Sunday, November 30, 2008

One problem with drug screening

In a random act of sanity, the Bernards (New Jersey) Board of Education narrowly rejected random drug testing of its students last Monday.

Before I step into the whirling void of passion that passes for rational discourse, let me preface this post with a few things that should be (but are not) needless to say:

1) I do not condone the use of recreational drugs by minors.
2) Ethanol (alcohol, hooch, whatever) is a drug.
3) Nicotine (butts, bogeys, whatever) is a drug.
4) Caffeine (java, joe, whatever) is a drug.
5) I accept the use of recreational drugs (ethanol, nicotine, caffeine) by adults. I'm not saying it's smart.

I am a retired board-certified pediatrician--while that does not make my views sacrosanct, cut me a little slack. I've seen the damage drugs can do. I've also seen the damage thoughtless drug screening can also do.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) opposes involuntary drug screening of adolescents. The AAP certainly does not support young adults hanging out behind the local WaWa sharing a spliff.

You can go all over the web reading the pros and cons of drug screening, and I hope you do. I want to focus on just piece of the argument, but it's a big one, and one not well understood by many physicians, never mind the general public.

It involves mathematics, and it will turn common sense on its head. So break out your abacus, bear with me, and learn why even a good test can be a lousy one in certain situations.

To understand testing, you need to know a couple of terms.

Sensitivity in a drug screen is the percentage of students who are actually using the drugs in the test coming out positive. If 99% of the kids smoking weed behind Wawa are found positive by the test, the test is 99% sensitive.

Specificity in a drug screen is a little more complicated--it tells you what percent of the students not inhaling are correctly identified as not inhaling. If a test is 99.9% specific and you're not using the drugs tested, there is only a 1 in a thousand chance you will be wrongly identified as a drug user.

So, you think, if a test is 99% sensitive and 99% specific, it's a pretty good test. And it is.
Then you say, well, hey, if you test positive, then I can be 99% sure you are using the drugs.
And you'd be 100% wrong.


The accuracy of the test depends on what percent of the population is actually using drugs.

Let's suppose you just developed the Spiffy Spliff Test, a cheap, amazing screen that is 100% sensitive and 99% specific.

You need to get FDA approval, so you are looking a benevolent group to donate their time and urine to your fine nonprofit company incorporated solely to save the yewt of America.

Let's say an order of monks lives on an atoll in the middle of the Pacific. They use drug sniffing dogs to prevent any marijuana coming onto their island. Still, one of the monks has end-stage cancer, so he has a prescription for medical marijuana, which he uses, um, religiously.

This is a pretty popular place for monks. 10,000 monks live here, and one is a known marijuana user. Let's say for the sake of argument that not one of the other monks has used marijuana in the past decade.

Now let's test them. The test is 100% sensitive, so the one monk using reefer gets identified as such. So far, so good.

There are 9,999 more monks to be tested. If the test is 99% specific, then 1% of the remaining monks will be falsely identified as using mary jane.

1% of a big number leaves a lot of monks--about 100 of the remaining monks will test positive.

So now we have 101 positive tests, and only 1 monk has truly used grass. Despite a test that's 100% sensitive and 99% specific, the vast majority (over 99%) of those that tested positive have never used ganja.

What if the test is 99.9% specific? Well, then about 10 monks will be falsely positive. For every true postive (the cancer-stricken monk), we have 10 monks on the verge of getting kicked out of the monestary for "wrong" results.

I know this is counterintuitive. Still, in order for the test to be accurate, you need a fairly high proportion of the monks to be hanging out bhind the Wawa.

What if 20% of the monks are potheads? Let's crunch the numbers again.

20% of 10,000 is 2000, so right off the bat we have a couple thousand positive tests. 8000 monks are left. If the test is 99% specific, then 1% of these 8000 monks, or 80, will test falsely positive. In this case, only 80 out of the 2080 (or about 4%) tests will be false positive.

Same test, drastically different false positive rate.

Take home message? The predictive value of a drug screening test, even a really good one, depends on how many kids in the population are actually using drugs.

Until people can wrap their heads around the testing, urine belongs in a toilet, not a test tube.

Coffee and distillery photos from the Google Life collection; the no smoking sign is from the National Archives.

End of the season

Clamming in late November is a bit chilly, but the clams don't seem to mind. Leslie and I weren't expecting any company for dinner, so I had plenty in a half hour.

Because we think in terms of increments of dozens, and because we figured we needed a "dozen and a half," and because this may be the last clamming trip of the season, the last clam, the 19th, was returned to the bed.

I scooped out a pocket of mud that quickly filled in with water, then gently dropped in the clam. Leslie noted I made a clam bed.

The clam was about 10 years old, it could live another 30 if it manages to escape starfish and me. I hope I'm still clamming then.

If not, I'm hoping someone else is, using the same rake I'm using now, occasionally thinking of the hands that used to hold the rake, using the same methods taught years before.

No better reason to be a teacher.

Photo of Irish clamdiggers, 1882, is from the National Archives.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wasting time on the beach

Leslie and I took a walk by the Atlantic Ocean in the late afternoon.

Describing the ocean light at dusk in late fall does not work well. J.M.W. Turner made a career out of painting light, and cultured people stand in front of his paintings furrowing brows. The Metropolitan Museum of Art even offers a Teacher's Institute.
Discover great works of art with curators and Museum educators from the convenience of home before experiencing them in person. These blended online and onsite workshops include both asynchronous interaction (threaded discussion, collaborative wiki projects, blogging) and synchronous, real-time webinars that bring you in contact with Museum staff as well as with other teachers from a variety of geographic areas.

You even get a certificate when you're done.
This is called professional development.

Those of us on the beach meandered, fished, smoked, took pictures, stole a few shells, skimmed stones, chased beach foam, played with dogs, and stood around doing a whole lot of nothing.
This is called wasting time.

During millions upon millions of years of wasting time, the sea's waves never stopped; life crawled out of its depths and passed through this same edge that dances at our feet. Humans eventually evolved from their tiny, wet predecessors--most of our ancestors stayed behind.

A few came out, didn't like it, and returned to the sea--whales still have "finger" bones, still nurse their babies, but no longer waste time.

Only humans can "waste" time. I know I do. Every moment I spend reading about what the ocean feels like when I can be standing in it is wasted time.

(Sharing experiences that I cannot know through my own senses is a different matter. Writing down instructions on how to make tools, prepare food, build a roof, these are all useful. Telling stories, too, sharing what we know about each other is a human act. Singing, dancing, playing the harmonica, all useful for sharing who we are.)

We teach our children how to waste time efficiently, for profit, for prestige. We even use that as an excuse for how we treat them--"you want that diploma so you don't have to flip burgers." We take them to art museums to help them develop a taste for high culture (and test their urine to make sure they're not part of the culture of high).

I am, of course, being a horse's arse (again)--there is tremendous value in exposing children to the finer arts. I just don't want us to lose sight of the bigger picture, the one even Turner could not capture.

So now a plug for those of us who want to teach our kids how to waste time outside classroom walls. The New Jersey Division of Fish sand Wildlife has announced a grant program to get kids fishing--the "Physh Ed" Grants Initiative:
These grants provide up to $2,500 to certified teachers to help establish a fishing and/or boating education program in their school. Our partnership provides a researched based curriculum, hands-on training, equipment discounts, and ongoing guidance from the Foundation staff and its partners.
Ah, another reason why I love living in New Jersey.....

The child in the picture is Gerald Ford, a few years before he was President. Photo from the Gerald R. Ford Library via the National Archives.
The painting is Sunset, by JMW Turner.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Death by shopping and the Pledge

Black Friday took on a new meaning today when a Walmart employee was crushed to death by a crowd of people who valued bargains more than life itself. Two others were killed in a shoot-out in a Toys 'R' Us store in California.

That a few of us manage to kill a few others of us in a country with over 300 million people, most of us shoppers, should not surprise us. What surprises me is that these deaths will get more play than the death of Master Sgt. Anthony Davis who was killed in Iraq this week during a humanitarian operation, or Captain Warren A. Frank who was killed in a military operation the same week the Iraqi government made it clear we are not wanted.

Once or twice a week, I gently remind my students just before the pledge that soldiers are dying "over there."

I do not require that my students recite the Pledge of Allegiance--doing so is unconstitutional and counterproductive. Pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth manufactured in Asia has all kinds of implications I'd rather not discuss with rational adults, never mind bouncy human larvae, so I simply recite the pledge (occasionally substituting the word "atomos" for "indivisible"), and ask that the kids be respectful during this time given that our soldiers are dying overseas.

On Monday I will (again, Lord, again) ask the class to be respectful, that we lost more soldiers, but I do wonder what makes a bigger impression on the world--Master Sgt. Anthony Davis being shot to death by an Iraqi Security Force soldier, or Americans trampling a temporary Walmart employee to bolster our economy.

What does this have to do with teaching?

It's my job to to oversee about twenty kids when the Pledge is recited over the intercom. This happens just about every day (except, ironically, when we are administering the state exams).

The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Christian socialist, and used to require an arm salute that would have made Hitler proud. The words "under God" were added in the 1950's after a vigorous campaign by the Knights of Columbus.

While a lot of folks have a problem with the God part, my difficulty stems more from the word "under"--if we are going to insist in school that God exists (and I'm not arguing the contrary), it pushes the empirical envelope to place Him (Her? It?) over us when I'm just as likely to find God on a microscope slide as I am in a cloud.

I worry (reasonably, I think) about discussing how artificial selection has made Tom Turkey impotent. The courts have ruled (reasonably, I think) that I cannot require students to recite the pledge. The courts, however, have also ruled that a school district can require me to lead the pledge to the same children not required to recite it.

Who said idolatry was dead in science class?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Galwell Kinnell poem for Thanksgiving


Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

Galway Kinnell

from A New Selected Poems (Mariner Books)

This was the poem on the back of my mother's funeral card. She was a high school English teacher, among many other things, so she would have laughed had she seen that the poem, as short as it is, was mangled by the printer, who tried to fix the grammar.

What do I give thanks for? For being part of all this this.

We live in a wonderful world.

Mr. Kinnell's poems resonate, as does his voice.
Always worth a listen.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Talking squirrel

Friend just asked if we wanted squirrel.

Autumn squirrel fattened on acorns and chestnuts and all kinds of summertime goodness kind of squirrel?


(Normally not news, but apropos the last post....)

Photo by Nina Leen from Life magazine via Google

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Talking turkey

This week's New Yorker magazine cover highlights a turkey sitting on a ledge with a few pigeons. It's the classic turkey any schoolkid would draw--blue head, red wattle, and a lovely banded tail.

Most turkeys destined for tables tomorrow, Broad-breasted Whites, never looked like this. Commercial growers prefer a bird whose feathers do not betray a less than perfect plucking job, a bird with a chest so broad it cannot reproduce without a few humans involved, a bird which does not taste like the one your grandmother ate.

Today I asked the kids to describe the turkey they planned to eat. Many refused to believe it has white feathers.

At least kids still have some connection between the critter and the cooked carcass.

Sean Nash has started a wonderful conversation on his blog, a chat initiated by a question asked by one of his students--where are the seeds in an orange?


Oranges without seeds. Flour without bran. Imitation crab.

None of this need be a big deal, and they may never know what they're missing. At my age, I cannot remember what I am missing. All I can do is taste the difference between a Brandywine tomato picked an hour ago, and whatever F1 hybrid tomato A&P is carrying. That is enough.

And what if a child today prefers the illusion of safety cocooned in a womb of technology? So what if she prefers WoW to the edge of a pond? What is lost?

And here is where old folk sputter and spew, because we know something's missing, right? By the time we're done sputtering, the earbuds are back in, thumbs waving like antennae, and the child's back in her universe.

What is lost?
Complexity beyond imagination.

If a child is not exposed to the incomprehensible, she will start to believe she understands the world, that the world is truly safe, that humans are truly superior creatures, that humans can fix any problem nature has to offer, not realizing that she and nature cannot be separated.

Enough of the rich and powerful adults among us grew up in cocoons, and seem genuinely puzzled by what has happened here in the States.

Those of us with toes in the mud know better, because we know we know almost nothing.

We know this much, though. The sun, a gift, only shines so much in a year. Plants, all gifts, only bear so much fruit in a year. There are only so many animals available to eat in a year. All economics, or at least all economics of value, ultimately comes down to how much the soil and the sun can yield--not in a year, not even in lifetime, but indefinitely. There are limits to what we know, to what we can know.

There are also limits to what we ought to know; I'm a heretic among science teachers. Wes Jackson, a farmer and founder of the Land Institute, is also a heretic:

For a half century now I have had the opportunity to witness the mind of religious fundamentalists at work.... We usually think of it as associated with certain religious denominations but it is now more rampant in the scientific community than religion. Fundamentalism is worrisome, wherever it is found, because it takes over where thought ends. It is so rampant in science now, that we plunge ahead with biotechnology faster than we can develop the intellectual framework and imagination for evaluating the possible risks.

The curriculum demands I teach my students about transgenic bacteria just a few years after they traced their hands and drew the spectacularly colored turkeys they thought they were eating.

I bet most of them still don't believe that turkeys are white.

I was going to show a brief video today of how turkeys are inseminated, but thankfully the school filters worked better than my frontal lobe. I still may have done just enough to make Thanksgiving a little more interesting tomorrow for some of our families.
Your science teacher did what?

He gobbled like a turkey, picked up a desk, pretended it was his chest, then tried to, er, you know, do it with a pretend girl turkey, and he couldn't, so now humans do turkeys. I found a video on YouTube...want to see it?

I'm calling the school first thing Monday!

Food has become taboo, or rather how we go from the ground to our gut has become taboo.

How many of us dare to show how animals are raised? Butchered? Processed? Even when done humanely, we hide it from the kids.

I gave every one of my freshmen a wheat berry today. I told them it was part of something they would stuff inside their turkey. Only one child guessed what it was.

Just about every town around here has a "Mill Street" dating back to when flour was only fresh for a few days, back when flour had enough oil to turn rancid. Refined flour, however, has a much longer shelf life. We don't need local mills anymore.

Crushed wheat berries are brown, not white.
Crushed wheat berries have a complex, wonderful flavor that makes bread come alive.
Crushed wheat berries can keep you alive without being fortified with folic acid, niacin, and riboflavin--they're already in there.

I have fallen out of the habit of making bread--I need to start again. My time would be better spend grinding wheat berries and baking bread than sitting in front of this monitor.

On the other hand, if I keep talking turkey in class, it might not be too long before I have a whole lot more time on my hands.

I lifted the orange from Sean Nash's site, who borrowed it from Weil, Gyorgy. “wguri’s photostream.” oranges. 17 MAY 2007. Flickr. 24 Nov 2008
The wheat berry came from the University of Arkansas.
The New Yorker cover came, natch, from the New Yorker site.
The bread comes courtesy of Jessica Pierce, the bunny lady. She creates wonderful things regularly. If you're ever in Atlanta, stop by and try her cake!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Stuck on bonding

I need help.

I love chemistry, both because our models work so well to explain how substances react, and because chemistry problems feel like fun puzzles.

I can show kids how to figure out the valence electrons using the periodic table, and many of them will see why some elements tend to form ionic bonds while others will form covalent bonds.

Still, I feel like I'm teaching Clever Hans the Math Horse how to count--I might be able to get Hans to pound the ground a few times with his hoof, but no way is he comprehending why.

A few of my freshmen will paw at the ground to make others happy (and some have been conditioned to enjoy being correct without knowing why), but that's not science.
Oh, well, we're preparing them for the real world, industry, where they'll be expected to manipulate data. Aherm, discipline, aherm, aherm. They need to know how to produce, yes, or else they'll be flipping burgers, yes, aherm, aherm.

Clever Hans, it turns out, was not so clever, but at least he got his daily oats.

Anybody have ideas how to put the cart before the horse and truly teach chemistry to freshmen taking physical science before they can shave?

I don't need dog-and-pony ideas. I can blow things up, make them fizz, change colors, and stink up the whole science wing. I can be the Razzmatazz Master, make kids say "wow!", and create the Rockwellesque scene perfect for the bulletin board on Back to School Night.

How can I get a 14 year old to grasp orbitals and particles and waves in a way more challenging than the Paw-the-Ground-and-Neigh-When-I Smile method?

(I'm not sure I can. Not sure anyone can. And if we cannot, how much harm are we doing pretending that we can?)

Photo of Clever Hans from Animal Intelligence.

Late November

I screwed up this year--the December chill snuck up on us early, and my two tiny puddles have frozen over with plants below the ice.

It's cold outside, I have lesson plans to write, tests to grade. (Yes, I know what a scantron is, but I only use it for part of the test. It's not just English teachers who transcribe hieroglyphics on weekends.)

This was written a couple of years ago somewhere else. I like it, so I'm posting it. (It's my blog and I'll post if I want to, post if I want to...apologies to Lesley Gore.)

It's 55 degrees outside, unusual for late November. The sun is less than 30 degrees from the horizon, and that's as high as it's going to get in these parts before February. I got a rare chance to garden in late November.

I found a cluster of slug eggs--most were cloudy with embryos visible. A couple were translucent, clear glass marbles, unrewarded effort. Conception is hit-or-miss, even in the invertebrate side of life. I may take them to school.

A couple of flies meandered in my view as I weeded. A few earthworms are still nosing about the top edge of the soil, possibly as confused as I am by the warmth. The earth still smells like earth--we haven't had a sustained chill yet.

Barefoot in November mud, it's hard not to anthropomorphize. The word has developed a negative connotation, like "liberal" or "conservative Christian" (which are not mutually exclusive).

Given human form to things not human is considered bad form, as far as I can tell, because it elevates mere critters to something as special as we are. Most folks I know (an admittedly very limited circle) are scared to death of life. We need a word for attributing life to humans, at least a word not already corrupted with connotations.
What an animal!
Useless piece of shit!
Did you crawl from under a rock?

"Anthropomorphize" used to refer to humans giving the gods human characteristics. By the late mid-19th century, western peoples replaced their gods with themselves, and the word took on its more recent meaning.

I pulled a lot of elodea out of the pond today. If I leave it in, it will die under the ice, and its organic matter will feed bacteria that consume more oxygen than they produce. My fish would suffocate, and I will find them floating in March when the rains melt the ice.

So I pull out yards and yards of elodea, and along with it snails and daphnia and copepods and stentorians and paramecia. I accidentally pulled a fish out of the water, and got to feel it wiggling in my hand as I placed it back. I liked the feeling.

I killed tens of thousands of critters to save a handul of fish. Go figure. Hardly matters, they're just protists, crustaceans, copepods, or just plain pond scum. Certainly not human.

At any rate, the slugs and the flies and and the elodea spent most of their short day doing what most of us are wont to do--grabbing some energy, increasing our likelihood of reproducing, or burrowing until the sun returns. I hardly spend time contemplating the daphnia I carelessly tossed into the compost today, and the daphnia left certainly do not spend any time pondering me.

Still, I suspect they do ponder.


An anthropomorphized god (even the God of Abraham) is far more dangerous than an anthropomorphic animal, and there are enough westerners still anthropomorphizing the deity du jour to wreak havoc on people they will never meet.

Caravaggio, in The Sacrifice of Isaac, captures the moment that defines Abraham, a man critical to the story of Judaism, of Christianity, of Islam.

Ponder that.

Destodgifying science

The holidays are approaching--this is a plug for a book that may change your young scientist's view of science. It may wreak havoc on her ambitions in high school, but I think it is healthy in the long run.

And it's not written for kids. It's a grown up book written by grown ups for grown ups.

Nature may be the finest science journal in the English speaking world.

Darwin, Einstein, Francis and Crick hung out there. Stories about the generosity of urchins compete with tales of the follies of man. It refuses to sanitize science, leaving in the warts and foibles as we (an inclusive "we" for anyone with functioning sense organs and curiosity) stumble upon patterns in our universe.

The first issue back in November, 1869 opened with a William Wordsworth quote:

To the solid ground Of Nature trusts the mind which builds for aye.

In 1941, Einstein gives jumps in when he contrasts science and religion:
It would not be difficult to come to an agreement as to what we understand by science. Science is the century-old endeavor to bring together by means of systematic thought the perceptible phenomena of this world into as thorough-going an association as possible. To put it boldly, it is the attempt at the posterior reconstruction of existence by the process of conceptualization.

It condemns high falutin' language, insisting from its inception in the language of science be intelligible:
"The Priests of Science," he [Philosophus] said, "must consent to use the vernacular, before they will ever make a profound impression upon the heart of humanity."

[Philosophus was a young man who loved science in a fable penned by a Nature editor back in 1869]

Last Christmas I got A Bedside Nature: Genius and Eccentricity in Science 1869-1953 from Leslie with the note "this looks like fun."

It's a collection of articles, essays, reviews, letters, illustrations and whatever other form of thought found in Nature put together by Walter Gratzer, and it belongs on your bookshelf.

Turns out it's big fun. Cheap fun. You can get the softcover version (easier to read in the bathtub) for less than $10 including shipping.

And if you're feeling too cheap for that, wander over to the Nature site, where they are giving away knowledge for free.

Yep, free. You don't even have to give them an email address.

Who says the Victorian era is dead?

The Queen Victoria photo is from the London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames;
logo is from the Nature home of the journal linked above.

I do not earn any money from any clicks to anywhere--go find yourself a copy of this before it disappears.

Friday, November 21, 2008

What I know now....

If I am going to pretend to be an edublogger, I need to toss an explicit post on teaching now and again.

I've been observed 3 times this past week; either I'm wowing them or they're looking for the bodies. This is my third year. I'm up for tenure.

One of the tragicomedies of American education is the tenure system. This year an innocent comment misinterpreted by a 14 year old can get me looking for a commercial clamming license. Next year, once tenured, anything short of a felony in the classroom (and even then it's even odds) won't warrant the time needed to get me booted.

So I enjoy the parade. Worst comes to worst, I sling a stethoscope around my neck and start succoring the afflicted again.

So, a list. Bloggers love lists.

Here's what I know as a 3rd year teacher I could not possibly have known as a greenhorn.

1. No matter how much you sweat you put into a lesson, it is not the students' obligation to appreciate it.
We've all been there. We put together the lesson of the century, a lesson that would make John Dewey misty eyed.

You spent $126 on the materials.
You have an anticipatory set that could waken your long-dead great grandmother.
You spent 27 hours preparing the lesson, the glow of the monitor highlighting your maniacal grin as you fantasize about the anticipated eagerness of your lambs eating up your lesson.

You forego tickets to the 7th game of the Rangers/Devils Stanley Cup playoffs.
You turn down Willie's invitation to travel for a week on the Honeysuckle Rose.
You even stop playing solitaire.

You are a freakin' professional!

And the kids yawn. In your face.

Welcome to teaching. It's not about you.

2. Stay out of the teacher's lounge.

No, really. It's a trap. If you need to complain, you need to get out.

It's a great field. You get to teach children. You mold future citizens. You get to see a side of children even parents never see.

It's a gift, an honor, a raison d'etre. ( Feel free to add the circonflexe--I'm a Luddite.)

It's easy to complain about the hours (no longer than a laborer picking grapes) or the respect (no less than the security guard sitting in the lobby of your school) or the students (you want to work with humans, you're going to get human behavior) or the pay (hey, I make more per hour as a teacher than I did as a doc).

The lounge kills hope. You need hope to teach.

3. Textbooks are like crutches...wonderful if you need them
Textbooks can save your life (but not your soul) that first year, when even the mere act of micturition requires three weeks of planning.

It gets better by the third year. Really. So much better you can now pee without consulting your calendar.

Textbooks are written by committees. Students don't need committees. They need you. Wean yourself.

If you don't believe this, go join a committee.

(A confession: I still spend too much time using textbooks--I'm working on it.)

4. Teach to the child, not the test.
Turns out the test just isn't that good, at least not around here. And I hear from other bloggers, it's not so go around there, either.

Ben Wildeboer (Sustainably Digital) notes that lousy tests "perhaps do serve a valuable purpose...."

When I start to feel myself get stressed about falling behind and not going over all the required content, remembering that the standardized tests will be poorly written and not do a great job of assessing the standards makes me feel better about not covering everything I’m “supposed” to.
Ben Wildeboer

The child will remain reasonably intact for the next few decades, barring a motor vehicle accident or HIV, or one of the amazingly rare reasons young adults die (but get great press when they do).

Tests, on the other hand, change all the time.

New superintendent? Reform.
New governor? Reform.
New President? Reform.

Kids are fairly stable--a couple of billion years of evolution are not influenced by the thoughts of the newest Administrator in Charge. Keep things in perspective.

5. Use what works, ignore what doesn't.
During my formative years, I had a couple of diametrically opposed adjunct professors. One was an elementary school teacher by day, the other a principal.

(Despite having a career in the "real world", I didn't go the alternate route. I took education classes before I tortured young adults as a student teacher. Nothing--and I say that without apologies--nothing can replace the student teaching experience for folks arrogant enough to believe they can teach.)

The principal had the proper accent and a better command of the language. She preened, she preached.

The teacher knew her stuff, but was not nearly as polished. Here's what she said.

If it works, use it. Put posters over the door to prevent snoopy administrators from peeking in, play the game, but teach your students. That's why you're there.

Never forget you matter.

Not all folks grasping the administrative brass ring are in it for themselves, but enough of them are that you need to interpret motives.

So I teach.

I see what works, and (painfully) dissect what doesn't. Tomorrow is another day. Keep plugging, keep analyzing, keep working, and keep your sense of perspective next to your Excedrin.

6. Keep your educational philosophy within an arm's distance.
I was warned.

There will be days when you wonder why you quit your day job to become a public school teacher position. There will be days when others wonder the same thing about you.

And there will be day's when your biggest doubter will be yourself.

So write that philosophical statement. Read it. Soak it in. Allow yourself to believe it matters. It does.

Keep it handy.

Read it again in November, when the words are blurred by tears, by sweat.

The day you stop believing what you do matters is the day you should quit.

7. Goal directed exhaustion is OK at times (if you don't make it a habit).
You chose this field.
Your field matters.
A hundred years from now, what you do today can matter.
Make it matter.

A few colleagues (usually found in the lounge) may tell you that you are working too hard, that you will learn the hard way, that you will burn out. A (very) few will even brag about never bringing home work as they physically fly out the door 10 minutes after the last bell, a door they flew out of spiritually years ago.

They're right--a lot of us will flame out. Honeybees work themselves to death, but they do worthwhile work.

You are going to die, too. Might as well do something special while you're here.

The Honeysuckle Rose shot is from an avid Willie fan, Linda, innkeeper of the
Stillisstillmoving blog. Wonderful pictures there!

The smoking teacher, the crutch factory, and tired doc pics are from the Life photo collection available at Google.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Trofim Lysenko would have been proud

If we’d have used an NCLB-style approach to the Apollo moon mission, President Kennedy would have simply ordered NASA to fly conventional airplanes higher and higher until they fell out of the sky, and then blamed the pilots for lacking the will and the know-how to get the job done.

I was going to wrap this between slices of homemade bread--but I cannot do it justice.

Go read the rest at Borderland.

I love the sound of breaking glass

A colleague mentioned today how difficult it was to teach Pascal's law in an era when children don't know what a piston is. (Who works on cars anymore?)

I threw out the ol' hit-the-bottle-with-a-rubber-mallet demo which is a lot of fun. I love the sound of breaking glass!

Not sure how well Pascal's law shines through the chaos (and I'm sure there are better ways to demo this), but it's a quick and dirty way to show it.

I wish I could--I don't have time. We need to get through the curriculum.

And he's right. He's teaching a college prep class, and must cover a lot of ground mandated by the state.

I have the luxury of teaching the low level students. No one expects a lot, and as a result, I can get a lot more done. Oh, I have a curriculum, and we have standards, but success at this level means getting through the year without bloodshed or conceptions in the classroom; it helps I'm an administrative write-up miser.

I joked that at least I get to teach science. I'm not sure he was amused, and I don't blame him. But it's true. Teaching science (in the sense of inquiry by the students) takes more time than the current curricula allow.

I can break as many bottles as I need to to rouse up love for Pascal. I can simultaneously drop a bowling ball and a penny a dozen times or more in one period to show that they do, indeed, hit the ground at the same time if released from the same height. And I can practice my craft in the literal sense. Practice this, try that--modify, assess, and modify again.

Evidence I can practice at the low level?

I am starting a wiki project in one of my classes. Not an honors class. Not even a college prep class.

Nope. Level 1 CP Physical Science. (Don't let the "CP" fool you--any class with a name longer than the District of Columbia betrays the subterranean level of the class.)

I can take chances with kids a good chunk of the education world wishes would just go away.

Problems? Oh, yeah!

Anyone who has worked in the basement knows that teaching kids at this level puts a whole new spin to the word "interesting." Sick parents. Nieces to care for. Dying grandparents. Food security issues. A perpetual lack of eyeglasses. Toothaches untended. Glassy eyes.

Tards. Morons. Idiots. Bad. Poor. Stupid. Illegals. Low class. Violent. No boundaries. Dumb.

You hear it often enough, you'd believe it to. And act it.

Do I have problems in my classroom? You bet...even had a, um, minor fire lit under a student's desk last year. (His defense? "It was a laser, I swear!") I had a pregnant true freshman. I've had kids with bruises they'll never explain.

I'm not going to sugarcoat and romanticize a whole class of kids that knows better than we do that they are not destined for Wall Street, for Harvard, for medicine, law, or even a decent union job at factories long closed.

Charms Candy Company, General Electric, Westinghouse, Scientific Glass--decent wages for hard work, now gone from our town.

I'm not going to get my kids interested in science by waving a blank parchment in front of them. Diplomas matter, as does science education. The mistake is believing that they matter for the same reason.

The Charms Candy photograph is from the Retro Sweet Candy Shop.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A November fantasy

This has little--OK, nothing--to do with teaching science.
It's a reminder that the light will return.

Around the soft, green swelling mound
We scooped the earth away,
And buried deep the crocus-bulbs

Against a coming day.
"These roots are dry, and brown, an
d sere;
Why plant them here?" he said,
"To leave them, all the winter long,
So desolate and dead."

from "The Crocus," Harriet Beecher Stowe

First snow flurries today.
I may need to concede summer is over and find my coat.

The Pinetree Seed catalog came today, and I have a fantasy. Anyone in love is welcome to live it.

Order a hundred crocus corms (under $40) from Pinetree; get a clipboard; buy a cheap sweat shirt embroidered with your town's name.

Find a public space with lots of sun--the town green, a school yard, a vacant lot.
Plant the corms so that they spell your love's name, pointy side up.

(The clipboard and the sweatshirt will help when the police officer comes--tell her you're the official soil inspector for the town, checking for nitrates and pH. Keep talking about the particulars of soil management until the officer's eyes glaze over.)

Then wait.
Alban arthuan. Yule. Christmas.
The light stops dying.

Imbolc Groundhog Day. Feast of St. Brigid. Candlemas.
The weak light strengthens.

Alban Eiler. Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin. Lady Day.
The sun's strength overpowers the darkness.

Find your stolen patch of earth, now busting out in flower.
If nothing grew, look around for chubby squirrels.

Fair warning, though--crocuses are perennials, close to indestructible, almost as durable as tattoos. A crocus patch can outlast a sliver of love.

Monday, November 17, 2008

November light

Sunset at 4:37 PM.
It will slowly get earlier, but not by much.
4:29 P.M. early December, before we start to get our evenings back.

It takes a million years or so for the energy released when 4 hydrogen atoms convert to helium--a loss of 0.7% mass converted to pure energy, energy spun out of the sun, most off which travels for eons, unfathomable distances, striking the surface of some mass millions of years later.

A few of these photons hit Earth.
Even fewer are caught by chloroplasts.
Even fewer than this caught by chloroplasts in November.

There are so few chloroplasts bothering to catch photons now that the CO2 levels are rising, as they do every winter when the green plants rest. The CO2 concentration will fall again come spring, when the plants wake up.

Spring is impossible to imagine now, at least for mey.
I do not trust words. I do not trust photographs. I do not trust my memory.

I trust my nose in mid July, buried in tomato plants climbing up towards the tangible god that drives life on Earth.

Alaunus. Amaterasu. Aodh. Arun. Belobog. Freyr. Helios. Mithra. Ra. Sol. Surya.

Jesus "I am the light of the world."
And the light is dying.

Teaching science without acknowledging the mystery of the unknown does not work.

Shine a fluorescent light on chlorophyll extract, very easy to make.
Shred up some spinach leaves, swirl around in 95% ethanol, then filter.

Chlorophyll extract is deep green.
Under a fluorescent light chlorophyll is is opaque red.

Don't take my word for it--do it. It takes little time.

Electrons get excited, then collapse, releasing energy, blood red light.

The perennial plants have more sense than humans, at least those of us born under electric light.

The perennials have stored the energy captured from the sun into their roots. The plants trust that spring will come.

Modern humans?
Lights, alarm clocks, lights, clocks, lights, schedules, lights, televisions, lights, monitors, lights.

When the sun barely noses 30 degrees above the horizon, we should be resting.
There's no guarantee we'll see spring.

I avoid discussing Christmas in class.
Oh, you're one of those PC types, eh?

No, in December I'm one of the Yule types--and Yule predates Christianity.

I'm in awe of the sun, and despite (or maybe because of) a rudimentary grasp of its physics, I remain in awe.

Science is driven by awe. We say it, and we forget it; the words become platitudes in a culture defined by a Christianity now rarely practiced.

Awe. Dread. Terror.

If the failing light does not inspire fear, you need to stop hiding behind words and rationality.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A science teacher makes his gift list....

Oh! You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout, I'm telling you why

The Christmas music has already started on the radio, again way too early. Still, the great darkness is here again--we have plunged into the darkest 3 months of the year. The sun set at 4:37 PM, about the same as New Year's Day coming up.

We need light.
The sun is dying.
Long live the sun.

Here are a few things I may give this year. All are related to science one way or another.

For my adult friends:

Blueberry melomel: sunlight captured as sugar by blueberry bushes, converted into ethanol by our cousins Saccharomyces cerevisiae. We both share DNA.

"The yeast genome is closer to the human genome than anything completely sequenced so far."

The carboy sits in Cape May, no longer burping. The blueberries are organic, which means they were fed with the poop of mammals not fed antibiotics.

Poop. Imagine that.

My nephew Keith will get a clammer's license. New Jersey recognizes the importance of fostering clamming skills, so it only charges $2 for a kiddie license. Maybe I'll even throw in a clam rake.
When times get hard, a decent clam rake and a license can get you a lot of protein. I may even share my sekrit clamming bed with him. Shhhh....

To the woman who sends me bunnies upon bunnies, a gold painted horseshoe crab. I put three more in a bag today, and again managed to crush them.

She has changed the lives of students who clutch her bunnies as though their lives depend on it, taking exams about electron orbitals, and ATP synthases, and electron transport chains, things so far removed from their lives they may as well be taking qualifying exams to become citizens of Osiris, the extrasolar planet orbiting a star named HD 209458.

Who couldn't be fascinated by a star named HD 209458?

To my students, grains of sand. Yeats saw heaven in a grain of sand. There may be billions upon billions of grains of sand. Stars outnumber the grains of sand.

Every grain of sand , every star has a story. Let them wrap their head around that.

For those of you who share our clan, you'll just have to wait.

The clam license is from Drexel Antiques--I may be forced to buy it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The language of high school science ain't math

"I don't eat plants."
Um, you never eat cereal or salad?
"Oh, I eat those--I just don't eat plants."

The disconnect between science and language in school kills science education.

Grasping mathematics may be necessary to understand higher physics (knowing which algorithm to use on a calculator doesn't count), but the does not make math the language of science.

The language of science (in these parts) is English. If you cannot manipulate words coherently, meaning will fail.

That's a high falutin' statement. Some qualifications:

1) Words/language may be oral. Written language allows manipulation oral language does not, but I do think my non-readers can grasp some science.
Reading, though, takes them a lot farther. (Or is it further?)

2) Aha! moments often do not depend on meticulously structured language.
Still, sharing how you got to the Aha! moment does.

3) I am talking about science in a
formal sense, beyond mere empiricism.
If I take a kid clamming on a falling tide, she sees (hears, smells, tastes, touches, too) more in a few hours than she will in a year of 48 minute periods in my classroom. Still, reminding children that they have senses that are spectacularly adapted for the outdoors is not science (though it is the first step).

A few days spent outside is more likely to make you a believer in spirits and magic than a "believer" of science. Reading a science textbook won't change the odds.

4) You can know English without gr
asping all the grammar and spelling nuances.
I'm a heretic. I insist that my students write meaningful answers, yet I do not insist on proper spelling and complete sentences if they can get the meaning across otherwise.

I am a hair-splitter when it comes to meaning--my students quickly learn this. They work hard to convey what they mean. If a child knows grammar inside out, it's one less hurdle to sharing meaning, but if they don't, hesitating over the proper structure of a pluperfect subjunctive will stop their thoughts dead.

(I am not advocating bad English. Still, if we're going to require students to read The Canterbury Tales (ful of wo and deth) in high school, I think it's OK to give them a break with spelling in science.)

We are talking about atoms in freshman physical science. This is not honors. This is not the step below honors. We don't have low level courses anymore, but we only have three steps. Do the math.

The textbook talks of orbitals, spends about 27 words about how the Bohr model has been superseded, then spends the next dozen or so pages using the Bohr model. The kids are, well, bohred.

I hold up a golf ball, calling it a nucleus. We talk about how far apart the electrons are, somewhere in the next town over. We talk about science fiction and force fields. We talk about trying to walk to the nucleus from the other town, hitting the energy wall of electrons. We talk about empty space. The class is amused, the teacher is a nut, it's like Philosophy 101 after drinking a a few cans of Red Bull.

Time to bring it home.

I slap my hand on a desk.
What did I hit?

"Um, the desk?"
Good! What atomic particles did I hit?
I slap the desk again.

Electrons banging against electrons.

Mathematical models get us to the big picture, and Wolfgang Pauli spun us a beautiful web.

(That's a gratuitous math equation lifted from Wikipedia to give this some oomph--in science class we call it learning. In the real world I'd call it a cheap shot.)

Takes English to translate the math back to reality, or as real as language can take us.

A slap on the desk becomes cool. A slap on the desk, done enough times, cues the students back to the space between nuclei and electrons, or the space of "stuff".

The best students in high school can make the analogies, can do the math, can "get" university level science.

For the rest of them, the emphasis on the math without effectively tying it to our native tongue makes science class pointless.

The students put about as much work into doing something pointless as you and I would, just enough to pass, to get the diploma.

New Jersey used to require 2 years of pointlessness, now it requires three.

I bet if you made the first year of science worthwhile, geared to the lives of children not destined for college, you wouldn't have to make the next two mandatory.

The Bohr's atom model is by Sundance Raphael at Wikimedia; the oat picture is from NASA.

Don't be a stranger

Pretty good chance I'm going to be there!

Anyone else here going?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A behemoth in the classroom

She screamed.
Blood curdling, axe-in-the-head spine-tingling scream.

I worked years in emergency rooms in Newark, so part of me finds loud screams reassuring--airway open, patient conscious. Let the nurse deal with it until I finish sewing up the tyke in front of me.

Except this was in class. And I'm non-tenured.

A quick scan.

Blood? Nope.
Fight? Nope.
Screaming young student and others scattering away? Check.


Well, not even that.
A moth.
"Are you sure it's a moth, Dr. D?" she asked quietly.

Yes, a moth.


No. Sit down, Kyle! No one's going to kill this moth in here!

"Did it lay eggs in my hair?"

No, but even if it did, the caterpillars won't eat too much.

(Piece of advice to teachers new to high school sophomores--do not kid them about moths eating their hair. Really. Don't.)

The moth flitted to the American flag.

Seemed as good a place as any, especially this week. A newborn critter (or as newborn as an adult moth can be) muddling around in a crazy world settling on a symbol that gave it unexpected comfort.

This week both the moth and the flag gave me unexpected comfort, too.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I wrote this November 14, 2004, two days after my sister was killed.
I still need reminding.

O mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities;
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give....

Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

We breathe, we dance, we sing, we read. The sun's energy, captured by protoplasts, converts carbon dioxide and water to form sugar. Our brains cannot function without the sun's energy.

The saccadic movements of your eyes as you scan the words, capturing photons, transform the energy of photons captured on a farm not long ago. We once worshipped the sun; now we praise the mitochondrion. Energy flows and transforms in either model.

None of this is earned, or deserved. Just is.


Our greatest problem is not how to continue but how to exalt our existence. The cry for a life beyond the grave is presumptuous, if there is not a cry for eternal life prior to our descending to the grave. Eternity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence. God has planted in us the seed of eternal life. The world to come is not only a hereafter but also a herenow.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone

I am a man of faith in reaffirmed with every easy breath I take, faith that will no doubt be questioned when my breathing becomes difficult.

Do not talk of heaven (or hell)--both unknowable, and the future, truly, does not exist. It never exists. We have herenow.

My sister no longer breathes in the herenow, and her last breath was pushed in by a machine. I could look at her chart, and see the numbers, and know what they mean. Peak inspiratory pressure. Positive end expiratory pressure. Tidal volume. Rate. FiO2 1.0. That is not grace.

Grace was the last breath she took before seeing a car in the wrong lane, headed for her; she was on her way to her favorite place in the world, an apple farm in Michigan, to see her love.

Grace. Her words now in my head, already asking me to forgive the carelessness of another.

The world is a wonderful place. She knew this and lived this. I may need reminding for a bit.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Light a candle.

May apple orchard blossoms fed by the energy of sunlight caught by the tree's leaves beckon to honey bees. Apple trees are sexual beings. Offering nectar, their sticky stigmas wait under the warm spring sun for the brush of pollen.

The bees collect nectar, and make honey. In the second week of a bee's life, she eats lots of honey, which she converts to wax through special glands under her belly; her belly exudes wax scales, which other bees then harvest for the hive.

The bees chew the wax and shape it to form the honeycomb; they use hexagonal tubes to store the honey, getting the most volume for the least amount of wax. Ask a mathematician to come up with a more efficient shape.

In the olden days, kids chewed on honeycombs. 'Course, in the olden days, most kids were breastfed, too. Now it's Enfamil and Bazooka Joe.

Light a candle.

Forests of plankton caught sunlight millions and millions of years ago. The plankton sank and was buried. Under increasing pressure and temperature, the bonds of life transform into hydrocarbons we burn today.

A few miles from here, petroleum is cracked in refineries--gasoline, oils, and paraffin all come from the same rich crude. Travel through the northern corridor of the New Jersey Turnpike and you can see the cracking towers lighting the sky, flames licking over a puzzle of giant pipelines and huge tanks.

Most candles today are made from paraffin.

Just about every school child knows that plants capture sunlight and carbon dioxide to form "stuff": our food, our heat, our homes, our air all depend on photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide and water fueled by the energy of the sun form carbohydrates and release oxygen.

Chlorophyll gets all the glory--it captures the energy of photons, lassoing excited electrons like roping calves as they bounce from chlorophyll molecule to chlorophyll molecule, finally calmed down enough to be converted into chemical energy.

Still, after all is said and done, the light reaction leaves us with just ATP and NADPH--enough to keep you going if you're a bacterium, but nothing you'd serve at Christmas dinner.

Credit Melvin Calvin for figuring out the cycle of reactions that fix carbon dioxide to organic compounds during photosynthesis. It's how an acorn can turn into a massive tree without "using up" soil.

The critical step is grabbing hold of a carbon dioxide molecule (relatively rare in our air, despite its starring role in global warming) and plying it into existing organic compounds, creating high energy hydrocarbon bonds that make the existence of humans possible.

At the heart of the process is an ancient enzyme rubisco. Some enzymes can catalyze millions of reactions per second.

Not rubisco--it churns out new molecules at the parkinsonian rate of 3 reactions per second.

Most enzymes are amazingly picky; each enzyme reacts only with very specific molecules.

Not rubisco--it gets confused. Oh, it mostly gets things right, grabbing a carbon dioxide molecule to fix to a carbon chain, but now and again it grabs oxygen instead. Oh, well.

It's an old, old enzyme. It's an inefficient enzyme. It's an unevolved enzyme.

It's also the most abundant protein on this planet.