Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Sunrise, sunset

I watched the sun set yesterday.
I watched the sun rise again this morning.

I don't do this often enough, few of us do.

Just a few minutes after the sun broke through this morning, a twitchy squirrel sat on top of a fence post, still, facing the sun, then resumed his twitchiness.

A vulture flew within 20 feet of me, its under feathers reflecting the sunlight as it banked.

I just watched.
It would have happened anyway.
And it's happening anyway.

And it will keep on happening....

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Biology only matters if life does....

I suppose it's a bit much to ask students to ponder their closeness to plants in a culture where human tribes can barely recognize their similarities with other tribes. Things have broken down.

But I am going to ask you, gentle reader.
  • We share the same genetic code--we can make their stuff, they can make ours.
  • We both reproduce sexually in a spectacular dance of the chromosomes, mixing us up every generation, so that even the perfect among us are so for only a generation.
  • We both rely on ribosomes to build our proteins, microtubules and mitochondria to get us through the day, and an innate will to do whatever we need to see the next sunrise.
Humans and basil share a common ancestor. We share a quarter of the same genes. Many of our proteins do exactly the same thing, others not so much.

But we're pretty damn close at the most basic levels of life. Which is pretty cool.

We're even closer to insects--heck, we're both even animals! We share about 60% of our core genes with fruit flies. 

If something effectively kills plants or insects, and you see no connections between plants and insects and humans, then you likely do not contemplate the tons and tons and tons of herbicides and pesticides poured on our food in our "war" against weeds and weevils.

If you don't contemplate about food or water or folks in your neighborhood, it's unlikely you contemplate much about anything that matters.

Hey, what's on TV tonight?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Just a stone's throw away

In the span of less than a week, I managed to land in a cardiac unit and lose a friend.
It is one thing to write of mortality, quite another to kiss its cheek.
I am in the land of the fine again, but we all are dancing in the same shadow.

Flatiron Building, 1902, Library of Congress

A St. Stephen's Day Story

My great grandfather was a bricklayer at a time when New York City, just a sail away, was laying a lot of bricks. He'd come to the States, ply his trade, then return to the island.

In New York City there are many magnificent buildings erected on the backs of those who traveled from home, because they had to, and I am sure many families in the area claim a particular building (or two) as their own.

To whom does a garden belong? The gardener who digs into the rich bed of life, or the rich man who pays for his gardener's services? And so it is with the Flatiron Building in New York City. It is as much ours as anyone with a legal claim to the deed.

I can only imagine the thoughts running through a man far younger than myself as he tumbled several stories to the street below in a city far from his home. I can only imagine the pain and fear as he was carted off to a hospital, at a time when no one expected a man to survive a fall like that.

I do not have to imagine, though, that he prayed.
I have little doubt that in his prayers, after, of course Jesus and Mary, he prayed to St. Stephen.
Stoning of St. Stephen, Paolo Uccello, 1435

St. Stephen was stoned to death for a few reasons, but clearly he agitated those in power with his belief that  "the most High dwells not in temples made with hands." He is the patron saint of bricklayers, which would be ironic in most cultures.

So today is a good reminder to me to remember a few things that matter:
  • We are here by the tenuous thread we call the Grace of God.
  • Though our individual threads will break, we are all part of a larger, living tapestry.
  • Spills, even bad ones, can end well.
  • We revere the temples of learning at our peril.

I am the same man;
I will not be the same teacher.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Teacher preacher

I have been wrestling with teaching kids "science" now for years, and it comes down to this:
If a child has no real connection to the natural world, all I can do is preach.
And preaching does not work.

We got plenty of preachers telling all of us what to think believe.
And most of us are devout believers in things we hardly recognize as dogma.

Turn the sound of your television.
Watch the images stream by.
They define us--if they did not, we would not watch them.

Any child with a true interest in the world of the senses, the world of touch and taste, sound and smell and sight, the world that (for whatever reason) flows within patterns of the physical and physics, well, that child has a chance in developing interest in the only real world we have.

A child who  learns to manipulate symbols for extrinsic gain--first to please her parents, then to make a living--can become a proficient scientist without knowing the world. We have plenty of professional preachers who have little connection to The Christ.

If you can't find the ground beneath your feet, you are lost.

(Doesn't mean she will become a scientist--
no one has an obligation to professionalize wherever joy takes them. But she will be a better citizen.)

A pill bug prayer

Less than a mile away, in the gray shadows of a closed classroom, a pill bug wanders around some compost, feeling relief as it moistens it gills. It stumbles onto a fellow pill bug, exchanges greetings with a brief twitching of touching antennae, then ambles over to a piece of potato.

Wild pill bug, loitering on a North Cape May driveway.

It sees light we know exists, but no human will see today.
It knows sound we know exists, as an old analog clock ticks a few feet away.
It knows of existence, and the existence of others like it.

Christmas means nothing, of course, to a critter no bigger than a wheat berry.
But living does.

The light is returning.

There is joy and wisdom in silence and darkness.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

I am a racist

I come from an unusual school in an unusual district. We are not a white or a black or a Latino school. We are not Muslim or Jewish or Christian or Hindu or Sikh. We hear Bengali, Spanish, Greek, English, Patois, and maybe another couple dozen languages and dialects in our hallways.

Crispus Attucks, first death in American Revolution
via Crispus Attucks Museum website

I'm not going to ruin all this by claiming a Kumbaya moment, but what makes this building work maybe better than most others is the constant infusion of immigrants into our town, an infusion of confusion, that keeps us all wondering who we are.

I've heard several times a different version of that discussion, as a small group of kids will discuss just which banner they fall under.

And that's a good place to start.

The other race conversation is the one acknowledging the price of color in this fine land of ours. The problem is not starting "the conversation" about race. Most kind, nice folks I know are eager, too eager, to start the conversation.

The problem is getting past the niceties, the politeness, the veneer of civility that subtly reflects our standing with each other.

The problem with the hard conversation is that most white folks I know truly believe two things:
  • They're not racist.
  • If they're not racist, then this does not involve them.
This skirts the whole issue of privilege, neatly tidied up in a universal statement of our humanity, and who could possibly argue with the idea that an unbiased, nice person who just wants everybody to get along had nothing to do with, well, John Crawford? 

Here's a place to start. You're not going to get off the bottle until you acknowledge you're a racist. Not a John Birch Society heavy drinking racist, just the social two cocktail kind. The kind who sits on the sidelines tsk tsking away a world that does not concern you.

But it should.
Make the declaration, then let's try having the talk. 

And if it does not, you are in deeper than you think.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

People in the neighborhood

I'm fine now, for now.
Most of us are, for now.
I was not so fine 36 hours ago.
Good to be reminded what matters.

I was treated at our local hospital Clara Maass, and I was treated well.
The people who took care of me played in our local Little League back when I was coaching, had kids in our high school, knew friends of my wife--these are the people in our neighborhood.

So while I appreciated the efficiency and technology of a local hospital humming like a well-run machine, it was not the machine that made it a place of healing.

It is, and always will be, the people that matter.

Bet that matters in the classroom, too.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Undeniable: Bill Nye is wrong

The Science Guy, via CNN
Unicorns and leprechauns are not real.
Double-wattled cassowaries are.

Bill Nye blames an easy target:
Nye (rightly) rails against money from the Creationism camp used to taint biology ed, but then adds "the concern is raising a generation of children who 'can't think.'"

Cassowary adult, by Victor Burolla, via CC

Fundamentalists are not killing the minds of our children. Our disconnect from what's real is.

Fundamentalism is a sadly predictable result of a people who have as much to gain by paying attention to the dope on screens as they do to the dope proselytizing in a classroom. If you think you can reduce evolution to a two minute discussion using Emojis and cute music, you're just adding to the noise.

If I tell a child that unicorns and leprechauns are imaginary, and double wattle cassowaries are "real," and can do no better than provide a projected image on a classroom screen as I pontificate the difference between what's real and what's not, well, who's the idiot?

Children would question just about everything we teach (at least the way we teach now) if children had something, anything, to center themselves.

Start with the local, with a bug or a plant or a bird or anything real that exists outside a screen. Until that local reality becomes more real than the stream of images and sounds we feed our children, we get the culture we deserve.

I bet I could convince a child that Mr. Nye is a robot.

His overall point is valid--kids need to be able to question things, to think, to be skeptical, in order to learn about nature.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

We're too damned polite

Well, I suppose if we're not bold enough to correct a teacher for saying Columbus discovered that the world is round, that plants turn sunlight into food, that gravity does not exist on the moon, and that Dr. King was all about peace and love, then we're not likely to say anything about her (not so) subtle racism.

We get the students that we deserve.