Friday, December 30, 2011

Faith based science

Everywhere I look I see signs of spontaneous generation. Scum blooms in a puddle of water, flies erupt from a wintry beach, and I once found a possum carcass writhing with maggots obviously emanating from its flesh.

We see this, but we all know that spontaneous generation does not happen. We know this with a certainty, a certainty that confounds me given the evidence to the contrary all around me.

Comb jelly spontaneously generating from wet sand.

A colleague reproduced Pasteur's experiment with the gooseneck flask and chicken broth. We both watched the open flask for a full school year. We both knew in our heads that nothing would grow, yet we were surprised anyway.

I have yet to meet a child, however, who believes in spontaneous generation. We've knocked it out of our culture, more through magic than science.

We tell kids every year that every cell comes from a pre-existing cell, and every year the students write this down like ancient Irish scribes, preserving truth without question, to be recited as Gospel, never questioning where the first cell came from.

Here in urban New Jersey, evolution gets presented with hardly a murmur. Most students think it's obvious, this evolution thing, and if surveyed by Gallup would call themselves "believers."

My frustration with those who accept the theory of evolution is not that descent with modification is invalid. It's not--it's a wonderful schema that makes sense of all of biology. No, my frustration is that most adults I know do not grasp the fundamental idea behind Darwin's work, the same fundamental idea he wrestled with for decades:
While natural selection is not random, the genetic variation it acts upon is random.
Humans, it turns out, were not inevitable. Evolution has no goal.And our demise is inevitable.

I am not saying we should teach children that life springs up from spontaneous generation, and that evolution's goal is to produce the perfect human. That would be silly, and grounds for my dismissal.

If a child accepts evolution  and denies that spontaneous generation occurs before dabbling in anything resembling science, then my job is paradoxically much more difficult.

Science starts with your relationship with your senses, not your culture. We're raising priests, not science literacy.

Good Lord, it's gorgeous outside--see you again when winter returns. 
Pasteur's flask came from Microbiology GPC.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A late December walk

'Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away
The starry floor,
The watery shore,
Is given thee till the break of day.'

Today is the last day of the darkest two weeks of the year, the shadows stretched long on the beach like languid lovers unaware of the long darkness just hours away.

Leslie and I, shadows of each other, walked along the edge of the ocean, gathering whirly whelk skeletons tossed up by the tide. They look harmless enough, and are lovely enough to be our state shell. When alive, though, they tore at the insides of clams and oysters, slicing away at living flesh, as utterly cruel as anything, and everything, carnivorous.

I wandered over to the bay side, to see what I could see, and to feel what I could feel. It's late December, and I need light.

The beach is littered with dying comb jellies glinting like diamonds in the long light of the sun. Hundreds lie like lenses, highlighting the grains of sand that mark their morgues.

Crabs stare vacantly at their scattered parts, a few limbs here, a few more there, the sand pocked by the webbed prints of their murderers. Every calorie is precious now.

I see now what I fail to notice in summer--the delicate array of white dots outlining the dead crab's carapace, the ornate ridging of its body, the shadows cast by the undulating shell.

Every crab I saw today was dead. I saw a dead gull, a dead menhaden, a few dead horseshoe crabs, and hundreds of dying comb jellies.

The gulls barely moved to get out of the way. The sun has left us, the cost of useful energy is steep. The sunlight is useful for sight, but not much more now.

The few horseshoe crab shells look like they could walk back into the bay, their compound eyes seem to watch everything happening around them, Lazareths of the Sea.

They, too, are dead, their pointed armor useless now, allowing the weak winter light to penetrate.
The sun holds still in the south now. Soon it will creep northward again, bringing with it the unimaginably alive late spring beach, where the dying are ignored.

The last few moments of my walk I saw a fly on a jetty, a spirited reminder of the springs to come.

Now, though, the beach belongs to the dead, who will own all of us eventually, and despite the ragged edges, the broken bodies, the rank smell of decomposing flesh, the beauty of the beach will not allow me to turn away.

All photos taken today, North Cape May, along my favorite bay.

A shore thing

Late December, the back bay, still autumn-warm, gets blown up the beach by the stiff breeze, and washes my feet. 
"I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."TSE
A shell on the beach, once alive, now falls apart in the dull sunlight, its intricate markings still telling stories.

Winter break is marked by the long shadows of mid-day, as good a time as any to wonder what matters.

The point of education, the only point, really, is to learn how to live a life that matters. Education itself matters no more than the swirls etched on a dead oyster's shell.

It's the stories we read from that shell that define who we are.

If our biggest concern is how well our children do on abstract national standards, we've lost our way.
I'm taking my kids to the edge of the sea in May to help them rediscover the stories that matter.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Doyle's School of Educharlantry

Trust me, I'm an expert in this--I have multiple degrees, have traveled multiple continents, play 17 instruments, and have the pedigree that rivals an AKC champion Pekingese. I speak 3 languages, dabble in a dozen more, and I can recite the alphabet in one burp.

I am a consultant.

Follow these simple rules and you, too, can lap up the slop lying in the public trough:
•Write self-published, self-referential manuals loaded with cute acronyms. Borrow from the best, and claim it as your own. Make stuff up! Worked for Ruby Payne. She sold over a million copies of her vanity manual A Framework for Understanding Poverty. If she cleared $3 per book, she's made enough money to feed Eritrea for a year.

•Looks. The paler the better. Get yourself a pair of northern European parents. Robert Marzano's professorial coiffure, Ruby Payne's blond hair and good teeth, and Grant Wiggins' distinguished goat beard have served each well. Beauty trumps truth.

•Creative math:  use the numbers available and make them dance to your premise. Worked for Marzano, might work for you.

•Rich friends: if Bill Gates or Eli Broad love you, you will be loved. Most of us lack enough pheromones to make a killing in the eduwonk field--greenbacks more than make up the difference.

Cojones Gonads.[Excuse my sexism.] It takes a lot of gamete production to push shite on the allegedly college-educated crowd we call teachers or educators, or whatever we're called these days..

•Testimonials and anecdotal stories--because nothing says research like cute stories. Bonus points for smiling kids of colors in the foreground.

If you want to be professional, act like one. Silence is unacceptable.

I don't need your support after the meeting. 
Telling me I said what everyone else is thinking after I get my ass handed to me on a platter does no good.

Join the fray, that's how democracy works. And shame the charlatans back to the ooze they came from.

Snake oil poster from Oregon state--I need to find the website....

Monday, December 26, 2011

1st Annual Readamatic Pacer Award

My board certification in pediatrics expires in a few days--I renewed it less than a year before I started my student teaching, and haven't looked back (much). Still, I spent most of my adult life assessing child development, and I know a little bit about learning.

I do not pretend to know a lot about anything, especially matters of the mind, but education glamorizes snake oil salesmen. I spent part of today looking through the research on Accelerated Reader, and hereby awards its promotion department with my 1st Annual Readamatic Pacer  Award.

The "research" pushed by the company demonstrating the value of the AR program fails to tease out the effects of implementing sustained reading practice in a classroom (already known to increase reading) from the high tech monitoring that comes with the program.

It gets worse--there is no consistent evidence  that the monitoring and reward part of Accelerated Reader add any benefit beyond that gained through the sustained reading.

Here's some evidence-based reasoning for you--if you spend less money on nonsense, you have more money available to buy books the kids might want to read. Here's another: the less time spent "monitoring" a child's progress (done via multiple computerized assessments), the more time a child has to get back to Charlotte's Web.

Don't even get me started on Marzano's research....

Image by via Retro Thing--well worth a visit!

Clam up, Arne

 Tomorrow I am going on an adventure!

Despite predictions of a 30 knot breeze with rain tossed in, I plan to grab my rake and wander out to a mudflat to grab a handful of clams for tomorrow's dinner, and when I'm done, I'll be glad I did.

I have yet to regret a single moment outdoors. I have yet to regret an adventure.

I won't be adding much to the nation's economy. The license only cost $10, which averages to less than a nickel a day. The money for the rake exchanged hands two generations ago, though I did spend about a buck on hardware to sturdy up the tines. My pail was headed for recycling anyway before I drilled a few holes in the bottom and called it a clam bucket.

Unless I manage to impale myself, have a heart attack, or drown, the only thing I'm contributing to the GDP tomorrow will be the 80 cents worth of gas I'll need to get there and back.

I dream of teaching my students how to clam. It's a local activity that will never be part of the national standards because it's a local activity. That may sound innocuous enough, but it gets to the heart of the sickness in education today, our love of the abstract.

We teach to what few love, the few with the money, the few with the power to dictate what matters.

McNuggets are abstractions, fresh-killed pheasant are not.
A dressed whole chicken falls in-between.
Our source of food has become abstract.
Electronic calculators are abstract, abacuses are not.
Slide rules fall in-between.
Our sense of quantities has become abstract.

Digital clocks are abstractions, sun dials are not.
Analog clocks fall in-between.
Our notion of time has become abstract.

There is no in-between on a late December mudflat.
There is no in-between watching a honeybee work her way among dandelions in your neighborhood.
There is no in-between when an elementary teacher takes her students to a local nursing home, to hear the particular and peculiar stories of their aged neighbors, stories that may have a universal theme, true, but stories that matter because of the particulars.

I want my children to grow up in a world they believe matters to them, the one in their neighborhood.I want my students to know the world, the one outside the door. I want my students to be happy, and to contribute to the American experiment, an experiment that starts at Town Hall.

Arne Duncan wants to use my children to better the economy, to improve our international economic competitiveness--he says so over and over again. He awards hundreds of millions of dollars to states who share his views.

Arne and I have a fundamental difference of opinion in what matters, why children matter, and what it means to live a good life.

Mr. Duncan's vision of the world is fundamentally flawed, as are his attempts to manipulate education away from serving the public good. I suppose he'd think the same about me if he had any idea I exist. Individual lives are an inconvenience to abstract views, and Arne Duncan does not tolerate inconveniences.

Still, if Arne happens to be in North Cape May tomorrow, he's welcome to stop by for the freshest batch of clams he'll ever taste, local ones scratched up and eaten before the next high tide rises. Nothing abstract, just good food and decent home brew.

I promise I won't talk shop, Arne--I'll let the clams do all the talking. Then you can go back to your more important business telling children what matters more than the grace of God right here under our noses. And I'll go back to teaching children about quahogs, democracy, and yes, the real American way.

Yep, I played the America and the God card--the America of local neighborhoods and the God of grace.
Last photo is of Dave Keeney's boots, a slide guitarist extraordinaire--but I have no idea who took the photo.

Dagnabit! Looking like an inch of rain in the newest forecast--which means runoff, which means closed beds. I use 1/2" as my guideline. *sigh*

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Tale

I love the Christmas Story, the lights, the glitter, the love. I love that the day coincides with the first glimmer of the rising sun. I love the madness that reminds us how tenuous our grip is.

Here's a photo from the latest Vatican nativity scene. It's a lovely crèche, just unveiled on Christmas Eve, and as tradition mandates, the Magi are there, bearing their gifts.

Only problem, the wise men didn't show up until a year or two after the birth, at least according to the Holy Bible.

I'm not looking for a fight on Christmas Day. I was raised Irish Catholic, grew up with various crèches as much a part of today as our tree and our Santa, and put faith in The Gospels (while recognizing humans told these stories long after the Crucifixion).

But here's the rub--just asking a practicing Christian when the Wise Men finally got to Bethlehem often brings an  incredulous stare with a hint of hostility.

If the Vatican sanctions the bastardized story that the Magi were present the night of Jesus' birth, a story the Holy See must know to be corrupt, what hope does a science teacher have of sharing stories that do not fit a child's preconceptions of the universe?

None, actually, but my goals are far less grandiose. I just want a child to learn to see, and to question inconsistencies in our stories based on the natural world.

If a child happens to question the inconsistencies in other parts of her life--sustainable economic "growth," Peacekeeper missiles, and a nuclear submarine named the USS Corpus Christi ("the body of Christ")--she has a chance to change a human world that needs a bit of changing, a world that is worth saving.

The Corpus Christi insignia is from

Yes, I know the official name is USS City of Corpus Christi--heck, I even lived there when I was still a Marine brat--but it's original name was Corpus Christi, changed under pressure by the Church, despite objections by the Navy Secretary John Lehman.

The nativity scene by Max Rossi (Reuters) via Indonesia Katakami.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Are you Sirious?

Tuesday I'll grab the clam rake for the last time this year. Late Tuesday afternoon I'll wander over to an exposed tidal flat, and pull food out of the muck.

I do not know who crafted the tines of my rake, but I know how it was done.
I do not know where the tree grew that gave me the handle, but I know how it was done.
I do know how the mead I'll drink was brewed--I watched it ferment for months.

Tomorrow a lot of people will get an iPhone 4S, and adopt Siri as their personal assistant. We have taken false idols to a higher level.

Our sophistication now dwarfs our humanity.
Talk to Siri as you would to a person. Say something like “Tell my wife I’m running late.”

The machine says she's not capable of love, but we are not capable of discernment. We create our own Sirens, who call us away from the world.

The world either matters, or it does not. We say that it does, but act as though it does not.

Owners of the iPhone 4S talk of how well it snuggles in the hand--perhaps it does, but I doubt it nestles quite as well as a quahog. Probably doesn't taste as good either.

Tell my wife I'm running late.

If I'm running late Tuesday, my wife will hear it directly from me. I may have to wander into the Firehouse Tavern to find a phone, but chances are pretty good she knows exactly where I am anyway. No need to wander too far on a clam bed, they don't move much.

The woman's voice I hear on the other side will be a voice I've known for 35 years. And unlike Siri, she is capable of love. We all are.   

Merry Christmas!

If you're talking to a phone, you're using it wrong.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cerf the oceanographer

New Jersey got a piece of the Race to the Top action yesterday. Given Arne's track record in reform, this may not bode well, but there's a glimmer of hope:

“This award today will help us to accelerate the tide of reform across New Jersey.”
Chris Cerf, NJ Acting Commissioner of Ed, another portentous sound bite

I'm a clammer, and know a little bit  about tides. They go up, they go down, about twice a day, every day. And every clammer knows, a receding tide can bring joy.

So here's hoping he meant a new moon ebb tide with a stiff northwest breeze, a blowout tide, the kind that blows away the muddy water, exposing the detritus on the tidal flats.

Mr. Cerf introduced me to a former state ed commish as an "ankle biter."
I'm hoping to advance to a shin-kicker.
One more thing--Cerf is the Ed Commish because the prior one made the mistake of pointing out
Christie's gaff wth the last application for these funds.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pigeons, primates, and privilege

Science and that old time religion do share a common link--the tendency to put H. sapiens on a pedestal with "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."

We may have to scratch pigeons off the list.

19th century biology made a case for a mechanistic universe. The case is unraveling.

Given their aim, I suspect they may have a handle on rudimentary calculus.

Pigeon pic from Neon Lite.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

12:30 A.M

Yep, the annual winter solstice news--the tinge of sadness I felt late June now reflects back as a tige of joy.
The sun is dead. Long live the sun.

12:30 A.M. tonight the sun will stand still for an instant, shift its mass*, and head back north.

6 months ago, when we sat on the opposite side of the sun, I celebrated the summer solstice, a joy tinged with the weight of knowing the sun would start its slow, long course southward.

Winter is just beginning, and winters can be brutal here. The light, however is returning.

When I was a child, winter meant cold, summer heat. I did not, could not, grasp why the elders got so excited late December, at the cusp of winter, when we faced long wintry days.

I get it now.

I stood outside last night in the chill with my youngest, now a quarter century old, watching our shadow drift across the moon, a wavering copper-gold washing in from the moon's left.

My mom used to tell me she could see me as an infant even as I stood before her as a man. I laughed, of course. I am big--over 200# big.

I get it now.

I still give tests, more out of habit than sense now. Performance on science tests a few days before the Christmas break follow a predictable pattern, and my students did not fail to fail.

We do a lot of things because we do them. If mastery's the goal, then a class average of low 70's with a bell-shaped curve, a science teacher's dream a generation ago, marks my failure.

On my board today two-foot numbers announced the time of the solstice--12:30 A.M. Solstice literally means the sun stands still.

Very few students notice how far the sun has shifted since class started just 3 1/2 months ago. There's no need. Food comes in boxes, heat in radiators. The whole world of technique is magic to them.

In Ireland this morning, the sun rose, as it has, as it will. A shaft of sunlight flashed through a chamber in Newgrange built thousands of years ago, before the Great Pyramids, before the Celts arrived, before Stone Henge.

We will not study this in science, nor will our students study this in history class. We will create a class ready for the 21st century, for the abstract, for a culture that confuses bank profits with economy.

If children owned the winter solstice, the dying light, knowing what waits for each of us before a 100 winter solstices pass, would they come to school?

Would you?

I believe schools can be worth the time children invest in them. I am not convinced we're there yet.

At least not as long as I keep practicing education as religion, using a script written generations before me.

*The sun may indeed change direction if we use Earth as the reference point, but "shifted its mass" is, of course, incorrect, since it implies uneven forces were applied to it. Since I have yet to find a better explanation for "mass" beyond "the amount of inertia stuff has," even a poetic license does not give me permission to spew such nonsense.

Not a good reason to learn science....

There are few good reasons to learn science, but if you want to know the universe outside the nutty human sphere wrapped around most of us in this part of the world, that should be reason enough.

I hear a lot of educated people give inane reasons for learning science. No, you do not need to know science in order to get through life--plenty on folks keep themselves and their bank accounts quite full knowing nothing about the natural world, and a few of them are running for President. (Anyone who advocates sustained economic "growth" needs to stick their head in the sand and get reacquainted with the Earth....)

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, however, offers up one of the lamest (and, alas, most common) reasons why children should study science--jobs.

The sad fact is, most new jobs being generated now require little more than a passing acquaintance with a keyboard, and evolving voice technologies will make even that minimal requirement obsolete within a decade.

If more parents had access to real jobs that provide living wages and enough spare time to spend time with their families, time to learn more about the world outside electronic screens, we would create a more scientifically literate culture.

If we ever did manage to do that, the economy as we know it, an economy that depends on churning consumption feeding insatiable desires, would collapse. Every minute a child spends at the edge of a pond watching a wriggler wend it way through its wet universe is a minute that contributes nothing to the gross domestic product.

That's fine with me. Not sure it's what Dr. Tyson had in mind.

Sustained exponential growth is simply not physically possible.
Anyone with an 8th grade knowledge of arithmetic can figure out that much....

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mr. Cerf's Christmas List

An old-fashioned gum eraser ($0.45)

New Jersey, like several other states, has an eraser problem--children in some districts have a bad habit of changing just about all their wrong answers into right ones. We're just clumsy that way.

Mr. Cerf understands this--in fact, has already stated that these erasures do not in any way implicate a school district in wrong-doing whatsoever. He tried to block the names of the districts from the reports of 2008, 2009, and 2010, claiming his department planned to investigate this, um, someday.

The Asbury Park Press reminded Mr. Cerf of the law, with the help of a lawsuit, and the names were released. The state had to pay the legal fees incurred by the press.

$40,290.80 buys a lot of erasers.

You can see the original document for free right here.

A nice book summarizing research on how to teach science to children: How Students Learn: Science in the Classroom ($34.95, free online)

While Bill Gates has a lot of money, and Michelle Rhee has a lot of sass, and Chris Cerf has a lot of connections, they all show about as much respect for research as does Emperor Arne.

There's a lot of good stuff out there on how to improve learning in our schools; turns out encouraging school officials to erase wrong answers on expensive "standardized" tests does not improve a child's grasp of the world.

Mr. Cerf, here's a piece of anecdotal evidence, the kind you seem to love--I have yet to meet a teacher who would not stand on his head wearing an "I Love Ed Reform " tee shirt while yodeling the theme to Romper Room if he believed it would help his children learn.

New Jersey map (~$4)

Global Education Advisers, now led by Rajeev Bajaj, listed Mr. Cerf's home address as its own address. The company received a half million dollars from the Facebook money given to Newark.

Mr. Cerf says he left the company before the money was received, and that he got none of it and I have no reason to doubt him. A good map, though, might show him why a few folks get a little upset when he says he left a company that was founded at his home address. (Maybe he has a line painted in his home separating the company from his living quarters--but I'll leave that the Montclair Zoning Board .)

World globe, education model (~$45)

At least Global Education Advisers is based in New Jersey--if we're going to toss Zuckerberg's monies around to friends, at least some of it will be spent locally. The ol' trickle down theory of economics holds a special place in North Jersey.

Cerf's crony Larrie Reynolds, a superintendent, serves as a consultant for GEMS Education, a private company owned by a Dubai businessman. Here's the idea:
GEMS Education... would recruit outside students for the program, hire teachers privately for lower-than-contract salaries and provide supplies for a "pathways" program run independently of, but under contract to the district. The private company would split the additional state aid coming into the district as a result of its status as a choice district.

The plan ultimately requires approval from Cerf.

Before Mr. Cerf approves it, though, he could look at his brand-new globe and find Dubai--unless a dollar can hitchhike across Saudi Arabia, part the Red Sea, stagger across North Africa, swim across the Atlantic, then get through customs at Port Newark, we're never going to see the money here in Jersey.

And Dubai sounds all Middle Easterny, not a problem for me, but could well be a problem for Governor Christie when he runs as second banana during Romney's bid to unseat Obama. Just sayin'....

A real title [I retracted this--the more I read about Rice's reasons, the more I appreciate his Quixotic battle--see below.]

Please, Mr. Rice, stop the silliness of the senatorial courtesy, drop the "Acting" from his title.We get back our judges (the Governor has reciprocated with his own snit fit, blocking our new judge appointments), and he gets back some dignity.

And I get to finish my Christmas list for Mr. Cerf.

Bob Braun keeps following the money. I owe him a Guinness or two for his perseverance.
I've met Mr. Cerf three times, and he's always been polite and pleasant. He's quite affable.
This is not about Mr. Cerf--this is about our children. He may just be confused, who knows, it does not matter.
Stay focused on the kids.

To be fair to Mr. Rice, he's onto something-there is a concerted effort to dismantle public education, and Cerf is part of that effort.
Rice is not blocking the judges, Chris Christie is.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

27 degrees

The buffleheads are here now--we saw about a dozen in the Cape May Harbor, blooping into the water as they chased whatever it is that buffleheads chase.

The bright white clown heads of the males clashes with the oblique shadows of the late year. We're in the darkest 10 days of the year now. Even the marigolds have given up the ghost.

(The rosemary bush continues to flower, as do a few dandelions, their blue and yellow colors taunting the failing sun.)

I know the sun will return. I know the sun is almost as close this time of year as it will be. I know the Earth turns. I know all this, and believe none of it.

I saw the sun creep up over the horizon as the half moon hung overhead at dawn. I saw it struggle to climb--a flight that peaked just barely 27 degrees above horizon--and it's sulking back down towards the horizon.

I know the sun will return. I'll believe it when it happens.

There's a disconnect between what I know and what I believe, a disconnect we're too quick to dismiss in the classroom, to dismiss in our lives.

Top four gifts for your favorite science teacher

Here are a few inexpensive "toys" that can make your favorite biology teacher a hero in her classroom!

Crookes radiometer (~$8):

Mesmerizing, and the science is just incomplete enough to keep everyone guessing how it works. Turns out it won't work in a complete vacuum, nor at normal air pressure.

I use it to show the transformation of light energy into kinetic energy, cool enough, but for the true wackadoodles in your classroom, challenge them to figure out how to make it spin "backwards."

I'm so in love with my radiometers I keep one at home, too.

Class set of magnifying glasses (~$20):

Pictures in textbooks pale compared to a dead bug found on the windowsill, which pales next to a live slug under a magnifying glass!

Magnifying glasses are ridiculously easy to use, and double the complexity of the visual world as soon as a child starts using one.

Large empty pretzel jars ($5 but you get to eat the pretzels):

I collect these for class--they make great terrariums, as well as cheap bookshelves (just lay something flat and sturdy on a couple of pairs). They can also serve as giant stocking blocks to demonstrate endergonic reactions (energy in, more elaborate order) and exergonic reactions (knock them all down with just a little activation energy).

I also use them to carry stuff in from the outside--snakes, pill bugs, elodea, slugs, centipedes, whatever.

Autonomy (Priceless!):

Write a letter to your school board, your state Secretary of Education, and to the Emperor himself, Arne Duncan, asking them why your child can recite biochemical cycles yet has no idea what a wheat berry looks like, or why plants need water, or what causes the seasons to happen.

Demand that local, state, and federal school officials take the same standardized tests required of your children, and ask that their scores be posted publicly.

True science education takes time to observe, time to reflect, time to get things wrong before putting the pieces back together in a way that makes sense of the natural world.

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
William Blake

Your child spends a lot of time in my classroom.
Help me make it worth her time.

Crookes radiometer photo by Timeline
Pretzel jar by Princess With A Half Price Tiara

Here in New Jersey, we have an end of course biology exam, that may or may not count. Thankfully my kids did reasonably well last year--though I expect, always expect, them to do better.

Catechism in the classroom

I have a lovely cross-section of an ash tree in class, about an inch thick and almost two feet wide. It makes a great  sound when I rap it with my knuckle, its heft is just right, and it still smells great. Bored students count its rings, so I know it grew for about 100 years, give or take a decade.

Every biology class should have one.

We are currently wrestling with photosynthesis, akin to grappling with God and alchemy when we approach science as Show&Tell, which is how most of us approach "science" in a system that requires "objective" evidence that my lambs "know" what the state standards demand.

Sounds like catechism to me.


The pictures above reflect what kids are taught in elementary school--it is not wrong, but it is misleading.
The air you breathe out differs a little from the air you breathe in. Either way, it's still mostly nitrogen and oxygen. Though the expired air has over 100 times more carbon dioxide than what you take in, it's still mostly nitrogen and oxygen.

The carbon dioxide you breathe out does not come from the oxygen you breathe in--it comes from the food you eat. Most of the mass (or "stuff") you lose when dieting starving is lost as exhaled breath.

The oxygen given off by plants does not come from the carbon dioxide they take in--it comes from water. The oxygen you use leaves your body as water.

And, for the love of Newton, plants do not convert sunshine into food. Sunlight is energy, and food is matter (or stuff)--in the Newtonian universe of high school biology, energy is energy and stuff is stuff.

Jan Baptist van Helmont was a nutty Flemish mystical alchemist who married rich, affording him time to dabble in all kinds of things back in the 17th century, even managing to get himself convicted during the Inquisition. He believed water and air could be transformed into just about anything, and set up a crude experiment to show that trees were made essentially of water.

He put a 5 pound willow sapling into 200 pounds of potting soil, giving the tree nothing but water (although this is quite so, a story for another day), then weighed the tree and the potting soil 5 year later.

The tree gained 164 pounds, the soil only lost 2 ounces, and van Helmont concluded, reasonably, that the tree gained its mass by transforming water. That's science--not great science, Mythbusters run better experiments--but still science. A testable hypothesis was made, the experiment run, data collected, and a reasonable conclusion was made.

And what do we do in class? We tell the van Helmont story, then tell the kids he was (mostly) wrong, something less tangible than water makes up the ash tree being passed around the room. Some write this down, some don't. No experiments will be run, no time.

That's catechism.

Van Helmont was interrogated and confined by the Spanish Inquisition for challenging catechism, spending years under house arrest for daring to question the catechism of his day. I wonder what he'd think of a nation of science teachers now presenting his work as catechism, in order to meet the demands of our own inquisition,  testing madness sponsored by the DFER, Achieve, Pearson, and Arne and his wealthy cronies.

A lot of us teach a lot of catechism--it's easier than teaching science, pays just as well, takes much less time, and keeps those who treasure test scores over truth out of our lives.

Arne and company believe that creating a nation of little scientists will improve our nation's economy, but he's wrong. Creating a nation of little abbot consumers might, and we're headed that way, but if my students had the time to truly see how the natural world works, how we are tied to the ground, how all living things face immutable limits, I bet they'd spend more time mulling than malling.

A fellow science teacher gave the ash tree to me--it served as the setting for a wedding he attended.
Van Helmont did not realize that most of a tree's mass comes CO2 in the air, ironic given that van Helmont is credited with discovering that very same gas.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Last week of the sinking sun.

The Earth hurtles closer to the sun, but my little piece of paradise edges more and more oblique to the sun, our source of light, of life. We're in the dark season.

The bell still rings at 7:45 in the morning. It's not a bell anymore, but we still call it that. I blew a conch shell as the bell sounded, an old shell that has been around the science wing for years. My students were as amazed by the loud bellowing of the conch shell as I am by their iPhones.

The conch was once alive. It no longer is. Neither is obvious to most of us scurrying under the fluorescent hum of December lights.

We're studying photosynthesis now, my absolute favorite subject in biology, except maybe quahogs, which aren't part of the curriculum.

Things are not connecting as well as I'd like, but they rarely do in mid-December. The trees are bare at the moment. We could take a lesson from them--not much happening under the sky when the sun fades away.

ATP synthase. Chemiosmosis. Electron transport chain. I mention the words, knowing that they will roll off my students cerebra as water rolls off a leaf. And that's fine with me.

Everything that burns easily in my classroom does so because of the grace of plants, capturing the energy sent forth by our sun. The plants in the back of the room continue to grow under our fluorescent lamps, trapping any carbon dioxide that wander too close to their chloroplasts, carbon dioxide that arose from the deepest cells of the few animals in the classroom.

Most of the mammals in the area are biding their time, waiting for the sun to hold still in the sky, waiting for it to turn back northward again.

The plants remind me that our breath is real, that what was once part of me is now part of another living being, communion in the classroom.

The sun hardly gets the attention it once did. Not one child in my classroom is the child of a farmer. Not one child in my classroom depends on any harvest within a hundred miles of home.

Every child, though, plants a seed. Every child is reminded what their ancestors knew. A few of them realize what has been lost. Not many, but enough.

It's the enough that carries me through the winter solstice.

Photos by us.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

In honor of errant cannonballs

Most folks who read science blogs probably already know this,
but the folks at Mythbusters managed to put a cannoball through both someone's home and another family's minivan.

In honor of that, here's a repost from two Decembers ago.

I love xkcd, and I love Richard Feynman. I'm fond of zombies, too. I've spent several hundred posts and perhaps a quarter million words to say what Randall Munroe dashes off in a few stick figures above.

The guy's a comic genius, he loves the Pleiades, and he happens to be a physicist, too.

Randall Munroe generously lends his creations out to the bloggers. Really.

NJEA, really?

I pay good money to be in a union. I get (in both senses) what we've gained as a union, and I'm glad we have the right to organize in New Jersey.

Our Governor is a political beast, and will eventually be the second banana on the GOP 2012 ticket. In the meantime, he's managed to get our leaders so twisted in Christean logic that our union actually made the following statement in the latest NJEA Reporter:

NJEA's education reform plan will use standardized test scores as a criterion [for teacher evaluations], but recognizes and respects research demonstrating that those scores are not reliable measures of teacher effectiveness.
Just what part of "respect" does the NJEA not get? If the research shows that the tests are not reliable measures, the union should flat out refuse to consider them for that.

It doesn't help that this falls under a table labeled "Teacher Evalutation."

Get it right, NJEA, get it right....

Teaching photosynthesis

I work hard to make my classroom "unscientifical." I discovered not so long ago that some students learn just enough scientifical vocabulary to throw me off their scent.

We are raising a generation of liturgists. I ask specific questions no one truly understands, I get back scientifical nonsense no one understands, and everyone pretends something was learned.
Teacher Priest: What is ATP?
Student Congregation: ATP is the main energy currency of cells.
I bet I can teach a parrot the Krebs cycle.

Light is light, and stuff is stuff, and never shall the twain meet. (Well, not in the Newtonian universe, anyway.)

Photosynthesis does not turn light into food. Yet almost all my lambs believe this. I suspect they believe this because that's what they've been told. It explains, logically, how trees can get so big without creating a crater around them.

Photosynthesis, of course, bangs together the atoms of CO2 and H2O to form a bigger, far less stable organic molecule. (We pretend that it's glucose, but it's really not... we simply cannot tell even simple truths to children.)

I am an educational professional--I can train most children to "know" the photosynthesis equation:

CO2 + H2O → C6H12O6 + O2

I can train the same students the respiration equation:
C6H12O6 + O2  → CO2 + H2O

And yet when I combust an organic compound, they are dumbstruck that water--the kind that comes out of faucets--"comes out" of the reaction, not internalizing that H2O is indeed the same thing as, well, water.

I don't want to be an educational professional. I want to be a teacher.

So tomorrow I light up the propane torch once again, and show them water from "fire." We'll discuss fire and energy and stuff.

I'll shine a bright light through my homemade chloroplast solution--just let some spinach leaves sit in alcohol for an hour or two--and let the children see the transparent green solution fluoresce an opaque deep red, as though transformed into blood, and we'll talk about excited electrons bouncing up, then back down. What is light? What is energy?

And they'll leave the class confused, because they'll think what they saw is magic.

It's not magic; I will not allow magic in my classroom. Magical thinking destroys our connections to the earth. We owe it to children to tell the truth.

I don't want to be an educational professional. I just want to teach.

The skeleton photo was right before my first back to school night ever!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lunar (yawn) eclipse

In a few moments the Earth's shadow will start to creep across the full moon. While it gives the science news folks something to squawk about, and they do, I suspect events like this turn more than a few children off to astronomy.

Oh, it makes for a nice rusty moon (blood red's a bit of hyperbole), but it takes a bit of time to develop, and shoving children out the door into the chilly December night to see a moon that still looks like a moon hardly sparks a lifelong love of the skies.

A passing meteor might, though....

Here's a piece of astronomical news I can chew on. The sun sets a few seconds later today than it did yesterday. We have less sunlight today than yesterday, and will until the solstice on the 22nd, but the sunsets are hanging around 4:29 P.M. in these parts, and won't get any earlier.

It's a nice little puzzle for those who think they get the seasons, an amalgam of our elliptical orbit, our artificial noon, and our fixation on a day exactly 24 hours long. They're not, at least not if you use the sun as your guide.

If you spend most of your time indoors however, and have not noticed the lengthening shadows and the sinking noon sun, then dwelling on why the sun sets earlier today than it will tomorrow becomes a mere mental gymnastic, performed to amuse oneself or others like a dog-and-pony show.

The few kids that do notice these things are often the same kids who crash and burn in high school. If a child even notices these things, what adults around her could even begin to answer them?


The sun is never directly overhead here in New Jersey, full moons do not cause aberrant behavior, and the Earth is not farther away from the sun during winters here (it's actually closest in January). That surprises many adults, some who are licensed to teach.

It took me several years of teaching to realize how deeply "science" myths are entrenched in the sulci of our students. What we think is true frames how we perceive the world, literally shaping our reality.
Every minute a child spends under fluorescent lights, every moment she stares at a monitor, every iTune song that threads through her auditory cortex distracts a child from the finite time she has to develop a true relationship with the natural world. 

Science is based on observable phenomena of the natural world. If we want to create more scientists, we need to nourish our children's connection to the rhythms of the natural world. The spectacle of reddish moon once every couple of years makes for good copy, but cannot replace the rhythms of its phases.

Dear public school teachers,
Stop making stuff up,

Lunar eclipse sequence from BBC news. 

The woodcut is from The Book of the Moon website.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bill Gates can't dance

In my previous life, I once found myself lounging on a raft in the middle of someone's very large swimming pool. Its owner stuck wires up the femoral arteries of babies, and got paid well to do that.

She sighed the deep sigh of the eternally malcontent before her pronouncement: My gardeners are so lucky! They look happy! They have so little to worry about....

Rich folk long for something, and, like all of us, often misplace their longings.

Back when I still played doctor in real life, I heard wealthy physicians complain over and over again:
I have so much responsibility. I care. I worry. I have something to lose.

Oh, look at those people [dancing/singing/drinking/tossing the shit/fishing/dawdling/rapping] like they don't have a care in the world.
Thank God for us responsible folk or they'd know real poverty.
The few docs I meet occasionally confess they're jealous that I escaped the profession. I tell them they could, too, if that's what they wanted. They continue practicing medicine, I continue to teach.
I am not particularly religious, but Genesis 2:7* resonates with me. It's a story, of course, but the stories we choose define who we are.

You lose something in the process of getting professionalized. Some call it soul, some call it "down to earth"--both come from the same idea.

God's breath mingled with dirt created us, living souls. When you turn away from God, whatever God is, you sin, no matter how powerful you are. I have no idea what the longterm price of sin is, though a lot of sleek folks will tell you wild tales while picking your pockets.

I know the immediate consequences, though--you lose a piece of nefesh, a few crumbs of your soul, this tangible mesh of clay and life's spirit. No need to toss in eternal damnation, this moment is all any of us ever have, and I prefer to keep nefesh as whole as I possibly can in a culure that would strip the clay out of my children if it could.

We are intimately tied to the earth. We cannot separate the soul from the shit.

The extreme rich are different. Their boundaries are human ones, cleansed of the clay that kept our link to the divine. The rich are the immortals. The rich have their own gods made of power and platinum. They lose touch with the earth.

Dancing doesn't cost anything, and anyone who has a higher opinion of life than he does of himself can learn to dance. I've never seen a normal toddler not dance well to the rhythm.

You don't learn rhythm, you're born with it. You have to beat it out of a normal H. sapiens. You can replace it with a series of complicated, coordinated steps that follow a prescribed pattern, but that's prancing, not dancing.

Education means a lot of things to a lot of people, but if being educated means knocking the dancing gene out of commission, save the sheepskin for the lambs. I'm going clamming on a patch of mud Bill Gates will never touch, and will wash them down with mead made by yeast fed honey and blueberries in my kitchen.

Teaching allows me to share a world Bill Gates does not know exists.  Until Bill Gates gets back in touch with the world that matters, what he thinks matters matters not.

I would never impose a hint of my religious beliefs in a public school classroom. I'd be much obliged if those in power would keep Mr. Gates' version of heaven out of my classroom as well.

*And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. KJV

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

New worlds

As various factions wrestle with various standards for various (and occasionally dubious) reasons, I find myself in a classroom with a couple dozen young humans at various stages of cognitive development, learning about the world.

A drop of pond water sits on a slide now projected on the screen. A creature, too small to see naked eye, wraps itself around an even smaller one. Other critters scoot, slither, slide, and wiggle by.

My charges can "draw" mitochondria--the NJCCCS expect the children to "know' the major cell organelles by 6th grade, to "model and explain ways in which organelles work together to meet the cell’s needs." A few can tell an amoeba from a paramecium without my help. This impresses some people.

It shouldn't.

A child looks at the slide on the microscope, back up at the screen, then back at the slide again.

A single drop of water holds a world of life. The slide warms up from the lamp below. The critters under the cover glass start to fade as the oxygen level drops.

I could, of course, pontificate about aerobic respiration and diffusion and concentration gradients; I could give the children boxes to fill and diagrams to label; I could drag out one of our myriad models telling the kids what they can't quite see.  And on many days I do just that.

But not when a child see the world open a bit wider than it was just moments ago. There will be time, maybe enough, maybe not, to learn the human language that describes this new world to the satisfaction of the state of New Jersey.

The class remains mostly silent as the children take in what they cannot yet grasp.This impresses me.

As it should.

The video is from YouTube--our critter was not an amoeba, and truth be told, I did not know what it was.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In the you cannot make this stuff up department....

"When using and choosing technology for children teachers should let children pretend with the types of gadgets they see their parents using. Stock the dramatic play area with a non-working mouse and keyboard, cell phone and/or electronic music device."

Or maybe just give them a box of crayons and let them draw a picture of a bunny with a pancake on its head.

Photo from Buffet O' Blog.

Seasonal affective disorder is not

Yep, this one again--I trot it out pretty much every year now for those who wonder why I'm such a crab in the winter....

Every year the Earth orbits around the sun, and every year, the shadows lengthen as the days shorten. While this may be news to those living in a linear world, a few of us still revel in the cycles of life.

Several orbits ago, while folks at the more extreme latitudes again fell into their annual funk, a few shrinks noted a pattern. Enough people became distressed by the coming winter that they bought an entry into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Fourth Edition, and now had a diagnosis--seasonal affective disorder--justifying the use of expensive psychotropic agents to make them "happy."

Winter time blues is now a psychiatric disorder.

As more and more of us become naturalized citizens of Prozac nation, a few cranky souls remain prescription-drug1 free, titrating the available OTC medicines with caffeine, alcohol, and herbs, surviving yet another winter.

What symptoms make the diagnosis of SAD?
(1) increased rather than decreased sleep;
(2) increased rather than decreased appetite and food intake with carbohydrate craving;
(3) marked increase in weight;
(4) irritability;
(5) interpersonal difficulties (especially rejection sensitivity), and
(6) leaden paralysis (a heavy, leaden feeling in the arms or legs).

Surveys estimate that 4 to 6 percent of the general population experience winter depression, and another 10 to 20 percent have subsyndromal features.2

To summarize, about a quarter of otherwise normal human beings sleep more, eat more, gain weight, and get irritable in the winter, just like any other self-respecting mammal that wandered too far from the Equator since the last Ice Age.

Let me review the annual cataclysmic events that should shake anybody's sense of complacency in this wonderful and truly terrifying world of ours:
1) Every winter, most plants either die or go into suspended animation. The vast majority of our crops die here. In my garden, half ripe eggplants hang like bruised egos in the dying light of December. My tomato vines are black, gnarled skeletons. The basil plants are but a memory.

If the crops fail in the spring, we could starve. Instead of worrying all winter, a few of us choose to stuff our bellies as full as we can with last year's surplus, then sleep.

2) The air becomes so dry that mild patches of eczema and psoriasis turn into vast swaths of reptilian skin, repulsing friends and family, who are all just as irritable as you.

Now I'm flaky, fat, and fearful, living under forced solitude--feeling happy just upsets the natural order of things.

3) In New Jersey, the sun rose at 5:26 AM on June 21, 2008, and set at 8:32 PM., over 15 hours of sweet, summer rays. On December 21, the sun will rise at 7:18 AM, barely peek over the horizon, then plunge back down at 4:32 PM--just over 9 hours of dull winter light. That depresses me. If you are paying any attention, it will depress you, too.

4) Look at those bills! Paying for the juice of long dead ferns to keep my home heated condemns me to long hours at work. I know air-conditioning is expensive, too, but AC is a luxury. Heat keeps you alive. You have no choice.

Sleeping late under a cozy comforter lets me keep the heat turned down longer, and saves money.

5) The local roads freeze, and the December demolition derby begins; debt-ridden SUV owners try to justify their monstrous credit-eating over-sized sedans by driving like crazed maniacs in icy conditions.

I can hardly blame them--if I plunked 35 grand after watching commercials in which the SUV climbed perpendicularly up a snow-covered mountain, I'd expect my car to handle a level road. They do go nicely perpendicular into ditches, though.

What is a rational person to do? Seems like crawling into the bed under a comforter with a huge bag of Doritos while others careen to work on icy highways makes perfect sense.

Feeling down? Little wonder. I just don't think that it is a disorder. Nor do I think my annual spring fever is a problem. Watching the Earth spring back to life deserves some manic dancing. Come April, I'll look at this post and wonder how I could ever have been so grumpy. Until then, I am going to bed.

1This is not a diatribe against drugs, just a cranky diatribe in general. Proper use of the appropriate drugs can be quite beneficial.
2S. Atezaz Saeed, M.D., and Timothy J. Bruce, Ph.D., American Family Physician, March 15, 1998.