Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Twitter Dee Tweeter Dum: A Look at #ISTE20

A few disclaimers:

Twitter, despite its claim that it "
is without a doubt the best way to share and discover what is happening right now," cannot capture the synergism generated at a conference, especially for those of us sitting thousands of miles away.

ISTE stands for International Society for Technology in Education--this is a techie, not teachie, convention, so perhaps I expect too much.

Denver is the Mile High city--lower air pressure means fewer oxygen molecules per breath. Fewer oxygen molecules ->less efficient cellular respiration -> tired brain cells -> pablum.

So take this with a grain of salt and a shot of good Irish.

I am following the ISTE 2010 convention peripherally via Twitter and bloggers, and while I am sure amazing things have happened there (I've never left a conference without adding a superlative or two to my vocabulary), my twisted, twittered view (Twisttered©?) shudders at the pablum passing for profundity proffered by professionals.

Here's a list of some of the TOP 3 retweets at #ISTE10 as of this morning. Really, you could look it up:

Technology doesn't improve education, it changes it......
TEACHERS improve education.

a) This is a testable hypothesis. Go to a modern high school. Sit by a classroom door while you send your sidekick--you have a sidekick, no?--down the scary custodian basement to kill the power. Observe teachers as they bemoan their fate.

"I can't teach without lights! Without PowerPoint! Without my SMARToard! Without pencils!"

OK, the last one doesn't need power, but it's still a technological advance.

b) Why the either/or? Why not pry open our brains a crack and consider that both teachers and technology improve education. It's like saying Wheels don't improve cars....ENGINES improve cars.

c) Our paranoia is showing--screaming "TEACHERS" doesn't make us look terribly suave, not that that's our goal, but still, why not let go of the self-righteous anger. We have a pretty good gig. It's getting even better with the new tech tools in our toy box.

77% of all future jobs will require tech skills.

Pure pablum.

a) If by tech skills you mean anything that requires a tool, well, then 77% is too low--unless 13% of the jobs will be Walmart greeters.

b) "Future" is a long, long time, so this statement isn't even falsiable even if it made sense.

c) 77%? I mean really, this is the exact number we used in medicine during rounds--if you want something to sound highish and scientific, you said 77%. If you wanted a lowish number, you said 23%. No one ever challenges "77%" and "23%"--until now. SHOW ME THE DATA!!!! (I asked multiple times via Twitter--I was ignored.)

The killer app for 21st Century learning is a good teacher
This one is a real crowd-pleaser! Wow, we're the killer apps of all time! We're one with the machine!

Get a grip--we're reducing ourselves to technological techno-babble now. We are not apps, we are human. This was still obvious in the 20th century, back when centuries were not capitalized.

When you go home, take a deep breath of real air, take a nap, pour yourself some coffee, then go peruse #ISTE10 on Twitter.

If the best of the best are this confused, God help the rest of us....

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The problem with inquiry based science

H. sapiens did not suddenly get smarter the last few hundred years. The major cultural allegiance has shifted from god(s) to technology, but we're still the same beasts we were back when the sun rose on its own accord.

And that's a problem for education that tries to shove modern models into primitive brains.

By the time a child gets to high school, she has learned that paying attention to what she observes will only cause trouble.

She sees the Earth is flat.
No, child, the Earth is round. Here's a globe to show you.

She sees the sun rise, the sun set.
You see, child, the Earth spins, and the moving sun is an illusion....

She does not feel like she's moving--oh, sometimes she'll stare at drifting clouds and it feels like she's moving, but she knows it's just the clouds.
Oh, well, that's because the Earth is so huge and you're so small....

She wonders why she doesn't fly off the Earth.
Gravity, child, gravity.

She wanders over to the playground and plays on the merry-go-round. If she lets go, she flies off its edge. She asks the teacher a question: which spins faster, the Earth of the merry-go-round?
Why, the Earth, of course...

Then why, she wonders, do we not got flung off into space? But she stops asking questions.

When we do inquiry based science in the classroom, we expect the child's reasoning to lead to a culturally acceptable model. (I am not talking about the myriad errors that frustrate every lab exercise--those are problematic, but do not require frameshifts to explain.)

By the time I get students, they have been in school for 10 years--most of that time they were still concrete thinkers. If telling the teacher that the Earth is round, the Earth spins, and that we breathe oxygen gets you through a day with less aggravation, you're going to parrot whatever the teacher wants you to parrot.

Some of the curriculum standards for elementary school are absurd. We "teach" them anyway, because of the standardized testing, as bad a reason as any to mess up a child's mind.

Sophomores should spend most of their time learning how to observe. This won't happen in my lifetime, Achieve, Inc., Bill & Melinda, and the NGA have money and power.

Money trumps sense. Power trumps sense.

But I will try to make it happen in my class.

The first week of class I light a candle.

Tell me what you see
We see, um, fire?
No, that's not what we call it, what do you see?
Um, a candle with a flame?
Again, that's what we call it, but what do you see?

They get frustrated, but by the time the period is over, they see more of the flame than they ever did before. They see it refract light. They see condensation from it. They see more colors.

I don't ask for reasons, I just ask for observations. Anyone with intact senses can participate. Even pre-Renaissance H. sapiens.

And before we get indoctrinated, we're all pre-Renaissance H. sapiens.

Obviously the Geico caveman--I stole it from Belmont University.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Keeping it real: biology hooks for sophomores

Jorge Posada does it! Moises Alou did it, too!
"Steroids? Growth hormone? Is he on the juice?"
Nope--they both pee on their hands to keep them ready for baseball!

A see one of my athletes slouch in the back, sheepish grin on his face--"yeah, I do it, too..." He'll regret admitting that until he goes away to college.

Not only that, back in the olden days, when I was a kid, some mothers wiped their babies' faces with a wet diaper.
"Like wet from pee?"
"That's GROSS!"
And then I talk about urea--a simple compound, really, and the major one in urine (besides water). I draw the structure on the board, pause, then ask if anyone else in class rubs urea on their skin.
"Dr. Doyle, STOP!"
I ask them if they have any skin softeners--and, of course, everybody does, rubbing emollients onto your skin during class has superseded knuckle-cracking.

Look at the ingredients.

And then I wait for it; in a moment is comes....

Sometimes followed by a bottle of lotion flying across the room. Yes, that fancy bottle of skin softener has urea in it. I let the children fathom where it came from....

Saturday, June 26, 2010

AP Biology and Clever Hans

Tonight we jumped into the bay as the sun settled on the water's edge. My hand felt the surreal density of a comb jelly--the touch feels almost imaginary.

The comb jelly and I both rely on the sun. We both take in organic matter, strip off a few electrons and put them to work, then cough up the electrons back into oxygen, releasing water.

As I dove under the surface, I could see the glow of the sunset even under water. A few moments later, a pod of dolphins passed within 30 yards.

In a few months, I am going to be teaching students about cellular respiration and electron transport chains and mitochondrial cytochromes. Most will dutifully take notes. Few will connect the biochemistry to the beauty that surrounds them.

Something happened billions of years ago. That something has been playing out a long time, long enough for comb jellies and me to bump into each other, one life form as odd as the other.

But not that long...put a sequence of my DNA into the comb jelly, and its cells will make my proteins. If that's not disturbing, you're not paying attention.

(Paying attention costs energy. Organisms cannot afford to waste too much energy doing nonessential tasks. The ease of the iPod reflects over 3 billion years of evolution. Go us.)
Abstract models of mitochondria passing electrons down an energy gradient do not excite most folks. Quite a few of my kids have never planted seeds before. Many have never seen the ocean, despite living just a few miles from tidal waters.

Biology a few decades ago was about exposing children to the wide variety of life around us. Now it's about invisible reactions. And while watching a child spew off biochemical cycles may appear amazing, they know no more than Clever Hans, the Counting Horse, tapping out square roots.

Or maybe a lesson in illusions is what
they need to function in our culture.


I'm going to take a chance on trusting my love of biology to carve out my curriculum this year. Who knows? Maybe once kids know what exists they'll become curious about the how.

Revamping AP Bio

The AP biology guru retired last year. I tried to teach his course this year, the course with spectacular results.

I tried to use his equipment, his models, his plans. His kids routinely earned 5's on the AP test. I think one of them may have found a cure for some rare disease while working in his class. They come back to visit with spectacular tales of success in college.
He was truly a wizard.

Do my eyes look a little green to you?

Folks assume that because I was once a doc I have a clue about biology. Medicine involves more guessing than even those who practice it realize, and though I was a decent doc, medicine remains a craft, not a science.

I know a bit about a lot of things, particularly things that excite me, and I have a pretty good track record getting kids excited about science, particularly the bright wackadoodles who (rationally) decided that high school is mostly a waste of time. Some of AP (*gasp*!) is a waste of time.

I bombed. I tried to follow the AP curriculum to the letter. I tried to cram two semesters' worth of trivia into my lambs' brains. I pushed, they balked. A few quiet ones kept me going--it's a privilege teaching bright kids, and humbling to know they (mostly) did not need me.

This week I disassembled the guru's terrarium. Heck, I already managed to off the salamanders. I moved the fish into my backyard pond. I tossed away some of his old books. I threw away a pile of his exams.

I shared dinner with him this week--he understands (better than I do) why I need to carve out my niche.

So now I've bought myself a summer of curriculum development.

I had this year's valedictorian in my class--as kind as she is brilliant. She had a huge smile for me right after graduation.

I realized (too late) that my task is to guide, not push, those who love biology and who are in the course for the right reasons, not because guidance said it will make their transcript look better.

School's been out for two days, and already I want to jump back in. I have the summer to make a course that works for me and my lambs. I'll be posting thoughts and asking for your help along the way.

You will, no?

EduBloggerCon 2.0

I remember walking down Alimar Drive to Harmony Elementary School, feeling confused, pretty much all the time.

I specifically remember a conversation when I was in 4th or 5th grade. Scott was talking about the Marx Brothers. I knew Marxism was bad. I didn't know there was a whole band of them. Harpo did not sound like a Communist name.(I rarely asked for clarification of anything--I've always been a tad deaf, and I like to save my myriad interruptions for essential things.)

And so it goes for the techno world. Everything's 2.0, soon to be 3.0. Folks were twittering madly about #ISTE, and I thought maybe I had missed THE BIG ONE!

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the 2.0 Coming is at hand.

The 2.0 Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of
Siliconus Mundi
Troubles my sight; som
ewhere in mountains of Denver
A shape with man's body and the head of a bot,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its Core i7, while all about it

Reel shadows of indignant Luddites.

with aplologies to W.B.Yeats

A lot of people spent a lot of money to spend time chatting up social media the old fashioned way, face to face. "Honestly, this is a great event, and many will tell you it is the event to attend at ISTE because it's all about connecting and sharing."

I had no idea what was happening as #ISTE and EduConBlogger references tweeted before me--and again I felt like the kid who could not tell Karl from Zeppo. But I do know this much:

  1. Anything promo that needs to start with "Honestly" gets my hackles up.
  2. I'm all for connecting and sharing, and I obviously push science. Convince me that an unconference will help me be a better teacher before I plunk down my time and money.
  3. Convince me that attending this conference will make me a better teacher than, say, getting stung by a honeybee. (Really, I'd love to have a lesson where the whole class wanders around a clover field barefoot, risking a bee sting or two, but gaining so much more.)
I would love to meet many of the folks wandering around the Colorado Convention Center--some of my favorite writers are there.

Why not save the conference fees next year and all meet somewhere midway? Why not Auntie Mae's Parlor in Manhattan (the one in Kansas)? If we're lucky, Jeff and Vida will be there, singing of life.

And maybe even Scott McLeod, a true techno-guru who himself has become suspicious of these bloggerfolks, might let his hair down.

And I leave you with Jeff and Vida:

Monday, June 21, 2010


In June, the point of being a mammal (or a crustacean or even a bryophyte) is to be (happy). The happy is almost superfluous under the early summer sky.

Let others define the point (and they will) you will toil for what you know not. If spinning under the blue sky makes you happy, then spin, spin, spin!

This curious world which we inhabit is more wonderful than it is convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used. The order of things should be somewhat reversed; the seventh should be man's day of toil, wherein to earn his living by the sweat of his brow; and the other six his Sabbath of the affections and the soul, -- in which to range this widespread garden, and drink in the soft influences and sublime revelations of Nature.
Henry David Thoreau Harvard commencement speech 1837

I watched an ostracod under a microscope as it went about its business. Its movements were purposeful, and its pace picked up a bit after finding a morsel of food. Not sure it would grasp Thoreau's point, but not sure it wouldn't, either.

I said goodbye to two of my classes today. They know a little bit more about the vocabulary of biology, but even more important, they know they know less than they thought they knew back in September.

Most of my kids will be used by strangers in the next few years. Many of my lambs will pursue paths that can only lead to unhappiness (even if they make fabulous money).

None of that is any of my business, of course, but this much is--if I have given them even a glimpse of the teeming lives around, on, and in them, their worldview will be forever changed.

The Bloomfield Green holds more mystery than anything penned by humans. The universe is as much theirs as anyone's, more if they can see beyond the artificial constructs.

The word "teach" comes from the Old English tæcan, "to show, point out."

Anything beyond that is indoctrination.

The photo was cribbed from here, but it's all over the place.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

On experts, two

I got stung by a honeybee yesterday. I like to walk barefoot, and our backyard is covered in clover.
Aside from the few moments of ouch, I don't react much. It's cool finding the stinger sac still attached, pumping away more venom, if you're in a detached mood. I scraped off the stinger, let the pain wash over my foot for a few minutes, and that was the end of it.

End of the bee, too, alas.
If you are ever attacked by a swarm of bees, the USDA recommends that you run as fast as you can without flailing your arms while simultaneous pulling your shirt up around your face.

1. RUN away quickly....
2. As you are running, pull your shirt up over your head to protect your face....
3. Continue to RUN.

At least until you find shelter. Don't pull a Yogi Bear, though--if you jump underwater, they'll be waiting for you when you surface to breathe.

This would be a fun scenario to practice in class--break down the directions, try to implement them, and discuss the results. I like it so much I may try step 2 on my own today.

It's June--my words wither under the joyful June light.
Yogi gleaned from Clipart for Free.

On experts

We have vested too much authority in national officials who are really smart, but who are really distant. We should be leaving more power with local officials, who may not be as expert, but who have the advantage of being there on the ground.

David Brooks gets paid by the New York Times to spew hooey that makes the power elite feel good about themselves. I read him to get a sense of what powerful people who think they think (and who unconsciously sniff a lot) think.

He's about as bright as Arne Duncan, and just as smug. Both are capable of a lot of damage. Still, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Brooks was talking about the clean-up efforts in the Gulf. He can't quite get himself to admit that maybe locals have more intelligence than the shrimp they once seined, but he does get that local knowledge matters.

I'd take it one step further--if local knowledge makes for more effective action, then the locals are, indeed, experts.

But I'm prejudiced--I don't think national officials are necessarily really smart, no matter what sheeps were skinned.

If you look beneath the shiny sheen of school reform, you will see plumes of money flowing from huge private foundations through a ruptured public trust, money used by national experts to control what happens in your child's classroom.

David Brooks pushed for Arne Duncan's coronation as the education czar. If Mr. Brooks believes public education matters--and I am not convinced he does--he may wake up and see the toxic plume of money distorting the heart of public discourse, the heart of a functioning citizenry.

Forrest Gump shot from here.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Biology exam

Study the following pictures carefully:

Which is the walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus)?
Which is the ass (Equus asinus beipeipetrolius)?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Then and now...

Gardening in 1910:

  1. Observe damage. Obviously something's eating the plant.
  2. Find culprits--ah, green caterpillars!
  3. Pick and squish the critters.

Gardening in 2010:

  1. Observe damage. Obviously something's eating the plant.
  2. Google "Brussels sprouts" and "damage" and, oh, look, a new post by John Spencer....Remember why I turned on computer. Spend half hour reading about cabbage moth caterpillars, their economic damage, the identifying characteristics, their life cycle. Learn what cabbage moth eggs look like. Note that they're laid a single egg at a time. Google best way to control them.
  3. Find culprits--ah, green caterpillars!
  4. Pick and squish the critters.


Paddling directly into into a 20 mph breeze for 40 minutes burns a lot of calories--figure about 500, give or take 150.We gathered two dozen clams, from little necks to chowders, and probably burned another couple hundred calories.

Our clams provided us with maybe 350 calories.

Oh, we got all kinds of goodness from them, fresh clams scream with deliciousness. We got sunshine, we got salt spray, we got the good kind of sore muscles.

But we also got negative calories. This is unsustainable.


What does this have to do with biology?

Food is biology. It provides the stuff and energy that allow us to build a few trillion cells to become who we are. It ultimately comes from sugars built by green plants, carbon dioxide and water joined together, fueled by the fusion of our sun.

If it costs more energy to get food than the food provides, we starve to death.
OK, we get it. Besides, we got plenty of food, we don't have to rake for no clams, the supermarket got everything we need, sheesh, teach, you're weird...
The foods we get from our grocery stores require more calories to produce than the calories they store. This is easy to ignore in a culture that spends billions of dollars a year to shed calories.

We use more energy than we get back using today's industrial farming methods. Petroleum comes from ancient organisms, once food, and the energy released from it was captured from sunlight hundreds of millions of years ago.

Industrial farming feeds a lot of people, but we're living on our savings, calories stored over millennia. Artificial fertilizer takes a lot of fuel to make. Manure works, too, but it is heavy, hard to spread, and the animals are raised far away from the corn these days. The only farms my students "know" no longer exist.

We could fix this, of course. A good public school education could teach children where things come from, where wastes go.

We could focus our values on creation instead of consumption. We could teach a child how to grow basil, how to raise and slaughter chickens, how to make compost, all in the name of biology and good citizenship.

I know it's impossible to start a farm in a studio apartment, but it's not impossible to grow a sprig of basil in the window. Education is about possibilities.

We lie to the children and tell them they can grow up to be the President of the United States, that they can be whatever they want to be if they try hard enough, yet rob them of life's experiences as they sit under the hum of fluorescence, learning how to manipulate quadratic equations without once ever shelling a pea pod.

I think an hour or two of hanging around outside every day, mucking in clam beds or gardens or just plain mud, would wreck the grade point average (GPA) of some of our finest students. (I also think it would do them a ton of good.)

I think an hour or two of teaching self-sufficiency each week might also wreck the GPA of some of our students--not because of "lost" instructional time, but because a few might start questioning what they are doing in school.

Some of my brightest students never graduate because they started asking what the function of school is before they are mature enough to wrestle with the inconsistencies and paradoxes thinking adults face daily in our culture.

A major goal in my class is getting children to realize that we all know a whole lot less than we think we do, another to help them learn how to make connections, a third simply to teach them how to observe.
I live in the same town as the children I teach. I like to be around happy, autonomous people. If they want to learn how to be sensible, however, they best avoid a teacher foolish enough to kayak in a 17 knot breeze scratching for clams and buy the canned chowder instead.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I really don't like Arne

Today there are no good jobs for a high school dropout in the legal economy.


Arne is an arse.

Farmers feed us.
Musicians, actors, and professional athletes entertain us.
Masons, carpenters, and roofers build our shelters.

If Arne's point is that the economy is swirling in porcelain right now, well, OK, but that's not what he means.

I don't like idiocy in general, but it's particularly hard to take from a spoiled rich mama's boy who's never held a real job in his life.

Really, Arne--what have you done?

I am not anti-education. We spent about a quarter million dollars on our kids' education, money well spent.

We did not spend the money to prepare them for corporations; we did not spend the money to prepare them for some certification needs. We spent the money to help develop a better sense of the world, the world that exists outside gold-tinted glass windows trapping the happy squirrels inside.

Each earns a living, and neither needed a high school diploma to do what they do today. And both are part of the "legal" economy.

Clamming. Again.

As fast as that, the wild cherries are gone.

Harper's spends some time this month talking about the food bubble in wheat futures a couple years back--bankers made money, people went hungry. Steven Stoll writes about the problems of agriculture, not the least of which is getting tossed from The Garden.

Still, glimpses of The Garden remain. Wild cherries. Dandelions. Mulberries. Clams.

I am going clamming this weekend. Twice a day the tides wash over a patch of mud behind West Wildwood. Thousands upon thousands of these critters siphon the bay, taking bit and pieces to build themselves, to provide themselves with energy.

The clams are no less wild for their docility.

We eat for two reasons: energy, and stuff to grow or replace what we've lost. The energy ultimately comes from the sun, the stuff from water and carbon dioxide.

Clams are solid. Water, at least at this time of year, is not. I marvel at the intense purple swash inside the shell of a freshly killed quahog. The Europeans marveled at the beauty of silver, our predecessors here marveled at the violet streak found in hard shell clams.

The quahogs intense coloring, found in a place that sees no light until the clam has been slaughtered, defies imagination. The rich indigo purple arrests my eye. I look away briefly, trying to remember its touch on my retina. I cannot.

So I stare at the shell again.

Some folks get their kicks from derivatives on Wall Street, some from dope and booze, some from bought flesh of our own kind.

I'm addicted to clams.

One of the most difficult things for my students to grasp is photosynthesis. A gas, CO2, and a liquid, water, are joined together through the sun's energy to produce the stuff of plants.

Because it makes little sense, most choose to ignore it.

Science is never about making sense. It's about fitting the pieces together in a coherent story that maintains internal consistencies.

At the end of the year, I burn plants grown in class. The flame releases carbon dioxide, the flame releases water. The carbon dioxide came from our breaths, the water poured from our hands.

When I eat my clams, a good chunk of them will be reduced back to the carbon dioxide captured by the plankton they ate the last few years.

That's how it works, or rather, that's how the story goes.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


She wrote, simply, "hi mike."

I assumed I was the Michael she meant, but it does not matter, berries are for all of us, so I am using the photo. The hand belongs to Jessica Pierce, the berries to whichever mouth gets them first.

Along my walk to school are several cherry trees--the cherries are ripe now. I get to school with a tongue stained purple.

I found two blueberry bushes three blocks away yesterday. The mulberry trees are about to give up ripe fruit in the next week or two. It's a great time to be a mammal (or a bird).

The cherries are small and dark, full of bitter tannins countering their ridiculous cherriness.

When I eat a cherry, I believe in God. Not the wordy omega John God--I keep Him in my pocket in late autumn. I mean the atavistic, prehistoric sun god, the Ra, the one who sets off week-long dancing and unpardonable ecstasy. The mysterious one. The unknowable one. The one found in a June-warmed cherry.

Most of the year, I can talk myself into anything. In June, I simply cannot talk. No need. Life is bursting around us.

When I was still young, I feared dying in spring or summer, feared missing what was to come, dying in the midst of plenty.

Now I fear dying in winter. I do not wish to die, few of us do, but when I do, I want to be surrounded by possibility, by sunlight, by berries.

I want to be the bee found nestled in the flower at dusk, her last day spent exhausted and resting on clover petal, a life well spent. I do not want to die in the hive. Even a 5 star accredited hive full of well-intentioned bees trained to transition me to the next life.

I am not transitioning anywhere. In June I am here, and no other "here's" exist. In June William Blake makes sense. W.B. Yeats makes sense. Even death makes sense.

The school year is winding down. And what have we learned?

I live in a good town. I teach in the same town. I am paid through taxes given up by my neighbors. I work hard, and so do they.

The least I can do is teach their children the ecstasy of June berries, pursuing the happiness of sweet stained lips instead of the demands of a petulant man-child dictating education policy several hundred miles away.

The least I can do is show them our local lichen and hawks and bees, instead of just words in books written by strangers who know nothing about the pair of mallard ducks who slumber on the Bloomfield Green.

The least I can do is show children why I still get excited when the sun rises over our town, our gardens, our homes, and why so many of us choose to stay here. The sun worth knowing is not the one in the textbooks, the one of fusion and distance and solar storms.

The sun worth knowing is the one that keeps us alive, the one that we can feel on our faces, the one that pulls the bay over my clams, the one that blesses the cherries with sugar.

If you want to teach science, start with joy. If you cannot tie joy to wild berries, go play on Wall Street or Pennsylvania Avenue. Real education starts on Bloomfield Avenue.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

For Memorial Day

It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.

Thomas Jefferson

We could teach this in history class.
We could teach this in health.
We could especially teach it in biology class.

But whichever class we choose, we must teach this.

Right after the Senior Award ceremony, I asked one of our talented musicians, a young man who aspires to play professionally in an major orchestra, what he planned to do next year.

He had an appointment early the next morning at the local USMC recruiter's office.

First lightning bug

First lightning bug tonight. I never tire of lightning bugs.


Dusk settled on the lake. I could hear the kiss of bluegills as they sucked down insects struggling on the surface.

A few lightning bugs flashed above the mirrored surface. Attracted by their own reflections, they swooped ever closer to the lightning bugs flashing below them.

Fish may not be smart, but they're not all get-out stupid, either. And a bluegill will jump if hungry enough. A few were hungry enough. Inside their bellies glowed a few foolish lightning bugs.


Lightning bug light is cool-literally. Luciferin combines with ATP, the energy molecule of life--the resulting compound combines with oxygen, catalyzed by luciferase, and light results. Even tiny amounts of ATP will cause luciferin to light, as long as oxygen is present. While man has never been to Mars, bits of lightning bugs have--luciferin is an extremely sensitive detector of ATP. If it flashes, carbon-based life may be present.

Luciferase from the North American firefly (Photinus pyralis) is the enzyme of choice for reporter gene assays. Luciferase catalyzes the oxidation of a firefly-specific substrate called luciferin to produce light. This reaction is extremely efficient and the quantum yield is the highest of any characterized bioluminescent reaction. The bright signal makes this a valuable enzyme to use for reporting promotor activity. • Packard’s LucLite® assay system, introduced in 1994, produces a long lived glow type signal with a [half-life] of several hours, which makes it ideal for use in noninjector based HTS luminometers, like the Packard TopCount® NXT Microplate Scintillation and Luminescence Counter or the Packard LumiCount® Microplate Luminometer.

Luclite Plus Reporter Gene Assay System, 20,000mL from PerkinElmer,

Scientist have yet to synthesize luciferin, so they buy lightning bugs.


My daughter dug out a tiny mudhole for me in our backyard. At dusk, I sit opposite the pokeweed I am learning to like, under a stray white birch I have always liked. Lightning bugs arise from the earth, flashing their "J"'s, looking for love. Harry Potter, like the Bible, makes sense sitting outside on an early June evening.

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

A flash just below my right foot.

I break from Harry Potter. A second scurrying critter rumbles about the flash. The flashing becomes frantic, several short blips in less than a few seconds. My eyes adjust--a spider dances around its prey.

I've never seen a lightning bug flash quickly like that, but then I've never seen one eaten by a spider either. A lightning bug makes a flash by adding a tiny bit of ATP to luceferin. In our mechanistic view of the world, not a bad worldview if you're in the business of conquering it, lightning bugs flash instinctively. They are not known to flash for defensive purposes.

I cannot know why this one flashed, but I do know that lightning bugs, at least this one, had a pattern distinct from its cherchez la femme mode when struggling with a spider.

I almost didn't try to "save" it--a good naturalist observes, does not interfere. The spider has as much a right to the meal as I do to mine. Death by spider is likely to be quicker than death by starvation if the critter could no longer fly.

I pulled the frenetically flashing bug out of the web--a white wisp of web stuck to its backside. I set it on a leaf of the birch with mixed feelings. It will die slowly because my imagination would not allow me to let the spider bite it.

As the critter struggled with its first pair of legs to grasp the edge of the leaf, I gently pulled back the stick. The spider silk stuck to my stick. The lightning bug scootched a few millimeters, no longer flashing, and stood still.

I watched a moment longer. The lightning bug opened up its beetley shell, opened its wings, and flew away.

A moment later, a lightning bug brushed my leg at the bottom of its "J". No way to know if it was the same one. And it really doesn't matter.


Some Asian lightning bugs flash in unison. The lightning bugs in the Jersey area, at least the ones that make a J, are not known to do this (according to the scientists). Oh, occasionally they'll accidentally flash together a few seconds after the flash of a bright light, as though they were all resetting their bellies after seeing a god, but left alone, our fireflies are supposed to be the individualistic sorts.

The local critters must be illiterate--once or twice a dusk, they amuse themselves with synchronous flashing. (“Amuse” sounds like anthropomorphizing, of course--it’s an interesting word, comes from the French amuser, “to stupefy”--we’re most amused when our brains are buggy.) .


One poor fellow one evening couldn’t turn off his belly --he’d glow properly enough in his “J”, but still fizzled a bit as he looked for a response--doubt he could see much light beyond his perpetually lit self.

I muttered “padiddle.” .


Lightning bugs are, obviously alive. They have a lot of ATP. They have a lot of luciferin and luciferase. We made lightning bug earrings, lightning bug drawings, we’d smear dying and dead lightning bugs over our faces and laugh and scream like the atavistic creatures we were, mock Indian face paint.


I am a science teacher; I am not a scientist. Alot of folks are confused about what constitutes science. We want children to be amazed. You can purchase, via PayPal, a lightning bug “collection system.” You have a choice of sizes, and the handle glows in the dark. Imagine that! No doubt safer than punching holes in a half-rinsed mayonnaise jar.

Kids can study and be fascinated by all the little bugs found in the average back yard. Firefly lanterns allow children to watch the lighnting sicbugs light up. The bugs can be returned to nature where they were found after a day or two of enjoyment.

Plum Creek Marketing Entomology Products for Kids.

Another “experiment” suggests that kids catch lightning bugs in a jar for 5 minutes, record their observations, then let them go.

Took me 40 years to realize I learn a whole lot more doing nothing, feet up on a tiny stone wall next to my daughter’s puddle.

On oil spills, disconnected Presidents, and Bloomfield

This is a longish rant meant mostly for me--
it will be as effective as screaming into a pillow,
and, I hope, just as comforting.

Last night I sat in on our Senior Awards Night, a lovely affair commemorating the deeds of our senior class. Over 90 awards were given, many of them specific to our town and our history.

The Ralph C. Diller Outstanding Choir Award, The Eric Segal Memorial Scholarship , The Raymond W. Hartman Outstanding Band Member Award...

Bloomfield has been around a long time--it's a proud working class town that still values effort over just about anything.

...The Edith M. Albinson Choral Award, The Margaret Sherlock Memorial Chemistry Scholarship, The Mary E. Boylan Egan Scholarship...

One award goes to a student with a "grade average of B-C, well rounded person in school, civic and youth activities." Another to a "student who has through perseverance and effort has maximized his potential."

...Suzan Hertzberg-Bohrer--Jason Pelusio Scholarship, Hilda R. Taffet Scho
Michael Castles Memorial Scholarship...

In 1849, Bloomfield joined the Free School Act, taxing its citizens to provide public education to its children. The Bloomfield Oakes Woolen Mill provided uniforms in the Civil War. A brownfield marks the early development of the atomic bomb in our neighborhood. Street signs carry the names of so many from town who died in wars past.

We've paid our dues.

...The Gay Gerber Memorial Scholarship, The George Daudelin Memorial Scholarship,
The Michael Cozzolongo Memorial Scholarship,
The Joseph A. Bongiorno Career Education Senior Awards...

For all the shouting coming from the Scarecrow in D.C., the folks in Bloomfield are still footing the bill for educating the children in their town. Anyone who has spent any real time in town knows someone who knows someone who knows someone--all of us are connected.

And so sometimes when I hear folks down in Louisiana expressing frustrations, I may not always think that they're comments are fair; on the other hand, I probably think to myself, these are folks who grew up fishing in these wetlands and seeing this as an integral part of who they are - and to see that messed up in this fashion would be infuriating.

A man who moved yanked his children from Illinois

No, Mr. President, folks who know the land under their feet, the water under their boats, do not see "this" as an integral part of who they are. It is, indeed, part of who they are.

Churlish parochialism gets lots of press. Farmers are hicks, clammers are slow, and commercial fisherman piss away all their money within hours of coming into port.

A real education, one worthy of producing citizens who the land enough to defend it to their deaths, must be parochial. If you do not love the earth beneath your feet, you cannot love this huge abstract thing called country.

I cannot know America any more than I can know the moon. I do know, however, the patch of land I tend in New Jersey. I know my clam bed as well as maybe a few dozen other people on this planet.

I will not fight for abstract, nonsensical causes. I will, however, defend a patch of Grassy Sound should someone try to take it.

The same week Mr. Obama made his inane statement, one that resists partisan classification, the Common Core State Standards Initiative released the final version of their standards, designed to make American children fit for the global workforce.

These standards provide appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live, and allow states to more effectively help all students to succeed.

Steve Paine, West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools

I looked for the part about clamming--I think they missed it.

A kid growing up in Jersey needs to know about eel grass and horseshoe crabs; a kid growing up in Wyoming may need to learn a thing (or two) about grizzlies and elk. No child needs to learn how to be a private corporate clown. Public schools should be for the public good.If you want to raise a child who preys on others, there are plenty of private schools that will be glad to take your money.

That so few folks see the disconnect we are cultivating is infuriating.

I have no problem with some children "know[ing] and apply[ing] the Binomial Theorem for the expansion of (x + y)n in powers of x and y for a positive integer n, where x and y are any numbers, with coefficients determined for example by Pascal’s Triangle"--but I have a HUGE problem making that part of a core curriculum in any population where half the students are below average intelligence.

We have a decent town, with a lot of decent folks working hard to raise families, pay taxes, and, dare I say it, pursue happiness. You can live comfortably in Bloomfield even if (or maybe especially) you're not terribly ambitious.

If you cannot see the Bloomfield in me, or in my children, you have no business telling me how to raise them, no matter how much Bill Gates or Vartan Gregorian may need them. for their businesses.

Clamming is an honest business that requires a local education. Too bad we've gone done killed all the clams.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I want to crawl face down in the fields
and graze on the wild strawberries, my clothes
stained pink, even for seven years
if I must, if they exist. I want to lie out
on my back under the thousand stars and think
my way up among them, through them,
and a little distance past them, and attain
a moment of absolute ignorance,
if I can, if human mentality lets us.

Galway Kinnell, from The Seekonk Woods

I have never regretted any moment outside. As in under the sky.
Not one single moment.

I've been cozy, chilled, hot, wet, dry, stung, caressed by the breeze, and almost drowned in the sea. I've feasted on wild berries, feared wild beasts. I've watched ants for hours, and the moon forever.

I've seen life take life, and I've taken lives. I've heard the last yelps. I've eaten critters that squirmed in my hands. I watched a lightning bug flicker in desperation as a spider wrapped her silk around and around and around.

Tonight the honeysuckle blossoms steal words from my cortex, and I welcome the thieves.

June lasts forever when it comes, and is impossible to remember when it's gone. No words are needed in June. None. Life is as abundant as the light. I cannot help myself--I worship the sun now, so tangible on my skin, so obviously the giver, as it settles in the north for a spell.

Tonight somewhere in my town a child is doing homework on an early June dusk. Probably safer that way. Can't have children shirk responsibilities. Keep them indoors. They must stay focused!

Say you're a biology teacher, and, say, you know a lot more biology lies outside the textbook than in it. You're older now, with many more Junes past than any yet to be (graciously) received. What does a 15 year old child need to know? What do any of us need to know?

Ambition is well-rewarded in our culture. Delayed gratification is a virtue. If you want to be rich or powerful, chances are pretty good you won't die in the same town that welcomed your birth.

There's also a good chance you won't know where the local wild mulberries lie ripe for the picking, or where clams can be raked.

In June, my motives are clear--teach the children to see the world under their noses. The world offers riches beyond a wealthy family's dreams, but you need to go outside.

Kids know this until we teach them to forget. Most classes fit well in a classroom--a good biology class tends to ooze outwards.