific substrate called luciferin to produce light. This reaction is extremely efficient and the quantum yield is the highest of any characterized bioluminescent reaction. The bright signal makes this a valuable enzyme to use for reporting promotor activity. • Packard’s LucLite® assay system, introduced in 1994, produces a long lived glow type signal with a [half-life] of several hours, which makes it ideal for use in noninjector based HTS luminometers, like the Packard TopCount® NXT Microplate Scintillation and Luminescence Counter or the Packard LumiCount® Microplate Luminometer.
Luclite Plus Reporter Gene Assay System, 20,000mL from PerkinElmer,

Scientist have yet to synthesize luciferin, so they buy lightning bugs.

My daughter dug out a tiny mudhole for me in our backyard. At dusk, I sit opposite the pokeweed I am learning to like, under a stray white birch I have always liked. Lightning bugs arise from the earth, flashing their "J"'s, looking for love. Harry Potter, like the Bible, makes sense sitting outside on an early June evening.

I read until the dusk chases words off the page, my feet resting on a small stone wall we built together.

A flash just below my right foot.

I break from Harry Potter. A second scurrying critter rumbles about the flash. The flashing becomes frantic, several short blips in less than a few seconds. My eyes adjust--a spider dances around its prey.

I've never seen a lightning bug flash quickly like that, but then I've never seen one eaten by a spider either. A lightning bug makes a flash by adding a tiny bit of ATP to luceferin. In our mechanistic view of the world, not a bad worldview if you're in the business of conquering it, lightning bugs flash instinctively. They are not known to flash for defensive purposes.

I cannot know why this one flashed, but I do know that lightning bugs, at least this one, had a pattern distinct from its cherchez la femme mode when struggling with a spider.

I almost didn't try to "save" it--a good naturalist observes, does not interfere. The spider has as much a right to the meal as I do to mine. Death by spider is likely to be quicker than death by starvation if the critter could no longer fly.

I pulled the frenetically flashing bug out of the web--a white wisp of web stuck to its backside. I set it on a leaf of the birch with mixed feelings. It will die slowly because my imagination would not allow me to let the spider bite it.

As the critter struggled with its first pair of legs to grasp the edge of the leaf, I gently pulled back the stick. The spider silk stuck to my stick. The lightning bug scootched a few millimeters, no longer flashing, and stood still.

I watched a moment longer. The lightning bug opened up its beetley shell, opened its wings, and flew away.

A moment later, a lightning bug brushed my leg at the bottom of its "J". No way to know if it was the same one. And it really doesn't matter.

Some Asian lightning bugs flash in unison. The lightning bugs in the Jersey area, at least the ones that make a J, are not known to do this (according to the scientists). Oh, occasionally they'll accidentally flash together a few seconds after the flash of a bright light, as though they were all resetting their bellies after seeing a god, but left alone, our fireflies are supposed to be the individualistic sorts.

The local critters must be illiterate--once or twice a dusk, they amuse themselves with synchronous flashing. (“Amuse” sounds like anthropomorphizing, of course--it’s an interesting word, comes from the French amuser, “to stupefy”--we’re most amused when our brains are buggy.) .

One poor fellow one evening couldn’t turn off his belly --he’d glow properly enough in his “J”, but still fizzled a bit as he looked for a response--doubt he could see much light beyond his perpetually lit self.

I muttered “padiddle.” .

Lightning bugs are, obviously alive. They have a lot of ATP. They have a lot of luciferin and luciferase. We made lightning bug earrings, lightning bug drawings, we’d smear dying and dead lightning bugs over our faces and laugh and scream like the atavistic creatures we were, mock Indian face paint.

I am a science teacher; I am not a scientist. A lot of folks are confused about what constitutes science. We want children to be amazed. You can purchase, via PayPal, a lightning bug “collection system.” You have a choice of sizes, and the handle glows in the dark. Imagine that! No doubt safer than punching holes in a half-rinsed mayonnaise jar.

Kids can study and be fascinated by all the little bugs found in the average back yard. Firefly lanterns allow children to watch the lighnting sicbugs light up. The bugs can be returned to nature where they were found after a day or two of enjoyment.
Plum Creek Marketing Entomology Products for Kids.

Another “experiment” suggests that kids catch lightning bugs in a jar for 5 minutes, record their observations, then let them go.

Took me 40 years to realize I learn a whole lot more doing nothing, feet up on a tiny stone wall next to my daughter’s puddle.

Photo by me.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Go West, old man....

"There is a price to pay for speaking the truth. There is a bigger price for living a lie."

The price is social, paid by the pangs of hunger of a child at midnight, a child in my neighborhood. I practiced pediatrics a long time in places Arne's never seen.

The price is cultural, paid by the general malaise of folks who cannot resolve the insoluble dissonance of what can be, and what is.

The price is environmental, paid by the woman touching the bloody bandage hiding the wound that marks a missing breast.

We all lose when any of us live a lie. Our silence marks who we are.
NCLB is founded on a lie, a big, bald-faced piece of nonsense propagated by a few folks in power who do not love your children, who do not know your neighbors, who do not live more than a few years in any given area. They are, in essence, homeless, wallowing in abstract lives, pushing abstract ideas, but making very real money.

Call them on it. Call them each and every time they speak a lie. They're hurting us, bad enough, but they're hurting our children, too, and our silence is unconscionable.

I've always taught like my hair's on fire; I've always taught like our lives depend on it, because they do. Next year I'm going to teach like every day is my last.

If you knew you could only teach another year, another week, another hour, would Arne or Eli or Bill have a whiff of influence in your classroom?

I owe it to my lambs to show them what's possible. It's what I'm paid to do by my neighbors. Bloomfield is an incredible town. I bet you live in an incredible town, too.

Tip of the hat to Mike Klonsky, whose words I read regularly.
None of this happens by accident. Get to work.

Fish heads by Leslie (in Dublin).
Horseshoe crab shell by me, Delaware Bay.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A June song

If I have anything worthwhile to pass onto they young ones, it is this--the world belongs to you, it is you. Not the human world of images and egos, but this vast, incomprehensible, and terrifying and loving ball of energy that surrounds us and the billions (billions) of living critters within arm's length.

It's June. Tonight we feasted on pesto made from basil from the garden, basil that was mere specks of black seeds just a couple of months ago. We ate snowpeas, now climbing to the sky. We ate radishes--pink ones, purple ones, white ones, red ones--riotous rainbows resting in the earth.

Our battle with the Arnes of the world matter, and I am not ceding anything tonight. But I am enjoying a soft June dusk, honeysuckle in the air, belly full of food that erupted from the earth because I spent a few moments putting seeds in the ground.

I'll watch the sun set. I'll play a wooden flute. I'll sing. I might dance, I might not. The lightning bugs will be here any day now. It's June.

Light drives us. Light is finite. We are mortal. A lightning bug blinks in the dusk.

Light, and dirt, and water, and air keep us alive. None of my students need Arne Duncan's nonsense. They need a piece of land, unadulterated air and water, and enough vision to know what they do today will affect their yet unborn children.

If our children can pass tests better than they can plant peas, we have failed as parents, as teachers, as humans. If Arne and Bill and Mike and Eli represent the pinnacle of our culture, then I don't want a part of it.

I believe those of us who dance to what's true will prevail. But if we don't, at least we had a reason to dance. And so we did.

Pictures from the front yard.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The logic of Arne

“Diane Ravitch is in denial and she is insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day."
 Arne Duncan

This is a fascinating logic statement, and my brain's smoking trying to parse it.

I'm a hard-working teacher, working for a hard-working supervisor, under a hard-working principal. And yes, our test scores have incrementally risen over the past few years, and yes, we're recognized as a nationally distinguished Title 1 school.

Incremental gains in "standardized" tests, tests that have us slapping our foreheads as we push mediocre writing habits on our borderline kids so that we make the grade, hardly counts as education.

Getting through another year of AYP successfully is like passing a ridiculously large and hard stool. You do it because you have to, there's a modicum of relief when it's done, and you pray you haven't done too much damage when passing it.

I'm hanging on to the edge of civility here, but if Arne keeps up his nonsense, I'm going to ask him to perform another bodily function not often mentioned in polite company.

There's not enough castor oil on the East Coast to put up with Arne's nonsense.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Quick report

We took about 150 kids to Sandy Hook today, just as the high tide of the new moon of June was receding.

Horseshoe crabs, oblivious to our presence, did what horseshoe crabs have done for millennia.

A few dozen horseshoe crabs danced at the water's edge. Thousands upon thousands of impossibly blue-grey horseshoe crab eggs floated in the water.

Four huge, filleted drum littered the beach.

When the young of the H. sapiens species mix with the old of the L. polyphemus, good things can happen.

And they did.

Thank you PSEG, Bloomfield BEF, BHS administration, and all the chaperones for making this day a tremendous success.
Learning, truly learning, about horseshoe crabs (or any other form of life alien to our culture) will not help on any NCLB exam. But it will change a life, in a good way.
I teach children. Today was a good day. Photos taken by the kids.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

This Brazen Teacher

I just got back from our awards ceremony tonight. Among our students is a young man going to Princeton this fall, a man whose family moved to our town from the other side of the world less than a generation ago.

And NCLB haunts us like a pinworms haunt a three year old. Annoying and useless and something no one wants to talk about rationally.

Meet This Brazen Teacher,
She's young, she's brilliant, she's angry.

This ain't rocket science.

Mr. Obama, imagine a world with Linda Darling-Hammond running education.
You sold us on hope.