Monday, May 25, 2009


We are winding up the year --the state "end of course" exams have come and gone, but we still have a few weeks to go.

We have started using Understanding by Design, part of which requires crafting essential questions for each unit. For evolution I asked if humans were inevitable.

Some of the children were understandably upset by the question--good questions will do that. Next year I may tone it down a bit, perhaps ask if wallabies or bees or amoeba or turtles were inevitable. It's really the same question.


I teach in a public high school in a mixed town, but most of our students come from clans that follow either the story of Isaac or Ishmael, both, of course, sons of Abraham. Origins matter.

Several times this year our classes have stumbled on the edge of what is known, or even empirically knowable. How did life start?

Evolution gets you here once you have the primordial ooze teeming with life, but it does not answer the question. The cell theory tells you each cell came from a pre-existing cell, it's turtles all the way down, but it also does not answer the question: how did the spark arise?

I do not know. I am fifty and I do not know, nor will I in my lifetime.

I do know this much, though--I know life ends.


I like to fish, and I like to eat fish. I do not, however, like to slaughter fish. Killing a fish squirming in your hand removes ambiguity--it was alive, it is now dead, I killed it.

I kill hundreds, thousands of organisms every day, as most of us do. We drive. We use coal. We eat industrial food raised using industrial methods. We bathe in chlorinated water. We swipe anti-bacterial deodorants under our arms without thinking.

Killing a vertebrate with my hands, however, still gives me pause.

Stun the fish, then bleed it. Put it on ice. Sounds simple, until you feel the muscle writhing in your grasp.

The western option is to ignore the whole act.

That's why most of us die in institutions now.


When I was a pediatric cardiology fellow, we had an infant that had a bad heart with a good brain. Fixing the heart required multiple surgeries, with no guarantee of success. The family opted not to fix it. After heated discussion, consensus was reached, and the baby went home.

The baby died at home, not unexpectedly.

The father then brought the baby back to the hospital, and once in the nursery announced he had his dead son in his arms. I was called to "fix" the situation.


I was ill last week--not ill enough to stop me, but enough to remind me that energy is a gift. I did most of what is expected of me, but not all.

I'm mortal, as we all are, but it's not something discussed much in the classroom.

Where did the first cells come from? A science question.
Can we replicate it? A technological question.
Should we? An ethical question.
Why? A religious one.

So I teach the cell theory, point out its flaw, and then teach evolution and defend its perceived "flaws." Life might be inevitable, but we're certainly not.

The snow peas are on the bush, the first strawberries are reddening. Taste one, then the other, and the machine, this machine, matters less.

Taste them again, and this machine no longer matters at all.

I may be spending less time here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Newtonian poetry

Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

In which shine
the broken

pieces of a green

William Carlos Williams

I hated poetry in elementary school, junior high, and just started enjoying it the second half of high school (and loved it once I met Leslie, a poet).

Imagine a lesson plan on William Carlos Williams.
SWBAT dissect and analyze a poem

Student will work in pairs to dissect the poem and find glorious hidden meanings in this mysterious, haunting piece; students will create Powerpoint storyboard unlocking the code revealing what the author meant.

Read the poem again. (And again, and again if it resonates with you, otherwise don't waste your time.)

High school can kill poetry, but that's obvious, and an easy target.

What would I do if I were Superintendent of the World?

Read the poem. Rest. Don't think too much. Read it again. Rest. Don't think too much, at least not with your cortex. Rest some more. Now, if you want to read it again, go read it again.

Don't worry about how it might affect you. Be aware when it does, but don't force it.

If you don't want to read it again, don't. It will lie on a shelf somewhere waiting for the few of you who will want to read it a few decades later.

High school kills science the same way.

Gravity is like a William Carlos Williams poem. It just is.

Let the kids drop things for a minute, rest, for 5 minutes, rest, for a half hour. Rest.

Remind them about the planets spinning around the sun, about tides, about the shape of galaxies. With lots of rest, of course.

Then, maybe, just maybe, throw this at them, not because it explains gravity (it does not), but because it has faithfully predicted for us what this mysterious force will do anytime, anywhere, as far as we know.

You don't have to know the equation to grasp the concept; indeed, a lot of kids know the equation but don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about gravity. If they did, you'd hear "Awesome!" a lot more than you hear "Will this be on the test?"

Yes, this is Newtonian physics, and call Williams' words Newtonian poetry. Save quantum physics and Thomas Pynchon for college--neither has much to do with day to day living.

The gravity gif was lifted from Hyperphysics at Georgia State University here.
You cannot "steal" a Williams poem.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Three new students signed up for the Bloomfield High School Sidewalk Astronomers Club yesterday.

Last night they joined me outside. I grumbled (as I will) about the clouds, about the finderscope being misaligned, about none of the regular members showing up. (To be fair, the North Jersey Astronomy Group was meeting, and my more reliable charges were hanging out with the hardcore Essex County astronomers.)

I fixed the finderscope, aligning it with a street lamp, the clouds parted, and there was Saturn, glorious Saturn. Despite the light pollution, Saturn shone through, as it will.

Did you ever watch ecstatic adolescents? They shout, they dance, they lose all self consciousness, and they remind me why teaching matters.

Last night on the corner of an urban block three young men jumped and whooped around a mirror, celebrating Saturn.

In a few decades they will not remember adenosine triphosphate or quadratic equations or (even) me.

But they will not forget Saturn.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Testing one...two...three

This week starts the state's misnamed EOC ("end" of course) Biology Assessment--our students do not finish until June 18th, and Bloomfield's schedule is not unusual.

My biology students will be taking the performance assessment part on Wednesday designed by the New Jersey Performance Alliance Assessment (NJPAA) project, a collection of education experts, politicians, and businesses.

From their lovely fully colored 157 page 2009 manual:
All high school students enrolled in any biology/life science course during the 2007-2008 school year was [sic] required to participate in the end-of-course assessment regardless of year in high school.
NJPAA Performance Assessment for Science Teachers Manual, p. 14

Well, hey, this is science education, and grammar is sooo 20th century.

The colors highlighted all kinds of wonderful fluids in beakers lovingly gazed upon by young students without protective eyewear!


Before I get my non-tenured butt too exposed here, let me reiterate my appreciation for any attempt to foster critical thinking in the classroom.

I keep reminding myself it's a field test.
I keep reminding myself it's well intentioned.

And then I read last year's test again, and my mood darkens.

Last year's prompt involved mating horseshoe crabs to produce antibodies that could be used to test an antihistamine because "your company has developed a new antihistamine that could help many people who suffer from allergies, colds, and the flu."

This was a week after I discussed why antihistamines may not be effective for viruses.
"Um, Dr. D you said...."
Yes, I did, but just answer the question as well as you can.
"What's a freakin' horseshoe crab anyway?"
I'll show you a picture of one tomorrow....

Now those of you who happen to live by the annual orgy at the shore can laugh at the rest of Jersey's lack of intimate knowledge of horseshoe crabs, but most of my students have no idea what a horseshoe crab is. It doesn't help when I tell them it's not really a crab.

I thought about drawing one on the board, but I was not sure if that was within the guidelines of clarifying questions, and a badly drawn horseshoe crab can get into the kind of biology that gets teachers in trouble.

It gets worse.

[T]here are only four (4) adult horseshoe crabs that are available for breeding and all four have different genotypes.... The four original horseshoe crabs have these genotypes and sex:
HH: Male Hh: Male HH: Female Hh: Female

"Uh, Dr. Doyle, I only see two genotypes here."
Do the best you can.
(I am crumbling inside--I can only see two as well--HH and Hh; a year later and I still only see two.)

These adult horseshoe crabs produce approximately ten thousand (10,000) eggs in a single mating. On average, one thousand (1000) eggs hatch and only one hundred (100) survive to adulthood. One-half of the surviving crabs will be male and one-half will be female.
(Please don't ask me under what conditions, please don't ask me under what conditions, please don't ask me under what conditions...I cannot believe I am praying to the god of uncontrolled experiments after preaching to my class the importance of defining all parameters in an experiment.)
"Um, Mister Doctor D?"
I know what's coming....sigh.
"Are these numbers in the lab or in the wild?"
I don't know, do the best you can.
I know it will get better. I do value the intent. We spend a lot of time in class and in lab developing critical thinking.

It's a hard thing to test, but an important one.
It's still just a field test, and it's going to get better.
I do not mind pushing my students to their limits.

Next year put safety glasses on the students in the manual, and use a more ubiquitous Jersey critter, say a mosquito, and I will blog about things that matter.

UPDATE: This year's test was much improved. I may revisit this once the test is released to the public.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Spring dinner

Lettuce from the garden, planted during a cool, gray day in March, winter's last gasp. Lettuce seeds are tiny, tiny enough that in March I doubt they will grow. Every year I doubt, and every year they grow anyway.

Clams from a back bay mudflat, exposed by the ebbing tide of a full Flower Moon. My fingers found them in the mud, as though my hands evolved just to caress them.

Basil plucked from seedlings that spent most of their first few weeks under humming fluorescent lights in the basement. I should have waited a week or two, but I did not.

Blueberry mead from berries harvested last June, mixed with honey sent by Dave in Michigan, bottled a few weeks ago. The exhausted yeast sit like primordial ooze on the bottom of each bottle, waiting to wake up again.


Eating truly fresh food drags us back into the life cycle.

When I harvest clams, I rake up a bit of mud. A clam rake is heavy and sharp. I accidentally impaled horseshoe crabs and moon snails when I was less experienced.

When I am raking, I become intensely aware of life. As I paddle back home, some mud on the tines of my rake start to dry out, and I think about the thousands of organisms now dying, trapped in a tiny blob of mud.

Yesterday I made a mistake I will not make again. As I was cleaning the mud off my clams, I tossed them one by one into a pile on the edge of the Delaware Bay. One landed on the pile, and I heard it crack. A flake of shell fell away like a chipped tooth; the clam protruded part of its flesh as though inspecting the damage, then withdrew.

It lived long enough to be eaten.

We had a few extras, so this morning I tossed them back, but not before slaughtering four more.

I went striped bass fishing this morning with my remaining clams and my clam knife.

I had a club with me. If I had caught a legal bass (they must be at least 28"), I would have struck it unconscious, then lifted its gill cover to cut its gill arch. The fish, unconscious but not dead, its heart still beating, would then have bled to death, scarlet blood mixing with the ocean, feeding plankton I cannot see.

I do not enjoy slaughtering, but I do not hide from it, either.

It is easier to toss a fish in a bucket of sea water, and let it stew in its own carbon dioxide. It may even be less barbaric. It is not, however, less cruel.

A big chunk of teaching biology is showing how life works. Not pretending. Not hiding. Not rationalizing. On a good day, not even explaining.

Just showing.

Robert Frost does this. So does Galway Kinnell.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Volunteer seedlings

My garden is overrun with chamomile and strawberries. I could pretend that this has something to do with my hours upon hours in the garden, but my time there is mostly spent staring at bugs, chasing snakes, and reading bad novels.

I planted a few strawberry plants a long time ago, and over the years they have wandered to the patches best suited for them, thumbing their runners at me the few times I tried to change their minds.

A couple of years ago I carefully nurtured a couple of chamomile plants, intending to harvest some leaves for tea. One survived despite my care and now I have a backyard full of lacy seedlings, and every one of them germinated without my help.


Now and again I'll stumble on a high school kid who knows what she likes. They're rare. Knowing what you truly love requires a lot of faith at any age.

Words mold us--we are social critters, and folks trying to make a buck depend on this.

A child today has access to all kinds of music and words and pictures and thoughts. Still, most of them follow a narrow, shared path, steered by the words of strangers.

I am not talking about the children striving to be obvious, to be seen, the child who changes hats every few weeks.

Among the children are a few, often quiet, who put their time in the school building while creating interesting lives outside pursuing what they love. Interesting children become interesting adults, despite what I do to them in the classroom.

I became a better gardener when I learned to let the plants tell me what worked best. I might do well to consider doing the same in the classroom.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Vote me off Study Island

It's not often that I am accused of "misrepresenting the mission and values of" anything, yet Mr. Tim McEwen, the CEO of Study Island, did just that today.

I do not know what the missions and values of the corporate folk over on the island. I suspect that their primary mission is to make money, and I've lived in this land long enough to know not to question that--in turn, I ask Mr. McEwen not to ride some mythical high horse. He makes a fatuous accusation. I will respond with his own company's words.

Nashworld has already made a spirited defense in the comments of the last post, but there's still plenty to chew on.
And yes, I am having fun.

I stand behind my words--teachers monitoring a child's time on-line is more creepy than Santa's Naughty or Nice fetish. Let us be clear--we are talking about 9 year olds.

This is from a Study Island Training Manual:

When introducing Study Island to students, be sure to communicate the data that is available to teachers on what they do. This will help hold them accountable for all they do in the program.

Create a fake student user and record some stats under that user. Then, in class, pull up the reports that are recorded for that fake student on a projector screen.
Go through the stats with the students and show them all of the stats that teachers can pull such as time spent on each topic, missed questions, etc.

By doing this, you will be demonstrating that work in Study Island is tracked and off task behavior should decrease.

Dana is a third grader. She can show her age without using all her fingers. She is a child. She worships her teacher. She has dry heaves at night because of your program.

Tell me how creating a fake user account to demonstrate her teacher's power differs from bullying?

It gets better. Suppose it's May, 78 degrees outside, and some slick tyke elects to blow through the test bank.

If the website senses that the child might (*gasp*) be guessing, it will automatically activate a "guessing detector" that forces the child to wait 10 seconds before allowing the child to enter an answer.

10 seconds of staring at a frozen screen. Welcome to power, little one.

Still not sold?

You can convert the questions to a game called the "Splat Game." Children must get their lady bug across the road before a car runs over it, hence the, um, splat.

Mr. McEwen, do you have any children under your roof? Do you see Dana as anything more than part of your market share?

Moreover, doing well on high stakes assessments is a by-product of content mastery gained through Study Island, not a goal in and of itself.

I'm all ears--how is Study Island more than a test bank tailored specifically to state testing?
What appeal does Study Island hold for administrators beyond a promise of improving their students' test scores?

I do not want to minimize the pressure felt by administrators today--the NCLB goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 reflects either an inexplicable grasp of math by our previous administration or a cagey attempt to cripple public education. (Maybe both?)

You are providing a service. No need to hide behind a banner of righteousness or chase after a small-time blogger with some nonsense about misrepresenting values.

Hey, I'm a retired board certified pediatrician--why not offer me a reasonable fee to endorse your product? It's a win-win.

I get a little pocket change. You get a bona fide pediatric endorsement.

And Dana? Hey, she's just a neurotic 9 year old who's going to be tested no matter what we do. We're just here to help.


It's in our mission statement.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Study Island

Leslie just came back from a visit with a friend from a neighboring town. Andrea has a child in elementary school. Dana is gifted. She is an A student. And she spends hours on "Study Island."

The folks at Study Island keep track of Dana's answers. They keep track of how much time she spends there. They make this information available to Dana's teachers and administrators. Dana can see a timer window ticking off her time as she becomes a more productive consumer, preparing to compete in the global economy.

Her teacher monitors her time on-line. She has been up as late as 11 P.M. trying to satisfy her teacher's requirements.

Study Island is owned by a company in Dallas, Texas--the company brags about the " 960,134 sessions administered per day." They tout their competitive pricing, failing to see the true costs.

Dana may indeed do a little better on the state tests. I suppose the tears and upset tummy are worth all this, because education is all about the test scores, and life is all about out-competing the less-than-American children involved in the global economy.

While Dana works on Study Island, I play on Cape May Island. This past weekend I managed to get stung by a wasp, poked by an errant hook, pinched by a tiny crab, chilled by walking in the surf while it rained.

Meanwhile Dana logged in time on Study Island.

I wasted time watching dolphins eat no more than 10 yards away from me. I dawdled away a sunset or two. I planted some basil that germinated on my dining room table, decidedly less efficient than buying seedlings at the local Megamart.

Meanwhile Dana logged in time on Study Island.

I wasted time trading stories with other adults wiling away time at the ocean's edge. Thankfully the children are kept safe, tucked behind screens, preparing for a real life.

Meanwhile Dana logged in time on Study Island.

On the beach life consumes life--the sun's energy now warms up the local waters, energy that might, in a few months, fuel hurricanes. Summer is a dangerous time--sunburn, jelly fish, and errant drivers.

No worries, though--our Secretary of Education hopes to make summer less dangerous for Dana by extending school:

"Go ahead and boo me," Duncan told about 400 middle- and high-school students at a public school in Denver. "I fundamentally think that our school day is too short, our school week is too short and our school year is too short.

"You're competing for jobs with kids from India and China. I think schools should be open six, seven days a week; 11, 12 months a year."

I'm not sure how much Dana is learning on Study Island, but she's learning this much--her time belongs to others, and others will make sure she does not waste it.

Back when I was a child, I had to worry about God, Santa, and angels peering over my shoulder. As weird as that sometimes felt, I doubt it could compare with knowing your teacher is monitoring you at home.

That's just creepy.