Saturday, January 31, 2009

Clay Burell, Quaker meetings, and knowledge

I am a huge fan of Clay Burell, now over at; he also has a wonderful blog Beyond School where he attacks schooliness and ragged thinking while bringing to life classics such as Gilgamesh.

He recently posted a (justified) attack against a recent Science Daily article that highlighted a study that suggested that newer technologies had a hand in declining critical thinking skills. It's worth reading.

Still, the disciples of the high tech crowd did not disappoint this "reactionary clock-turn-backer" with their crowing. So I responded.

I wanted to carry a small piece of my words back here:
It's been awhile since I sat in a Friends (Quaker) meeting. The local meeting is unprogrammed, which means we sit silently for an hour or so. Occasionally someone will speak if so moved, but most times little (blessedly) is said.

The first few minutes I am incredibly twitchy, and cannot settle down until I remember I cannot settle down by trying, then am content to watch the sun beam creep across the bench in front of me.

I stare out a window looking at a tree. A few telephone lines run by it--I think about the tremendous amount of information that passes through those lines every minute. Then I think about the tree.

Both are marvelous things, the human wire, the mystery of trees, and both hold vast amounts of knowledge. The wire is ultimately knowable, the tree ultimately not.

I'm more interested in the tree, because it's more interesting.

The tree picture is from the University of Florida Urban Forestry program found here.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A cautionary tale

King Ceanothus ruled the land and declared himself the Learner. He decreed all other children shall become learners, too.

And the people rejoiced!

"We must learn them everything!"

So the children were taught this and the children were taught that, then that, and some more of this. This and that and that and this.

And the children took the National This and That Learner test and...gasp...most of them failed!

King Ceonathus thought and thought--why he knew a "this." And he knew a "that." He thought and thought and thought some more.

Towers fell, and poppies grew, but the King continued his thinking of this and of that.

"We shall teach them more this and thats! We will raise this this bar and that that bar, and they will pass!"

And the people rejoiced.

And now the children did double this and double that. They called a this a triple this that, and a that a triple that this! Oh, they learned and learned and learned some more!

The children then took the International National This and That Learner Exam, upgraded and revised and validated at much expense and stamped with the Official Seal of the Land of Ceanothus.
And they failed again--except in the district of Here and There.

"Oh, Super Supers of the Here and There, how did you do it?"
the people asked.

We dipped them in lard, had them stand on their heads,
Made them study real hard, fed them bennies and reds,
We stapled and folded and creased without end
Our methods are valid, we've got proof can defend

The key to success is to put Thissing First
And now our children are no longer the worst.
We are the Miracle in Houston, the success in Chicago
We even topped scores of some school in Wells Fargo.

(But hear's the real sekrit, come listen and learn
We gave them the answers, left no test unturned
If the test is the point, why bother with facts
We gave them the keys, our students relaxed

We give each a scantron, the dots clearly bubbled
Then they filled out another, completely untroubled
Using authentic skills learned in the finest of schools
Now the students are ready to be corporate tools.

So each district bought the Thissing First program, a billion dollars was spent. The kids were drugged and dipped in lard and forced to study without end the thisses and thats and the thats and the thisses.

A month before the Interplanetary Universal This and That Plus Learner Exam, upgraded and revised and validated at great expense and stamped with the Official Seal of the Universe, each child meticulously bubbled their own individualized scantron--some used crayons, some Play Doh, some used ink, and a few traditionalists still fumbled with Dixon Oriole Number 2 pencils. The people were pleased to see that the new education recognized different learning styles.

And every child passed (except a few in Gotham who refused to play) but that's OK, because "all" means 97%.

And the people rejoiced.

The End

Scantron image from Greene County Public Library.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Snow day--a purely gratuitous post

It's a snow day--I'm snuggled up inside, bleary-eyed from too little sleep anticipating the snow day.

The back's aching a bit from shoveling; I'm not a young man anymore. Imbolc is less than a week away. Spring becomes possible again.

Leslie just mentioned that Springsteen's "Girl's in Their Summer Clothes" used Asbury Park as the backdrop.

Leslie and I spent a good chunk of our summer nights on the boardwalk. We both played pinball, we both loved the beach, and we fell in love.

Either of us could rack up free games on a machine when we got zoned--I played Fireball, she played Old Chicago. On rare nights we could even sell our accumulated games. We played because we loved to play, but we played at the shore because of its wildness.

Wizard World in Long Branch marked the end of the boardwalk. We'd wander out of the fluorescent glow and cacophony of misfired dreams onto the beach. The dark shadows quickly swallowed us out of sight from those umbilically attached to their machines.

The beach at night remains a wilderness.

Every beach along the Jersey shore has its own patterns of breakers, of sound. Every beach has its characters, its history.

Even today, watching the video, I recognize the steep short break of the Asbury waves.

Where can a child find her wilderness today?

Wandering out at night along the beach reminded us that the world is immensely bigger than us. It didn't make us feel small--we were part of it.

We still are.

The Fireball shot is by Clay Harrell, who has a site here, and who fixes machines--he obviously loves pinball.

The Old Chicago backglass was shot by
Greg Rhomberg and can be found here.

Mr. Spock, please call home....

The New Jersey Board of Education may adopt requirements mandating that all high school students pass Algebra II and Chemistry in order to get their sheepskin.

On Monday, a few high voltage proponents of the change spoke to the NJ Assembly Education Committee.

"We are no longer at the forward front here."
Lucille E. Davy, Commissioner

Ms. Davy is the Commissioner of Education for New Jersey. She majored in mathematics as an undergrad. I assume she once had a handle on Algebra II.

She subsequently went to law school, and is now the New Jersey Commissioner of Education.

Commissioner, when was the last time you needed advanced algebra to tackle your duties?

Requiring all students to take increasingly complex courses simply because we're embarrassed that another state might have more rigorous requirements does not explain why it should be mandatory.

(I could take a cheap ad hominem shot at the redundancy in "forward front" but I fear it might lead to a mandated courses in Rhetoric 101.)

Here's a stunning mathematical fact: one out of five of our high school students are less intelligent than 80% of our student population! About 1 in 2 are below average. You could look it up.

"Business needs this. . . . Business is not
seeing the employees that it needs."

Chris Emigholz
Director of Education Policy, NJBIA

Mr. Emigholz is a lobbyist, a registered governmental affairs agent for New Jersey--Number 49-14 if you're interested. He works for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

He talks a lot. He processes numbers. He politics. He gets things done.

Let's look in his briefcase. Notepads, yes, fancy pen or two, lots of documents, a few scattered CD's, maybe even a laptop computer (or two), business cards, a Blackberry Gold, and, oh look, some mints, and,'d did that get in there?

What you won't find, however, is a TI-83 Plus Graphing Calculator.

He doesn't need one.

Yes, Mr. Emigholz, business is not "seeing the employees that it needs"--hard to find folks who can afford to work minimum wage and raise a family here in the Garden State--but jamming every child with algorithms isn't going to make them more likely to work for less than a liveable wage.

Now, before my education friends jump all over me, I am all for pushing kids to their limits, encouraging them to explore all kinds of worlds that can only be seen through mathematics. (I must be getting strident, I keep italicizing words.) I've been accused of holding my lambs to standards, and I growl a lot in the classroom. We get things done.

Still, I managed to get through several jobs (stevedore, lab tech, warehouse checker, pediatrician, and, by golly, science teacher) and not once have I ever needed to whip out Algebra II for work. I will sometimes play with it for fun, though....shhhh.

(I did use a little chemistry when working at Laird and Company bottling apple jack and other bottled pleaures, but I took chemistry in high school because I loved it.)

If you want a child to study something perceived as irrelevant, something most adults, even successful ones, cannot do, simply to increase a potential pool of engineers who will compete with each other and keep labor costs down, then shame on you.

Here's some math for you--there are over 1.1 billion Indians alive today. China has over 1.3 billion people.

India has over 340 million kids under 15 years old. As of 2000, the United States had less than 60 million in the same age bracket. Unless you accept eugenics, the only way we're going to catch up with absolute Indian brainpower is start a Swiftian campaign of pregnancy early and often. (It would put a whole new spin on sex education.)

Would that be acceptable, Mr. Emigholz?

I have a better idea--let's mandate a logic course. Maybe then our children will make better choices than we did on who to empower in government, and no longer tolerate what passes for "reasonable" discourse in politics today.

Quotes are from "An official call for tougher curricula" in yesterday's
Philadephia Inquirer
, written by Rita Giordano

Camera obscura and critical thinking

In the olden days, a cameras (like a car motor) could be grasped with a little bit of sense and a dollop of curiosity.

Light traveled through a piece of glass, a lens you could screw off the camera. Hold the lens a foot or two away, and the image flipped.

The lens was attached to a box that had a shutter you opened and closed to let in the light. You could vary the time it was open. You could vary how large the opening was.

The light was focused on film, a strip of plastic (originally a wet concoction of cellulose and other stuff to make "dope"), that reacted to the light. High school kids could hang out in dark rooms developing film (and a finer sense of anatomy).

The whole process was tangible. (That the dark room featured a red light added to the, um, tangibility.)

For kicks you could make a shoe box pinhole camera, and take interesting photos with unreal depth of field. Cool and cheap, when cheap was cool.

So what does this have to do with today's media savvy tween digerati set?

Ah, grasshopper....

First, though, all you young'uns who never saw a pinhole camera before need to gather a toilet paper roll, a piece of waxed paper, a piece of aluminum foil, anda couple of rubber bands.

(No, you can't do this get to use all 10 fingers for this. Too clever by half....)

Put a small hole in the foil, attach it to one end of the tube, with the hole centered. Fold the waxed paper over the other end. Yep, use the rubber bands to hold it all together.

Point the aluminum side at a bright light source, focus on the waxed paper screen, and tell me what you see. Move it around a bit, what happens?

[OK, for those who cannot help themselves, I'll save you the trip to Google--you wil see an upside-down image that moves oppositee to the direction you move the camera.]

That's the observation, now here's the question--how can an image flip if there are no lenses? What can you infer about the property of light (at least here in our Newtonian sensate universe)?

And I will leave this open for now....

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Easy Grade Pro? More like Beer League

4.0.1a, released January 2007
Fixes: Numerous problems related to summaries, standards, reports, copying, dropping and more have been corrected.

4.0.3, released August 2008
Fixes: Exporting XML Gradebook, dropping of scores, and several minor fixes released October 2008
Fixes: Auto-entry of rubric scores, dropping of scores.

So says Orbis Software, the creators of Easy Grade Pro.
Mine has burped for the second time in less than two months.

Here's a lesson in grammar: If something's fixed, it means
it's no longer broke.

Dollar to doughnuts the next version will also "fix" dropping.

A few teachers get together two times a month to share techniques--we spent yesterday's session learning new technologies to use in the classroom. Shiny new things excite me.

I got back to my gradebook at 4 o'clock. By 8:45, I had 60% of the damage repaired. Another few hours and I'll be done with EGP for the marking period.

I may be done with it for good.

(Yes, it's wonderful when it works--but when the date comes up January 1904, when a child who left your class months ago reappears as an assignment title, when the program prints a number just slightly different from what you see on the monitor, well, trust becomes a factor.)

Does EGP save time? Yep.
Can I make do without? Yep.
Which is easier? Easy Grade Pro.

Still, expedience is not enough reason to adopt a program.

(And now I await the passionate cries defending a crippled system.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

News from the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT)

The clams are roosting now--yeast has my attention in mid-winter.

Wheat futures are bouncing around $6 per bushel this week. Last February they were $24/bushel when the supplies tightened up.

In our reductionist world, we still buy grain by the bushel. Four pecks. I wonder how many traders know what a bushel is? I wonder how many care?

When you're dealing with tons of wheat, it is easier to weigh it. We really don't sell wheat by the bushel anymore. We simply redefined bushel as 60 pounds.

10 cents a pound. About a loaf and a half of bread's worth.

The wheat futures prices went up last winter--India, Argentina, and Canada all had problems with their crops, demand kept rising, and stockpiles fell.

Wheat quadrupled in price before falling back to 10 cents a pound.

40 cents a pound doesn't mean a whole lot to most of us here in the States--we grumble, but we pay far more for phones, video games, internet access, car insurance, and a whole lot of other things that won't make us dead if we lose them.

We have land, we have sun, we have water. We have money, too, but you can't eat cash.

My ancestors died with mouths stained green from grass, a land blighted with bad potatoes and bad politics, their land used to feed the cattle destined for a foreign land.

We are not so much more clever today. The rise in the wheat futures made news in the business section of the papers. It should have been news in every biology class.

You can only get so many calories out of the land in a year. Cash makes a lousy fertilizer.

If you want to teach biology that matters, you need to wander out of the textbook.

An irreductionist looks at yeast

This is science:
Yeast have over 6,000 genes. More than half of these genes resemble human genes.

This is technology:
Some mutant yeast genes can be replaced by human genes with similar function. The yeast cell then acts normal again.

This is what happens in my kitchen:
I add a few billion yeast to flour, water, honey, water, olive oil, and salt. They play like mad, reproducing, blowing off carbon dioxide. I then slaughter them in the oven.

I add a few billion yeast to water, malted barley, and hops. They play like mad, reproducing, blowing off carbon dioxide. I put an air lock on brew bucket. My yeast use up the oxygen, switch to alcoholic fermentation, poison themselves with ethanol, and go dormant.

Science is about what we can know through direct or indirect observation; it requires a reductionist view of the universe. (Well, OK, the physicists are busy studying God, but for the rest of us....)

Science is a very powerful tool, and what we do with our knowledge (technology), has warped our world in ways we could not have anticipated.

If we teach reductionist thinking as the way to think, as we do in science class, we lose too much.


I have no idea what it feels like to be a yeast cell, and I have no scientific way to figure it out. I know they do not have legs, or eyes, or teeth, or brains, so I can safely presume that their existence hardly matches my own. While scientists play with the yeast genome (fully mapped out in 1996), comparing and contrasting their nucleotide sequences with our own, they have no interest in what it means to be a yeast.

Oh, a chemist may well wax philosophic on her yeasties as she bottles her finest homemade cherry stout, but she's not going to pretend that anything scientific will result from her musings.

I am nutty enough to rinse out the yellow Munton ale yeast package so that the few remaining thousands (millions?) can be released in my backyard. This is madness in a reductionist universe, but offers comfort to my irrational side.

(What word does a public school science teacher dare use for "irrational"? Superstitious? Mystical? Crazy? Traditional? Cultural? Religious?)

In science class, I am careful about wandering into the irrational world. I do have an imaginary leprechaun wandering around Room B258--he serves to remind us of what defines the "natural" world--but I am not going to launch into some existentialist babbling about yeast in my classroom.

I do, however, make a point about the distinction--when we wander to the edge of reductionist knowledge, I will tell the class that some things are unanswerable by science.

How do you handle the questions that take you to the edge of rational knowledge?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Yeast, humans, and the faltering economy

“I encourage you all to go shopping more.”
GWB, after the 9/11 attacks

I've got two herds of yeast working today--one is feasting on malted barley that sprouted over 3 years ago, the other working on 4 or 5 year old wheat berries just ground into flour two hours ago.

In a few weeks I will have some fine ale, and in a few hours, bread.

Yeast have 6,000 genes, give or take a few. More than a few of them are functionally identical to human genes--they work just as well in either species.

The economy is in free fall--a predictable and inevitable consequence of a people that lost their connection to the land. Everything of real value gets down to water, soil, sunlight, photosynthesis.

Petroleum packs millions of years of sun into a few gallons of gasoline, and a few of us got fooled by the gift.

What is the responsibility of public education teachers to their students? Who will teach them how to spin, reap, knead, plow, or sow?

(The "economy" depends on consumer spending--70% of the GDP depends on personal consumption. This is insanity.)

It is easy to blame the former President. It is easy to pin our hopes on the new king. Before everyone gets too excited, however, look at the record:
Obama's choice for education never taught, and spent his formative years in the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. The tuition there is now over $21, 000 per year.

Obama's choice for Treasurer
Timothy F. Geithner has tax issues--he failed to pay them when he was supposed to pay them. Oh, well....

Obama's choice for the Vice Presidency plagiarized a law review article--"inadvertent." Inadvertent is when a meteor hits your car, Mr. Biden.

Obama's choice for Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar sided with Albert Gonzales and happens to be a rancher.

Just sayin'.

I'm as excited by Obama's Presidency as anyone else, but I am selective about my Saviors. We're in for a rough decade. May as well teach the children to fend for themselves--make Thomas Jefferson proud.

We have lost our sense of the sacred, not because we share life with "low" critters like yeast, but because we have managed to distance ourselves from our own life spirit, soul, or whatever word you choose to use that separates something alive from, say, a rock.

We no longer have time for cross-disciplinary studies in high school--"The Test" (called HSPA here in the Garden State, but every state has its own acronym for the testing required by the NCLB) has wrested control from the teachers to the bureaucrats.

New Jersey has been revamping its end of course science test for years--it's a lucrative business, millions have been spent on it, and I do not doubt that those who develop it have an evangelistic fervor running through their veins convincing them they will save the yewts of this fine state. (Money will do that.)

Why do we teach?
What is the function of public school?

Why do we teach?
What does democracy mean?

Why do we teach?
What does it mean to be a citizen?

Why do we teach?
Are we serious about the pursuit of happiness?

Why do we teach?
Paycheck? Idolation? Idealism? Love?

Bread (and beer) both matter to me. Both involve critters (yeast) more intimately related to me than I can appreciate.

Both involve water and sugars and a nearby star that continues to fuse hydrogen atoms together without regard to this planet eight light minutes away.

Both involve mystery, and the work of human hands, and the respect of a fungus that has been working side by side with H. sapiens long before long before my ancestors starved on Eire, western Europeans decided that America belonged to them, long before the Romans, and long before the ancient Greeks.

Yeast and wheat were domesticated before there were books, and we forget.

I teach biology. It's time I reintroduced Saccharomyces cerevisiae to my students.

Life without ESPN and fancy deodorant and the latest iPod may "suck."

Life without yeast, however, reduces who we are.

Photo by Masur via wikipedia

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Another (true) fish story

Ameiurus nebulosus

Brown bullhead.
Mud cat.
Horned pout.

We just called them catfish.

On a map today it's called Crystal Lake, but it was neither--it was a fishing hole. We called it the Duck Pond, though the ducks were intermittent. It was far enough along eutrophication for us to avoid swimming in it, but the catfish didn't seem to mind.

We all knew about their spines--we had long August discussions about how poisonous they were (or not), but we knew they were sharp and to be avoided. What you know and what you do are two separate things.

I had already caught an eel that morning--eels were rare--they spent most of their time in salt water, and they were not particularly welcomed. They insist on wrapping their writhing snake-bodies around the line,confounding our efforts to unhook them. Catfish are more reasonable.

Catfish and kids go together. A cat has a big mouth, firm jaw, is rarely foul-hooked, and (usually) cooperates while a child goes about the task of unhooking it while comparing the merits of Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle. That's about as much multi-tasking as we did back in those days.

I hooked a nice sized cat with my drop line, and as I defended Hank's reputation against the rarified air of the hot Georgia summers, I lowered the cat to the ground. We all knew the procedure.

Once on the ground, you wrapped your hand around the fish so that the dorsal fin was held between your second and third fingers. One pectoral fin was held between the thumb and pointer and the other between the ring finger and pinkie. The older kids taught the younger, just as so much is learned by kids. Pheromones cloud memories, but I bet I could still do it. But not on that morning.

I lowered the fish, as I had done hundreds of times, but despite slack in the line, the fish was not on the ground. I never felt it enter my thigh.

Catfish spines may or not be poisonous--the state of Pennsylvania's official website claims they are. I don't know, I never felt the spine go in. What the same official website does not tell you, however, is that once in, the spines stay in.

"Come take a look at this! That kid has a fish stuck in his leg!"

One thing the Pennsy website does have right, though is that "brown bullheads are able to exist on atmospheric air for a time." Hours, it turns out. The catfish acted more disturbed than I was, wriggling in its slow death throes, burying the spine deeper and deeper into my quadriceps.

I would not go to the doctor. Had my cousin not thought of the hedge clippers, I'd have waited until the fish rotted off.

When I finally did get to the doc, with now just the spine attached, the fish buried in the backyard, he used his extensive medical skills to remove the spine--he grabbed a pair of pliers, and YANKED!

The summer my father lay dying, Leslie thought I might like to see Big Fish, a movie about a father larger than life.

I held my own until the father returned to the river as a big ol' catfish. I ran out into the warm dusk, and bawled. I cried for my mother, I cried for my father. I shook, sobbed, and wailed. I cried out every last tear I had saved for 40 years.

I lost my father a few weeks later. Not long after, I lost my sister. I no longer need to remember how to cry.

I love eating catfish--but don't let the experts sell you the tamed version.

Hrayr Berberoglu, a professor emeritus (which means he is likely old enough to have lost a good portion of his tastebuds), had this to say:

Wild catfish are bottom feeders and well known for their "muddy" tasting flesh due to their diet. Farmed catfish are raised in specially designed rectangular above ground, 10-20 acre large ponds that are 1-2 metres deep. Farmed catfish are fed high-protein food pellets consisting of soybeans, corn, wheat, vitamins and minerals. This diet results in a mild, sweet taste and flaky fleshed fish.

Imagine that--we need to give a fish a vitamin.

All catfish are sweet, and all have flaky flesh, but only the the tame ones are mild. If you want mild, go grab a Filet-O-Fish. The industry likes the convenience of farm ponds. If you want to taste a catfish, you're going to have to catch one yourself.

It's not hard--just watch out for the spines.

Pennsylvania Fishes, "Chapter 13,Catfishes," Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Division
Hrayr Berberoglu "Catfish: Farm Raised," in the Food Reference Website,

A (true) fish story

What is a sallygrowler?

I would love to know! I can't find it in any dictionary and it produces only one hit on Google. As far as I can tell, it's a Jersey shore colloquialism for a certain saltwater creature I remember from growing up on the Metedeconk River. I remember a meaty, prehistoric-looking fish that lurked in the mucky depths of the river and would sometimes show up with blueclaws in our crab traps--but most memorably, was capable of "biting your foot off."

If you know more about sallygrowlers, please let me know. If I could find out their official name I'm sure I could get more info, and I hope even photographs.

In the meantime, picture teeth and slime and consider them a good reason to keep your feet kicking in the water.

Lisa at

Longhorn sculpin
Myoxocephalus octodecimspinosus

We called them "sallygrowlers"--we thought toadfish was the official name. We caught them, feared them, heard them (they grunt when out of the water, but that hardly explains the "sally" part).

I got acquainted with one years and years ago--in bad moments I still hear it growling, buried in a white cardboard box that held the squid that fed this butt-ugly critter.

Yep, another fish story. This isn't your father's wikipedia.

Jack McCloskey was a barber with longish hair while the war still raged in 'Nam. He owned a wooden 25' boat, before wood became cool again. We ate short lobsters because he told us they tasted better, and because they were illicit, they did.

He died when I was young, the first person I knew selfish enough to do so--crushed in a car crash before our third fishing trip. He liked me, even though I was a kid, and not just because I was my father's son.

Jack wore his hair like Elvis. Jack talked a lot. And Jack liked to fish.

Twice Jack took us out tuna fishing. He had poles rigged with bunker spoons the size of my head. We were going to the Mud Hole, to the Acid Sea, to a place where we could not see land.

One time the motor conked out, another time 15 foot swells kept us close to shore. I bet if he had lived long enough he'd eventually make it out to the Mud Hole, but with Jack, reaching the goal was almost besides the point.

Kids can sense these things, sometimes before their parents can, both unnerving and invigorating. Jack was the first grown up I called by first name, and the last for more than a decade after that.

By late afternoon on a long day of a sputtering engine and too much drinking (drunk men, buzzed kids), we drifted in the shoals of the Navesink River. We had yet to catch a fish. Dreams of tuna were now reduced to bouncing squid on the bottom, hoping for a fluke or an eel.

Tug....tug tug. I yanked the pole, and wrestled out a fish uglier than pimples on a frog, bug eyed, covered with spines. And it growled at me.

"Watch for the spines!...Don't let your fingers near its mouth!
You got yourself a sallygrowler!"

"What's a sallygrowler?"

"A toadfish, son."

A toadfish. Of course, what else could it be. It was a reasonably large toadfish, as far as toadfish go, and it was ugly and fearsome and it growled. We dumped the rest of the squid from cardboard bait box, and put the sallygrowler in it. I figured it would die in a few minutes, and I wanted to show it to my mom.

The dock was about 20 minutes away. The box sat on the floor. It shuddered a couple of times.

While unloading the boat, I peeked at the fish--the gill flaps kept pumping--its eyes continued to stare up. It looked more frumpy than fearsome. Water slapped against the pilings There are rare moments in a 7 year old's life when decisions with lifelong consequences are made. I made the wrong decision. I took it home.

Fish breathe through their gills. Water has dissolved oxygen, and the water passes by millions of tiny capillaries. The capillaries are supported by the water. When a fish is out of water, the capillary beds collapse, and the fish suffocates. At least that's what the textbooks say.

Some fish can live for a long time out of water. Scientists do not spend a whole lot of time studying fish of no economic value--earlier generations of naturalists spent hours observing critters, but even a naturalist with tenure does not have the luxury of time we have as children.

The longhorn sculpin, at least this longhorn sculpin, does not suffocate when out of water. After a few hours of showing off my fish to my pals and my mom, it still breathed. Its eyes still stared.

I buried the fish, in the box, a few feet from our garden. A little while later I dug it up to make sure it had died. It had not. I buried it again, and have not dared to check since.

I can still hear it growling.

Henry B. Bigelow and William C. Schroeder, "Longhorn sculpin", Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, Fishery Bulletin 74,
Fishery Bulletin of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Volume 53

Oooh...momomom found a site where you, too, can hear a sallygrowler growl.

Horseshoe crabs

Spiders, really.
And like spiders, feared.

Kids, really.
And like kids, fearless.

I was 8, old enough to know better. The lifeguard, bronzed and confident, draped in red, asked us to slaughter the horseshoe crabs.

"Hold them by the tail so they can't sting you, then smash them on the wall."

The wall--a creosote bulkhead jutting into the beach, already slimy with the blue blood and cracked shells of these fearsome creatures.

It was mating season. Not yet old enough to understand a desire that drove these beasts onto my beach, Ideal Beach, I smashed one creature on top of the others, picking the same one up over and over until the shells splintered and the sky blue blood soaked the shells underneath.

Sea gulls pecked into the soft flesh of our dying prey as the legs were still scratching at the sky.

When we were done, tired, stinking, and proud of our aching muscles, we jumped back into the water, washed ourselves, then went home.

Hemocyanin: blue blood. We wore it that day like war paint--stinking of death, sweating under the early July sun.

20 mg of high purity hemocyanin will fetch $175.00

20 milligrams.
Less than the weight of a fat housefly. Less than the weight of our soul. Our blood runs red from the iron in hemoglobin; a horseshoe crab's blood runs blue from copper.

Hemoglobin is cheaper.

Every spring the she crabs come to the beach, several smaller males trailing behind. The bayshore teems with horseshoe crab eggs, tiny bean curds at the lip of the beach. Millions upon millions, so many that none mean anything at all to me. Birds crowd along the beach, feasting. I used to think the birds were what mattered.

A female crab can lay 80,000 eggs in a season. She creeps up onto the beach, riding the spring tide on the full moon. She crabs reach sexual maturity in 9 to 12 years, not much younger than when humans do. May is crazy with life everywhere. Within 2 to 4 weeks, they are ready to hatch. I never really looked at the eggs closely, until last year.

It took me a long moment to believe what I was seeing. Horseshoe crab eggs do not remain opaque. Soon before they egg splits, the tiny pale crab spins wildly. Half the egg is clear, the other half white from the curled embryo. If you look carefully, you can tell that this tiny critter is a curled up horseshoe crab. As it spins, it looks like a tiny blinking eye.

If you watch one long enough, you will catch its birth. It will already have survived longer than most of its siblings. And it will not likely survive the next high tide.

Still, catching the exuberance of a newly hatched critter the size of an ice cream sprinkle on a warm, June afternoon changed me. Strangers saw a wild-haired middle-aged man squatting by the water's edge, staring intently at nothing, gesticulating a bit too much for others to come share his excitement.

I would not have let my kids close to me, either, had our roles been switched. Fortunately for my kids, I am not a stranger.

The smell of a dead or dying crustaceans can overwhelm a kitchen. On an open beach, however, mixed in with the salty life-teeming spray, a balance is reached. At high tide, the smell is almost too clean; at low tide, whiffs of the decaying mud is sharp, but not repulsive. The tide washes over us twice a day, the rhythm of mortality.

I occasionally find horseshoe crabs stranded on the beach. I will gently pick them up, and return them to the water. I may have returned thousands by now. I cannot make up for the hundred I slaughtered. That is not why I do it.

Every summer I show children how to pick up a horseshoe crab. Cradle the carapace with your hand. Do not carry them by their tails. I touch the point of the tail, show a child there is no stinger. They are gentle creatures. Omnivorous, true--clams, worms, and algae, so perhaps not so gentle, but certainly not harmful to humans.

Young loggerhead turtles snack on horseshoe crabs. Humans use their blood in medical research. Otherwise, they have few "enemies." Not sure being higher up in the food chain makes one an enemy. Someday I will feed the worms, unless some stranger stuffs my veins with formaldehyde and buries me too deep to be useful.

Horseshoe crabs live an average of 19 years, or so the scientists will tell you. I doubt the average longevity matters to a horseshoe crab--the mad, exuberant spinning of horseshoe crab embryos one June afternoon reminded me what matters.

Ask me someday....ask me in June. I will show you. Words will not do. I bet you smile like an idiot, too....


Personal observations.
"The Horseshoe Crab,(Limulus polyphemus)," Maryland Sea Grant Schools Online Network
A.G. Scientific, Inc., Product Catalog,

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Barack Hussein Obama

I ran around today trying to get a couple of televisions hooked up with bootleg antennas. The internet connection had been balky, and there were not enough seats for everyone in the auditorium.

Masking tape and speaker wire and a bit of luck combined to get a couple of TVs, relics of the 20th century, fired up for the day. No freezes, no glitches.

One of my students shrieked when she saw the television--she was going to see it after all.

The picture was a bit fuzzy, but no one complained.

President Barack Hussein Obama means a lot of things to a lot of people--but for a class of the lowest level freshmen in a town that borders one of nation's most devastated cities, he meant hope.

Please, President Obama, don't let these kids down.

Ironically I was one of the leading protesters against Channel One in our school, and we won.
Leslie reminded that we would have had an easy way to broadcast
the inauguration had I left it alone.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Winter beach walk

Yesterday was magic--we walked along a cold beach, frozen drifts poised over the incoming tide like gargoyles. I ground some red wheat berries for bread, and Leslie put together bean soup from scratch.

My brother unexpectedly called, and we joined his clan for dinner, carrying the pot of hot soup on a pine plank on my lap on the short drive over. (Hi, Karlyn!)

This morning the bay waters moved sluggishly, debating whether to solidify or stay liquid as a thick fog rolled in. We saw a couple of birds we did not recognize, likely Arctic visitors. A few live oysters were tossed on the beach, bumped off the jetties by the ice floes. I debated eating one, but figured the chilled gulls needed it more than I did.

I have just about finished Last Child in the Woods, an important book, and one I will have much more to say later.

For now, though, know this much (and I am not saying this is such a bad thing). If children reconnected with the world, if all of us got to spend an hour or two a day at the edge of wildness, or pick dried bread dough off our wrists, or just sit with good, cheap, food made with our hands, shared with those we love, well, the economy as we know it would collapse.

It's collapsing anyway.

Lesson plans faded from my thoughts as a short walk turned into a couple of miles along the winter beach.

Nothing I can show my lambs indoors can compare. I need to get them outside again.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Unexpected life in January

My son called me from upstairs.

"Dad, I got a bug for you!"

And he did--a stink bug. And not just a stink bug, a brown marmorated stink bug, Halyomorpha halys. It's sitting in a glass next to my keyboard as I write, and he'll come visit Bloomfield High on Tuesday.

Outside small mammal tracks lead to the edges of our two fish puddles--calling them ponds would be a lie. In each, a pump bubbles water to the surface, and a small hole remains open in the ice.

Most of the water outside is solid.
Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink
If I pay attention, I may see an opossum. (Raccoons wander around winter, too, but have enough body fat to hunker down and snooze during the chilliest periods.) Possums need to wander around to eat, and in winter, may wander during the day to stay a little warmer, dragging their chilled bald tails behind them. Though frostbite is a problem for these critters, starvation trumps frostbite.

I may need to rename the local possum "Stumpy" should she survive.


My stink bug's clan wandered over from Asia sometime in the last 10 to 15 years, likely through
a crate of doodads from China, Korea, or Japan. It was first reported in Allentown, Pennsylvania (where my sister-in-law lives), and has wandered a bit over to Jersey, Maryland, and West Virginia.

I couldn't have told you a brown marmorated stink bug from a yellow-faced pink bellied cootie before the internet, at least not without a trip to the library*, and that wasn't going to happen with a the thermometer reading 4 degrees Fahrenheit (-16 Celsius for those in more enlightened countries).

I did step out barefoot to get the paper, but that's as far as I got.

I played around the web, looking for more information about my stink bug. My stink bug is, apparently, polyphagous (poly=many, phage=eat), and a threat to agriculture. It messes with our food, which means our dollars, which means it gets press on the web.

Still, what I really wanted to know was how this critter viewed the world, and I am left to my imagination or more research for that. Imagination is easier.

What "colors" can it see? Do its antennae feel, do they taste, do they smell?

I breathed on him, he responded. Was it the warmth? The carbon dioxide? The faint rush of air?

He seems to be a reasonably mild-tempered stink bug--despite a rough start to his day, he has not yet shown his noxious side. He may still be a bit sleepy from his winter rest.

We teach our children not to anthropomorphize, at least not in science, though I think anthropomorphizing has wonderful benefits when telling stories.

What we should also be teaching, though, is that critters are sentient. My stink bug reacts to changes. It finds food, had enough sense to find shelter in my home, and no doubt will be looking to find a mate come spring.

While I doubt it can consciously do quadratic equations, I bet I spend more of my time in its state of mind than I do in overt consciousness.

(Oh, but how can you know? Bugs can't have "minds"!
The same way I can know you are sentient--which is to say, I can never be sure, but it makes more sense than assuming that you're not. )

We think we know something about life, yet the simple act of standing up requires such a comple
x dance of cardiovascular tweaks that even Einstein would have fallen down if he had to man the controls.

There should be a prayer for our autonomic nervous system.


*Leslie, however, was kind enough to go to the library to pick up Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv's "landmark work" which has "galvanized an international back-to-nature campaign." If you don't believe me, just ask him.

The book came highly recommended by several folks, and Louv has tosses around some of my favorite people (Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, Wes Jackson) . I started it last night, and he managed to annoy me the same way Thomas Friedman does--lots of glib references without giving me the sense that he has done more than dabbled with others' ideas-- but today I will hunker down and give it a chance.

And if that doesn't hold my interest, I have a stink bug to contemplate.

The brown marmorated stink bug photo is from the gummint of Maine, via

Friday, January 16, 2009

Frozen pipes

January reminds me who's in charge.

I walked to school yesterday morning in indigo twilight, the dry snow sparkling in front of me like faeries. A big chunk of moon hung over the southwest. The snow creaks, a rare sound here. It's cold.

In June I'll live forever. In January I am mortal. How many Januaries left? Likely less than 30, and possibly none.

We need to enter mortality into equations involving us. We need a January education policy.

Intel will outlive me. Boeing will outlive me. Dow Chemical will outlive me. Corporations have become immortal. Children have not.

The faeries creaking at dawn, as real as my thoughts, fade as the sun rises. A calendar on the central office wall reminds teachers how many instructional days remain until the HSPA testing in March.

We don't get do-overs.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Science is a subset of thinking

Here in New Jersey students are now required to pass three years of science to get a diploma. While this does wonders for my job security, it takes a special kind of reasoning to figure that if two years fails to produce a scientifically literate litter of children, then three years ought to do the trick.

Few children have the curiosity and the capacity needed to become professional scientists. The same could be said for becoming accomplished pianists, master carpenters, or licensed harbor pilots.

We have imbued science with mysticism and romance and holiness. Might have made more sense to throw our faith in agriculture, but science won, and now we're so efficiently removed from the earth that most of our children have never seen a wheat berry.

This is not to demean science. The thrust, however, should be on thinking, no matter what the discipline. A high school biology course that surveys ecology, genetics, protein synthesis, evolution, biochemistry, taxonomy, respiration & photosynthesis, cellular reproduction, DNA technology, evolution, and so on in less than 180 days in about 140 hours of class time cannot adequately address critical thinking.

Problem-solving comes in a lot of flavors and cuts across disciplines. If we're losing the battle against Japan or China or India (pick your favorite foreign country whose children's success is threatening the American Way), it's not because our children cannot recall how many electrons dance on the head of a pin.

If we want to develop a science "class", we will need to identify the children who show early aptitude and interest, and then help them develop the discipline needed to carry on professional research. Elitist? Perhaps. Not sure I'd want my kids selected for that track--professional science looks like a lonely existence to me, no matter how the sexay the NSTA wants to dress it.

We can keep the back door open for the late bloomers. In the meantime, we might consider putting a priority on thinking again, in every discipline. Even in science.

Fancy vocabulary words does not guarantee fancy thinking, even if it is cute to hear a 4th grader say "photosynthesis."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

November light

Nine hours and 32 minutes of sunlight here today--last time we had that much sunshine was the day after Thanksgiving. You could look it up!
The sun has started its summer flight.

My seeds came yesterday--a small packing envelope holds wildness beyond imagination. Moonflowers as big as my head, as fragrant as a prom date. Brandywines dripping sweet juice on my chin in August. A small basil forest releasing its scent with the rush of a warm July thunderstorm. And no matter how wild my imagination runs, summer will surprise me.

We're halfway to Imbolc. In a few weeks I will be looking for the crocuses. My rosemary plant showed off a few purple flowers last week, but the bees were too smart to play that game in January.

Not me. I'm already buzzing.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A fine kettle of fish

Who cares if Google knows more about your habits than your mother--now we have a real controversy!

Two search requests on the internet website Google produce "as much carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle", according to a Harvard University academic.

Google, of course, immediately disagreed, saying that two search requests produce far less, "only as much carbon dioxide as leaping to conclusions," unless, of course, the search is on whether Tom Brady really proposed this time.

Dr. Wissner-Gross, the Harvard academic, accused Google of manipulating the data by watching the kettle they tried to boil.

It's disheartening to see "scientific" numbers tossed around (7g vs. 0.2g of carbon dioxide released per search) when there's no standard volume for a kettle.

(My blog's gone to pot....)

The kettle pic is from Fante's Kitchen Ware Shop.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Off to see the wizard

Scott McLeod spoke to a group of us Friday explaining why "the jobs you're preparing students for don't exist anymore." He put together some convincing (and scary) data showing employment trends in various sectors. Not surprisingly, the knowledge and creative sectors are taking a bigger chunk out of the available jobs.

More college! More knowledge! More creative thinking! More brains!

We live in a culture that confounds intelligence with training. Our machines are evolving far faster than we can. There are some folks who think maybe amphetamines (Adderall) and modafinil (Provigil) should be considered to improve our productivity--coffee is the new gateway drug. (Both are used in children with attention deficit disorder--even children without ADHD can "benefit", if benefit means improving test scores.)

In the dead of winter, surrounded by walls, flooded by light powered by electrons manipulated by humans, I am drawn into the fray. I float into the monitor, drawn to voices and words and images. I am mesmerized by Emerald Cities, knocking on huge wooden doors with marvelous brass door knockers, hoping my shoes are shiny enough to get me inside the walls.

I scuffed up my shoes sandals a bit yesterday. I went fishing at Poverty Beach in Cape May. The sun hung low in the sky, softened by a threatening storm, as chilly waves rolled up over my feet, the edge of white foam contrasting with pinkening toes.

Nothing and everything makes sense outside. My neocortex cedes to the limbic system; vague surges of pleasure and fear and swirling memories fill my mind, silencing the narrator who usually processes the world for me. The sharp smells--life and death at the sea's edge--remind me I am more than my eyes.

Words cannot describe the world outside. We become the conversation started long before we could speak.

On days like yesterday, I forget the Emerald City exists. On days like yesterday, I forget "I" exist.

My sandy sandals next to the sliding glass patio door remind me that even in January, living is possible.

Biology mini-lesson for the week

Biology: George the Lobster

The BBC is reporting that George, a very old lobster hatched around the time of the Civil War, has been released from its temporary home in a New York City restaurant, where he showed off his magnificent claws to diners munching on his brethren.
Here's George!

PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, objected, and now George is on his way back to the ocean.

PETA's happy:
We applaud the folks at City Crab and Seafood for their compassionate decision to allow this noble old-timer to live out his days in freedom and peace.

The restaurant manager Keith Valenti is happy:
We bought a big lobster, started taking pictures with kids and it worked out real well....We never intended him to be sold, just draw attention to the restaurant, and he did.

Even George will be "very happy" when he returns to the ocean, at least according to PETA.

Sooner or later, should George survive his trip back into the depths, George will get hungry. Lobsters and humans may have varying views of happiness, but we both do the same thing when we need to refuel.

George will grab a bite to eat. Some unwary critter--perhaps Willie the Whelk--will wander too close, and George will will catch it with his magnificent claws. Willie, trapped in George's crushing clasp, will silently struggle in the frigid darkness as George rips Willie apart while the whelk is still alive.

I'm betting Willie's not too happy at that moment. Frank the Fluke and Claire the Crab won't be happy, either, when their turn comes up.

Saving George costs lives. (Saving George creates lives.)

That's the way life works. I'm happy to be part of it.

Pssst, PETA--Lemmy the lobster above may still need to be rescued.
At last report, Lemmy is spending his days at the Weymouth Sea Life Centre across the pond in England

Lemmy photo from Metro here.

Physical science mini-lesson for the week

Physical Science: Perihelion

Every one of my classes gets a lesson (or two or three) on seasons--I think grasping seasons should be a requirement to get a driver's license. (No, it won't make kids better drivers, but my students study everything in the New Jersey driver manual.)

A few days ago I came a close to the sun as I will this year. The Earth is getting hit with more solar energy this week than it will all year (well, barring some end-of-our-world series of X-class solar flare--how cool would that be?)

By July, the Earth will be just a bit over 3 million miles farther from us than it is today. (In elementary school, I was taught over and over that the sun is 93 million miles away, and sometimes it is. Sometimes, though, it's 91 million miles away, and sometimes 95 million.) The Earth's orbit is slightly elliptical.

Now in AP physics you can have all kinds of fun with elliptical orbits and Kepler's law and how fast the planet is "flying" through its orbit. (Astronomical winter is shorter here than in Australia, praise the Lord.) You can talk about albedo and incidence of light and seasons and have a ball figuring out why it happens to average low daily temperature is -4C here in January.

I teach physics "lite", but I will not teach physics "fake". The math for physics can be daunting, but many of the concepts can be worked qualitatively, generating good discussion.

I teach about the seasons, walking around the room carrying a globe, circling one of my wackadoodle's hooded heads assigned to be the sun. (Works even better when I remember to bring a light). I try to place their eyes into the head of an imaginary person stuck onto the globe. (I really need to get some tiny plastic man and set up various velcro'ed spots to stick him.)

Try to act out the angles--spinning yourself at a 23 1/2 degree angle is amusing, if nothing else, but you know some of them get it when they go aha! and grasp that the sun "spins" around, not up and down, the summer Antarctic sky.

Casually mention that the Earth is doing a slow drive-by this time of year and ask how come it's still cold outside. Walk aroung the room again, this time in an exagerrated elliptical orbit.

And if even just one of your wackadoodles starts holding up his palms in various angles to the light, sputtering that light that skips off the Earth (or some other kinesthetic version of trigonometry) doesn't warm it up as well as light that hits it smack on--well, you know at least one got it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Lowly Worm goes to science class

This past week I asked my sophomores which has been evolving longer, humans or earthworms.
Humans--we're more advanced.

I then pick on Larry, and ask him what would happen if I dug a trench, tossed him in it, and required him to get his food munching through the soil.
I'd die.

My sophomores have been students for well over half their lifetimes, and know just enough to get into trouble. They tell me what they think I want to hear.
Oh, earthworms are more advanced.


I paint a silly story about an earthworm enrolling in class, then ask what would happen if the earthworm "sat" at Larry's now vacated desk ands studied CP biology?
Well, it would die!

So who's better adapted for sitting in a classroom in high school?
Larry! Larry's more advanced!

We eventually get to a discussion about adaptations and environment, and at some point the light bulb goes off and a few students realize that if you go back far enough, Larry and the earthworm shared an ancestor, and that both have been evolving as long as the other; neither would fare well in the other's habitat.

While describing the earthworm (blame Richard Scarry for the image), I started to think about just how well adapted a mammal, any mammal, might be to sit in a classroom as it's designed today.

We expect our children to do this. We expect them to listen. We expect them to put away their electronic universes that fit in a palm, devices trained to feed the desires of its master.

I've had several variations of the following chat:
But Dr. D, look!
They wave tiny screens holding an abundance of unfettered images....

But Dr. D, look, it's science!
Amazing images trolled by thumbs, and incredible creatures we rarely discuss dan
ce on the screens.....

But Dr. D, look, it's science, see? It's a....
And it often is--some picture or sound or website describing in detail some aspect of what we've just touched in class.

And I tell them to put it away.

Patrick Higgins was one of the featured speakers today at our Classroom 2.0 workshop. He pointed out we need to start using differentiated technology just as we now use differentiated instruction.

And he's right.

Just maybe next a child shows me something worthwhile on her forbidden hardware, I will ask her to email it, and I will share it next time I toss out pictures of the taiga . (Your grandparents likely saw similar images on a filmstrip, the Powerpoint of the 1950s--we've juiced up the projector, but the images are still the same.)

Better yet, maybe I'll have the courage to let go and let the kids create their own wikis detailing biomes, which they'll share with each other.

Or maybe I'll be insanely brave and spend more time in the classroom encouraging skepticism and developing critical thinking, and trust that a child's ability to find more information in the palm of her hand than I carry on my flash drive (or cortex) matters more than her ability to memorize an old Mongolian word that simply means "forest."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Our kids are being jobbed

Barry Bachenheimer ponders future jobs for our students in his latest entry on his "A Plethora of Technology." He's also putting together a conference scheduled for tomorrow that features Scott McLeod (Dangerously Irrelevant) giving the mini-keynote address "The jobs you're preparing students for don't exist anymore."

I'm getting so confused these days I can hardly tell when something's tongue-in-cheek, though a personal virtual-presence agent is no doubt over the top. Still, the exercise is a useful (and fun) one.

We may well be prepping kids for jobs that will no longer exist in a few years. We step into la-la land, however, when we to train them for imagined jobs that might never exist. I fear we are underestimating where high tech is going while overestimating how much hum
an help will be needed once we get there.

(We now have machines to solve sudoko problems created by machines designed to create sodoko problems. And people use them.)


I teach low-level 9th grade science classes. Most of my students hard-working kids who remain naive enough to believe that they will be doctors and engineers and game designers and NBA stars. A few will be. Most won't.

Even if every child in America was blessed with an IQ of 150, the drive of Thomas Edison, and the wisdom of Abe Lincoln himself, most would not be the engineers and the doctors and the game designers and the NBA stars.

Let's stop pretending.

I'd like to turn the question of future jobs on its head--what skills do children need to learn to survive an age when their "skills" are no longer marketable?

Here's my back-of-an-envelope list, scribbled down quickly:

1) Every child should know how to grow and grind wheat.
2) Every child should know where to find potable water within human-powered distance.
3) Every child should know how to knead bread.
4) Every child should know how to start a fire to bake the bread she has kneaded.
5) Every child should know how to build the oven to hold the heat of the fire he has started.
6) Every child should know how to build a wooden table and chairs to sit when she eats her bread.
7) Every child needs the social skills to have loving relationships to have someone to break bread with.
8) Every child should know how to sing and to play an acoustic instrument, to share sounds with good company.
9) Every child should know how to share stories.
10) Every child should know how to spin yarn, and how to knit his yarn into blankets, to keep him warm when he sleeps with his love, bellies full of bread.
11) Every child should know how a home is built, so each can share their skills when a home needs building.

(Families used to provide most of these, but most adults in this part of the world
have not mastered even half of the list.)

In our rush to create children designed to compete with foreigners to serve the good graces of international corporations, we have forgotten to teach them how to take care of themselves.

All photos by Jessica Pierce of things made by Jessica Pierce--hundreds more things can be seen here. Not all school safe, or at least not safe for teachers.