Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Our neighbor's father died last night after a brief but ravaging illness.

The usual laughter rising over the fence has been missing the last few weeks, and I suspect it will be some time before it returns.

An earlier thunderstorm cleaned the air, as they do in Jersey, and the azure dusk sky marked the last few hours of June. My tiny pond was already wrapped in gray shadows, everything but the sky bled of color except for the occasional cool fire of a lightning bug.

The end of June marks the start of the dying of the light, punctuated by the mourning next door.

I turned to go back inside, then turned back again. I did not want June to end.

On top of the stockade fence separating our yards is a small platform I built a couple of years ago, a place for my potted plants to grab a little more light. (A maple tree keeps growing, and my garden now falls under its shade.)

A forgotten prickly pear sits in a cracked pot--I've had it for years, given to me by a friend I've not chatted with in a long while. After winter the plant looks dead, shriveled, and every year it surprises me.

I gazed up over the fence to catch the last blue light of the fading sky, and my eye caught a hint of yellow on top of the fence.

The prickly pear had flowered, first time ever.

I can hypothesize about the why. I can postulate that the extra light the cactus now gets triggered some photoperiodic phenomenom. I could look up some articles on the internet to sate my curiosity.

But I won't.

I know this much--an good man who has led a good life dies, and before the next sunset, a cactus that felt the vibrations of the man's voice bloomed.

I also know that the flesh of this cactus holds some of the carbon that once flowed in this man's blood--parts of the flower came from inside his mitochondria, in the deepest cells in his body when he still breathed.Literally.

I have my own private beliefs concerning this particular cactus blooming this particular hour.

It's easy to watch the symphony of life outside, as though we're not part of all this, as though we're special, immortal.

We are not.

I need to call the person who broke off the cactus pad years ago, plopped it on a pot, and assured me it would grow. June is almost gone. It's later than I realize.

Prickly pear photo by the EPA, 1972, in the public domain via the National Archives.

My "listen and learn" tour

This is a cheap post, but I want to make sure I'm not missing something.
I lifted it from my previous post, a bit ranty even for me.

If anyone can show me Arne Duncan, our national Secretary of Education, equating public education with maintaining a functional democracy (as opposed to maintaining global economic standing) I'd be much obliged.

Thank you.

The photo is from the DOE website, in public domain--
the crude cartoon ballon is my first attempts at this using GIMP.

Preparing for the global cocktail party

As easily as we forget how little we know, we're even better at forgetting what children don't know.

Imagine a child who spends her life at cocktail parties. Her mother carries her on her hip the first few months, pushes her in a special party stroller the next year or two, then allows the child to wander among the adults as a toddler, picking up snippets of conversation.

She's develop a cute cocktail personality, might even comment on the stock market, on derivatives, on the price of petroleum. She could rattle off an opinion on the financial melt down and tsk the current administrations health plans as she downs her third Shirley Temple of the evening.

Like most folks in the room babbling on about the same things, she's know near nothing. So long as the cocktails keep coming and voices keep humming, no one notices, no one cares.

Sometimes I feel like were training our children for one long cocktail party....

I cannot compete with cocktail parties. Cocktail parties numb the cortex and feed the limbus. A good party makes everyone feel good just to feel good. There's a reason the pretty folks thinking pretty thoughts drink pretty drinks.


Children, of course, cannot easily use ethanol to numb their thoughts, but we've provided plenty of tools that work about as effectively--iPods, Vidego 28s, and iPAQs take your child places that exist only in human imagination.

The human imagination is truly a wonderful gift, but it pales next to the life outside your window. Or inside your window. Even on your skin or your rug.

I just had to have the new iPhone 3GS
with its native-voice recognition system
...do you have one?

So we "invest in our economic future by providing the high-quality education our kids need to compete in the global economy."

Oh, yes, Arne said that, mmm, that handsome devil,
I saw him say that on CNN, marvelous man,
We do need to protect our 401ks.

'Scuse me while I freshen up my glass.

A good science education might just be incompatible with Arne's aims.
A decent education might get some children to question our assumptions.

Science education promotes a living democracy by helping to create citizens capable of critical thought and healthy skepticism. I may be naive, but I believe that's why public schools exist, to maintain a functional citizenry, not necessarily to provide more effective workers for Citigroup or Microsoft or Abbot Laboratories.

Did you hear? It was all worth it!
He's going to be an executive
at a Fortune 500 company!

If anyone can show me Arne equating public education with maintaining democracy (as opposed to economic standing) I'd be much obliged. Thank you .


Biology is, of course, the study of life. Life depends on energy.

A tiny portion of the energy thrown off the sun gets absorbed by Earth, and living things use it to live. Much of it is stored in sugars and fats--sunlight is not constant.

Some of the stored energy remains as fossil fuels. Our current economy depends on folks consuming more than they need and using more energy than the sunlight now provides.

A child well-versed in biology might even ask if a global economy based on modern capitalist principles can be sustained.

You won't, however, see that asked on a mandatory state test given to comply with the That-Which-Is-No-Longer-the-NCLB Act.


I cannot compete with an iPod, but that's OK, I serve a different purpose.

If I yank off the iPods and tell a child to study DNA because it will be good for her (or at the least threaten withholding her high school diploma if she refuses to bend to my curriculum), I might be able to sneak her past our state biology exam--a cocktail's party view of biology may suffice to get the diploma but see below.

If I truly ignite her curiosity, though, watch out. A thinking animal can wreck a good cocktail party--there's a reason Socrates was served hemlock instead of a highball.

Thinking animals started this American experiment back in the 18th century. The experiment depends on a truly educated, interested citizenry. I'm not convinced Arne wants that, and that may drive me to drink.


(I know I am not being fair, and some fine people are working
under impossible odds to create a decent state exam,
but I think the multiple choice selective response format
precludes producing a good science test.)

The painting is A Bar at the Folies-Bergere by Edouard Manet, 1882.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Leo Tolstoy and kidthings

Enough D.C. for a bit--
we can wish and wish and wish
and click our shiny red slippers
over and over and over again,
but in 2001 pod people took over
the Federal arm of education,
and they're not giving it back.

Years ago my daughter dug out a tiny mudhole in our backyard. At dusk, I sit at its edge, opposite the pokeweed I am learning to like, under a stray white birch I have always liked. Boy lightning bugs arise from the earth, flashing their "J"'s, looking for love.

I read until the dusk chases words off the page, my feet resting on a small stone wall we built together.

I have been reading Tolstoy's Resurrection, published well over a hundred years ago. Leslie found it sitting at a curb in a box full of books with a sign urging folks to take as many as they'd like. The box stayed mostly full.

Late 19th century novels are best read outside. The world of Tolstoy does not differ much from ours once outside. People haven't changed much since then, despite the horrors committed in our 20th century.

Tolstoy gets a little preachy in this one, railing against the false abstractions fostered by the justice system and by the church. His descriptions of the natural world bring the reader back to what is real, and true.

We've lost many of our children to an artificial world we've created. Important people keep trying to sell us more and more of this neat world, with tidy boundaries and finite worlds.

Cell phones,digital cameras, iPods, television, personal computers, and, of course, personal digital media players--PDMPs.

According to Business Wire, kids on average start to use PDMPs at age 9.

Parents want what's best for their kids without knowing what's best for themselves, a marketing dream for the high courts of technology.

Our children are losing touch with the natural world, and we're encouraging it. The high tech education gurus will put you back in touch with "nature," safely.

kidthing is one such company. Lower case "k", kute, eh?

kidthing delivers the next generation Internet-based learning environment through its proprietary distribution, publishing and social networking platform. kidthing provides a safe, ad-free, global learning environment that insulates children from the World Wide Web.
It also insulates children form the world, period. Don't worry, though, the kidthing trademark is a lovely, digitized lady bug next to a, um, deformed clover?

Parents can preview and purchase learning and entertainment content, create custom mixes of kidthing and personal content and make their children the “star” with content that can be personalized.

We are creating artificial universes with artificial centers. Galileo spent the last few years of his life confined to his home, having dared demonstrate that Copernicus was right, the universe did not revolve around the Earth.

Turns out Ptolemy was mostly right after all--the universe turns around your child. Many parents believe this.

Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection tells the story of one man seduced by the cultural artifice of his time leading to disastrous consequences for others, and himself.

The world is bigger than all of us, and centers around none of us. It is incomprehensibly large and unimaginably diverse.

It cannot be found in a box on a desk in a room, no mattered how wired it is. Leo Tolstoy knew this back in the 19th century. We haven't gotten any wiser since then.

(This weekend I went mucking with my nephew--we wandered out onto the tidal flats of the Delaware Bay, searching for critters. On one flat we found a lady bug, its lovely shell bent awkwardly. Tiny scratch marks on the wet sand trailed from its resting place. I picked it up, but my nephew knew it was dead. So returned it to the flat, to be picked up by the next tide.)

I don't have a particular thing against kidthing--the company happened to come up when googled.
It is fitting, though, that Larry Hitchcock, the CEO, cut his teeth over at Pearson Digital Media.
Pearson is one of many companies looking to pocket some change from Arne's folly.

The photo of a 1st American printing of the 1st edition of Resurrection comes from

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Arne light

"Increasing student achievement —- that's what I care about and what I have devoted my life to. We simply have to get better than Canada."
Martha Kanter
Undersecretary of education nominee

I've got nothing against Martha Kanter, but there's another woman in California who'd make a better Undersecretary of Education. To be fair, Linda Darling-Hammond made it clear months ago she's not leaving town.

Arne went to a fancy private school as a lad,
Martha went to a fancy private girls' school as a lass.

Arne tutored the underclass on Chicago's South Side as a lad,
Martha tutored the underclass "in a tough inner-city neighborhood" as a lass.

Arne's on a listening tour,
Martha's about to start her own "listening tour."

Ms. Kanter loves technology. She spoke Friday at Hewlett-Packard.

She cited new planetarium technology that Fujitsu recently installed at De Anza in which "kids can fly through the human heart and fly through outer space. Imagine teaching with holographic opportunities and getting inspired when you're in seventh grade. These are the technologies we can put in schools."

Flying through the human heart is a fine and dandy thing--dazzling colors, loud sounds, more dazzling colors, more loud sounds.

Ask the kid to take a standardized test right after the razzle-dazzle, and see what remains.

Call me old-fashioned, but dissecting a sheep's heart tells a lot more about us than flying through a virtual heart. My kids have enough trouble distinguishing what's real from everything else--they live in a world of everything else.

I'd bet my cherished lucky bones that my frog dissections can hold a child's attention longer than a holograph, and lead to better understanding.

If a kid can learn about the human heart by using "holographic opportunities," maybe Kanter can save a public dime or two by taking a virtual listening tour.

We need to stop picking on Canada. They have potable water. Lots and lots of potable water. Anyone from California knows that potable water beats gold.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Clarifying Clarence

Arne Duncan carries a lot of weight in Washington. He's the education go-to guy. If he were a neighbor ranting about schools at a barbecue, I'd just nod a few times then wander away--he doesn't listen, he makes stuff up, and I'm not sure of his command of the mother tongue.

I now have two people to avoid at barbecues--Justice Thomas.

In an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that another student's accusation of having prescription strength ibuprofen (4 tabs' worth of the over-the-counter variety) does not allow school officials to conduct a strip search.

Clarence Thomas' response would have been the perfect sentence for Ms. Sciala, my 8th grade teacher who made us diagram sentences; she would have saved it for the final exam:

“Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments,” he wrote. “Nor will she be the last after today’s decision, which announced the safest places to secrete contraband in school.”
The first (and screamingly obvious) objection, Your Honor--she did not have the pills. You can hide behind the pluperfect subjunctive (help me here, grammar sharks) of the first clause, but the "nor will she be the last" unveils your confusion. You appear to believe that she did, in fact, hide them in her netherlands.

Had you diagrammed your sentence ahead of time, you would have seen this. Ms. Sciala would be crowing. If this were a verbal response, all would be forgiven. But it's not. It's written.
“Preservation of order, discipline and safety in public schools is simply not the domain of the Constitution,” he wrote.

Um, no kidding, Mr. Thomas. When was the last time you set foot in a classroom of 13-year-olds? (What better ad for prescription strength Advil?)

You can substitute "public spaces" for "public schools" and still be mostly correct.

If you're argument is that the Constitution does not extend to public schools, well, you're wrong. If you want to say that children are not protected by the Constitution, that's sad but true, no argument there. But no one is going to peek at my pubes looking for a contraband prescription drug in the school--the adults in the building still have Constitutional rights.

The Constitution is a feisty document--you might consider reading it, Mr. Thomas.

One more point.

If you knew anything at all about our tadpoles at thirteen, you would have realized that putting a tablet of anything anywhere near the "safest places to secrete contraband in school” will turn on the yuk trigger in the vast majority of even the hard-core ibuprofen addicts.

And next time, consider using a word besides "secrete." It's creepy in this context.

Yes, I was trying to be cute, using the subjunctive. No, it didn't work.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Section 1905

Go peek at the Federal Department of Education website--try to find the NCLB logo. Try to find the words "No Child Left Behind."

Then try to find any changes beyond that.

I do think the name 'No Child Left Behind' is absolutely toxic;
I think we have to start over.

Arne Duncan in USA Today, May 5
I'm so naive--I thought he meant start over with NCLB.

What to do, what to do? How do we maintain a Spellingesque reality? How do we convince people that the NCLB is still good for them?

It's been an interesting month. A major study demonstrated that charter schools do not, in fact, outperform public schools, Texas tells the feds to kiss its yellow rose and refuses to follow "voluntary" national standards, and Duncan revises his Listening and Learning tour to avoid the wrath of D.C.

What to do, what to do?


It worked for Phillip Morris. Remember them? They're now Altria Group. And they still sell cigarettes.

So Mr. Duncan got incented enough to erase No Child Left Behind. The logos are off the website, and off the letterheads. The new name is....um...the new name...guys, where'd you put it?

OK, no new name yet.

A month ago, Mr. Duncan had a plan:

He said he would like to hold a contest for school kids to come up with a new name.
Arne Duncan, again in USA Today, May 5

This is like asking Anne Boleyn to name the sword that severed her neck.

So, Mr. Duncan, you like basketball analogies, let me explain it to you nice and slow. My New Jersey Nets went 17-65 about 20 years ago. They were, indeed, "absolutely toxic." How can you fix a team like that?

Do you think changing the uniforms would have made a lick's worth of difference?

(Maybe Duncan is right after all--the Nets change to a new uniform in 1990-91, and their record did, in fact, improve to 26-56.)

Go read Schools Matter, the best website I've found that keeps the spotlight on the unfolding disaster Formerly Known as NCLB.

And Section 1905 of the
No Child Left Behind Act?

The Federal gummint shall not "mandate, direct, or control a state, local educational agency, or school's specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum or program of instruction."

The logo is public, the photo of the old Nets uniform is not--it looks like NBAHOOPS by the logo.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Keeping it real...

Creating a culture of science learners hinges on dragging my tadpoles (my students) back into the real (or natural) world. Yes, I'll have the assorted scaly critters in the classroom, but that's not enough--the kids associate critters with the "natural" world, the one outside.

It's unnerving to realize a snake can hold their attention longer than I can.


Science requires measuring. Measuring distances is not a major problem in the classroom, so long as we stick to the English system. (Before I get a memo from the NSTA, I did not say we ought to stick to it. )
An aside.

Most of the kids have a handle on what a foot means, and the school may well have tens of thousands squirreled away. If the meter was not so, well, unruly, it would have been adopted years and years ago. It's exactly too big and too small to be useful in the classroom.

It's too big to fit in a backpack. Even in the good ol' days, we did not walk around with yardsticks, but we all had rulers--we spun them on pencils, played desk hockey, fenced with them, and occasionally even measured things, but they were an intimate part of our school environment. You could not help but develop an innate sense of what one foot meant.

The meter is too small to make a decent sized decimeter, which happens to be less than 4 inches. No self-respecting American kid is going to carry a ruler that's shorter than a used pencil.

When France gets around to redefining the meter as a useful length, Americans will adopt it.
Ahem. So yes, I do allow American rulers in my classroom.



Science requires measuring time. Time escapes my tadpoles. Time escapes all of us.

During the last week of school, a few days before the solstice, several Honors history projects were strewn in the hallway, waiting to be tossed. One of them was a model of Stonehenge. If the huge stones were aligned to predict the solstices, Stonehenge could serve as a fine example of keeping time. I wonder if the child who built the model thought about the science behind it.

I gave up wearing a watch years ago. I am left-handed, but learned to wear it on my left wrist (because that's what you do), and wearing a watch on your dominant side destroys watches. (I was going to say it kills time, but that would test your patience, gentle reader.)

Knowing the exact time beyond how many minutes are left before the end of the period matters little to me. The things I care to follow--tides, sunsets, and seasons--defy wristwatches.

I am not, of course, going to abandon the stopwatch in my class, nor am I going to ban digital watches (though there are some reasonable arguments to do so). I will however, clean off the sundial in my garden, and bring it to class.

I will spend a few minutes explaining how to use it, then I will place it on the windowsill, "set" the time, and forget about it.

Sometime during the year, the creeping shadow on the sundial will prove more captivating than my 23rd Powerpoint slide of the day, and a child will notice that the shadow no longer falls where it used to.

Should that child raise her hand to ask about it, true inquiry will begin, and I'll jump on a teachable moment. My "spontaneous" lesson will last about 10 minutes, and the students will never know the lesson was crafted in August. Many of my lessons crafted in August will never get used, but that's OK, because a good chunk of our lessons can only work when the students seek the answers.



Birds do it. Sea turtles do it. Salmon do it. Even bacteria do it.

They can all find their way around using the Earth's magnetic field.

What does "north" mean to a turtle? What does it mean to a sophomore? Not sure it means much to either. The turtle "knows" which way to go when, and the student can look at a GPS or a map and "know" north.

Heck, I'm not sure I know what north means--is pointing to the left of a sunrise sufficient? Does pointing in the direction of the North Pole count? (Pointing parallel to the ground due north is not pointing to the pole.) Does magnetic north count?

My tadpoles spend a lab period or two playing with water, part of which involves floating metal paper clips in a cup of water, a wonderful demonstration of surface tension.

This year I think I will use pins. I might even be sneaky enough to surreptitiously magnetize a few of them, backed by the bud of a hidden lesson plan waiting to blossom.

When a few of the needles start dancing on the water, insisting on pointing a specific direction, I'll play dumb, see how much my tadpoles notice.
(One of my flaws in the classroom is my inability to keep my mouth
shut when a student is struggling with an observation. I'm working on it.)

Once a few students notice the pins all point in the same direction, I'll ask them how how that might be useful, even if they do not understand why the pins do what they do.

Just keeping it real....

Photo of Stonehenge by Frédéric Vincent via wikimedia, released under CC.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


The Earth revolves around the sun. Most of us have reduced this to an abstract, the calendar. We can know it's June without leaving a windowless room.

The Earth spins around its axis. Most of us have reduced this to another abstract, the clock. We can know the time by looking at our watches, again without leaving our windowless room.

I have a lot of discussions with other science teachers that start with "I cannot believe they don't get this..."

And I'm starting to get why they don't get things. My students live in a windowless world, fed through electronic media. Even numbers have lost much of their meaning beyond symbols on a hand-held machine.

If you have no reference beyond your windowless room, you don't have any particular reason to "get" anything unless a penalty or reward is attached to getting it. So we test and test and test some more. And the kids keep not getting it.

I am going to drag my children outside of their windowless rooms. Next year I am starting a phenology project in class.

Life is not abstract.

First lightning bug two nights ago, a few more last night.
The prickly pears have been blooming for 10 days now.
The croakers will be moving near the jetty's any day now.

Phenology is the study of the periodic cycles in biology--finding the first robin of spring is phenology. Chasing the peak fall foliage in New England is phenology.

Me telling kids that on average lightning bugs start their mating rituals mid-June is abstract, no matter how fancy the projector or the font. Sending them outside each night to find a lightning bug doing its thing reconnects children to the real.


Phenology is old-fashioned observational high school biology. You can do it without knowing anything about macromolecules.

Biology traditionally precedes chemistry and physics in high school because back in the 1890's, that made sense--biology was was a lot easier. High school biology today requires biochemistry, and asking 15 year olds to process macromolecules a year before they have studied chemistry is going to lead to a lot of not getting it.

So I am going back to the 19th century, but I'll add a 21st century twist. We'll start a class blog.

The Great Mystery is just that

It's June.

Light life and more light and more life. Little makes sense, but in June the abundance pushes aside the questions.

I have tooth marks in my thumb from a fluke. A snake no longer than a ruler tried to strike me a few hours later. A lone bat heralded dusk.

School winds down in June.

Next year I plan to start with Darwin's idea of descent with modification. He did not invent evolution. He did, however, figure out that the raw beauty of life's symphony here can be explained without appealing to some central plan that places humans above all else.

It's all there for those who care to look.

If you are going to acknowledge something is unknowable or incomprehensible or too powerful to comprehend, hey, I'm right there with you. Many things will remain unknowable in any scientific sense.

When you try to explain the inexplicable, when you presume to know the "meaning" of existence, though, keep it outside my classroom door. I teach biology, not metaphysics.

I'll be glad to discuss the "unknowable" with you,
ideally by a lake at dusk,
watching bluegill sucking down lightning bugs
enamored by their own reflection.

Just not in class.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


The Federal Communications Commission jolted me Friday.

Every school morning I have a routine. Part of the routine requires watching 5 minutes of television from a small rabbit-eared box on my bureau.

I could pretend that I watch to catch up on the culture, but most of us have long switched to cable.

I could pretend that I watch for the weather, and as much as I enjoy the pretty people in nice clothes tell me what's happening outside, I already learned as much when I got the morning paper, another habit that might end soon.

I could pretend I watch for the traffic reports, but I walk to school. (I do confess to feeling a tad smug when I see major jams--surely there is a German word this this kind of pleasure.)

I watch Kenneth and Gloria Copeland Believer's Voice of Victory for a few seconds--a Stepford wife visual...click click...to Eyewitness News....click click...to Good Day Wake Up...then back through again. Smiles and colors and music and beats and boobs. They like me, they really, really like me!

So why do I watch?

Pure, thoughtless pleasure. Decades of psychological mining have produced a stream of light and sound that hugs my limbus like latex. I know I'm wasting time, and I do not care.

And now it's gone.

Anyone want an old television?

The Stepford Wives image from one of a gazillion on the net; the brain image is from the University of Vermont.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hermit crabs and midazolam

I used to watch children happily walk to the burn treatment room, then hear them scream.
The next day they'd happily walk down the hospital hall again, and again, the screams.

Versed (midazolam) makes you forget. A child may exhibit all kinds of signs of pain, but he will not remember it. It's as though it never happened.

Does pain without a history still count?

I still wince at the memory.

Hermit crabs feel pain, no surprise there, even if we cage it as an aversive response to noxious stimulus. But it's not real pain, we're different, they don't anticipate it, it's not the special kind of human pain, they don't remember....

A couple of months ago Robert W. Elwood and Mirjam Appel designed an elegant experiment using hermit crabs and electricity:
To investigate whether decapods feel pain we gave hermit crabs, Pagurus bernhardus, small electric shocks within their shells. Only crabs given shocks evacuated their shells indicating the aversive nature of the stimulus, but fewer crabs evacuated from a preferred species of shell indicating a motivational trade-off....Most crabs, however, did not evacuate at the stimulus level we used, but when these were subsequently offered a new shell, shocked crabs were more likely to approach and enter the new shell.....Thus the experience of the shock altered future behaviour in a manner consistent with a marked shift in motivation to get a new shell to replace the one occupied. The results are consistent with the idea of pain in these animals.

Knowing this does not change the world, just our perception. (Excuse me if I take a western European view here--it's what I know. A good chunk of humans alive reject the idea of a world "out there" independent of their minds.)

Let me repeat the gist of Elwood and Appel's study:
Thus the experience of the shock altered future behaviour in a manner consistent with a marked shift in motivation to get a new shell to replace the one occupied.
Translation: they want to get the hell out of Dodge.

Hermit crabs did not develop a memory of pain because of this study; they have always had it.

While we wrestle with whether crabs feel "real" pain or not, people continue to rip off their claws, and crabs continue to feel whatever it is they feel when an appendage is torn off. I don't need science to convince me their responses is "consistent" with pain.

We live in a culture that created the 20th century. Napalm. Pesticides in breast milk. Thermonuclear weapons. Imagining pain in others creates too much pain is us.

We lie to our children because we lie to ourselves.

So hermit crabs apparently remember pain. I'm not surprised.

Humans are wonderful creatures. We are part of a greater web of life, ultimately incomprehensible. Animals cavort throughout the Earth, energy obtained through plants or other animals, ultimately obtained from sunlight.

This morning I helped a stranger wrestle a 30 pound striped bass out of the Delaware Bay. I felt her muscles twitch as I rolled her up on the beach. I saw her eye gaze at me once we finally beached her.

The family sitting down to feast on that striper tonight know it cost a life.

I went and got a half dozen clams, and slaughtered them in my attempt to beach a striped bass. They cost me $4.82. It cost them their lives.

Death is common and death is inevitable. Ecstasy is also common, but we work hard to avoid it.

My year is winding down. I am wrestling with grades and finals, putting some stamp of accountability on my students. This one's a 92, this one a 58. This one passes, this one's going to honors, this one fails.

I teach biology and physical science. I follow the curriculum. My children are a little book smarter in June than in September.

My kids will do fine on any standardized test measured against other kids facing the same struggles day to day. That's my job, and I work hard to accomplish that.

My own criteria for success do not mirror the state's, but they do not conflict with it either. If you want to teach science well, you're going to break a few myths.

For physical science, I want the children to grasp that they do not grasp gravity, that there's a mysterious force throughout the universe pulling everything together, against another primal force that apparently sent everything flying apart. You know when they get it. They look like the floor just dissolved.

For biology, I want the children to grasp the essence of life, as far as we know it. Life is a crazy quilt of organisms glomming energy from the sun, all living things on Earth descended from other living things, and the environment shapes who we are. Humans were not inevitable. We are all going to die.

Which brings me back to the hermit crabs. They have no more understanding of this beingness than we do, but (and this is not something I teach, as it crosses the boundaries set by the curriculum), they have no less, either.

The human difference is, I think, that we have access to midazolam, to words, to culture, to creating universes that only exist in our minds. We can escape thoughts of our own death, of the deaths of everyone we love.

Hermit crabs, of course, cannot. The hermit crab who has been zapped with electricity in his shell wants or desires or needs (or whatever anthropomorphological word you choose to use) to find a new home. It is not blessed with self-awareness, but it knows what it wants.

It's not so much that humans are less special. We are, indeed, special. But so are the hermit crabs and the slugs and the gannets and everything else that uses energy to create order, to exist.

I'll let the priests and the shamans and the rabbis and the bhikkhus figure out the metaphysical stuff--I'm plenty occupied with the natural.

It's an awesome world here.

Photo by Hans Hillewaert, found at wikimedia here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

44 billion dollars to tide us over

Around two o'clock last Saturday, I saw a miracle. The current cutting across the jetty slowed perceptibly, stopped, then reversed, in less than a half hour. (As the tide turned, a horseshoe crab shed blue blood on me, a mortally wounded skate stared at me, and the sun moved as well.)

Tides are, ultimately, incomprehensible to me. Oh, I can do the math, figure out the forces, even calculate the tonnage of water moved (give or take a few million) in the Delaware Bay, but my brain cannot truly imagine all that water.

A page of numbers ultimately means nothing.

This does, though. If I stand in knee deep water at low tide, it will be a foot over my head at high tide. I've watched the tide come in and retreat. I've played while it ebbed, fished while it rose, ate while it ebbed again, napped when it returned--not sure I've not done anything that matters within the sound of the surf.

So how do we teach awe? Do we force a child to memorize daily tide heights? Make her watch the beach for 6 hours? Talk about the moon and the sun and the Earth's relative positions?

You cannot teach the tides unless you know the tides. You cannot know the tides unless you live at the sea's edge. A ghost crab knows the tides, but none of them are certified.

We cannot know the tides, but we try anyway.
We cannot teach what we do not know, but we try anyway.


So you want to do a unit on the tides, either because it interests you, or because the course curriculum says you must, or because the state has decided that knowing the tide gets our children a leg up on those Asian children who are stealing nonexistent jobs, or because an expert determined that tides are a good source of renewable energy or because....

Whatever the reason, a child will not be interested until she watches the sea gobble up a good chunk of land, and even then, there's a good chance she'll be more interested in the dead purple urchin at the shore's edge.

Whatever reason we might choose to teach tides does not matter to the student. That knowing tides might lead to some career in the future otherwise destined to a child in a faraway land means nothing. That the state requires exposure to the subject means nothing. That a teacher happens to love tides might matter a little bit, but less than we like to believe.

Are tides worth knowing? I think so, but not in any way that can be efficiently measured.

We need room for awe in the classroom. Awe takes time.


My sophomores run to the back of the room before the bell rings, tending pale green bean plants, now gaunt for lack of real soil. Peat moss, water, and light only carry a plant so far.

Maria's plant "died" last week. I thought it was long past watering. I offered her another bean. She ignored me and watered Fred (or whatever name she gave this particular bean plant--she has gone through a few of them).

Fred's doing fine now, maybe a little pale for lack of nitrogen, but he should thrive once transplanted into the ground.


Sean Nash recently challenged me to build a course:

Build a pilot, Dr. Doyle. Build a microcosm within your larger system that allows those near you to see what happens when your philosophies do on the the students you work with on ground level.

We just really can't say we don't like what the typical track through the system is doing for kids... if we don't offer an alternative for comparison.

Mr. Nash is right. I may use our astronomy club as the jumping off point. I might even dabble in the classroom. Our district is embracing Understanding by Design--we are expected to use craft our lessons around essential questions and enduring understandings--a daunting task, but a worthwhile one. (Good teachers have been doing this for centuries anyway.)

With a little luck and lots of work, my kids will have an equal shot at nonexistent jobs, Arne Duncan will shower money on my district for meeting measurable standards, and the Marias in my class will find suitable replacements for Fred (and Robert and Joe...) the Bean plants.

A problem remains.

Some things worth knowing cannot be quantified. Awe cannot be measured. Awe takes time. Awe is inefficient. Awe defies scantrons.

No one is going to get rich these days writing a pedagogical method teaching objectives that cannot be measured, though plenty of people are going to get a nice check from the 44 billion dollars Arne's waving around on his "Listening and Learning" Tour.

44 billion dollars buys a lot of measurables, but not a lick of time.

So, Mr. Nash, if you're looking for me, you'll find me on the ferry jetty in Cape May on Saturday, watching the tide rise, watching the tide fall. Some folks would say I'm just wasting time.

I'd say I'm living.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

June berries

I repeat myself a lot, but I forget a lot, too, and I mostly write for myself.

I walk to school every day. I watch the shadows shift across Liberty Street as the seasons change.

I've walked the same path over a thousand times, and yesterday I found a blackberry bush I missed a thousand times before. (I've got plenty of mulberry trees to sustain me on my walk, and I have a wild cherry tree that leaves me looking like a vampire every time I pass it, but until yesterday I missed the blackberry bush.)


I used to coach in Little League, and I hope to coach again. It's not a lot of work if you love kids and the game, but it is a lot of time. If you know the game, and if you focus on the less talented players, your teams will win. Not that that matters, but I must confess it is more fun to win than not. (I am not a complete, um, dick. I once pulled the line-up out of a hat, including positions. The kids had a grand time, the game was close, and everybody got to play. A few parents were ready to crucify me, though, for our rare loss that day.)

There are not that many activities anymore where adults matter anymore. Baseball is about failure and fear and sunlight and the cerebellum (muscle memory). It gives you what you give it, not a small thing in these days of steroids and hype.

But that's not why I am writing about Little League.


Bloomfield is blessed with mulberry trees. They grow quickly and produce a ton of fruit. The big purple splotches you see along the Garden State Parkway in June are smushed mulberries.

I taught a few kids how to hit, but more importantly, I showed them you can eat fruit off trees in our town. I also munched on dandelions during practice, but discouraged this among the ball players since some people insist on trying to kill them with noxious chemicals.

Most of my players will no longer be playing ball by the time they hit high school. I doubt they'll be eating mulberries in high school , either, but eventually they will.

Once you have stripped a berry off an urban tree and eaten it, staining your fingers and lips purple, your universe has changed.
(Yes, I know, we should not be teaching children to eat wild berries. We should not be encouraging them to take chances. We dare not risk it. I put the children in a quandary--mom says no, coach shrugs and munches on berries anyway. Who you going to trust?)
Mothers, avoid coaches with stained purple lips.


And what do we do in school?

Do we teach evolution, that perhaps humans were not inevitable? Do we teach about death and injustice? Do we dare comment on capitalism or Christendom or unsustainable living?

In the end, really, no need. There's no room for preaching in school. There is room, though, for a mulberry.

Once a child's hands are stained with mulberry juice, once a child savors grace, anything is possible.


The mulberry fruits were taken from Purdue--go Boilermakers!

Sunday, June 7, 2009


My right calf is chalky blue from dried horseshoe crab blood. An angler on the ferry jetty hooked the creature earlier today, and did not know what to do.

I removed the hook from the mortally wounded creature, then let it grab my finger with its pincers, to show it could not hurt me. I then put my palm on its tail.

"It cannot sting you. It cannot hurt you."

I climbed down the rocks to get closer to the bay water, then let it go.

An hour or so later, I heard the angler say the same words to another frightened fisherman.

"It cannot hurt you."

That's a good day fishing.

A June lesson

Finals are starting next week. The kids are bouncy, I'm bouncy.

It's June. Light and honeysuckle and snow peas. Horseshoe crabs dancing their 200 million year dance under the Strawberry Moon. With the light comes ecstasy, and not just human. We have more energy than we can use at the moment.

June. Time of Áine. Light, love, life.

Eat a fresh snow pea, no more than a few minutes off the plant, then chase it with a strawberry still warm from the sun.

Both are ridiculously easy to grow here in New Jersey.

This is a reminder to me to have the students plant both next spring.

The snow peas are by Rasbak;the strawberries by ShakatGaNai.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Second Commandment

We are visual critters.
We know this, and we forget this.

We descended (with modification) from organisms over billions of years.
We know this, and we forget this.

We didn't start drawing on cave walls until about 30,000 years ago.
After we started, a few of us thought maybe we'd be better off if we didn't.

Last week Mark came to visit--he's a film editor, and a good one. His professional life revolves around his vision. He speaks in paragraphs, about a third of which involve discussing ways to manipulate light.

He makes a living creating graven images.

I introduced him to clamming.

When you rake for clams, you feel the bottom of the bay through your handle. When your rake hits a clam, you as much hear it as feel it. You reach into the soft mud, then wrap your hands around the clam. A quahog fits perfectly in your palm. You know you have one before you ever see it.

No words, no pictures, no imagination can capture the satisfaction of feeling the firm curve of a quahog in your palm, fulfilling a desire you did not know you had.


When you stare at the monitor, you are catching photons with your retina. Your monitor mixes together red, green, and blue--your eyes and your brain do the rest.

Oh, yes, old man,we know that trick already. So what? It's just sophistry....

And it is, mostly, just sophistry. A decent magnifying glass will show the three colors, you might be amused for a moment, and then you go on.

Bear with me, this will meander back to teaching science.

I grew up Irish Catholic, and wandered into other sects once I started reading the Bible. My world view, for better or worse, is framed by Christendom. Whether Christendom has much to do with the Christ is another story for another time.

Old collections of words that have survived generations upon generations of readers may not reflect truth, but we can learn from ancient worldviews. Not all of us who own Bibles wield them as weapons, though I do confess they work well on centipedes.

(Please do not presume to know my "beliefs" from a single post. Even if you could, they swirl like the morning fog over a mountain creek, and last just about as long.)

I used to go to Sunday school. (Even scarier, I used to teach Sunday school.)

On the wall in Sunday school class was a poster of Garfield the Cat. It was an ordinary poster, nothing special, just paper and ink. Garfield has his usual snarky expression, and every time I looked at it, I had my usual visceral response. I do not like Garfield.

The Ten Commandments came up in Sunday school, as they will. Most of the commandments are easy enough to understand. Don't kill. Don't steal. Don't lie. Do not lust over your buddy's wife. While you're at it, stop fantasizing about his Maserati. Basic stuff.

Then there's the Second Commandment:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

The ancients knew the power of vision. What you see becomes part of you.

Yes, I can step back and see that Garfield is just paper and ink, but this requires work. When you look at a photograph, you are in the world of the photograph.

Until 30,000 years ago, if I saw a big cat, it was a real cat, one that posed danger. I reacted. If I did not react, my DNA ended up in the tiger's gut, not a good place to procreate.

For billions of years, the particular strands of DNA that make up me managed to replicate. Eyes have been around for over 500 million years, and offer an obvious advantage to survival. For organisms with vision, seeing is believing. For humans, it is how we learn about the outside world.

I mentioned Garfield the Cat during a discussion about the Second Commandment, and why I thought that this particular commandment revealed a subtle wisdom by our ancestors. I don't think I'll bring up Garfield again should I venture back.


And what does this have to do with teaching?

Our children are surrounded by human-generated images. Art. Advertisements. Branding. They make things real by taking pictures.

A child constructs a model rocket, then captures it with a camera. The image is more valuable than the rocket, which has since been discarded.

In science class we throw image after image at our students, without discernment. We throw picture after picture after picture. Here's a rain forest in Ecuador, there's a polar bear, look, a bacterium--each fills the Smartboard screen in vivid colors, one after another, without reference, without discernment.

A photograph of a frog teaches little if the student has never held a frog.

Once we learned to manipulate images, sight became magical. Our children believe in magic, but so do the adults. We have created our own worlds.

If you live life in an artificial world, in front of monitors and televisions and photographs and books, you can have beauty and dazzle and immortality. You can have joy and tears. You can free yourself from boredom. You might even find love.

You will, however, be limited by the imagination of humans. You will also be "freed" from the reality of natural limits, and for many of us this is worth losing.

When I stand in my garden in April, I cannot truly imagine it filling with tomatoes and basil and dill and squash by late July.

Still, by November, most of the plants are dead, no matter how many pictures I take.

As a teacher, I want the children to grasp the limits of their imagination--only then can they start to grasp this thing around us, what "awesome" truly means.

The Garfield image generated more hits than my words ever did.
I removed it, for my sanity, and yours....