Monday, August 29, 2011

Intelligent curriculum design?

When anyone suggests that we not teach evolution in school, he is suggesting that we not teach biology, and in a broader sense, science.

So let's be more frank about the discussion--do we teach science, or something else pretending to be science (which reduces science to superstition), or skip the whole thing entirely?

(And no, technology doesn't count--I can teach a child how to put together an automobile without her understanding much about combustion or friction or the basic laws of Newtonian physics.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Science and the art of Perrymandering

I could be a Rastafarian, a witch, or a Hindu. Maybe I'm a Jainist, a Buddhist, or a Scientologist. I might worship the sun, the moon, or maybe even both.

As a science teacher, it matters not a whit.

And here we have potential future Presidents insisting that Intelligent Design belongs in my science class.

I spend a lot of time defining science, more time than many, but it's time well spent. If you have no idea what science is, then either learn or, well, clam up.

Truth be told, I'm mostly a pre-Constantinian primitive Christian, who happens to be confirmed a Roman Catholic.  
Which is not a Fundamentalist--not even close.
But thanks for asking

Image lifted from

Friday, August 26, 2011

Mixed message

On the cover of NEA Today, the National Education Association trumpets teachers as change agents. Inside, we have "Create! Communicate! Collaborate!" pushing the best in education technology.

Go us!

Then I peek at the Talkback section, where under "Confiscate Cell Phones," Shawn With-No-Name gives us a snappy way to control the scourge of student-controlled tech in our rooms:
"Attach a fee! It costs parents $15 to get the phone back the next day. Our school uses the money for a faculty lunch at a local restaurant at the end of the year."

He then follows this with a non sequitur--"safety is important but so is education."

Now I realize that Shawn's views may not represent the editorial board but the editors did elect to print it. If the union truly wants to protect our interests, they'd defer from printing this kind of inanity.

Yes, parents, we're going to whoop it up on your dime.

You cannot make this stuff up.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Clockwork Yellow

If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.
Carl Sagan

I think clocks did as much to squash our spirits as anything else, but the history of time is fascinating, and surprisingly silent given its effects on our culture.

When the Prague Orloj astronomical clock was built, raw materials needed to be churned into the metal parts used to make the massive machine, some of which still exist today. People go to visit it, to take pictures, to, in a word, worship.

The beauty of the rhythm of the universe marked by the clock has been usurped by the idea of the clock itself. An abstract form that takes the concrete form of the clock has become another idol.

And we love idols.

What do we value in science classes? What does a child learn about the universe by Skyping with astronauts, by playing with remote telescopes via the internet, by doing simulations of labs on an iPad?

If a teacher does not have the wherewithal to teach about combustion using nothing more than a candle, a match, and a bell jar, an iPad will not help.

Teaching science simply can be stressful--there is simply no place to hide. I can teach about combustion using a chemical equation, balancing the reactants and products with flair, as though that's the point of chemistry, using animated demos to show various colorful molecules combining and breaking to form various new substances. And I used to do just that.

Now I start with water seemingly cast from a lit propane torch.

Which is the point, really--here is a piece of the universe, child, here's what we see. Let's figure out if we can find a pattern here.

Teaching combustion going to the equations first is like teaching someone how to look at a sunflower by analyzing Fibonacci spirals:

Until a child sees the beauty of the sunflower for itself, its powerful symmetry easily seen but not so easily defined without numbers, no sense pushing golden ratios.

The school awards the children who can manipulate the Fibonacci ratio. It's easily tested, and easily mastered even without seeing the symmetry in a flower head, should a child be so motivated. In school, we idolize the abstract.

A child could know the golden ratio without grasping the beauty seen in nature's symmetry, and do just fine in science class.

And so folks go to gawk at a clock in Europe, designed to reveal patterns discovered by humans hundreds of years ago, taking pictures of a machine with little machines, understanding how neither works, nor caring to. And they will show off their photos as we show off our clever students who spout off ratios, and wonder why we feel an ache in our chest as we drift to sleep, feeling that something is not quite right, that something is missing.

I keep a sundial by my classroom window.

Golden ratio image lifted from Sofluid here.
The sunflower is by lucapost released and borrowed under CC via Flickr.
Prague clock by Hector Zenil, via Wikipedia, used under CC.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


I am glad today was not a school day in New Jersey.

Those of us sitting on the state's udder, the tip of Cape May county, got a nice ride for less than we'd pay at Morley's, and countless afternoon chats under the sun made the surreal feel real.

Now imagine if we had school tomorrow--kids would be assaulted with seismographs, joule calculators, fault maps, Richter scales, and whatever else tools teachers could find to make the real become more abstract.

All that matters, at some level, of course, but for most kids, I imagine having a spectacularly lovely August afternoon off to replay a minute's worth of otherworldliness will make this one stick for a long, long time.

Leslie and I went for a nature walk afterwards--the monarch butterflies are back in force, the dolphins were feeding off the beach, a fawn played peekaboo with us, and we saw a hummingbird sitting on a branch. I saw an ibis grope through the mud, a muskrat waddle its fat August body through the reeds, and hundreds of dragonflies shimmered around us, showing off their magnificently colored bodies, only rivaled by the porcelain berries we saw on the trail.

Earthquakes matter because we have infrastructure. Get outside, under the summer sun, and they matter a whole lot less.

I wish the same could be said for hurricanes.

The porcelain berries photo by Josconklin, used under CC.

Monday, August 22, 2011

No Khan Do

Salman Khan makes educational videos, lots of educational videos, using a simple technique--he draws out his thoughts on a "blackboard," while he thinks aloud. Much like someone unwrapping a problem on a napkin or on an old slate blackboard.

Bill Gates has practically adopted him, and the ed reformerati love him. He's an MIT grad, he's multicultural, he's an ex-hedge fund manager (maybe his biggest cachet, a sad reflection of our culture), and he's kinda cute. In an Ivy League rules kind of way. (What do I know, I used to be a stevedore....)

Sal Khan helps kids learn how to regurgitate what we already have in textbooks, without reading the textbooks, a video CliffsNotes for the now generation. He allows the worst parts of education to be efficiently streamlined for ingestion, about as effective and useful as cod liver oil. It works, but it's over-rated.

In the end, I think it's a student's ability to pause, rewind, and rehash what Khan says that makes him so valuable, and which makes his brand so sad--really, really sad. I'm a teacher, and a pretty good one. We need to pay attention to what our kids don't know.

If 21st century learning boils down to a hyped up version of what we did back in the 1930's, we're screwed. If Bill Gates is the valued judge of what education means (go learn his history), we're screwed. If we cannot do better in the classroom than Mr. Khan can do with his SmoothDraw and Camtasia (or what any of us can do on the back of a cocktail napkin), we're screwed.

Relax, we're not screwed (yet). Be better than the videos, not a hard task, unless regurgitation floats your boat.

Frank Noschese destroys Mr. Khan in a series of blog posts with far more sophistication than me.
Blackboard via Shorpy.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Seine thoughts

Went seining yesterday with my brother and my niece, dragging our net along the edge of the Delaware Bay looking for whatever.

We found lady crabs, spearing, a croaker fry, lots of comb jellies, a  blue claw, a few hermit crabs, and a horseshoe crab molt.

We were looking for nothing in particular, and we found it. A few kids and their parents joined us--looking for nothing in particular trumps searching for something specific on a fine August afternoon.

School starts again in a couple of weeks.

Schedules. Bells. Curricula. Because that's the way it's done.Because it's efficient. Because it's orderly. Because we have to. Because we need control.

It's not how we learn, though, and never has been.

Several children felt the wiggling of minnows in their hands yesterday, the weight of warm, gooey comb jellies, the snip of crotchety crabs. It's unlikely they will seine in school, even in biology class.

And that's a shame.

You can get a decent  4x8' seine net and a pair of oak poles for about $30.
It will outlast the laptop you bought your child last week.
If taken care of properly, it might even outlast you.

The woodcarving from Sea Fishing by John Bickerdyke, 1895

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What your child's science teacher believes

This is from last year--as the school year approaches, I like to lay things out, re-evaluate them, tweak as need be.

I may be teaching your child soon--here are some of the things I believe:

General Jack D. Ripper had a point, fluoridating public water is a bad idea.

Not all vaccines mandatory for public school in NJ should be mandatory, and that using a healthy abortus for a common vaccine may be ethically dubious.
Tithonus and the rubella vaccine

Drinking from a public water fountain is safe and a good idea, and charter schools are neither.
Public water and charter schools

However, drinking water held in bottles made with an estrogen-like agent is dangerously stupid.
Sylvester McMonkey McBean and the FDA

Our Federal Secretary of Education is under-qualified.
I really don't like Arne

I have a bit of a religious streak, inconsistent as it may be.
Eating in a science class

But I have little tolerance for those who dismiss descent with modification with little (or no) thought. Evolution is the heart of biology.
Darwin in the classroom

Photos/illustrations as attributed at the original posts.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Breaking down biology

Thermodynamics started out as steam punk physics, but now explains, well, everything.

There is a non-trivial element of faith the the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one we dance around when we toss the idea of the Big Bang around in science class. Every time there's an energy exchange in a closed system there's less useful energy available to do work--and that's the natural world in a nutshell.

Everything eventually falls apart, drifts to a state of uselessness.

From The Onion,

If students spent any time delving into the implications of that, they'd go from the nutshell to the nuthouse. Instead we toss serious equations at them, with serious sounding names for all the serious parts, and we got them playing in abstract la-la land, which is a fine place to be in you've studied physics for years, but a psyche-killer for the neophytes.

How did the energy get packed into a point billions of years ago? We have a don't ask, don't tell policy.  That kids blithely except the concept of the universe contracted to a point just assures me no one's really paying attention.

My goal this year? Get them paying attention.

So here's my question for the more experienced out there. Would it be crazy to design the biology course around the Second Law of Thermodynamics, starting out each class every day with a brief discussion of how energy transformations guide everything in biology?

Evolution is the Big Daddy of Biology--should I spend as much time on Grandpa Entropy?

I'm not going to lie to you--first time I saw this photo I thought it was a real protest. Things have gotten that crazy.

Photo lifted from The Onion--where else?

Monday, August 15, 2011

On nothing in particular

Students seem amazed that the idea of "0" as a number is a relatively new concept, but students also see "0" as a numeral, as solid and inevitable as a "3" or a "7"--as most of us do. How could zero be invisible to the Greeks? (It wasn't, of course...but we only think so because we misunderstand our own concept of "0".)

XKCD rules!

That's not how we use it, though, at least not most of the time in the simple measurements or arithmetic we use in class. Zero serves mostly as a placeholder.

Take the number "306"--the "0" means there are no chunks of tens beyond those already captured by the three hundreds signified by the "3". We have 6 units, true, not quite enough to form a chunk of ten, so we need a way to show this: 3_6.

This is glaringly obvious to many of us who grew up without electronic calculators. The calculator we occasionally used in elementary school was the abacus, which requires grasping the concept of placeholders in order to manipulate the beads, and the slide rule, which requires the use of mental placeholders to make any sense at all.

If you do not grasp the very real difference between zero and the other nine digits, subtle problems arise, which become not so subtle when playing with significant figures ("sig figs"), those numerals that carry any real meaning when we apply math to the natural world.

We too often teach sig figs as a set of rules, which make little sense if the student has a poor grasp of zero, which many--through no fault of their own--do. The rules seem arbitrary and arcane, when, in fact, they define the limits of numerical reality when we measure the natural world.

"Numerical reality" comes off a bit too abstract. I should rephrase this: significant figures define the limits of observable mathematical relationships found in the natural world. The relationships are real, inasfar as they can be measured by independent observers. In class, however, sig figs become an exercise in futility for many.

I think it gets down to the zero. Electronic calculators add a level of abstraction to numeracy, leading to the ridiculous assertion science teachers hear at least once a week: "But my calculator says..."

And indeed, the calculator says exactly what it's supposed to say, when its operators plug in numbers without any feeling for what they represent.

And how could they? The Greeks had the concept without the symbol. We, alas, now have the symbol without the concept.

Yes, I know, the Mayans and Indians and Phoenicians and on and on and on had it down pat.
Thank Fibonacci for getting it to the western folk.

XKCD comic used wtihin his guidelines--very broad ones at that. Thanks! 

And yes, the sig fig rules are a tad arbitrary--range of error makes more sense.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Last night was Perseids night--we had our lawn chairs out, the full moon's light blocked by the garage at our backs. The mosquitoes, our state bird, were scarce enough that we had not slathered on whatever state-of-the-art organic compounds we use to ward off 6-legged critters these days.

Joe Westerberg, Joshua Tree National Park, California, Aug. 11, 2007

We saw a bat, a welcome sight. Then two. Now a third.

We held still, lying on our chairs, watching the bats chase bugs and each other, a spectacular aerial show against the deep gray-violet of the late dusk sky. And we realized that, really, the mosquitoes were remarkably scant.

A bat swooped up from the ground by our feet, no doubt, munching away. We watched the acrobats flip from their invisible trapezes a few more moments, then one swooped inches from our heads.

Now we know that bats tangling in your hair is an old wives' tale, but the few mosquitoes buzzing about our heads was tempting enough to the bats to show off their aerial skill a tad too close, and as much as we appreciated their predation, we scurried back inside.

Though we missed the main event, the Perseids changed our world in subtle ways:

  • A few of my red blood cells gulped by a mosquito (or two) ended up in the belly of a bat, now broken down into tiny pieces. Some of it will become part of that bat, some released as carbon dioxide in the bat's breath, possibly captured by the Brussels sprouts nearby, which I will eat after November's first frost.

The meteor photo was taken by Joe Westerberg, lifted from, used with permission.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

August light

The tomatoes came from a farm within a stone's throw, the eggplant from our front yard. Our neighbor two homes down gave us the flounder he caught within a couple of miles of here. The basil got plucked from the backyard patch. The peach melomel came from local honey and peaches brewed under our roof a year ago, with help from a local vintner when I ran out of yeast nutrient. I biked over to the Cape May Winery, and he shared what he had.

This is how humans made it before the industrial age, when we depended on this year's sun, this year's crops, and this year's kindness.

Leslie's secret to her cooking in August--keep out of the way of the ingredients.


The sun went as far north as it's going to go, and is now sliding back, picking up momentum day by day. The bees know this, more frantic now as they store their honey. The plants know this, shedding captured calories into the fruit we call vegetables.

Food is good, food is abundant in these parts. We eat, and we put some by.

We'll freeze tomatoes and basil and beans. We'll ferment peaches and blueberries and honey. We'll collect seeds and store them in brown paper bags, in the pantry closet, until the creaking light of February prompts us to start sowing again.


By February, I will be diving into ribonucleic acids and adenosine triphosphates with kids who will be diving into McDonald's as we defrost last summer's pesto. McDonald's is cheap, and McDonald's is, to many, tasty.

A year ago I grew a batch of basil in class, eventually making a batch of pesto. I offered to share it, but my students were shocked I'd eat something we grew in class.

We are so disconnected from our earthy roots that even food has become abstract.

Biology, or any science for that matter, is not abstract. Oh, the models can get a bit wacky, and just about all of them are wrong here or there, but none of them come from thin air. Our hypotheses are human inventions, true, but our conclusions are not--our ideas are weathered by the natural world, by reality, by an uncertain sense of truth.

We eat, we breathe, we shit, we pee--pretty much all animals do. You can get through formal education all the way to a PhD and not have even a vague notion of how life works, how matter is transformed, and energy caught.

August is the month of accounting--the solar feast wanes, do we have enough to survive the winter? For most living things on this part of the world, the answer comes in a slow unraveling, as mitochondria are no longer fed pyruvate, as another life ends beneath the snow, silently, held in ice until the feast resumes in March.

And what do we offer the nascent adult? A diet of DNA, ATP, and ribosomes, a subcellular abstraction that answers nothing that matters to a child just starting to shave.

I hope to fix that....

And while we're at it, food is not energy.
P.S.: Perseids tonight!

Fracking logic

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, fracturing fluids typically contain about 90 percent water, about 9 percent propping agents like silica sand and less than 0.5 percent chemicals.


When experts spew out statements like this, hiding absolute numbers behind safe-sounding percentages, when they deliberately obfuscate the word "chemicals" to make a political point, and when "journalists" cannot be bothered to research what the "less than 0.5 percent chemicals" contains, my heart trembles for any hope of an enlightened citizenry.

But all that sounds like fearful piffling on my part, and even responding to it makes me sound like a liberal loser wonky type.

Heck, air is mostly nitrogen, with a small chunk of oxygen tossed in. I wonder if the committee that spewed this nonsense would mind sitting in a room with only 0.5% carbon monoxide during one of its meetings.

No, that was not a threat. Allowing fracking near someone's water supply, however, is a threat.
We're letting them frack with our water--what would Thomas Jefferson do?

Cartoon lifted without permission from here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Grain moon

The Grain moon of summer moves perceptibly
Through the white birch we did not plant
But showed up as a sapling when our child still suckled
And now drapes over the pond that a young one
Dug when she needed to dig.
Daphnia dance in the shadows of the birch
As unexpected, as unplanned
As every birth of every human
That mouthed the word mama.

We know how it ends, as does
The birch, as does the mosquito
Who drills into my skin to
Provide, blood drier than nectar
(which she prefers), but she does what she must,
As we all do, all beings, all all.

The little boy slaps at her, laughing
Because he got her, amused
By the splash of ruby now on his arm,
“I got one! I got one!”
And the white birch kneels over the pond,
As it does, as it does,
As the moon slides through its branches.

The full moon is approaching. I was reading Seamus Heaney as I saw it peek over the book in the steel gray of dusk.

Nothingness is a huge part of everything

I ramble on a lot. I edit a lot, too, hard as that might be to believe, tossing out about 7 or 8 words for every one that I leave. Yes, I know, anything less than a 10:1 scrub ratio marks me as an amateur too in love with his darlings....

Mary Ann Reilly and I have never met, though we have collaborated on a project I tossed at our state  Ed Commissioner Christopher Cerf--ain't the internet grand? She's building a high school, one I'd like to be part of, but enough of the full disclosure nonsense.

I wrote this: "The atoms taught in elementary school  do not exist. If a nucleus is the size of a dime, the electrons would fling as far as half a football field, and even that's just an average. What's in-between? Nothing. Nothingness is a huge part of everything."

She wrote that: "Nothingness is a huge part of everything and there is never the accounting for nothingness in the slick state and now national standards. They are overfilled with their own self importance."

The national standards are like our universe 14.6 billion years ago--no space, no wiggle room, no humanity.

Life found in the spaces, in the niches, in the shadows of the corners works the same way as the stuff that spews forth in the elevated air of Mount Hubris. And matters just as much.

Thank you, Mary Ann, for helping me see this.

Mary Ann Reilly is an artist who is fascinated by edges, by borderlands.
The photo is by her, used without permission.

Natural world

If you know a bit
About the universe

It's because you've taken it in
Like that,

Looked as hard
As you look into yourself,

Into the rat hole,
Through the vetch and dock
That mantled it.

Because you've laid your cheek
Against the rush clump

And known soft stone to break
On the quarry floor.
Seamus Heaney, from "A Herbal," Human Chain


I got whomped pretty good by a virus last week, you may have, too--it's wandering around.

Viral illness fascinates me for a variety of reasons. Pieces of viral nucleic acids take over your cells for no particular reason except to make more copies of the same nucleic acids. We respond by using eons of evolutionary memory built into our own DNA, waking up specific antibodies to tackle a problem seen before by our long gone ancestors.

This particular bout with a virus had the added bonus of hallucinations--not the feathery, febrile kind, where various blobs of color bounce through your field of vision as your teeth chatter. No, these were different--they were real.

Solid, opaque objects meticulously placed in a couple of spots around the room grabbed my attention as I lay in bed. I woke up Leslie to confirm that they were not, in fact, real, though they were as real as the cup of coffee sitting next to me now. Rock solid real. (We've been together a long time--she answered directly, then went back to sleep, just as directly.)

The only reason I even questioned their reality was because there was no particular reason why a couple of large cubes would be stacked on the corner of the bed.

In the morning,I asked Leslie if I had, indeed,asked her about the boxes sitting in the room. I had.

Most sensible people would have seen a doctor, but since we conveniently have one under our roof, and since I was otherwise OK except for the usual virally fever, sore throat, and muscle aches, I opted for watchful waiting, and except for a diminishing malaise, I have, as expected, recovered.

Most high school science classes start out the same way--before plunging into a specific -ology, we toy with the concept of science. We speak of learning more about the natural world.

It occurs to me, a few years late, that few people (besides scientists) know what "natural world" means, and the scientists know that what we know is tenuous, at best.

That's not how my lambs hear it--the "natural world" is as obvious as the noses planted on their faces. Really, just how daft is this teacher?

What makes something real in the natural world? What is the essence of stuff?

Biology is the study of how stuff puts itself together over and over again, and how energy is glommed to make this possible. A century ago, biology mostly taxonomy, a great way to teach children how to look for nuances as they classified and dissected hundreds of organisms into various categories.

This year I will spend exactly one day on taxonomy--which is one day too many the way we approach it now.

My students have not yet had chemistry, or physics, or geology--yet we expect them to learn molecular biology. This is, of course, silly, so I spend most of the year exposing children to fancy-sounding biology words but sneaking in basic science epistemology every chance I get.

What do we know, and how do we know we know it?

Until kids grasp the circularity of our most basic assumptions about matter and energy--sophomores are not quite ready for quantum mechanics--most see science as solid as the odd solid blocks someone placed on the edge of our bed last week.

They are studying hallucinations, and see them as real, because they have been told, over and over again, that they are real.

They believe in atoms atoms (or rather what teachers present as atoms) are real, without grasping their vast emptiness.
The atoms taught in elementary school  do not exist. If a nucleus is the size of a dime, the electrons would fling as far as half a football field, and even that's just an average. What's in-between? Nothing. Nothingness is a huge part of everything.

They believe in the Big Bang, imagining an explosion in empty space, truly magical thinking and a misconception of an conceptually inconceivable model, and we feed their misconceptions.
The Big Bang, as understood by most, ranks right up there with Santa Claus. The whole point is that there was no space--all energy/mass was a point, so distance, as such, did not exist. A picture of the Big Bang as seen from the outside is not science, it's religion.

I get too strident, not because I know something students don't, but because we keep assuring them that the nonsense they know is "science."

Schools muddle things up pretending that a young child who parrots science vocabulary knows more than the child babbling on about the Easter bunny or a schizophrenic babbling about critters implanted in his brain.

We praise hallucinatory thought, and we suffer the consequences.

My goal is for kids to know less by June than they knew in September, a whole lot less. Good science can be as tenuous as the wisp of a shrew's breath.

Until they know this, and it's easier to grasp when entropy takes its toll over the years, as knowledge of your inevitable path creeps into cerebral shadows, I fear I am wasting their time.

Until they know this, maybe pushing them outside, a copy of Seamus Heany's Human Chain in one hand, a cheap plastic magnifying glass in the other, is enough science for a period, for a lifetime.

Between heather and marigold,
Between sphagnum and buttercup,
Between dandelion and broom,
Between forget-me-not and honeysuckle,

As between clear blue and cloud,

Between haystack and sunset sky,
Between oak tree and slated roof,

I had my existence. I was there.

Me in place and the place in me.
Seamus Heaney, from "A Herbal," Human Chain

Which is all we can ask for, all we can know.
The rest is hallucinatory.

The pieces of poem are from Seamus Heaney, obviously, but are meant to be read as part of a larger piece, not included here because I'm already pushing copyright law. Buy the book. Read it. Then a few weeks later, read it again. Months later, again. He gets it, this whole 'thing' thing. Eases some of the fear, no?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


On August 9, 1945, just over 2 1/2 pounds of plutonium was converted to energy 1650 feet over Nagasaki.

Two and a half pounds--about the weight of a 28 week premature newborn baby.



Yosuke Yamahata, A Japanese army photographer, took this picture the day after the Fat Man fell over Nagasaki.

More of Mr. Yamahata's photography can be seen here.

The photo and the quote are from © The Exploratorium,

Yes, this is a repeat, and will be repeated every year that I maintain the blog.
We must never forget what we are capable of doing. Never.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Arne the Disincentivizer

The No Child Left Behind law requires that 100% of children in public education are proficient in math and reading (in English) by 2014. The law is absurd, something recognized even by those with minimal contact with reality in the fantasy bubble of D.C.

Yet here we go, marching off like lemmings--and that's a royal "we." Every time I hand out number 2 pencils to comply with the state, I am complicit. You are, too. It's a wonderful word that sounds safe but exposes sins. Say it aloud:

Complicit--has a Snapesian quality to it, no?

Arne has offered us a plan to disincentivize our way out. If your state agrees to his plan, one that will cure poverty, end racism, and save corporatocracy democracy, your school will be exempt from the 100% pass requirement built into NCLB.

All you have to do is agree to Race to the Top--more tests, more central control, more privatization, more chaos.

Look behind the curtain and see the folks sitting around the impossibly shiny mahogany table--the powerful and the pale, soulless smiles for the camera, all acting in the name of good, the name of God, the name of greed.

This is a naked power grab by a man who called Katrina "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans," thought firing all the teachers at Central Falls HS was "doing the right thing for kids," and who has confounded the needs of corporations with the needs of a functioning democracy.

Say hello to Eli and Billy when they calls to say congrats this morning. Go ahead, wink at Michelle. A few teachers grumble when you take shots at our unions, but that's not where our hearts lie.

When you hurt our kids, our grumbles become growls, we become tigers.

I teach children what extortion means. When a child says "I'll be 'good' if..." that's extortion.
 I don't play that game with children, I won't play it with Arne.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dusk on the edge of the bay

The time between anniversaries of the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima, plutonium on Nagasaki, have the same off-center pull on me of the awful hours on Good Friday. Attaching this disequilibrium to specific times is, of course, a human conceit, as is dreading the inevitable.


 The mid-moon evening tide lets us wander out onto the tidal flats at dusk--there's still a hint of color on the western edge of the bay, but the sun sank a half hour ago.

I wander around collecting horseshoe crab molts, the exoskeletons split along the front edge, where the sea creature wriggled its way out of its shell, self actualization in action. The husks of these ancient creatures hold no flesh.

As I scuffled my feet in water only inches deep, a globular critter wiggled its way from the edge of the sea back to the depths, and I pondered whether it was a sally growler, a croaker, a northern star gazer, or something else.

As if a name matters to it, to me.

To anything.

The shells in the photo were collected two dusks ago.
The critters that once claimed them are likely wandering around in the brown cool depths of the Delaware at this moment, unaware of anniversaries, but not unaware.

Awareness is not what makes us human.

Friday, August 5, 2011



Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese army base. ... It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. . . . What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history.

It happened on this date, this "greatest achievement."

New technology used to "solve" an old problem. We cannot help ourselves.

Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, suggested "we ought to stay out of the nuclei." Until we have a clue what we want, sounds like good advice.

You cannot separate tools from the critters who use them. Teaching science as some compartmentalized thought process without cultural context is a dangerous game.

What is our responsibility as teachers of science?
As citizens of the United States?
As human beings?


This morning I saw a wasp dragging paralyzed cricket along the edge of the driveway. The wasp was not much bigger than the cricket, and the wasp struggled. At one point she let go, stepped back a few inches, stroked her head a few times (much like a human facing a big task), and eventually dragged it down a hole by the driveway garden. The cricket was still alive, but paralyzed.

I did not intervene.

The wasp will lay her eggs in the cricket, and they will hatch in the cricket, still alive, and the cricket will, of course, suffer.

I did not intervene.

The larva wasp will use the the cricket, still alive, for food.

And still, I did not intervene.

Photo by Bruce Holderbaum


We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.
-J. Robert Oppenheimer

Ken Allan is a blogger on the other side of the Earth. ( Kia ora e Ken.) He's quirky, bright, thoughtful, and well worth reading.

He sent me the this video:

And now I teach science to (very) young adults. I have a responsibility to them, to the state, to myself.

Harry S. Truman called the bombing of Hiroshima "the greatest achievement of organized science." If that does not give you pause, you should not be teaching science.

You should not be teaching anything at all.

(Yes, this is from older posts, timeless ones.)
The photo is by Bruce Holderbaum
and can be found here--used with permission.

This is posted every year, as a reminder to me.

Stars and storytelling

I've been immersed in the new esocial culture the past week, even carried around an iPod for a couple of days. I wandered down to D.C. for the march, then back up to NYC for #edu140.

I saw incredible visionaries seduce their audiences with words, with music, with movement, with touch. I mainlined social media for several days, dizzy with various boxes of multiple colors, floating on a collective stream of human consciousness, and last night I crashed.

It took two words from my son as we got out of the car at 2 AM this morning: Look up!

The milky way streamed over our head, parting around the Northern Cross. Ancient patterns of stars raced through my brain--not just the neocortex, the part we worship, but arcing through the limbus, the edge, the old mammalian brain, the home of desire. The hippocampus, our ancient compass, screamed for recognition, finally allowed to guide me under something I deeply recognized, something beyond human.

The amygdala, our kernel of fear embedded with wonder, ripped my attention away from my neocortex--words dissolved, language did not. The stars spoke to me, as they do to any mammal wending through night's shadows.

We forget, or maybe the human part of us, the folds upon folds of new cortex that allow us to navigate in our human world, forces us to look away. But the neo-cortex is only part of the story, and not the one that will save us.

Astronomy, until very recently, was a story told only of light, but what a story we created. We learned of suns and stars, galaxies upon galaxies, of an expanding universe by creating layers of inferences, stories upon stories, based only on light.

Helium, named for the sun, was discovered on the sun before we found it on Earth, betrayed by its spectral lines.

How many of our children know this? How many adults?

Science is not "knowing" that the sun holds helium--to say this is not to say much, though trivia often passes for science in our culture. Science is grasping the stories of light, of spectral lines, of inferences, and then sharing the stories with others.

If children knew how tenuous our grasp of the universe is, as we try to hold hands with the shadows dancing on the walls of Plato's cave, they'd be a lot less frightened of science teachers, and maybe more frightened by our stars at night.

Fear is underrated.

While the stories of science are based on tenuous grounds, the stories are solid. They work, much as the stories we shared before we had written language, as we gathered under the stars on moonless nights, worked for us then.

The children of my ancestors 50,000 years ago had the evidence above them, they felt the creeping dread of the amygdala tempered by the guidance of the hippocampus. Their stories were based on evidence, the evidence of the stars, not the words of a textbook, the words of an expert.

We have become a nation of magical thinkers. I wish I could say this was despite our science education, but too often it is because of it.

For decades now, we have dropped observation of what's real for immersion of what's not--words and photographs and monitors and videos are not real. No media today can hope to capture the sky that wrapped its way around my nonverbal brain just a few hours ago.

If a child uses a computer before she uses a magnifying glass, her science has been stunted.

I proctor the BHS Sidewalk Astronomers, a school club that lets kids see a tiny piece of the universe, catching photons in light buckets we set up on the pavement outside our school.

I used to apologize for the poor viewing conditions, but most have never seen truly dark skies, and are thankful for every photon they catch with our telescopes.

The telescopes are easy enough to grasp--you can see the big mirror bouncing light to the smaller one, you can see the eyepiece glass focus light as you slide the tube up and down with a simple knob gear.

No magic involved.


Cell phones are magic, iPods are magic, wifi is magic, even televisions are magic to most who use them.

I can at least show children how speakers work, using nothing more than a paper cup, a coil of wire, and a magnet, but do not show them how the amplifier that drives the speaker works. (The last time our class made a speaker, it literally went up in smoke, a great lesson in vibrations, sound, and heat.)

I'm done with magic. I'm done pretending we can survive as a culture pushing magic.
  • Magical thinking is what leads rational adults to believe that plugging an electric car into a socket makes the energy "cleaner." 
  • Magical thinking is what leads a culture to putting more calories into the ground than can be extracted from its harvest.
  • Magical thinking is what leads us to believe that we are beyond the laws of physics, that human western wisdom is beyond our collective wisdom, that our minds can solve any problem our brains manage to create.
I'm going to teach my students the first week of school the difference between the magical and the true. I am going to encourage them to catch me every time I slip into magical thinking. We're going to spend a lot of time delving into why their science teacher, despite himself, keeps slipping into the world of magic.

We will learn what's true together, and if a child should escape our haze of urban light and stumble under a sky burning with stars, she will have enough trust in what's true to trust the stories they tell, and have told, since before we uttered our first word.

I'm done with magic. Magic is limiting. Magic kills thinking, kills hope, kills people.

Perseids woodcut via NASA but from 18th c., so I figure it's OK to use.
Book of Wound Surgery of Jerome of Brunswick (also called Brunschwig) published 1497, via Science Photo Library, but also ancient enough to skip the legal nonsense.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Yep, mostly the same post third time around--I like the rhythm of the year.

We call it August now, for Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, a short guy with bad teeth, but this was less of an issue before television--the name was dragged over to England by William the Conqueror, who enslaved both the Anglo-Saxon people and their language with the support of the Pope.

The English had a sensible name for this time of year before William blew through--weed month (weodmonað). We teeter towards the dark months. Things fall apart.

The sunlight diminishes perceptibly now. The plants know.

The past week we've eaten deep purple eggplants and bright pink brandywine tomatoes, yellow summer squash and green-and-red striped beans. Today we will pick basil for pesto, some for tonight, some for February. A bowl full of ripe blueberries waits for us, sunlight incarnate.

But the sunlight is dying, and the plants know.

We do not speak of religion in class, at least not formally, though students will occasionally ask religious questions, and I will deflect them. I explain that some things cannot be known through science, and that what I believe beyond the limits of science falls outside the province of class.

In class we talk of light and hormones, photoperiods and abscisic acids, to explain how plants know. We talk under the hum of fluorescent lights, time marked by defined blocks of time. In class, September light is exactly the same as February light, and class is always 48 minutes long, no matter where the sun sits.

Sunset today marks the start of Lammas, or Loaf Mass Day--joy for the harvests that are coming and regret for waning sunlight. Lammas used to be celebrated--the first wheat berries of the year were ground into flour and baked into bread offered in thanks, some used for Communion, some for the feast that followed.

We thank God (or Tailtiu or Lugh or some other forgotten gods)--harvest time reflects death and grace, whatever the culture. Death and grace feel foreign in the classroom, indeed foreign in our culture. We pretend, at our peril, that life is linear.

Lammas falls halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. The days are shortening, winter is coming. Until you feel the seasons in your bones, until you follow a grain of wheat from the ground to plant to bread to you then back to the ground again, the modern myths may be enough.

Science can explain why plants produce fruit when they do, and I can teach the steps. We can test whether a student learns what I present, and the students that do this best have access to all our culture offers.

You can become very powerful, very rich, without knowing grace. You can go far in life if blessed with intelligence and beauty, degrees and citations, without ever knowing what a wheat berry looks like, without ever kneading a lump of flour and water and yeast into glistening dough.

In the end, we don't know much, and may never know much. We can, however, recognize grace. We might not grasp it rationally, but we we can grasp it--a good reason to celebrate Lammas.

The Skeleton of Death dances every hour in Prague--photo of the Prague Astronomical Clock by Sandy Smith found on VirtualTourist.