Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Don't take life so serious, son, it ain't nohow permanent."

Some days, often in May when the bees are buzzing, the nectar is flowing and each day is longer than the next, I feel like introducing myself to strangers:
Hello, my name is Michael, and I'm mortal. And you are, too. It's a luverly day. Let's dance!
Or sing, or tell stories, or plant, or clam, or fish, or sing, or skate, or spin, or weave, or grind wheat, or bake bread, or strum a guitar, or hum on a kazoo, or just bask in the sunshine doing nothing at all.

But I never do. OK, sometimes I do, but never in the classroom. Very few of these things are taught, and even then, only taught as "electives."

Living well, and consciously, and joyously, requires knowing mortality. Not in some existential sense, not as an allegory, not as a spiritual retreat, not as some far away event that happens in foreign lands.

But in the fecal leaking, gas belching, groaning agonal breaths that await each and every one of us, short of an errant bolt of lightning out of the blue (or a rather ordinary car crash).

Pretending otherwise constrains us in ways we cannot imagine.

So in Room B362 we raise critters, and we deal with death. We sow, we water, we feed, and occasionally we mourn. On rare occasions we even dance. Yep....

Plastiquinones matter. So does ATP synthase and phospholipid bilayers and cyclic AMP. I teach them because I am required to, and because they interest me.

But I also teach that everything alive, dies. Everything alive is connected to everything else that's alive.

What I don't teach is that Microsoft will outlive me, though it will. I also don't teach that life will outlive Microsoft. If I didn't believe that, though, I couldn't teach children.

I love teaching, and I love living.
The title is from Walt Kelly, my hero.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Clam rake vs. pickle dish

At the end of the day, the hallways are cluttered with abandoned papers. I picked one up.
Quadratic equations, lots of them, scrawled out with the tentativeness of an adolescent's hand.

I'll rake for clams this weekend, fish for striped bass, then bumble in the still chilly garden for a bit.

Which means reading tide charts, currents, and dirt.

I can't tell you how many times I got hit with quadratic equations, electromotive force charts, trig tables, and that freaking pickle jar in Ethan Frome way back in high school.

Then I'd go home and go fishing.

Not saying school wasn't useful--I may still have a decade or two to stumble upon a situation where I might need to decipher broken pickle dishes--but I learned a lot more useful stuff staring at the surf than I ever learned in school.

1:1 computers doesn't change this.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Just sayin'

With all the testosterone flowing around these parts pushing for test scores to see if mine is bigger than yours, to see if my lambs here in Bloomfield can kick the Chinese/Portuguese/Korean/Malaysian buttocks, to see if AMERICA RIGHT OR WRONG AS LONG AS WE BEAT THEIR PANSY ASSES IN THE PISA, I get that I am not going to avoid this test mania.

I'm not going to say I am OK with all this, but if I'm going to be judged on testing, what it be too much if we skipped the middle man and tested teachers directly?

If a teacher does not know content, nothing else matters.

I don't teach in an haute couture  district. I'd rather not have my future decided by a hungry child whose parents could not afford her asthma inhaler medicine this month.

Test the teachers first. Then talk to me about fixing this system by testing the chiuldren.

Just sayin'.....

I am wheezing today, and I'm cranky.
I will get my albuterol refill in a couple of hours, and I will be OK again.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cheap tools for kindergarten (Part 4)

Newton's cradle is a toy.

Isaac Newton did not invent it, nor did he invent the Laws of Motion. They just are. He uncovered what always, as far as we know, existed.

If you use this in class, do not show the kids the various permutations--they will find them if you let them be. Do not tell them it models the Law of Conservation of Momentum.

And if they ask for an explanation, tell them that everything moving (which is everything) has a certain amount of oomph, depending on how much stuff it has, and which direction it's moving. If they ask for more, tell them that we have just so much oomph in the world, no less, no more, and that it can be passed along between things.

If they ask why, tell them no one knows why. If you tell them otherwise, you will confuse them. Mutatio motus just is.

Just let them play, touching and seeing and hearing the world as it is.

You can play with a computerized version here, using different numbers of balls. 
But why not just use the real thing?
Yes, I know Newton was reporting what others had already shown.... 

The cradle pictured is by Dominique Toussaint from Wikimedia.

On EDUSolidarity

Throughout the day of March 22, 2011, teachers and our allies shared posts entitled “Why Teachers Like Us Support Unions”. For those of you shared, thank you for doing so.
from website

Stephen Lazar (Outside the Cave), one of the organizers of EDUSolidarity, has posted a list of all those who responded with blog posts supporting unions. It is a powerful list, and many of the teachers share wonderful ideas. I hope, eventually, to get through the whole list.

I am a member of the Bloomfield Education Association, the NJ Education Association, and (I suspect) a member of the NEA. I grew up in an Oirish-American home, with strong union ties. I proudly wore my Joe Hill t-shirt (union made here in America) for years until it fell apart. Heck, I can even sing "Look for the Union Label" without irony or cynicism.

I am not, however, on the list.

Here are a few of my reasons for my silence:

*We are taking the narrow view of a much, much larger issue.
Yes, our local unions are an essential piece of a well functioning public school system, as they are an essential piece of a well functioning republic whose citizens (for the most part) no longer own enough land to support themselves.

I get that we that we bust our asses, that we deserve a living wage, and that we need protections in the workplace. We all do. By speaking to our specialness, we are isolating ourselves from the families that support us, families in a world of hurt here in New Jersey.

The last two decades has seen an incredible shift in assets here--the ultra-wealthy have been siphoning off most of the goods. The tax code has been turned upside down. The working class has been devastated.

We need to tie the recent struggles to the larger picture, the one others have faced for years now. If we keep singling ourselves out as the saviors of democracy, as saints, as deserving something more because we have degrees or because we are serving some higher purpose, we are going to lose.

*We need to get our own houses in order
In our district, we have teachers making $43,000 with no family health benefits their first year. Our top end of the scale made $89,750 with full benefits, well over twice the newest members. The newest members pay the highest percent of their salary to belong to the union, and get the least protection.

There are a lot of good reasons so have differentiated salaries; seniority, by itself, is not one of them. The perception of guaranteed annual raises is killing us. (For the record, Bloomfield teachers took a pay cut across the board this year--but most of my neighbors still think we got our "steps.")

*We need to acknowledge the roles of unions

The cover of NJEA Review, from last September, sickened me. "Kick me"? What kind of message are we trying to send?

It's OK for unions to protect teachers--we need that. It's OK for unions to act in the best interests of its members. That's what unions do.

At times, the interests of a union member may, in fact, conflict with the interests of a child, or the BOE, or the town.  Everyone deserves due process. Everyone.

Our unions have made huge strides improving the school environment. They have improved conditions for children in our schools. We do ourselves a disservice, however, when we pretend that unions exist to improve the lives of children.

A good union is a messy, snarling machine out to protect its workers against the vagaries of those in power.

So, yep, I'm a proud union member and I'm a high school science teacher, but the two are not (and should never be) synonymous. If public schools ever get back to their true purpose, to create an informed, thinking citizenry capable of handling democracy, we'll get our country back.

In the meantime, does anyone have the number to the AFL-CIO...?

The district salary numbers are for 2009-20010, and were taken from the Asbury Park Press. All of us are making 1.5% less this year.

Yes, I know, the American Federation of Teachers is a member of the AFL-CIO. The NEA, as far as I know, is not.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cheap tools for kindergarten (Part 3)

This is an old post, but it fits right in my kindergarten instructional materials series, so I'm tossing it in, slightly modified.

In the olden days, a camera (like a car motor) could be grasped with a little bit of sense and a dollop of curiosity.

Light traveled through a piece of glass, a lens you could screw off the camera. Hold the lens a foot or two away, and the image flipped.

The lens was attached to a box that had a shutter you opened and closed to let in the light. You could vary the time it was open. You could vary how large the opening was.

The light was focused on film, a strip of plastic (originally a wet concoction of cellulose and other stuff to make "dope"), that reacted to the light. High school kids could hang out in dark rooms developing film (and a finer sense of anatomy).

The whole process was tangible. (That the dark room featured a red light added to the, um, tangibility.)

For kicks you could make a shoe box pinhole camera, and take interesting photos with unreal depth of field. Cool and cheap, when cheap was cool.

So what does this have to do with today's savvy kindergarten set?

First, though, all you young'uns who never saw a pinhole camera before need to gather a toilet paper roll, a piece of waxed paper, a piece of aluminum foil, and a couple of rubber bands.

(No, you can't do this get to use all 10 fingers for this. That's a pun, son....)

Put a small hole in the foil, attach it to one end of the tube, with the hole centered. Fold the waxed paper over the other end. Yep, use the rubber bands to hold it all together.

Point the aluminum side at a bright light source, focus on the waxed paper screen, and tell me what you see. Move it around a bit, what happens?

[OK, for those who cannot help themselves, I'll save you the trip to Google--you will see an upside-down image that moves oppositee to the direction you move the camera.]

That's the observation, now here's the question--how can an image flip if there are no lenses? What can you infer about the property of light (at least here in our Newtonian sensate universe)?

And I will leave this open for now....

An oatmeal box with a translucent lid works even better! Just put a pinhole in the bottom.

Cheap tools for kindergaten (Part 2)

rLots of children grow plants, a worthy endeavor. A child observes the development of a seed to seedling to flower back to seedling. Whole university courses could revolve around this. The whole living universe does.

It's a start....a good one. Let's push it a bit.

Where does the stuff of plants come from?

Ask a child. Heck, ask an adult. An oak tree can weigh over a couple of tons. Most people think its stuff comes from the ground. If it did, most trees would be sunken into the ground. But they're not.

Weigh the seed and the dirt that holds it, then in a few months, weigh the plant and the dirt again. It will weigh a bit more. No need to get into the "science"--noting the difference in mass is the science, plenty for a young child.

If the child should want more, though, here's a fun thing you can do with your numberless scale mentioned in the last post:

Place a small cup of vinegar and a dollop of baking soda next to it on one side,a few pebbles of equivalent mass on the other so that the scale is balanced. Now drop the baking powder into the vinegar. Watch the scale.

The cup of vinegar and baking soda will start to rise. If the child has been using the scale before this, she will realize something interesting is happening. The pebbles have not changed, the fizzing vinegar obviously has. Where did it stuff go?

What happens if you plant a seed upside down? We (the adult folk) don't think much about this, because it's not an issue. But it's an interesting question. What happens if you turn a seedling upside down? A nearly grown plant?

If you tell a child she must put this seed in exactly that position, well, you may as well stick with the PearsonEducation package.

What happens if you use blue light? What happens if you water it with milk? What happens if you pluck off a leaf? What happens what happens what happens what happens.....?

Let's see! Let's see!

And if a child would rather stare at the ant wending its way of the stem, then let her watch. Language and mathematics help define our world, help define the Platonic shadows that surround us, but if we push language before a child has a chance to recognize the world, she will be trapped chasing shadows of shadows, as so many of us do.

There's was beauty long before there was language, before there were numbers, a beauty many of us can no longer see because of language and numbers.

The wildflowers were found in Ireland, the eggplants in our backyard. Either Leslie or I took them.

Cheap "science" tools for kindergarten (Part 1)

Blank thermometer:

No numbers, no calibration marks, just a blank thermometer--essentially a thermoscope. A child can follow changes in temperature by watching the fluid rise and fall.

Everybody alive today was born into a world with calibrated thermometers--they're so obvious as to seem intuitive. Thermoscopes were invented long before Celsius and Fahrenheit got their names attached to them.

The thermoscope itself poses interesting questions. Why does the fluid inside change shape? How fast can you make it rise and fall? Does it always go down when things get colder? (A brilliant child might even ponder what it means to say "colder.")

Over time, children will get familiar with patterns. Ask a child if something is warmer (or colder) than something else. Is today warmer than yesterday?

At some point a child might think to put a mark on the thermoscope, maybe using a piece of tape, to compare one reading with another.

Eventually, of course, the thermoscope becomes more useful with its suit of numbers. Until a child needs the numbers, though, I suspect they just get in the way.

A blank balance:

My first chemistry set came with a super cheap plastic balance with tiny tin pans. A pointer indicated when the the two pans were level, but it couldn't measure anything, all it could do is compare.

The "all it can do" liability taught me more than a Ohaus Adventurer Pro AV64 Analytical Balance ever could--it was also about $1600 cheaper.

All any scale does is compare masses--a cheap balance just makes it more obvious what you're comparing. The fancy scale is comparing numbers based on a slab of platininum-iridium alloy sitting in Paris somewhere, slowly losing mass to entropy and time.

My cheap balance did not need a numerical reference. Either something had more (or less) mass than something else. It measured the relative pull of gravity of each item, nothing I would have understood when in kindergarten, and nothing I truly understand now.

Which is, of course, the point.

When we use unimaginably fine scales to measure (and the mass of 0.1 mg, the limit of the Ohaus scale, is truly unimaginable), we are dealing with an abstract precision that, at some level, detracts from our understanding of the world.

A child could learn more comparing a bowling ball and a duck using a large, simple balance than she appears to know when she reads 12.1213 grams on the Ohaus scale. She might sound smarter reading the fancy scale, especially in a culture that confounds the abstract with the real, and she might even impress a few administrators and BOE members along the way.

But she won't know a lick more science.

The photo is of the kilogram protoype in Paris.
The old thermometers is from the 1832 Edinburgh Encyclopaedia via  Engines of Our Ingenuity

Diving into early elementary science curriculum

I've gotten a tad involved with the kindergarten science curriculum in our district. I know a little bit about science, and a little bit about kids.

Looking at much of the commercial stuff available, a lot of well meaning (and well paid) folks know little about either. It's time to put these well meaning folks who make a lot of money somewhere else. Maybe Mars

There's a lot of awful stuff out there. It's eye-catching, and well produced, and quite entertaining, but it's awful. Really awful.

Energy and matter are very difficult concepts to master. It's OK if a 6 year old doesn't know much about Newton's Laws. What is not OK is teaching nonsense that will make it more difficult for the child to grasp science later.

Here's something from PearsonEducaton, written for 1st grade:

Where's the science?

I start each year with a classroom of sophomores who think energy means to move something. By the time I get them, this misconception is seared into millions of neuronal connections. Teaching crap is worse than teaching nothing at all.

(The gratuitous "Go Green" symbol on a page feigning science about one of the most ecologically destructive
inventions ever might, though, make a good lesson on irony. Or cynicism.)

I will be posting a variety of seemingly simple ideas for teaching young'uns some science. The goal is not to produce Junior Scientists® rattling off the scientific names of obscure penguins like some unfortunate child with Asperger's syndrome. I just want to help kids see the natural world.

I do not have a particular beef with Pearson--it came up first when I Googled elementary science instructional materials.
If you look at other companies, there seems to be equal opportunity awfulness.

Friday, March 25, 2011

xkcd channels Feynman

This was sent to me by a friend I've never met.

Today I watched a dozen young adults get excited staring at fruit flies. Fruit flies, like pretty much anything alive, have stories to share. The deeper you delve, the more interesting they become.

Too much of what is called "science" in school is just pushing around big words with little thought. Knowing the definition (if not the meaning) of, say, "ubiquinone" may impress a few folks outside of science, but really, what's the point?

If you do not share the wonder and the beauty of this huge thing that wraps around us, is us, then what hope do any of our lambs have?

I'm not saying you got to make this a touchy-feely quasi-religious ecstatic experience. But if you're doing this right, you are going to ignite a few students along the way.

Isn't that why most of us got into this business?

Screw STEM, I want to teach science....

If you like the cartoon, go watch Dr. Bonnie Bassler--she's wonderful!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fruit flies like a banana....

Living fruit flies over three generations is an ideal creature for teaching biology in all its glory. Students learn so much more than genetics with all the potential for disaster: mold, slime, crustiness, lost flies, complaining neighbors (threatening music teachers that blame all insects, bacteria, the world's ills on biologists!), impossible statistics, realization that not all data are clean (except in physics), appreciation for the care of living things, patience, and new found respect and fond regard for lowly dipterans.

I got the fruit flies just a few hours ago, and already lost two--one squished when I pulled on the foam stopper, the other is still very much alive, exploring the room.

I chilled them long enough to keep them still, not so long that they froze to death.

Part of me weighs on the hubris of using mutated forms of a living creature to demonstrate how science doesn't work. (My virgin females probably aren't anymore, a bigger problem than you might suppose if you don't know fruit flies. And there's really no reason why you should.)

The other part?  A kid in a candy store.

I can tell you a million reasons why I teach science, and why it matters. But mostly I teach because I love teaching, and selfish man I am, hope to keep on doing just that.

Yes, I know there are wonderful computer simulations for this lab, and I may well end up using them anyway
after one colony escapes and the other mates with the white flies pestering our class veggies.
Doesn't hurt to attempt real biology now and again in a classroom.
Some things were done better a half century ago.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mud and blood

First full day of spring today. I've used up well over half allotted to me in this lifetime.

Got some serious planting done yesterday. Every year I am surprised at how muddy mud can be, then surprised again as I wash my hands in the sink, the dirt tracking into the drain, dark and sinuous, like blood from a deep wound.

The difference? There's a lot more life in a handful of decent dirt than in my veins.

I don't recommend that every child see her own blood washed down the drain, but I do recommend a life where that remains a possibility.

Photo by Leslie.
Now that's a lot of mud.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

"Radiation is Actually Good For You"

Ann Coulter never actually said this*, but if she had, I'd be nodding my head vigorously alongside her.

Radiation is good for you!

Without radiation, there'd be no flowers, no food, no fun. Inside chloroplasts, electrons get tossed about like rag dolls in a pool of pit bulls, energized by electromagnetic radiation emitted from a nuclear furnace about 8 light-minutes away. Chloroplasts transfer the energy to chemical bonds, making our food.

Each breath we take, every thought we think, flows from the sun's radiation.

The stuff we happen to see, visible light, is just a small slice of the spectrum. Infrared rays, ultraviolet, radio waves, gamma rays, all the same phenomena, just different frequencies (a bit disingenuous, since those differences reflect huge differences in energy, but still....)

We think of small doses of light as harmless, because for most of us, it is. Our bodies continually repair damage to our DNA caused by UV light. Not all of us can do this.

Some of us are condemned to the dark because of a rare genetic disease that prevents them from repairing damage done to them, to all of us, by light.

And some others, like Ann Coulter, choose to live in the dark anyway.


The UV protection suit photo is from the HED Foundation here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Now a word from our sponsors....

"The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that."

Larry Kudrow, CNBC, said this a few days ago, and got flak for it, as, I guess, he should. He sort of apologized for it, too, though unlike many, I do not think he needed to. He shared a sentiment common to his class. It's good to hear a reminder now and again.

This is the global economy Arne wants your child to join. 

Me? I'm busy wrecking as many future Kudrows as I can, showing them lichen and moss and squirrels on our Bloomfield Green. It's hard to hate the world once you fall in love with the local.

Here's an idea--no bombing areas of the world at least half your citizens can't find on a map.
The photo is from here, unattributed--I'd love to hear where it came from.....



I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
'Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.'

'Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart's pride.

Yeats' Crazy Jane makes sense mid-March. This is a hard time of year for mainstream churches. Words fall flat when the earth erupts again.

Today is the kind of day you count the old men in the neighborhood after a long winter. Still missing one, but he may be recovering from St. Patrick's Day. I will wander by his stoop again in a bit.

The cherry blossom buds are tumescent, ready to spew their sperm on our streets, our cars, our heads. Life is, again, for the living.

The big old moon reared up on its hind legs this evening. The clams are in trouble. I could feel the moon pull me along with the sea water. It seems unfair, raking clams when the moon sneaks up so close. The moonlight will dance on their siphons just past midnight tonight, and maybe a clam or two will share in the dance. They need not fear my rake tomorrow.

The crocuses have tossed off any sense of decorum, popping up pretty much anywhere they please.

The sun has returned, and with it, life. The old men left shuffle past and mutter hello, in shoes impossibly thick and black. They know, they know, what we all pretend to ignore.

Grace comes, again, unearned. None of us leave this life intact. Drink the wine, the sun, the pollen, the life.

"The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that," said CNBC anchor Larry Kudlow. 
How many of us don't have a freaking clue? Is that the global economy my kids are supposed to worship?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On school choice

If you will not send your child to a particular school, no one should have to. It's an effective argument, one that gives me pause in the school choice discussion.

Let's extend that argument:

If your child should not go to bed hungry, no one should have to.
If your child should not walk in fear in a dangerous neighborhood, no one should have to.
If your child should not live in a high lead environment, no one should have to.

Our Governor likes to talk of folks "having skin in the game," and he's right, having stake in an issue does hone one's views.

I just wish all of those clamoring to close "failing" schools would work even half as hard  taking care of the children who go to them. Our children become invisible the moment the leave the schoolhouse.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Take a Senator Clamming Day

A half moon hanging in the sky late Friday afternoon does not bode well for clamming in these parts. Unless my nephew gets here real soon, the clams will rest easy today (which is all clams really do anyway). Some laws cannot be broken. A late day half moon means an early morning low tide.

No matter what.
Every time I meet folks with a bit of power or money (the two usually travel together), and in my itinerant careers I've met a few, I come away feeling oily, not because of their behavior, but because of mine.

Senators and CEO's smile, and tend to be bright, decisive, and charming. They like you. They want to help. They share stories about their children, about their towns. They're effective because they believe their own stories, and with reason. Their stories are true.

Because their stories are true, and because I like to be liked, I smile and nod and share stories, too. And then I speak my piece, feeling off-kilter; the message seems foreign when translated into Schmoozese, it loses its strength.

I watched children slowly die, over weeks, over months, over years from our cultural madness, and I literally sputter when trying to speak of the specifics, and sputtering does not translate well in Schmoozese. And at any rate, there is never just one person responsible, never just one organization, and the few times it is, no one responsible gets hurt anyway.

I bet I could tell my stories out on a mudflat at low tide, the sweet seething smell of life assaulting the nose of a Congressman as he leans on a borrowed rake, the soft sound of waves lapping at his feet, awakening parts of his brain he last used when he was a child playing outside.

Our stories, true stories, become real outside, as any stories about life do. There's a reason board rooms look sterile. If board meetings were held outside, we'd have a kinder culture (despite lower stock portfolios).

A few things are certain.
Something happened a long time ago, a something we will never grasp.
The tides will rise and fall in tune with the moon. 
And each of us will die.

I remember this at particularly bad times, like the day I watched the city burn from across the river, waiting for wounded that never arrived, or the few awful moments telling a mother her child will never hug her again. And remembering these certain things do help.

Most days, however, I forget what's certain, as most of us "living" in this culture, and the consequences are devastating, if not apparent.

My sister never forgot this, and danced every day. She also moved mountains. She could see the person behind the sheen. She could bring the mudflats into the boardroom, and she did.

I don't ever want to make people uncomfortable because of what I said. I just want them to understand the consequences of what they does. With the exception of psychopaths (and a few of them exist), people can, and do, change.


I'll leave lobbying to the professionals, those who can speak without sputtering, and not stare (or giggle) at the well manicured hands of the elite. I can't speak rationally in any room that won't support a plant.

Meanwhile, I'll take my nephew clamming. We catch live critters, and we kill live critters. If you do this fully aware of what you're doing, it changes you. At the very least, it will get you fresh food and spoil your appetite for the stuff that passes as fresh in the supermarket.

If any Senator or CEO wants to try a hand at this, let me know. The only condition is that you don't reveal my secret clam bed. We'll rake clams and` eat them before the next tide rises. I'll even break out the homebrew.

I promise not to talk politics. After years of trying, I know my words won't change you. But the mud might.

If you ever get a chance to dine with the elite, goodness, taste their wine. 
While food from our kitchen rivals anything the ultra-rich eat, I have to admit they drink some mighty fine wine.

Friday, March 11, 2011


Maybe I'm a tad sensitive, at least for someone who once scrapped with another dockworker while mutually armed with shovels, but I doubt it.

Maybe it's because my Dad flew tons of tuna for Nippon Cargo Airlines back in the day, but I doubt it.

Or maybe it's because I just read CitiGroup's 2006 report praising plutonomy, so I'm looking a little too hard, but I doubt it.

Or maybe it's because my first girlfriend was first generation Japanese American; her mother grew up in Japan during the war. I learned a little about Japan, and a lot about cultural blindness.

This is a screenshot from Google news this morning. It was taken from the general news, not the business section:

Maybe we'd see the same concern about the financial markets if this had happened in Ireland.

But I doubt it.

What better way to nakedly expose what matters most to those of us who have the most. This is shameful.
Photo is of Google news, obviously, taken around 6:30 AM EST. 
Yes, I know the news order is based on a computer algorithm--this makes it better? 
Yes, I know it would be shameful no matter what part of the world got hit.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Time to plant again

A few days ago I plucked a few more morsels off the Brussels sprouts. I'll get a few more yet before they bolt, shedding seeds for next year, as they have, as they will.

Tonight I mixed water and peat, getting ready to plant again, as I have, as I will, so long as I can. Tomorrow I sow the pepper seeds, in two weeks the tomato seeds.

And so it starts again.

I pray that my students remember this much--that they were able to grow food in class, with little more than tiny seeds, light, and water, that they are part of this miracle of life, that ultimately the things that matter are ours through grace.

Not through government, or cash, or the gametes of a couple of wealthy Americans who happened to get together.

A child learns that she is part of something bigger than mere human culture becomes someone to be reckoned with. 

No matter what happens on Wall Street today, or in Trenton today, or in D.C., water will start to seep into the seeds I sow, and awaken an embryo every bit as alive as I am, and it will ache to reach the sun.

Everything we eat comes from the ground, and everything we eat will return to the ground, as will each of us.


This week I got to meet a couple of folks with a whole lot more human power than I'll ever have, or ever want, folks who rule over abstract concepts using abstract ideas, tossing around abstract half-truths that they either believe (bad) or not (worse).

Planting last fall's seeds into the ground with my hands, a very human act, reminds me of my place. We are all all bound, literally, to the earth. Holding a handful of good soil does me good.

Plants above grown in Room B362, by my students.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!"

A few of us got to meet with Governor Christie and the Ed Commissioner Chris Cerf, behind closed doors, no camera, no press, for almost two hours. I didn't even have to wear a suit.

A passionate, civil discussion took place, about, among other things, the purpose of public schools.

Governor Christie is bright, charming, and well-versed in educational policy. I expected nothing less. His message to us was consistent with his public statements. Mr. Cerf, likewise, knows his stuff.

For those of us still holding the quaint notion that a functioning democracy requires truly public spaces, truly public schools, truly informed citizens, a smidgen more idealism (and a lot less elitism), well, I failed to make any change in the destructive path Jersey's following, though I did get to show the Governor a blister I got clamming on public waters.

And yes, I get the irony of pushing for public schools while immersed in a private meeting.

The other irony? It's not what's happening inside schools that creates the huge inequities we see, and ultimately it's what's happening outside our walls that determines the success of our students.

The "storied pomp" are killing the rest of us.

Maybe our next meeting should be in a boardroom at  
CitiGroup, home of the Plutonomists, their word, not mine.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The NJ Clamming End of Course Exam

The tines of my clam rake are shiny again, as the rust is polished off by the sand that hides my prey. Spring is here again. I love clamming because, well, just because. I am pretty good at it, too, because I love it and persisted at it. It's not rocket science, true, but there's an art to spotting a keyhole, the mark of a quahog.

What would you teach in class if all your children had decent livelihoods waiting for them that did not require advanced math or public speaking skills? What if you had a child who loved clamming, was good at it, and who wanted to learn more about the world?

I suppose you could argue that he could use geometry to calculate the angles of his rake tines, and biology to find new clam beds, and language arts to create better copy for his business ads, but these are excuses, really, to teach what we want to teach, in 48 minute chunks, 5 days a week.

(When was the last time you used something you learned in high school you could not have learned on your own anyway?)

What would you teach a child interested in knowing more about the world aside from economic aspirations?

Yes, well, um, of course, but such a child is rare, you see, we must focus on the global economy, on future jobs we cannot predict, on beating the scores of China or Korea or Finland--we must prepare them for the "real world."

If you believe that children are not interested in learning about the world, you need to watch them outside of school.

It might just be that they're just not interested in what's happening in your room. Even if it's "on the test."

Imagine if you had to learn about clamming--trivia about the various rakes available, the various shellfish. Where are they found? How do you read a DEP map? How do you get a license? How do you read the tides, the wind, the water temperatures?

You might argue that learning about the particulars of clamming is, well, ridiculous, and I'd agree.

Tell me how "Us[ing] mathematical formulas to justify the concept of an efficient diet" grabs your interest.That's just one of our "cumulative progress indicators"(specifically 5.3.12.B.2) for biology. Now do this for multiple subjects.

And we wonder why the dropout rate is so high....

That's me clamming somewhere in New Jersey, and even saying that much is too much.

SMARTER is Orwellian

This is a bit of a windy post mostly so I can find the links I need when I have the time to dig deeper into this.
I recently realized that few teachers know what's coming down the pike, and I want to bone up on the nonsense so I can share it.

We just finished the HSPA's this week, our form of state testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act. I continued to teach during the week, but my lambs' brains were fried by the time they got to class each day, and I doubt a whole lot of neurons got remodeled.

We get to do this again in May for a couple of days, during the NJ Biology EOC exam NJ Biology Competency Test.

New Jersey has joined the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), along with 30 other states in a nationalized testing mechanism that proctors "required summative exams (offered twice each school year)" and "optional formative, or benchmark, exams" before the summatives. The federal gummint has already given the consortium (a word I am developing a real distaste for) over $175 million.

New Jersey has agreed to start using the SBAC tests for "federal accountability assessments" by the 2014-2015 school year, now less than 4 years away.

I figured the Orwellian 1984 world eventually come, but I thought we'd get a chance to squawk for a moment before it arrived. We now have in place a nationalized curriculum with a federalized testing mechanism that will use artificial intelligence to routinely assess your child's ability to fit into the "real" corporate world that awaits her, propped up by obscene amounts of money made by the same corporate world.

Every family in Bloomfield pays a lot--thousands of dollars--to support our schools. They are local, and they are public. They are designed to help our town raise knowledgeable and decent human beings live reasonably happy lives, and we do a pretty good job doing that.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Death in a classroom, again

A roly poly died in class this week. That in itself is not unusual. This particular roly poly, however, lived in a terrarium maintained by two students. No rock fell on it. It had food and water. Unless we get an autopsy, it will go down as an "up and died." It was found in the classic dead bug position, even though, technically, it was a crustacean.

The two young women who maintained the tank were upset, but once I assured them that the roly poly died of old age, they were fine. "Old age" is foreign to the young, as it should be. Besides, I made that up. Nothing dies of old age. Nothing.

I am meeting with the governor on Tuesday. I hope it goes well, and I hope he uses his office to promote education, but I know we will not be talking about dead roly polies.

School should be a dangerous place, with dangerous ideas. The young should be pushing us. My students were mere embryos in 1996.

They were born in a world of incomprehensibly destructive weapons. In a culture that values words and contracts over life. In a world defined by systems and machines,

That they do not run out of the building screaming by 11 A.M. shows how much they trust us.

So we'll dither about merit based pay, and education reform, and what education means to democracy, but we won't talk about dead roly polies.

I have a dozen or so clams in my belly now, critters that were alive 3 or 4 hours ago. They were delicious, and nutritious. They're now dead.

That's the way it works.

We all die, of course, and we mostly ignore this. We eat to live. I eat the clams, they eat plankton. Most of the clams I raked up today were less than a decade old. I have no idea what clams know, and they have no idea what I know. They know enough to try to escape when I rake. Most living things, conscious or not, make every effort to stay alive.

And if we want to stay alive, and if we do not have chloroplasts, we need to eat other organisms. "Eat," a simple 3 letter word, one we do not ruminate over much, means this: taking into your body the once living body of another, in order that you can keep living.

The alternative is  premature death.


Peter Singer, an ethicist, waivers on whether eating clams is OK. He seems to think it depends on whether they have interests:

[T]he only legitimate boundary to our concern for the interests of other beings is the point at which it is no longer accurate to say that the other being has interests. To have interests...a being must be capable of suffering or experiencing pleasure. If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for disregarding that suffering, or for refusing to count it equally with the like suffering of any other being. But the converse of this is also true. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of enjoyment, there is nothing to take into account.

This is an interesting issue. We could spend weeks in class discussing it. But we won't, not if I want to keep my position.

I doubt a single child in my class worried about the well being of a roly poly before coming into Room B362. I can take no credit for their newfound concern beyond bringing in a few roly polies. Just about all living organisms are more interesting (and complicated) than we know, until we bother to get acquainted with them.

Every organism alive on Earth today has been evolving for the same amount of time. We are not special. And we will die, too.

So I bring a few in, so my lambs can watch them. And they do pretty much what we do. Wander around, eat, drink, socialize, reproduce, and die.

No one knows the why. No one.


I teach biology, the study of life. To study life, you need to grasp how we stay alive, which means you need to have a handle on death.

We spend a lot of time talking about meiosis, about biomes, about transcription and translation, about DNA. "Death", however, is not in the New Jersey curriculum standards, except when referring to stars. "Love" is not in the NJCCCS. Nor is "global warming," nor "nuclear warfare."

So what matters?

I slaughtered, deliberately, 27 clams tonight. I slaughtered many more organisms while raking for those clams, even more while driving to my sekrit clamming bed.

I can (reasonably) expect to die within the next 20 or 30 years, though I would beat my family average should I live so long.

Walt Kelly got this. He was one of my best teachers ever, and I only knew him through Pogo

Microsoft will outlive me. So will Cisco and GM and the US Federal Government, all fabled institutions, all protected by law. I either matter, or I don't. I'm too old to worry about that anymore, so long as i get my clams and my books and my beer, but it's a worthwhile (and interesting) question for my lambs.

Every family in my town pays a huge amount of taxes ts support our local school system. I am thankful that they do. The least I can do is teach things that matter.

If I tell my townfolks I teach about meiosis, and polymerase chain reactions, and other forms of modern nonsense, well, many would believe they're getting their money's worth, and maybe they are.

If I told them that their children were studying roly polies, I am not sure I'd get the same reception. Governor Christie could destroy me with that.

Still, death matters. A lot. Maybe not if you're a corporation, and maybe not if you're a clam, but it does if you're a child.

Imagine what we could do if each and every one of us recognized our own finiteness.

The bluefish and the clam shown were both delicious.
The Pogo cartoon used with permission--that I had contact with anyone in the Kelly family made this blog worthwhile.
The photos are ours.

Mazda Spyder? No, spider!

You mean Mitsubishi Spyder, no?

Um, no, Mazda. Mazda has recalled 65,000 Mazda6's because of concerns that spiders may have crawled into a fuel hose, Cheiracanthium inclusum, the whitish bitey kind we find dropping from the ceiling at midnight, the same kind that terrorized my daughter growing up. While there's some debate how they got in  the cars--a bug expert believes they crawled into the hoses sitting in a Mazda warehouse--Mazda maintains it's "just a mystery."

For the less mechanically minded among us, spiders (or anything besides gasoline) sitting in a fuel line is not good.
My sister had a Fiat Spider back when our gang had hair on our heads (and not on our ears). Her fuel line popped off once, and a small fire erupted. I didn't think to check for a spider, but I do remember being amazed at how much it looked like fog.

There's a good reason for that--it is fog. If you burn a hydrocarbon cleanly (with enough oxygen available), you get CO2 and water. White smoke is just water. No one believes this, of course, even if we say we do. Our brains file it under the smoke category, and we get on with life.

2C8H18 + 25O2 -> 16CO2 + 18H20

Unless you teach science to sophomores.

I have no idea what a yellow sac spider weighs--maybe a half gram at best? I do know that a  2009 Mazda6i Sport weighs about 3300 pounds empty. Over 100,000 tons of cars have been recalled, waylaid by a spider that already has a reputation for being a nuisance.

Maybe it's the Luddite in me, maybe I'm just getting too cranky seeing us destroy the bigger world around us, but seeing rockets get lost in the Pacific and spiders move mountains of metal have made the news fun again, gentle reminders of our hubris.

The gasoline combustion equation is a bit of a simplification since gasoline is made up of multiple kinds of hydrocarbons. 
I showed octane, which makes up about a fifth of gasoline.

Apparently Mazda cars make the horizon tilt. Flipping through Mazda photos is like visiting the bad guys' lair in a Batman show.
Yellow sac spider photo from Local Pest Control Services

Friday, March 4, 2011

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!

"We failed to make orbit," Omar Baez, NASA's launch director, said at a news conference. "All indications are that the satellite and the rocket are in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere."

424 million dollars into the drink, and the best we get is it's in the ocean "somewhere"?

Thankfully, no one knows how big $424,000,000 is anymore--other than it's a lot of money. And since no one trusts science anyway, a little more data on global climate would just get ignored.

But for almost a half billion dollars, seems fair to ask just where the sucker landed. Heck, a $99 GPS can tell you that.

The photo is from World Weblog Whizz.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thoughts before meeting Governor Christie

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Emma Lazarus, from "New Collossus"

A few cool things happened the past couple of days. At least one of our pair of red-tailed hawks that hang just north of the high school returned. I found deer tracks on the Bloomfield Green, a first, I think (though we did have a turkey feasting on acorns there a couple of years ago). And Governor Christie's coming to visit our school.

Our principal caught me in the hallway and asked if I'd like to join a few other teachers in a meeting with him.

After being assured it was not a big media event (just a get together for discussion), and that I did not have to dress up (I squeeze into my suit for funerals and weddings only these days), I said I'd be glad to be part of it so long as I could speak freely. His smile spoke volumes. "Of course."


The last first Jersey governor I met was DiFrancesco, on a beautiful but sad day in September 2001. We were waiting in the shadows of the Statue of Liberty for wounded that never came, and he came around to check on us. There wasn't much to say--the city kept burning, and we kept waiting.

I was a pediatrician then, and would be for a few more years, but I think that my decision to teach was made soon after that long day. DiFrancesco had little to say, but to be fair, there was little to be said.

There's a difference between having little to say and saying nothing.

Democracy depends on discourse. Democracy depends on trust. Democracy depends on keeping the concept of the commons alive. I keep copies of the Declaration of Independence and The Bill of Rights on the wall of our classroom.

Most of us work hard at what we do, and most of us love what we do.

So while many in my field may fantasize about moments with Governor Christie, about what they would do given the chance, I still fantasize about a functioning republic, which, of course, depends on truly public schools doing the hard work that needs to be done.

I owe it to my students, to my town, and to our republic to practice civil discourse. And I will. No matter how quaint that may sound in an age of soundbites, fury, and the "new normal."

Statue of Liberty torch photo from
My memory's had a few too many concussions:
I met Governor McGreevey at some function, and I chatted briefly with Gov. Corzine when he flew on the saqme flight as mine.
Whatever else you might think of Corzine, he flew coach, and he flew alone. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Udder nonsense

(An ice cream shop in London started selling ice cream made from human milk in February for about $23 per serving; a couple of days ago, British authorities stepped in, responding to complaints, presumably about the milk, not the price. I wrote this a couple of years ago. This gives me an excuse to run it again.)

"Beer is living proof that God loves us
and wants us to be happy."
Ben Franklin

I do a lot of things that may not be good for me--I sit in front of this monitor too many hours a day, I like to go fast on motorcycles, and I use the top step on ladders. One high risk activity I refrain from, however, is drinking milk.

Cow's milk is for calves. Breast milk is for young humans until they sprout a few teeth. Aside from some sort of fetish practiced in moderation, adults should never drink milk.

In the cafeteria, Josephine serves me lunch. I love her. She calls me "Pumpkin," and she knows exactly what I like.

Still, I suspect she might be trying to kill me. She can't resist pushing the milk. People love to be in line behind me because I give my milk away. (I can actually get veggies and a fruit for only 15 more cents if I also take a half-pint of milk.)

Beer in moderation, on the other hand, prolongs life. It lowers blood pressure, reduces my chances of developing Alzheimer's, and, well, tastes good. Really good.

Really, really good. (Did I mention that I like beer?)

Guess which beverage gets the huge color poster on the cafeteria wall?

Now obviously I don't think the cafeteria walls should be covered with Guinness ads, nor do I condone drinking among the young (except maybe for those in my immediate clan during wakes).

Our love affair with cow's milk shows what a good PR campaign can do. We are willing to drink the milk from a four-legged critter while simultaneously repulsed by the idea of making ice cream from breast milk.

I'm not going to jump all over anyone for a bad milk habit--live and let live. But on St. Paddy's Day, when I carefully pour the cream over a spoon into my Irish coffee, it's not the whiskey I fear.

It's the cream.

Particularly the cream from the milk of another species.

My students continue to drink milk and Coke and Snapple and all kinds of other things that harm them, truly harm them. Diabetes is no joke.

In D.A.R.E., they learn that beer is a gateway drug. Too much of anything can be dangerous. Thankfully, too much thinking is not one of them anymore. Uncontrolled thinking could lead to all kinds of ruinous activities.

I'll drink to that.

I lifted the image of the beer in a carboy from Homebrew Underground
--at least until they complain or I find my own photo. Addendum: it's cool--thanks, Homebrew Underground!

The udder shot is from Genus Breeding.

Leslie points out, rightly, that cow's milk has not been linked to adult onset diabetes.
Milk has been associated with Type 1 diabetes, but correlation,
of course, does not mean causation.

Leslie also says stay away from BGH (bovine growth hormone).

To be fair, I'm a bit lactose intolerant, so I may be biased.