Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Shunted aside

The kid was acting like an ass.

While it has been known to occur in high school hallways, particularly on hot spring days, especially near the end of the day, this young man was taking assery to a new level.

Then I saw the scar--an old, jagged line on his neck. My brain flipped back into pediatric mode--his head was small, and then I noticed the bulge behind his ear.

He clearly had a shunt--his brain's excess fluid now drains into his abdomen. I saw the preemie sitting in an isolette, fighting to survive. And he did.

Arguing with him about anything seemed silly now.

I smiled--he was momentarily confused, but then he smiled back.

School is an unkind place for those of us with bad brains. I doubt he will pass the HSPA, New Jersey's version of the NCLB test.

Let's call him Jason.


The tide rises, the tide falls.

I live near tidal water. Millions of people do around here. Few feel the tides. Few see the moon's phases. You can get a high school diploma without knowing why either happens, but you better know a little something about algebra.

Jason will not learn algebra. We might be able to get him to memorize an algorithm he doesn't understand in order to get lucky on a few questions on the math part of the state test, but he'll no more use algebra than I'll use a polo mallet.

He can watch the tide rise, fall, then rise again. He can watch the rising water erase his footprints leading to the stone jetty where he sits.

He can see the sea slaters scoot along the rocks. He can watch the barnacles open up as the new tide rewards their faith in stasis. A seagull drops a full oyster onto the jetty a few yards away, until the oyster's shell cracks.

Here he is not judged. Here he is not stupid.


A ventriculo-peritoneal (VP) shunt is a tube place into the ventricles of the brain to allow excess cerebrospinal fluid to drain off into the belly. The ventricles are deep--the tube must pass through brain tissue to get there.

The benefits of the surgery generally outweigh the risks, but the fact remains that Jason has had a tube shoved into his brain, a tube that runs down his neck into his belly.

Many children with VP shunts can pass the HSPA, many cannot. That is not the same thing as saying that many will not.

Some cannot pass the test, no matter how man cartwheels I might do in the classroom.

My former pastor once mentioned in a sermon that our ability to read and write makes us more, well, human.

Last thing I need is another pissing match with a pastor, but the corollary is that the less literate among us are missing something. Maybe they are.

How much are we missing because of our literacy? How many of us can see beyond titles and deeds? How many of us spent today chasing symbols, rearranging them, analyzing them, fixing them for a boss, or sweetening them for a lover, or changing truths so they fit more smugly into our internal worlds?

How many of us sat on a jetty today watching the tide rise, then fall, then rise again?

Would it have been a waste of time if you had?

The VP shunt diagram was lifted from the Schneider Children's Hospital website here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

The cherry trees surprised me this year, which they do every year. The dead branches erupt in impossible light, and the blossoms throw off a scent that wraps around your brain. Within hours, I believe the blossoms have always been here, and I believe they will always be here, and what I believe is true.

For an eternal day or two the ground is covered with petals, the trees are covered with petals, and I'm so buzzed with life I forget to fear death.

And just as true, a wet northeast breeze comes through and washes away the petals, as it has the last couple of days, and the eternal blossoms are replaced by a mortal tree, and I cannot remember how spectacular the blossoms were.


This Saturday musicians and farmers and writers and barkeeps and drivers and all kinds of folks who pay attention to things will gather at a garden center in Ann Arbor and honor the spirit of my sister Mary Beth. There will be dancing and a costume party and maybe even a parade, and it will be fun.

The last time I touched my sister, early summer not so long ago, a few rough pieces of her stuck to the wheat straw I had been nibbling on when what was left of her sat on my lap as David and I trucked through the dark orchard up the hill to where she would be scattered.

We drank from the bottle of wine that had survived the crash, poured the last bit for her, then headed down the hill.

I chewed on the straw, as I will, and was momentarily puzzled by its grittiness.


Today is Earth Day.

Fritz Haber invented the process of fixing nitrogen in air with hydrogen from methane to make ammonia, allowing humans to make ungodly amounts of fertilizer and bombs. He won a Nobel Prize, and his technique has "freed" humans from natural cycles that once limited food production.

Fritz Haber is also the father of chemical warfare; when chlorine gas was first used in battle in the Great War at Ypres in 1915, he was there to witness it.

Today I talked to my students about Haber's deeds, including his work with poisonous gases. His work with nitrogen is indirectly responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Life gets tricky that way.

We are responsible for what we do, and we are also responsible for what we choose to know. Mary Beth gently reminded me of that many times before her death, and continues to remind me now.

It is easy to forget the cherry blossoms when they are no longer here, but that does not make them any less real. It is also easy to forget where your oil or your water or your beef comes from, but forgetting does not make them any less real, either.

The cherry tree photo is by Amanda Brown of the Star-Ledger--we live near one of the most beautiful collections of cherry trees in the world--Branch Brook Park, Newark, NJ.

(No, I won't be there--give me a few more years.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bottling day

Last summer's blueberries are now sitting in brown bottles, waiting for June. The blueberries are in communion with nectar collected by bees.

Honey, fruit, water, yeast, and time.

It takes about two million flowers to make a pound of honey. 5 gallons of mead takes about 15 million flowers. A bee makes about 50 to 100 trips each time she wanders away from the hive collecting nectar.

150,000 bees collected nectar and converted it to honey. Millions upon millions of yeast converted the honey to ethanol and carbon dioxide.

My job? Just make sure the honey and the water and the blueberries and the yeast end up together in the same bucket, and once started, keep oxygen out.

Pretty simple, very good.


I got my first quahogs of the season yesterday. A quahog leaves a keyhole in the sand--one siphon in, one siphon out. Last spring I could not tell a quahog hole from a skimmer hole--now I can. Good news for me, not so good news for the quahogs.

I wandered about the flats in Villas looking for a keyhole. I saw hundreds, maybe thousands, of holes left by jackknifes and razor clams, but no keyholes.

I wandered a couple hundred yards from the high tide detritus. Then I saw it. I jammed my hand into the sand, and my fingers recognized the firmness of the quahog. Spring has arrived.

Making mead is simple; eating clams more so. Open, then eat.

One was chowder sized, not much smaller than my fist, and not much younger than me. The other was somewhat younger, maybe 10 years old.

I took them home, put them in the fridge for a couple of hours, then tossed them back in the bay just after sunset. Won't be long before I get a mess of them for dinner.

Pretty simple, very good.


So why do we teach?

Few of my children know what a quahog is, and even fewer care.

I am willing to bet Bill Gates never dug up a quahog, but he thinks he knows enough to teach your children. I bet Melinda hasn't clammed either.

They have a lot of money clams. They want to teach your children. They have a foundation--the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (how cute is that?):

The foundation’s education work in the United States is focused on two major initiatives: ensuring that all students graduate from high school ready for college and a new effort to improve postsecondary education so that more students earn a degree or certificate with genuine economic value.

"Genuine economic value."

Not sure what that means--Treasury bills? Stock in Microsoft? A killer instinct?

Here's the deal, Bill. We are still attached to our land, the placenta for those of us who have wandered from the womb. Technology, high or low, does not change that connection.

A quahog has genuine economic value. The quahog has protein and sugars and can keep me alive. It also happens to be delicious. I can now get them from a tidal flat to my kitchen with a little bit of knowledge and some low-tech tools (kayak, paddle, bucket, rake).

I doubt Bill Gates has eaten shellfish fresher than I have, unless he carries a knife on a tidal flat. If he did, though, he wouldn't be trumpeting "genuine economic values" as the vague modern notion that it is.

He'd be trumpeting clams.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The edges of the sea

I wandered up to Maine for a couple of days to visit a kind and brilliant clan that has made its home up there, and returned with a belly full of oysters and a head full of stories.

The Reilly's have a six year old; formal education is no longer a theoretical concern. He's quite bright, his parents are sane, and he's surrounded by tidal water, so I'm not worried about him, but education came up a bit, enough to push some Maine into a post here.


The Reilly's live a stone's throw from the rocky coast--the sea spills up over the rocks at high tide, and some gets trapped as the water ebbs.

In the cold salty puddles lies another our world. There's a "special" tide pool just down the road--The Rachel Carson Salt Pond. Rachel Carson, of course, wrote Silent Spring, exposing the pesticide industry's tendency to expose us.

I'd still be there now if Mr. Reilly had not dragged me away for tea.

Humans like boundaries. We like borders and lines and straight thoughts. We like to categorize and sort. We like our flour canisters larger than our sugar.

Many of us earn a living based on boundaries. Surveyors and border guards are obvious boundary careerists, accountants less so.

The masters? Public school teachers. Draw enough lines this way (not that way!) and you advance. How many parent/teacher conferences have been called to analyze the boy who refuses to color within the lines. (He can do it, he just won't!)?

Rachel Carson was vilified by the chemical industry for reminding people that pesticides do not respect boundaries. DDT designed for mosquitoes does a wonderful job killing mosquitoes, but it refuses to go away once its job is done. The boundaries are in our heads, and now "persistent organic pollutants" are in our milk. Human milk.

Breast tissue is mostly fat. Many organic pollutants are lipophilic, literally "fat loving."

The chemical industry got the laugh last--Carson died of breast cancer, a disease that has more than doubled here in the States since 1940. That we even divide a body into parts shows how bounded we are. Doctors do not rip off a piece of you, they simply remove a breast, as though superfluous.

Few true boundaries exist in nature. Getting beyond the tropopause is a trick for us, but molecules manage to bumble their way beyond it anyway without our help. The only wall there is in our imagination.

Carson spent a good chunk of hours at a particular tide pool, but not because it was the Rachel Carson Salt Pond. That did not exist. Oh, the tide pool existed, but people do not come to visit the tide pool. They come to visit a shrine, the Rachel Carson Salt Pond.

People drive past hundreds, thousands, of tide pools to get to this one, the one tamed by a sign and a sense of history. Visiting shrines and checking off lists makes us feel good--why else do it? While you're feeling accomplished, let the little one wander a bit.


The Rachel Salt Pond makes for a great school field trip, but don't ruin it.

Don't tell the kids all about Rachel Carson and DDT and chemicals, not yet.
Don't tell them "If you're lucky you will see a this or a that...."
Don't teach them the names of the algae or the whelks or the urchins.
Don't blabber on about the history of the Conservancy and the Pemaquid Lighthouse.

Just tell enough to assure they won't drown or bleed the first 5 minutes they arrive.

Maybe, just maybe, a child will get the same rush I got mindlessly watching an emerald sandworm undulating through the water. Mindlessly.

We need more mindlessness in school.

(And now my mind breaks in--what causes the rush? Oxytocin?)


This part of Maine is a long way from big city natural history museums. Ms. Reilly worries a bit about getting her tadpole to a museum.

She need not worry. Natural history museums are for folks who cannot get their kids to tide pools.

The sign was taken from a UC Berkeley site.
The picture of the Rachel Carson Salt Pond is by Steven Erat here, which he has generously granted a Creative Commons license.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Why we teach

I just got a phone call from Leslie, who is at an environmental conference in Newark. Leslie bumped into a woman I worked with years ago, Ms. Dorothy Knauer, a community activist who can (and has) moved mountains. Ms. Knauer updated Leslie on a Newark high school student who had spent a summer with me about 15 years ago.

Dr. Hunte is now a professor at Purdue University. Let me make one thing absolutely clear--Haslyn was one of those kind of high school students who shine no matter who is in their lives. I have nothing to do with his success, but am beaming ear to ear anyway.

I was a pediatrician at the time I met Haslyn. He wanted to do something on the Big Blue Bus (our pediatric mobile medical unit). Sure, fine, I said, not expecting much.

Within a month, Haslyn was running a survey with an educational component on breast-feeding by impoverished mothers. Had I known how brilliant and hard-working he was, I would have stopped him long before I had to explain to administration why I was doing human studies on my patients without consent from the Institutional Review Board. Had he published his results, I would have been toast.

Dr. Hunte wanted to go into medicine at the time. He would have made a fine physician, but his decision to go into public health will prove far more useful to far more people than any medical practice.

Dr. Hunte's research?
Dr. Hunte’s main area of research is population health, focusing on racial/ethnic disparities in health. Using a multidisciplinary system approach, Dr. Hunte seeks to bridge the gap between the social and biological sciences by understanding health as a result of complex and dynamic interactions between physiological, behavioral, psychological, and sociodemographic factors. Dr. Hunte's current research activities include (a) studying the impact of perceived discrimination as a psychosocial stressor on health outcomes and on maladaptive coping health behaviors, such as smoking, drinking and substance use/abuse and (b) the impact that Black Caribbeans in the U.S. may have on the observed Black-White disparities in various health outcomes.

A tiny piece of me hopes that Dr. Hunte's summer on the pediatric van helped focus his career choices.

I will say this, though--my time with Haslyn, teaching a young man a little bit about medicine, helped foment my teaching career. Working with a student as blessed as Dr. Hunte was then (and now) made me realize how intoxicating teaching can be.

Thank you, Dr. Hunte--you changed my life.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A dead deer's rib cage

One of the interesting things about fishing in tidal waters is that you get to see a lot of things most folks miss. I spend a lot of time under bridges. Today I was under the bridge where Route 109 leads into Cape May.

I stumbled upon a dead deer there, its still furry head turned awkwardly towards its magnificent rib cage. No meat was left.

The huge rib cage dwarfed the rest of the dead creature. Deer have a simple survival strategy--run. They need oxygen, and lots of it.


I went fishing today. I slaughtered 10 clams, and fed a few fish. I hooked none. The clams were tough to open. When threatened, clams have a simple survival strategy--they, well, clam up.

The only visible living thing I hooked was a chain of whelk eggs--the embryonic whelk oozed onto my hand like the raw eggs they were. Whelks eat clams.

Call it a draw.


We are starting to use UbD--Understanding by Design--here in Bloomfield. It was developed by Grant Wiggins, and he's made a cottage industry (and a lot of money) out of it. It's useful, but not new.

Part of our task is to develop essential questions. I need to develop a few for evolution.

I considered this one:
Were humans inevitable?

It's not a good essential question because the answer is, evolutionarily, a simple no. We are not inevitable. And we are not permanent.


What is our survival strategy?

In terms of a few generations, our brains are an advantage. In terms of a few generations, our opposable thumbs are an advantage.

Humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) have not been around that long, maybe 10,000 generations, not even 200,000 years.

Our intelligence may ultimately be the end of us.

More than a few human cultures, Homo sapiens sapiens cultures, have been sustainable, at least until other Homo sapiens sapiens cultures intervened.

How do we teach this? How do we not?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Magical thinking

Here's a problem I gave my students on a test last year:
Dr. Doyle walks to school every morning--is he contributing carbon dioxide to the air?
How is his carbon dioxide "different" from a car's carbon dioxide?
Why does this difference matter as far as global warming is concerned.

(If I could have the last question back, I would ask "Why does this difference matter as far as CO2 levels are concerned?" I want my lambs to draw their own conclusions.)

We had tossed this question around in class in various forms, so I thought I was throwing the kids a softball.

Apparently I breathe out "good" CO2, the kind that plants use for photosynthesis, and cars belch out "bad" CO2, the kind that cooks the planet.

I have a long way to go before I can call myself a good teacher....


The New York Times reported old news yesterday--traces of perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient, is in baby formula. I suppose it's news because you get to say "rocket fuel" and "baby formula" in the same sentence.

The effects? Not known.

We'll talk about it over dinner, at least until tomorrow, when someone kills 13 hostages, or Monday, when the NCAA March madness ends.


I do not expect that my students will know much content when they leave my class. Oh, they'll know enough content to pass a state test, and they might even retain a Newtonian law or two, but that's not why I teach.

A student frustrated by a physics problem asked me Wednesday "Why do we have to learn any of this anyway?"

I stopped the lesson.
How much water are you supposed to drink in a day?
"8 glasses."
Not true!

"No? But that's what everybody says..."
People are making stuff up, some might even be lying.
Which w
ater has higher standards for purity, the tap water or the bottled water?

"Um, the bottled water?"
Try again. And which costs more, much more.
Ah, she knew this one--"The bottled water!"

I then discussed ranted for a couple of minutes about how children will be told a lot of things to buy and vote and live in ways not necessarily in their best interests and, after catching my breath, told them:
I don't give a rat's butt [yes, I say "rat's butt" in class] if you remember any of these equations in July. You take science class to learn how to examine evidence, to learn how to think. It's not the only way to think, but it's a very effective one.
My first miracle: no one rolled their eyes.


Here's another question I asked last year, and again this week. It's a multiple choice question, one easily tested while taking a test.

If you blow between two sheets of paper, what is most likely to happen?

a. The sheets move apart.
b. The sheets move together.
c. It cannot be predicted.

If you do not know the answer, try it. Last year I had a student try it 7 or 8 times during the test. I finally made him stop because it was starting to distract the others.

He got the answer wrong despite seeing with his own eyes that when you blow between two sheets of paper, they come together.

How did you get it wrong?
"Well, I saw that they went together, but that didn't make sense, so I put down the answer I thought you would say was right."

This is what we train our children to do.


Has anyone who supports the No Child Left Behind Act actually read it?

All students will reach high standards,
at a minimum attaining proficiency or better
in reading and mathematics by 2013-2014.

Now in our magical thinking world, all does not mean 100%--I think it's about 97%. Up to 3% of the disabled children will be allowed to "pass" through some modified version.

This would be comical if kids were not hurt. Kids are being hurt.

Jackson, a student in the Seattle school district, has hydrocephalus. He is markedly disabled. He cannot pass the state mandated test.

Everybody in education needs to be aware of Jackson's story, reported here on KUOW.

His mother asked Jackson's teachers not to give him the test, a test his mother, his teachers, and his teachers' administrators all know he will fail.

His mother explains her reasoning--that she even has to explain it shows how twisted we have become.

I mean, it's not like a one–day test. I mean, it's basically from December to March, they have to constantly do stuff for this test that my son's gonna get a zero on. He's not learning anything. And I know for a fact if my teacher thought for one second that he would get anything out of this experience, she would do it.
Rachel McKean

The teachers were suspended. They acted in the child's best interests. The administrators have not (yet) blinked. They are acting in the school district's best interests, which no longer align with the students' best interests because of NCLB.

Rachel McKean is a brave woman. Jackson's teachers acted professionally--given our timidity as a profession, acting professionally requires courage, more than many of us have.

I have several hypotheses about how our fabled democratic body could enact a law that expects 100% proficiency by 2013. Perhaps it was a political ploy hatched by some clever bogeymen designed to dismantle public schools. Maybe "our" representatives had a collective transient psychotic break and did not know what they were voting for. Maybe few of them actually read the bill.

My best guess? Our Congress fell to the allure of magical thinking, and put on their ruby slippers, clicked them three times, and truly believed that if proficiency was legislatively mandated, Jackson could learn to read before he gets to fifth grade.

We all need to put away our ruby slippers and put on our hip boots--the excrement is starting to reek.