Sunday, February 27, 2011

The end of winter

Our crocuses bloomed today. A tiny horseshoe crab, smaller than my thumbnail, crawled out of the Delaware Bay. The day lilies are rising again, like Phoenixes from the snow's ashes.

All of this is more real than the nonsense that passes for discourse in the education world. I can still close my classroom door (though I rarely do) and tackle whatever problems we care to tackle that day.
Why is my plant wilting? Hey, sow bug babies! I think my slug drowned.
How come the starfish hasn't moved in three days? Are those mosquitoes?
Look! Peas!
We got kids from Somalia, from Sierra Leone, from Poland, from China, from Ghana. Not third generation, not second. We're talking off the airplane (Newark Liberty International Airport) and into the brink. I taught a child who spoke only Bengali.

And we thrive.

We thrive despite the mandates, the tests, the current climate that forgets the roots of the word public, "pertaining to the people." Our town supported the last budget, despite the struggles of family after family after family.

Families that come from desperate situations know education matters. Families that come from desperate situations value teachers who care about their children. They put their trust in our hands, in our classrooms.

So while the elite press on about this magnet school, that philosophy, the myriad ways to use (and abuse) technology, scouring the US News and World Report for college rankings (and the NJ Monthly for state rankings), most of the rest of us go about our business, getting children ready for loving, happy, and (yes) productive lives.

But never just productive.

I work for Bloomfield, and its families, and for its children. I do not work for Arne Duncan, I do not work for Governor Christie. I give my all every day, because I want my lambs to be happy, in the Jeffersonian sense, and I want them prepared to pursue whatever dreams they hope to pursue.

I wiled away a good chunk of the afternoon on a jetty poking into the bay. I stared at barnacles for a bit, mourned all the oysters scraped off the rocks by this year's ice. The water was exceptionally clear, revealing thousands of comb jellies, floating in with the tides, then floating out again.

My happiest moments are spent on the edges of the sea. 

I stumbled upon the horseshoe crab, not much different than its ancestors that wandered these same shores when dinosaurs still roared. It may be still alive, it may be in the belly of a gull now. Tomorrow I will share its story with my students, because for them, these stories still matter.

And then I will test them on meiosis and synapses and centromeres and chromatids, to get them ready for the state exam in May. Those who finish early will be allowed to study their terrariums, their aquariums, to see how their critters did over the weekend.

 And the day will not be completely wasted, the last Sunday of February, as the light returns, and all things, all things, again become possible.

All photos taken today.
 First one crocuses, then the tiny (and live) horseshoe crab, then the points of a dead horseshoe crab, 
then barnacles hanging out waiting for the next tide, 
and finally, light as seen through the compound eyes of a horseshoe crab.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

February horseshoe crab

Leslie and I found the tiny shell of a young horseshoe crab this afternoon while walking on the edge of the Delaware Bay.

The shell is backlit by our sun, the source of just about all our energy, whatever "energy" means.

I can construct all kinds of things on computers, create all kinds of worlds, live all kinds of lives, and none of it, none, can compare to the miracles we find with each step we take on the beach outside.

A loon surface no more than 10 feet away from us today. The water was clear. The sanderlings are gone.

On classroom technologies

“Young students and old thrive on the tactile experience of manipulating with their fingers. And I definitely appreciate being able to interact with the content – how could teaching and learning get any more hands-on?”

Our fry are getting bigger--some have migrated to mini-aquariums set up by students in recycled milk and soda bottles. We have a few more wheat plants forming heads, and a student announced that her sow bugs had babies.

We got a lot going on in class.

There's been a huge push to get "technology" in classrooms--I'd argue that a recycled plastic milk bottle holding two tiny fish and a strand of elodea counts as technology, but no one gets rich selling used milk cartons.


I am not averse to new technologies. I have a class set of netbooks (thank you Roche/BEF/Home & School!),  an interactive whiteboard, and a couple of remote devices, including a Mobi. We use them as well as pencils, paper, and cut shower boards. The students slide easily from one tool to the next, depending on the task at hand.

Most of our newer educational technologies involve recorded sight and sound--filtered views of the universe. I am inundated with catalogs that offer written words, videos, simulated labs, and models.

When a child "interacts" with a SMART Board, she is touching a flat piece of plastic, no matter what a specialist tells us.

The more I try to bring the world to my classroom, the more I realize the limitations of our various tools. Even words get in the way at times, especially when the words are designed to "teach." Words matter, of course, and sharing language gets us halfway there--but in science class, or in any interaction with the natural world, words fall incomplete. We forget this.

We do not live in a "knowledge economy," we live in the world. We eat other organisms, we breathe oxygen released by plants, we drink water that has passed through other critters. We need what our world provides; we are, literally, part of this world.

Our words are not.

I will continue to use our classroom tools, high tech and low, as scaffolds to the world that exists, but I will continue to remind my students, and myself, that our tools distort our views.

This past week a saw one child sticking his nose into our class bag of dirt, smelling the impossibly complex and living collection of stuff found in soil. He liked it, told another, and he took a good whiff as well.

Can't teach that. Not with words, with pictures, or even a new MacBook Pro with a 2.3GHz Core i5 dual-core processor and Thunderbolt technology. Unless, maybe, if you dunk it in mud first.

Photos from classroom.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Science fairs are neither

We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.
President Obama, 2011 State of the Union

Science fairs have gotten a lot of press the past few weeks, thanks to Obama's speech. I suspect he means well, but....Science education is getting whomped pretty good by folks who know little about education, and even less about science. Here's one science teacher's take on science fairs.

In physical education class, students get physical. They run, bounce balls, and hurl insults at each other.

Those who are particularly good at these activities get to compete against students from other schools who are also good at it--and after a scheduled time of running, bouncing balls, and hurling insults, a school is declared a winner, and everybody goes home exhausted.

If you're really good at, eventually you get paid to pretend that Gatorade leaks out of your eyeballs so long as you continue to run, bounce balls, and hurl insults better than anyone else on the planet.

Not all levels get celebrated, but at all levels, you are practicing physical activity. That's the point of physical education.

If the argument for science fairs is that they allow kids to practice science, then something is seriously wrong with science education in the States.

And something is seriously wrong.

Imagine if physical education required students to memorize which muscles fired when for a given activity, say, hitting a baseball, before ever picking up a bat.
Listen, Maria, you got it wrong again! Didn't you read the text? Did you take notes? Did you hear a word I said? We just talked about it! The pronator teres muscle fires first, then you recruit the brachioradialis--the state exam is only two months away!

Parroting the sequence of muscles used has nothing to do physical education. The physical education teachers would balk at the task--some might even argue that that would be science.

But it's not. It's simply nonsense.

We do a lot of nonsense in science class. We pretend to teach biochemical cycles to children who have never seen a wheat plant. We pretend to teach astronomical units to children who can hardly grasp miles.  We pretend to teach light to children who believe they can see in total darkness.

The athletes have some good marketing behind them. If you want to master a sport, Just Do It©. If you want children to learn science, then just do it.

Do science. In school. Come up with ideas, test them, see what happens.


Oh, by the way, Mr. President, the winner of the science fair is celebrated--and that's part of the problem. Good science weaves a trail of failure. If you want to teach science, you need to teach children how to recognize and analyze failure. The best way to do that is to give them room to fail. Lots and lots of room.

I have a few children in class working on their 4th or 5th plant--they have the whole year to get it right. I have a few other children who have managed to grow carrots and peas and beans to fruition, because they figured out what they were doing wrong a little quicker than most of the class.

When prizes are given out for demonstrating how to kill seedlings or slugs, let me know--my class is full of winners!

How many pounds of fat were added to our collective national buttock on Super Bowl Sunday as we sat around munching on Doritos, downing ale and soda, cheering on men whose words inspire our children to, um, something?

Maybe the problem isn't that we're not celebrating science fairs--maybe the problem is our addiction to celebration.'s a secret. Kids like science, the real kind, about as much as they like anything else in school. Really. Come visit us some day, Mr. President. We got a room full of dead plants to celebrate. Then taste a carrot or two grown by the same kids who killed a few organisms along the way.

The cartoon is by Mark, author of  Cyanide and Happiness.
Natalie Dee has a wonderful science fair cartoon, too, but she loves cuss words, as many of us do. 
Alas, some of my lambs wander over here.... 

Elementary science education, Part 2

Distinguish a force that acts by direct contact with an object (e.g., by pushing or pulling) from a force that can act without direct contact (e.g., the attraction between a magnet and a steel paper clip).
NJCCCS, Standard for 2nd Grade

You cannot, of course. We "feel" forces the same way--it's a push or a pull.

I could dive into the specifics--a few cells get squished, a Pacinian corpuscle gets agitated enough to open up an ion channel,  an action potential runs down an axon or two, joins the signals from myriad sources, and we interpret the feeling as a "push"--but that tells us nothing, really, about what a force is beyond its paradoxically simple definition: a push or a pull that can change the speed, direction, or shape of an object.

A second grader can easily see (or feel) that a magnet has "special" qualities--it can push or pull without direct contact with another object. The force itself, however, is still a pulling.

This hardly seems like a big deal, true, but I get high school students who do not know what a force is. Or what matter is. Or that none of us truly have a great grip on either.

(Matter is stuff with inertia, inertia is the tendency of a particular blob of matter to resist change when, well, pushed or pulled. That's just the way things work. Newton called inertia vis insita, the innate force of matter.)

A second grader, of course, need not (and, at any rate, could not) master Newtonian physics. Still, a second grader has Pacinian corpuscles and a cerebellum, and can think. She can figure out that magnets can push or pull,  just as she can push and pull, and that a magnet's pull feels just like any other pull.

What can be distinguished is that magnets, for whatever reason, do not need to "touch" the other object to do this. This is interesting, but I would not make it the heart of the lesson--at least not to a 7 year old. I might point out that the Earth pulls us, but again focus on what force is--again, a pull or a push.

If the child infers that the Earth acts like a magnet, well, depending on what a child's view of magnet is (an object that pulls other objects towards it), she is right. Her knowledge is incomplete, of course, but in science it will always be incomplete. The pull of the Earth feels no different than the pull of a magnet or of your mother's hand. (Your mother's hand exerts its pull on a more specific area, but the pull itself is the same feeling.)

It gets down to language and perceptions at this level. At higher levels, a child has more vigorous scaffolding (the history of millions of experiments building on existing models) and more vigorous tools (calculus), but even then, our models depend on language.


I'll give the state this much. The standard above is eminently testable. But it's not science.

I've been (again and obviously) on a Feynmann kick. The following video is a wonderful look at a happy man who loves looking at how the world works. And yes, I borrowed heavily from him. I want Dr. Feynman in my elementary schools.

Again, another random photo.

Elementary education science, Part 1

I am sitting on a committee put together to help redesign our elementary school science curriculum.
I'll be tossing out various posts on the topic. The posts do not reflect the views of anyone except me.

By the end of Grade 4:
Science has unique norms for participation. These include adopting a critical stance, demonstrating a willingness to ask questions and seek help, and developing a sense of trust and skepticism. 
NJ Core Curriculum Content Standards, 5.1.4.D.1, Science

A few of us in the district have a wonderful opportunity to help draft the science curriculum guidelines for early elementary students. We--teachers from various grade levels-- have been given professional time to work together to develop science education at the elementary level.

While I am a high school science teacher, I am leaning heavily on my former life as a pediatrician. You cannot separate science from perception, and perception gets colored by development.

Separating science as a discipline separate from language development does not make sense to me, at least not for the lunchbox crowd. It may be a subset of language, as fairy tales are a subset of story telling, but until children can master mathematics, Boolean logic, and other developmentally challenging tasks, pretending that they are little scientists is, well, ridiculous.

A lot of people are getting paid good money to promote the ridiculous.

What can a child know?

She can know what she observes, of course, but what she observes depends, in large part, on what she knows.  We frame our world more than we might realize.

Many of our children come to high school with what seem to be nonsensical ideas, but which reflect the thoughts of thousands of years of human thought--if  these thoughts are not consistent with the last few hundred years, we tell the children, without offering  much evidence, that they are wrong.

If a child believes she can see in absolute darkness, and many believe as much, telling her that is simply not so is not science education, it's indoctrination.

At the early grade levels, the standard listed above does not hold water. "Adopting a critical stance, demonstrating a willingness to ask questions and seek help, and developing a sense of trust and skepticism" should be the heart of all education, not the box labeled "science."

The photo has nothing to do with the post--I just like it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Happy as a clam

Yesterday a blowout tide rolled back the waters, farther back than I've seen. We got a mess of clams, including the one above, and we enjoyed them.

I must have looked like a madman, feet clad in sandals and smiling at no one as I leaned into the winter breeze to rake the flats, clam after clam after clam. I was happy. I have a hypothesis as to why.

Look at the edge of the quahog shell--each tooth glistening in tonight's setting sun, each with a complementary notch on the other shell. A cherry stone can clam up tightly for days when need be.

This particular clam looks about 15 years old or so, and may easily have lived another 15 years. I have no idea if it was happy, but I do know this much--every thing about the clam's existence helped it live as long as it did, where it did.

It evaded minnows the 1 or 2 weeks it spent swimming as a larva. Its tough shell protected it from whelk and starfish, horseshoe crabs and gulls. It survived the icy cold winter waters and the warm wash of summer. It ate, it grew, it reproduced, and last night it died.

Our crocuses are near bursting now--in a few weeks, bees will visit their open flowers, and will leave covered with bright yellow pollen. Everything about the crocus has a use. Look at the picture. The spears are now blunt from poking through the frozen ground, still protected by sheaths at their bases; the whole plant leans towards the sun, catching photons.

Descent with modification does not require a master plan. Each tooth on the clam, each petal on a crocus has a cost. Order requires energy. Every organism seems to be designed exactly for its niche--we assume, reasonably, that every part (if organisms truly have parts) has a purpose.

And if so, what is ours? Without delving into the metaphysical and the mystical, just look at your hands, your arms, your eyes, your nose. We have been been around a long, long time, far longer than computers, far longer than the written word, far longer than spoken language that we believe defines us.

We twist ourselves into our own universes, contorting to squeeze ourselves into schedules guided by clocks and not stars, by words and not smells, by imagined fears and not the predators that used to hunt us in the night.

When I am on the flats, a stiff wind sending whiffs of death and salt from the exposed flats, my fingers wrapped around my rake, waiting for the telling vibration of metal against living shell, I am alive as alive can be, everything aligned for the hunt, anticipating the feast that waits.

I sliced my finger pretty good yesterday, and rinsed it in the muddy waters--brilliant crimson drops splashed on the beach like small carnations, feeding critters too small to see. My hands were numb from the cold, and I knew I'd feel it later. None of the fear I'd have felt indoors, where wounds seem foreign.

My hypothesis? The more we use our bodies, our minds, our senses, our being for being, the happier we are.  Just a hypothesis, true, but what have been your happiest moments?

Photos taken today.
It may just be that I am, in fact, bats.

Moving on up!

In the past, I have had some enlightening literature left on my desk.

If you reject Jesus, your Creator, that will be your worst mistake ever! You'll be in the lake of fire with billions of others who believe we evolved from monkeys. 

If "billions of others" believe we evolved from monkeys, well, something is wrong with science education. We did not evolve from monkeys, we evolved from a common ancestor.

On the other hand, if "billions of others" accept natural selection as the mechanism for descent with modification, but are simply confused about which organism we came from, maybe there's still hope for science education and the billions of souls sitting in the cauldron of fire.

On the other other hand, if I'm 15 years old, and I have a choice between passing an exam about something I don't quite understand, or tanking the exam and avoiding the whole lake of fire thing, well, I'm taking the easy way out. Eternity is a long, long time--longer, even, than when the Cubs last won a World Series.

We must never forget what children are learning outside science class. I'm not saying it justifies willful ignorance, but really, if we just preach instead of teach, we are not going to make a bit of difference in our students' worldviews.

Yes, it's really called Chick Publications.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Blowout tide

We got a 22 knot breeze blowing out of the true NNW.
We got a full moon, with tides predicted to be 1.2 feet lower than normal even before we got the breeze.
We got ourselves a blowout tide, baby!

And we got a bunch of clams to show for it. In February. Just when all the nonsense gets to be a bit much, grace intercedes.

We got blown about around a bit today, my Uncle Bob and me, but we got clams to show for it.

 (If anyone reading this is down the Jersey shore, get yourselves out there--if you don't want quahogs, scallops are there for the picking.)

The photo is of some of the clams raked today. Clams in February. Life is good.

Thoughts on Wisconsin, labor unions, and democracy

Before I don my asbestos underwear and jump into the fire, understand that anyone paying attention can see some ominous trends once you peek behind the curtain. Mountains of assets are being sucked up by the unfathomably wealthy, too few Americans grasp the role of government, and we're in real danger of succumbing to a plutocracy.

Given the true wealth of the United States--our water, our minerals, our trees, our climate, and our Constitution--we can turn things around. And we will. What's happening in Madison, though, is a symptom, not the cure.

How many folks in your town have ever been to a town council meeting? A board of education hearing? Or (yawn, who has time) a session of the zoning board? How many in your town vote in the Presidential election, but fail to vote in the mayoral one?

Democracy is noisy and messy and frightfully ineffective at times--the protests in Madison got that part down--but it also depends on process and work and citizenship.

On rallies:
Getting stoked at a rally can be exhilarating and can send a powerful message. Our Bill of Rights "guarantee" our right to assembly (though the recent expansion of Free Speech Zones makes a mockery of this). Voting is far less exciting, but if everyone with stake in it took the time to vote in their community's best interests, Wisconsin would not be in this mess. (No, it's not like Egypt, folks--you really need to do a little more probing....)

Keep the rally going! Keep fighting the good fight! Then, however it all turns out, continue to flex your fledgling wings at your town halls, in your local coffee shops, in your local papers.

On fleeing legislators
Legislators scurrying out of state makes for entertaining news, and there may be merit in buying time for a vote as historic as the one about to take place, but it's only temporary, and again reflects a symptom, not a cure. With government comes duty. A democratic republic can really suck at times, but so long as the people participate knowledgeably, it beats any other form of rule hands down.

On sickouts:
A functioning republic depends on an educated citizenry. Teachers matter because education matters. Closing schools through a job action to protest even a bill as vile as the one proposed sends a very mixed message. I understand the anger. I'm earning making less this year than I did last year, and it may get worse next year. Still, I owe it to my students, to their parents, and to my town to deliver what I promised I would deliver.

No doubt some teachers believe that their actions serve a greater purpose in the long run, and no doubt many are willingly giving up their pay for the days missed. Still, what we do matters, every single day. We have a public duty. Closing schools rarely helps our cause.

On unions:
Unions matter, more than most of us not involved in the plutonomy realize. They only matter, though, if they act as unions, for the general good of everyone in the union.

The past few years we have seen unions create two-tiered memberships. Here in Jersey, our local teacher unions, in conjunction with school boards,  have created some pay scales that result in the top earning more than twice as much as the bottom, for essentially performing the same work. Until unions start acting as true unions, protecting every member's interests, their status will continue to fall.

The events in Wisconsin may mark the beginning of public awareness, a fresh look at the marvelous possibilities we have in a land filled with grace, but only if we start to do the work that needs to be done.

If you're going to abandon, even temporarily, your duties as a legislator or as a teacher, to take on greater duties as a citizen, you had better be willing to work hard, very hard, to make this American experiment work.

Otherwise you're part of the problem.

Asbestos fire suit photo originally from Life.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Death and crocuses

(Just my annual Bloomfield crocus phenology post. Move along, nothing to see....)

We're thawing in February.

The pond ice is melting.
Two fish floated, lifeless, on top.
Winter is over for them.

Crocus spears pierce the Earth.
Spring is just starting for them.

For us?
We have light, we have grace, and, for the moment, we have time.

For the moment.
And a moment is all that is promised us.

I am not your Cerf

“If the single biggest variable is the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom, shouldn’t we do everything in our power to influence that?”

Ayep. But the premise is false, Mr. Cerf. The single biggest variable is not teacher effectiveness. It may be the single biggest variable that the school can control, true, but poverty matters more. The quote above is disingenuous.

Mr. Christopher Cerf, our (NJ) acting education commissioner, wants us to believe his proposals are "pro-teacher."

Well, Mr. Cerf, let's take a look at a "pro-commissioner" idea:

You spent a good chunk of your career overseeing the financial collapse of Edison Schools, Inc., a company started by Chris Whittle, a company whose purpose was to privatize schools. Shouldn't we put past data to good use? Let's limit our education commissioners to those who have successfully led other enterprises in the past.

When I was still succoring the afflicted, one of the best obstetricians in our county specialized in high-risk deliveries. Because he specialized in high-risk deliveries, his statistics were skewed a bit when compared to obstetricians who handled the safer pregnancies. Obtaining malpractice insurance became prohibitive. He stopped catching babies, though he still got paid to offer advice to the docs who had enough normal deliveries to keep their malpractice insurance intact.

Poor students are, as a group, at higher risk for school failure than wealthy children, for a whole lot of reasons independent of who teaches them.

Teachers matter, and they matter a lot. Their results matter. If you rely on state testing to determine a teacher's effectiveness, those of us who choose to teach high-risk students will take a hit, no matter how effective we might be.

The rational among us will head to the hills--Short Hills and Far Hills--places with remarkable wealth and remarkable students with remarkable resources.

All of our children can learn, and all of them are remarkable students. Until every child I teach has the same full belly in the morning, the same warm bed at night, the same bookshelf full of books, the same access to libraries, and the same electronic media sitting on the same desk in the same bedroom at home, even Albus Dumbledore and his merrie wizards would not fare well under your proposed system.

The great experiment of Edison Schools failed for a lot of reasons, most of which were likely out of your hands. It was a lousy idea, anyway, at least if you have any truck in democracy and public institutions.

How ironic that you, with a checkered history in private industry, now lead the move to dismantle public education here in Jersey.

The photo is via Shorp, taken in Foster, Missouri, in the 1920's.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hubris and a biology classroom

We have lots of stuff going on in class.

We have a few carrots ready for eating, a bunch of fish fry less than two weeks old, a menagerie of sow bugs, slugs, and a centipede or two, planaria, daphnia, wheat berries, a few tomato plants, a healthy Brussels sprouts seedling, several tanks of pond water (two of which have hatching mosquitoes), goldfish, elodea (and a few other aquatic plants I have yet to identify).

We got dead stuff, too--horseshoe crab molts, a possum skull, a large femur that looks suspiciously human, a slice of human brain, skeletons of various small mammals and at least one huge bull frog, and all kinds of shells.

We got gazillions of microscopic critters, some the classic obvious ones, and a few that would challenge Dr. Seuss. We got pieces of trees and owl vomit and fetal pigs in various stages of undress.

We got old-school whiteboards and a fancy interactive electronic one; a class set of netbooks and a functioning typewriter; paper and pencils and compasses and microtomes and pipettes and all kinds of glassware.

I like walking into our classroom, and I think the kids do, too. And yep, we got a state biology exam to prep for, and we will, but despite that distraction, the kids leave here knowing a little more about life and uncertainty than they did when they walked in here September.

The state is still trying to figure out what matters, the President and his puppet flash the word STEM like a talisman, but meanwhile my students, all of them still relatively recent arrivals here on Earth, peek and stare and snoop and lift up rocks and pat down seeds and go about the business of the curious mammals that they are.

Public education works for those who work at it. Many folks in Bloomfield have worked hard to make our schools what they are, and I am proud to be a part of it. We'll continue to teach biology, to expose the our lambs to the world that lies outside of words and politics.

Our school motto is "Learn to live." Not "learn to make money" or "learn to pass tests produced by for-profit companies" or even "learn in order to get into college."

I have thousands of critters that are living in our classroom, each one with a story to tell, stories far more interesting than those told by Duncan or Christie or Cerf, each bellowing like a Musician of Bremen.

All pictures from our classroom, taken today as the sun set.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Look up!

The sun burped on Monday--its breath will hit tonight.

Get outside and look up--auroras are possible in this neck of the woods, and possibly as far south as D.C. We have an even better shot tomorrow.

The moon's practically full, so even if we get the show, it may be washed out a bit. But that's OK, that same full moon is opening up tidal flats for dinner on Saturday.

Not often one gets a shot at an aurora and clams in the same week in February.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Wheat does not grow on trees

“We need at least a 3 percent to 4 percent increase in total wheat production.”

I just ordered a bunch of seeds, something I do every year. I save some seeds from last summer's garden, but I'm a sucker for cute little seed packages, and it makes it easier to use the left-overs in class.

We grow all kinds of vegetables, and we're still nibbling from the Brussels sprout stalks that survived the heavy snows. We like to eat. Most animals do.

We like to drive, too. Most animals don't. And our driving habits are biting into our eating habits.

Wheat and corn cost about 50% more than they did a year ago. That's not such a big deal (yet) here in the States, where we casually drop a dollar to buy a box of Candy Sweethearts for our love, less than 10 minutes worth of minimum wage labor.

A few years ago, all of our grain went to feed us, or the animals we planned to eat. Now a chunk of it goes to fuel our vehicles.

Teasing apart the stories can be tedious, and the corn-based ethanol folks will be quick to point out that the corn they use is feed corn, that it saves lots of petroleum that would be used otherwise, and that, by golly, it's the American way. Food prices go up for a lot of reasons--drought, speculation, floods. In the next few months you'll hear a drumbeat against the Chinese "hoarding" wheat.

To be fair, a lot of stomachs reside in China, and it's been hit by drought. It's easier (and so much politer) than blaming the SUV your neighbor drives.

It's pretty simple, really. So long as our population and grain yields go in contrary directions, our food prices will rise. So long as Americans can buy candy for a few minutes of work, we won't notice. And so long as economists keep getting paid to announce the blazingly obvious, they'll keep shouting about it instead of tilling the earth.

It gets down to biology. We are graced with just so many calories a year from our sun, with more stored as petroleum from millions upon millions of sunny days that preceded the arrival of humans.

I got a class full of children who can recite the stages of mitosis, and I get paid reasonably well to make sure this happens. If my lambs cannot make the connection between the corn in the Candy Hearts, the biofuel in their mother's SUV, and the effect of rising food prices in Egypt, well, I've not done my job, no matter how well my students perform on a state test.

I need to do better. It starts with the packets of tiny seeds.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Public schools matter if....

"That broad [public trust] doctrine derives from the ancient principle of English law that land covered by tidal waters belonged to the sovereign, but for the common use of all the people. Such lands passed to the respective states as a result of the American Revolution..."

I clam on a tidal flat a few miles from here.  A few others do as well. Tidal water is public--any of us can walk anywhere below the average high tide mark, and so long as the water is deemed safe, rake for clams. Or fish. Or launch a kayak. Or just lie on the beach letting the sea lap at our toes.

Lots of people have eaten my clams, our clams. I have caught a lot of my fish, our fish. I have wiled away hours and hours at the ocean's edge, my ocean, our ocean.

"Public" is not a four-letter word. You can count the letters.
Public is, however, a misunderstood word.

If we keep misunderstanding it, our republic will fail as a republic. Some would argue it already has.

I teach science, but keep a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights on the wall in class. right next to a tiny poster describing New Jersey's snakes. Every now and again someone asks why, and I'm all too eager to explain. Public schools exist for the benefit of our republic. Our republic depends on a learned, thinking citizenry.

We forget that sometimes.

Some classes are obviously tailored for this. Civics (where it still exists). History. The various vocational arts (cooking, wood shop, metal shop, home economics). Physical education.

Some less obviously so. English, when reduced to grammar, not so much. English, when sharing great ideas and helping citizens craft their ability to share those ideas, wonderfully so!

Science, when reduced to teaching the cell cycle, not so much. Science, when pushing children to look at the natural world, and start putting the pieces together, thinking about how things work, more so.

(We are, as a nation, confused about science--we think we need STEM education to produce technicians who will lead us into the New Glorious Economy, at least that's what those in power keep saying. The more we push science to feed our technocracy, the worse science education becomes.)

Public education, like the tide's edge and public parks, has become one of the few common spaces left. Few people know what "usufruct" means anymore.

Democracy cannot survive gated communities. Democracy cannot survive a constant drum of propaganda beaten into the heads of folks who have given up thinking for tribal acceptance. Democracy cannot thrive when small, powerful groups dictate the rules.

I fear for public education. Every time a family says my child's life is worth far more than yours, the commons shrinks. Every time a child has walls built around her to shield her from the world, the commons shrinks.

The walls are insidious. Charter schools (which, though "public" in name, defy the commons), SUV's, A&F t-shirts, gated communities, gerrymandering, and on and on and on create the image that your child is special, is elite, is immune to the world.

Does your Mayor send his children to public schools?  Do your local board of ed representatives? Your school district superintendent? Does your Senator send hers to the local public high school? Where do Bill Gates' children go? President Obama's? (I will give he devil Arne Duncan his due--at least he sends his children to public schools).

Yes, the reasons are myriad. Yes, we all want what's best for our children.
If you think the commons matters, if you think about that at all, then realize that your choices matter.

We may be beyond the tipping point. Some folks worry about the clams I rake, yet think nothing of the packaged clams dredged up hundreds of miles away by strangers. How do I know they're safe?

If you trust strangers more than your neighbors in the name of safety, and many of us do just that, then the local town hall becomes a quaint memento, the public school roof will start to leak, and democracy will fail.

I'm going to keep clamming as long as I can. I'm going to keep teaching in a public high school as long as I can. I'm going to keep writing as long as I can. We have a great thing going here in America.

The sad thing is, so few know what we got, they'll hardly miss it when it's gone.

Yes, we ate all the critters, (excepting the human kind) in the photos.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dr. Seuss, science teacher extraordinaire

We have tiny newborn fish in our classroom. Life happens.

The critters are tiny, and regular fish food won't do. They survived the first couple of days on their tinier yolk sacs, but sooner or later, living requires taking life.

I projected a drop of our class pond water  through our microscope camera. Tiny creatures darted across the screen, startled by the sudden bright light beneath them.

The kids got it right away--put some of the pond water in with the tiny fish. And I did. I'll see Monday if any survive.

The pond water has sat by the same window for three years now, generations upon generations of daphnia and snails and paramecium live out their lives, fueled by light caught by the plants and algae.While some of the students are amazed by the occasional birth of snails or the frantic journeys of daphnia, none are startled by the microscopic life anymore.

That's not to say that they are blasé--it's just that they expect to see something under the scope now.The living world is larger now than it was in September. Doubt that the state exam will test that in May, but that's not why I teach.

Through a combination of good luck and a wonderful supervisor, I am sitting on a committee that will help develop early elementary science curriculum in our district.

The idea is use the combined expertise of high school and elementary teachers to create a program that better prepares students for what awaits them in high school.

I am not an expert in early childhood education. I am, however, a retired board-certified pediatrician. I know something about child development, even raised a couple of tadpoles of my own.

Today I reviewed a science learning site designed for K-6. It has garnered awards, and, by golly, you can invest in it on NASDAQ. Maybe I don't know enough about readers but there was a lot of repetitive sentences with only 1 word change in each. For example, "Some live where it is...." was repeated four times with hot/cold/wet/dry. It may be pedagogically correct, but if that's what kids are required to read, little wonder some kids run away from books. 

As I read through this stuff, some of it factually wrong (no, not all animals move), I wonder how any child can even pretend to love what schools label "science."

If our goal is to get kids to see the natural world and to teach them how to read, why not Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears A Who? That would tie in well with the invisible worlds swirling in a drop of pond water.

Why not Green Eggs and Ham, a story about a hypothesis (you would like green eggs and ham) with multiple variables tossed in (in a house? with a mouse?)?

Why not One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, a classic introduction to taxonomy?
From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things
are everywhere.

As good a lesson as I can hope to teach a curious kindergartner about the our natural world.

The company, nameless for now, does not make awful stuff, but why not aim for greatness? 
Why not get it right? I doubt getting it right would cut into the stock value.

Happy Darwin Day!

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution"
Theodosius Dobzhansk

There is beauty in symmetry, even among the dead. Maybe especially among the dead.

One of the defining aspects of life is its organization, an organization that seemingly defies entropy. Of course it doesn't--energy flows through the system, creating a temporary order, but it's only temporary.

My lambs do not know this yet, and many adults refuse to face it.

 Imagine the fear, the loneliness, Charles Darwin felt as his ideas fell into place. Darwin did not come up with evolution--heck, even his grandfather Erasmus got that far. Darwin's genius was realizing that life's great variety and great sameness could all be attributed to natural selection.

Once life started, we no longer needed a God to explain it. Everything, everything, in biology makes sense in light of descent with modification through natural selection. Very little makes sense otherwise.

We may just be a happy accident.

Leslie and I walk along the beach a couple of times a week, every week, no matter the weather, no matter what's happening in our lives, pretty much no matter what.

We see and smell life, we see and smell death, both exposed on the tidal flats.

We see gulls pecking at the gills of an overturned horseshoe crab, her tail flailing uselessly. A week later we find a dead gull near the same spot, perhaps one of the gulls that stripped the life away from the horseshoe crab just a few days earlier.

There is not enough light in February to support the life created in June. Cracks form, lives shatter.

The horseshoe crab has wandered along this bay's edge long before humans, and may well creep along its shores long after we're gone.

They are magnificent critters, with multiple eyes with multiple functions, frightfully ornate shells, each spike, each hair with a purpose, and a plodding, purposeful movement that that reflects a philosophy older than language. They live  because they live, and they do it well.

The beach fly above is sitting in in the sand-filled shell of a dead horseshoe crab last week. There were several of them around, picking at the remnants of flesh of the horseshoe crab left behind by the gulls.

The beach flies know nothing of entropy, though they know plenty of things I cannot imagine.


If Darwin's ideas do not send a shiver down your spine, you may not be reading him right.

Each and every organism alive today--the bacteria in your gut, the fungus on our toenail, the tree outside your window--all came from common ancestors. With enough time, natural selection alone can explain our differences.

And there has been more than enough time.

All photos taken last week in North Cape May.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Spontaneous generation?

Explaining the daphnia was problematic enough, then came the mosquitoes. Now I got a tank full of fish fry darting about with no adult fish in sight.

Yes, of course, I do not believe in spontaneous generation. There must be a reason, and I have a hypothesis or two to explain where the fry came from.

But what do I tell the children?

Children who never saw a carrot develop from a seed before this year?
Children who never saw saw slugs before?
Children who are just starting to trust me when I tell them that the world that matters is the world that they can observe?

I'm not going to tell them anything. An empty tank now has a couple dozen fry, really just eyeballs with a tail attached, cute as can be and not likely to survive the week. I'll let the students figure it out.

My lambs crammed together around the tank, marveling at the tiny critters that started their lives right here in Room B362. They see what they see.

If I tell them what they're supposed to think I'll ruin the whole thing.

The fish fry photo taken from here.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Crocus spears erupting through last autumn's maple leaves, North Cape May, February 6, 2011

Every year, every single year, this surprises me.

So long as I see myself as an organism, a being distinct from the world around me, I suppose it will.  I need to work on that.

In the meantime, though, I'll bask in the joy that suffuses my soul when I see the year's first crocus stand erupting from the earth.

Photo by us.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

February barnacles

We got our first decent beach walk in since the flu knocked me off my feet a couple of Saturdays ago. The February light was spectacularly gray. The brown-gray bay faded into steel-gray fog.

A few huge oyster shells littered the beach--I have yet to find the bed off our beach, but I will. Plenty of smaller oysters have chosen to live on the local jetties, a few destined to end up in our kitchen pot.

Clumps of reddish seaweed strewn at the tide line reeked of wet dog, unusually rank. A seagull sat on the beach, not bothering to move, maybe hurt, maybe not.

On the way back we stumbled on a piling tossed up just beyond the water's reach. Barnacles covered its lower half, some still alive, but not for much longer, bound for life to this piling.

No sense trying to figure out the why of the barnacle. It spends its early life swimming around until it finally glues itself to something, anything. They keep themselves protected with trap doors that snap open when conditions are right, allowing them to comb the sea for food. I've wiled away good chunks of time watching them sweep the water.

When we talk of barnacles in school, if we ever do, we talk of the wonderful adhesive that stick to varied surfaces, of its potential commercial value. Or we talk of they're unusually long sex organs. We might mention that Darwin studied them for 8 years, as if that should hold a student's interest.We could calculate the damage they do to the shipping industry.

We show the photo, maybe a quick video of barnacles eating or mating, then move on.

Few of us dare talk about barnacles just being barnacles, nor would most of us let a child stare for hours at a barnacle on a jetty, at least not during school hours. In the end, what we learn nothing about barnacles, although we do learn a little bit about humans--how we classify animals, how we use animals, how we reduce knowledge to trivia.

And in the end, it may not matter if a child is acquainted with barnacles or not. But I will say this much--if I take a tiny strand of my DNA, and spliced it into the DNA of a barnacle, the barnacle could conceivably make a human protein. If I take a tiny strand of the barnacle DNA, and place it within mine, I could conceivably make a barnacle protein.

We share the same basic DNA structure, the same sorts of amino acids, the same kinds or organelles--we are more alike than we are different. I learned little about the barnacle while in school, but I did learn a little while staring many living a foot or two below the surface of the bay.

The barnacles did what they needed to do, no more, no less. They ate when they could, clammed up when they needed to, reproduced when they wanted to, and eventually died.

As they have since before I was born, as they will long after I die. Barnacles as they relate to humans hardly interests me--I know almost as much about humans as I care to know. But barnacles as barnacles fascinates me, and they fascinate children who stumble upon them in the wild.

The drawing is by Darwin himself, found here at The Complete Work of Charles Darwin.

A February horseshoe crab

I love this picture.

My wife has tiny feet--that is the tip of her tiny shoe. The tracks were made by a tiny horseshoe crab last February. Chances are pretty good no one else has seen this particular horseshoe crab, and chances are pretty good it is no longer alive.

But it might be. It might be just a mile off our beach, poking along mud 30 feet below the bay's surface, bigger now, munching on whelk. No way to know.

If it lives a few more years, it may return to our beach to mate. A curious child may squat next to it, an ignorant child may run away screaming. A fisherman may snag it with a morsel of squid, his hands washed in creamy blue blood as he struggles to dislodge the hook. A wave may flip it over, and before it rights itself, a gull may peck at its gills as it flings its telson (not a "stinger"),  into the wet sand, trying to right itself.

But last February, it sauntered along our beach, no more than an inch long, feeling its way along a world I cannot imagine.

Horseshoe crabs see light we cannot. They have 10 eyes, the two obvious ones sitting on top of the shell--they are used to find mates in the gloom of the bay.

They can "see" light with their telsons, their "tails." They have tiny eye-spots on the front of their shells, designed to see ultraviolet light from the sun, from the moon. They know when the moon is new, when the moon is full. Such news is obvious on the edge of the shore, of course, but not so obvious deeper in the bay. The horseshoe crabs time their orgies to the moon.

They also have eyes underneath, next to the mouth--to see what?

We can pretend to know what it means to have 10 eyes, to sense UV light, to rise from the depths to mate under moonlight, but it's all pretending. We cannot know the universe of the horseshoe crab. But we can know that it exists.

I have a classroom set of netbooks, from very generous donations by the Roche Foundation, by the Bloomfield Education Foundation, and by our local Home and School Association.

I love what we can do with them: students can collaborate on projects, we can grab information on the fly, and there is a huge gee whiz factor built into these tiny machines that can liven up a classroom. They are not, however, a window into the world.

The only world visible on a monitor is the human world. Even high resolution photographs of exotic life are just that--human inventions, pixels flashed through electronic streams. They are not real.

A human framed the moment. A human cropped the photograph. A human machine translates the signal into the image on the screen. It is flat. It is manipulable. It is not real.

Oh, but think of the children who do not have access to these wonderful creatures!

I'd rather think of our reluctance to let the children get access to what lives among us.

My daughter, very young at the time, once found a pigeon's nest under the creek bridge that led to our closest park. She watched it for weeks, first eggs, then tiny critters, then fledglings, then gone.

She wrote no reports, took no photos. She just watched.

We keep roly polies ("pill bugs") in our room--harmless crustaceans that bumble around in a few of our terrariums, going about the business of the living, sometimes doing a whole lot of nothing.

My kids can learn all kinds of facts about them from the internet, but the only thing they really need to know for now is what to feed them, how to keep them healthy. Kids ask me, and I explain that I really don't know, because, well, I really don't.

We see that they only shed half of their shells at a time. We see that they tend to hang in groups. We see their antennae busily working the world immediately in front of them. Occasionally some die, occasionally new ones appear.

No pixels, no chips, no pressure. Just our classroom companions, who will be brought back to the outside world when the sun returns.

And what do the children take home with them? I do not know, I'll have to ask them years from now.

I do know that if the kids do not see life beyond the human walls now, it is unlikely to happen later.
I also know that most children (and most adults) confound the world we created with the world that exists. Our economy depends on the fantasy.

So I teach biology. Life. And life cannot be found in a chip.

Great article on hoseshoe crab eyes and other bits of anatomy can be found at the Maryland DNR here.
Photo by Leslie.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Hokey Smokes that was close!

A small asteroid was discovered today, hours before it passed within 5,000 miles of us. "Us" as in the critters on Earth.

It was tiny, as far as asteroids go, and it didn't get a whole lot of press, but it was a literal reminder of how little we control. It wouldn't have done any damage, our atmosphere would have smoked it before it smacked Eath, but still, no one knew about it yesterday.

I think our children ought to know how little we actually control, but even adults fail to see our limits. You'd think that death would put things in perspective, but we avoid the whole issue.

If you believe our time here on Earth matters, and that that time is finite, act on it. Sooner or later our planet is going to get smacked up pretty good by a large rock now hurtling in space. Chances are pretty good you'll be gone long before that happens, but either way dead is dead.

I don't recommend that you start each day by proclaiming the ultimate demise of each of your lambs as they  saunter into class, but I do recommend that you plan your lessons with that in mind.

Every thing we assign takes a piece of a child's finite lifespan. Make sure the piece you take is worth what you give back. And no, word searches do not qualify.....

Photo by G. Sostero and E. Guido, Remanzacco Observatory,Graphics by NASA--we paid for it, so I figure it's in the public domain.
found here,