Monday, September 29, 2008

Wild clams

I have no idea why I get so excited by clams--every clam I've caught this year has been released. Very few folks practice a catch and release program with clams. Next week's clams, however, may well taste garlic and butter when they open for the last time.

They are gifts. From Creation. From nature. From God. Gaia. Big Bang. Matsya.

Plenty of cultures, plenty of words. None of them work, true, and there was a time I could be drawn and quartered for saying as much, but most local parishes don't properly worship the clam.

Oh, they try. Singing, praise, lovely noise.

But no clams.

I am looking for a church that recognizes the glory of clams. If you can see the sacred in a clam, you can see.

One of my students wanted to hold Mr. Clam. She was a little nervous, but I assured her that clams are not particularly vicious. Indeed, few things are as calm as a clam.

When she held it, she was impressed by its heft.

Clams are dense with life. They have all kinds of things tucked inside their porcelain universe--siphons, feet, hearts, gills, even a nervous system.

Well, "system" may be an exaggeration. Peter Singer says it's OK to eat clams because they don't have such a sophisticated nervous system. Professor Singer is a sophisticated human teaching sophisticated ethics at the very sophisticated Princeton University. He's also an avid animal rights advocate, accusing humans (um, that's us) of "speciesism."
But he draws the line at clams.

If I were ever to eat dinner with Professor Singer (perhaps at a clambake) I'd ask if scallops, with their eyes and mobility, get a break.

We are talking about energy transfer in biology class--sun to plants to a critter to you. A few thoughtful humans skip the critter. Less taxing on the biomass to skip the middle critter.
I am not a vegetarian. Maybe I could become one if biologists reclassify Mercenaria mercenaria, but until they do, best I can call myself is a clamitarian.

In Richardson Sound just west of Wildwood some little necks are siphoning about a quart or two an hour, trapping plankton that trapped sunlight.They are growing. They are dense. They are good.And on Saturday, a few of them will end up in my bucket.

Teaching biology in public school is a delicate balancing act. I avoid politics. I avoid issues PETA holds dear. I am a timid, untenured teacher.

Until you talk about life. You cannot talk about life without bumping into mystery. I no longer pretend I do not feel the bump.
I do not pretend to know what the bump is all about. No one knows. A lot of folks pretend they do, and they make a lot of money.

But I acknowledge the bump:
Sorry, class, that's a religious question. An important one.
But not for me to answer.

I couldn't answer it if I wanted to. To say even that much, however, might offend those who pretend that they do know the answer.

If I do my job well, though, the kids will figure this out on their own.

Today I showed the stock market's climb since the turn of the century. There's a little downward blip in 1929, but overall it climbs about 11% a year. If you were immortal, you could not lose in the stock market.

I'm not immortal.

I talked about net primary productivity, solar energy, and limits to biomass produced here on Earth. There are limits.Then I show the stock market graph.

I had no idea when I was showing it today that the market was crashing. Even if I had a clue, I would not have mentioned it to class. This is biology class.

Still, there are limits. We are all (yep, even the wealthy among us) dependent on how many photons from the sun collide with Earth. Hydrogen fused with hydrogen creates helium, a little less massive than the hydrogen atoms that fused. What's no longer mass is now energy.

Go tell that to your local priest.

We tamed the Garden of Eden. Darn near killed it, and may yet.

We will never tame the sea. We may kill it, but it will not bend.

Clams and skates and croakers and jellyfish and fluke and toadfish and anything else with gills surrounded by water are all wild.

I want to bring the sea, the wild, to my classroom. The closest I come is the dozen or so horseshoe crab molts tossed around the room.

It's not close enough. Not nearly.

Garden of Eden picture from Our Day in the Light of Prophecy, W.A. Spicer,via the Gutenberg Project; the clams via Wikimedia Commons (anonymous)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I found my clam bed!

Two weeks ago I slipped an aged gentleman at the Villas Fishing Club in Cape May a generous tip. He had poured me a beer, and even more important, he had told me where I might find clams.

A few moments before, my uncle and I had slinked in, stinking of Delaware Bay mud. One of us had mentioned where we were clamming. It was somewhere along the Delaware Bay. 'Nuff said.

Folks at the bar laughed so hard I started looking for a defibrillator.

My guess is most of you have never been in the Villas Fishing Club. You have to be male to be a member. Wives are welcome, too. Even after their husbands die. That more women are belly up to the bar than men reflects two things:
1) Men die earlier than women--not even close.
2) The Villas Fishing Club reflects a dying era.

Still, you can get a decent pilsner for less than the cost of a half gallon of gasoline, and you can walk in covered in the black mud of the bay, and folks will still talk to you.

Once folks stopped laughing (and their hearts restored to normal with an effective defibrillator), Randy the Bartender took pity on us. Randy used to be a clammer.

Go to Garwood Avenue in West Wildwood. Drive to the end. There's an abandoned railroad bridge. Anything south of the bridge is legal

But if you really want clams, go to the Lobster House and buy them.

More laughter.

Two weeks ago, Don't-Call-Me-Uncle Bob and I went to the spot--the tide was high, and we could not make our way around the abandoned railroad bridge.

One week ago, we made our way to the bridge at low tide, but it was 6:30 AM, and it was illegal to walk on the beach until 8:00 AM. (Yes, we can fight it, no we didn't, mortality forces you to pick your battles.)

Today, Leslie and I paddled our way out past the bridge. We saw a couple of gentleman raking the low tide mud.

Any quahogs?
I don't want to steal yours.
There's enough for everybody!
I dragged my fingers along the mud of Richardson Sound--a clam. Then another. And yet still another. All in 5 minutes. One was at least 11 years old. You can count the rings. I was 38 years old when the critter settled in the mud. I chucked it back.

Next week Uncle (Don't-Call-Me-Uncle) Bob and I are going out to get us a mess of clams. Then we are going to eat them.

Low tide is around 6:00 PM. It's going to be fairly dark.

Still, we're past the autumnal equinox, both of us.

Life is all about grabbing some energy.

What does this have to do with teaching? Well, this week I am talking about grabbing energy. I lit a candle at the beginning of biology class. Where did the energy come from?

Plants. Millions upon millions of years ago plants capture some energy from the sun. Some refinery just down the road (this is Jersey, after all) cracked some crude and sold some paraffin. And now we released it, as light, as heat.

The clam in the picture spent a few years filtering plankton. Eating. Grabbing energy.

And that's as cool as it gets in class.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mr. Clam goes to BHS

I have a clam in room B360.

Every now and again it pokes it foot out. If you move the beaker, it pulls it right back in again.

The students are fascinated. A live clam in their class. Imagine that. While it's a little disheartening that a clam's foot can compete with my, um, well-crafted lesson plans, I put up with its insouciance.

Descent with modification led to this--a clam in a beaker with a strip of elodea, me with a laser pointer and a sometimes functioning SMART Board. Both of us are out of our elements. My hands are designed to pick basil seeds. The clam's foot is designed to pull itself deeper into the mud.

Descent with modification. To call it "evolution" presupposes I am more perfect than my shelled classroom buddy. Neither one of us is enhancing our reproductive strategies in B360. Neither one of us is particularly fit for our new environment.

In class we both lack purpose--no seeds to cull, no mud to muck in. Neither of us will last more than a lifetime. I was planning to eat the clam at the end of the school year.

I can't. Come next June Mr. Clam will be back in wild water, sowing his oats. I'll be back in my garden, sowing mine. And a few of my kids will remember the tentative foot of a clam during science class decades after memories of covalent bonds fade from their lives.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Autumnal equinox--does anybody know what time it is?

I spent an hour or two Saturday shucking basil seeds--after the flower petals drop off, the pods dry up, holding a few seeds each. Summer was receding. The seeds will be planted just before spring, and again, we'll have basil.

While I expect to have a few more goes at spring, collecting seeds this time of year reminds me nothing is guaranteed. I like that. This particular wheel of humans sowing, eating, harvesting, then planting again has been around for thousands of years. I hope it continues for thousands more.

The equinox was at 11:44 AM our time today. We're still connected to the universe with our time, at least for now. Oh, we keep a few atomic clocks running, but as precise as they are, even they are not absolutely synchronous, and there is joy in our inability to quite grasp what time it is.

Ephemeris Time, Barycentric Dynamical Time, Geocentric Coordinate Time, Terrestrial Time, Father Time--no one really knows what time it is--and even if one did, reporting it depends on a clearer understanding of spacetime than most of us possess. All of them, however, are attempts to tie time to the world outside our imagination.

Twice a year, the French (who control the standards for time and a few other crucial measurements) announce to the world what corrections are needed to keep the atomic clocks in synch with "real" time.

In 2005, the United States balked. We have a lot of very expensive, very deadly weapons. Resetting the time every now and again takes, well, time.

And money.

In 2005 the US proposed that we just stop basing time on the universe. Forget the leap seconds. It's too confusing. The Earth's rotation is slowing down anyway (blame the tides), so why not just toss away the connection of time to anything outside a vibrating particle of cesium-133?

Why, indeed.

Still, three years later, the French still control time, and time remains connected to things outside our artificial world.

And a few thousand years from now, should we still be around, someone else will be saving basil seeds, on a late summer day, a late summer day a few moments longer than mine.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Wall Street and biology

The Star Ledger reported yesterday's Wall Street debacle with the expected calamitous tone:
The Dow Jones industrial average was on its way to plunging 504 points, erasing about $700 billion of wealth in a matter of hours.
Star Ledger, September 16, 2008

Wealth is one of those words we think we know, wrap our lives around the concept, but forget to connect to biology.

Ultimately everything of value is connected to the ground, the sun, the air, the water.

I just picked enough basil to make a nice batch of pesto to share with my love when she comes home tonight. The basil looked just as green today as it did yesterday.

Two packs of basil seeds (~140 of them) from Pintetree Garden Seeds will run you $2.20. Throw them in the ground, get them some sunlight, and they will grow. And grow. Then grow some more.
(Some folks believe cussing at them will make them tastier, but I cuss so much it's tough to run a controlled experiment to test the hypothesis.)
I peeled some cloves of garlic, just as pungent as yesterday. Cost me about 2 bits, would be less if I wasn't too lazy to throw a few cloves in the ground in April.

A handful of pignolis, pine nuts, cost under a dollar.

A splash of olive oil on top of it all, maybe a buck or two more.

Not one of the ingredients lost a molecule's worth of value in yesterday's run on the market.

No wheat berries dissolved. No yeast expired that weren't going to expire anyway. The monarchs are still headed to Mexico. The sanderlings are still noshing on coquinas in Cape May.

Ultimately everything of value is connected to the ground, the sun, the air, the water.

Not saying the Wall Street debacles's not going to put a dent on the redistribution of wealth to those who already have it.
Donna Puzella, who owns a chocolate shop with her sister, said she might not see her business affected until the holidays....

"I have no idea what's going to happen with them. I'm very worried," Puzella said. Are there even going to be corporate gifts?"
Star Ledger, September 16, 2008
I live in north Jersey. I realize a lot of people are going to be hurt.

Still, trusting several zeroes after an integer trumped up by speculation, greed, ignorance and a faith that it represents true wealth is the kind of hubris that can kill a civilization.

Today's learning objective?

Ultimately everything of value is connected to the ground, the sun, the air, the water.

Some call it Creation, some call it nature, some call it God, some call it Gaia. There are a lot of words used by a lot of cultures that recognize the mystery.

What you won't hear it called is money.

No new ideas here--Wendell Berry pervades my thoughts, as do Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. If children truly learned what's worth anything, I fear expect our economy would collapse.

Photos from the National Archive.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Wildness in the classroom

I live in a town that no longer farms. We consume. Corporations and the government call us "consumers." We call ourselves consumers.

If you wrap a few beans in a plastic bag, label the package with a trusted well known food manufacturer distributor, label it with directions on how to properly prepare the beans, set it on a brightly lit shelf in a supermarket, the beans are no longer live plants. The beans are now "food."

The closest thing to wild in our local Shop-Rite is the fresh fish department. A wise fishmonger who knows his stuff will wrap your chosen critter in a plain wrapper, eyes still attached.

Two years ago I bought a package of Goya beans. Each child planted a bean or two (well, a few planted 17 or more, though their plants did not fare well in their tiny 8 oz Styrofoam cup planters).

The children did not believe anything would grow--it was food. It came from the grocery store.

Once the beans sprouted, I frequently reminded the students that the plants were growing bigger using the carbon dioxide they themselves had released from mitochondria deep inside their own cells.

When we weren't looking, some sex occurred in the classroom. Maybe a stray bee wandered in the classroom, may some grains of pollen got knocked loose when I moved the tray, but Jaleesa's plant grew a bean pod.

CO2 + H2O + sunlight = food

I asked Jaleesa if she wanted to eat her bean.
I reminded the class their breath provided a good portion of the carbon dioxide now transformed into sugars in the plant.

"Anybody else want it?"
You really gonna eat it Dr. D?
Water and breath, water and breath, water and breath.

"If no one else wants it, I will"
And I did.

The class was stunned, as though I was eating their breath.
And in a way I was.

I keep religion out of my classroom, but at that moment, Holy Communion came to mind. I kept silent, except for my happy munching.

Wendell Berry, a farmer and, I believe, a prophet,
inspired this with an essay on the necessity of wildness in his essay
"The Body and the Earth" from The Unsettling of America.

The bean drawing is from Clipart ETC, a service of Florida's Education Technology Clearinghouse; the Goya bag is from the Plumgood Food website

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Occasionally I will stumble upon an exhausted bee, dying on a flower. Too tired to move, but still alive enough to thrust its tongue into the nectar. I leave those bees well enough alone. Should I be gasping my last breaths with my tongue buried in my life's lust, I trust the bees will return the favor.

Tonight I found a bee clinging to a cluster of oregano flowerlets. Her head hung awkwardly over the cluster, missing the pollen and nectar of the flowers under her feet. I only saw it because I went to pick an oregano leaf.

The bee's middle leg occasionally moved, as though reaching for an itch. The wings trembled. It was dusk, the bee was, I thought, dying, or maybe, I said aloud to my wife, it was just resting.

I explained to Leslie, who has heard me explain too many ridiculous theories in our 31 years together (she listens intently, as though I might make some sense, and I speak intently, knowing she will listen, no matter how silly I am being--we love each other, after all), that perhaps the bee was only resting.

She challenged me, fairly. "How do you know it's only resting?"

Well, I saw a bumble resting on a marigold just last week, and in the morning, it was gone.

"Did you look on the ground," she asked, and I admitted that I had not, preferring to believe that my comatose bumble had been resurrected (a wonderful word). And at that moment, I suspected that my bumble had merely fallen off the marigold, dead.

Still, the idea of a bee dying on a cluster of flowerlets with her head hanging awkwardly off to the side bothered me enough to push another cluster of flowers towards her head. My wife watched. As I mentioned, she loves me, and she knew why I wanted to bury that bee's head in a flower, as crazy as the idea was. Because she knew my motive, she remained silent--not a skeptical silence, more a let's see where this goes silence, a silence of faith.

The bee buried its head into my offered flower. I figured that was it--she'll die there, and in the morning, when I see her carcass still on the flower, her head buried in nectar, I'll be glad to know I made her last moments a little better. Why not?

Still, we live in a wonderful universe and few things end as we predict. I was now in a peculiar position. The bee held her head in the clump of flowers I held; the bee's body, however, was still on the original bunch of flowerlets. Even in my most magnanimous moments, I do not envision holding a plant for an hour or two for dying insects. I am not a hospice for infirmed winged critters.

I gently tried to pry the flowers apart. The bee's body followed the bee's head, and I let go. She now rested comfortably with her head buried in an oregano flower. I have buried my own nose in oregano flowers. There are worse places to die.

Maybe it was the calories in the oregano nectar. Maybe it was the shimmying of the flowers. Maybe bees do in fact just rest at times (shhhh, don't tell the bee mythologists). She pulled her head out of the flower, then flew to a neighboring oregano plant, one where a human was less likely to interfere with her rest.

Seven weeks before my mother died, she danced. We had gathered at the Crab House in Cape May, where our family swarms annually. The Crab House is like so many other places down by the shore--plain brown paper table cloths, crab mallets, beer, and music.

Breast cancer had poked my mother's brain with nests of useless cells. Her bones ached. Her liver was swollen from metastases. When no one was looking, she moved like a marionette. Publicly, however, she moved slowly, gracefully.

In June of 1996, we danced. We knew she was dying. She knew she was dying. Others at the restaurant had no way of knowing, and they joined in our maniacal twirling, swinging, laughter. The others could not know she was dying, her energy so high, but we knew, and danced all that much harder. We knew she would not be back next year, we knew she was suffering, but the joy that night was real. We were celebrating life--not just hers, not just ours. Our joy was contagious, and the joint was hopping.

My mother taught her children to bury our heads in nectar the rare days we could find it. That nectar even at all exists boggles the mind. That it exists for us and for the bees, a miracle.

Another oldie.
The picture of the bee is from, of all places, Fermilab, a gummint site.
I figure the Crab House folks won't mind the plug--been a rough year for them.
Well worth the visit once they reopen.

Nature never sucks...

Here's a fun easy-to-make gadget, an idea obviously stolen from somewhere.

Take a plastic 32 oz. wide-mouthed bottle--Snapple works well. Burn a tiny hole in the bottom using a hot paper clip.

Wrap the lip of a balloon around the mouth of the bottle. Blow up the balloon, but put your finger on the hole whenever you are not actually inflating the balloon. The kids can look directly into the inside of a fully inflated balloon.

(If you are in a particularly evil mood, give a student the same set-up except "forget" to put a hole in the bottle.)

This is a great opening exercise, gets the students thinking about air pressure and such, and I still get a bang out of looking into a wide open inflated balloon.

But the best part is watching my freshmen actually take notes when I announce, in my best stentorian voice:

Nature never sucks....long pause....nature only blows.

Steve Spangler has an excellent website with all kinds of balloon in a bottle ideas.
If I can fire enough neurons to remember to take the camera tomorrow, I'll post a pic.

Monday, September 8, 2008

How do you know the fishes are enjoying themselves?

One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river. "Look at the fish swimming about," said Chuang Tzu, "They are really enjoying themselves."

"You are not a fish," replied the friend, "So you can't truly know that they are enjoying themselves."

"You are not me," said Chuang Tzu. "So how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?"

John Suler
Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors

I grew up close enough to the Jersey shore to have spent many hours submerged up to my nose in the Atlantic Ocean. If you tilt your head back underwater, you can see your reflection in the underside of the sea; a silvery, shimmery Neptune child gazes back.

I mostly bobbed up and down, nose sometimes in the water, sometimes out, pretending I was a salt-water crocodile. With eyes so close to the surface, the seaweed and broken reeds floating by loomed like large islands. When I turned away from the shore gazing eastward, I was the largest creature in the universe, not quite human anymore.

In New Jersey, what most of the world calls silversides or smelt, we call spearing. Menidia notata. They are mostly translucent, no bigger than a pinky. Each side has a silver band that looks like smooth tin foil. They have straight jawlines that make them look rather glum close-up, but since we mostly saw them when threading them on a hook, looking glum seemed appropriate.

Spearing travel in huge schools, almost invisible except for the occasional flash as the sun catches the silver. The surface sometimes erupted with them when a predator came underneath the school, but otherwise spearing had no particular reason to jump.

Or so the books will tell you.

One August afternoon, when I was 11 or 12ish, and I was busy conquering the seaworld, a piece of a phragmites reed drifted by. A tiny fish jumped over it. Odd.

I drifted closer to the reed, my eyes inches away. One fish, then another, their bands of tin flashing in the sun. I spotted the school just below the surface. I figured a few got too close to the reed, and jumped over it out of need. I continued to watch.

The fish jumping over the reed appeared to turn back. The school was mulling about in no particular direction. The fish were lining up to jump over the reed.

For the empiricists:

The individual subjects were observed approaching the reed at about 1 to 2 inches below the surface, then leaping about 1/2 inch before the reed, clearing it by no more than a 1/2 inch, then appeared to turn after reentering back into the water. The fish consistently approached the reed from the same side.

For the rest of you:
How do you know the fish are enjoying themselves? They jump for no apparent reason over a randomly floating object on a lovely day when (for the moment) no predators were interested in them, when the water was not cloudy with the milt of spawn, and when they forgot a crocodile sea god was watching.

I observed this more than once, or so I remembered. I am old enough now confuse imagination and memory. The tale above says as much as needs to be said contemplating joy in fish, and the tale reminded me of my jumping spearing.

Then the tao met Google.

Had anybody ever reported seeing fish jump over reeds for no apparent reason (or at least for any reason apparent to humans, who have an insatiable need for "reasons"). If you throw "fish" and "jumping" and "twig" together, you get a few hits. One of the hits is for an entry in Fish-Sci.

Fish-Sci is a listserv, a "scientific forum on fish and fisheries." On it fish biologists carry out long, serious conversations about, well, fish. You will find discussions on "otoliths in dolphinfish", "iron content in adult eel", and "fish biomass estimates for oligotrophic systems," all within the past 6 months.

The inquiry started innocently--Randy E. Edwards, Ph.D. and principal scientist for the Center for Coastal Geology needed to present a poster to International Symposium on Sturgeon in Oskosh, WI back in 2001. His question was simple: why do Gulf sturgeon jump? In his thoughtful letter, he listed numerous known reasons why fish jump.

A number of hypotheses have been brought forward to explain jumping behavior and include: parasite shedding, startle reflex, behavioral communication (to alert other individuals of their presence), to help shed eggs during spawning, nuptial behavior, and air gulping or swim bladder adjustment. .... Gulf sturgeon jumping is not temporally random, but instead is concentrated in the early morning and late afternoon. Why mullet jump (often in the same habitats as sturgeon) is not known.
The resulting discussion takes on a dance worthy of Albert the Alligator and company in Pogo. Fish apparently jump, at times, for no discernible reason.

Ivor Growns, a scientist with the Australian government, dodged the issue with an anecdote:

On a lighter note, I have heard of a member of the public sending a letter to their local parlimentarian asking why fish jumped. The minister asked for an explaination [sic] from the Fisheries department. The staff member sent back a reply saying "Because they are happy."
Another scientist, Glenn Crossin, a salmon specialist for Centre for Applied Conservation Biology in Vancouver, Canada, notes that sockeye salmon expend tremendous amounts of energy getting to their spawning grounds, yet when they get there, spend two weeks jumping and wasting energy.
Energetically one might think that this would be a risky behavior. Salmon typically expend most of thier [sic] fixed somatic energy reserves (mostly lipid) just reaching the spawning ground. Thus to expend limited energy unnecessarily, particularly when their one and only spawning opportunity lays ahead, seems risky.

When he asked his 9 year old nephew what he thought, the child answered "maybe they are just so happy to have made it there."

Ha-ha, kids are cute, let's get back to science.

Dr. Rodney Rountree is a scientist. He has a Ph.D., he teaches at the University of Massachusetts, he knows fish. He finally said what the others were skirting:

Fish likely jump for a lot of reasons, but I've often observed fishes jumping for no obvious reason (i.e., no predators or feeding behavior). I've often felt that the often cited purpose of jumping as an effort to dislodge external parasites (e.g., ocean sunfish) seemed inadequate. I even admit to thinking that some fish are just playing after on many different occasions watching Atlantic silversides (Menidia menidia) jumping over floating twigs over and over again. It sure seemed like a game.... The jumping fish never made contact with the twig, which might be expected if they were trying to rub off a parasite or scratch an itch.

Spearing like to play. Or at least it's a reasonable hypothesis.

I wonder what else I taught myself to forget.

Sources: FISH-SCI archives, June, 2001,
Personal observations and a ragged memory

I wrote this somewhere else about four years ago, and I still like it. The top photo is from NOAA collection; the silversides drawing is by H. L. Todd back in the 1890s or so, so likely public domain, and ca be found here. The Pogo frame is from, of course, Walt Kelly, my favorite cartoonist ever, and I'm betting he'd be cool with the picture here, but it's too late to ask him. I found this frame here, but if Constantine von Hoffman objects, I have the original somewhere, and will scan it.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Science, dogma, and the American Way

The bishop has often compared our churches to a herd of horses grazing in a pasture. It is a beautiful picture to see them all grazing together contentedly. Everything seems to be going fine. But then there are always those who try to reach across the fence and get something they shouldn't have. These have to be brought back into the group. If they aren't, they will soon break down the fence, and then there is trouble. Not only will they slip out of the field, but they will open the way for the rest to get out as well.
quoted from the Family Life (February, 1981)
in The Amish in Their Own Words, p 370
Compiled by Brad Igou

If you want to explain science as a process, you are going to run into questions about faith or religion or natural or some other vague word spouted off by an adolescent whose vocabulary does not yet include the (very useful) word "dogma."

I can play it safe:
This is science class. Science deals with the observable universe, and it has limits. Religion seeks other kinds of truths and uses different rules. Science and religion are separate disciplines that serve independent functions. p.s. Go ask your mother

That usually quiets the truly curious, though the thoroughly evangelical may still be a bit pesky when evolution is the topic (which is pretty much always in biology).

I hesitate to give the science/religion dichotomy speech, though, because it's not true, and lying to kids in a class designed to teach them a way to discern what's true about our universe should earn me a handbasket to hell.

Science does lead to questions about origins and meaning, and we fail as teachers if we do not distinguish scientific reasoning from dogma.

Now, I am not about to challenge specific acts of dogma in science class, not directly (Holy See, Báb, Mohammad, Enki, Jesus, Abraham, Tlaloc, An, the Holy Ghost, Shangd, Moses, the Protogenoi, Bhagavan, many authorities, so little time), nor am I going to question any child's acceptance of whatever dogma happens to rule his clan.

I am not going to pretend, however, that science does not challenge what most students believe.

And I am taking it one step further this year.

I am explicitly telling them there are going to be times when what
what we know through science contradicts what they know through dogma.

Which brings me to the parable. It is told by a bishop. It is a tale designed to help the parish stay true to dogma.

You could apply the same parable to public education. Students are a lot safer if they stick with the herd and keep away from the edges. They are more likely to earn good grades. They will, on average, earn more money than those students who do poorly in school. They certainly aren't going to break any fences.

If you're looking for Socrates, for Galileo, for Newton, for Einstein, for Feynman, may as well find the hole in the fence and start walking.

I'm not trying to create any Einsteins in my class. I'm just trying to get them through one more year believing there might be something outside this particular pasture.

Top photo is one room schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,
the bottom photo is little girl at a horse farm, both from the
National Archives collection

Opening quote from The Amish in Their Own Words, compiled by Brad Igou
Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa 1999

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Teacher's Prayer, Luddite version

please grant me

a slab of slate
a chunk of chalk

a live critter
a dead ego

a magnet
a marble

curious children
and a sundial's sense of time.


Sundial at Rockefeller Center, NYC, National Archives

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

First day of school, biology (sophomores)

First we went through the usual introductory ritual--see the previous post.

I brought a slug to school today. I saw him creeping on the stoop last night, and enticed him into a container with a pellet of fish food.

The first picture I show the class is a series of hominids representing human evolution. I ask if we descended from chimpanzees, listen to the answers, then gruffly announce no way we came from chimpanzees. (A few look puzzled, though I might get a smug look from a budding creationist--he's one of us.)

After a very brief statement that no biologists believe we descended from chimpanzees, everyone looks confused, even my smug co-conspirator.

We went through some more procedural nonsense, then I showed a photograph of a slug.
Hey, that's a slug!

"Yep," I agree, "Limax maximus. What can you tell by looking at the picture?"
Um, it's slow?

"Can you see that?"

A young woman, and one I suspect who will do well, notes that the slug in the picture is in some leaves, and that maybe it likes to eat them. Still, not much more to say. It's a picture. Can't see it move. Can't hear it. Can't even smell it. Eww....

I introduce my slug before the dust settles.

After assuring the class that it is alive, someone inevitably shouts out.
Pour salt on it
I don't, of course, and give my best teacher frown, but until the kids get to know my slug (or any slugs) a little better, they'd do just that.

The critter is a bit stunned. Too much light, too much motion, but I put his open container on a student's desk, and place a fish pellet nearby. I announce to the slug it's time to eat.

An eyestalk pops out, then another. It s-l-o-w-l-y slithers to the pellet, then more things pop out as its mouth wraps around the food.

"How did it know the food was there?"
It saw it!

Any other possibilities
It smelled it?

I agree both are possible, though I really don't know which answer is right.
"Maybe it heard me announce mealtime."

The kids are fascinated now. I ask what do they think would happen if they touch an eye?

A young woman does.

The critter immediately pulls in its eye stalks, and starts to push out the pellet. A couple of student gets upset that someone has touched the slug's eye stalk.
The same slug offered salt a few minutes earlier.

"Why did the slug pull in its eye stalk? Why did it spit out the pellet?"
Um, it didn't like it.

I ask the class what they would do if flicked in the eye while eating a sandwich. OK, a bit too much anthropomorphizing. Still, we discussed eating versus getting away when threatened. All this took place in 3 minutes.

I finish off by announcing that this slug has been evolving as long any other critter in the room. "We're distant cousins."

They don't laugh, a good sign. Or maybe I've already been labeled certifiable.

And the slug? Safely back home in the garden--I'll kidnap another one tonight for tomorrow's class.

First day of school, physical science (freshmen)

Opening day is usually chaotic, nothing new there. We're implementing a new scheduling system designed by a company that has "years of exerpeince" and, well, it shows. Still, once the kids are in the room, once attendance is taken and the procedures reviewed, good things happen.

I simultaneously dropped a paper clip and my set of keys (like most floats my key ring rivals that of a warden). The kids predict what they think will happen, then note what actually does.

The knot of keys and the paper clip hit the ground at the same time. Really. Try it.

Five minutes later I asked a student which hit the ground first.
The paper clip.

"Why do you think that?"
Cuz that's what you said.

Pretty sure I didn't, but I don't argue the point.
"Which one did you see hit the ground first?"
They both hit at the same time.

In school, you succeed for producing the "correct" answer, which doesn't always coincide with the right one. If the child heard me say the paper clip hit first, that's his answer, even if he observed otherwise.

It's a tough habit to break. In the long run, he might even be better off picking the authoritative "correct" answer even when he can see otherwise.

Why does teaching science matter then?

With science, a child has a framework to challenge dogma. It's not enough to say challenge authority; you need to give the children tools. It's easy to create cranks with tinfoil hats, much harder to create critical thinkers.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Goals for this year

Teachers report tomorrow, students on Wednesday.

Tomorrow's goals:
  • Find a pair of pants-> iron them
  • Find a tie that does not involve alcohol or sex or Disney
  • Find my shoes (I spend summer mostly barefoot--winter, too, outside of school)
  • Find a pen
  • Memorize my student roster
  • Say a prayer for the end of summer
Wednesday's goals:
  • Remind myself the universe is beyond my grasp
  • Remind myself that there is order in the universe (even if I cannot find my pants)
  • Remind myself that I am only here to remind my students of the above--anything else is arrogance, nonsense, or both

Photo is "The Sun Sets at Harris Beach, 1938" from the National Archives; 1938 was 70 years ago--anyone who remembers seeing this particular sunset is more likely dead than alive. But we still have the image. And should Homo sapiens go the way of the Neanderthals, the sun will still set on this same beach.