Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Kids Are All Right!

I went to the Save Our Schools March--500 miles, a few Guinnesses, and many smiles later, I have the obligatory report.

I'm not going to blow sunshine up your colon, though there was plenty of sun to spare. I am going to focus on the huge positives, then ask the old folk to step back--yes, even you, Ms. Ravitch. We had our turn in the sun.

Teacher Ken wrote a long piece in Daily Kos about how tired he is. He may well be tired, and justifiably so. Time to pass the torch.

I love Jonathan Kozol, but this isn't about what we did decades ago. Jonathan Kozol made an impassioned speech, and I'm going to catch flak for this, but his references to Dr. King came off (to my ears, anyway) a tad patronizing. I understand the temptation--Arne Duncan plays the race card.

(In polite company I hear people say someone's behavior is "bordering on racism." Nope. That's racism. And Arne's words border on racism. I don't get invited to parties often.) Arne has maintained that we are racists for pointing out that zip codes, ahem, do matter. And here we go again, watching powerful pale people trot out various connections. It was much easier when "Some of my friends are black" did not degenerate into the sophisticated code that exists today.

Dr. King was 39 when he was cut down, JFK was 46, Shabazz 39, Bobby Kennedy 42. From my perspective now, they were all young men. The leaders of their time sought advice from the elders, but the younger folks led.

Jose Vilson's words (This is not a test!) electrified us Saturday. Matt Damon's speech cut to the chase, pointing out exactly why the testing madness cuts down children. John Kuhn (I will teach these kids!) reminded us why public schools are truly democratic. These are the voices we must follow now. We had our turn. Crotchety never beats evil. Hope and energy have a chance, though.

Things may a bit bleak to some of us, but the best speakers aren't resting on their laurels, they're out there fighting the good fight.

Toss the taped Jon Stewart speeches, leave the elders to counsel if counseling is sought. We can share our stories and compare our war wounds at Old Ebbit Grill, and watch our children show us the way.

I had a chance to listen to a few young'uns at Old Ebbit Grill--the future is in very capable hands.

Friday, July 29, 2011

SOS March: Our stories matter

If I could start again
a million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way....

My son's toes were cut up pretty good, my daughter's shiner began its inevitable transition from a dull red to the eggplant hue it promises to be. Leslie and I left without any wounds to discuss, but at our age, that's cool. I only had one scuffle, but over the next few days, months, and years, should I be so blessed, it will become another story that defines our clan. Yep, the Dropkick Murphys are in town.

When American Irish get together, it feels familiar--there's a wonderful tension. No one's looking for a fight, but no one's backing off from one either. We share history, mostly consistent with glaring discrepancies--truth matters more than facts.

Our story is not particularly compelling because we're Irish--it's compelling because we're human. Our story is universal, our particulars emanating from an Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger. Just about every culture paying attention, true to its history, can say the same thing.

Every culture that shares stories from more than a generation knows love and death, knows kindness and injustice, knows redemption. The danger, a real one, is believing that only your culture shares these things.

Humans are tribal--just look at Facebook. But we're not immortal--just look at your folks a generation or two ahead. It's a fine line between tribalism and racism, one often crossed, especially when times get tough. The best stories remind us of our worst behaviors.

My sister, when she was still alive, traveled for months through rural Pakistan--she spent an afternoon having tea in a Hunzakut home--and everywhere the same stories, the same shared meals, the same kindness to "strangers," thousands of miles away in the Hunza Valley.

I am marching tomorrow because we've lost our way, and I want to see the faces of those who still have stories worth sharing. If the story ended all shiny and happy, I'd stick to my television. Our human story, though, never ends, even as mine winds down.

I teach to share the story.

I am charged with teaching natural history, a small but real part of our history. 

Teachers need to be careful about some things--our march is tribal, and if we're careless, our words become exclusionary.

Yes, we work hard, but just about everybody works hard.
Yes, we're losing autonomy in the workplace, but just about everybody else has, too.

I work hard as a teacher, but I worked hard as a dock worker, as a doc, as a lab tech, as a lawn cutter, as a salesperson. We all work hard--we must not ever forget that when anyone one of us speaks, we speak for all.

We need to focus on what we value, because our values are shared values that matter to everyone who loves, everyone who stays true to this human thing, which is intimately tied to the land we walk on, the air we breathe.

If we forget our collective pasts, the joys and the injustices, the happy births and the agonal deaths, the stories that matter, then we lose our reason to teach.

Those who teach just to make a living won't be there tomorrow. Neither will those who teach without passion, without hope, without love. Everyone who shows will have stories to share, stories to bring back home, stories that shape lives.

Johnny Cash took Trent Reznor's song story "Hurt," and made it something new, and old. Reznor had reluctantly agreed to let Cash use it, worried about Cash's take on it. He needn't had worried:
I pop the video in, and wow... Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps... I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.
Alternative Press, #194, September, 2004, via Wikipedia

Sincerity and the search for meaning keep us (teachers, students, families, towns) together.

Teachers still have a rare privilege in our culture--we tell stories for a living. Classrooms that work are woven with the words of all within the room. I do not want to lose my voice. I do not want my students to lose theirs. So I will march, and I will sing, and chant, and maybe even dance. I hope you do, too.

The Dropkick Murphys are the best paddy punk band in the world.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Food for thought

If you don't eat enough, you lose weight. Assuming you're hanging around the surface of the Earth, losing weight means you're losing mass.

Where does it go?

Many of my students (and many adults) think that the food (mass) gets converted to energy, and that explains the weight loss. While this does happen--the sun's light comes from fusion--we would not survive long if we were nuclear furnaces.

So where does it go?

High school science mostly exists in a Newtonian universe, and that's as it should be. While e = mc2 has become a cultural icon, you really don't need to know much about it in biology, except to know that's how the sun has managed to bathe us with the energy needed for life for over 4 billion years.

(There are huge reasons to know the consequences of our knowledge, but the consequences are far more easily grasped than the physics behind it.)

I announce first day of class that in Room B362, we live in a Newtonian universe. The amount of mass, or stuff, in a closed system (nothing gets in, nothing gets out) stays the same. Forever.

This is a big deal, the heart of chemistry--despite all the fizzing and hissing and heat and bubbling and light--when all is said and done, you have exactly the same amount of stuff at the end of a reaction that you started with. The stuff has different qualities--but the total amount of stuff stays the same.

A child may rationally think, Ah, well, it's easy--we poop! Except for a squirt or two of bile, though, what you poop is mostly the stuff you couldn't digest--stuff that never got inside of you beyond traveling through the open tube between your mouth and you anus. A lot of this stuff is digested by bacteria partying in your gut--they grow and reproduce, but the stuff of bacteria ultimately comes from the stuff that never truly enters you.

If you don't eat, and if you carefully weigh your stool each day, the total weight of you and your stool will still go down.

Where did the missing mass go?

A gallon of gasoline weighs just over 6 pounds. The carbon dioxide produced from a gallon of gasoline weighs around 3 times as much! How is this possible?

When you burn something, you are adding oxygen to fuel, and rearranging the atoms of both. In a clean burn, you end up with just water and carbon dioxide. Gasoline is made up of multiple compounds, about a fifth of it is octane ("oct-" means 8 carbons, "-ane" means all single bonds):

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

Gasoline compounds have no oxygen atoms--they are added during combustion. Every carbon atom ends up combined with oxygen has mass.

The energy released was energy "held" by electron arrangements in the gasoline--the electrons are in different configurations but they are exactly the same otherwise. (A ball on a table is exactly the same as a ball on the floor, but the ball on the table has more potential energy.)

Energy had to be put into the system to get the electrons in their high energy configurations--which is what plants do with sunlight using water and carbon dioxide, essentially the reverse of combustion. When you burn gasoline, you are releasing the energy that was transformed from ancient sunlight.

It seems as though the gasoline has less mass after we burn it, since all we see is a tiny bit of water trickling out the tail pipe. Just about all the exhaust today is invisible water vapor and carbon dioxide. For whatever reason, most of us do not think of invisible gasses as having any mass.

So where does the carbon in gasoline go? Through the exhaust and into the air. It's as real as solid oak, but we do not perceive it as such.

For most of us, the tank was full, we drove around, and now the tank is empty. We infer, incorrectly, that the gasoline "disappeared." It did not--it merely transformed when combined with oxygen.

So what about food?

Breathe on your hand, what comes out? CO2 and water vapor. (OK, mostly nitrogen, then unconsumed oxygen, a smidgeon of argon, and then carbon dioxide, but certainly more carbon dioxide than what you breathed in.)  The same stuff spewed out by your ULEV car engine.

If you are starving, that carbon came from, well, you. You are breathing out particles of yourself, particles released as you combined pieces of yourself with oxygen to allow electrons to settle down into more comfortable positions, releasing energy as they did so,

Yes, I know, your nitrogen gets converted to urea, and urea as well as ketones can be peed out. I'll save that part for AP Biology class.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A non-NCLB test for your students

This graphic from Adbusters was shared by someone on the AP Biology listserve.

Issue #84: Nihilism and Revolution

There's not much to say.
Not much at all.

I have never regretted a single moment spent outside, even those times an instant before impact.

Unanticipated, but not unnatural

CO2 is denser than air. This is easily demonstrated in class.

Combine vinegar and baking soda together in a beaker to generate the gas. The students will groan. Yeah, we know this already, it bubbles.... Ask them what bubbles, and they will tell you what everybody already "knows"--carbon dioxide.

Now light a candle. As a diversion, ask them what gasses are emitted (CO2, H20), then hold the beaker over the lit candle, and "pour" out the CO2, leaving the foamy liquid.

A second or two later, the flame dies, as if sucked back into the wick.

What happened?

Just a few hours ago, hundreds of dragonflies swooped around us in the dying dusk. A cold front had just passed through, and the critters were feasting on the swarming insects trapped at the bay's edge, where horseshoe crabs have just about finished their annual orgy.

Dragonflies and horseshoe crabs both came through the Great Dying, a quarter billion years ago. Most of life was destroyed in an event far more extreme than the last mass extinction that ended the age of dinosaurs.

Though it's not clear what happened, extreme CO2 levels likely played a role. CO2 snuffs fires, CO2 snuffs life.

This August marks the 25th anniversary of the Lake Nyos disaster--over 1700 humans killed in Cameroon by a cloud of carbon dioxide exploding out of the lake in a 100 yard high watery mountain of foam, as tall as Manhattan's Trinity Church, the gas suddenly released like the effervescence of  millions upon millions of bottles of seltzer.

The heavy gas flowed down the walls of the volcanic lake that released it, a deadly spree, depriving the living of oxygen as it pushed up the lighter air.

Unanticipated, but not unnatural.

Some locals briefly attributed the devastation to Mami Wata, to a neutron bomb, to "strange Europeans...heavy-set, menacing Nordic...motorcyclists" seen just before the explosion. The eruption had been predicted by a healer who himself did not survive.

251 million years ago, carbon dioxide obliterated over 90% of the species around at that time. So little plant life grew that there's a "coal gap" in the fossil record--a 10 million year span where no coal was formed. And yet, the dragonfly line persisted, the horseshoe crabs, too.

These ancient creatures once frightened me with their compound eyes, their complex symmetries, their deliberate living, their bodies so perfectly fit for their niches that little has changed in hundreds of millions of years.

In biology, perfect life does not exist. In biology, the environment defines those who are less imperfect.

But if perfection does exist in life, if there are life forms that will continue to see the dying dusk so long as the sun casts its energy on Earth, it might be found in the creatures that share edge of the Delaware Bay, the bizarre ancient forms of the dragonfly, the slow creep of the horseshoe crab.

I do not know how many of us know the story of Lake Nyos, the stories of Mami Wata, the stories of the horseshoe crabs and the dragonflies, the story of the Great Dying so long ago.

Something so simple as the gas brewed from baking soda and vinegar can silently kill something as complex as a mammal. Next time I snuff a flame with CO2, I will share the story of Lake Nyos, of the Great Dying--these are the stories that define us, stories that may someday save us.

Our stories make us worth saving.

Candle image by Matthew Bowden, who freely share. Thanks!
Lake Nyos photo by Jack Lockwood, USGS, in public domain (via Wikipedia

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Horseshoe crab graveyard

 Horseshoe crabs and I have a long history.
 Theirs longer than ours.

These were tossed up on a huge hill of dredge waste, peering through the gray mud.

I have witnessed much, most unspoken, in my years, as I am sure you have, too.

I do not understand, or trust, my silence.

Their blood runs blue, copper grasps the same oxygen molecules that let us strip electrons from our food.
 Our blood runs red, the deep rust of iron, 

Most of us can see, most of us can talk.

Our stories remain as opaque as the mud deep below the waters of the Delaware Bay, where now in the darkness, a solitary horseshoe crab consumes a careless clam, neither ever seen by humans.


They have not changed much in hundreds of millions of years, their life perfect for their world.

And now they rest on the spoils made by us, we who are impossibly foreign in our own skins, looking for something beyond this life.

When you walk the fissured hillock on a chilly April morning, the exoskeletons whisper what they know.

This is all, and all is enough.

Photos taken by me.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Why I'm marching next week. Hope you join us!

If you want to see, you need to sit still. Still enough, for long enough, to be part of what is.
Be still and know.

You will know what it means when you get there--but first you have to sit. Still.

This is my Auntie Beth's pond, not mine.

I've gotten pretty good at sitting still on these cataract days, so humid even thoughts have a hazy edge.  A functioning republic needs a reflective citizenry--I sit by the edge of my pond and nap reflect, doing my patriotic duty.

If most of us knew what we wanted, and thought hard about how to get there, about what matters, and then pursued those things in ways that do not harm ourselves or our families, our republic could work.

Most of us don't anymore, most of us don't have the time, and the time we do have we pre-empt to the thoughts of others--Fox news, Cialis ads, NFL, Nascar--we've become the natterin' nabobs of negativism Agnew feared decades ago. (Full disclosure: I love Nascar and the NFL.)

It shows in public discourse, but even sadder, it shows in our private lives as well.

I am going to the SOS March for a few grand, and many selfish, reasons.

I will be chatting, laughing, drinking, maybe even dancing with generally happy folks who live the lives they believe worth living. Folks who still make bread, can, knit, brew, and write. Folks who give a damn, and who know enough history to know that giving a damn is how you fix things.

Folks who know their craft, and the history of their craft, well enough to know this march matters.

I am trading bottles of mead with Tom Hoffman, I am going to share words with Jose Vilson, I am going to shake hands with Diane Ravitch. Linda Darling-Hammond will be there, so will Jonathan Kozol. Heck, even Matt Damon (of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back fame)  is coming!

When I go back to school in September, and someone bemoans NCLB, I will share my stories from the march, so that they will join us.

My Dad marched in DC back in 1963 in his full dress US Marine Corp officer's uniform. (Yeah, he's that guy...) He was proud of being the first in his clan to be born in America, and he was proud to be a Marine. He got to fly because the USMC didn't care where he came from, only what he could do. He lived the American dream.

I have a copy of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence up in my classroom. I teach science, true, but my primary responsibility is to create citizens. Not scientists. Not suits. Citizens.

I work in one of the few public spaces left in our country, one of the few places left where ideals of our republic are discussed earnestly.

When the discussions end, so does our republic.

We are marching "to reclaim schools as places of learning, joy, and democracy." Joy is a wonderful word, right up there with Jefferson's pursuit of happiness. Joy matters in a democracy, because we matter as people, as families, as communities.

Hey, it's going to be fun! And educational!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"A Framework for K-12 Science Education" released today

A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas was just released.

One of my few frustrations with teaching science at the high school level are the misconceptions kids carry up from lower grades, or from life in general.

I spend a lot of time on misconceptionectomies, but they are resistant to quick cure, particularly if reinforced in the younger grades.

It's OK to teach incomplete science in 2nd grade--it's incomplete even at the highest levels of formal education. Science will always be incomplete, a big part of its appeal. It's plain wrong, though, to teach bad science.

So I am heartened to see this:
"Clearly, incorrect beliefs—such as the perception that food or fuel is a form of energywould lead to elementary grade students’ misunderstanding of the nature of energy. Hence, although the necessity for food or fuel can be discussed, the language of energy needs to be used with care so as not to further establish such misconceptions."
Italics added

If you teach science, go get this--it's free, and it will affect your classroom in the years to come.

Better safe than sorry?

One of my more vivid memories of childhood was woozily walking around the monkey bars one morning, my head stuck with my nose pointing to the sky, perplexed by my inability to yell, or make any noise at all. Just seconds before I had been happily hanging upside down, tooting on my tin whistle.

I pulled the tin whistle out of my throat, and had enough sense to keep quiet about it. My folks had little tolerance for any consequences from acting stupid. By afternoon I was swinging upside down again, this time without my whistle, my voice now raspy.

At this moment, my left thumb has a small (but gaping) laceration from a saw that slipped from the limb I was cutting a few days ago. I was at the top of a ladder at the time.

I thought I liked heights despite my history--turns out my adventures may have contributed to my relative fearlessness.

"Paradoxically, we [Drs. Sanseter and Kennair] posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children  and increased levels of psychopathology."

"Girls' playground, Harriet Island," circa 1905

We broke a few bones, collected quite a few stitches, scraped off some skin, nearly drowned a few times, chipped (and lost) a few teeth, burned ourselves regularly, and spent part of an afternoon stone deaf after getting a fuseless M80 to demonstrate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics a foot or two away from our faces.

We got chewed, stung, or nipped by skeeters, crabs, bees and wasps, jellyfish, a bluefish or two. I even got a catfish stuck on my leg for hours, refusing to go for help as the critter shuddered away its last few hours, in a worse state than me.

We knew what tendons looked like from direct experience. ("Look, mom...!")

I'm not advocating that we maim our children, and our gang was a little nutty even by the standards of 4 or 5 decades ago. You could reconstruct a fair-sized toddler from all the cells we lost along the way.

We developed fearlessness, and we learned the difference between risk and recklessness. I even learned a bit about the anatomy of the larynx.

Fear can kill life long before a child's last breath. Fear has tempered some of the flash and bang once a staple in science class. Fear of failing has replaced the kinds of fear that shaped the pursuit of happy and fulfilling lives.

Photo from Shorpy, a treasure trove of photos from years ago.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Jose Vilson

If you have not read his words yet, find him.

He happens to be a math teacher, not a science teacher, but he's a teacher.

There are a lot of few great voices out there. His resonates with me. Tell me who resonates with you.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A phenology post

This one's for me. It's my blog.

After hundreds, maybe thousands of tiger lilies, the last two or three will bloom tomorrow.

First pelicans of the year, about 4 headed north along the bay's edge, another flock of 11 headed to the point.

Beans are in full fury, as are the bunnies, who have taken out more than half the vines.

First pepper, still green, joins the first eggplant, now the size of an old-fashioned Christmas light bulb.

The green caterpillars have been munching on the Brussels sprouts for a couple of weeks, joined this week by the stripey black/white/yellow ones.

A few--very few--tomatoes ripened this week.

First bat of the season seen last night--only one. They used to be so common.

Elementary science: playing with fire

Fire is obvious, so it seems. Pretty much every child recognizes the flame of butane lighter is the same as the flames on the stove or on a lit candle.

A child sees that a fire makes solids things smaller. The grown-ups tell children that fire consumes, that the logs burned up, that fire reduces things to ash.

And pretty much every adult who believes this still lives in the world of alchemy, hoping to turn lead into gold.

My September sophomores know what fire is, no surprise, since September sophomores know everything there is to know about anything.

Before I ever say the words respiration or calorie, I ask them about fire—a few look confused (a good sign in science class), but most give me a knowing smile—they know what it is, they “just can’t put it into words” and when they do, they describe the properties of fire. Not a bad start.

I ask them what you need for a fire, and they know that—fuel, oxygen, something to light it—somewhere in elementary school they learned about the fire triangle.

I then pretend to take out a box full of pure oxygen, and ask them what would happen if I lit a match in it.

Most of my sophomores know the photosynthesis/respiration equation before they get to my class:

C6H12O6 + 6O2 => 6CO2 + 6H2O with energy released
Sugar + oxygen combined releases carbon dioxide and water
CO2 + H2O => C6H12O6 + O2 with energy captured

The kids love writing down equations, it gets them feeling all sciency, and now the stupid teacher isn’t asking stupid questions about stupid fire expecting answers that “can’t be put into words.”

The inevitable “Do we have to know this?” comes from the back corner of the classroom—always the same back corner—but I pretend I don’t hear.

I hold up my propane torch—even the back corner crowd notices now. I promise them I will light it in a minute, but they have to answer a simple couple of questions first. What do I need to make it work. (“Well, duh…”), and what is H2O (“Well, duh…” with an advanced eye roll).

I write the equation for the combustion of propane on the board—it’s similarity to the respiration/photosynthesis equations is glaringly obvious, but not a point I care to make at the moment.

C3H8 + 5O2 => 3CO2 + 4H2O

I ask what comes out of the propane torch after the propane as the propane is burned. I consistently get two answers—fire and carbon dioxide. I never get water. I’ve asked hundreds of kids the question, with the equation sitting up on the board, and it’s like H2O is some mysterious stuff stuck to the equation just to make it balanced. The stuff is pretty mysterious when you get down to it.

After our list of stuff that comes out of the torch is made—usually CO2, heat, light, flame, and occasionally propane—I light the torch.

I pass the torch over a cool piece of glass—it could be a large beaker—then pass it over the cool stem of the faucet. The students see the flash of water vapor on the glass. They know it looks like "fog” — but no one wants to say it. It makes no sense. Water from fire? It must be a trick.

To be fair, it pretty much gobsmacks me, too, each time I do this.

And of course, water does not come from fire—it comes from the hydrogen in the propane and the oxygen in the air. Turns out we’re all closet alchemists. We cannot accept the obvious.


Chemistry hit puberty  when Antoine LaVoisier realized that fire consumes nothing—it only transforms. If you figure out the amount of stuff with and compare it to the stuff you end up with, it has the same mass.

Exactly the same mass.

All the heat and light and noise that escaped from the dancing flame took nothing away. Energy has no mass, no inertia, no stuff to it. It's not nothing, but it's not mass, either.

So what do we teach a young child about fire? Let them observe a candle, let them see the water rise from the flame, let them cover it with a glass and see the flame die, let them wonder.

Matchstick photo by Sebastian Ritter via Wikipediaa under CC.

Stuff matters: more thoughts on elementary curriculum

Many children (and quite a few adults) don’t think of air as matter. It’s invisible, seemingly immune to gravity, has no taste, makes no sound. When you light a match, it burns up and disappears into “thin air.”

This is a problem.

The stuff of matter, the stuff of stuff, seems simple--we mostly rush through it in science class, assuming everyone knows whatmatter” is, because, well, it's so simple, and then we expect students to grasp all kinds of nonsense labeled “science.”

The typical school definition of matter is "any substance which has mass and occupies space," a deceptively complex answer. Most students equate matter (or "stuff") with mass, and with it lose any chance of truly appreciating the physical sciences. (Oh, they'll muddle through using algorithms, and such, might even ace an introductory physics course, but they won’t touch the physics again.)

Mass is the quality of stuff that resists change. (More precisely, mass is the measure of inertia in stuff, but I'll leave that be for the moment.) How do we know something has mass? If you push it, it pushes back.*

This is a big deal. Inertia is a huge concept, really the whole shebang of introductory Newtonian physics, and ultimately the basis of the interesting bits of classic chemistry and biology.  Inertia is what makes mass mass, and without mass, we have no physical universe. (The “take up space” part of matter only makes sense if you grasp what mass is—otherwise, it’s superfluous.)

How much time did you spend on this as a student? As a teacher?
Let’s go back to a child—how can a 7 year old grasp what matter means (or whatever word you care to mean for mass)? Forget the word mass for the moment—let’s make it a more interesting question. What makes stuff “stuff”? This becomes child’s play.
The conversation can wander all over the place. Do you have to be able to see it? How small can it be? Is air stuff? What’s not stuff?
Does a class have to arrive at a textbook definition of matter? Of course not, not in 2nd  grade (or any grade, for that matter). The problem with the textbook definition is that the goal becomes learning the definition instead of learning science. 
If a 2nd grade teacher does not feel comfortable discussing matter, then discuss “stuff”—you will wander all over the place, and if done right, learn about looking at the world. Don’t fret so much about not getting to the definition—what we’re doing now leads to the ignorance of certainty that keeps astrology and homeopathy alive. Is air stuff?
Learning science and memorizing definitions are not mutually exclusive. If the goal of a lesson becomes the definition, though, you lose the science. The problem is exacerbated by the concept of “a lesson”—science cannot be broken down into prescribed chunks of time. Traditional lesson plans are deadly to science education.

*Newton’s 3rd law, of course—it’s a big deal.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Why are blueberries blue?

The dead brittle branches of February now hold hundreds of berries--most still a ghostly green blue. A few have ripened to the dark, deep blue depths of light that remind me of the very young, and the very old, of the transitional cyanosis of a newborn struggling with its new world.

Light is a funny thing--we see what's reflected, not what's absorbed, of course, but the reflected light becomes the object, at least in our minds. That's how we survived through millennia.

That berries change color is obvious. The how, less so, but we got fancy words and molecular structures to dazzle any child who dares ask. Answering the why is the tough one.

If a child asks "why are blueberries blue?"--not an unusual kind of question in a science class--how do you answer it?

This is not a trivial point. We live in a culture that defines knowledge as bits of information, and how I approach a child's questions helps shape how she sees the world.

Some possible answers follow, along with my issues with each.

Blueberries are blue because they have anthocyanins....
Unless you are teaching a post-doctoral botany student in grad school, this is like saying blueberries are blue, because they're, well, blue; saying anthocyanin adds nothing to the child's grasp of the universe. If she is satisfied by this answer (and she may well be given the way we teach "science"), she learns that what matters in the classroom are the words that signify the universe, not the universe itself.

The answer isn't wrong, it's just inane. It goes from inane to insane when we promote this as science. It may be cute to hear little ones parrot big sciency words, in the same perverse way it's cute to promote beauty via pageants for 5 year old children, but it's a dangerous pedagogical practice.

Blueberries are blue so we know they're ripe...
No doubt blue blueberries taste a lot better than the less mature green ones, and yes, there's a complicated relationship between seeds ready to germinate and the sweet juices surrounding them tempting animals to eat them. Raccoon scat around here can be loaded with seeds, and some gardeners will swear that blueberry seeds grow best after traveling through a mammal's gut.

If you have the time in class (days or weeks) to digress digest this, to pursue the bioenergetics of sugars and scat, to explore evolution, then this answer can go a long way. If you shorten it to "so we know they're ripe," you've just placed the child in the center of the natural universe, and set back her chances of grasping descent with modification later.

(Language matters--yes, we know they're ripe because the berries are blue, but that is not why the berries are blue, at least from the point of view of science. )

Blueberries are blue because God made them so...
The problems with this answer should be obvious, but these days some folks need it spelled out. Science does not dabble with the supernatural. It has no truck with miracles, either, for a variety of reasons.

Despite the noise from some corners, not all science teachers are godless atheists trying to subvert your child's mind. Atheism requires more faith than I have.

So how do we answer seemingly simple questions in class? Very carefully. Sometimes no answer is better than any answer. If I'm stuck, I'll often probe a bit to grasp what the child is really asking--and many time the child does not know either.

Uncertainty is fine with me--far more damage has been done by folks who know the truth than those of us plodding along the nooks and crannies of the natural world.

I have faith that my blueberries will ripen, and enough biochemistry background to grasp how they will ripen. I'll save pondering the why until the day's end, as I sit on the patio watching the nearly full moon inch up over the maple tree in back, sipping melomel made from last year's blueberry bounty.

The blueberries in the photo now sit in my gut. Yum!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Slow seeing

If you want to kill a child's interest in astronomy, buy her the biggest piece of glass you can afford the first hour she expresses any interest in the stars. Make sure it's got a computer-guided star finder, and that it "talks" to her as she explores the skies. Better yet, have her log onto a remote telescope where she can "guide" the scope to spectacular deep sky objects, seeing details on a screen that would dazzle Galileo himself.

I wouldn't give a child on a tricycle the keys to a Suzuki Hayabusa GSX1300R just because she's decided she want to advance to a bicycle (even if motorcycles did come with training wheels).

There is a push, a huge push, to digitize classrooms, to get connected, to leap into the 21st century. It's all quite exciting, and there's plenty of money to be made, and ooh, shiny, shiny!

Many of those who hawk promote the digital classroom, presumably for the best interests of the children, seem particularly prone to a binary view of the universe. If you're not with us, you're against us.

I know they are busy people--so many new gadgets, so little time to master the New Best Thing--but they're screwing up the ed world a bit with their listlessness. I'll make this quick.

A child who cannot see the grace of a caterpillar using only her eyes and enough free time to think will not benefit from a magnifying glass.

A child who cannot see the finer details offered by a magnifying glass, a tool used with the caterpillar still whole (and alive), will gain nothing by looking at a slide of caterpillar tissue under a microscope, and the child might reasonably ask if you really needed to kill the caterpillar.

Gypsy moth caterpillar, by Materialscientist

Here's my point. Put down the iPad for a moment, stop texting, let your scattered thoughts dissipate.

Humans have the same cognitive and sensory tools today that we had a few generations ago. Observing the world is an acquired skill that cannot be learned through a screen. It requires interest, it requires time, and it requires building an internal scaffold that allows the child to make some sense of this universe.

Very few high school sophomores observe well, and it's to our shame that those who do, often do despite their formal education. My best students of the natural world are often the least able to function in a classroom.

Before you jam down the latest version of the Graflex Schoolmaster 750 filmstrip projector into my classroom--and when you get down to it, the Smart Board doesn't add a whole lot to the original concept--make sure you have given me enough time and space to teach the children how to see.

Give that much room, then you can have them to manipulate as you will. If I have done my work well, their excrement detectors will scream at the crap that passes for rational discourse these days. Good teachers--parents, neighbors, school teachers, librarians, the corner philosopher ranting at the #34 NJ Transit bus every time it rolls by--focus on meeting a child where she is in the universe, and just about all children are a decade or two away from mastering a scanning electron microscope or a raging road bike like the Suzuki Hayabusa GSX1300. Some of them will never be ready for either, and that's OK, too.

Ironically, anyone who takes the time to look around can see that we are blindly headed to catastrophe. We cannot afford another generation of Americans who think they'd rather not think.

The Suzuki phot came from Motorcycle Best Picture blog--don't know yet who to credit.
The caterpillar is from Wikipedia by Materialscientist, released under GNU FDL
The Brayco Projector ad taken from The Bray Animation Project, permission pending

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A clammer meets the internets

After yesterday's dust off, where I tangentially blame modern technology for the impending collapse of, well, everything, I thought I might need to re-establish some semblance of credentials for the edutech crowd, and perhaps even more important, potential employers.

I had long planned to go clamming this morning. We got people coming over tonight, and nothing beats fresh clams, except maybe fresh tomatoes, and we got those, too.

My trusty paper tide charts (courtesy of Jim's Bait and Tackle), confirmed online,  predicted that the sweetest clam bed south of Newfoundland will lay open mid-morning today.The kayaks are loaded, my clam bucket sits on the back stoop, and my rake is repaired and ready.

Alas, it rained last night. Rain flushes out the street sewers, which hold pretty much anything and everything the ground holds--cigarette butts, squirrel poop, herbicides, human spittle and other fluids, and all kinds of other matter subject to the law of gravity. A cherry stone will filter about 10 or so gallons of baywater a day, and I figure a chowder might do double that.

I have a general policy similar to a few states (though New Jersey, land of the free-to-ingest-whatever, is not one of them)--if it rains a decent amount the day before clamming, best not clam.

A decent amount for me means 1 inch, from the Latin uncia, 1/12th. Why a twelfth? Why a foot? What science is behind my tolerance? Well, very little. I surveyed the internets again, saw that Maryland closes beds for 1" rainfall, Massachussetts uses 1" in the winter, but only 0.6" in the summer (more squirrel poop around, I guess), and NJ, well, last time any bed got closed for rain was a year ago April so maybe we're not paying real close attention.

We got dumped on last night. How much? Well, I could wander outside and peek into a bucket, all of 15 feet away, but then I'd need to find my measuring tape, last used to measure the fluke I cannot keep, which means finding my fishing bag, which I think I left in the car, and, well, it's easier to look at a screen than get up and walk. Besides, it might be muddy outside. Not to mention the squirrel poo....

According to the internets, our local airport, only a couple of miles away, got 1.89 inches of rain last night. (Imagine that, we're measuring to the hundredths of twelths of some ancient foot standard...a freaking fifth of a millimeter for our more enlightened global neighbors....and which just happens to be the length of your run of the mill Paramecium caudatus.)

So no fresh clams tonight....had it rained 90 paramecium lengths (PLs) less, that is, had my bucket outside only held 99 PLs instead of the 189 PLs it would have held had I left it right side up and moved it two miles away to our nearest airport, I'd be clamming at this very moment, risking skin cancer and contamination with squirrel poop.

Here's a picture of a P. caudatus, just in case we go to that as a standard:

The paramecium photo is by Barfooz, released under Gnu FDL

Friday, July 8, 2011

A response to a technophile

This post is a mess, an amalgam of several yet-born posts swirling about.

This is a tool, made by Takeshi Yamada,  an artist who saw visions while surveying horseshoe crabs on the shores of our bay.

It is a pen crafted from the tail of a horseshoe crab. Mr. Yamada uses it almost every day, to create stunning images.

Compared to some tools, his pen may be thought inefficient. It certainly lacks the precision of a YAG laser engraver , or even a Koh-I-Noor 5611 drafting pencil, but that's not the point. That's not the point at all.

Mr. Yamada is human, with the same frailties as any of us, with the same natural curiosity. He did not learn to use his telson in an American school. There is no place for it there.

Credit: Dennis B. Smith,
Unique does not guarantee better. Unique things are often unique because they are not worth reproducing. Technology thrives on precise, efficient, reproducible results. There is little room for Mr. Yamada in the industrial world.

Mr. Yamada's work, however, gives me pleasure. His work pleases others as well. Someone shared it with me, now I share it with you.


Gerald Aungst, "a supervisor of gifted children," writes for Connected Principals, a shared blog written by school administrators, a blog well worth visiting. His recent post "Why 'I Don’t Do Technology' Isn’t Acceptable" raises some good points, and I have no qualms with the thesis of its title. His arguments within the article, however, reveal some interesting thoughts shared by many technophiles, and I'd like to offer some views from the other side of the aisle, an aisle I straddle with my Google + account in my right hand, my Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil in my left.

Go read the post. I'll go check my sundial and pick weeds from my garden while you read.

"Some people argue that technology is simply a tool to be applied where and how it’s appropriate. Others say no technology is neutral and we have to be deliberate in our choices to use it."

The two are not mutually exclusive--"appropriate" covers a lot of ground. We also should consider what is lost when a newer technology is used. Reel mower vs. gas-powered rotary. Pencil vs. pixels. Chalkboard vs. IWB.

I'm a retired doc--before I stopped succoring the afflicted I saw the mess high tech mania produced in medicine. Mr. Aungst's example of the CT machine is an interesting example, because of the quandaries it has created, and because of the change in skills that have resulted.

Classic appendicitis (and many subtle variants) can be diagnosed by history and physical exam alone if the practitioner has learned how to do this. CT scans are quite useful in certain situations, but are often superfluous, and can, at times, mislead. They certainly tangle up a few DNA molecules (which are usually repaired), and they are very expensive.

The obvious downsides to CT imaging is that it takes time (and time is an issue with appendicitis), and it requires tossing some radiation through a living critter. Less obvious is the erosion of skills in tech-dependent docs. By the time I left medicine, CT scans were evolving from an overused, nonessential tool to standard of care, partly because the less experienced docs felt no need to refine the clinical skills needed to accurately diagnose appendicitis--because they had CT machines....

High tech has supplanted the low tech history and physical examination--if you delve into the luverly world of Bayesian statistics, you start to grasp why this matters. I loved CT machines--but I used them judiciously. No, you do not need one just because you hit your head. But thanks for asking....

"Everything that we can do using digital technology can certainly be done in some other way. As I understand it, technology gives us three capabilities: to do things

  • More efficiently
  • More precisely
  • More thoroughly"

Well, no, and no. Some things done with digital technology cannot be done any other way. I'll save that for another post. The second part, though, intrigues me because it gets a deeper question. Why the hurry?

Given the phenomenal information now (efficiently, precisely, thoroughly) available to all of us, does pedagogy require the same technical sleekness? Do our classrooms need to follow the industrial model of production? Is this even possible? The Slow School movement makes a nice counter-story to the frenzy spawned in Silicon Valley.

If you believe that our current cultural practices have had disastrous effects on our seas, our air, our children, maybe stepping back a bit to reflect on what matters, itself not a particularly efficient activity, then efficiency loses its luster. If we took the time to reflect on our practices, to appreciate the depth of consequences we make with our choices, would the shimmering cognitive dissonance awaken us enough to change? Or would it drive us back into the dull din of relentless data, back to our coffee and wine and the digital distractions of our [dis]connected lives.

 "Why you'll love a Mac. A Mac is as good as it looks."

"Technology advances give all of us—doctors, forensic scientists, teachers, and students—the ability to make better decisions...."
This is where our paths divide. "Better decisions" is a huge category--and "better" is as slippery as butter. The large cultural decisions we have made (or have had pressed onto us) the past few generations have had consequences, huge consequences.

Our current air of Western superiority is fueled by cheap calories pumped up from the ground, from finite sources. Our tremendous gains in growing food stem from our ability to fixate nitrogen through the Haber-Bosch process, also dependent on finite sources. We have the time to ruminate, though few of us do.

The same technology that allows us to chat with our "neighbors" half a world away allowed a British "Reaper" un-manned drone to kill civilians in Pakistan using digital communication from an airbase in Nevada. Yes, it was an accident. It wasn't the first time--two children were injured via remote control in 2009. No, it won't be the last.

High tech allows us to make quicker decisions--but if technology makes us capable of better decisions, I'd like to see the evidence.


At the end of each school year, I take over a hundred kids to see horseshoe crabs mating along the Sandy Hook Bay. While a few critters may end up frustrated by coitus interruptus sophomoribus, a few humans leave the tide's edge feeling a little bit more connected to the world, and, perhaps, a little bit more in love with the world.

Some of them may end up in Afghanistan, the ones least likely to find it on a map. The Japanese call the horseshoe crab kabuto-gani--"the warrior's helmet"--because of its similarity to the headgear worn by the samurai, a culture that forbid killing by stealth.

We don't dwell on these things, those of us protected by money and class here in the States. They make us uncomfortable.

Teaching science requires some cognitive dissonance, which is convenient, because allowing a child to become more aware of her universe will lead to huge doses of cognitive dissonance. If I aim for efficiency, the children in my class can hide from their dissonance.

Mr. Aungst's article and the subsequent discussion are a wonderful start to why technology matters in the classroom, and who can disagree with his assertion that "educators have accepted responsibility for the growth of the students in their care."

I think we need to discuss what "growth" needs--deeply, slowly, thoroughly, if not efficiently. We'll need some technology--comfortable chairs, maybe a glass or two of something brewed, perhaps a guitar, and artificial light if our chat extends past sunset. We mostly need ourselves and our love for what we do.

Care to join the discussion?

The Mac is from the Apple site.
The pencil is accredited above.
The telson pen is from
The horseshoe crab photo is ours.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Letting go

I'm letting go this year. I'm going to trust the collection of young humans sitting in my class, brains honed by countless generations before them, each and every child with a lineage going back as far as the first protobionts that globbed together in the seas here billions of years ago.

I'm letting go this year. I'm going to remind myself every morning, right after the Pledge of Allegiance, that I am mortal, that my students are mortal, and that the "liberty and justice for all" means just that. Neither is cheap. Nor are our children.

I'm letting go this year. I'm singing aloud in class, because I can, and because it helps children remember, It helps them remember facts, true, but more important, singing itself helps us remember who we are. I may drop a couple on a used guitar. I don't play well, but I do play. I don't sing well, either, but I do sing. As the warm July sun sets, I hear the squeaks and squawks and chimmering and chammering of cicadas and cardinals and squirrels and bees and crickets and grackles and dogs. Even the fish around here make noise, croakers and sea robins grunting in protest when dragged out of the water.

I'm letting go this year. I'm going to overtly share my ridiculous love and awe for this marvelous universe, one that belongs to any critter with ribosomes and some nucleic acids. I'm sharing our emerging stories of the natural world along with the joy and fear these stories elicit. Squid flashing light signals to each other deep in the ocean, orgiastic balls of earthworms reveling , bacteria sensing each other before working communally to a common goal--stories about other lives that help us grasp ours.

I have no idea what worlds lie outside what we can sense and rationally infer. I do know that what exists in our natural world exceeds the imaginations of all of us.  If a child's curiosity gets dampened in science class, you cannot blame the world.

Leslie's photos.

Another horseshoe crab story

I fished in thigh deep water today, surrounded by gazillions of horseshoe crab eggs, most of which will be eaten in the next day or two. A small fish, obviously versed in the Curly and the Oyster Stew episode, kept grabbing my lure just as I was pulling it out of the water, then gleefully letting go just as it broke the water's surface.

A rather exuberant male horseshoe crab got flipped in the waves as he tried to mount the love of his life. A small child, no higher than my waist, approached it, and an older, officious looking child warned him to stop, that the tail would sting.

I can hardly bare officiousness at any age, but it's particularly sad to see in a tween, so I broke away from the playful fish, picked up the horseshoe crab, and showed the child that the tail is perfectly safe. (Well, I guess I wouldn't run with a live horseshoe crab--I could trip and accidentally poke my eye out, I suppose.)

Myths matters. Decades ago I slaughtered dozens of horseshoe crabs on a very hot August afternoon, their blue blood covering us in our frenzy. The life guards had told us, a gang of 9 and 10-year-olds, that they were dangerous, and fearless as we were, we attacked the seemingly loathesome critters.

It does no good for me to tell the officious one that he was wrong. He saw what he saw today, and fear's a funny thing.

The younger child, however, gleefully touched the squirming horseshoe crab. He touched the tail, the shell, the tiny claws, the lucky bones, pretty much everything there is to touch on a horseshoe crab. Before the day is done, I bet he shows a few others his size that the critters are harmless.

The officious one stood off to the side. Not my intention to embarrass him. Maybe he will hold a horseshoe crab before his week here is up, maybe he won't, but he will be a little less certain in his fear next time one tumbles up out of the surf.

How many of my fears remain from my ignorance, even now, old as I am? How many do I unwittingly share with others?

Photo by one of my biology students on our annual Sandy Hook Horseshoe Crab trip.
Pssst...don't hold them by their tails.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Thermometers, yet again

If you stick your hand into a half full jar of sourdough pretzels in a Jersey July, you will feel your hand get noticeably cooler. Really. Try it.

If you measure the temperature inside the jar, it will be exactly the same as the temperature outside the jar. Any child with any sense and a respectable contempt for authority will tell you this. It's cooler in the jar!

It definitely feels cooler, yet the thermometer says otherwise. What's going on?

(Hint: this wouldn't work in Phoenix.)

Turns out experience is local. No national science curriculum can tolerate the very different results of my pretzel jar demo, a shame, really, because the children in Phoenix can very easily (and cheaply) discuss their results with the children in the humid halls of Bloomfield. Skype, blogs, wikis, heck, even phones.....

The humidity in the jar is much lower than the humidity in most of Jersey. Sodium chloride ("salt") is really good at grabbing water molecules from the air. The salt on the pretzels in the jar assures a low humidity environment, at least as long as you keep on the lid.

2nd graders do not need to know terms like "sodium chloride" or "hygroscopic." They should know, however, that science and intuition are not mates. They should know that science is based on what we call the "natural world" (itself a concept 2nd graders have a shot at grasping). They should know that science is testable.

I really don't give a rat's buttocks if a child can convert Celsius into Fahrenheit--that kind of skill matters, true, but that's not science, and it's something I can easily teach. I do care if a child is curious enough to wonder why her hand feels cool in a bucket of Snyder's Sourdough Specials.

Good Lord, I need curious children.We all do.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Day

I love the Fourth of July. Today we feasted on the first local tomatoes, a completely different beast than the imposters sitting on your grocery shelves. I ate a peach that grew less than two miles from here, its impossibly sweet juice leaving a puddle at my feet. The basil grows like weeds in July. In July, the grasshopper makes more sense than the ant.

America is a great place to be if you have a patch of land and love to eat. Jefferson said each of us should have a patch of land if democracy was to flourish. That we mostly don't and that democracy mostly doesn't is no accident.

This American experiment has withstood greedy yahoos in the past, and if we keep our wits about us, will withstand the current nonsense the people in suits.

America never was about the people in suits. The powerful know this, but hoi polloi occasionally forget, which is how we get into messes like the current nonsense with NCLB, a child of doublespeak and magical thinking.


Science tolerates neither.

When a child learns how to rationally, how to discern what's real from what's not, and even more important, learns to treasure truth, demagoguery dies.

Teaching matters for a lot of reasons. Preserving the thin thread of democracy in its agonal breaths here in a land bought and paid for by Arne and Eli and Bill matters.

History matters. Science matters. Art matters. Language matters. Vocational arts matter. (Really, Arne, when was the last time you fixed anything?)

For all the labels that divide us, promoted by a class that feeds our divisions to enhance their power, we're most of us are still united by our belief in the land and our Constitution.

Crispus Attucks
gave up his life in 1770--read his history. This country was not founded by the suits. The land belongs to us.

Yes, I know that's George, not Tom.... 
Pictures by Leslie. North Cape May rocks. Go us.