Saturday, February 28, 2009

Science can fix anything, and other fantasies

Mission: Scientifically literate students possess the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.

NJ DOE's 2009 Standards Revision Project

The state board of education believes that "a quality science education fosters a population that applies scientific knowledge, and skills to increase economic productivity." (The sentence is not grammatically stable--the comma is theirs, not mine. Committees love commas. )

At least it says as much in the Vision Statement for our proposed state curriculum standards.

I can understand the concern panic. Wall Street needs help, the state's staring down an economic abyss, and, well, if science can put a man on the moon, then this should be easy. We have a knowledge-based economy, science advances knowledge, bada-bing, bada-boom.

Houston, we have a problem.

Let me toss out two premises for discussion:

1) Our economy is not a knowledge-based economy.
So long as we are mammals, our economy remains tied to the land. Getting filthy rich might require knowledge-based data-mining skills, but the overall economy still depends on Earth's blessings.

Food. Water. Fiber. Fuel.
Wheat, rice, corn, pork bellies, cotton, hemp, wool, alpacas, coal, sunlight, oil, wind.

I'd be the first to concede that growing wheat, raising sheep, digging a well, and harnessing wind all involve intricate knowledge, but I doubt that's what is meant by a "knowledge-based economy." A look at the particulars of the curriculum confirm this.

A "growing economy" based on exponential extraction of natural resources cannot last.
The United States agriculture depends on extraction--we put as many calories into farming as we get out of it. Our food is cheap because oil is still cheap. It is also finite.

Capitalism as currently practiced (Adam Smith wouldn't recognize it) depends on economic growth; economic growth depends on increasingly efficient methods of exploiting limited resources.

Exponential growth is unsustainable. Humans, like any other critter borrowing water and oxygen from this land, have a finite carrying capacity.

Acknowledging these premises does not make me a Marxist, but might mark me as a science teacher. It puts a dent in my ability to foist the state's agenda on my kids.

I hope someone at the state level sees the inconsistencies in the proposed standards.
If nothing else, could someone in Trenton be kind enough to fix the grammar?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Weighing in

I love teaching physical science. I have three classes of freshmen euphemistically called "Level 1 College Preparatory Physical Science." If a course name has more than a dozen syllables, chances are its geared towards what we used to call the low level students.

Kids end up down here for a variety of reasons, but lack of intelligence is rarely the primary reason. (I am not going to harp on the pedagogical nonsense that all children are capable of being above average. A few kids indeed lack the innate tools to survive the higher level courses.)

I don't exactly teach physics lite, but I do try to minimize the math. We discuss scenarios after reviewing concepts.

The past two days we have been chatting about gravity. Most already knew that you weigh less on the moon--I think that's now culturally ingrained. Democracy is good, America rocks, and you weigh less on the moon.

I then warned the class I was going to ask college level questions (while avoiding the math):

Do you weigh the same on top of Mount Everest
as you do in Bloomfield?

The kids surprised me--a good chunk of them figured out that we actually weigh less on top of Everest, and a couple of them excitedly explained to their neighbors why they thought this was so.

What would happen to you if we could magically
attach a second Earth directly over Bloomfield,
about 20 feet ab
ove the ground?

Again, the kids shone. Faces wiggled as neurons fired. Some were exasperated (and frustrated), but a few of them realized that the net force from the double Earth would be zero, and they could bounce from one Earth to the other by pushing off the ground.

And then the dreaded, wonderful question that the teacher cannot answer--what would you actually feel if your body was simultaneously pulled by two Earths only 20 feet apart? Would you feel anything at all? Would you feel like you were being stretched?

I know I'd have about 200 pounds of force pulling me in opposite directions, but if this force is evenly distributed over my mass, just what would I feel?

Any takers?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Blue oyster cultch

Organizations love mottoes and mission statements and other sorts of committee-speak that expend lots of time and energy that might actually be used for, say, teaching.

Committees drink lots of coffee, committees fill appointment calendars, committees eventually compromise on some pablum. I never expect committees to spew anything resembling wisdom.

I teach at Bloomfield High. I live in Bloomfield. I grow vegetables in Bloomfield. I scan its skies through the urban glow to see miracles above me. We don't have a ton of money, but we have stoops and more than a few stay at home parents. Many of our children here will work in the family business whatever that may be--painting, masonry, landscaping, plumbing.

While the glorified among us search for bodies to fill the elite skilled positions in life, towns like Bloomfield continue to provide a sturdy class of citizens ready to roll up their sleeves, lend a hand, make a community work. We've got real bakeries, real pizza, real craftsmen (and craftswomen) and real stoops.

The motto for our school district reflects committee-speak:

Educating the Leaders of Tomorrow

Few folks buy it. While Bloomfield has produced a few leaders, even our town's namesake, General Joseph Bloomfield, did not actually live here.

Still, we're not a town of followers either. Connie Francis lived here, Tony Soprano died here, and Sarah Vaughn is buried here. We're Norman Rockwellville with an edge. It's a great place to rear edgy children.

The town supports its schools.

Let me say that again. Bloomfield, a decent but not particularly wealthy town, supports its schools. We pay taxes. We go to the school plays, the games, the art shows. Most of our local taxes go to support our schools, and most adults in town do not have kids in school.

We are not unique that way.

Our high school, however, has its own motto. I'm not sure it's the official town creed, but it's how we live.

So, Mr. Arne Duncan, let me toss my high school's motto your way, a motto painted boldly on a wall next to our arts atrium on the second floor, a wall painted by students on a weekend.

In three words it captures our town, and I think most of the nation not warped by the Wall Street madness that infects so much of our public life today.

Learn to live!

It's right up there, big as day. It's not "Learn to work!" or "Learn to follow!" or "Learn to do Algebra 2! or "Learn to kick India's ass!"

Learn to live.

Next week is the HSPA testing. This week the state (again) changed its mind on the curriculum. I can't really blame them--they're trying to train students for corporate jobs that don't yet exist.

When I left school today, a few dozen students were going through our musical's dress rehearsal. A dozen more young women played basketball in front of a hundred or so locals watching our kids in our gymnasium, paid for by us.

A dozen more kids were selling pretzels and candy for the Key Club, money ultimately donated to several local causes involving local people.

Here's a list of companies and foundations not giving us money:

Gates Foundation.
Walton Foundation.
Bruhn-Morris Family Foundation.
Capital One
City First Bank
Comcast Cable
Donatelli & Klein
Graham Fund
Hattie M. Strong Foundation
Marpat Foundation
National Geographic
National Home Library Foundation
Payless ShoeSource Foundation
Radio One
The Sallie Mae Fund
Susan W. Agger Family Fund of The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region
Target Stores
The Washington Post Educational Foundation

Learn to live.


If I wasn't under the NCLB gun to get my kids through the HSPA, here's a lesson I might teach my lambs--the history of oystering in the United States.

We all have property rights independent of whatever patch of land the few of us might be lucky enough to own.

We all own a piece of public land, the commons. We all have a stake in the "public trust doctrine"--we, as citizens, have rights allowing us to gain access to water and land that we do not individually own.

I can gather oysters on the Delaware Bay without interference (beyond applying for a license and spitting out $12). Without the public trust doctrine, I am nothing more than a pirate (which would be way cool, of course).

I have this right because a few folks braver than me fought on the Mullica River back in 1907. Two hundred or so oystermen fought against the few who were among the privileged.

You won't read about this in any high school history textbook. You won't read much about the coal wars fought by miners, or Tom the Tinkerer (Whiskey Rebellion). Kids learn about the Boston Tea Party without grasping its anti-corporate thrust.

A child can go through school in Jersey without learning a thing about how to get an oyster just a few miles away from her classroom while being forced to learn the quadratic equation if she wants to earn a diploma.

Oystering melds biology and history and craftsmanship and industrial arts and nutrition and, perhaps most important, citizenship. The story reminds us how we, as American citizens, serve as the foundation of the Great Experiment.

HSPA won't test this. It's not in the biology curriculum. It's not in the history curriculum. It's not in the industrial arts curriculum.

Still, it matters. And I teach in a town that still recognizes this.

Oysters live on oyster beds. They cannot live on bare sand or mud--they'd suffocate.

When I pull a few oysters off a bed, I just about always pull a few off that are too small too eat. Oysters wrap themselves around each other, and pulling one involves pulling several.

When I get a handful of oysters, I break off the small ones and toss them back to the bed. Oysters pile on top of oysters which pile on top of oysters.

The cultch is the pile of shells and debris that allow oysters to continue to reproduce. Oysters need hard surfaces, oysters need calcium. When I toss my tiny oysters back, I am helping the community to survive.

I cannot oyster on Sundays, but I usually return to the beds anyway, to toss back the shells of the oysters I ate the day before.

I could throw them in the garbage. A truck comes by every week to pick up most anything I want to throw away.

My oysters were alive Friday. I killed them Saturday. On Sunday, I return the shells to the bed. The flesh of the oysters is a true gift, unearned.

I was born in America yesterday. I reap the benefits today. I hope to give back to the children what I have enjoyed. Living in America, our America, is a true gift, unearned.

The least I can do is prepare the bed for future generations.

My bias is, obviously, oysters. The American story can be told by weavers, by farmers, by miners, by carpenters, told by soldiers.

Our story is local.
Our story is real.
Our story matters.

I do not recognize the American Diploma Project as citizens, despite the name; I do not recognize multinational corporations as American; I do not believe that CEOs of multinationals have my town's interests at heart.

I cannot think globally. No one can. It's a lie. I can imagine a village here, a city there, but imagining a global village is like imagining a million deaths--both become abstract piles of numbers . I can imagine, however, a single child dying. We all can. We're human.

Get your butt outside, get to know your neighbors. Get involved with your school district's curriculum.

I'll take care of the oyster cultch. You take care of what matters in your neighborhood.

And if you think your neighbor is worthy of teaching your children your local history, get involved in education.

ATT isn't going to take care of you when you're old or ill, but your neighbor will.

Photo by Leslie.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


This is what I like to do on Saturdays.
(It's illegal on Sundays.)

"Incent" incenses my senses

It's HSPA "blitz" month here in Bloomfield. The tests are looming, now less than two weeks away. Mr. Duncan wants to incent our kids to do well.

"Blitz" is short for blitzkrieg, a German word coined in 1939 that means "lightning war." It comes from the same kind of reasoning that produced "Shock and Awe," a grim reminder that warfare waged against civilians is now acceptable in Western civilization. In some ways, "blitz" is the perfect word for the intense prepping this month.

Teachers sometimes wonder why children cannot do this or cannot do that. We wonder why they insist on magical thinking, believing that if they wish for something hard enough, it will come true.

They learned from watching adults. A President who lies to launch a war. A superstar athlete who juices up to launch a baseball. Hedge fund traders who cook books to launch Ponzi schemes. Each considered the epitome of success.

Our newest Secretary of Education said recently:
"I think we are lying to children and families when we tell children that they are meeting standards and, in fact, they are woefully unprepared to be successful in high school and have almost no chance of going to a good university and being successful."
He testified to Congress in August, 2006:
"I am proud to announce that our elementary schools achieved The Power of 4! This year, four more students per classroom met state standards compared to last year. In reading, 60% of students are meeting standards, compared to 39% in 2001. In math, 65% of students are meeting standards, compared to 35% in 2001."
The reason the Chicago Miracle sounds too good to be true is because it is just that.

Dig beneath the headlines. Exploring Mr. Duncan's statistical manipulation might make for an interesting math lesson. No miracle, just manipulation.


I don't mind paying taxes to support democracy, to promote citizenship, to create a stronger town, a stronger country.

I do mind paying taxes to promote the interests of business over the well-being of our children.

From the Business Roundtable folks:

"To compete and succeed in an international marketplace for talent, U.S. workers need a 21st century approach to lifelong learning that enables them to develop and refresh the skills needed for high-skilled service and manufacturing jobs. Business Roundtable is calling for the development of a modernized, streamlined, and effective system that provides universal access to workforce training and adjustment assistance to maintain a nimble and productive workforce."
They were, of course, thrilled with Arne Duncan's appointment.

If we are going to let business leaders dictate educational policy primarily to fulfill their needs, if we're going to let businesses threaten a cornerstone of democracy, a free and public education for all, at least make them do it on their own dime.

A smart child in a good home fed a decent diet living under the guidance of loving adults who actually spend a few hours a day with the child will have no problem passing a national test.

If only the rest of the kids would go away....

Spearhead: just because....

I love teaching science.
I love Michael Franti and Spearhead.
I love love songs.
I love dancing.

And I especially love the message "The more I see, the less I know...."

Joy, joy, joy....
What's not to love?

A comet among us

Arne faces Newsmakers (C-CPAN) in a few hours. He'll likely twaddle away about some manufactured success story, a few of us will likely twitter about his twaddle, and meanwhile the universe continues to be amazing.

I need to focus more on what matters.

This morning's thoughts are fueled by oysters we ate last night, oysters that were having whatever oyster thoughts they have just hours earlier when I scampered along the jetty and plucked them off the rocks.

No sense contaminating a good oyster stew with politics. Let's talk about the universe instead.

There's a comet overhead. It's green. It's easily visible in binoculars.

Most folks who hear about it in this part of the world will read about it somewhere, maybe even talk about it, and make no attempt to see it, because, well, once you've seen the photos....

A few folks will get a vicarious visceral thrill pondering the millions of years it will take Lulin to return, imagining what Earth was like last time it passed by the sun, imagining a world beyond their deaths.

A handful of people, though, might go outside and look for it.

If you do not know much about constellations, finding the comet may seem impossible, but I think I can get you there in less than 5 minutes. A caveat before you get chilled by the late February night. This is not your father's Hale-Bopp.

Friday night I saw the comet in 7X binoculars: the comet was a generous-sized faint green blob of fuzz without any tail I could see. I hope to catch it with 20x binos later this week, but it's unlikely that I will see anything like the photos.

Why bother? I still have a thing for reality. I get a bang when my retina captures photons that have bounce off something I want to see. Naked eye is best. Binoculars come second. Either way, my retina gets excited by a photon that made contact with that comet.

Here's my version of how to catch the green comet.

Go outside around 10 PM or so. (Yep, outside--trying to see the comet through a window is like trying to taste ice cream by licking the box.)

Look in the general southeast direction--if you're directionally challenged, try to remember where the sun comes up. About a third to halfway up, you can see a yellowish bright "star" that does not twinkle--that's Saturn.

Now look up and to the right of Saturn and look for a group of stars that look like a giant backward question mark.

The star at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus. (It's about 77 1/2 light years away--it takes a photon about one human lifetime to get here.)

Draw an imaginary line between Saturn and Regulus. Now sweep your binoculars along this line. Tomorrow the comet will be just below Saturn along this line; by Saturday, it will be kissing Regulus.

Is it worth looking for? I can't answer that. Neither can the Google news, nor the pretty weather woman telling you about it on the evening news.

I can tell you this:
You are going to be long dead before Lulin comes back.

And this:
Your monitor holds no surprises.

And also this:

So long as western culture exists in its present form,
you will always have pretty weather women (and men) ready to provide
you with vicarious living, talking of miracles in the sky.

I am frightened by the prospect of death, but even more scared of not living. Once the scales tip the other way, I'll wile away most of my waking hours in front of the monitor.

Until then, I'll keep looking up.

The picture is by Paolo Candy, who named the comet the Sword Comet.
I found the photo in Sky and Telescope.
(He named Comet Holmes the Jellyfish Comet--he is truly a comet artist)

The Leo constellation is from NASA--the backwards "?" is on the right.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Another "Raising the Bar" ceremony

"All kids are born with the ability to do it."
Lucille Davy, NJ Education Commissioner
February 18, 2009

I really wish the newspaper had modified the "it" better, but in context, I think she meant passing the newer, better, shinier, higher standards given preliminary approval by the state Board of Ed yesterday.

I was once a pediatrician. New Jersey has a lot of kids in nice buildings with modern machines breathing for them, buildings they will never leave alive.

Not every child is born with the ability to do it--a few children born do not even have the ability to live past a few hours.

I am tired of the rhetoric.

"This is about opportunity for all kids, for every child to have opportunities to go to college or not be forced to take a job that is low-level because he or she wasn't prepared properly."

Ms. Davy again, same day.

By low-level, I think she means low-paying, but I'm really not sure. By low-level, maybe she means a job that does not require a degree. I really don't know because some very bright powerful folks have learned to say nothing well.

I do know this--just about all our children not on public assistance during adulthood will be "forced" to take some kind of job unless they have a decent plot of land with clean water, and unless they know how to grow, sow, slaughter, can, knead, knit, and all those other quaint activities now seen as too "low-level" to bother learning to do anymore.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ollie Ollie In Come Free!

While I was teaching my nephew Keith how to pluck oysters from the jetty, he taught me a few things about skateboarding.

I want to learn how to "Ollie"--it's a little skip move that allows skaters to jump up curbs. More important, it looks cool.

I'm in my fifth decade, sixth if being a fetus counts for anything.

If I want to do a Kickflip or a Pop Shuvit, I have to Ollie first.

I'm a practiced faller. I've fallen off bicycles, motorcycles, unicycles, small cliffs, rooftops, cars, ladders, and snowboards. I've jammed my neck bodysurfing. Falling at any speed is not much fun at my age, but there still remains that tiny huge thrill I get before actually kissing the asphalt.

I try, I fall, I check the damage, I try again. It's fun, and I know that if I want to get to a Pop Shuvit, I got to get through the Ollie first.

Imagine if my nephew said, "Geez, Uncle Muncle, you've spent all you alloted time on the Ollie--we're going to start the Pop Shuvit tomorrow." (My trainer is a 9 year old with sense, so that's not going to happen.)

And so it goes.

Our state tests our biology students mid-May. School runs to late June. I am going to ask students to do the Pop Shuvit in March before they learned how to Ollie. (For the more literal among you, take a deep breath--I am teaching biology, not skateboarding. Maybe once I get tenure that will change.)

Mastery of almost anything requires time, effort, and (dare i say it?) love.

I can "incent" my students to know enough to pass just about any test, but mastery requires time, effort, and love.

Time. Effort. Love.

We can argue about how much blood I need to spill before I learn the Ollie--some techniques may be better (and safer) than others. Still, without the time, without the effort, and without my love of skating, all the arguments of which technique to use are in vain.

I don't care how well the Chinese can do the Ollie. I don't care how well my Ollie compares to the Russians. I don't care if the state has some test to measure my Ollieness. All I care about is mastering something I think would be uber-cool to master.

And I am going to keep trying it until I get it. Wouldn't it be uber-cool if my students had the same opportunity to master walking before I was forced to teach them how to run?

The photo is by Michael Andrus, the skater is Matt Metcalf, and the photo was found at skateboarding.
I think this is my 200th post.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Topologist's View of the Body

Perchlorate is an an interesting compound. It's found in air bags, some lubricants, mortars, and rocket fuel. It's also found in human breast milk.

Perchlorate is present in virtually all milk samples, the average concentration in breast milk is five times higher than in dairy milk....The presence of perchlorate in the milk lowers the iodide content and may impair thyroid development in infants. On the basis of limited available data, iodide levels in breast milk may be significantly lower than it was two decades ago. Recommended iodine intake by pregnant and lactating women may need to be revised upward.

Andrea B. Kirk et al.
"Perchlorate and Iodide in Dairy and Breast Milk," Environ. Sci. Technol., 2005

Ah, another environmental fountain of words. More sated Westerners, conquerors of the planet, seek to fight the good fight, to "protect" the environment, this soup we live in.

Maybe you're interested because your mother has breast cancer, or maybe you feel a little threatened by terpenes in your water. You're minding your own business, yet now you have to face some messy nonsense in this "environment."


Swallow a long string. Keep feeding the string as it passes through your gullet. Eventually it will pass out your anus. You can tie the two ends, forming a nice loop. You are topologically related to a doughnut.

(Actually, given the holes in your nose leading to the pharynx, the holes in your nasolacrimal ducts leading to your nose, and the assorted other sorts of holes in your body, you are a bit more complex than a doughnut--we're closer to pretzels.)

It's easy enough to see one as a doughnut still separate from one's environment. Keep your mouth closed, your butt tight, and you can maintain a sense of identity.


Think of a cell deep in your body. The only qualification is that it has to be alive. Let your mind meander to 3 centimeters inside your liver capsule, or maybe you prefer thinking about a kidney cell nestled deep in your back.

If it is alive, it respires--sugar combines with oxygen, heat and motion result.


We think of ourselves as separate from the environment, and that is partially true, at least at macroscopic level. Still, you must join in the global party of life, consuming bits and pieces put together by sunshine, or you cease to be.

The surface area of your skin is about 2 square meters.
Your lungs? About 100 square meters.
Your gut? 300 square meters.

While our Western sensibilities balk at this sort of nonsense, the rest of our body wants to be exposed. 400 square meters of you wants to absorb air and sugars and proteins and water. You have giant sails of mucous membranes specialized in absorbing anything and everything around you.

Meanwhile, you spew off methane and carbon dioxide, urea and heat.

To say you live "in" the environment confuses the issue. Don't let your skin define you.

Go with your gut.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Shucking oysters, mucking words

Saturday I gathered oysters with my nephew.

We had to plan around the tides and the sunset. (Got to grab them before sunset, but low tide was not until sixish.) He carefully measured each one before throwing it into bucket, and he decided when we had enough to eat.

Yesterday, I shucked them, rolled them in cornmeal, flour, a little salt and a handful of spices, and the two of us ate them. They were good, and tasted even better knowing he had harvested them.

Last night we reviewed his vocabulary words. He is required to memorize them for his weekly quiz.

According to someone in his school district, the antonym for "enclose" is "omit" and the synonym for "prison" is "cell." The synonym for "jagged" is "rugged." While I can see the path taken to get to these words, none are quite right.

One particularly troubling pair was "uneasy" for "worry"--different parts of speech.

So we sat around the table firing words at the boy, everyone (including him) knowing that we were memorizing not-quite-correct language for the sake of passing a quiz. Someone joked that he was being prepared for life in a cubicle.

Maybe he was.

I hope when he tells tales of Uncle Muncle to his grandkids, he remembers the oysters and not the mind-numbing idiocy of memorizing carelessly put together vocabulary lists.

We are teachers. We must do a better job.

Oysters on a Cape May jetty taken by Leslie. It was a Sunday, so we didn't eat take any.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fractured lives of the educated elite

I am reading Elsewhere, U.S.A.--How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety, by Dalton Conley.

Though Dr. Conley may be "one of America's most brilliant and perceptive social commentators and scholars, and an excellent and entertaining writer as well" as Jeffrey Sachs attests on the back cover, the book itself is a whiny collection of anecdotes about how tough it is for the wealthy to put together myriad psychic lives (Intraviduals? Puhleez...)

Luddites (and other folks capable of thinking as individuals) are not the target audience, and I'm not a book critic, so I'll leave the intravidual universe to the wealthy among us who wake up in the middle of the night pondering which self they want to assume the next day.

Still, I am a teacher. Conley describes a universe of highly "educated"people in agitated states because they are doing exactly what highly "successful"people are supposed to be doing. Success becomes defined by shiny toys and shinier technology (hey, babe, check out my RIM Blackberry Curve 8900).

Something is very wrong here.

I have a couple of hypotheses:
1) Dr. Conley's personal education focused on skills, not the pursuit of happiness. (For the dour crowd that cringes at "the pursuit of happiness," call it the pursuit of knowing what matters, or (dare I say it?) teaching values.)

2) Any universe that focuses on human activities in human environments in a strictly human culture valuing only human accomplishments gets real boring in a hurry. Even if you're at the top of the heap--maybe particularly if you're at the top.

"What is the point of public education?" is a fair and open question.

"How are we going to 'prepare our children to compete in a global economy'?" is a biased and limited question, and one that will ultimately produce more fractured people.

That may help Dr. Conley's Amazon ranking, but will sink the Great Experiment. Are you listening, Arne Duncan?

The picture is of the more interesting kind of blackberry, found here.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Beaky's not bringing home a diploma

Phrenology is an old, discredited art, and like many old, discredited arts, not completely without merit.

Phrenologists would read skulls and determine personalities, akin to astrologers reading stars today.

While I no longer practice medicine, obvious pathology still jumps out at me. The heart of pediatrics is child development, and after years of looking for specific signs associated with delay, most pediatricians automatically scan the facial gestalt of just about everyone--we can't help ourselves.

There are obvious socioeconomic factors working on the distribution of our students in the high school. While any kid from any social class can end up in any honors class (and often do), the ratio of well-to-do to ne-er-do-well families is higher in the honors classes than the lower levels.

No news there (no matter how much we pretend otherwise). The blessed children of Essex Fells, the wealthiest town in our county, are going to outperform (on average) those in the poorest, the blessed children of Newark, under the current testing conditions. (Hunger, lead, wheezing, family stress, frequent moving, diesel fumes, neighborhood noise, access to books/internet, violence, etc....a long, long list.)

But that's not why I am writing.

A child lounging by his locker a few minutes after the late bell lashes out at me--I notice the thin upper lip, the erased philtrum, the impulsive behavior, all suggestive of prenatal alcohol exposure.

Later I watch a tough group of "low performing" children stream out of class--a few have noticeably small heads. Microcephaly. If the brain does not grow properly, neither does the skull around it.

Some of these children will never pass the test.
All of these children can learn.

Those are not incompatible statements.

Remember Beaky the Buzzard?

I'm bringing home a baby bumble bee
n't my mama be so proud of me....

Take a look at him--slouching posture, droopy eyelids. He has hypotonia, reduced muscle tone. He's a nice kid, but slow. Really slow.

Look at any slow cartoon character--cartoonists see what others don't. Hypotonia. Bad posture. Eyes too close together. Dyskinetic movement. Teeth in the wrong place.

Bad brains.

Yep, you heard me--some kids have bad brains. And most of the bad brain crowd can be seen in the less challenging classes, what we call the "Level 1 College Preparatory" stratum here, but I'm sure other districts have similarly euphemistic names.

While more than a few bright children hide in the lower levels (often placed there for the wrong reasons), you won't find Beaky in the honors class.

I can pump Beaky full of Adderrall, inflate his self-esteem, and pay his way through a dozen Kaplan Kourses and he's not going to pass the test.

But I can still teach him a whole lot of things he needs to know, and his time in my class will not be wasted.

Even if Mr. Duncan denies him a diploma.

The Beaker Buzzard cell was found on Wikipedia.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Orion Nebula shines on an old neighborhood

I got to show a few people the Orion Nebula tonight. Our astronomy club at the high school prides itself on urban viewing, and we have adopted John Dobson's approach to stargazing--we even call ourselves the Bloomfield High Sidewalk Astronomers.

The high school security lights make star-hopping an act of faith, and through faith we manage to find the nebula--we sort of could see Orion's sword, and from there we bumbled our way to the nebula.

Light that traveled over 1,200 years hit the eyes of several people here in Bloomfield tonight. Charlemagne was Emperor of the West when those photons left their source.

An older security guard born in another land, a young man who's fought a disability that he will not let define him, and a student transferring from our high school tomorrow all got to catch some old, old photons.

Earlier today, a spectacular winter day when the mercury rose to the mid-sixties, I chatted with a colleague, sharing the joys of drinking beer on the stoop on a day like today.

On a day like today, a few folks will sit on their stoops, drinking beer, telling tales.

"White trash," she said.

No, no, not trash. And on this side of town, not mostly white, either. I may be black Irish, but I am not white trash, nor are my neighbors. There's something civil and democratic about beers shared on stoops. Ben Franklin would have fit right in.

So on a warm night in February, using a telescope bought by citizens of a town not blessed by extravagance but blessed with a sense of enough, a few more people gasped at the unexpected and the inexplicable beauty of our universe.

And, yeah, we drink beer.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Acorns and oak trees and Arne Duncan

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. In 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act, a bill in which Congress wanted to assure the "fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women …."

While scientists were busy developing phenomenal ideas that questioned pretty much everything (which is what scientists have always done, and often gets them in trouble), the Federal government confounded science with technology and took control on how certain monies were spent in education. (It threw in a loyalty oath for good measure.)

The division between science/technology and the other arts continues to dominate schooling. Lumping science and technology together reflects our pedagogical confusion and drives the science curriculum. I am required to "teach" kids who cannot connect an acorn to an oak tree how DNA technology works.

When I was in school, teachers cautioned me against anthropomorphizing. I would make an observation--"my dog smiles"--and get back a declaration--"that's anthropomorphizing, it's not really smiling." So I learned to change my language for the same observation.

"My dog pulls back its lips in a way that resembles human smiling." Only humans could feel, well, human.

I still say my dog smiled. Turns out I may have been right all along. Even mice recognize pain in other mice, and it influences their response to pain. It's even more pronounced if the mouse knows the other mouse experiencing the pain.

Don't call it empathy, call it "emotional contagion."

Two ways to take this--either humans are not as special as we thought, or maybe more things are special than just our branch of primates.

Meanwhile, I teach about DNA technology in class while the lunch ladies two stories below me lovingly slap slabs of mammal meat on bread made from the least nutritious part of wheat to serve to the same kids that don't know an acorn from an oak tree.

I recognize that knowing an acorn from an oak tree won't help my kids compete in the global market. I suspect it will help them lead happier lives.

What to do, what to do....

Two years ago I made a loaf of bread mixing a few wheat berries grown by the kids on a windowsill with the wheat berries I keep at home.

The bread was delicious, and most of my lambs enjoyed it. A few, however, were put off by the idea that their breath had anything to do with the bread they were now asked to share.

Communion took on a whole new angle.

Communion is an old word, and comes from communio--mutual participation. Communion is about sharing.

The lunch ladies love their charges. Josephine calls me Pumpkin, and I may even be a little bit in love with her.

Josephine does not know where the meat comes from. I don't expect that she should. She serves it with love, I eat it.

I know better, but I do it anyway.

Mr. Arne Duncan, our United States Secretary of Education, believes that we must prepare our children for a global economy. He speaks in tongues.

Yesterday he said:
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago working and living with young children of color. These kids were threatened every day. They lacked role models to protect them and guide them to a safe place where learning was valued and rewarded."

I get nervous with the "these kids" crowd. I get nervous with people who wave contact with people of color as some sort of credential. I get nervous about a lot of things.He didn't mention where he went to high school.

I especially got nervous about this:

Finally, I am very excited about a $15 billion "Race to the Top" fund approved by the House. The Senate version is somewhat smaller but it is still significant.

The President is deeply committed to this program because it will enable us to spur reform on a national scale—driving school systems to adopt college and career-ready, internationally benchmarked standards.

It will incent them to put in place state of the art data collection systems, assessments and curricula to meet these higher standards.

I am going to go on record here stating I do not believe internationally benchmarked standards are a good idea. We need locally benched standards (such as distinguishing an acorn from an oak tree) before throwing the rest of the universe in. I will gladly throw in eucalyptus trees once my lambs have a handle on acorns.

And please dear God please tell me he did not say "incent."

We don't need a race to the top. We need collaboration and cooperation and (dare I say it?) love.

(It doesn't help that Mr. Duncan chose to make these comments at my neices' high school--thankfully they are both thoughtful, independent thinkers, neither of whom use the word "incent." Hi Karlyn, Hi Claire!)


Arne Duncan was a professional basketball player. A bright (but not as bright as he thinks he is) athlete who never taught.

I never taught in public schools, either, before 2005. I have almost three more years teaching than Mr. Duncan. I have not taught enough to be any kind of administer in education (and for the record, have absolutely no interest in ever becoming administer), but I have taught more than the current Secretary of Education.

So here's the quandary. I want to teach our children about acorns and oak trees. I want them to know about the Second and Third Rivers in Bloomfield. (We, inexplicably, do not have a First River.)

I want my lambs to know that the beef they eat in the cafeteria has been expediently raised in circumstances less than stellar, and that there is a real possibility they sense things recently attributed to humans only.

I want my students to connect their breath to bread, to life, and back to bread again (because their breath is connected to bread and to life).

I want my Secretary of Education to use real words.

And he wants me to start using international standards.

You cannot know what matters until you know what is happening under your nose. Give me a year with my kids and they will at least know that much.

Give me a year teaching international standards before my kids know an acorn from an oak tree, however, and they will know nothing. No matter how employable they may be (should there be any jobs left for them to find).

The bread was made by Jessica Pierce--I owe her (yet) another horseshoe crab. She likes naughty words even more than I do, so click at your own risk.

DDE is public domain.

Monday, February 9, 2009

21st century oyster

I'm old enough to know better. I have (through a combination of stars and planets and my inability to shut up) bought myself 4 observations tomorrow by two different people. Immediately after school I am speaking at a memorial service for a remarkable woman Dr. Elena Scambio who created the program that allowed me to slide from medicine to public education. I have a letter of recommendation promised to a student yesterday.

Tonight I am trying to make models of meiosis out of newspaper bags (the Star-Ledger is yellow, the New York Times blue) while building 5 accelerometers out of empty soda bottles and saved corks. I am drinking the last needed bottle now.

None of this matters to most folks reading this, and it's not the point anyway.

35 years ago, when I was in high school, we didn't have the internet. We didn't have personal computers.We didn't have texting. We didn't have individual phones. We didn't have 452 channels on the television. We didn't have digital cameras. We didn't have a clue.

So what am I doing when I should be prepping and praying for tomorrow? I'm playing on the computer, listening to American Idiot loud enough to make my ears bleed, thinking about people I never saw in natural light.

I've caught the disease. And it's not healthy.

Yesterday I held a live wild oyster in my hand, about 4 or 5 years old. It had broken off the jetty, and was sitting on the rippled sand flat. Over the next few tides, it will sink further into the sand, and when the water warms up in spring, it will starve.

It is doomed, and does not know it.

We still don't have a clue. The danger is thinking that we do.
Dr. Scambio's picture is from Bloomfield College; the oyster bed is from the South Carolina Dep't of Natural Resources.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

What makes science true?

Teachers in various departments had a rare chance to sit together at a conference at Bloomfield High School this week.

We are diving into "Understanding by Design"--Dr. Grant Wiggins has developed a nice cottage industry for himself called Authentic Education. He's managed to grab the state's ear (and a good chunk of its money), and he put the sexay back into the synthesis/evaluation steps in Bloom's taxonomy. I'm not sure he's created anything spectacularly new, but it's a well-crafted program that gives teachers some control over lesson design, and our district has bought (psychically and fiscally) into the program.

During the workshop, different departments were asked to develop essential questions. The language arts crew came out with a question I misheard as "What makes a story true?"

I don't remember the original question, but I like my mangled version, and I'm running with it.

High schools have fiefdoms called departments--our kids spend 48" a day in each fiefdom. Exactly 48 minutes.

We teach our units in chunks, each fiefdom on a schedule independent of the others.

The kids get that literature requires imagination, but they do not get that truly great fiction is always true. To be fair, there is no way to understand most of what matters when you're just a few years beyond embryohood.

Science also requires imagination, and more importantly, is a special kind of fiction. The kids see science as the Truth. More than once I have heard a high school junior scientist type sniff "I love science because it's real, unlike fiction," often a child with a poor grasp of his native tongue.

"Truth" in science is squirrely--it never quite stays in the same place. A great work of literature remains true for as long as a culture exists (and even beyond); a scientific truth changes over time. Turns out science is a special kind of story-telling.

Scientists (attempt to) explain why things in the natural world behave as they do. "Natural world" is the world we can sense directly or indirectly, and requires the faith that what happens here and now would happen then and there if the conditions are the same. (Miracles are excluded by definition.) Science gives us tremendous power because it allows us to predict and manipulate natural events.

Take the story of the electron. You cannot see an electron. We have indirect evidence for its existence, but any visual image for it falls short. Scientists create sophisticated models helping us to understand why the electron (itself a slippery concept) behaves as it does, but understanding an electron beyond the story makes no sense. It does not exist. (This is not to say something does not exist--clearly something does--but our concept of the electron is just that--a concept, not the electron itself.)

Ask a child to draw an atom--she will draw the Bohr model, the one that looks like planets spinning around the sun. Her parents will draw the same model. Quite a few teachers will also do the same. It's a cultural icon, though it's almost useless now in science.

Electrons exist, but not as "things". Atoms exist but not as particles, at least not in the solid sense. An atom is almost completely empty space.

Electrons have no dimensions. At least that's how we understand them today. How we understand them today is more "true" than how we understood them yesterday; tomorrow we will have a more "true" understanding than we do today.

Most of our culture does not get this--we worship science because it gives us neat stuff; many of us avoid great literature because it gives us pain.

What makes anything true? Not sure I can find it in science. Not sure I can find it in literature, either, but I bet I have a better shot at it there.

I love Robert Frost. Here's a piece of "The Black Cottage"--should souls survive independent of their bodies (and in Genesis it says otherwise), I hope Mr. Frost can forgive me for slicing his work.
For, dear me, why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true.
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favour.
As I sit here, and oftentimes, I wish
I could be monarch of a desert land
I could devote and dedicate forever
To the truths we keep coming back and back to.

(Hey, I love Beethoven, too--I'm a ragged collection of clich├ęd loves. What do you expect from a science teacher?)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mitotic footballs

We're doing the cell division thing this week--today we chatted about mitosis. One of the students asked why biologists used so many difficult words.

I launched into my canned discussion about universal languages, Latin roots, and the very human "us not them" mentality many professionals wrap around their lives--language matters.

I was having one of those flow moments, when I think maybe I have a clue. Those moments are all too brief. This one was briefer than brief.

Next new word? "Mitotic spindle."

No one in this part of the world spins anymore. Cloth comes from the store already cut and sewn and patterned into various forms of clothing that lift, shine, allure, and even occasionally serve utilitarian purposes. (It was 11 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, and still some children come in with bare midriffs--the price of fashion.)

Two things dawned on me. The kids had no idea what a spindle was. The kids also had no idea what "mitotic" meant.

The mitotic part was easy--if you're an athlete, you're athletic, if you have a neurosis, you're neurotic. "Mitotic" derives from mitosis. (Don't assume anything when dealing with 15 year olds.)

Spindle was a little tougher--only two kids knew who Rumpelstiltskin was, and I hadn't boned up on him, not anticipating the spindle conversation. (My Rumpelstiltskin reference led to more confusion when a student insisted Rumpelstiltskin was the princess with the really long hair. Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, what's the difference? Had the superintendent walked into the room, I might be looking for my med school diploma tonight.)

The word "chromosome" was coined in the late 1800's. Everyone knew what a spindle was then. A spindle looks like a football. The mitotic spindle looks like a football.

So today we called it the mitotic football. And it made a little bit more sense to a sleepy crew of sophomores. At the end of class, the football was put back on the shelf, and the spindle took its place.

And next year I'm taking the football off the shelf again.

The mitotic spindle was taken by Tim Mitchison at Harvard.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mr. Obama goes to school

You’re excellent listeners. And the reason we came to visit, A, we wanted to get out of the White House; B, we wanted to see you guys; but C, the other thing we wanted to tell everybody is that this kind of innovative school, the outstanding work that’s being done here by the entire staff, and the parents who are so active and involved, is an example of how all our schools should be.

POTUS, on a visit to a "public" school yesterday in D.C.

The President read to 2nd graders yesterday. Last time our President read to second-graders, I spent a very long day on Liberty Island waiting for the injured children that never came, so excuse me for being a little touchy here.

The school that Mr. Obama uses as "an example of how all our schools should be" is the Capital City Public Charter School (CCPCS) in D.C.


Political folks will point out that public charter schools are open to everyone, with students picked by lottery independent of ability. And that's true.
Parents of children at the CCPCS must volunteer 20 hours per year at the school. That takes care of a few single parent families.
Political folks will point out that the CCPCS has demonstrated that children can succeed in their environment. And that's true.
There are only 25 sixth graders, 25 seventh graders, and 25 eighth graders. The student-teacher ratio is 12: 1, which is wonderful. It is also very expensive.

How do they do it?

Gates Foundation.

Walton Foundation.
Bruhn-Morris Family Foundation.
Capital One

City First Bank
Comcast Cable
Donatelli & Klein
Graham Fund
Hattie M. Strong Foundation
Marpat Foundation
National Geographic
National Home Library Foundation
Payless ShoeSource Foundation
Radio One
The Sallie Mae Fund

Susan W. Agger Family Fund of The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region
Target Stores
The Washington Post Educational Foundation
To be fair, my high school gets money from the local Bloomfield Educational Foundation, and I think we got some bucks from Adidas. At least I hope so, since we have an Adidas banner hanging in the foyer.

We turned down Channel One a few years ago because we valued our children enough not to force them to watch commercials on school time. Go us.

Political folks will assure you the lottery system for charter school admission is random--and it is. It randomly selects from a large pool of applicants. The pool of applicants, however, is not random.

Over 60% of the District of Columbia Public Schools students qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2002-2002. (I'll update it if I ever find time to ply the quantitative waters of that district.) 43% qualify for the same at CCPCS.

Mr. President, it's apples and oranges. Bancroft Elementary School is a skip and a throw from the CCPCS. Over 80% of Bancroft's students qualify for reduced lunch prices. They're working hard there to provide a decent education for an impoverished group of kids who mostly speak Spanish.

I want to know how Bancroft does it.
I want to know if anyone at the national level has a clue about teaching kids.
I want to know how Mr. Obama is going to get my class sizes down to 12 students.
Mostly I want powerful people at high levels of government to stop playing us in the trenches.

The CCPCS sounds like a wonderful place to send your children. Money can buy a decent education. Involved parents have a tremendous influence over their children's success.

Mr. President, we already know that. What about the rest of us? Why not pay a visit to a truly public school in your neighborhood. Then we can talk.

(Fair disclosure: I am still steaming over the games Mr. Arne Duncan played with his test result numbers last summer when he came to Washington for a chat. He is either aware of his gamesmanship and plays us for fools, or he believes his own nonsense, which scares me even more.)

Grinding grain

Ye Maids who toiled so faithfully at the Mill
Now cease your work and from these toils be still;
Sleep now till dawn, and let the birds with glee
Sing to the ruddy morn from bush and tree;
For what your hands performed so long and true,
Ceres has charged the Water Nymphs to do.

Antipator of Thessalonica, 85 B.C. 1

Grinding grain is hard work, still done by hand by much of the world, and still done here at home. Hard kernels of wheat berries, barley, maize, or rice are ground into flour, the foundation for life in an agricultural society. Bread, booze, Fritos, Lucky Charms--all from ground grains.

On Sabbath, I grind wheat, a direct violation of the melachot. It is hard work. Muscles strain, but they know what to do. My mind is idle, and in the steady whir of burr on burr, my thoughts wander.

I use a Country Mills grain mill--a solid tool. It will last longer than me. The burrs need replacing every decade or so, but the rest of the machine will be fit for my grandchildren, should they choose to grind.

A small depression is growing deeper in the cement basement floor--my left foot rocks back and forth as I crank, and over time, the sole of my foot has made its own cradle. My son's bicycle rusts in the backyard--he has long outgrown it. When I get the time, I will figure out a way to rig his bicycle to my mill. I am not getting any younger, and my legs are stronger than my arms.

A wheat berry makes a fine crackle as it gets crunched between the plates of the hand mill. One stationary plate, one rotating plate. The noise sounds like the white noise background of an untuned radio. When I have drunk too much melomel, I imagine that the wheat berries make a noise beyond the crunching on the bran. There are worse things to imagine.

First my right arm, then my left. I can feel my biceps swell. My legs work, too, shifting my weight back and forth with each pass of the milling wheel. My breathing picks up.

Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. When the wheat berries were made in Montana, the wheat plant breathed in carbon dioxide, and using the sun's energy and water, created carbohydrates and oxygen. The sun's heat is now released again in the warmth of my breath, my churning muscles, and the steel plates grinding the wheat.

Before the last few wheat berries pass through the millstone, I pick 2 or 3 to go into the garden. They are, after all, alive, until ground into flour. Conscious? No, but that's not the point.

That's not the point at all.

1 from Mill Folklore: "History or Hearsay,"

The Country Mills grain mill photo is from the Everything Kitchen--I have no monetary interests in the product, but I do have an unnatural love for this inanimate object. If you buy one, get the "power bar"--grinding is hard work. Those prairie women were tough!

Happy anniversary!

Two weeks after Mr. Carter was sworn in as President of the United States, in the midst of the Great Winter of '77, I finally stole my first kiss from Leslie.

And I'm still stealing them!

Happy 32nd anniversary!

(And I didn't mention that Rumours was released by Fleetwood Mac on the very same day because you would have hated that!)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Good smells exude from crumpled earth.
The rough bark of humus erupts
knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.

Seamus Heaney, from "At a Potato Digging", Death of a Naturalist

Mid-winter thaw. The earth softens a bit under a soft rain. You wander outside, trying to shake off the heaviness of winter, to smell the awakening earth.

The mud disappoints your nose. Inert. Lifeless.

You wander back inside, dreaming of May.

Actinomycetes is a class of bacteria essential to making good dirt. They are what give compost the sweet, earthy smell that makes gardeners wild with desire.

Actinomycetes give us the smell of rain in the summer. Storms draw life from the mud. Poets and lovers already know this. Microbiologists now know why.

Actinomycetes, which look like strands of fungus, break down rotting piles of vegetation, producing geosmin, the source of the aroma of healthy soil.

The smell, considered pleasant by (most) humans, has been added to some perfumes to give them an earthiness.

So why does mud smell lifeless in February? Actinomycetes go dormant in colder climes. While it is possible to grow actinomycetes in a petri dish (and yes, it will smell like the rich, sweet soil that makes gardeners swoon), waiting for the Earth to awaken reminds me of the cycle of life.

I think I can wait.

Besides adding romance to summer showers, actinomycetes has antibacterial properties. Streptomycin and related antibiotics come directly from actinomycetes; Biaxin and Zithromax are semi-synthetic antibiotics made from this same class of bacteria.

Image from UK-JAPAN 2008 website,

Monday, February 2, 2009


I mark the seasons by plants. Some connections are obvious, strawberries and honeysuckle in June, apples and pumpkins in October. After the hard freeze in November, time seems to stop. By January, even the kale has given up the ghost.

In deep winter, rhythms cease. Some of us lose our way. Age teaches me little but patience. Sometimes that is enough. Sometimes.

Now in February the ground remains frozen, and will be for another month or two. In a couple of weeks or so, however, impossibly green slivers of grass-like leaves will break through the ice, silver stripes down their middle. A couple of weeks after that, egg-shaped cups of purple and yellow and white will flare open with the sun, exposing bright yellow stamens, the first smell of sex since the world died.

The earliest flowers defy logic, brilliant bursts of color calling bees still slumbering in their hives.

This time of year, I have just about given up on prayer.

The first bright drops of color remind me just how little I know.

This is old--I plagiarized myself from E2.