Monday, December 31, 2012

And yet we do it anyway...

As the sun ends its few days of rest and starts to ache its way back northward, as it has done now for eons, long before language, long before lungs, folk in this part of the world reflect, briefly, on what we think matters.

We make promises, as we have before, and as we will again, to change.

“Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance”
T.S. Eliot

We know what matters, we know what make us and others happy, we know the stories and the songs and the food and the people that make us happy.

We know all this.

We know that choices we make, staying too long at a meeting that goes nowhere, giving tests that matter to no one, playing with our virtual pleasure machines that steal our living hours, are bad choices.

And yet I do them anyway....

So no resolutions this year, except one--to minimize the "yet we do it anyway" hours. I'd be better off sitting in silence, in the dark, alone with thoughts spiraling out of control than pretending that anything I do rationally with folks I do not know, and cannot love because I do not know them, matters.

“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
T.S. Eliot

If the silence becomes too loud, I will seek the words of someone I know, and love, and care about, not another virtual voice.

I have never regretted a single moment outside....

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Puck Arne, Eli, and Bill

I used to play a little hockey. I was never really good at it, but I was decent at defense for two reasons:

I was quick (which is not the same as fast)--a gift, true, and in hockey, a huge one, and...

I learned that the only thing that mattered was watching the puck on the stick.

Motivations, feints, needs, dekes, desires, wants--all of that ultimately translated to watching the puck on the stick. Where was the stick, where was the puck.
Via Wikipedia, CC 3.0, Hockey1993

I do not care what Arne or Eli or Bill say--I am focused on the puck.

And right now, the puck is aimed right between the eyes of your young child entering school this September. The puck is flying towards the temple of a young woman headed for community college in January. The puck, if not batted down, will smash the nasal cartilage of your young adolescent, still dreaming of a life lived well.

I am not sure what the motivations of the ed reformers are, but I am aware of what happens to schools and children when the "reformers" get the reins, and if I am aware, yet accept this complacently, then I am complicit.

I did not raise two children to become part of the global economy. I raised them to be happy, thoughtful, loving people who care about their community, the concrete one. It's ridiculous, ridiculous, that we're even having this conversation, that Arne or Eli or Bill, three men who all exhibit signs of psychopathy, even matter.

Take care of the children you know, as well as you can. Do not do anything you feel will harm them. If we all do that, ferociously (as we should), fearlessly (or at least with all the courage we can muster), then these strange men lose their power.

It's really that simple.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

On Beyoncé, choices, and hurting children

Yep, on my high horse again.... 

"Pepsi embraces creativity and understands that artists evolve. As a businesswoman, this allows me to work with a lifestyle brand with no compromise and without sacrificing my creativity."

You are wealthy, beautiful, bright, and have hundreds of millions of fans.

And yet you still felt the need to brand yourself with the seal of a corporation that pushes colored, carbonated high fructose corn syrup on the children you pretend you want to save from obesity.

I guess you can call the ad above iconic, in a hipsterish, Warholian way, and we can all wink at our unironic ironic irony, in our own mildly superior artsy way....

But I teach children, and I used to play doctor--I know what happens to a child who develops diabetes, loses her kidneys, her legs.

Hard to dance with these wounds, from Limb Salvage Institute

You can spout all you want to me about personal responsibility, and freedom of choice, and all that--you are leading a multi-million dollar marketing campaign aimed at children.

What we glorify defines who we are, and when kids see one of the most powerful women in the States branded by a company that prides itself on recognizing its "responsibility to help develop solutions to such key global challenges as obesity and malnutrition."

I teach children, because I care about them, and I teach science, because I care about the world.

If I do my job well, children will see through the unconscious hypocrisy of Beyoncé and Pepsi, through the lies so deep that children no longer have a reference point to truth in their virtual worlds that sell Pepsi as love.

Public schools stands as one of the few remaining public spaces left; the natural world surrounds us, and will not bend to money or power or fear--Jupiter will shine over us tonight, and it is there for any child brave enough to abandon her virtual world, her social world, her branded world, her world of forever unmet needs.

All a mammal ever needs sits outside, ultimately untameable, ultimately unknowable, ultimately unmarketable. Beyoncé calls our children like a Siren, promising the unobtainable, while increasing the market share of NxStage System One dialysis machines--you can buy a share (NXTM) for about ten bucks.

Natural acts have natural consequences. If a child can learn that much, she has a shot at real  happiness, and her chances of sharing her blood with a dialysis machine because of her lack of "personal" responsibility.
We're killing our children, and we lie to them (and ourselves) as we do it.

Tired of all the lies--a child need to think for herself if she is to think at all....

Friday, December 28, 2012

Unsolicited advice for New Year's Eve resolutions

New Year's Day is coming up, and with it, the fantasy of resolutions kept.

Only wear shoes when you absolutely have to. 
Science teachers need to wear them during lab, but unless it's snowing and a bunch below zero, my toes are collecting photons.

It also cuts way down on foot issues, and if you teach, your dawgs matter almost as much as your mouth.
My foot and a cabbagehead jelly--and no, haven't tried eating that (yet).

Eat fresh food, as much as possible, but don't make a fetish out of it. 
You can do it for health and a whole lot of other extraneous reasons, but the best reason to do it is because fresh food tastes good, and we only have so many meals in a lifetime.

If nothing else, grow some basil in a pie plate on a southern windowsill. Even if you never eat them, basil will cheer you up--they never stop yakking!
Just plucked, for tonight's dinner with pesto from last summer's basil.

Walk a couple of purposeless miles every day.
No stopwatch, no GPS, no heart rate monitor, no walking shoes, no laps. Just you and the world. If you don't know where to go, you're already halfway there!

Avoid ceilings.
Get outside as much as possible, whenever possible. No telling what you'll see.

Today I got to hold an old live horseshoe crab, and found myself within a couple of feet of two ruddy turnstones. We stumbled upon a hobbled vulture nibbling on a dead black-backed gull. I considered plucking a few oysters off the rocks, but given the recent rainfall, thought better of it. None of this is possible indoors.

Chase what gives you joy for hours a day.
For me that means strumming a stringed instrument (hardly matters which), singing, and gardening. For you, it might be skating, baking, or playing hop scotch.
The universe existed for billions of years before you came to be, and it will last billions more long after you're dead.

If I teach anything at all in biology, I hope it is this much.
You only have a lifetime to live your life.

Top Five Predictions for Edumacation, 2013

M.C. Escher

Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and Arne Duncan will pose in spandex as Edumacation Superheroes, spouting off aphorisms for the ages-- Every Toddler's a Tool! Glorify the Global Economy! Truth, Justice, And The American Corporate Way! They will launch an action figure line--each figurine will include a bleaching kit and testosterone injections, so you, too, can look like a real human.

Teachers will continue to contribute millions to national union leadership who will remind us how much we love evaluations and testing, because getting a seat at the table is all that matters, especially a table with century old Reed and Barton flatware and rich white men eager to disseminate their, um, ideas.

Hungry kids stressed by frequent midnight gunplay as they shiver themselves to sleep will be saved by an ambitious, cute pale woman, and teachers will be required to take voice training to mimic her soothing, reaffirming voice.

Teacher will be told, in various conferences, to place their student desks in neat rows of 5 while grouping them in three's, making a big community circle of love and empowerment, until next week, when desks are banned, and then unbanned 3 weeks later.

The latest Marzano study will show that if you stack desks in the shape of a pyramid, your school's Scoville Heat scores will rise 37% when adjusted using the Marzano Research Laboratory's Creating An Aligned Desk System (and he'll even send someone to your district and demo it for just a few thousand dollars).

John Spencer added one:
In the name of being "brain-based," schools will take an Oxford University study about electric shock impulses and memory retention to heart and teachers will be armed with tazers and shock centers. Kids who fail to learn will be shocked harder. Those who question the practice will be accused of low expectations.

Feel free to join the Pernicious Prognosticators!

We'll check our results in a year!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Apropos nothing...a clam chowder recipe

This one is for me, and may end up buried with other posts forever in the draft stage, but I put it together, I liked it, and I want to repeat it again someday soon.

Rake up a few dozen clams, steam them open before the next low tide, chop them up, toss back into the broth, then freeze.

Iron skillet:
Cut off a few sprigs of rosemary from the eternally flowering rosemary bush. (This bush is the very definition of optimism.)

Heat up decent or better olive oil, then toss the sprigs in the skillet. (Every time I taste a good olive oil, I think of Palestine--if ever a flavor matched the history of its peoples....)

Let the sprigs cook until just before charred (yeah, I know, but you do this long enough, and you will know, too). Remove the sprigs.

Toss in a half bottle of chardonnay--doesn't need to be fantastic, the clams are the show after all, but it can't suck, either. I'm not an oenophile, but I'm not so educated that I can't tell what I like.

Once warmed up, chunk in 1 or 2 minced onions, a chopped up whole celery plant, a carrot or two, and (maybe) one or two cloves of garlic. (I'm usually a garlic fetishist, so not sure why I hesitate here, but I do.)

Tonight I tossed in a minced jalapeno as well--not sure I needed it, but it was sitting on the counter (for Yahweh knows only reasons), so I used it.

Cook down until just before the celery gives up the ghost, then let sit. (I added basil somewhere along the way, but forget when. Basil is as forgiving as the Lord Himself, so no worries.)

Big brew pot:
Chunk up a couple of potatoes, and bathe in clam broth. Simmer until the potatoes are a couple of minutes from just so.

Um, that's it.

Putting it all together:
Dump the skillet goodness onto the potatoes. Toss in the clam meat. Let it simmer for 2 or 3 minutes, and you're done.

This is one reason (among many) I clam.

Abstract vs. literal vs. real

Reading about 30 knot gusts registered by a weather station just a mile away is abstract. Federal funds maintain my local station, and I read it religiously.

CMAN4, at the Cape May ferry dock (photo by NOAA)

Thinking about the wind and clams and life as I drag my rake through the mud is literal.
The real happens when the words fade away, when  "I" (never real) dissolve in the salty mist of the strong breeze coming off the flats.

What is real is as unknowable as the shiver of life felt when a rake's tine carves a line in a quahog. I find the line later, as I wash the mud off the clams under running water, like blood from a deep cut, reminded (again) of the violence even in clamming.

The strike of tine against clam is real.
The clam knows something at that moment, as I know something, but words serve neither of us as I curl three fingers under its perfect shape, a tinge (literal) that my imperfect state (abstract) requires eating (literal, again).

We take mammals made for running under the sun and the stars, made for climbing and dancing and singing and playing, and (literally) make them human (abstract) at the cost of the real. Show me a child who loves schooling, and I'll show you another lamb who has lost her way.

1921 classroom, by Lewis Wickes Hine, via Shorpy
Clamming reconnects me to what is real. So does gardening. And stargazing.
You have your ways, too. We all do, or did, anyway, before we let the abstract get in the way.

All the words and pictures I seek, the ones I share, are useless if just reading and looking are the goals. The goals remain wordless but not unknowable.

But sometimes all we can do is point and hope.

And try to assess that on a standardized test, Mr. Coleman.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Food for thought

Wheat from our winter classroom windowsill.

Some abstract intangibles:

If you think you know light, but see the world as solid, you do not know electrons.
If you think you know electrons, but imagine them as circling protons like planets, you don't know inertia.
And if you don't know inertia, you cannot know mass.

Which is OK--few people do, and I am not one of them, but we all pretend we do in high school science, and we test kids like they do, and we reduce science to something mystical and powerful, creating a nation that believes in ghosts and astrology.

Gardens remind us--from seeds in February to fruit in July

Some concrete tangibles:
Bread is made of air and water, and little else.

Oh, we can delve into the specifics of photosynthesis and CO2 and fermentation and all that good stuff we love to test, but in the end, the miracle is the stuff around us comes together, the stuff around us falls apart.

Doesn't take a high school diploma to see this, but plenty with advanced degrees do not.

From the bay, from the backyard.

And we're all paying for their ignorance.

When was the last time Gregory R. Page, the CEO of Cargill, had a loaf of bread from freshly ground wheat?

Monday, December 24, 2012

On trick questions

Sometimes prattling on about things I'm passionate about, like balloons in a bottle, is like chatting about my fantastic rubber band collection.  
You have been warned.

The new AP Biology exam requires thinking
, requires it, and not much else. The sample questions are thoughtful, dense with information, and ask for reasonable conclusions.

It no longer is (if it ever was) a cram and dump course.

And never before have I been swamped with so many accusations that my tests have "trick questions" for questions that are just basic questions of understanding.

There's a chasm of difference between "heat" and "temperature," and  if you know the difference, it's very easy to get that while a cup of hot tea has a higher temperature than the ocean, the ocean has vastly more heat.

You can slog your way through definitions or equations to get there, but once you own the concepts of heat and temperature, the distinction is as obvious as a bow tie on a banana. Any question about comparing heat in a cup of tea and the ocean becomes embarassingly simple.

Or embarrassingly tricky.
Here's one from the practice exam:

Simple cuboidal epithelial cells line the ducts of certain human exocrine glands. Various materials are transported into or out of the cells by diffusion. (The formula for the surface area of a cube is 6 × S2, and the formula for the volume of a cube is S3, where S = the length of a side of the cube.) Which of the following cube-shaped cells would be most efficient in removing waste by diffusion?

There are several ways to get this, perhaps the easiest just realizing it takes 8 of the choice A boxes to make the volume of 1 choice B box, obvious to some on first blush.

How does something like that even become tricky?
What happens along the way that bright kids doubt their own ability to think?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Technology encourages scientific illiteracy

 A year old, but still waiting for a plausible counterargument.

A Crooke's radiometer measures sunlight intensity, which sounds all scary and scientificy, until you see one in action. It's simpler than a Talking Elmo.

The more intense the light, the faster the radiometer's vanes spin inside its glass bulb. It looks like a toy.

I keep one on the windowsill in our classroom. On sunny days in September, it spun so hard it rattled. In December's dying light, it moves like an elderly statesman--steadily, slowly, with a hint of what once was.

Sunlight is not abstract. The spinning radiometer is not abstract. Telling my lambs that the sun barely rose 25 degrees above the horizon is abstract. I can show them fancy solar data charts on the internet, teach them algorithms for interpreting the data, and get them to bark like trained seals.

We need the abstract. I get that. Focusing on the imaginary before children grasp the real, however, will create a generation of idiot savants.


Our children live in an abstract world. They bop along life with personalized song sets, immerse themselves in virtual worlds with personalized avatars.

We used to worry when kids held on to imaginary friends a bit too long. A toddler talking to a giant imaginary squid is cute; a 13 year old doing the same thing is disturbing.

Constructing the abstract is a special kind of imaginary thinking, but the abstract is still imaginary. If I describe my Christmas tree, a lovely balsam afflicted with minor scoliosis now covered with ornaments, some made by hand by my children years ago, I am talking about something real.

If I tell you that the average balsam sold in Bloomfield this year is 2.11 meters tall, weighs 20.3 kg, and has 533.7 branches, you might be able to imagine it in your head, but it does not exist. Anywhere.

Yet when we teach science, we focus on the imaginary average, often at the exclusion of looking at the bent-over balsam sitting in the room.

Using a machine that helps a child grasp the abstract version of a Christmas tree may improve test scores (though there's evidence that it won't); it cannot, however, help a child see the real tree.

There is a huge push to use "technology" in classrooms. By technology, I am assuming most folks mean the digitized high-tech expensive stuff, or else the discussion is just silly. All of us use some sort of technology in class, even if it's just paper and pencil.

The Innovative Educator blog is a fun read, with lots of good ideas. It has almost 1800 followers. It carries clout. A few days ago, Lisa Nielsen, The Innovative Educator, headlined her post:

Tech Doesn’t Make Us Illiterate.
Not Embedding it Into Instruction Does.

In it, she discusses reactions to The New York Times article discussing the failure of 1:1 computing in some schools, then reconstructs the false dichotomy tossed about in the ed tech world: tried-and-true old skool ("readin', ritin', rithmetic") vs. the visionary new big thing.

What gave me pause, however, is her suggestion that we turn classrooms into video games:
What would happen if rather than lament what our kids loved to do, we re-envisioned school. They love games. What if we stopped fighting it and the adults changed and started looking at School as Video Game?

Ms. Nielsen does not stand alone. I read similar words every few days, hers just happened to be the latest I stumbled upon.

What would happen?
Science in the classroom would die. Science requires contact with the physical, with the real. Until children know the ground under their feet, they cannot hope to grasp models.

I use plenty of technology in class: our Crooke's radiometer, our Drinky Bird, our Newton's Cradle, our classroom garden (hey, we even use fluorescent lights!), our prism, our aquaria filters...and on and on.

I agree with Ms. Nielsen that tech doesn't make us illiterate. Embedding digital technology into science too early, before our children get a decent handle on the physical world, does make our children scientifically illiterate.

It's why my class has an analog clock. It's why I threaten to smash calculators in class.

Do I use a computer? Yep. Sometimes I sip a good Oirish whiskey as I do so. Neither belongs in the hands of a child.

Radiometer pic by Nevit Dilmen, used under CC.

The cost of one laptop buys a lot of tangible science gadgets.
Bet a young student learns more science from a bag of magnets than from a puter. .

Balloon science

The point of science models is to get a better handle on how things work in the natural world, and to make predictions.

The point of mathematics is to ease our way through the models.

Still, when we reduce things to their most basic levels in class, when the intuitive clashes with the natural world, the intutitive wins almost every single time.

A little background, if you're so inclined, otherwise jump to the balloon below.

Most of my AP lambs can blast their way through the ideal gas law, and so can most of you:

P is the pressure of gas
V is the volume of the gas
n is the amount of gas molecules--it is a finite number
T is the temperature, or how fast the gas molecules, on average, are moving 
R is the ideal gas constant, which we will ignore for now

Pressure is one of those concepts everybody thinks they get, partly because it is so easily manipulated mathematically:
P is the pressure
F is force, or push
A is the amount of area being pushed by the force
The more push on a given area, the more pressure. The more area for a given push, less pressure.

I spent a good chunk of my morning drilling a hole into a one gallon jug. (I wore safety glasses, though maybe a mask would have been smart, too--glass dust can't be good...)

I put a balloon into the jug, then blow it up--I can feel air rush out the tiny hole in the side of the bottle as I do this.

After I blow up the balloon, I seal the hole, and this is what I get:

 You are looking into the inside of an inflated balloon.

The conceptual model is this--if a gas molecule hits you or anything else, it gives a tiny force related to its velocity and the angle it hits you. If it helps you to think of tiny demons driving bumper cars, fine, as long as you know that these demons cannot steer their cars, and that their cars never stop moving relative to other cars, because, well, they're gas molecules, and that's what gas molecules do.

(Yes, I know I am committing mortal sin among science teachers here, but I want to make a pedagogical point, not a science one.)

Most of my students see my balloon bottle as a parlor trick--and fail to see the science behind it.

I remind them of the ideal gas law equation, then ask then to predict what will happen to the balloon if I warm up the bottle. Most have been trained to think the balloon will get bigger, but of course it does not.  The demons in the bottle drive faster, bang against the balloon more often, and the balloon shrinks.

I ask them if air molecules are moving, and most say well, yeah, air is rushing in the bottle, which is, I suppose, half true.

I hold a candle to the open mouth--the flame does not flicker. No net flow of air. If air molecules are bouncing in, well, they must be bouncing out, too.

What would happen if I take my balloon in a bottle up to outer space? I can't test that one easily, but we can reason it out--the balloon will flip and inflate outside the bottle.

And so, science teacher, what is the point of this winded post?

Here it is--some of my "lowest" students, the ones who will never see the letters "AP" stamped on their transcripts, those who struggle to pass even rudimentary science classes, trust me and the model (if not the math) and accurately predict what the balloon  will do, under any circumstances I can devise in a classroom.

They won't pass any state or national exam, and a few may even fail my class.

Who knows more about the world?

The more we chant "standards," the less science happens in my classroom.
It's not the knuckleheads that are leaving the field right now....

Friday, December 21, 2012

Science won't cure superstition

I got this far into the year, believing (or maybe feverishly hoping) that my lambs were starting to get this science thing, then the Mayans gone done screwed it up.

"Can science prove the world won't end tomorrow?"

Of course not, no more than science can prove Liam [our class leprechaun] does not exist.

"It's true, then!" 

A few students really believe the lack of proof against the untestable makes the untestable true, and in their worlds of devils and demons, gods and ghosts, they trust their fears more than they trust the little we can know with logic and love.

And Liam?
He sits on the shelf, hissing and spitting at me as I lurch through darkness, at least as real as molecules and motion, and a whole lot more interesting.

Crystal healing grid, anyone?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Communion at the solstice

The sun stands still for an instant just a few hours from now, and will start its trip back north. We are all children of the light.

I ate a basil leaf in class today, grown from a flower fertilized by bee that stole a sip of nectar back in August. A child in class separated the seed from the dried flower head in October, and planted it.

The past two months the basil germinated, grew a pair of leaves, then another, then yet another, weaving together the carbon dioxide molecules floating around the room, pieces of this child's breakfast or that child's heart.

Transubstantiation, the miraculous changing of the Host into the flesh of God, has all the fancy accoutrements one would expect for theses kinds of things, but after all the noise, the Host still tastes like, well, a wafer.

Through several Sundays of Masses, the tiny basil seed grew, taking in the carbon dioxide of the breath of my lambs in class, an odorless gas, and weaved it with broken water molecules, creating the stuff of life, a basil plant, and today we took Communion.

No one believes this, of course, because it is simply too much to belief--but it's true and requires not a lick of faith.

The plants in our room are, literally, from the breath of those who live here--and at least a few of the carbon dioxide molecules captured were released when someone's brain in class tried to grasp the concept of photosynthesis.

And it was good.

And you're allowed to gnaw on basil....

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Losing our religion

Just before sunrise Friday, the dying sun begins its rebirth.

I walk to work every day, a true pleasure. I get to notice things other than human, which reminds me that this human thing works when (and maybe only when) placed in this bigger thing called life, which only makes sense (if it can ) in this thing that lets rocks and water and air and love be defined.

Every day I walk past a sycamore tree, a living being critically tied to the light around it. It's gray upon gray these days, and the few live things around to witness the darkness would rather be sleeping now.

I like my sycamore tree-- its shedding bark resembles the edge of a November bay, its intricate branches etching the gray winter sky.

Every fall the sycamore drops its leaves, each one actively pushed off its branch, its link to the tree squeezed by an increasing thick cork choking it off, until, at a particular moment, it breaks free and flutters its way to the ground, witnessed by no one.

This tree has been doing this before my birth, and likely will for many years after my death, as inevitable as the sunrise, and a whole lot more surprising, at least to me when I care to dwell on it.

 The last few days of deepening darkness descend on us, all of us, as the last leaves drift down, too heavy to be useful.

And now Newtown.

There has been a whole lot of talk about God in schools, or not, and while it's not my habit to engage the omnipotent, it's also not my custom to grasp the unfathomable. Its not a particularly fruitful exercise. Let the mystery be.

"In God We Trust" is not on coins because of some intimate relationship we have with the mystery. It's there because the North wanted to poke at the South. Can't hurt to have Him on our side.

The "under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance, itself an affront to principles espoused by the Good Book itself, were attached in 1954, pushed by Presbyterians under a newly baptized Presbyterian President Eisenhower.

None of this has anything to do with my sycamore tree and the slow fall of a leaf to the ground, where it will break, as we all must, back to the stuff of time.

I am a teacher, surrounded by young folk, and like any decent teacher, any decent human, am not surprised that another teacher or decent human would lay down her life for her students.

Winter falls hard on us, and the last few sycamore trees gently rocking earthward remind me of what once was. I imagine the crumpling bodies of children, and those who fell trying to protect them, when love was not enough, because love can never be enough.

But it's what fuels us, and let's us hold onto what little light remains now, when even leaves are useless, and I pray in a language older than words, hoping the light will return again.

The sycamore tells me it will.

And I trust the sycamore.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

"Scientists" never said that, experts did

Another few clambeds are opening in Jersey today.
Been a long couple of months.

"All the scientists say that the quahogs don't move, they don't go up and down [in the winter when the water is colder]. We claim they do… You have a rake with longer teeth, you catch 'em. With shorter teeth, you don't."

I'm going quahogging today. I borrowed my nephew's new rake last time out, but that was a mistake. His rake is lighter, with sharper tongs. Mine is held together with hose clamps and duct tape, and gets heavier every year.

It's a little chillier now, and the clams a little deeper.

No matter what the scientists say....
Except they never said it.

We confuse experts with scientists.
We confuse the process of science with its results.

A child with a decent grasp of science knows less of a bigger world, and that's the point.
No expert ever made a living by claiming ignorance, but pleading ignorance is what scientists do.

It's hard to test ignorance when "knowledge" is the point, and it's hard to teach science when standardized  tests focus on this-thing-we-do-in school-we-call-science.

Here's a sample question:

Straight from the NJ Student Preparation Booklet

It's a bad question--we all want to maintain cellular respiration, at least those of us planning on staying conscious for more than a few seconds. Flow of energy is a theme in my classroom, as it should be in any biology class.

Athletes do not want to maintain "constant" cellular respiration anyway--makes no sense, except for maybe a sprinter, and even they remain still a moment before the gun goes off.

It's a trick question because kids will jump on to ATP as the answer because that sounds "scientifical."

If I do my job right, my kids will dissect the question, grasp its inanity, and (I pray) choose C to help me keep my job, but many won't.

And here in New Jersey, we're headed to a teacher evaluation system based solely on "student achievement"  as determined by the same folks who wrote that question--which means I have a hard choice.

Teach my lambs to learn how to think, to see a sliver of a vast and terrible beauty of the universe in and around them. Or train them to heel.

We are all naturalists on the clam flats, under the low steely December sky and a sun that barely rises over the bay's edge. You cannot hope to make a scientist out of a child until she is, in a real sense, a naturalist.

Until she gets to choose which rake she needs, based on the natural world around her, based on her needs and her knowledge, and not the  rants of experts spewing pseudo-science, we will continue to produce generations of people who worship the Gardners and Marzanos around us.

Every field has charlatans, and right now the charlatans are winning.

Me? I'm teaching science while I can, and clamming when I can.

The flats feed me, literally and metaphorically.
Experts do neither.

Yeah, all over the map...I need to get outside.
Photos by Leslie.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Why I do not own a cell phone

I do not own a cell phone, and do not plan on getting one.
Here are my reasons; I think they are good ones:

*I worked as a pediatrician for many years, essentially on-call at least 80% of the time. It's nice not to be tethered to the human bustle. It distracts me from the infinite hum of life around me.

*I cannot be two places at once. When I am walking, I am walking under a sky of infinite variation. I feel the twigs beneath my feet. I see the faces of those who walk by, though many cannot see me. If I cannot be two places at once, I have a choice to make--which place matters more to me? Surprises me how few folks realize they have a choice.

*I do not like being tracked by anything farther than my voice can carry. That a grackle eyes me before going back to rustling through leaves, looking for bugs, makes me feel more whole. That a cell phone system can do the same unnerves me. I do not like it, and have liked it less since the Patriot Act.

No, I am not a criminal, I am a school teacher who knows a little history. If I cannot use a cell phone without a perpetual electronic collar, I have a choice to make. Surprises me how few folks realize they have a choice.

*But what if someone needs to call you about this calamity or that? I do not spend my waking hours worrying about catastrophes. Bad things will happen even if I carry a cell phone, and knowing them a few minutes earlier than I otherwise would is not going to change a thing.

*They're expensive. I have to make about a grand before taxes in order to pay for a year's worth of service. If I used a cell phone, much of the money I earn teaching would go to support my phone use. I would rather spend my money on a few decent books, decent ale, another clam rake (I got a bad habit), or give it away.

*It's one more thing to worry about. I clam, I kayak, my wallet has salt stains on it. It's a rare week when at least some of me is not in the bay.

And maybe the bay is the biggest reason I do not plan to get a phone--so many evenings, as the sun settles on the bay's edge, I remember, at some deep level, that I am, and (perhaps) always will be, a part of this thing, whatever this thing is, and I  fear the phone leashes me to schedules independent of the stars, to ideas contrary to what we know is true.

The ancients may not have had the sophisticated grasp of what we call science, but they knew the natural world. They lived in it, of it--the abstract cannot truly represent the real. The cell phone separates me, incrementally, from what I think matters.

So I don't own one.
Thanks for asking!

This is NOT a diatribe against cell phones in general--I fond them incredibly useful for students in school.
Most of my students are walking around with phenomenal personal devices, and I encourage them to use them.
But school is already so artificial it hardly matters.

And yes, I am aware I am coming off as a sanctimonious ass here--it's just a blog.

Science Teacher's 2012 Toy Recommendations

Here's a short list:
Jacob's ladder
Newton's cradle
hand-cranked generator
a fossilized anything
a karimba
a terrarium for slugs and roly polies
a bag of marbles
and a magnifying glass.

Pushing science on on our lambs under the threat of "you will be unemployed and starve to death otherwise" works about as well as nailing a heretic's tongue to the church bulletin board--it may have great short-term results, but neither leads to a come to Jesus moment.

Even back in 1598, good intentions were not enough. (From Wikipedia)

Most attempts at educational toys fail, as evangelism usually does. Too often the giver is more interested in converting someone than making them happy. I don't want to convert anyone--I just want people to see, to think, and to be happy. Democracy depends on this, even if Exxon doesn't.

The holidays beckon--rash decisions get made. Shoddy telescopes catch more closet dust than starlight, and the carcasses of ants and sea monkeys litter bedroom floors every February.

A science toy should make the natural world more available.
It should be simple enough for a child to use without help.
It should be fun.
No batteries.
(And cheap!)

If it has the word "science" or "educational" on the box as its selling point, walk away....

Here's the annual  
Science Teacher Stuff You Should Get Your Kids Before They Hit Puberty List:

From BBC here

A magnifying glass changes the world.  A decent loupe gives a child just enough new stuff to stimulate the mind without careening into existentialism. A small glass prism bends and breaks light, distorting a child's firm connection with light, with the world. A tiny hourglass brings time back to its kinetic roots.

Seeing light for what it is goes a long way to grasping what it is not. Not bad for a $5-10 investment that lasts a lifetime.
What not to get? Microscopes:
they're clunky, require prep, and can freak out any child who's paying attention.
From B & N here.

The Kids' Paper Airplane Book let's your child build 16 paper airplanes. Or get grandpa to show her how it's done. Flight fascinates even the cynical among us.

Get a book on origami. Few of us use our hands for anything more useful than banging on a keyboard. Let your child experience the joy of human evolution--fingers were made for folding.

What not to get? :
An RC flying anything--plenty of time for remote and control in adulthood. 


Plant a basil seed in a Dixie cup. Put a carrot top in a bowl on a windowsill. Scatter wheat berries on a vacant lot. Grab a bag of Goya Great Northern Beans and toss a few on a wet paper towel.

Maybe, just maybe, your child will grasp that a farmer matters more than a financial analyst (or even a teacher).

What not to get? :
A ridiculously priced Williams-Sonoma Seedling Kit. Children need reminding how little plants need us, not how much.

Both kinds. 'Nuff said.

What not to get?:
A fancy ball that measures how fast your future MLBer can throw a ball.
Save measuring abstract things that do not matter for her career in her corporate cubicle.

Vibrating objects that make pretty noises:

Harmonica, kalimba, maybe an ocarina. While mastery of a fancy instrument gets you glory and a better shot at a decent college, being able to bend notes on a mouth harp will give anyone about as much joy as she can handle.

Cheap joy's hard to beat.

Maybe the best gift you can give is one that takes away. Destroy her television, disable his X-box, toss the iPad into the fireplace.

Share your stories, share your time.
Trust what you know to be true.
None of us get out of here alive.

Merrie Christmas!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

My tabernacle of pond water

I keep about 12 gallons of pond water in my basement over the winter. It has a few handfuls of elodea, some duckweed, and whatever critters were caught two weeks ago when I filled it up.

Tonight there are mayflies dancing over the water's perpetual fluorescent light. A tiny spider rests nearby, patient as a stone. The spider will be rewarded.

I can stare at it for minutes at a time, looking for daphnia or skeeter larvae or whatever else wanders below my nose. I have a microscope, but knowing that countless invisible critters romp in the bucket is enough for tonight.

It's my tabernacle.

Humans are funny that way--we pay more attention to the church tabernacle, a purely human construct now,  than we do the bread and the wine it protects, mostly constructs of yeast.

We glorify the box, and sanctify the Eucharist, but ignore the yeast, creators of the wine and leavened bread. We rarely view yeast as holy, if we think about it at all.

And so it is with science education.

Trade your child's textbook for a bean, her iPod for a magnifying glass. Science starts, and ends, with the natural world.

A child who learns how to manipulate data without learning how to see can never be more than a technician, and Lord knows we have enough of them around.

If we were serious about creating more scientists, we'd be serious about how our children spend their days, and their nights.

The word tabernacle has a marvelous history--a cousin of tavern, both words comes from taberna.

During the Exodus, the Tabernacle was a tent, pitched at various areas as the Israelites wandered for decades in the wilderness. Imagine the shadows it cast as the sun set on it, and the chill of night descended on the settlement, imagine the canopy of stars above, the wandering of Jupiter and Saturn and Venus over the years, known by those protected by their tabernacle.

When I grew up, in a Catholic parish, the tabernacle of the Egyptian desert had been reduced to an ornate box that held the Eucharist, a box that never felt desert winds or sun, nor the drops of a mid-summer storm. The Tabernacle sat in the gloom of the sanctuary, the holiest of holy places, a human relic long removed from the awe of the aching desert.

I fear we have done the same to science. The natural world beckons to a curious child as she stares out into the long December shadows, before she is interrupted by her teacher.

Be a good girl, and pay attention...

Chastised, she recites her lesson--"mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell," and thus learns to bend to the sacred, another devout student who will, slowly over time, confuse the tabernacle for the miracles around us.

The sad thing is, the church is the only connection to natural cycles many children  have these days....