Friday, September 30, 2011

September light

Been busier than a bumblebee in May, mostly chasing my own tail, and just about missed September. If anyone checks, though, I got state standards sitting next to some lesson plans on some hard drive somewhere.

How many Septembers do any of us have?

Suppose you live to seventy, and that's a huge suppose. The first few hardly count. Your first September you were likely surprised whenever your fist appeared in front of you face. Your second September you were too busy trying out your legs to notice anything else.

The third and fourth Septembers were nice, but then you got tossed into school. Then work. Deadlines, duties, and data streams.

You think you'll catch September next time around with its soft light and crisp apples, the edge of decay in the air reminding us our bodies belong to the earth and the worms. Maybe when you retire?

That leaves you five Septembers. If you get more than that they will find you in the body of an old man, a body abused for decades, a body ready to quit.

I saw three of our local "residents" cackling away on a park bench late this afternoon, as I rambled home through the Green. One was screaming "You're nuts," to the other two, and all three convulsed in hysterical laughter, because they were, indeed, nuts, have been certifiable for years, and they were outside on a late September day, a gorgeous day that almost allows me to forgive fall, and they were happy as the fat squirrels who waddled around the same bench, hoping for peanuts.

I want my students college and career ready, true, because they have no land and can starve if they fail to play the game.

But I also want my students to see the beauty of late September light with its earth smells, to laugh at the absurdity of the dying light, to howl at the moon, to play, to wander and wonder, to be the mammals that we are.

If the heart of science is observation, and I believe that it is, and if my teaching carries any influence, as I believe it does (why else teach?), then our town will continue to have fools cackle on park benches in the dying summer light.

And if I'm lucky, I'll spend a September or two cackling right along with them, our wise fools of the park, no longer pretending that the matters of man matter more than the ginkgo that shades the bench.

Photos by us. Go us! CC and all that. Boats in Galway, mud field in Cae May.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The satellite is falling! The satellite is falling!

I'm curious--are other science teachers noticing a dearth of numeracy?

While we struggle to get enough of our lambs to wiggle through algebra algorithms to pass the state exam,  fewer children "feel" numbers. Numbers may not be warm and fuzzy, but each one has a certain, um, heft, to it. Solving quadratic equations may impress the senators, but failing to recognize simple arithmetic relations pose a much bigger threat to our republic than a lack of algebraic fluency.

Innumeracy will kill democracy long before illiteracy can.

Dedicated to every child who loses sleep tonight over UARS, a satellite raining down on us tonight.
Woodcut by Gregor Reisch: "Madame Arithmeticae," 1508

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The microscope "e" lab kills science

Telescopes, when introduced too early, kill interest in astronomy. Everything moves the wrong way, the field of view shrinks to impossibly small increments of sky, and, alas, a star is a point of light no matter how powerful the scope. Nothing looks like the pictures (with the startling exception of Saturn, if you can find it).

The first night out ends in tears--Daddy's upset because he bought the most expensive one he could afford, spent an hour setting it up, and now he's standing outside, alone, trying to line up something, anything, that looks interesting enough to justify the money spent on a tool no one knows how to use.
He could have saved everyone a lot of grief had he bought binoculars instead--greater field of view, everything's where it's expected to be, right-side up, and it works right out of the box.

Yep, it's not narly as powerful--only magnifies 10X instead of 500X--but it will provide years of enjoyment, its body worn smooth by hundreds of hours of use, while the telescope languishes in the closet.

It's not about power, it's about seeing.

Every year students learn the parts of the microscope, and every year we drag them through the infamous "e" lab. Cut out the letter "e" from a newspaper, mount it correctly on a slide, look at it in the scope at various mags, figure out its orientation.

The most interesting part of the "e" lab may be seeing the "e" move left when you push the slide right, up when you push the slide down. But we don't talk about the why, that's for physics, and they haven't had that yet.

We trade stories in the lounge--Can you believe she thought the air bubble was alive? That he cut out an upper-case "E" from a headline? That she couldn't see anything because he forgot to turn on the lamp?

And then we wonder why a few children don't even pretend to care when we finally bring in some pond water full of wiggly aliens, full of life, full of wonder. There's just no reaching some kids.

For the love of Zeus, why  the letter "e"?


I just used a coffee maker, and it worked, even though I have no clue what the parts are called. I only used it because I wanted a cup of coffee. I did not learn how to use it until I wanted to make coffee, and I would have thought you mad if you tried to teach me about it before I liked coffee.


Here's a microscope lab that works:
1) Use dissecting scopes instead of the traditional compound scope. You can look at things whole, alive, in 3-D. If those are not available, get your hands on magnifying glasses--they do the same thing.

2) Bring in live wiggly stuff. Earthworms, sow bugs, beetles, snails, slugs, mosquito wrigglers, whatever. Give a brief demo on how to use the dissecting scope, let a couple of students peek in, then stand back.

Really--within minutes, the more adept will be teaching the less adept, kids will have a better grasp (and love) of slugs you could ever generate with a Prezi, and the kids will learn how to use the scope proficiently (which really doesn't matter anyway, when you get down to it).

If you've never used a dissecting scope, get your hands on one--it will change your universe.
Microscope quiz lifted from here--it's been passed around since Leeuwenhoek first drew it. 

If my biggest worry is how to grade something like this, well, I'm on the right path.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tossing the bathwater, keeping the baby

Robert Marzano may become the Jean-Baptiste Lamarck of education.

Lamarck was the guy before Darwin who thought giraffe babies had longer necks than their parents because their parents strived to reach leaves. This "inner need" drove evolution.

Lamarck gets short shrift now, I think unfairly--he was wrong, true, but he proposed an idea that was testable, and he got folks doing just that.

Marzano, too, has some good ideas, and he's even convinced a lot of people that his ideas are founded on  "research," using meta-analysis to draw up some enticing numbers:

I've read Marzano's explanation for his "percentiles," extracting them from "average effect size," in order to "provide[s] for a dramatic interpretation of the possible benefits of  a given instructional strategy."

Lumping various studies, some of dubious quality, under the umbrella of meta-analysis, and then applying a further manipulation to amplify already questionable methods leads to the graph above.

And now teachers around the country are getting the graph above shoved under our puppy-dog noses like a soiled newspaper, while some high paid folks intone "Do this and our state scores will rise 45 percentile points."

Marzano is either stupid or disingenuous, and I doubt he's stupid. Making a case that a particular strategy will raise student scores 45 percentile points is like saying that a particular diet will add 45 years to your life. A lot of people will try the diet, and most will even be better for it. But very few are going to add many years to their lives.

So, yeah, "identifying differences and similarities" can improve student learning outcomes. But anyone who teaches kids already knows this. Really.

All the snake oil in the world is not going to get us a 100% pass rate on the 2014 NCLB tests, but some folks are going to make a lot of money telling us how to get there. Administrators are under tremendous pressure to do what's literally impossible.

Come on, PLC, make the case for Marzano's numbers. I'm calling bull crap.
Quotes and graph taken from Marzano'/Pickering/Pollock's Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement 

Cult of personality seems to run deep in education. 
Don't even get me started on Howard Gardner

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pediatrics vs. teaching

I used to be a doctor, the kind with a stethoscope, the kind licensed to hurt you for you own good. It puzzles children to learn that a physician would walk away from medicine in order to teach, and there are days I am baffled myself.

I liked medicine. I love teaching. I did not know that this would be true when I left medicine, so while it is true, it is not enough to explain why I left. Why leave something you like, especially when it pays ridiculously well?

Every year children ask me this, and so far I have not quite gotten it right. I thought I had it right, but high school sophomores would kind of shake just a little bit sideways. I wasn't fooling them.

I think I got it right now.

I saw a lot of bad stuff in hospitals. I saw a lot of good stuff, too, but good stuff can be found in a lot of places. The truly bad stuff has a home in the hospital.

  • The unlucky (an elderly woman who slowly died from an infection caused by an errant piece of metal ripping through her car's floor, riveting in her thigh).
  • The doomed (a woman burned over most of her body, still conscious, still talking, immediately before we intubated her, rendering her speechless--we knew she was doomed when we did this. We did it anyway.)
  • The curious (two babies sharing the same torso, the same heart, the same fate).
  • The geographically screwed (an Asian toddler who needed a new heart, but who could not afford one, twisting away towards death as she lived in an American hospital as an alien).
  • The innocent (children wasting away from a virus we barely understood, acquired from a mother's heroin habit or her lover's proclivities).

I was very good at diagnosis, and not bad at making things better once a diagnosis was made. A few were better than me, but not many.

 When you are surrounded by hurt, there are two ways to respond if you want to remain functional--fix it, or pretend it does not exist. I did a lot of fixing.

If you do medicine long enough, and if you are paying attention, you give death its due. It's real, it's usually ugly, and it's inevitable.

I can't beat death--took me awhile to get to that realization, but I got there. And it's liberating.

Turns out living isn't the goal--living well is what matters.

I was pretty good at helping people live longer. Now I'm getting good at helping people live well.

I thought my job mattered before, but had my doubts in the pitiful wail of a dying toddler, bruised and bleeding as we laid our hands, our technology, and finally our fists in futile CPR on her tiny body as it cooled its way back to entropy.

A life worth living is our only compensation against the greedy hand of death.

So I help children carve out a life worth living.

I'm a teacher.

If you teach, teach as though lives depend on it. If you think this is excessive, get out.
Photos by me or Leslie--feel free to use under CC.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Put the shoe on the other foot

I haven't worn shoes since the graduation on June 21st, which means I've gotten through the summer without a wake or a wedding.

My feet share the story of summer--they're currently encrusted with the oozy remains of an ill-advised tromp through poison ivy.The tops are brown from melanin, the bottoms brown from dirt. You could make a decent baseball mitt from the leather that lines my soles.

I feel the world differently than I would if I spent my days in shoes. Not saying any better or worse, just different. But once we establish that there is a difference, then we can talk about values.

The kids who live their lives shodless  live a different life than those who live with their shoelaces lashed on tight.

While we dither on about content and standards, the climate you set in your classroom may have profound effects on the way a child see the world, effects that last long after a child has forgotten Pythagoras' theorem.

I'm not saying a child should go barefoot in your classroom. I am saying that before you bind her feet into shoes, you'd better have a better reason than because that's the way it's always been done (a silly reason), or for health (a false reason), or because you said so (abuse of power), or because it's a school rule (an arbitrary reason).

School starts this week for many of us here in New Jersey. Teachers will spend hours droning on about rules. Most high school kids will have less than 5 hours sleep the night before the first day of school and they know all the rules anyway.It's an easy day to waste.

Shake them up a bit. Tell the kids they're required to take off their shoes. Or that they must put their right shoe on their left foot. Or that they must put their socks over their shoes.

Let them tell you why they'd rather not.

(Good Lord, I'm speaking metaphorically....)
The foot in the photo is mine, the critter is a cabbagehead jelly.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

In Irene's aftermath

The sandpiper did the unthinkable--it strolled. Then stopped. Then sat at the edge of the ocean. I was sitting a yard or so behind it. It did not matter. This bird is done.

Hurricanes are exhausting.


We're more intricately tied to nature than we care to admit. We do a pretty good job denying death and denying age, our little pleasure machines adept at creating the illusion of a perpetually orderly universe.

I write out a word--say "maple"--and the branch I swung from as a child still feels as lithe in my hands, though that branch turned brittle and broke decades ago, its essence long turned back to carbon dioxide and water, gone long before the most recent hurricane, but still vivid in a word.

I do not know how much fear a sandpiper feels sitting exhausted by the edge of the Atlantic, a sandpiper that may only exist now as a word--"sandpiper"--forever etched in my brain, "forever" itself a human conceit. It's carcass now lies just below the tide line, nibbled on by crabs and snails.

When we teach science, we must be wary of our worship of our words, our models, our abstract representations which become more real than the ground under our feet.

The point of science is just that--to look at the ground beneath our feet, for whatever it is, as it is, or as best we can tell what that is is.

If our feet leave the ground, and we chase our conceits instead of the dirt, we lose a chance at something bigger. Scientists know this. So do good poets, of course. Neither get a fair hearing in schools.

We spend so much time deflecting what's true we lose our grip on what matters.

There are a lot of ways to get there--John Steinbeck was a better observer than I'll ever be. The point of biology is not to learn vocabulary any more than the point of reading Steinbeck is to learn sentence structure. The point is to get to what matters.

You might see it in the fading light of a late August sunset a day after a hurricane watching a sand piper rest its weary body on the wet sand. You might hear it in the dying voice of Johnny Cash singing "Hurt." You might smell it in the decay of an early September breeze.

You'll know when you get there.

Your students will, too.

Zeitgeber matters

We keep time in class, as we do pretty much everywhere. We pretend that days are exactly 24 hours long, and that each hour is as well proscribed and linear as he next. An hour in December lasts exactly as long as an hour in June.

Kids know otherwise, of course, at least until we train them.

We start school here in Bloomfield next week. The daylight hours shrink dramatically this time of year. A week from now we'll have almost 20 minutes less daylight than we'll have today. In a month, we'll have an hour and 20 minutes more darkness. The light we do get will be more oblique, less intense.

Science teachers will make a big deal about this, explaining the seasons using globes and lamps, but if we've taught our children that sunlight does not matter, that the clock matters more than your hypothalamus, that we eat at noon, not when you're hungry, well, then, we should stop feigning shock when children really don't pay much attention to sunlight.

None of the adults around them do, either.

If college graduates do not know why seasons happen, or how trees accumulate mass, or what forces act on a basketball in flight, maybe it's not because our children refuse to learn.

Maybe it's because they internalized what we've been teaching them all along....

New leaf--if more than a few children are truly uninterested in a topic, and I have no good reason to push them, drop the topic.