Saturday, January 31, 2015

Imbolc, again

Imbolc, again, in less than an hour.

An Cailleach Bhearra wandered around back in the 10th century in western Ireland,
eating "seaweed, salmon, and wild garlic" (my kind of woman), looking for firewood.

If the day was bright and sunny, beware--she had gathered plenty of wood and was set for many cold days ahead.
If the day was gray, she didn't bother, and she will make the days warm up again. Sound familiar?

Imbolc again.
The daffodils have broken through the earth. My words shrink as the sunlight grows.
Groundhog Day has always been a favorite of mine.

We are trapped by words.

This week my lambs are being tested. They sit silently as they analyze stylized marks on paper, then fill in 90 bubbles on a piece of paper holding 500.

This is serious business, this thing we do with words. Outside a gull glided by lifted by the unusually warm mid-winter breeze. No one else in class saw it.

What's the use of knowing the word gull if you have no use for the animal?

We pretend our words make us safe. We pretend our words give us control. We pretend that words make us special, and that these words separate us from the bacteria, the fungi, the jellies, and the gull.


A few days ago I watched a crow at the ferry jetty caw caw caw at a gull sharing a light post. The gull did not respond. The crow then swooped down, picked up a piece of paper, then returned to its perch near the gull.

The crow carefully ripped up the paper, piece by piece, dropping each piece, one by one, watching each piece until it hit the ground, looking at the gull between pieces as if to say Hey!

When done, the crow cawed once more, and this time the gull squawked back. The crow, now seemingly satisfied, nodded, then flew to a trashcan and cawed at a few humanfolk, one (not me) who cawed back.

I have no idea what that was about, nor could I justify discussing it in my classroom. So I don't.

Curriculum stops at the point where humans are besides the point.

That makes sense if you live in a world of words. It makes less sense at the water's edge.
A child can parrot the Calvin cycle without knowing a thing about a seed, about food, about the billions, trillions of other organisms teeming around him.

If we keep ignoring things where humans are besides the point, we will become just that.


I teach biology, the study of life, in a culture that fails to recognize death. The children spray themselves with Axe, yet shy from the pond water and the mud brought in from outside.

I can hardly grade a child on her ability to keep a plant alive in a public building . I cannot ask a child to slaughter a calf in class. I can ask her to tell me how many NADH molecules are generated from one molecule of glucose during the Krebs cycle.

With the return of the sun comes the return of my sanity, when I feel comfortable letting go of the words again, learning (again) that what I thought was besides the point is the point.

Photos by us.

On leadership

I don't want to create a generation of leaders.
That implies most of this generation is doomed to sheephood.

I don't want to create a generation of compliance.
That just leads to blind baaing and more of what we already know doesn't work.

I want to teach kids how to live and work well, to live happy lives, to get to know the person they are, not the person they can never become.

If a child knows who she is and what she wants, she does not need a leader.
Others may follow her at their own peril, but that's not her problem, nor her desire.

Our "economy," sick as it is, requires a herd mentality and a few charismatic folks to lead tribes within our cult of personality.

I'm not here for the economy, I'm here for the kids.

We don't need no stinking revolution--
there's plenty of space to live a life worth living within these fine lands we call America.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The connected child

An essential quality of technology, from the spear to Skype, is action at a distance. Technology enables us to have an effect on people and things far away. In general, the more advanced the technology, the further away it is able to impose an effect. 

Our lives cost the lives of others. That's always been true, and will be so long as we breathe. Technology allows us to forget this.

As technophiles spew on about a global community, where your value is measured by the number of hits your words register, their hands never touch the blood and feces of the life around them.

You want every child "connected"? So do I. It's what's at the other end of the connection that matters.

All children, every child, should know where the stuff that makes up their bodies comes from, all the way back to the living organisms that fill up, unrecognizable, wrapped in plastic.

All children, every child, should know where their waste goes, through hidden pipes and trucks that rumble before dawn through the neighborhood once or twice a week.

We can do both, I suppose--just make sure you cover up the machines when I bring in a calf (or whatever the cafeteria is serving this week) to slaughter in the classroom.

I could live without my computer a lot easier than living without my knife.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Bringing our kids back to the Stone Age

This is my honing stone. 
Before that it was my Mom's. 
Before that it was Grannie's, my Mom's mom.

It has worked, and worked well, for over 50 years, and I expect that it has another half-century left in it.
Behind it is my favorite knife. It is a wedge and a lever, two simple machines. Knives work by separating and ripping through molecules.

I like sharpening my knife. It is an Old World skill. I like the heft of the knife, the sound of steel on stone, the memories of my genetic past that held this same stone.

The honing stone bends the edge of the knife back its ideal position, but at an imperceptible cost.
Over the years, the stone erodes, and each millimeter or two of depression represents years of our lives.
While we spin tales of modern life, urging ourselves to greater heights, rushing through our days, the basics remain (as they ever will) the same.

We eat, we breathe, we grow, we love, we die. The stone connects me to the knife which connects me to the food I will eat. The gap in the stone connects me to my Mom and to her Mom, and will, someday, connect my child to me.

Knives and honing stones are technological wonders. We forget the wonders of steel because so few of us recognize its raw materials, few of us are aware of the tremendous amount of energy needed to create the blade we take for granted. We marvel at high tech machines, yet not one in a thousand of us could make a good steel knife.

If a child cannot sharpen a knife, cannot prepare his own food, cannot imagine the animal slaughtered before it ends up on his table nor the kernel of corn that grew into his corn chips, we are not doing him any favors pushing him into the fantastical world of high tech machines.

Yet that is what we do, every day, in almost every public school.

That stone above will outlive any and all of us.

Peeling garlic outside in January

This is from a year ago.
I liked it then, and I still like it now.
Garlic, CC
I peel garlic almost nightly. 
It's a ritual. I step outside, and in the dark wintry months, look up at the stars. I am usually barefoot, even in the snow.

It matters to me enough that I've done it for years, and hope to do so until the senses dull too much for it to matter anymore.

The  garlic cloves yield their dry coats under my probing thumbs. I watch the husks slide east with the wind on good days, south on the stormy ones.
Sometimes I think about the garlic, where it came from, where it will be in a few days.
Sometimes I think about time, or seasons, or matter, or some other abstraction that counters the firm life in my hands.
Mostly I think of nothing--I have a task, a good one, and I concentrate on the task at hand.
The heft of a garlic bulb comes from the union of carbon dioxide and water, the electrons in its sugars stressed enough to release considerable free energy when returned to their native states.

Of all the organisms on this planet, humans are the only ones who burn other organisms simply for this free energy.

It may be wood, it may be peat, it may be wood, it may be gasoline.
In all cases, we are using up what once was food to release a power no other animal knows.

Everything that burns easily in my classroom owes its combustibility to a plant that captured sunlight, either in my lifetime or eons ago.

Wool, paper, plastic, rayon, cotton--all with electrons trapped in stressed positions, ready to tumble into the welcome arms of oxygen, releasing their stress in a blaze of light and heat.

Garlic burns, too, but we will eat these cloves tonight, their warmth felt three times--once from the work of chopping, once from the reassuring heat on the tongue and throat, and finally in the heat that radiates from my skin, up to wherever through the thin skin of a dry January evening atmosphere.

I could burn the skins, too, I suppose, but I let them drift to the ground, to feed creatures I cannot even imagine, with stuff put together by the sun, which I can.

We are living on the sustained efforts of other organisms, efforts that have accumulated over years, over eons.

Oil, coal, peat, and wood all take time, and work. The energy released when we burn any of these is not inconsequential--we have become gods.

When I was born, there were less than half the humans on Earth as there are now. We are consuming millions of years of free energy captured by plants like a plague of locusts, with similar consequences.

When we lose our connection to our relationships with the rest of the sphere of living things, when we consume others for anything other than food and shelter, when we fall out of the cycle of life, we lose our religion

Wandering out in the mid-January darkness to peel garlic is a small way to recapture it.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Digital natives are neither

"If it don't fit, don't force it.
Turn it over and try again."

Cliff, a dockworker at MJ Rudolpf, ca. 1977

Photo by Debbie Egan-Chin, Daily News

I can drive a car reasonably well. I know its basic functions, can dive under its hood with a reasonable idea of what does what (and even fix things occasionally), and I'm cognizant of what a car can (and cannot) do.

I grew up with cars, they were around long before I was born. I am an automotive native.

Still, when faced with driving a new model, I invariably struggle to find the defrost function. I stil struggle with it in our latest car, and we've had it for over two years. No one worries about this, though, because we are all automobile natives, and we all know that I can figure this out on my own.

Henry Ford was not an automotive native. Neither were the many, many folks who drove his Model T's, cantankerous beasts that needed a lot of loving and logic to keep chugging along. Chokes needed pulling, engines needed cranking, and tires (over and over again) needed replacing.

Yet just about anyone who owned a Model T could finagle their way through the myriad maddening Model T problems.

Not because they were natives, but because they were problem-solvers.

Miss Ramey, a school teacher, 1924, via Shorpy

Maybe the myth that a child can figure out a piece of software faster than her teacher says more about the teacher than the child.

Commercial software is made to be sold. "Intuitive" software sells better than clunky code, and pretty much all commercial programs and hardware meant for mass consumption start up in similar ways.

There is nothing amazing about a reasonably bright child picking up a device and figuring how to power it up, no more than a reasonably bright teacher starting and driving a car they've never used before. Praising your two year old using an iPad is like praising him for pooping in a toilet. I'm all for praising toddlers. But pooping and iPadding are both "user friendly" activities.

Problem solving is a an old, generic skill,  It requires reasoning, experimenting, patience, and (in some cases) chutzpah. Humans are (generally) pretty good at it.

Let's not fetishize the machine, nor the child's relationship to it.
Crows can solve problems. Humans can, too.

We should be able to do it better.

My Dad would say that you should not use a machine until you know how it worked.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Crocuses, again

The crocuses are back, spearing their way through last summer's leaves, reminding me (again) that spring is possible.

I lose faith when I lose my way, when I no longer feel the rhythms of the natural world in my bones, when I spend more time under fluorescent light than I do under the sun.

We pretend that we can educate children for a global village, with standards and standardization, through prescribed algorithms. We forget that the lamb in front of us will age, will die, just as we will age, will die.

And in a hundred years, the crocuses will again break through the frozen ground, as alive as you and I are alive today, with as much purpose.

If you do not know what our purpose is for being here, and it is unlikely that you do, then why do you impose the will of strangers on the children in your community?

I think we all need to spend a day just silently watching the sun wend its way across the sky.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Thoughts on finding a mako's tooth

Found today at the edge of the ocean.

We are mammals, all of us, trapped by words of our creation, most of us.
We are human, all of us, trapped by technologies of our creation, most of us.
We are all mortal, all of us, trapped by belief we shall live forever, most of us.

Just a few hours ago I stumbled upon the tooth of a mako shark, a creature likely still very alive within a few miles of here, now sliding through the dark depths of the water, living in a universe as incomprehensible to us as iPhones are to the shark

This tooth has ripped the bodies of other living beings, its serrated edges cutting through flesh not all that different from our own.

An old horseshoe crab, just recently dead.

We credit ourselves with awareness, with knowledge, with wisdom, stored in books and hard drives and stories we share with each other.

If the stories focus on us, as they mostly do, we can still learn.
If they exclude everything but us, however, we'll become as ignorant as the machines that dominate our days.

We're losing our way.

[Update: a local biology teacher just told me that this may be a fossilized tooth--
how cool would that be!]

[Update 2: A geologist friend of mine assures me it is a fossil!]

I've never regretted a single moment outside.
Photos by Leslie.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The carrot and stick approach

With all the confusion of what constitutes good teaching in a classroom these days, complicated by metrics that have little to do with anything, I have learned through the years that the carrot and stick approach works best.

Here's the carrot, grown by a student.
Each year we get one or two, grown by patient students who see to it that their little plant survives these dark wintry months.

And here's the stick:

My Dad's slide rule sits on my desk. Any student can play with it anytime, and they do. It does what it's supposed to do, and continues to do it well, well over 50 years later.

There's joy in a tool that works well in the hands that know it.
Not sure the kids see the joy in the tool, but they recognize the joy in me every time I pick it up.

Some days I think a kid getting the chance to see a happy adult is reason enough for me to be there.

An American Experiment

Hey, Arne, here's an experiment for you--let's get some real data!

Let's take a few American babies, even wealthy white ones with full-time nannies, and pump them full of cortisol.

Every few minutes, shoot another bolus of cortisol into their veins, their brains.

Watch their hippocampuses (critical for memory) shrink as their bellies bulge, their memories fall as their blood pressures rise.

Watch their amygdalas, the seat of fear and aggression grow, as their health declines,

Then give them some more.

Wait a few years, then toss them into a classroom and subject them to a "level playing field," where years of toxic doses of cortisol have shaped their minds and their bodies, and keep pumping that cortisol in hour after hour after hour after hour.

Then test them, and label them as the failures that they are, the dregs of our culture, and toss them back into the abyss of cultural condemnation.

Toxic stress is real.
Teachers cannot fix it, though bad ones can certainly add to the cortisol carousel.

There's a reason lower standardized test scores correlate with lower "status."

If you care about children, stop focusing on whether standardized tests should (or should not) be mandatory. It's like asking whether the Titanic's color scheme worked.

Our culture is poisoning children, especially children of color, with cortisol.
We're too busy to even pretend to notice.

I have really had it with the smug bullshit dished out by Emperor Arne....

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Staying in between the lines"

Now and then it keeps you running
It never seems to die
The trial's spent with fear
Not enough living on the outside
Never seem to get far enough
Staying in between the lines
Hold on what you can
Waiting for the end not knowing when

Backyard crocuses, 2013

Today marks the last day of the darkest 6 weeks of the year in these parts.
Tomorrow will bring us back to November light.
And Imbolc will be just 3 weeks away.

Under the frozen earth the crocuses next to the old bare oak tree are starting to stir. Chromosomes are replicating, cells dividing, tough spears forming, getting ready to pierce their way to the sunlight.

Not sure they know why they go through all the fuss, not likely a question they they ask, pretty sure the answer wouldn't matter to them anyway.
But they at least know where they're going.

Even if we could decipher the language of plants, we could not grasp their answer to such a question.
It won't involve money or fame or power or self-esteem.
The point may seem without value in a culture that does not value living.

Hard to commodify the thoughts of a flower.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Perihelion, again

Just a few hours ago, we got as close to the center of our life force as we are going to get this year, three million (or so) miles closer than we will be in early summer.

North Cape May, ferry jetty

A few thoughts:
  • It's amazing that "we" know this.
  • It's amazing that the sun is the source of our life's energy. Every breath you take, every thought thunk, is powered by the sun.
  • It's amazing that any of us are alive to see it.
  • It's amazing that some of us not yet alive will see it next winter, and some of us here now will not.
A matter of perspective, and perspective matters.

Happy Perihelion, folks. Sol Invictus.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A song sung

Dave Keeney is a friend of mine, who happens to be brilliant, though that's not a word he'd likely use to describe himself. He's an apple farmer, a musician, a story teller, a mensch.

Dave on the left, Old Town, New Year's Eve
(photo by Derek Daniel)

First time he met my Dad, my Dad (once a fighter pilot) was in bad shape after a series of strokes that made him pretty much unintelligible. Except to Dave. After trading stories, Dave got out his guitar and sang one of the funniest songs I had ever heard, "John Denver's Last Flight."

Later, after dinner, I asked Dave to play the song again. He would not.
"Why not?"
"Don't remember it."
"But you just sang it, how could you forget something you know?"
"I made it up."
What's ridiculous (and telling) is that I still regret not ever hearing that song again, and Dave never gave it a second thought. The song is a song while sung, and that's more than enough for Dave, even as I (and I am embarrassed to say it), thought of the song's potential commercial value..

If the product is the goal, then we lose the "we" in this thing we're doing, whatever this thing we're doing happens to be.

Once an object is made, a song sung, a story scribbled down on the back of of an envelope, it's no longer us, merely an artifact of who we were. We become machines, we are machines, in our relentless chase to create the perfect product, make perfection a standard in whatever we do. We want everything to be professional, the new code word for standardized.

The us is in the process, the joy is in the doing.
A song is a song only as a song is being sung.

Fuck professionalism, it's no way to live nor love.
I'm going back to my ancestors' world of artisans,

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Waiting for the perihelion

January 1st is an odd day to start a new year. While the importance of time is a human conceit,its divisions are based on the natural world, a world too few see anymore.

Every night the starry sky shifts about a degree. (Degree is another word losing its meaning when few folks play with tangents and secants--we have machines have all the fun nowadays.)

In about a year's time, our closest star returns to where we last left it 365 days ago.

The Earth's rotation is (on average) slowing down while humans keep speeding up. A day used to be exactly 86,400 seconds, and still is, so long as you define seconds as 1/86400 of the time it takes the Earth to make a complete rotation (relative to the sun's position in our sky).

With atomic time, a second as defined today will be the same length as a second defined a billion years from now. How long will a day be then?

Depends--if we keep the astronomical definition, a day will still be 86,400 seconds. If the Earth is slowing down enough to add about an average of a 20 millionths of a second to a day each year, then we'll have over 5 more hours to get a days work done in a billion years.

In just three days, Earth will be as close to the sun as it gets in a year. This is a big deal (to three or four of us, anyway). Why not slide the new year to something of more import than some Roman two-faced god? Better yet, why not slide it back 10 days to the winter solstice, when our unconquerable sun starts its return journey to its place high in the sky?