Saturday, October 31, 2009

Skunked, but it's OK

I've spent the last day or two fighting the flu--tiny nucleic acids have invaded my body and taken over the genetic machinery of millions of my cells. Life goes on.

I fished under the moonlight. I felt the bump of a fish gnawing at the clam I shucked last week, then brined. The clam is dead, the fish now fed.

Sand pipers chirped as they worked the beach where I fished, as though I was invisible--each time they truffled through the wet sand with their beaks, they killed a few more tiny lives. Life goes on.

While wading out to cast, I saw a small fin slice through the foamy surf--likely a young striped bass slicing through the current, munching up critters less adept in the swirling currents.

I caught nothing tonight. Skunked. A few hundred years ago, that would be cause for concern, but I can wander over to the Acme Supermarket today. A few hundred years ago, "skunked" did not happen. Life goes on.

I'd take Arne Duncan fishing if he cared to go, without his entourage, and if he promised to pay attention. Not to me, but to life around him. When his house of cards collapses, when the "Race to the Top" falls the way of the "Initial Teaching Alphabet" (ITA), maybe The Scarecrow will have a brain.

My neighbor across the street is a scalloper--he dredges the sea for the scallops you find on your table. He's more useful to our world than the Secretary of Education.

Really. Try eating a white paper on the intricacies of the complexities of the necessities of modern schooling. Then go fishing with someone who knows how to fish.

A full belly trumps a fool's bellow.

The picture of fishheads was taken in Dublin by Leslie this past July.

Education, the economy, and the Second Commandment

I used to be Oirish Catholic, eventually wandering over to the local United Methodist Church (where my wife and our children worshipped). I left that when my pastor appeared (to me, anyway) to hold the words of Eli Siegel, the founder of the cult-like Aesthetic Realism, on the same plane as the words of The Christ.

Along the way, though, I've found a lot of good things in the Good Book. The things that most interested me were the bits that directly contradicted the words of the folks leading us in prayer.

The Second Commandment takes on a variety of forms--heck, major Christian divisions cannot even agree what the Ten Commandments are--but here's the start of the King James variety:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

It goes on to describe a jealous God ready to spew all sorts of venom at even the great-grandchildren that dared to cross the line.

Well, we crossed it, and He's spewing venom--welcome to the 21st century.

Well, that cleared the room in a hurry.


Arne Duncan believes that education is going to save the economy.

It's the educated folks that got us into it. An MBA from a decent business school was the ticket to riches. We live in an extractive economy, and with the right pedigree, you were once guaranteed a huge disproportionate slice of the pie.

We can give out 300 million advanced degrees in this land, and it will not change how many bushels of corn an acre of land will yield in Topeka this year. It will not change how many billions upon billions of water molecules will seep into the great aquifer below our heartland. It will not affect how many pounds of honey will be produced by the bees in Michigan this year.

The custodians did not screw us. The bus drivers did not blow us. The plumbers did not eff us up. The family farmers (all 17 of them left) did not crap on us. The pump jockeys did not rip us off. The cashiers did not piss on our mothers' graves. The women working the line did not job us. The fruit pickers did not rook us.

We were (and continue to be royally) screwed by the functionally literate, the monied, the educated class.

Yep, I'm part of the problem class--but I am not going to pretend that more people like me are going to solve anything.

If you wonder why a lot of "uneducated" folks get a little rumbly every time someone takes a cheap shot at their official schooling, take a look at who's doing the useful work around here.


The Second Commandment was written before the printing press, before the camera, before television.

"Graven" might be the loophole, but "any likeness of any thing" seems pretty tight.

Also seems pretty impossible--but it's not. It's only impossible if you choose to live in our culture.

It was a lot easier when you lived in a nomadic tribe. It was easier to go pick a handful of flowers and toss them back to the ground when they wilted than it was to lug around a painting of the same flowers.

Still, it's unlikely that the commandment was developed as a way to ease your luggage woes. ("Really, Micah, you really have to leave the Dogs Playing Poker behind--Moses says so!")


Images have tremendous power. We intellectually know a photograph is not real, but we respond viscerally anyway. If we did not, the gaming industry would collapse in a day. Most of us spend a good chunk of our days living in worlds that do not exist outside our own skulls.

This is a dangerous way to live. The ancients knew that the more we turn away from the world, the less we know.

We've become a nation of educated fools.


Our recent economic disaster was entirely predictable by many of the uneducated. If you run up debt beyond what the Earth gives us in a lifetime, it does not matter how you account for the debt--you can inscribed it in stone, write red numbers in a book, or store it as binary language in the soul of a machine. You cannot cash a check the Earth cannot produce.

There are odd exceptions, of course--some people would rather have a lump of gold than a bushel of wheat. So long as most of us fall under the same illusion, the gold holds power.

Me? I'd rather have the bushel of wheat. It's easier on the digestive system.

We are lost--we are lost in a world of graven images, of iPods and monitors and internal worlds that will not matter the moment your neurons stop sending intricate, pointless signals inside your skull.

And yes,I keep fiddling while the world keeps burning. Time to go out and catch dinner--the tide is ebbing, the clams will be waiting.

The stock market dropped a chunk yesterday--the DJIA sank by 250 points. Not one clam bothered to check.

The Earth will feed us if we let it. The clams are eating tiny critters that ate tinier critters fueled by the sun, the closest thing to God we can see.

We have enough sense not to stare at the sun--it will blind us.
Staring at the monitor screen will blind you as well.

Moses with Tables of Law by Rembrandt--he's not available anymore for permission.
The Dogs Playing Poker by C.M. Coolodge.
Both are in the public domain.

Yes, the DPP was part of an ad campaign.
Yes, it's the cultural epitome of tacky.
I like it anyway.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tipton apples

One of my last days with Mary Beth ended with her laughing jubilantly on a hill overlooking an old apple orchard in Tipton, Michigan.

Every year the man who made her happier than life itself sends me a box of apples from his orchard, real apples. Northern spies are my favorites.

The aroma of apples fills our home before we open the box. Bees fertilized the flowers back when the sun was still headed towards the solstice. The bees are dead. The apples scream life.

I do not get what this thing called life is all about, at least not when words do not get in the way. I do know happiness even past the grief, and she did, too. She knew.

What's left of her has seeped into that same hill, her dust mixed with our tears.

Wasn't sure I'd ever enjoy eating apples again.
Not sure they ever tasted better than they do now.

In a culture that fears death so much that we pretend it does not exist, rejoicing in the flavor, the texture, the sound of my teeth crunching into a fruit with its own mixed history may seem morbid, and it is.

I eat the whole apple except the stem. The seeds have an amaretto nuttiness, a sweet reminder of death itself--the amygdylin breaks down into tiny doses of cyanide. A few of my mitochondria seize up every time I eat an apple.

Not enough to kill me, of course, but just enough to remind me that I, too, will return to the ground with the bees and uneaten apples and everything else that has known joy.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The NJCCCS ideal committee

This past Saturday my daughter caught a decent sized fish--I clubbed it, knocking it out with the first blow, then hit it again to be sure. A quivering fin assured me the priest had done its job.

I lifted up it gill cover, then sliced at the gill arch with my knife. A fine stream of blood shot a couple of feet into the air, staining my shorts with blood the same deep red color as my own.

My daughter and I filleted the fish together 3 hours later, celebrating life, mourning death. Then we feasted.

I showed the picture of my daughter holding the fish to a fellow teacher--"looks like she can take care of herself" was her reply.

Yesterday we had a memo from the state of New Jersey waxing eloquent on the needs of the 21st century, on the need to prepare a child (the same child) for vocational school, college, and careers. I wondered how many folks on that committee ever saw the arc of blood pumping out of a dying animal.

I've seen it in fish, I've seen it in humans.

In 1714, back when Ben Franklin was still a wee lad, Stephen Hale tapped the artery of a horse to measure its pressure--Hale was immortalized, but the horse, of course, died.

We all eventually follow the horse.


I am not suggesting that someone needs to watch the arc of blood shoot out of a dying beast in order to qualify for whatever committee comes up with standards like this:

Work in collaboration with peers and experts in the field to develop a product using the design process, data analysis, and trends, and maintain a digital log with annotated sketches to record the development cycle.

I am suggesting, though, that someone who has even a twinkle of an idea connecting this thing called life to a curriculum worth the attention of child, someone who knows that food is not just a bag of Doritos, someone with a sense of what matters beyond a corporate board room might see the above standard as, well, ridiculous.

A committee of well-educated professionals thought it was inspiring.

Maybe we need a different committee. Maybe a degree that gains you entrance into powerful committees but blinds you to the obvious does not deserve respect.

A degree will get you into some boardrooms, and it might even get you some cash if the current economic shenanigans don't end with the hunter-gatherers among us superseding the white-collared executives.

We don't need more folks with college degrees on these committees--we need folks with knowledge.

Here are my minimum requirements for participating on any committee that makes any rules directly affecting the lives of our lambs dragged into our schools under the threat of law:

1) You must know how to change a tire, replace a faucet washer, or do any of myriad chores "relegated" to blue collar workers. Doing any these things for a living should make you chair of the committee. If you cannot take care of minor day-to-day maintenance, you have no business telling me how to teach.

2) You must know how to grow food. Outside. In dirt. Reading a book on how to do this counts for nothing. Books matter because they help us live. They become poison when they replace living.

3) If you eat meat, you must have slaughtered an animal that you ate. If you drink water, you must drink from an outside source--a spring, a creek, rainwater in a cistern--at least once a year. If you shit, you must shit in the woods in a mindful way. (No, I' m not talking about spiritual ommmmm and a prayer nonsense--I'm talking about knowing how far from the water, how deep in the soil to do your business so you do not foul your nest.)

4) You must have taught in a school within the last 5 years. This one is negotiable, but somewhere along the way you need to have a clue what can work, and what will not work, in a classroom.

5) You must be a parent. This one is negotiable, but somewhere along the way you need to have a clue what a child can, and cannot, do.

Some of the current standards in New Jersey are laughable.
What the standards do to kids, however, is not.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Follow-up to yesterday's post

The fish, the angler, and the dinner.

A 30" blue from the surf, basil from the garden.
Beats watching the news.

Up, up, and away

Many Fort Collins parents are using a story filled with drama and deceit to teach their children about the perils of lying.
"Parents using Heene incident as teaching tool"
Today's Fort Collins Coloradoan

This is like using Arnold Schwarzenegger to teach the dangers of anabolic steroids.

Mommy and Daddy watched the balloon boy story for hours. They're pissed that they were duped. The story fell apart--See what happens when you lie?

If I'm six, not nearly as sophisticated as my parents who watch CNN News for hours, I see this--another little boy got lots of my parents' attention for stretching a pretty cool story.

As for teachable moments?

If you have a 6 year old, show them how to make a hot air balloon--either spring the $50 for a kit, or use a few garbage bags to make one of your own. Dry cleaner bags work, too.

(I do not recommend letting them go free--
keep them tethered to some fishing line--
I remind my classes every Friday to practice safe science.)

If you're child is a senior in high school, this would have been a fine teaching moment about volume, air mass, and density--just how much lift can you get from a Heene-style balloon?

If your child is a senior in college, this would be a fine teaching moment about life:

"Look, son, I just let myself be duped by a 6 year old, a nutty family, a hyperactive media, and my own inability to live a life more exciting than the vicarious thrills of a news story. Get a life. A real one."

I really dislike the phrase "teaching moments"--as though our time is split into little packets of commodities, to be spent judiciously.

Children are curious. Curiosity gets killed in our schools, in our culture.

Children learn what they see. If I were a kid, I'd have started collecting garbage bags by now.

If our kids were truly curious, this is what the lead line would have said:
"Many Fort Collins parents are using a story filled with drama and deceit
to teach their children about the perils of

Friday, October 23, 2009


A disturbance over the Rockies a few days ago resulted in a storm developing over us in the next few hours.

A 23 pound striped bass just ate some sand eels a few hours ago--she's hungry, and she knows she's about to make a long journey south. She knows nothing of North Carolina, but she will spend the winter off its coast.

In another universe, the weather would be grand tomorrow, and the 1st Annual Doyle Striped Ass Bass Bash would go on as scheduled, and the she-bass above would be caught, clubbed, bled, then eaten with much joy and beer.

But she will live.

And because she lives, a few thousand more sand eels will die while wriggling in her belly.

That's how it works. Really.

Yesterday I mentioned Hansel and Gretel in class--a lot of my lambs did not know the story.

Today I mentioned Tithonus--he was granted immortality, but forgot to ask for youth. I was messing around with the class, talking about some technological "advancement" that was likely to occur after I die. I welcome death. Not today, but someday.

Hey, it's biology class.

I have to be careful--I do not want to frighten children. I do not want them to cower in a corner. Still, this is biology. Organisms live. Organisms die. We have plenty of people selling immortality. I'd be remiss if I failed to mention death in a class studying life.

We are afraid of what we know to be true.

Getting older is weird--I am shocked every time I look in a mirror.

As strange as it is, though, the biology is fascinating. Death is fascinating. It's scary when you focus on the "you" in you, less so when you focus on life in general. Still scary, though.

I am charged by the state of New Jersey to teach biology, the study of life. Our culture assumes immortality.

Religion has no place in the science classroom, but I think death does, at least in biology class. Death cannot be approached without religion in its most basic sense.

What to do, what to do? Do what's in the best interests of the children.

So I teach death.

So a sand eel survives. On Sunday, a day it does not recognize as the Sabbath, it will eat plankton. Or rather, it will eat thousands of tiny, individual organisms lumped as "plankton" because we, humans, see tiny organisms in the sea as insignificant.

Each organism matters, or it does not. Life matters, or it does not. Pure logic.

That we, humans, choose to lump individual organisms in a category such as "plankton" or "algae" or "animal" to reduce groups to something less than us may be one of the characteristics that defines what we are.

I have no idea why we are here or why, but I spend most of my moments in bliss, happy to be alive.

Two days ago, as I was walking to school, I was steaming about some hypothetical situation, and a crow flew overhead.

It cawed. In joy. (My evidence? Little, I know, but I recognize joy--if you cannot recognize joy, you'd have stop reading my words long ago.)

A mid-October morning, about 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and I get a needed kick in the ass from a crow.

You are not special. You will die, too.

So live.

Monday, October 19, 2009

NJCCCS: Oh, really?

Design and create a prototype for solving a global problem, documenting how the proposed design features affect the feasibility of the prototype through the use of engineering, drawing, and other technical methods of illustration.

Reverse-engineer a product to assist in designing a more eco-friendly version,using an analysis of trends and data about renewable and sustainable materials to guide your work.

Develop a cure for cancer in an ecologically sound way and run a clinical trial using androids developed using recycled matrials in an economically sound model.

OK, I made the last one up--the other two are real.
You could look it up....

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I'd settle for less

It's all well and good for the scientific sort among us to rant and rail against the infringement of superstition into science class.

There are few scientific theories more firmly supported by observations than these: Biological evolution has occurred and new species have arisen over time, life on Earth originated more than a billion years ago, and most stars are at least several billion years old. ...To deny children exposure to the evidence in support of biological and cosmological evolution is akin to allowing them to believe that atoms do not exist or that the Sun goes around the Earth.

Alas, "exposure" hardly makes a dent in anyone's mind, never mind a child forced to endure whatever comes her way in a curriculum designed by committees of adults living in far away cities, many of whom could not pass a sophomore's biology test given this past Friday.

If I were the Education Czar, I'd focus on helping kids get a grasp on what a "billion" means before exposing them to anything more daunting than making observations at the edge of a pond.

I'm make sure that they even realize that hundreds of critters can be found in a few drops of water from that same pond.

Instead, I am pounding macromolecules into the skulls of 15 year old children a year before they take high school chemistry.

(A science teacher bleating "just be able to recognize the structure..." is just plain pitiful.)

(By the way, gentle reader--just how long does it take for a billion seconds to pass?)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Teaching the controversy

Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection almost 150 years ago. Most people who debate its merits have never read it, and here in the States, his work has been reduced to whether one "believes in" evolution, as though it falls in the same category as astrology, elves, and Santa Claus.

To understand Darwin's work, you need to understand his reluctance to acknowledge his own conclusions. Evolution per se was not the difficult part--heck, Darwin's grandfather Erasmus published that decades before Darwin's work, and it wasn't original then.

If you grasp why Darwin was so torn by his own words, then you get the controversy.


We make connections, even (or maybe especially) when we're children. The universe revolves each of us.

Rally caps, inside-out pajamas, horoscopes, and sidewalk cracks--all have power. We spend our time living in supernatural universes that do not yet (nor ever will) exist.

Starfish were designed to eat clams, alas....

We look at creatures, and of course they were designed--the dolphin has flippers to swim, the bee has a stinger to sting, humans have brains to think and thumbs to grasp tools. Every species alive today fits very neatly in its niche, as though designed just to do so.

Any child paying attention can reasonably conclude that organisms as complex as lightning bugs and robins and catfish were designed to be a part of the world, a specific part of the world.

That much is true. No matter what side you fall on, critters are obviously designed for their environments.

You can know this and not believe in the supernatural.


The crux of Darwin's theory, the crux of the controversy, is this--natural selection reasonably and completely explains the diversity of life here on Earth.

This upset Darwin. It upsets a lot of people. It's a big deal.

You cannot fully explain Darwin's importance if you do not understand what the fuss is all about. Most of my students enter their sophomore year believing that Darwin formulated the theory or evolution.

He did not.

He developed a reasonable explanation for the diversity of species through natural selection alone. Others had similar ideas, but his work was cogent, concise, and readable.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection reads as though it was written by a man trying very hard to convince himself he was mistaken, but failed to break through the chains of rational thought. The man Darwin was trying to convince was himself.

The theory of evolution removes the need for any other explanation for the diversity of life here--supernatural or otherwise. It requires no further layers to explain how species form.


On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection does not, however, preclude a Creator. It does not explain how life began, nor makes any attempt to do so.

One of the first people to read the book was the Reverend Charles Kingley, a writer and a Protestant priest, who sent a note to Darwin congratulating him on his treatise. In the letter the Rev. Kinsley noted:

I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made. I question whether the former be not the loftier thought.


As for the "controversy," the attempt by a few folks with a perverse interpretation of the Gospels to create a scientific curriculum that includes Intelligent Design, well, I present the thrust of their argument--that organisms clearly designed for their environment require some sort of intelligence behind the design--without presenting their motives.

It's the way my sophomores think anyway--they're still children. Heck, it's how we all think.

The whole point of Darwin's work is that it demolishes the need for a designer. The Intelligent Design hypothesis is not a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution--it is that very idea that Darwin destroys in his book.

Calling Intelligent Design a scientific alternative to evolution is like recognizing the Flat Earth Society as a reasonable alternative to a round Earth.

I wish Darwin was wrong. I wish Santa Claus still brought me presents. I wish people would start thinking.

And I still wish upon stars....just not in science class.

*Even more important, you can know this, believe in the supernatural, and still accept,
indeed embrace, the theory of evolution, without any appeal to the supernatural.

Oh, my thoughts on a Creator? On cosmological origins? On energy? On mass? All great mysteries.
Let the mystery be--once you try to explain a mystery to me, you're no longer dealing with a mystery but a myth.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Teaching, farming, and the American Way

Let me be clear on this--teaching requires skills and commitment that a few of us do not have, and the few of us that do not have both skill and commitment need to be shown the door. (I am excepting, of course, the steep learning curve for beginning teachers--new docs kill a few patients, new teachers kill a few NCLB scores--it's all part of the social contract.)

Judging teachers by their students' test scores, however, shows a misunderstanding of metrics.

In our culture of binary thinking ("you're either with us or against us"), useful conversation has gone the way of the Princess telephone. Oh, we can namber on about the Super Bowl, the don't-call-it-swine flu, and stocks we don't own, but any discussion involving thought violates the binary social code.

When practicing medicine, docs and nurses knew who the good ones were ("I would send my mother to her"), and who to avoid ("I wouldn't send my dog to him). In between lies a huge class of decent docs doing a reasonable job in a very difficult profession. We had boards to pass, but they were a minor (if expensive) inconvenience that did not reflect our clinical abilities.

Here's a quote from Wendell Berry, a farmer and a writer--it is a long one in our world of sound bites and binary battles:
The fact is that farming is not a laboratory science, but a science of practice. It would be, I think, a good deal more accurate to call it an art, for it grows not only out of factual knowledge, but out of cultural tradition; it is learned not only by precept but by example, by apprenticeship; and it requires not merely a competent knowledge of its facts and processes, but also a complex set of attitudes, a certain culturally evolved stance, in the face of the unexpected and the unknown. That is to say, it requires style in the highest and richest sense of that term.

Change "farming" to "teaching" and read it again.

A farm today is judged by its output, its profit margin. Farming has become industrialized for a few good reasons, and a few bad ones. If you want to eat a good apple, a good tomato, a good eggplant, you'd best find a farmer who has abandoned industrial farming (and a few exist), or grow it yourself.

Do we want industrialized teaching, measured by tests that quantify a child's factual knowledge without assessing her lifetime value as a citizen in our American experiment? Do we want to judge teachers by their ability to produce such a child?

Historically, public education's priority has been to create a functioning citizenry; the current trend is to produce careerists. The two have critical, but subtle, distinctions. A citizenry that cannot grasp subtle but critical distinctions will ultimately fail as a republic.

Or you can take the easy way out--call me a union-bashing right-wing nut job, or call me a namby-pamby anti-capitalist left-wing flake. It's becoming the American Way.

I may have made up the word namber.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

On brain biopsies and teacher assessments

I've mentioned this before in context of drug screening in high school students, but Bayes' theorem holds when analyzing tests that assess teacher performance as well.

Suppose your district buys into Edumegacorp's teacher rating system, the Assessment of Holistic Learning Environments (the AssHoLE test). The test is 95% sensitive--it will detect bad teacher 95% of the time. It is also 95% specific--"good" teachers will pass 95% of the time. Sounds like a great tool, no?

Let's further suppose it's used in a district that uses the best teachers in the universe--99% of them are competent. 1000 of them are tested. Hey, a good teacher has nothing to fear, eh?

Do the math. The ten incompetents will be correctly identified--it's a sensitive test. 5% of the remaining 990, however, will also be identified as incompetent. About 50 teachers will fail their assessment. Only 10 of the 60 who fail the AssHoLE test are truly incompetent.

It gets better though. The tests being used to judge teacher performance were not designed to test teacher performance, they were designed to assess student performance in very limited tasks.

This is like biopsying your brain to see how your liver is doing.

Just saying....

The brain biopsy is via Wikimedia commons, with a share alike CC license--
I hope they asked the patient who's brain has been splayed open to the internet universe.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

An edublogger poll on fraudulent responses

The leaf above is the registered trademark of Applebatch.

Except for when I mention certain buzzwords (fluoride, vaccines, and fetuses), my blog has a steady visitor rate--I get a few dozen a day, usually the same people. I visit a couple dozen blogs a day, mostly those of folks who read mine. It's a hobby, it's fun, and it's cheaper than the local bar.

It burns me to get responses from folks posing as interested parties just to plug some website.

I understand someone who comes in on a flaming rocket and screams VISIT MY WEBSITE LOTS OF VIAGRAPORN--I don't like it, but I understand it. I delete the message, then move on.

What irks me is when someone poses as a teacher, then casually lists a drops the name of a website that makes their professional education life better.

First year teaching sucks. It's hard, hard, hard, and it takes some time to find one's voice in a classroom. Predators seek the weak, and first year teachers are vulnerable. Every now and then I will get a response to a post that exists just to plug a website.

Don't play me for stupid.

The latest offender is "Devin," though sometimes he poses as "Marissa." He is plugging

Here's a list of sites (besides my "Devin") that have had an Applebatch plug the few months (and this does not include folks who deleted the poseurs):
Reflections on teaching: Devin
TeacherLingo: Terri C.
Bellringers: Marissa
Teachers at Risk: Jessica Baker (and Molly in August)
Shrewdness of Apes: Devin (and Mick back in August, but Mick did not hide.)
The Blue Skunk Blog (highly recommended, btw): Kim
Newly Ancient: Molly again
Edweek: Mick is working as hard as Molly
Hey Jude: Kim
Discovering Biology in a Digital World: Mick, again not hiding
Bit by Bit: Marty does a good job here; would have fooled me, but again, the anonymity is a clue
Human for Fellow Teachers: Kim again
Teaching in the Inner City: hhutchinson--clever!

Hipteacher got hit, but she apparently deleted the message. She's earned her monicker.

The CEO of Applebatch is George Hammer III (no, really!). If you're a blogger, and you've been hit, drop him a line.

Any others I've missed?
How many other bloggers out there have been hit by disguised plugs?

The passion of Professor Piranian

In one of my many previous lives, I was a math person. I had done well on the SAT's, the University of Michigan gave me some change, and I was plonked into a high level calculus course with four other freshmen who had shown some aptitude for math.

The course was taught by Professor Piranian, a lively man who was interested in everything, but bled mathematics.

After a couple of weeks, I was floundering. It would take me an hour or two to solve a problem, and we had several to solve each week. I did not have that kind of time. (There were Frisbees to catch, philosophies to be debated, beer to drink.)

I went to visit him.

When I walked in, he was sitting behind a massive desk, intently reading. He had some classical music playing on the radio. I came to talk math, and he immediately asks me who the composer was.

I had no idea.

Once he settled down from his absolute consternation that a student of his might be a complete imbecile in matters of real music (he never asked me about the Ramones), we got to my concerns.

I told him I was obviously unqualified for the class (as much as I truly enjoyed his teaching), that it was taking me an hour or two to solve his problems.

He stopped me immediately.
"An hour or two?"
"Um, yes, sir, it takes that long...."

He blew up.
"An hour or two , an hour or two?! You are solving this in AN HOUR? I am not challenging you enough. You should be drinking math, you should be breathing math! You should be...."

This went on for some time. In retrospect, I think he meant well, and had I gotten to know him a little better, I may be teaching high school math now instead of high school biology.

One thing was clear, though--I was never going to be a professor of anything if it meant that kind of monomaniacal passion.

So I quit.

I went on to practice medicine in the projects and eventually teach high school, and John Savoie, one of the 4 students left, became a poet, though he subsidizes his income as a full professor in English. I'd love to know what happened to the other three.

I was going to write about testing metrics today, but in the process learned about Professor Piranian's recent death, and his wonderful life.

I am a madman in the classroom. I think maybe Professor Piranian had something to do with that.

Thank you, Dr. Piranian--I even know who Beethoven is now.

(Hey, he was the Unabomber's professor, once, too--the things you learn on the internet!
Sometimes monomania leads to undesired results.)

(Dr. Piranian's photos are from his website, used with permission.)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

My UbD essential question of the day

The 150th anniversary of Darwin's On the Origin of Species is coming up November 29.

Do you believe in evolution?

Are you a Bible-thumpin', gun-totin' wingnut?
On most days, nope.

Do you think descent with modification goes a long, long way towards explaining the unity and diversity of life on Earth?

Are you a tree-huggin', granola totin' wingnut?
On most days, nope.

According to Darwin (or today's biologists) did humans come from chimpanzees?
Nope, no rational scientist in her right mind said this.

Am I related to the toe fungus growing on my Aunt Millie's foot?
Yep, I accept that we're (very) distant cousins.

So far no real controversy--I can hold on to a very strong theory that explains just about all we know in biology, I can dabble in the Gospels (and you might best run away if you see me walking around mumbling about Mark reasonably ending at 16:8), and anyone who spends time outside knows life is weird enough that everything that respires just might all be cousins.

Here's the big one, though, and one that cuts across the boundaries.
Were humans inevitable?
This is where hubris takes a hit.
This is part of why Darwin spent a lifetime trying to find cracks in his own work.
This is why teaching biology can change a student's world.

Any thoughts?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The altar of the horseshoe crab

The annuals are flowering like there's no tomorrow, and for them, that's reason enough. I gathered up 8 or 10 small cherry tomatoes this morning. A small eggplant hangs from a plant still daring to flower.

The basil is still flowering. converting the sun's energy into nectar to attract the bees, which are still buzzing, who will use the sugar to produce honey to keep them alive for the few months around here when the sunlight weakens too much to support all the life of summer.

From The Lancet, (Britain's version of our New England Journal of Medicine):
If the pace of increase in life expectancy in developed countries over the past two centuries continues through the 21st century, most babies born since 2000 in France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the USA, Canada, Japan, and other countries with long life expectancies will celebrate their 100th birthdays.
Does that make you feel better? More relaxed?
Did you do anything today that makes living to 100 a bigger deal than living to, say, 50 years old?

I run a class website, but I keep it separate from here. The class site is for students and their parents, this one is for me and a handful of folks who share similar conversations. The last thing I need is a chat with an administrator who wonders why I implied that humans are doomed, that life is awesome whether (or the more likely not) humans choose to continue to be part of it, and that current economic practices have (in a biological sense, anyway) predictable consequences, consequences best not shared with children in a public setting.

I have a bad habit in the classroom. Anytime a students asks me "if I do such and such will I die?" my answer is always the same.

You will die.
But not today.
And not because of "such and such."

(Unless it is one of my wackadoodles wondering if it's OK to mix bleach and ammonia just to see what happens--do not do this.)

The altar of the horseshoe crab
Cape May, September 28, built and abandoned by an anonymous child

I find solace in that eggplant flowering as the days darken. I do what I can do, but I am not wrapped up in grief over a culture that cannot be sustained more than a few more generations if current practices continue.

I am not going to hammer the kids with images of what we have destroyed--I want them to see what we have.

If a child starts to recognize the beauty and structure of the flow of life, starts to recognize the mystery of what we do not (and cannot) know as truly a mystery that cannot be solved by a bigger shot of technology, starts to truly see how everything is held together by everything else, she will smile before she despairs.

And she just might figure out a few worthwhile things to do with the extra decade or two she gets in the bargain.

The child who built her altar above has a clue. I hope she still does by the time she finishes high school.

Friday, October 2, 2009

End of the line?

I read pretty much anything Sean Nash writes--he is a biology teacher in Missouri, yet teaches one of the premiere (OK, kickass) classes of oceanography in this fine country. He recently wrote a blog piece on a film (or what we used to call film--I guess video is the word now).

Mr. Nash wrote (yet another) fine post, linked above. This is my response:

I am one of the water people–I am banging away on the keyboard less than a mile away from the Delaware Bay. My wife is out walking, she’ll find the edge tonight.

Anyone who’s lived more than a few decades along the shore can see the changes. It’s complicated, though, by the wide variations in local populations, but not so complicated that imminent collapse is invisible.

I have neighbors who farm the sea. At least one other in our town is a scientist who helps set limits on those who make a living on the waters around us (we live on a cape).

The scientist does not know the waters as well as my scalloper friend, though both recognize the problem.

I will not be able to attend your event, but urge all who read your words to visit your websites–you have created a marvelous program about, well, our world.

I fear we may be well past a tipping point, but I find hope in my night walks. A comb jelly glows its electric blue when caught in the tiny curl of a bay wave, a ghost crab freezes in front of me, then runs into the water, seemingly defying physics as it treats seawater like air.

Life is here, it is happening, and it will keep happening. 3 billion plus years is a long time–the media is excited by the recent unveiling of Ardipithecus ramidus (”Ardi”), but my faith rests in the critters that have found their niches independent of the nonsense we’ve created.

Contrast 4.4 million years (Happy Birthday, Ardi) with the 3.5 billion years or so life’s been around on this planet. Do the math. Really, do the math.

We are not special, though we are part of something truly special. It’s enough for some of us to be bit players in a larger scheme of, well, awesomeness.

(These words make more sense when sitting on a jetty watching the tide rise and fall. They make no sense sitting in a building. Guess where I prefer to be?)

Descent with modification will trump “evolution.” Evolution is a human conceit–revel in the moment of life.