Tuesday, January 31, 2012

New Jersey versus General Ripper

I realize that this is going to push me on wrong side of the angels, but really, folks, take a good hard look at the wheels before jumping on any bandwagon.
Even a stopped clock is right twice a year.
Yep, a reprint, but New Jersey's under attack by do-gooding, mean-welling folk who need to find a new hobby, 

A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That's the way your hard-core Commie works.

General Jack D. Ripper
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Ah, March madness.

I recently suggested that beer in moderation may be better for my health than milk. My first responder, Mr. Anonymous, lumped me together with "the anti-vaxxers, & anti-fluorides."

OK, I confess--I oppose fluoridation of my local water supplies.

Please read that carefully. I am not opposed to the use of medical grade fluoride applied by a dentist. I am not opposed to prescribing medical grade fluoride for use by a child so long as an adult in the home can carefully follow directions.

I do, however, oppose fluoridation of the water that comes out of my tap, especially if the fluoride used comes from industrial waste.

In regard to the use of fluosilicic (fluorosilicic) acid as a source of fluoride for fluoridation, this agency regards such use as an ideal environmental solution to a long-standing problem. By recovering by-product fluosilicic acid from fertilizer manufacturing, water and air pollution are minimized, and water utilities have a low-cost source of fluoride available to them.

Rebecca Hanmer, 1983
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water, EPA, back then

I'm sure Ms. Hanmer is a decent person. She's the former director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, she's won the President’s Distinguished Federal Executive Award, and she's a wonderful advocate for clean water.

Still, she advocated putting industrial waste into my water supply. That's the way it was done a quarter century ago. That's the way it's done today.

Florida has a few lucrative industries, and not all of them are Mickey Mouse. Florida produces tons of phosphate fertilizer. It also produces tons of hazardous waste. Fluorosilicic acid, a mixture of waste products from pollution scrubbers used during the processing of phosphate fertilizer, is shipped all over the country.*

Yes, it's diluted over 100,000 times when used for fluoridation. Yes, it helps prevent dental cavities.

No, I don't want my government deliberately dumping toxic waste into my water supply.

No, really.

And it's not just because I own a tinfoil hat.

*Yes, you can buy this stuff--Lucier Chemical Industries will sell it to your town. Yes, it's Lucier, not Lucifer.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


A drum found on the edge of the Delaware Bay.

God, I know nothing, my sense is all nonsense,
And fear of You begins intelligence;
Does it end there? For sexual love, for food,
For books and birch trees I claim gratitude,
But when I grieve over the unripe dead
My grief festers, corrupted into dread,
And I know nothing. Give us our daily bread.

Donald Hall, Old and New Poems, used without permission

Late January, and though warm enough to get the bees about, we still need light, more light, to keep us all alive. And not all of us will get through the winter.

I stumble upon death along the bay's edge--the detritus of uncountable lives lost accented by the stray wing of a gull licked by the edge of high tide today.

Still, a honey bee found it worth her while to spend some energy sipping nectar from our rosemary bush. A blue bottle fly joined her,shoving its head into the sky blue rosemary flower, seeking what it wanted at that moment.

We're not so good at knowing what we want. How do I know this? Just look around.

On Thursday, my students were subjected to propaganda, their amygdalas tugged by a series of images and videos tying together Columbine, Hitler, smiling toddlers, Anne Frank, and (for the love of Zeus) Chuck Norris himself.

We all sat in an auditorium with no windows, entertained by "Colleen," a young woman with lovely teeth and healthy skin, telling stories meant to instill fear. The presentation was well choreographed, and it had its intended effects.

Create the bogey man, then tell kids that kindness will kill it.

I fell into Bloomfield by accident almost 30 years ago, and stayed because I love it. We're a mixed town, in mixed's myriad senses. We're scrappy. We're a bit to the left on the intellectual (but not intelligence) curve. Most important, we're kind.

That's a huge statement.

When my wife got smashed by a car, meals showed up on our stoop for weeks, meals made by friends, and meals made by friends of friends.

We used to have factories--we made flags, we made metal tubing, we made candy, we made rubber products. We had saw mills, cotton mills,copper mills, paper mills, and woolen mills. We had Schering and General Electric and Westinghouse. We still have an abandoned field where the Manhattan Project first enriched uranium, our town tainted by our patriotism.

We don't make much anymore because other towns across the oceans make it for less. We're a little bit desperate these days.

But we're still kind.

Walks along the edge of the bay remind me what is true, what matters. We are all mortal, every one of us, and every day I remember this, and every day it surprises me.

Walks along the bay remind me that there's a lot more going on than language and electronic images can capture.

Earlier today I saw a Canada goose at the ocean's edge, an unusual place for this bird. As we approached, it waddled into the surf, getting smacked one wave after the next.

It will not likely make it to February. No guarantees any of us will. My student's do not need to hear the multiple shots of two very troubled young men in Columbine to know this.

A walk in the beach will suffice.
Bread made by Jessica Pierce.

So here's my late resolution for 2012.

I will speak truthfully, always, to my students.

They know that I am happy, they know I find love using a clam rake, but find my joy, and maybe any joy, confusing. They have been trained by parents, by teachers, by culture, not to know what they want.

They seek immortal life with no idea why.
They fear death with no idea why.
They chase what others tell them they want with no idea why.

My primary task as a science teacher is to show them that the natural world dwarfs our imagination, and that the more we seek, the less we know, and that with this comes a paradoxical comfort.

Few of my students have seen the stars as their grandparents did, few of them know where food comes from as their grandparents did, few of them grasp how tenuous all this is as their grandparents did.

Death is certain, fear of death is not.

Joy is possible (even) in a classroom. I know nothing, but I know joy.
By June I pray my students know a little bit more about what is possible and about what is not.


You are mortal. Why not act as though you believe it?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A science teacher's challenge

 "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."
Thoughts on Rachel's Challenge.

Atoms, as most adults know them, do not exist. Never have. Our models are human constructs, useful but little more than organized patterns of neurons firing away, as we try to make sense of the world around us.

Yet most reasonable adults in these parts will tell you that they know what an atom is.

Quahogs, on the other hand, are as real as these hands upon this keyboard. Beautifully curved mollusks that live with as much purpose as most of us, tucked away in mud flats just a few miles away. Good eating, too.

Yet most reasonable adults in these parts could not find one with a GPS mounted on a bull rake.

Which matters more?

The abstract matters, of course. Without it, language dissolves and bridges fall. Still, the point of language is to share our collective grasp of the world around us.

 We worship our words, our images, more than the ground we literally walk on, the dirt that keeps us fed.

Today our lambs got exposed to a cacophony of sound and images--Chuck Norris and bullets and Sean Hannity and smiling babies and Hitler and  white coffins and Anne Frank and moving anthems and stories of coincidences that defy logic all to send a simple message: be kind.

The show was designed to rip at the amygdala, an organ already pretty charged up in the adolescent crowd. I don't like seeing truth and children manipulated, even if (or maybe especially if) the message is kindness.

The models of science ultimately rest on our understanding of the ground beneath our feet. As abstract as science can get, it's ruled by what can perceive of the physical world. Science requires evidence, and it requires open discussion of how that evidence can be fairly interpreted.

Maybe I just don't like Chuck Norris.

I'm a science teacher. I worried a bit about my students accepting the stories told today at face value simply because their emotions were twanging like Duane Eddy's guitar.

I needn't have worried. My students have been mostly kind this year. I kept quiet as I listened to their conversations.They're adding a healthy skepticism to their kindness.

The kids are all right.

Oh, and a suggestion--if you spend an hour telling the kids how everyone matters as much as everyone else, don't end it by announcing a "select" few will get together later to start a club.

Chuck Norris photo from Amazon.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Breathing biology

We got beans growing in our classroom. Three gorgeous rattlesnake pods hanging from a vine, the soft purple puff of a flower between the second and third bean.

Most of the stuff that makes up these beans is carbon dioxide, much of it from the breath of all those who share ideas here in our room.

Carbon dioxide from yesterday's Pop Tarts,
Snapples, and bologna sandwiches.
Carbon dioxide that traveled through the hearts 
of every child in our class.
Carbon dioxide expelled as a sigh, 
broken down by a few brain cells that would
rather do anything but this school thing.
Carbon dioxide that is invisible and soft as a baby's breath
as real as the ancient massive maple tree 
just outside our classroom window.
Carbon dioxide children are taught to fear as "bad,"
the harbinger of catastrophic climate change.

We ruin it, this carbon dioxide communion, reducing it to hieroglyphics on a page, to be regurgitated by spilling bubbles on a sheet, a religiously messy communion of sorts sterilized to a formula:

C6H12O6 +6 O2  =>  6H2O + 6CO2

And yet, for a moment, the moment before eating the bean, a few students allow themselves the beauty and the power of the story to let them believe what they've always known to be true, that this whole life business, as messy and complicated and incomprehensible as it seems, gets down to this:

Each living thing, every living thing, shares an intimate bond that goes beyond the language of science, beyond the language of art, beyond human boundaries.

The universe belongs to all of us, as we belong to it.

No matter how we do in school, no matter what we know, now matter what we do.

I would trade all the biochemical pathways we "teach" for a child's grasping, for more than a moment, 
that we are indeed the stuff of the universe around us, and that this stuff cycles through us, is us.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Food is not energy

A response to a response to my last post--NASA, food is not energy.

Language matters, especially to young children trying to make sense of the world. I remember being utterly confused as a child thinking that Karl and Groucho were the same guy--how dangerous could the Russians be if they were led by a man with a fake mustache who made silly movies?

As adults, with reasonable frames of reference, we laugh at obvious holes in our schema. The best comedians make a living at pointing out the oblivious obvious.

Children, however, will try to weave the inconsistencies into their worldview that already exists. They don't get jokes because they're so busy trying to make sense out of everything.

And they do, internally if not correctly.

As we get older, we learn that people will laugh at us if we do not share a common schema, so we learn to laugh at jokes we do not get, then wrestle quietly with the punchline, stuck in our brain like a piece of corn caught between molars.

We live in a Newtonian universe. Einstein was a smart guy, and his work led the way to all kinds of remarkable things, but we'll not be transforming matter into energy in our classroom, nor energy into matter.

 Matter is matter, and energy is energy.

But what about food? And plants? And sunlight?
I'll get to those in a moment.

is usually defined in public schools as something that has mass and occupies space, and we toss this at kids as though they have some special understanding of mass. 

I certainly don't, so I use a different definition my students can grasp--matter is "stuff." I can tell them it has inertia, or I can tell them that if I throw it at them fast enough they will feel it. (Yes, I know, some particles fly through us since we're mostly empty space...another story for another day.)
is usually defined in public schools as the ability to do work, and we toss this at kids as though they have some special understanding of a physicist's concept of work.

I certainly don't, so I use a different definition. Energy is some quality that can cause a change in stuff. That is, of course, a lousy definition, hardly covers all its various forms. I might say that if stuff has changed, then energy was involved, also a limited definition. 

I'd rather use crippled definitions with their defects discussed than the "real" definitions in textbooks that tell us nothing new. (Starting science units with "vocabulary" just adds to the fun.)

My students are told, upfront, that I have problems grasping the concepts of matter and energy. These are hugely difficult concepts. If you truly grasp them, you own the universe, and no one owns the universe. No one.

Stuff is stuff, and energy is energy, and in Newton's world, "never the twain shall meet."

NASA tells teachers that "food is energy," and it's simply not so.

I put a pie in a slingshot and fire it your way, you will feel it. It's stuff. It moved, made a sound, broke into several pieces, warmed up my face, all evidence of "energy," but the stuff is still the same stuff.

If I burn propane by mixing it with oxygen, I mix the stuff around a bit, but I will end up with exactly the same amount of stuff (defined as the measurement of force exerted by that stuff on a scale placed between it and the Earth) in the form of water and carbon dioxide. Exactly the same. For all the light and heat and noise released, the amount of stuff remains exactly the same.

(You can easily demonstrate that water comes out of this reaction--grab a propane torch and flash the flame over cool metal--use a desk leg or a faucet.)

This is a big deal. 

If kids get through their first 8 years of public school knowing nothing else besides the conservation of mass and energy, we'll take it from there.

So where is this thing called energy? Bad question--it is no "thing."

How is energy stored in food? Better question, but still almost impossible to answer if you do not have a reasonable grasp of chemistry, so let's leave food for a minute and go to a 5 pound rock. 

If I drop a 5 pound rock on your head, how much damage does it cause? Well, that depends on how high the rock was (relative to your head) before it was dropped. The higher the drop, the more damage done, the more energy released. We call this potential energy, a deceptively difficult concept.

If I pick up a rock, it is the exact same rock it was when it as still on the floor. It is now in a less stable position by virtue of having been lifted from the floor, but it's still the exact same rock. It can make more change now when I drop it--louder sound, more damage--but it's still the same rock before and after I drop it.

The potential energy is not "in" the rock, it's in the rock's relative position to the floor. The less stable the rock's position, the more energy it "has."

The rock got less stable because I invested kinetic energy using my muscles. My kinetic energy came from, the potential energy created by the unstable complex organic molecules we call "food"--when I exercise, I convert unstable food molecules into more stable water and carbon dioxide molecules. I need oxygen to help strip the electrons off the food molecules.

The mass of a molecule of glucose and the oxygen molecules needed to break it down need to break them down is exactly the same as the mass of the carbon dioxide and water molecules left when the energy has been released..

The potential energy "in" food came from a plant's ability to combine carbon dioxide and pieces of water together into a larger, less stable compound, using the energy of sunlight.

You cannot weigh sunlight because it's not stuff, it's energy.

Plants do not "eat" sunlight. Stuff is stuff, energy is energy. Food is not energy. It is stuff.

Plants recycle the stuff, but they cannot recycle energy. Energy goes from useful to less useful to even less useful.

And where does sunlight come from? Here's where Einstein joins the party--hydrogen atoms are fused into helium, a tiny bit of mass converted to tremendous amounts of energy.

That's fascinating and deserves study but not until later, when a child knows what food is.

Newton and the Marxes lifted from PD sources.
Potential energy diagram from McGraw-Hill here.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Open letter to elementary school teachers everywhere

Dear Elementary School Teachers and Principals,

I know you have an impossible job, and I know you're getting hammered from 73 different angles, and I know the last person you need to hear from is another high school teacher sitting on his throne blaming you for every ill that ever afflicted humans.

Your students worship you. Every casual word that slips from your lips influences the variegated connection of neurons that forms a child's view of the world. A child's obvious misconceptions get corrected early and often, and that is great!

You've done a wonderful job convincing them spectacularly difficult things to accept are true. My lambs come to me believing that the Earth is round and that is spins, that we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, that humans arrived long after the dinosaurs left.

It's the subtle stuff, though, that slips by:
  • Winter has nothing to do with how close the Earth is to the sun.
  • Oxygen does not get converted into carbon dioxide.
  • Plants do not get most of their mass from dirt.
  • Food is not energy.
  • Energy does not recycle.
Most of you know these things, and most of you are too busy prepping the children for their NCLB-driven tests to spend much time on science, and that's OK.

If you are going to spend time on science, though, please be wary of glib explanations that will confound a child's true understanding just a few years down the line.

Language matters far more than facile explanations of the natural world. Unless you know what energy is, and I got to tell you that I do not, do not pretend a 7 year old can master this. Unless you can explain a concept accurately without using science jargon, do not pretend your lambs will get it.

My students are amazed water comes out of flame, something easily demonstrated at any level of public education, yet accept that the Earth is round at face value, because you, the most powerful person in this child's life outside of family (and sadly occasionally including family), said so.

Your words carry the power of Cassandra, and like her words, can easily be confused, even when you speak the truth. I envy your power. Please don't abuse it.
Your Colleague,

Michael Doyle

Proust effect


If we could teach science by shoving a funnel up a child's nose then pour in "knowledge" as a slurry of data, vocabulary words, and equations, I've no doubt that we would--for the glory of our nation and our economy.

That we cannot does not keep Arne from trying to force us to use bigger, shinier funnels.

Arne and his crew will see progress measuring the internal diameter of the nostrils of our students, No Choana Left Behind.* With enough time, our children will have nostrils at least as wide as the Koreans, perhaps even as large as the Finnish. Our economy will hum as every child has the opportunity to master the dismissive sniff of the 1%er.

The world outside the fluorescent hum of my classroom reminds me what matters, and though I have as big a collection of funnels as any teacher could want--SmartBoards, Mobis, digical cams, and 1:1 netbooks--I think a nose has a finer purpose.

I keep the skeletal remains of last summer's basil in a bag--brown sticks with rosettes of seed pods, each pod holding several tiny black specks, each a potential basil plant. I spend a little time each week picking at  the pods to collect the seeds, using my fingers, as fingers were meant to be used.

I keep a Petri dish on the teacher's desk to hold the seeds I gather.

Yesterday some students saw me take a deep whiff of the bag holding the seemingly dead plants, and they saw the pleasure that it gave me.

A few children will take a dried, broken branch of last summer, and sniff. A few children will take some seeds from the same broken branch and watch a new plant grow from a speck.

This past week, a child was upset that his carrots, grown from seed, were not doing well. He had planted several dozen seeds where one would have done. He was trying to save them all.

I suggested that he thin the plants. He plucked the first plant, and held it a moment. I could tell it bothered him.

      Crush it, then smell it.

He looked puzzled, but then did just that. His surprised smile lit up the room.

     It smells like carrots!

I'm not sure where this particular child falls along the norms of the internal diameter of choanae, and, like many children, he's a bit resistant to funnels that stretch his nostrils for no reason that makes sense to him.

The pleasure of the aroma of a freshly crushed carrot seedling in the middle of winter's dark days will not help him pass the New Jersey Biology Competency Test, and his results are not likely to bolster my career. The economy will not be helped by children who find pleasure in using their noses well.

But that's not why I teach.

*I had no idea that the word "choana" came from the Greek χοάνη ("funnel") until after I wrote this.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A scatalogical myth

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
Genesis 3:19 KJV

I teach high school biology. I happen to love teaching, and I enjoy learning how things work, but many of my lambs come to high school with some deep misconceptions that skew their world view.

It's mid-January, a busy time of year, but I need to take a few moments to talk to my colleagues at the elementary school level.

Psssst...you, yeah, you....come a little closer.....poop is not digested food.

The food that gets chopped into bits tiny enough to enter cells either ends up as part of you or exits as part of your breath (CO2) or your water.

When you diet, most of the you you lose is lost as carbon dioxide, bits of you lost with every exhaled breath. Some is lost as water, some as urea, but most of it gets cast off with each breath. I once lost 60 pounds, breath by breath by breath.

Why does this matter?

It gets the knee-high crowd thinking of mass ("stuff") as something other than solids. It complicates the whole food to poop business.

Trees are massive hunks of stuff made mostly of carbon dioxide drawn in through tiny holes in their leaves. We're massive hunks of stuff made from the stuff we eat, stuff mostly put together by plants.

Carbon dioxide to food to carbon dioxide again.

Thou art carbon dioxide, and to carbon dioxide shalt thou return.

OK, bile comes from RBC's, which were once food--but this does little more than give poop its lovely colors.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Bambification of Dr. King

When I die, I hope nobody mistakes my kindness for niceness. I am not a nice man. 
This is a repost. Dr. King was, and still is, my hero. 

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice....Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

Martin Luther King, Jr., from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

Death's shadow stretches long on a mid-day January beach.

Energy's no longer cheap. Last year's abundance has become scarce, and  the sun is too oblique to fulfill last summer's promises.

Purple sandpipers picked at the remnants of horseshoe crabs that failed to return with the last tide; several vultures hunkered down at the edge of the bay.Glistening glass orbs marked the end of comb jellies just out of reach of the receding waters.

We stumbled upon a hole dug by a gull, its presence betrayed by its footprints. Next to the whole lay a small, live clam. I tossed it back into the bay, figuring the gull had given up.

A few steps later, I found another displaced clam, again sitting next to a hole dug out by a gull, and again I tossed the critter back in the sea.

Then a third.

Winter beaches kill the ignorant. I looked around. Several similar holes, each with a clam next to it.

Gulls know how to open clams--I've watched them do it. They pick them up, hover over the jetty, then drop them, following them as they fall, ready to eat the freshly exposed flesh as the shell shatters on the rocks.

I suspect the clams had been left to die--their gaping shells would have saved a gull a few trips over the jetty.

I left the remaining clams on the beach.

One creature's death is another creature's grace. Powerful stories emerge daily from the beach--stories of grace and power and even love. None of them, however, are "nice."

Bambi never lived in the real world.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was loving, and kind, and powerful. His words still resonate, should you choose to hear them.

Do not confuse non-violence with passivity.
Do not confuse kindness with niceness.

During school announcements yesterday, our students were told that Dr. King pushed "cooperation." Rania Jones, a 3rd grade winner of the Milwaukee Public Schools' "People Must Work Together" King contest wrote "That's what we must do today - demonstrate cooperation." This is the Dr. King lite version of a complex story. This is the version that gives so many of us the day off on Monday.

"Love" is a complex word, and one not easily used in public settings. "Cooperation" is much safer, more sanitary.

And it's the wrong message.

My Dad joined  the 1963 March on Washington, dressed in full uniform, a proud US Marine officer. He flew A4 Phantom Skyhawks off carriers, in love with a country that let poor first generation children fly.

My dad was pulled to the front of the parade, or so the story goes. If you see a full-dressed USMC officer in photos from the parade, it may well be Bill Doyle. Dr. King later went on to oppose the Viet Nam War as unjust, and my father, a die-hard leatherneck, resigned his commission for the same reason.

I grew up in an Irish Catholic home, but Dr. King held as much influence as the Pope, maybe more, years before he was assassinated. My Dad loved the man, not the cartoon he has become.

Read "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."
Take a walk outside and watch the grace and agony of life around us.

Yes, it's complicated. Life is complex,

Bambi's just the celluloid illusion of a corporation that owns a good chunk of the airwaves today, including ABC. I'm betting you won't hear much about King's letter from jail Monday.

You want to learn about Dr. King? Go read his words, listen to his speeches, learn everything you can about him. But don't "cooperate" with those who would steal his image without his words, the Glenn Becks, the Arne Duncans, the innumerable talking heads that will piously bow on Monday.

Take a walk on Monday, a walk outside, away from noise. Carry a copy of King's letter and read it under the January sunlight.

Share it. Live it.
Don't let the dream die.

The photo of Dr. King (D.C., August, 1963)  is from the National Archives and is the public domain.
The crab claw was taken by Leslie.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Seeing thro' the eye...

We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro' the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
William Blake 

I found the light above after it passed through the multiple lenses of a horseshoe crab that no longer needed them. The light was there whether or not I saw it, but I saw it, so now I share it.

It's been an interesting year. I sat directly across the Governor Christie in my school building, and next to the NJ Acting Commissioner Cerf in his.

I listened to both of them, and they both deigned to listen to me. I heard their words, then parsed the meaning of those words. I am blessed with moderate intelligence and keen curiosity, so I have little doubt of how they expected me to interpret their words.

And, sadly, there is nothing true from either meeting worth sharing.

It's been an odd year here in New Jersey.
I'm sticking to the classroom--where I can still effect change.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

National Canine Latin Barking assessments

While immersed in the Krebs cycle in mid-January, pushing biochemical pathways on sophomores who have yet to learn chemistry, I marvel at their persistence, trying to grasp what I know they cannot, but I ask them to do it anyway. (There is something unethical about this....)

Should I ever train a dog to bark in Latin, I will be praised for my remarkable puppy and my methods of puppy training. I could write books about my methods, and others could train their pooches to recite Virgil as well.

I could develop a whole system of tests, the National Canine Latin Barking assessment system, and make those with less educated mutts feel shame. 

I would be rich, my puppies would gain universal acclaim, but truth be told (and truth has become a rare commodity), my trained terriers would no more about Latin than I know about the mind of a frisky horseshoe crab clasped onto its partner under a June moon.

My dogs would know nothing more than they did when they only barked, no matter what the NCLB assessment measures.

Come May, I will take a few busloads of young humans to watch horseshoe crabs mate at the edge of the bay, to remind them (and me) that there's a whole lot more going on than we can ever grasp in a lifetime, much of it as beautiful as it is incomprehensible.

And we will return to Bloomfield, our Bloomfield, different critters than the ones we were that morning, in ways no standardized test can measure.

Mid-January is as good a time as any to be cranky.
Photo by me using Leslie's point-n-shoot.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Oh, dear, New Hampshire, too?

"I want the full portrait of evolution and the people who came up with the ideas to be presented. It's a worldview and it's godless....Columbine, remember that? They were believers in evolution. That's evidence right there."

For all the excitement over whether evolution can explain H. sapiens without appealing to the dominant version of God in these parts, I'm working on the small battles.

Leaves come mostly from air, a lit propane torch emits water, a dime falls as fast as the 7th edition of Campbell's Biology, a charged glass rod can bend a stream of water, a tiny pinhole can flip an image upside down, you can light a lamp by spinning a magnet in a coil of wire, and you can balance a gyroscope on a finger.

Sunlight makes a radiometer spin, gingko fruit smells like vomit, red cabbage juice changes color when you add acid, a garbage bag with the air vacuumed out can immobilize a JV high school football player, and you can crush an empty Pepsi can instantly simply by cooling it quickly.

You can launch a rocket a couple of hundred feet up using just a little water and a lot of air, you can float a paper clip on water, you can make that floating paper clip act like a compass by magnetizing it first, you can make green chlorophyll fluoresce red.

You can catch (and listen to) a radio signal with a long wire and the right crystal, you can make a coat hanger sound like bells, you can see Jupiter with your bare eyes, and you can grow a bean in the back of a science classroom.

I got a whole lot of things every bit as interesting and seemingly miraculous as evolution, and none of it is magic.

Maybe we should just ban the teaching of science period--God only knows how much damage thinking might cause to this fine democracy.

You cannot make this stuff up....

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Clamming: a 21st century skill

19th century version:
Yesterday I headed for one of my favorite places with one of my favorite people to do one of my favorite things--clamming. The moon is waxing and near full, so I knew low tide would fall in the early afternoon.
COST: months of intermittent observing, which I enjoy.

21st century version:
Yesterday I checked the computer for the tides, clicked through a few buttons, and saw that low tide would fall precisely at 1:29 PM. and that the moon was 93% full.
COSTS: computer, internet connection, electricity. 

Jersey fresh quahogs, a couple of hours out of the mud.

Which gives me more information? 
Probably the latter. It's clearly more precise, and it's also more efficient than watching the moon and tides in a particular area for a few seasons.

Which gives me more knowledge?
Depends on what you mean by knowledge, but becoming part of the local natural rhythms requires a deeper understanding than needed to read a computerized tide chart, and maybe even something called wisdom.

Which gives me more pleasure?
Following the rhythms of the moon, of the bay. We do not talk much of pleasure in education, and I'd bet most "educators" would would put pleasure far down on the list of reasons for schools to exist.

Of all the reasons to push for high technology in the classroom, arguing that it prepares students for the 21st workplace, that students need to be trained on computers, is, well, hogwash.

Our students do not lack for information--many carry phones more powerful than the computers that got astronauts to the moon back in 1969, and can easily look up today's tide should the need arise.

We've come to see schools as little institutes for job preparation. We used to call that vocational school.

Given the economy, kids around here might be better off learning how to read the moon the 19th century way.

A wise child might wonder why it's warm enough to clam comfortably  in January.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

It's called biology for a reason

I'm a pretty good teacher--I can train a young H. sapiens to recite the Calvin cycle in such a way that everyone, including the young H. sapiens, believes that she actually knows something.

That same young H. sapiens can graduate high school without having a clue that her food comes from the ground, that the water from her tap was once a raindrop, and that her waste flushed down the toilet goes somewhere.

I ostensibly teach biology, the study of life, but there are days when I think I am merely teaching acronymology, the study of Holy symbols--ATP, NADPH, DNA--worshiped for their ability to confer riches on the true believers.

You want biology? Hatch chickens in a classroom, raise them for a generation or two, spend a few hours each week to get to know them a bit, then slaughter their descendants as a final exam. Feed them seeds from plants grown on the windowsills. While feasting on the birds, discuss why we eat the meat but not the intestines, why chicken fat tastes so good but the feathers not so much.

If a child leaves my class knowing nothing about food, then that child has learned nothing about biology, no matter how well she does on the AP Biology exam.

I really would like to do this in class. 
The picture is of Gail, my sis-in-law. She looks happier than the chickens....

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Watch the wheels....

I've ridden motorcycles on and off (always better on than off) for over thirty years. While a few things are annoying--bugs in the teeth, bits of rotting roadkill kicked up by a car, the unexpected downpour--the joys far outweigh the negatives.

The one thing that threatens to tilt joy to despair are the folks in the 4-wheeled cages who simply do not see bikes. Live cars sitting at intersections make me wary.

When I see one, only one thing matters--its front wheels. Are they moving?

Only that, nothing else matters, nothing.  Riding gets down to the bare physics of things.

If it creeps forward, react. Do not waste time looking amazed, or yelling, or flipping the bird.  All are useless
The motive of the driver does not matter. At all. It cannot be changed even if you knew it.

You'll hear a lot about how Arne cares for kids, how Gates humanitarianism saves thousands of children, how the new nationalized standards and multimillion-dollar tests are good for our children, and a few misguided souls may even believe it.

When the front wheels are moving, it doesn't matter what the driver thinks. We need to react.

The front wheels of the edu-plutocrats are spinnning so hard they're leaving patches of rubber. React

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Card carrying member of The Anti-Anthropomorphizing League of Rational Thinkers

A repost. Hey, it's my blog...

In Galway Bay, nestled on the west coast of Ireland, lives Fungi, a lone male dolphin who seeks the company of humans, as he has for over a quarter century now. He's a tourist attraction, and an enigma. No one knows why he sticks around—perhaps he was abandoned by his pod for some nefarious dolphin behavior during his wild youth, maybe he happens to like humans and their noise.

I once watched spearing, tiny fish with aluminum foil strips pasted on their sides, jumping over a piece of straw floating near the surf. One or two would jump over it, then circle back around, then jump over it again. The science teacher in me tries to equate this jumping over a piece of phragmites with evolutionary fitness. For all my training, though, I can't help myself—I see joy.
Our reference is human—it's all we have, really. We see trees as humans see them, smell the early morning mud flats as only humans, fear the humming of a bee as only humans can. (If you prefer a lonely nihilistic view, as only humans can, then imagine that you alone can know what you sense.)
There are certainly problems with anthropomorphizing, impugning motives on critters going about their business. I should not presume joy on the part of the silver-sided fish—no way to know—but we make a bigger mistake presuming the absence of shared motives. (Obviously the tiny fish had some motive.)
Science rests on models. A water molecule consists of 2 hydrogen atoms, 1 oxygen atom, fused together by covalent bonds, which is to say they share electrons. The electrons spend a little bit more time on the oxygen side of the molecule than the hydrogen atoms, creating a slightly more negative charge there.
If I were to draw an electron in class, it would look like this:

I might even add a charge sign to it, like this:

The children will dutifully write it down, and the symbol becomes the electron. I suspect that's the act that makes us most human, the symbol. It is also, ironically, the one that separates us from the universe.

Obviously the “dot” is not an electron—it reflects a tiny part on the board where less light reflects back to the children's eyes that the rest of the board. The “dash,” a dose of negativity (which only makes sense when contrasted with a dose of positive), reflects another slash of less reflected light.
We teach this and children memorize it, and we pretend we know what charge means, a relative term that measures, um, attractiveness, much like the confusion we have when we are attracted to others, but not in that sort of way....

We are ascribing motive or behavior to the non-sentient, or rather to models of the non-sentient, since electrons are unknowable beyond the models we create, and in my very stern voice I will chastise the children for ascribing motive to the very same things. (These are the problems with trying to keep the universe in some neat mechanistic package.)
This becomes a sticking point for a lot of us teaching science—we carefully present models using words like “attract” and “repel” and then get our knickers in a twist when a student confuses attraction with desire.
And with that, we extinguish the tiny spark.
I was once a card carrying member of the AALRT (the Anti-Anthropomorphizing League of Rational Thinkers). There are plenty of reasons to join—baby robins don't smile and crickets don't sing.
I am still a member, though I may let my dues lapse this year. If adding emotion to a cute drawing of a couple of hydrogen atoms sharing their electrons with an oxygen atom starved for electron love holds my lambs' interest long enough to get them to glance at the concept of bonding (another loaded word), maybe I'll try it.
And who knows, maybe an incomplete orbital shell is more than just a metaphor for unrequited love.

The photos are ours, which I will gratuitously place in my posts, because I like them, and because they remind me that as much as the classroom matters, a few things matter more.

A science teacher's resolutions

Say a prayer every morning honoring a mystery. A prayer for light, for life, for gravity, for cosmic rays, for the source of water. I pretend I know nothing. I want to know what knowing nothing really means.

Remind myself every morning, when I wake up, should I wake up, that I am mortal. Not as in some shimmery philosophical sense, but in the full entropic mess of death that marks the end of any life. Keeps one focused on what matters.

Continue to get outside. Every day. Hubris melts under the sunlight, dissolves in the rain.

Teach children science, as science. Every day. Not technology. Not trivia. Not as a means to better the economy. Teach children to know the world more today than they knew yesterday, to understand their place in the natural world. Why else teach?

Every minute spent on this machine is a minute in Dante's Bolgia 4.