Sunday, November 27, 2011

On misconceptions

The deeper I dig into how much a child understands a particular idea, the more I  realize persistent misconceptions can be.

We have plenty of places for magical thinking in our culture: horoscopes, good luck charms, religious incantations, and the stock market take up a good chunk of our time. So long as your magic does little harm, and horoscopes and talismans fall into that category, blessed be.

Alas, much of our magical thinking has disastrous consequences. Each morning I grab my wand and recite incantations, hoping to teach science. Before I teach science, I have to unteach the magic.

If you teach young children, and you do not quite grasp something, do not preach it as Gospel. I can teach a child who knows nothing a whole lot more than I can teach a child that knows everything.

We are starting cell energetics this week, the soul of biology. After a few years of doing this, I now know what I must have them "unknow":
  • Plants make food from sunlight.
  • The "stuff" of plants mostly comes from the ground.
  • Plants have no need to respire.
Pretty much all of science gets down to the Conservation of MassEnergy, and in high school biology, where a Newtonian view of the universe is usually sufficient, it gets down to this:

Stuff (matter) is stuff, and energy is energy,
and never the twain shall meet.

These misconceptions run deep, deeper than I realized until the past couple of years. I've gotten better at working through them, but misconceptions are tenacious, and, I think, comforting--children want to grasp the world, and a science teacher running through a laundry list of vocabulary words and biochemical cycles cannot replace the comfort of knowing, even if the knowing is wrong.

This week I'll grab my propane torch, as I have done multiple times, and again show children that water comes from combustion. I'll blow into bromothymol blue solution and again give evidence that CO2 leaves us with each breath.

My stories have to be better than the ones they heard before. My stories have to make as much sense to them as the ones they already believe. My stories must be more true than the ones that define their universe.

My stories need to become their stories, or I've taught them nothing.

Grab David Rudel's books on science myths. Should be mandatory reading for any teacher at any grade that teaches science.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Last Saturday of November

Raked some leaves, then some clams, then some charcoals to cook the clams. New moon tide in late November on a spectacular day makes for good living, at least for me. Can't say the same for the clams now in my belly.

In between the leaves and the clams, Leslie and I kayaked up a local  creek. The cormorants are still here, soon to be replaced by the loons. The osprey are gone. We say a flock of surf scoters--a sure sign winter is coming.

The zinnias now put up tiny flowers, so little energy now available from the sun, but they're still trying.

I saw a few lazy bees hang onto the cosmos flowers--they were pretending to scoop up what little nectar remains, but they were mostly slumming in the sun. The only animals in these parts that cannot see the obvious are the H. sapiens sort.

The sun is dying. Long live the sun.

We can pretend to thrive under the fluorescent hum of madness, or we can settle into the patterns of the seasons. Biology is all about available sunlight.

If my lambs get that much, it will be enough.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Ditching digital time

We're in the last few weeks of the dying sun, our days defined by our shadows. I know the sun will return, but I don't believe it.

The digital clock on my classroom wall leaves no shadows.  It defines little. It just assigns a number to now. 9:27, 9:27, 9:27, stuck in a moment. Suddenly the clock announces 9:28.

The sun barely moves, but it moves perceptibly, a fluid sliver of time  marking an infinite number of instants, and the long shadows move with it.

My analog clock moves with the sun, its second hand kissing the minute hand every 61 seconds, the minute hand kissing the hour hand every 65 minutes, the three hands uniting every 12 hours, then resuming the dance.

We spent a lot of money for fancy electronic whiteboards to replace the melamine boards that replaced the blackboards that replaced the slate. As fancy as the new board is, it has not fundamentally changed anything.

The images are fancier, they move, they tweet, they change colors, they can be saved to amuse another classroom full of children, but they do not alter the way children look at the world in any meaningful way. (They do, however, allow us to continue to cultivate the magical thinking that pervades our culture--another topic for another day.)

A digital clock alters obliterates our sense of time. It tells us of now only, a discrete now at that. An exact now. 9:29.

"I'm not late, it's still 9:30."
The bell rang a half minute ago.

I used to think the kids were just playing with me, confounding the instant after 9:30 started with the instant before 9:30 ends. But it really is all the same to many of my students. And to much of our staff.

My analog clock moves inexorably. It divvies up time into visible chunks of pie--this is where you are, this is how long you've been there, this is how long you will be there. The hands sweep over marked swaths of clock face.

The large hourglass that marked Dorothy's  inevitable destruction in Oz terrified me--the tangible flow of sand ebbing through its glass womb made even young viewers feel mortal.

Time flows both ways from the ever-present moment. The digital clock hides this from us, and we're glad not to know.

A bored child stares at the clock, eyelids hovering just over the pupils. When will this class ever ennnddddd...? 9:34...9:34...9:34....

Our class clock is covered with a large file card with the words "Tempus fugit" scribbled over it. (Sophomores love to say fuggit.) Time flees.

In front o the class I have a large analog clock, rescued from among the Great Clock Massacre of 2004, when we opened a new science wing at our high school.

Yes, children still get bored. Yes, eyelids still droop, But the droopy-eyed now stare at an analog clock, watching the seconds drip by, and, eventually, they see the barely perceptible movement of the minute hand as well. They learn the exact moment the bell will ring as the second hand sweeps past the 43rd tick on the clock's face. They see that 9:45 is a quarter of an hour from 10 (not 10:00), and three quarters away from 9.

I am not aware of any studies that looked at this, but I'd be willing to bet a carboy's worth of home-brewed mead that children learn more about time from an analog clock than from a block of blinking digital numerals masquerading as a time piece.

I pretend to teach high school biology, but what I focus on is teaching children how to see patterns, how to recognize the patterns as patterns, then how to describe the patterns in order to predict future patterns. Some folks call that science.

Everything that I can control in my classroom should be working toward those goals.

The digital clock does not, so it's covered up. If you want to know what time it is in Room B362, you're going to have to know how to read an analog clock.

Yes, we have a sundial, too--but it's only good for a few hours in the afternoon.
We have west windows.

The hourglass is obviously from The Wizard of Oz--
I got it from Julie Hedlund's website Write Up My Life

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving redux

I liked this 3 years ago.
I still like it....Happy Thanksgiving!

This week's The New Yorker magazine cover highlights a turkey sitting on a ledge with a few pigeons. It's the classic turkey any schoolkid would draw--blue head, red wattle, and a lovely banded tail.

Most turkeys destined for tables tomorrow, broad-breasted whites, never looked like this. Commercial growers prefer a bird whose feathers do not betray a less than perfect plucking job, a bird with a chest so broad it cannot reproduce without a few humans involved, a bird which does not taste like the one your grandmother ate.

Today I asked the kids to describe the turkey they planned to eat. Many refused to believe it has white feathers.

At least kids still have some connection between the critter and the cooked carcass.

Sean Nash has started a wonderful conversation on his blog, a chat initiated by a question asked by one of his students--where are the seeds in an orange?


Oranges without seeds. Flour without bran. Imitation crab.

None of this need be a big deal, and they may never know what they're missing. At my age, I cannot remember what I am missing. All I can do is taste the difference between a Brandywine tomato picked an hour ago, and whatever F1 hybrid tomato A&P is carrying. That is enough.

And what if a child today prefers the illusion of safety cocooned in a womb of technology? So what if she prefers WoW to the edge of a pond? What is lost?

And here is where old folk sputter and spew, because we know something's missing, right? By the time we're done sputtering, the earbuds are back in, thumbs waving like antennae, and the child's back in her universe.

What is lost?
Complexity beyond imagination.

If a child is not exposed to the incomprehensible, she will start to believe she understands the world, that the world is truly safe, that humans are truly superior creatures, that humans can fix any problem nature has to offer, not realizing that she and nature cannot be separated.

Enough of the rich and powerful adults among us grew up in cocoons, and seem genuinely puzzled by what has happened here in the States.

Those of us with toes in the mud know better, because we know we know almost nothing.

We know this much, though. The sun, a gift, only shines so much in a year. Plants, all gifts, only bear so much fruit in a year. There are only so many animals available to eat in a year. All economics, or at least all economics of value, ultimately comes down to how much the soil and the sun can yield--not in a year, not even in lifetime, but indefinitely. There are limits to what we know, to what we can know.

There are also limits to what we ought to know; I'm a heretic among science teachers. Wes Jackson, a farmer and founder of the Land Institute, is also a heretic:

For a half century now I have had the opportunity to witness the mind of religious fundamentalists at work.... We usually think of it as associated with certain religious denominations but it is now more rampant in the scientific community than religion. Fundamentalism is worrisome, wherever it is found, because it takes over where thought ends. It is so rampant in science now, that we plunge ahead with biotechnology faster than we can develop the intellectual framework and imagination for evaluating the possible risks.

The curriculum demands I teach my students about transgenic bacteria just a few years after they traced their hands and drew the spectacularly colored turkeys they thought they were eating.

I bet most of them still don't believe that turkeys are white.

I was going to show a brief video today of how turkeys are inseminated, but thankfully the school filters worked better than my frontal lobe. I still may have done just enough to make Thanksgiving a little more interesting tomorrow for some of our families.
Your science teacher did what?

He gobbled like a turkey, picked up a desk, pretended it was his chest, then tried to, er, you know, do it with a pretend girl turkey, and he couldn't, so now humans do turkeys. I found a video on YouTube...want to see it?

I'm calling the school first thing Monday!

Food, from the ground to our gut, has become taboo.

How many of us dare to show how animals are raised? Butchered? Processed? Even when done humanely, we hide it from the kids.

I gave every one of my freshmen a wheat berry today. I told them it was part of something they would stuff inside their turkey. Only one child guessed what it was.

Just about every town around here has a "Mill Street" dating back to when flour was only fresh for a few days, back when flour had enough oil to turn rancid. Refined flour, however, has a much longer shelf life. We don't need local mills anymore.

Crushed wheat berries are brown, not white.
Crushed wheat berries have a complex, wonderful flavor that makes bread come alive.
Crushed wheat berries can keep you alive without being fortified with folic acid, niacin, and riboflavin--they're already in there.

I have fallen out of the habit of making bread--I need to start again. My time would be better spend grinding wheat berries and baking bread than sitting in front of this monitor.

On the other hand, if I keep talking turkey in class, it might not be too long before I have a whole lot more time on my hands.

I lifted the orange from Sean Nash's site, who borrowed it from
Weil, Gyorgy. “wguri’s photostream.” oranges. 17 MAY 2007. Flickr. 24 Nov 2008 

The wheat berry came from the University of Arkansas.

The New Yorker cover came, natch, from the New Yorker site.

The bread comes courtesy of Jessica Pierce, the bunny lady.
She creates wonderful things regularly. If you're ever in Atlanta, stop by and try her cake!

November nirvana

There are mornings when the mind is flying, neurons remapping as I try to put things together. Rapid leaps of thought spin hypotheses rapidly ground down to nubbins. Whole theses are created (and often dismantled) during the mile or so walk to school.

Then there are mornings like today, a drizzly November morning, shades of gray broken up by crazy patches of yellow and orange leaves scattered on the ground, the hickory smoke smell of fall wrapping around everything.

It was cheerfully gloomy. I managed to forget everything and, briefly (though time was oddly suspended), felt everything. We were mammals long before words made us something else.

Science is interesting because the world is interesting, not the other way round.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Little Scientists, Inc.


  1. An inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.
  2. A course of action to which one has an excessive and irrational commitment.
Guess the goggles aren't needed for the pre-pubescent crew.
That looks suspiciously like a carboy of homebrew sitting on the scientist's right.

Unless you give a child a reason to want to know something, to know the world, then getting them all gooey-eyed thinking that they love what passes for science in order to please mama is just cultivating a fetish.

If we continue to push science as a religion, a cult with idolized props--the lab coat, the goggles, the geek 'tude--used to induce awe through glorious displays, well, we'll keep getting what we've been getting. Before we can hope to create more scientists, we ought to focus on creating more thinkers.

I'd like to keep our fetishes in the boardroom and the chapel--both indoor places defined by humans, where magical attachment to objects (flow charts and holy books) enhances our worlds of magical thinking. Our magic worlds follow an internally consistent blend of logic and lust, that allows us to makes some sense of the universe on our terms.

Nature don't play that way.

While many of us have been vicariously living through Natalie and Justin and Prince Harry, a few have stumbled on amazing stuff. Photons erupting out of nothingness, neutrinos defying basic laws of the universe-- a very few among us giving us knowledge we'll probably misuse, again and again.

Science for children, for anyone, starts with the flick of a minnow's tail, a dragon fly cocking its head in a child's direction, with a mud pie that falls apart if too wet or if too dry. Before you can learn how to predict, you need to learn how to see.

You don't need iPads or Vernier probes or simulated computer programs. You don't need fancy "scientifical" equipment.You just need curious children (a redundancy),  a door that lets children out as easily as it lets them in,  and an interested adult or two to guide them..

We keep shoving kids in concrete buildings, away from their clan, away from Grandma's stories, earlier and earlier and earlier. Away from sunburn and skinned knees and bruises and tears, away from the air, the sky, the sun, the puddles teeming with life, away from the only laboratory that matters in science--the natural world.

Science starts with a child outdoors,  it starts within the sulci of the convoluted mush of nerve tissue sitting in our skulls, it starts with our senses.

You cannot see a whole world in a drop of pond water if you've never seen to see the world you live in. We don't need Junior Scientists© donning their fetish garb to impress adults whose understanding of the universe goes no farther than The Big Bang Theory sitcom.

Children are just as more likely to get there reading W.B. Yeats than they are watching a rocket launch on a monitor. They're even more likely to get there if they're allowed to wander around this fine world of ours, chasing whatever interests their souls outdoors, becoming part of the world so many adults no longer realize even exists as they slowly dissolve in front of their huge television screens, inanimate objects inhabited with the spirits of the famous and the fictitious, the fetish in the living room.

Every time I walk home in the dark, seeing the eerie blue manic light leaking through drawn shades, I wonder how we hope to create anything resembling scientists, or even human.

The photo was by  Matt Stamey for the Gainesville Sun found here.
The definition of fetish came from

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A November "Treet"

I rambled on about cell communication to my AP Biology class--they're bright, they're young, but they're not clamoring to know about G-protein-linked receptors, despite my cartwheels (good for kinesthetic learners, no?)

Even the College Board recognizes that the course is, well, receptive to the rush of air particles from a surrounding area of high pressure.

I walked home on a gorgeous November dusk, and then I saw it.

Across the street from the school is a tree with a streetlight buried in its nether-lands. The tree is bare, except for a patch of leaves around the lamp.

A block away, a barren tree broken by our freak storm two weeks ago has three large boughs still hanging from it--classic widow makers. On each bough, and only on these broken boughs, cling clusters of leaves, days after the leaves of the still living branches fell away.

How can I teach of G-protein-linked receptors to children who do not see the leaves still grasping onto the dead limbs that no longer talk to them?

And why would I want to?

Next dry day I'm taking my lambs out for a walk. Not sure they'll be any fonder of G-protein-linked receptors, but they might be a little fonder of trees.

Hey, we're not so different from trees and bacteria after all....
Snowstorm photo by Ed Murray, NJ Star-Ledger

Monday, November 14, 2011

Clamming and competency

A former student dropped by today to tell me she just got her pilot's license. 
She worked on it for over 4 years, and openly admits to being a little jittery first time she soloed'. 
This post is now 3 years old--but I need a reminder now and again.

By the time you hit your 5th or 6th decade, you're mostly competent at what you do. You've long abandoned the things you're incompetent at, and mortality precludes starting a whole lot of new things.

As a result, most older folk forget what it means to learn new things, forget what it means to be a decade or two old, when everything requires climbing a wall to gain mastery.

"Potential" becomes an albatross around the neck of the young. (Go read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner if you have not. Yes, it's Coleridge; yes, he can be onerous; yes, it's worth your time.)

I got a clam rake last spring. It's an old rake, and a good one.

I can only imagine how many clams ended up in a pot after being pried out of their homes before I got it. The tines are rusted brown, the handle oiled by the sweat of others before me.

Still, as good a rake as it is, it was almost useless in my hands last June.

Can you remember when you first drove a car? When every twitch of the wheel required thought?

Just about every 17 year old Homo sapiens on the planet has faster reflexes than me. Just about every Homo sapiens in the western hemisphere has more facility with technology than me. Still, All State Insurance charges me a bucketload less for auto insurance than any 17 year old I teach.

Teachers need to remember how hard it is to drive the first time.

Or else go clamming.

Back in June, the rake was a weapon--plow through the mud, rip out whatever it hit, say a prayer for another unfortunate creature impaled by its tines. Horseshoe crabs, whelks, worms--but very few clams.

These days the rake is an extension of my arm, its tines tickling the mud beneath the water. I can feel shapes, I can feel density. A tine or two bump against a clam, my sympathetic system reacts. Against a stone, nothing.

The horseshoe crabs are safe again. The clams are not.

I like clams.
I really, really like clams.

I practiced and practiced and practiced because I like clams, and slowly my brutal assault against any critter large enough to suffer from misguided tines evolved to a gentle prodding of the mud.

My students like driving.
Really, really like driving.

They practice and practice because they like driving, and slowly their jagged starts and turns evolve to hugging the road unconsciously.

Here's my plea to anyone of us arrogant enough to presume we have something to offer to the young. Try something new.

Try to master something you suck at but like to do anyway.

Now imagine trying to master something you suck at and don't really care for.

Welcome to high school.

Photo mine.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Another year goes by, and the apple trees are bare again

Today marks the anniversary of my sister's death, when a self-described Christian missionary ran her off the road, left the scene, then wrote to me (after being apprehended by the police a day later), that this was God's will.

Apparently some modern day apostles have the power to know these things.

I'm not an apostle, and I'm hardly a fan of what passes for Chrisianity these days (not sure Jesus Himself would be welcome at some of His more popular franchises), but I do enjoy the Gospels, which are at least as wise as, say Who Moved My Cheese, though actually practicing any of that ol' time kindness (in its finest sense of the word) would get you kicked off most corporate boards.

I take my solace from knowing what's left of her is in our hearts and in the now leafless limbs of some apple trees in Tipton, Michigan, her ashes overlooking Irish Hills.

Here is a story about her, told by a friend of hers, and I'm stealing it verbatim:

Twenty years ago today, Mary Beth and I arrived in the fabled Hunza Valley, the model for Shangri-La, in northern Pakistan. We stayed in a town on a cliff 4,000 feet above the valley floor, in a hotel that cost about 5 bucks with a view of 4-mile-tall Himalayan peaks. The poplars lining irrigation canals – brimming with pearly and opalescent glacier runoff, feeding stone terraces of apricot wheat, mulberry, grapes – had just come to full flame. An orange and yellow hearth fire lapping at the feet of the mountains 18,000 feet high, capped in blue glaciers.The altitude started getting to me. So, Mary Beth took a walk.

A few hours later, she came back, her fancy scarf from the Sindh – the one with real silver threads, presented to her by relatives of the mayor of the town of Khaipur – traded in for one of the rough cotton veils Hunza women wear working their terraced fields.

“I traded my scarf! And got some presents!!” She was carrying a huge bunch of grapes and a loaf of bread that smelled like a fire place and was so dense, huge, and nutritious it took us a week to finish off.

“I met some farmers! Check it out!” She’d spent the afternoon in the compound of a Hunza family, a rare privilege. “They all thought I was insane once I got them to understand I wasn’t lost. Kept asking ‘where’s your husband? (in this medieval world, it was just easier, and more sensible, to claim we were married)
Why did he let you come here alone?’ How the fuck am I supposed to explain I’m the one who dragged my ‘husband’ to Pakistan.” (Coming here was Mary Beth’s idea. That’s another story.)

She was glowing from the encounter. Not a lot of people are served tea in the kitchens of Hunzakot matriarchs. Not a lot of people are like Mary Beth. Travel is like being a rock star in that to succeed,
it takes a certain talent – the kind Mary Beth possessed in spades, wheel barrows, truck loads full.

Later, we shared this experience: that evening, Hunza was celebrating an Ismaili Muslim festival. After sundown, people scaled the surrounding mountains and set bonfires. As the peaks faded into the night, the whole valley – dozens of miles long, and thousands of feet deep – came alive with bonfires. The sight left even MB speechless. Unforgettable stuff like this made Pakistan her favorite location of the whole year we spent in Asia.
I'm going fishing in a moment, but it's not fish I'm looking for.
I miss you, Mary Beth.

"We Can Do Better" propaganda than you

Update: turns one co-founder is Christine Healey DeVaull; her Dad, Bob Healey, made a fortune selling luxury boats, and now shares some of it through the Healey Philanthropic Group, whose Executive Director is~ta da~Christine. She also was the ED International Education Foundation and subsequently created the Catholic School Development Program. The communication guy is Dominic Pepper.

I was not looking for trouble this morning. Saturday mornings are for creating new ideas for class, so I was wandering around, listening to Frank Nosche, running through the AP listserve, while working on a revised syllabus for AP Biology.

An advertisement popped up while I viewed a "science" video. (OK, it was a swimming scallop.) The ad was for We Can Do Better New Jersey, a coalition of "various educational and philanthropic groups and individuals" who support NJ's proposed New Jersey Opportunity Scholarship Act, essentially a voucher system that would allow educational scholarships to private schools for low income students.

That's a complicated issue, and not what got me roiling. I can see how well-meaning, reasonable folks can take contrary positions on an issue deeply entwined in history, in culture, and in economics, an issue with profound effects on children.

What got me roiling was the propaganda.


Unlike vouchers, the program is funded by corporate tax credits....[T]here’s no added burden to taxpayers.
Um, do the math--states must maintain balanced budgets. Tax credits mean less revenue from the corporation toward the state's general fund.

That's an added burden to the taxpayer--we're either hit for more revenue or we get less services.

You might believe that reducing services is the right thing to do--bully for you. Just don't hide under patently contradictory claims.

If a company wants to give a child, any child,  scholarship to go anywhere, anywhere, no one is stopping them....

Because businesses bear a huge burden of having to train unprepared workers who are the products of failed educational experiences, it is only logical that these businesses should have the opportunity to direct their tax liabilities to a source which they feel will improve the educational quality of graduating students (potential employees).

I had a huge burden raising my two children--it's only logical that I should have the opportunity to direct my tax liabilities to my family. Oh, and I'm not paying for roads anymore except the ones I use. If your house is on fire, you pay for the firefighters. It's only logical.

If you believe that public education exists to provide prepared workers for private enterpise, then it's only logical to have the businesses pay for all educational costs. To be fair, a lot of corporations are giving children an education in life--a child working for Apple or Nike learns early on what Hobbesian means.

Is this a voucher bill? No.

Depends on how you define "voucher," I suppose, but let's keep the argument honest. Public money ("tax credits") directed by private interests will be used to help support private schools. As I said up top, rational people can hold contrary views.

Blatantly misdirecting the argument makes for great sophistry, but I expect more from a website that claims it takes the high ground here:

By leveraging the support of schools and local communities, we hope to convince legislators of the value of this bill for the school children of New Jersey and for all New Jersey citizens fiscally, philosophically, and ethically.

Oh, and one more thing. Asking for donations is a cute touch, gives the site a grass roots feel. I'm betting that the "philanthropists" involved have got the bills covered.

I'd be much obliged if anyone could direct me to a list of donors.

The astroturf badge is from SourceWatch, used under CC 3.0
The girl stitching a soccer ball is from Oxfam Australia.
The bold purple quotes all from the We Can Do Better NJ website.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Clamming in November

The shadows are long, now, even at noon. We know why, of course, and pretend otherwise, living under electric lights, listening to electric voices, staring at electric screens.

The wind is blowing over 20 knots from the northwest, in November, and the tidal flats call like Sirens. No one out there but me, a gull, a few scoters, and the clams.

I teach in an urban district, where the few guns around tend to be snubby, designed to be used at close range on humans. I spend most of my free moments in Cape May, where guns are more prevalent, tend to be longer, and more often used on game other than H. sapiens.

I hunt with a rake and a hook, not quite bloodless, and unlikely to raise my testosterone cred, but it does connect me with this life business more than the folks who never kill their prey.

I'd rather be a wolf than a vulture, no matter how fancy the store. We have a lot to learn from the hunters.

Even vegetarians kill. Plants are every bit as alive as you and me. We place high regard on sentience, and no one has yet shown that plants give a damn about anything, but every living animal must take lives in order to stay living.

Tonight we munched on quahogs and Brussels sprout sprouts. The clams are dead, the Brussels still alive, so a vegetarian could claim some moral superiority.

Even so, the clams tasted pretty good.

I put three back, the largest I caught. Each was a couple of decades old, each had done nothing to earn the wrath of my rake.

They are sitting within a few inches of each other, their collective age older than mine, and I hope they spawn.

Their fellow quahogs are in my belly now.

And so it goes.....

Photo taken along Richadson Sound by us.

Fond of bonds

Les Trois Danseuses, Picasso, 1925

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

W.B. Yeats, from "Among School Children"
I teach biology, or try to, anyway. What I mostly teach, I think, is a way to look at the world, a way labeled "science."

Through a series of events mostly inexplicable to me, as much related to the state biology exit exam as to the retrograde motion of Mercury, my sophomores have had essentially no chemistry before coming to my class. None...

I get to expose them to chemistry. I love chemistry. To grasp chemistry, you need to grasp bonds.

Trouble is, there is nothing to grasp--in a sense, they do no exist.
I had a lot of trouble with the concept of potential energy when I was in high school. A teacher would lift an object, the pontificate about how this object now had "potential" energy.

Where, I wondered (and eventually learned not to ask), was the energy?

It's like trying to "see" the energy in the water at the top of a waterfall. The water itself is exactly the same at the top as it is at the bottom. I could see that a waterfall could do work, I am not stupid, but where was it before the molecules cascaded over the dam?

I was told the energy was in the object until I finally got my first real science teacher, Ms. Lehman, a wonderful woman with a wonderfully twisted view of reality (any honest view will be twisted) and the patience of Job, who explained to me that the energy was in the position. Over and over again until I got it.

Once I internalized this, I shot through chemistry and never looked back.

It is really a simple, simple idea.
The waterfall analogy suffers from a major flaw--rearranged atoms do form new substances. Still, you end up with exactly the same atoms that started the reaction, just scrambled up differently.)

Every time.

If you hope to get kids (or other forms of humans) to understand chemistry, they must also internalize the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy. This can take months, even years, especially if our children demand evidence. (Alas, we beat the snot out of the curious very early on in public education...)

We don't have that kind of time--so we (students, teachers, districts, states, with Arne's approval) fake it.

I suspect that's a major reason so many despise stoichiometry, a shame--stoichiometry is the Mikhail Baryshnikov (or Michael Jackson) of science, an intricate choreographer of seemingly impossible moves as energy flows through matter.

The moves of Michael Jackson do not "exist"--they represent the relative positions of pieces of Michael Jackson.

Many of us "teach" the photosynthesis/respiration equation this way:

C6H12O6 + 6O2 ⇒ 6CO2 + 6H2O + energy

Kids see "energy" the same way they see everything else there, if they see it at all. Energy is hanging out there just like the other "stuff"--heck, they've been told since kindergarten that plants convert sunlight into food.

Plant do not do any such thing--they simply rearrange the stuff around into more complex, less stable forms.

We tell the more sophisticated students that plants put energy is "in" the bonds, and they nod sagely, writing  down like ancient Irish monks bent over their vellum, recopying wisdom passed down through the ages.

I'm not here to tell you the Irish copied bunk--I do not need my Granny's leathery yellowed hand breaking through the earth, grabbing my ankle. I will tell you, though, that our student do.
Here's what I do.

Every time I mention a reaction that requires a net input of enery to build a bigger, less stable molecule, I stack a lab stool on top of a desk. It takes exertion. When I'm done, I have the same stuff--a desk and a stool, but I have a larger, less stable object.

If I want to break it down, I still need to put in a little bit of energy to nudge the structure. This is not a trivial matter. If a few atoms are clustered together in a non-random position, there's something about that position that allows them to "stick" together. Every reaction requires breaking up that something.

We call this activation energy.

I love watching the stool cascade off the desk, loudly bouncing along the floor until it comes to rest in a more stable position. The kinetic and sound energy are obvious, the bump up in temperature where the stool collided with the floor a little less so. ( I've been know to touch the floor at the spot of impact and pretend it is hot.)

Energy released.

The stool lying sideways on the floor is pretty darn stable, and its position pretty darn strong. This may be counter-intuitive--students confound strength of bonds with the energy released as substances break down from less stable to more stable arrangements.

This is, of course, a bit of a simplification, but unlike the concept of bond as some thing betweeen atoms, it allows for growth of a more accurate model. It also makes visible the idea of potential energy as a consequence of position, of the dance, as opposed to the stuff itself, or the dancer.

The Michael Jackson photo is from Spilled Mind, without attribution.
You cannot appreciate MJ's genius from a still.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Science for non-science majors

If a child has an insatiable appetite to learn about the world, to pursue patterns and rhythms in the swirl of sensations slipping into her consciousness each day, then it makes sense to teach her the vocabulary of the trade.

If a child chases the rational world with her eyes alit, then it makes sense to teach her the finer points of microscopy, of calculus, of stoichiometry.

We all love those kids in our classes, because we glow in their light.

That's not why I teach science, though. She doesn't need me, she needs a real scientist. I'm just a teacher.

Most kids do not wake up in the morning yearning for more science. Most kids would not set their alarm clocks just to make sure they do not miss a single moment of class. Most kids are still more mammal than machine. These are the kids I teach.

We live in a fantasy world, a culture cocooned from reality by Zoloft, Zelda, and  Catherine Zeta-Jones, a culture where astrology rules over astronomy, where more people believe in Eva Lonoria than evolution.

So where do I start?

Start with a "miracle"--have a child plant a seed, see water fly from flame, listen to his own heart. Have a child stand at the sea's edge as the tide rises over her feet, an ancient arachnid creeping a few yards away from her. Have a child see the moon, see Jupiter, see a falling star.

Then tell science as it developed, stories of greed as humans tried to make gold but made urine glow instead, stories of wonder as humans tried to explain the light of stars and galaxies above, stories of power as humans realized that their models made accurate predictions possible.

Whatever you do, never let a class go by without a few moments of observation that defy intuition, without a story or two about what we thought then, what we think now.

Science is not all flash, but it is all wonder.

We really know nothing at all about what the all is all about. Recognize our children as the magnificent mammals they are,  and we'll have more scientists in this generation. Keep treating them as machines, well, we'll get more of what we have, faces reflected in screens, exchanging life, bit by bit, becoming the ghosts in the machine.

Pad baby by umpcportal, used under CC.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

What hour?

Yesterday the sun hung in the sky for 10 hours and 24 minutes in these parts.
Today the sun cheats us out of two minutes, only hanging around for 10 hours and 22 minutes.

Way I figure it, I lost two minutes of Ra time as he travels on his night-barque. 
The eggplants, now barren, cast long November shadows as the world dims.

What possible hour do we think we wrought last night?

If I must chose betwen the sun and hubris, I choose the sun.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

We had it right over a century ago....

"Not geography, nor nature-study, nor history, but the child; not the adult, nor adult theories, nor Froebel himself, but the child, is the center and source of the kindergarten.

To see children as they really are and not according to our preconceptions; to live with them instead of making them live with us; to become as little children ourselves instead of forcing them to be wizened adults--this is our present ideal.

In the past we have over-emphasized the oak that lay hid in the acorn. True, the acorn may become a tree, but not without a long process of growth, with much kindly nurture from sun and water and soil, and he who merely emphasizes the unity of seed and plant is falling into a mysticism where distinctions become useless and the incentive to action and effort is lost.

The transformation of the one into the other; the growth process, the development from relative simplicity to complexity, is the fascinating and meaningful thing."

Amy E. Tanner
Kindergarten Review, 1911

 Friedrich Froebel came up with the idea of kindergarten. He was dead for over 50 years when this was written.
I added the whitespace--we're addicted to white space.

Life on a limb

We got smacked last week--I still step over a downed line when walking to school, and the curbs are lined with life-like tree limbs. Just seeing all these leafy zombie branches edging the asphalt gives me an odd joy.

I wonder if other biology teachers feel the same way.

The storm was a great reminder why trees scurry to drop their leaves in the fall. Trees that dropped their leaves before the storm, ceding the dying sunshine to their leafy neighbors, stand smugly over the debris of their neighbors.

A couple of mornings ago, on a gray morning so still I felt like an intruder, I stopped to watch a leaf slowly wobble its way to the ground, silently rocking to a lullaby, as though choreographed by a Great Designer.

Watching the leaf fall, its season done, was an obvious reminder of what awaits, but it did not fall for me. The leaves littering the ground suggest that leaves fall all the time without my awareness.

It was the day after the Day of the Dead.

The idea that a leaf's gentle fall cold be choreographed by some Great Designer is a comforting conceit, and could serve (for some) as evidence of אהיה אשר אהיה --as gentle and powerful a description of whatever this whole whatever is.

But all that's unknowable, and I only have so many hours to play, so my mind wanders back to the biology, to what we do know, enough for me. More than enough.


There is much to be learned from  observing a leaf. A young child can easily discern the thickening at the base of the stem, the veins traveling through the leaf, the various shapes of leaves, the similarity of leaves from a given tree.

That same child can see that some trees give up leaves before others, and that some never seem to give them up at all.

To do this, though, the child needs time to do what looks like nothing. Untestable nothing. Not a whole lot of money can be made from children doing nothing.

If you look at the end of the stem of a fallen leaf, it will be smooth, as though the leaf were designed to be sliced off.

As the light fades and the leaf no longer has the energy it needs to make new chlorophyll, the green pigment that catches light, cells actively work to prepare for a leaf's end. The break is not accidental. The leaf remains attached to its twig by the remnants of its main veins. That the vessels are called xylem, and that we require children to memorize xylem, tells us nothing about life, nor biology.

What might interest a child is that cells actively prepare for their own death. What might amaze the same child is that our cells do the same thing--it's part of how we develop fingers.

I happened to be walking by a tree on a still day when the thin threads of xylem finally gave way, at an age when death feels more real than it did decades ago.

A child walking by the same tree might rather run through the leaves already fallen, rustling through the warm leaf smell that reminds her of Halloween, of Thanksgiving, of Grandma--but not death.

However a leaf affects a child, she must first be aware it exists.

Last time I looked, there was not a hint of a leaf's leafiness in our textbook.

The fetal hand is from the Gerontology Research Group--they got it from an IMAX movie "The Human Body" produced by BBC et al.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Show me the money!"

Quote from today's Star-Ledger.

"There are schools all over the country, hundreds of schools where 90 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, and 90 percent are going math and reading at proficiency.There are core things they do very well. And I find that very hopeful."
Cami AndersonSuperintendent, Newark Public Schools

"Show me the money! Show me the money!"

Photo of Cuba Gooding, Jr.,  from Star-Ledger as well....

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Life in a drop of water

I wandered into school despite our Hallowe'en snow day, to prep for lab. I brought in some pond water I foolishly (and joyously) collected in the middle of the storm.

I took a drop, put it on a slide. I never know what I expect to see, and I'm never disappointed.

I saw some critters I had not seen before--first a few translucent "turtles" grazing through strands of algae, then lollygagging off to other pastures.

A few moments later I saw what looked like two flowers on springs slowly uncoiling, getting longer and longer, then undulating in the micro-currents.  *snap!* Their stalks coiled back into springs, too quick for my eye to follow. I watched them unravel again, spooling out their stalks, then a minute later, *snap!*

After a session with a drop of pond water, a single drop, I do my best to get the critters off the slide.

Every drop of my pond water is full of life. Watch one or two protozoa go about their business for a few minutes, and the possibility they're sentient creeps in.

We live in an amazing world we do not, cannot, understand.

Today marks the anniversary of our first detonation of the hydrogen bomb, "Ivy Mike," obliterating part of the Enewetak atoll. People lived on the atoll before we started testing nuclear bombs on it four years earlier.

People had lived on it since the time of Christ, perhaps even longer. They were forced to leave.

On November 1st, 1952, we unleashed a blast that was over 400 times stronger than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

What responsibility do teachers have when we share secrets ancients would have held sacred and silent?

What responsibility do teachers have as we give children the tools to manipulate the world as engineers, as scientists, as policymakers?

The atoll is again "safe for habitation," according to the same government that blasted it over 60 years ago.

In a few months, some of my students will be transforming bacteria, literally manipulating the code of life, sliding pieces of jellyfish DNA into the bacteria so that the bacteria will glow green under fluorescent light. We do this in high school without thinking twice, because it's biology, because it's technology, because it's flashy, because we can.

Humans are naturally empathic--our culture bleeds it out of our children at our own peril. If we continue to treat children as economic tools, as bits of data, we will continue to have a culture where machines matter at least as much as people. [Almost a quarter (22.8%) of women ages 40-59 years old take anti-depressant medicines!]

President Obama claims that “nations with the most educated workers will prevail."

Prevail at what? We got enough nuclear tonnage to put this planet out, including my lackadaisical pond critters munching away at this moment in a jar on my windowsill. We're pretty good at prevailing.

Maybe it's time we spent more time learning how to live.

Criminy, the zombies are winning.

The YouTube is by zaster79,credits are at the end--the good stuff starts at 0:45.