Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Yesterday we fooled a few bacteria into taking in some jellyfish DNA, and now they fluoresce green. Tomorrow I will take a few colonies of these and give them what we all need--food, shelter, and a little security, and I'll get a few million more by Thursday.

This has become old hat in high school biology classes, but it still blows my mind, as it should.

We are all God  now. You may laugh, and I can temper this with some off-hand remark, but we're not the same critters we were before we started transforming lifeforms. That we do this with indifference makes it seem surreal.

(I wanted to jump up and down and scream in delight and fear--"Look what we've done!!!!" And, OK, maybe I did, just a little bit....)

A few planets are lining up this week, and a few folks are excited. So excited that you can go online and see them.

That planets are visible naked eye is pretty cool, and that they wander against the background of stars even neater. Indeed, that's where the word "planet" comes from--planasthai, "to wander."

To stare at one naked eye, though, is not particularly exciting. They flicker less than stars, and are quite bright, but, well, um--they look like stars.

We have made looking at planets a check list event, a commodity, an "event" simply because it's an event.

A lot of folks cannot fathom anymore why that bothers me, so I guess that puts me in the crank category. A lot of folks cannot fathom what they even want.

Maybe the point of education is to learn what you want, to figure out what's worth seeking. I'm pretty sure it's not to pass a standardized test.

Most of my students have never stumbled upon a flickering comb jelly, flashing electric blue as it lies dying on the beach. I have, and I wondered--who was meant to see the light?

I can change the way light is reflected off bacteria, light meant only for a few other humans to see, to reflect our glory of ourselves as we play God.

Some comb jellies flash an electric blue when disturbed, presumably to distract predators. This makes sense, a logical reason to expend energy, fit for our mechanistic view of the world.

Yet when I squat by a dying critter, the rhythm of the wash of waves running through my ears, the salty smell of the dying in my nostrils, the soft forgiving warm and wet sand caressing my feet, this single jelly flashing its last three, brief pulses of light on the edge of the bay matters to me, and I do not know why.

I only saw it because I happened to be there--and it would have mattered even if I had not seen it.

I have no opinion on the existence of God--my people said He is unknowable, and I, to their chagrin, took them at their word. I do not truck with what I cannot know.

But I do know this--we cannot know (and can never know) what we pretend to know today. Hubris does not require the existence of gods.

Tomorrow I will be the destroyer of earths as I kill the same bacterial cultures we worked hard to create. I will pretend this does not bother me.

As for the planets, if you think it's worth staring at them online, I have a few other parlor tricks that may interest you.

Cristoforo Colombo used a similar parlor trick to fool the locals of what is now known as Jamaica. The locals had supported Colombo and his crew, but were (understandably) a little annoyed at the murderous actions of some of his crew. Colombo knew of an impending lunar eclipse predicted by Regiomontanus many years before. He attributed the eclipse to the Christian God, the same God Europe used to justify slaughtering those who knew my bay before me.

Stories matter.

Still, a lunar eclipse is about as exciting as the planets lined up in late winter--a parlor show. That they exist (and that we figured out what those points of light mean) are the stories worth knowing.

So tomorrow, an hour or so after my bacteria break down their last molecules of sugar, I will wander outside Bloomfield High, take a look west, and see the string of planetary pearls that got so much attention this week.

Then I'll walk home, knowing I am among the luckiest men alive, feeling the earth below with every step that takes me home.

Hokey smokes! Fluorescent bacteria!!!!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Last Sunday in February, 2011

A repeat from last year, almost to the day, to remind me what matters....

Our crocuses bloomed today. A tiny horseshoe crab, smaller than my thumbnail, crawled out of the Delaware Bay. The day lilies are rising again, like Phoenixes from the snow's ashes.

All of this is more real than the nonsense that passes for discourse in the education world. I can still close my classroom door (though I rarely do) and tackle whatever problems we care to tackle that day.
Why is my plant wilting? Hey, sow bug babies! I think my slug drowned.
How come the starfish hasn't moved in three days? Are those mosquitoes?
Look! Peas!
We got kids from Somalia, from Sierra Leone, from Poland, from China, from Ghana. Not third generation, not second. We're talking off the airplane (Newark Liberty International Airport) and into the brink. I taught a child who spoke only Bengali.

And we thrive.

We thrive despite the mandates, the tests, the current climate that forgets the roots of the word public, "pertaining to the people." Our town supported the last budget, despite the struggles of family after family after family.

Families that come from desperate situations know education matters. Families that come from desperate situations value teachers who care about their children. They put their trust in our hands, in our classrooms.

So while the elite press on about this magnet school, that philosophy, the myriad ways to use (and abuse) technology, scouring the US News and World Report for college rankings (and the NJ Monthly for state rankings), most of the rest of us go about our business, getting children ready for loving, happy, and (yes) productive lives.

But never just productive.

I work for Bloomfield, and its families, and for its children. I do not work for Arne Duncan, I do not work for Governor Christie. I give my all every day, because I want my lambs to be happy, in the Jeffersonian sense, and I want them prepared to pursue whatever dreams they hope to pursue.

I wiled away a good chunk of the afternoon on a jetty poking into the bay. I stared at barnacles for a bit, mourned all the oysters scraped off the rocks by this year's ice. The water was exceptionally clear, revealing thousands of comb jellies, floating in with the tides, then floating out again.

My happiest moments are spent on the edges of the sea. 

I stumbled upon the horseshoe crab, not much different than its ancestors that wandered these same shores when dinosaurs still roared. It may be still alive, it may be in the belly of a gull now. Tomorrow I will share its story with my students, because for them, these stories still matter.

And then I will test them on meiosis and synapses and centromeres and chromatids, to get them ready for the state exam in May. Those who finish early will be allowed to study their terrariums, their aquariums, to see how their critters did over the weekend.

 And the day will not be completely wasted, the last Sunday of February, as the light returns, and all things, all things, again become possible.

All photos taken today.
 First one crocuses, then the tiny (and live) horseshoe crab, then the points of a dead horseshoe crab, 
then barnacles hanging out waiting for the next tide, 
and finally, light as seen through the compound eyes of a horseshoe crab.

More evidence-based hypocrisy

Among other things, Cerf recommends the governor convene a task force to explore...whether poor students should be "presumed to be educationally at-risk."

Commissioner Chris Cerf--did you really say this?

Chris Cerf is a bright man.

He's had a couple of public displays of disingenuous behavior:
Mr. Cerf, one of a number of consultants enlisted by Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein in recent years to help redesign the nation’s largest school system, did not disclose to parents that he had given up his shares [of Edison, Inc., worth potentially millions]  less than 24 hours previously when he appeared yesterday before their group, the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council.
Asked by Tim Johnson, the group’s chairman, to describe his financial interest in Edison Schools, he replied, “I’d be delighted to do that,” adding: “I have no financial interest in Edison of any kind. Zero.”
When Mr. Johnson persisted, asking, “Can we ask when you divested yourself of Edison stock?” Mr. Cerf said he would be “delighted” to give Mr. Johnson a copy of financial disclosure forms he said he was required to file as a public employee. “That will answer all of your questions, and that’s what I’m prepared to say today,” he added.

Nothing illegal, and there's a reasonable chance that Mr. Cerf would have obtained the waiver he sought for his private holdings in Edison--but I'll let his own words stand as evidence of his forthrightness.

He went on to solicit funds from Edison, in violation of the City Charter
The city’s Conflicts of Interest Board closed the matter without taking action against the deputy chancellor, Christopher Cerf. But in a letter to Mr. Cerf, the board’s chairman, Steven B. Rosenfeld, said that Mr. Cerf had used his city position to benefit the Darrow Foundation, a nonprofit group on whose board he sits. The letter also provided a “formal reminder of the importance of strict compliance with the city’s conflicts of interest law.”

Again, nothing illegal, and again, nothing more than a public letter reminding him of his role. Still, his response to this is telling:
“If you’re asking me do I have any regrets, I will tell you absolutely not,” Mr. Cerf said. “I did absolutely what I was supposed to do. I disclosed everything; the Conflicts of Interest Board gave it the back of its hand.”
“Raising money for a not for profit, tell me, what’s wrong with that?” he added.
“There is nothing here other than an investigation that exonerated me. The only real story here is that I was put through a rather tortuous experience.”
Then there's the small issue of misplaced businesses. Global Education Advisers, founded at Cerf's home address, received a half million dollars from the Facebook money given to Newark. Global Education Advisers is now led by Rajeev Bajaj, but still listed Cerf's address after his appointment as our Education Commissioner, an "entirely ministerial" relationship according to Cerf.

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. (Maybe he had a line painted in his home separating the company from his living quarters--but I'll leave that the Montclair Zoning Board .) To claim no interest in a company that shares the same address as yours does takes some chutzpah.

If nothing else, the man has mastered the art of splitting hairs, has a fine command of the language, and no doubt has some idea of the hurdles facing children in our poorest neighborhoods.

He's looked me in the eye and told me he deeply cares about the children caught in the web of poverty, and I believe he believes he cares.

Before spending a penny on convening a state task force to determine whether poverty puts a child at educational risk, take a look at the work that's already been done at the National Center For Education Statistics.

You told me you were a numbers guy--I am, too. Peak expiratory flows, lead levels, home temperature, decibel levels, NOx ppm, rate of caries, etc., all correlate with poverty, all affect a child's ability to sustain the effort needed to learn.

I know zip code does not dictate destiny, but I also know that poverty tilts the playing field.

No more sophistry, no more hypocrisy, no more delays. We have important work to do, Mr. Commissioner. Let's get to it.

Evidence-based hypocrisy

This one meanders and is meant for heavy fire--I want to know why "evidenced-based research" is an oxymoron in education. I want to know why Gardner and Marzano are revered for their research. I want to understand why the cult of personality supersedes rationality in my craft.

I love playing with numbers, and I love trying to understand the world beyond the human noise. So do a few other folks. It's what scientists do.

If you want to know if a particular action (independent variable) has a particular effect, you set up an experiment. You minimize extraneous actions as much as you can (and eliminating them all is impossible even in the simplest experiments), run your experiment, collect your results (dependent variable), then do it again. And again and again and again....

You may see a pattern emerge, you may not. The pattern you see emerge may be consistent with what you thought you knew, it may not. If you see a pattern emerge, it may have caused by the independent variable, but, and this is critical, chances are pretty good it may not be.

If there is less than 5% chance that your results occurred randomly, they can be considered significant--and the word "significant" means nothing more, nothing less than that. You can have  results that look like change has occurred, and still have no significance, and you can have significant results that show change did not happen.

One final point. Correlation does not mean causation unless you have a perfect experiment with only one  variable--and this is impossible. If you want to know why some scientists get a reputation for walking around like they got peri-anal meter sticks under their pants,  try controlling anything for all variables.

Social scientists have three huge problems:

First, the myriad variables inherent in humans and their interactions  makes reducing any experiment to just one variable impossible. There are ways to minimize the noise--using huge sample sizes, for instance--but the results will always be a tad wiggly.

Second, imposing an independent variable on a select population of humans to see what happens compared to a separate, similar population creates chilling ethical considerations. Autonomous mammals tend to reject such nonsense.*

One way around this is to use retrospective studies--look for a pattern among culled data instead of trying to run a true experiment. For example, I can look at the demographic data of kids taking the HSPA, and see if there is any correlation between their Zodiac sign and their math scores. If I find a significant (again, less than 5% chance these results are random) data, I might have something worth sharing.

The last problem may be the biggest, one that infects American education today--because social science research is so wiggly, and because it tends to use retrospective data, I can make a career latching on to a piece of data suggesting correlation, scream about it, then become the go-to guru.

This happens in the natural sciences, too--people is people--but in the natural sciences, published claims are easily tested. Scientists make a living climbing on the backs of others, destroying their colleagues hypotheses with better ideas and better data--a lovely mud bath of human foibles exposed for all the world to see.

For reasons I still do not grasp, this doesn't happen much in education. We have "theories" without evidence, and handsome men gracing websites, paid to give sermons sharing their "research."

I have my suspicions. Careers are made selling snake oil, and there's a lot of money floating around public education.

I have no fear of research-based initiatives influencing what I do in the classroom. If decent, replicable studies shows that my lambs will learn more science if I wear an eggplant on my head, then I will do that. In the meantime, I will continue to do what has worked reasonably well for several generations influenced by Francis Parker, John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, Margaret  Donaldson, Lev Vygotsky, among many others.

I will continue to use advanced tools so long as they serve our purpose. My $2 whiteboards are superior, for what we do in science class, to our $2000 SmartBoard, but I also use 1:1 netbooks to (sometimes) good effect. My Mobi, alas, never quite took off.

I will use decent recent research, but my criteria for "decent" goes beyond a pretty face and a slick repackaging of what we already know works. Daniel Willingham (who definitely does not have a slick hairdo) is a cognitive psychologist who initially studied "brain basis of memory and learning" and now focuses on the "the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 education."

I was a pediatrician before I threw my hat into professional wrestling education. I know a lot about child development, and expected those in education would, too. (I also expected my kids to fall in love with photosynthesis at first sight--I was a bit naive going in.)

I'm all for evidence-based best practices--any superintendents out there want to try it?

*Medical research has the same issue--people are people--the Tuskegee syphilis experiment belongs in a huge Hall of Shame, as does the Fernald School which allowed Harvard and MIT to used radioactive cereal on retarded children. Theses kinds of experiments tend to be performed on the less powerful among us--the poor, the incarcerated, the children.

Young woman scientist via Shorpy/Library of Congress
Snake oil ad via Wikimedia

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Teachers are not (yet) professionals, II

Trust me, I get why we need unions. 
The NEA might want to remember that they need us even more than we need it.

Here's the first one in this series.

I have heard this refrain too many times in my second profession:

"We're professionals, we deserve more respect!"

There will always be those outside any exclusive profession that will try to knock it down a peg or two. Given that billionaires and governors have taken up the schtick, I understand the frustration. This is my house, too.

If we're going to become professionals, and we're not there yet, we're going to need to learn how to act more professional. Publicly complaining about lack of respect won't garner us any.

Here are some questions I think are worth asking among ourselves. Do not worry about what Arne, or Eli, or Billy, or any of the dozens of edu-shucksters out there hustling for a piece of the public pie.
If teachers associations were glued together as guilds, bound to advancing competency of our craft, as opposed to unions, bound to represent the interests of teachers, who in your building would be invited to join?

If "research-based best practices" was used honestly, and we, as professionals, took the time to assess the research behind these practices, how many of us would still cling to Marzano's miracle numbers?
If teachers took the time to read the research on cognition, who among us would continue to blather base our methodology on  Gardner's "theory" of multiple intelligences?
I don't mind getting my ass kicked by a fellow teacher who strives to improve her craft as I strive to improve mine--I came from a field where this was not only encouraged, but formalized in regular morbidity and mortality (M&M) conferences. The profession's standards matter more than the feelings of those licensed to uphold those standards. If your school adopted regular M&M conferences, what would be discussed? Which of your disasters deserves this kind off scrutiny?

If teachers had a professional organization of their own responsible for licensure, what kind of missteps would lead to suspension of your license?

I love what I do, and teaching matters more to me than it does to most folks--that's as it should be. I know more about cognitive science than most people, also as it should be. Every teacher should be able to say the same.

At least if you want a place in our guild.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"No ideas but in things"

"No ideas but in things."
--William Carlos Williams

Stuff comes from stuff.
That's a big deal. 

Everything you touch came from something else. If we ever truly taught science as knowledge, instead of as a means to magical goals, we'd get this.

If we ever taught science as knowledge, we would not need STEM initiatives.We'd need more science classrooms.

Somehow biology has become this brainy, biochemical abstract broth disconnected from the muck and the mud that have always fascinated children.

If a child knows more about his DNA that his poop, he don't know shit.

We really need to go back to what we know we know....

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Et tu, Zappa?

There's seems to be some confusion about my role.

I am, of course, an agent of the government, of the public, of my town. I am a science teacher, which should mean I teach science.
Arne says it means I am the linchpin of our economy.
Einstein said I have the power to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.
Governor Christie says it means I'm a lazy ass lapping at the public trough. His sidekick Cerf says I'm an ankle-biter.
Walt Whitman said I should be destroyed.
Cicero said I am pretty valuable to the state--even used the word "noble."
Frank Zappa advised children to avoid me lest their minds rot.
Frank Zappa might be right....
All kinds of noble and ignoble nonsense spews from the mouths of those who would judge me.

Teachers are fair game, and understandably so--we're involved in a process no one truly understands honing our varied skills on the most impressionable among us. That these impressionable folk happen to be the result of sexual unions among adults who (mostly) live in the same town I teach only adds to the fun. Add to that that they're paying me out of pocket to do this, well, I expect a little noise.

I'll make it easy for you.
  • I teach children science because I want them to see the world outside of humans--infinitely fascinating.
  • I teach science because I want my republic to survive the nonsense spewed by those who'd stomp on their children to push a career--a nation still worth salvaging.
  • I teach children because their fresh views help me see better--and as my senses fade in my twilight, I need all the help I can get.
  • I teach mostly because I love it--I'm selfish that way.

Frank Zappa photo from The Rebel Kind

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Teachers are not (yet) professionals

A scorpion, being a very poor swimmer, asked a turtle to carry him on his back across a river. "Are you mad?" exclaimed the turtle. "You'll sting me while I'm swimming and I'll drown." 

"My dear turtle," laughed the scorpion, "if I were to sting you, you would drown and I would go down with you. Now where is the logic in that?" 

"You're right!" cried the turtle. "Hop on!" The scorpion climbed aboard and halfway across the river gave the turtle a mighty sting. As they both sank to the bottom, the turtle resignedly said: 

"Do you mind if I ask you something? You said there'd be no logic in your stinging me. Why did you do it?"

"It has nothing to do with logic," the drowning scorpion sadly replied. "It's just my character." 
Joe Hill

I belong to the Bloomfield Education Association, the NJEA, and the NEA--none have behaved admirably the past couple of years, but they have done what unions are supposed to do. I pay them a lot of money to do this, and I'll just smile here and pretend everything's hunky-dory. That's how the rank and file are supposed to roll.

A lot of teachers are frustrated, but that's part of being in any profession that deals with embryos that pretty much do what they do, no matter what the President, the Pope, or the PTA say.  We can handle frustration.

What we cannot tolerate is our erosion of autonomy.

The union fights for dollars, benefits, hours (ha!), and reasonable working conditions. It does not fight for the kids. Not saying it should (though if the NEA could grab $15/year/kid I bet it would), but let's be clear on what the union does. It serves a clear and necessary function, as do septic tanks and sergeants.

If a colleague of yours is accused of doing something unseemly with a student, the union lawyers will defend him, no matter what the circumstances. We pay the scorpions to be scorpions, and I'm OK with that.

Just don't expect them to be anything they're not.


In medicine, I almost got to fisticuffs twice--and I still regret not punching a particular colleague in the nose (/me waves to Barry).

Cooler heads prevailed, and instead we tossed journals at each other. P values, corroborated studies, prospective vs. retrospective, controlled vs. anecdotal, meta-analysis vs. multiple studies. A lot of medicine is as mucky and murky as Chicago politics, but we worked with what we had, and we had a common goal: fix the kids.

If a child died, we all lost.

I don't get the sense that my current profession fears damage to children more than damage to ourselves. We say the right things, but our behavior is what matters.

If a hospital administrator ever tried to pawn the stuff masquerading as "research" in the ed world, we would have simply laughed. Despite organizational charts on paper, we knew as the ones directly giving care that we held the power. Laughter has a way of democratizing a workplace.

Instead I get a union that put this on the cover of NJEA Review last September:

Mikey don't play that way.....

A profession can survive a crisis in faith, as long as our faith is shared. It cannot survive a lack of vision.

A profession can survive bad research, as long as the research can be assessed honestly. It cannot survive bad research used dishonestly.

We're either professionals. or we're not. It's our behavior, not our words, that matter.

The union is designed to protect our jobs, not our profession. That's up to us.

I have an idea. Why not develop guilds to complement our unions?
  • We have a common cause, educating our children.
  • We have common methods, subject to peer-reviewed research.
  • We have common goals. Within a building we know who's got game.

No more fear. No more fear. No more fear. No more fear.

In two weeks, licensed NJ professional high school teachers will proctor the HSPA, our alms to NCLB. We will grumble, we will bark, and we'll still hand out the tests.

Arne has not earned our love.

Some of us might even feel dirty, though most of us will just do what we do because we're told to do it.

That's not professionalism. 

I'd like a colleague to be passionate enough, mad enough, care enough to punch me in the nose if my actions endanger a child.

Look at your classroom. Look at your students. Look at your actions.

Here in New Jersey we are in real danger of losing our union protections within the next two years. A few of us will lose our paychecks no matter what we do.

I propose that we work together to do what's best for our kids. We can hash out just what that might be privately, and a few noses might get bloodied. The only hard rule is that we act what we believe matters for our kids, not ourselves.

Isn't that why you got into this profession?

If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands....

Jose Vilson and Ken Bernstein got me going today. Tom Hoffman deserves some blame, too. How far are you going to take this?

The turtle and the scorpion story is well-known, lofted verbatim from Snopes.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The electric slide

I occasionally borrow a hand-cranked generator from the physics folks a floor below. It's a very simple device, exquisitely crafted by someone likely dead now. It should work well for another hundred years.

It's simple, and makes the concept of "generating" electricity accessible. If you spin a coil of copper inside a magnet, you push electrons. (You do not, of course, create these electrons anymore than you create the magnets or the wire.)

If you put some resistance in the path of these electrons, say, a light bulb, you need to crank much harder to spin the coil. Again, you can feel this. You are converting mechanical energy into something that "pushes" back.

It takes a fair amount of force to brighten up a reasonably sized bulb.

If a child learns nothing more than this, that to "create" electricity requires a push, that it's not magic, that you don't get electricity for nothing, she's a step ahead of most adults.

When I crank on the generator, I breathe a little harder as my muscle cells are called on to work. My cells burn up organic molecules, breaking down into carbon dioxide, using oxygen to catch the remnants of these molecules, spent electrons, in the depths of my mitochondria.

When I crank on the generator, the concentration of carbon dioxide in my room rises a tiny bit--the same carbon dioxide implicated in global warming.

When I crank on the generator, my muscles warm up a little bit--when I convert chemical energy into mechanical, I am less than 100% efficient. The heat I lose no longer serves me.

When I crank on the generator, I make energy increasingly less useful, energy captured as bonds by plants, now released as mechanical energy by me, so I can see photons emitted from the lamp. It took a bucketload of sunlight to produce a thimble's worth of incandescence.

A young child does not need to know any of this to know that generating electricity requires a push, and that the more electricity you need, the more push you must provide.

I remember learning about electric generators--it was a classic mid-20th century 16 mm film, moving images of the Hoover Dam with a sonorous male (always male) voice extolling our  country's technological virtues.My brain whirs with the clickety-ckickety of a 1963 projector when I think of dams. Children are that impressionable....

A huge dam with huge turbines generated huge amounts of electricity. Somehow that juice got to the wall. It cost nothing because rivers were meant to be damned.

In junior high, my class visited the Oyster Creek nuclear plant, and again we learned about huge turbines generating huge amounts of electricity, clean energy, so safe school children wander within yards of a nuclear reactor.
Turns out most electricity generated in the States comes from burning coal, a process remarkably similar to the way I extracted energy from last night's clams. Oxygen strips off electrons from unstable organic molecules, coal and clams to carbon dioxide and water. I do it in a lot more steps, or else I'd spontaneously combust, but the end result is the same. The universe has smaller, more stable molecules, and useful work can be done.

Either way, something had to put the unstable molecules together in the first place. Both coal and clams rely on the nuclear furnace just under 100 million miles away, both coal and clams rely on plants to do this. You don't get something for nothing in the natural world.

This is a Chevy Volt. It is an electric car.

You can plug it into your wall and pretend it's green. Or you can start thinking about where things come from, where things go.

If giant hands holding up the Earth assuage whatever feelings you might have as we plunder the planet, then we get the planet we deserve. Nothing comes from nothing.

 GM is depending on your ignorance (and your guilt) to shell out over $30,000 for a car.Before you do, come on by B362, and I'll let you crank on our class generator for a bit.

You're an adult now--time to give up magical thinking.

We can argue about the efficiency of coal-generated generating plants vs. gasoline engines, about the relative costs of charging a car during peak or off hours, about the carbon cost of making huge batteries, about the break point (likely around 80k miles) where a Volt may be greener than your Daddy's Oldsmobile, about the risks and benefits of dams, of nuclear rods, of dams, of wind, of solar, of tidal generators.

And these could be interesting discussions....

If you don't believe in magic

First photo from Old Pinawa self-guided tour online brochiue here

Friday, February 17, 2012

Curious thoughts

I have had it up to my ears with folks reminding me about the natural curiosity of children, as though teachers spend their idle hours dreaming of ways to squelch it.

Unless the definition of curiosity has evolved (which is quite possible in an ed world that confounds "tolerance" and "love"), pretty much anything furry with nipples has natural curiosity, and as good as I am, I'm not going to be able to teach a marmoset much.

Curiosity is what made Jerry Springer a superstar. Every time we reduce science to something that flashes, fizzes, or booms in a classroom, we've Springerized science.

Science  defies hashing patterns we think we know. That's why it works. It kicks our ass over and over again each and every time we think we know everything about the natural world.

Children are also naturally religious superstitious. They see patterns where none logically naturally exist. 

If you want a child to care about the natural world more than, say, angels, witches, and aliens (all interesting in their own right), you're going to need to introduce her to what's real.

Toss out the television, ditch the iPad, chuck the earbuds, and, most important, stop feeding her fear. Big Macs kill a lot more people than mud pies ever did.

It's not lack of curiosity that kills interest in the natural world, it's lack of exposure.

Heck, even toss out the books if your child has never turned over a rock to see what lies underneath.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Gingko blues

Do not ever follow any advice I give for eating anything. If something has an acetyl group in it, I'll try it. 
Some folks' skin reacts to the pulp, too. This is the Science Teacher blog, not Fine Foods.

My favorite tree on the Bloomfield Green was cut down a couple of days ago, mostly for the crime of doing what its family has done for a quarter billion years: stink.

The tree was about as old as me, had its first offspring about the same time as I did. I pray the coincidences end with its death.

The gingko is infamous for its stinky fruit--some call it the "vomit tree"--but I loved my tree, walked by it several hundred times a year, and I'm going to miss it.

While the fruit do stink--imagine a dog vomiting into your son's gym socks sometime mid-June--the wood's subtle piney jasmine scent rivals my stash of ambergris for my favorite nose candy. I brought a wedge back into B362. One of my lambs also loved the smell--she took the wedge home with her.

I'm hoping the nuts are at least half as good.

I've read several different ways to prepare them, but I think I'm just going to roast them until they look roasted enough, then pop one or two or more into my mouth. I'll let you know how it goes.

What does this have to do with teaching science?

Most of my lambs have no idea where food comes from. A few watched me as I picked up a few fruits off the ground. I told them I planned to eat them, and I do.

An ancient tree planted decades ago in my town, likely by someone now dead, has been fallen by a cultural intolerance of, well, smell. Before the tree passes from my memory, I want to know what she tastes like.

The aroma of my fallen gingko reminded me of the vast unknown pleasures that await the curious. I want my students to chase the pleasures nature offers each of us, for barely the cost of paying attention, even here in an urban district, long tamed by concrete and asphalt.

The world is bigger than we can dream. It's not enough for me to say it, no child should accept the word of a teacher because he is a teacher. The gingko can speak for itself.

To be fair, the tree was not completely healthy. Then again, neither is anything else our age.

Photo from "Wildman" Steve Brill's site, a site well worth the visit.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Quahogs, Darwin, and grace

Today is Darwin Day, honoring a complex man with a stunningly simple idea that replaced the need for magical thinking.

Folks may hold on to their magic, I know I do, but they can no longer use rational thinking to hold on to the idea that the Hand of God was necessary to craft our appearance here.

The theory of evolution cannot disprove God—no science can. That was never Darwin’s intent.

See, if you grasp science, you grasp that it is not designed to disprove anything outside the realm of the natural world.

It’s not science using theology that causes all the trouble. It’s theology insisting that its stories are scientifically sound. 

I like hot sauce and I like  fruit, but I don't splash Tabasco on my blueberries.
I like fables, and I like science. I try not to confound the two.

Yesterday the soft gray wintry sky spit on the flint gray water. The air was chilly, but the water was still mid-40's, balmy for February.

Clamming in February, somewhere in Cape May County

I pulled just over a dozen quahogs out of the mix of muck and sand that gives them life. My hands were numb, too numb to feel the slice of flesh, but not so numb that I could not feel the sure shape of a cherrystone nestled in my hand. Perfect.

The more you look at these critters, the more beautiful and sophisticated they appear.

I gently tucked the oldest one back into the muck, one much older than the students I teach. I also tossed back the smallest, not out of sentiment--the small ones are tasty--but out of respect for the law.

Within a few hours, what was left of them sat in our bellies.

Here's the thing about science, something Darwin knew, something too many today do not--something does not have to be empirically demonstrated and peer-reviewed to be true, even matters of the natural world.

The natural world exceeds our collective imagination. The science world is limited to the parts of the natural world we have bothered to see. Since what we bother to see is influenced heavily by the wages we get to see it, what we look at represents a tiny, biased view of our universe.

This is true of scientists, this s true of the clergy, this is true of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. It's also true of me, and (if I may be so presumptuous) you.

Pulling up a quahog from the muck on a wet wintry day interests me. Quahogs interest me enough to know, from personal study, that many of the chowder clams I toss back are older than me, no matter what science says.
If I had pursued science research as a career, I would not be playing with quahogs, I'd be playing with telomeres--not because telomeres are more interesting, but because telomeres may unlock the fountain of youth, and (subsequently and more importantly)  have some heavy finanacial interests invested in them.

My sophomores feel this. What we call science in high school biology narrows their world view. Their wages (in this case grades) depend on reducing life to a series of incomprehensible and unpronounceable words attached to illustrations of things no human or mammal or any living thing at all has ever seen.

You can tell how old a clam is by checking its rings. I have seen several quahogs well into their 60's and 70's, and I mostly toss them back, again not (mostly) out of sentiment, but because they tend to be chewy.

If you Google northern quahog age you'll learn that until recently, "researchers" stated that the oldest northern  quahogs were around 40. I knew otherwise, as does anyone else who bothers to gather clams in places too shallow for dredgers, but I lack the sophisticated "sclerochronological analysis" employed by scientists. I do have eyes, though, and a large sample size

An hour ago, they were still in the mud.

Less than a year ago, researchers discovered that my quahogs can live over a hundred years:
Annually resolved growth lines in the hinge region and margin of the shell were identified and counted; the age of the oldest clam shell was determined to be at least 106 y. This age represents a considerable increase in the known maximum life span for M. mercenaria, more than doubling the maximum recorded life span of the species (46 y).

I could roll my eyes, but this is how science works. And now the "known" recorded life span has more than doubled.

But this has always been true. Natural selection has always been true. Gravity has always been true. Our understanding is more recent.

What separates science from the rest of what we know is that it depends on faith in the natural world, and faith in the idea that certain patterns have always been true, and will remain true.

God may (or may not) be a human construct--there's no way to test this empirically, and because it's untestable, it's not only uninteresting to science, it can never be science.

When I feel the perfect heft of an ancient quahog in my hand on a mid-winter day, 
when I become part of the gray light, part of the muddy smell, 
when my edge of self blends in with the detritus of life in the chilly mud between my toes, 
I am unconscious of the rational.

Mercenaria mercenaria, Homo sapiens

I am also ridiculously happy, happy to be part of this thing, whatever this thing is, that connects me and the clams and everything that lives to a world we've done nothing to deserve.

Read Charles Darwin's words. Know that he was happiest when absorbing the  incomprehensible variety of life around us, of us. The first love of his life left him because he preferred collecting bugs to meeting her family during winter break at college.

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin.

 Darwin did not kill God.
Those who persist in using science to prove God exists, though, just might.

Clam photos by us taken yesterday. 
Yes, I know, I fubared the html--still working on it....

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Science vs. information

OK, this is a long one, mostly scattered thoughts written on a snow day two years ago, after reading The Mayor of Casterbridge for the last time. It's mostly for me. If you want to come along for the ride, bring a steaming Thermos of coffee.

People degrade themselves all the time in order to make machines seem smart. Before the 2008 stock-market crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before the bank makes bad loans; we ask teachers to teach to standardized tests. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species' bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology good, but every manifestation of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous.
Jaron Lanie, Harper's Magazine, February, 2010

I find it fascinating that as information becomes cheaper, we worship it more.


There's value in owning things in your mind, as opposed to relying on social networks or Google or Wikipedia. The brain does not work in programmed algorithms. We screw up. Ideas mutate. We make leaps and bounds that often fail, but occasionally resonate.

"No ideas but in things" William Carlos Williams

There is value in owning those things in your mind. You cannot connect ideas, or things (thank you, Dr. Williams), lying loose all over the place. You can only shuffle file cards so fast, you can only link so many web pages before losing the gist.

We are privileged to have sensations, neural connections to this world, and a brain to know it, so far as it can be known. The machine is the product of an imperfect animal. If there is perfection, it lies outside the machine.

In Thomas Hardy's time, scythes and hay-rakes and mattocks ruled the countryside. No electricity, no phones, and social networks were formed at pubs. The economy of Casterbridge depended on the earth--livestock, corn, wheat, and all the labor and tools that went into reaping what our land can grant us.

Despite our conceits, our algorithms, our nanosecond technology, the gifts of the true economy have not changed. We still reap what we sow. We still eat and shit, we still woo and reproduce, we still depend on others. That the others are now strangers and driven by profit and not love has changed us, for now.

Bacteria communicate with each other. They have different signals for those of their own kind, and share universal signals with other clans/species.

Squids "talk" through light. Humans "talk" through smell.

Nothing can replicate the utter joy and sorrow I felt seeing the eerie dying glow of a comb jelly on a warm August beach, so contrary to what I know that I could not see it for what it was. Until my imagination exceeds the possibilities around me, I'll trust my thoughts, my clan's stories, our collective, flawed understanding of a world that exists before I plunge into the grid that frames a limited, knowable world.

(And I will add the story of the "talking" bacteria....)


I see bright senior high school students struggle with basic tasks subsumed by the network. Seniors who cannot look words up in a dictionary. Seniors who "know" calculus, but cannot solve simple arithmetic problems.

These are among the kids that will easily pass the state exam.

I suspect that most folks in charge of detailing curriculum at higher levels do not grasp science. Or perhaps they grasp science but are under unprecedented pressure from the Feds to ignore what they know and develop something that results in more money.

I get that real biologists need to speak a common language, a professional language, to communicate cogently and efficiently to fellow professionals. I get that kids need a basic understanding of the language of science to grasp (and critically assess) the technical leaps and bounds now more dependent on profit than promise.

Most of my students, however, need to grasp how science works. We are creating a generation of children who look cute spouting off big words and phrases, yet do not wonder why a light goes on when you hit a switch.

We need to cultivate wonder.

Pick any wonk in control of education policy today, and you'll get the same results. Growth. Standards. Competition. Economy.

I'll bet a bottle of my best home-brewed blueberry melomel that not one of my elected governmental oficials grasps respiration or photosynthesis or meiosis, or even a quarter of the things dictated by our current state standards.

If you're a bit stir crazy today, go out and find a tree. Trace its branches. Imagine the wind, the light, the forces that shaped that tree.

No two trees have exactly the same branch pattern--the tree's branch pattern tells a story of seeking light, or bending to wind, of battles with bugs and fungi and and perhaps lightning or a child's tree fort.

Two acorns with identical DNA will produce two very different oak trees--trees are designed to respond to their environment. Each new branch arises from a complex combination of triggers. Each tree is unique.

Humans and trees share a common ancestor. We have errant children--one of the joys and frustrations of a functioning classroom. I need the to pass the state exam, and I want them to learn science.

We are going to learn the hard way that the true economy is based on life, on the dirt we walk on, on life itself. I plan to keep on teaching science. It's what I'm paid to do.

If I had to test my lambs on whether they grasped anything new this year, I'd give them a few pill bugs, access to the various pieces of equipment in the classroom, and ask them to learn something about their behavior. I'd expect them to develop hypotheses, and set up replicable experiments. I'd hope they can examine evidence. And most of all, I hope that when they're done, they realize how little they can know about a pill bug trapped in a Petri dish, how little they know about anything.

I'd furtively trail them as they walked home--and if one lifted up a rock to find another pill bug, they pass.

The daffodils are peeking through the earth a few weeks early.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Siemens STEM Institute video

OK, I'm not sure I'm allowed to do this (but it's usually easier to be forgiven than get permission--my Mommy taught me that)--here's my video for the Siemens STEM Academy program this summer.

Mind you, it was edited on a cheap laptop running Vista Home Basic, about 17 hours of my life I won't get back.

But I like it anyway....

It's already banned in Germany--does anyone know Izzy's address?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Siemen's STEM Institute: A Luddite Wants In

I would like very much to go to the Siemen's STEM Institute this summer, though after today, I'm not sure they'd welcome me  in their midst. I've spent hours wrestling with a Flip camera, MS Movie Maker, and and apparent conflict between the chip set in my laptop and the rest of the world (a chip with a chip on its shoulder), and  may be disqualified for my inability to produce a simple two minute video broadcasting my Luddite qualities.

I have a fine 1956 Futura typewriter sitting in my room, ready to type up a cogent argument for my presence. Which may just highlight the problem.

Still, this has not been a pointless exercise.

The thrust for STEM education focuses on things human--help the economy, cure cancer, and screw the Commies and anyone else who is a little less Western-Eurocentric than the fine folk who rule our land.

And that's fine and good, I suppose, but not all my lambs have both the desire and the chops to become STEM All Stars. Each and every one of them, though, lives in this universe. Very few of them realize the same universe belongs to them.

Last week was midterms. I got restless, as I tend to do during things like midterms and shopping for underwear, so I grabbed a microscope and tossed a drop of our windowsill pond water on  a slide.

A stentor spun a whirlpool in its own universe, a magnificent critter with a reason all its own, pulling in other critters with its vortex, so that it may continue its stentor ways.

I put a camera on the scope, and projected the stentor's world on the screen. Most of the students stopped, stared. I shouldn't have distracted them from their task at hand, but I am glad that I did.

This universe cannot be subdued. The horseshoe crabs will creep out of the bay millions of years after we're gone.

This matters.

I teach what matters, and a lot of what doesn't.
I teach to young folks whose bodies share the same carbon atoms that will, sooner or later, end up in the carapaces of the horseshoe crabs that will outlive us.

I teach science because a child who know her universe is more likely to know joy than a child who does not.
If she happens to cure cancer in the meantime, well, bonus points.

On a good day, nothing, nothing, beats teaching science to young humans.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Dayton Street shuffle

The superintendent of the Newark Public Schools system announced that the city state will close down seven schools; the fate of the students and staff has not yet been publicly announced. Ms. Anderson's attempt to go into specifics ended with her walking off the stage.

I've spent some time in one of the schools--Dayton Street. I was involved with "The Rainbow Room," a school-based health clinic named by the students.

Many of the kids come from a local housing project, where I once made house calls. It's a gritty neighborhood in a tough town adjacent to a beautiful park, and (shhhh...it's a secret) many people are poor enough to be more concerned with shelter and food than, say, solving a quadratic equation.

Most of the staff busted their asses, and many of the kids did, too. That's true in Newark, that's true in Princeton, that's true pretty much everywhere you got adults who care about kids working with them day in and day out.

I don't know enough about the specifics today to comment cogently, so I won't. We'd all be better off if others would abide the same advice.

I do know enough that some jackass is going to say I'm defending the status quo.Then I will be told that zip code is not destiny by some pale person who has never thought twice about the cost of a cup of coffee.

I don't defend the staus quo--that's why I made housecalls in the projects. That's why I've managed to annoy both my union president and Mr. Cerf, our state education commish, within the same month.

The status quo I won't defend is institutionalized poverty.

If a car won't start because it's missing the engine, you're wasting your time cussing at the key.

And yes, one of the schools is Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School--who says irony is dead?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Elementary science lesson

I love my Newton's cradle, and various versions have amused me for decades now. Harrod's popularized them as desktop toys way back when, but not because they're scientifical.

They're just plain fun.

They're also as obvious as the nose on a polar bear's face. Five balls banging against each other, in unexpected yet predictable and repeatable ways.

Just don't use the words inertia or force, or, Zeus forbid, Newton's Third Law.

Give a pair of children a Newton's cradle. Hold up a ball (or let one of them do it), and let it fall.
Hold up two, and do the same.

Have the children take turns predicting what will happen.

Then put the toys away for a few days.

No worksheets. No quizzes. No fancy words. Just a piece of the universe delivered unadulterated to the few minds left on Earth capable of seeing things for what they simply are.

Newton's cradle by DemonDeluxe via Wikiedia, unde CC

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


An Cailleach Bhearra wandered around back in the 10th century in western Ireland,
eating "seaweed, salmon, and wild garlic" (my kind of woman), looking for firewood.

If the day was bright and sunny, beware--she had gathered plenty of wood and was set for many cold days ahead.
If the day was gray, she didn't bother, and she will make the days warm up again. Sound familiar?

Imbolc again.
The daffodils have broken through the earth. My words shrink as the sunlight grows.
Groundhog Day has always been a favorite of mine.

We are trapped by words.

This week my lambs are being tested. They sit silently as they analyze stylized marks on paper, then fill in 90 bubbles on a piece of paper holding 500.

This is serious business, this thing we do with words. Outside a gull glided by lifted by the unusually warm mid-winter breeze. No one else in class saw it.

What's the use of knowing the word gull if you have no use for the animal?

We pretend our words make us safe. We pretend our words give us control. We pretend that words make us special, and that these words separate us from the bacteria, the fungi, the jellies, and the gull.


A few days ago I watched a crow at the ferry jetty caw caw caw at a gull sharing a light post. The gull did not respond. The crow then swooped down, picked up a piece of paper, then returned to its perch near the gull.

The crow carefully ripped up the paper, piece by piece, dropping each piece, one by one, watching each piece until it hit the ground, looking at the gull between pieces as if to say Hey!

When done, the crow cawed once more, and this time the gull squawked back. The crow, now seemingly satisfied, nodded, then flew to a trashcan and cawed at a few humanfolk, one (not me) who cawed back.

I have no idea what that was about, nor could I justify discussing it in my classroom. So I don't.

Curriculum stops at the point where humans are besides the point.

That makes sense if you live in a world of words. It makes less sense at the water's edge.
A child can parrot the Calvin cycle without knowing a thing about a seed, about food, about the billions, trillions of other organisms teeming around him.

If we keep ignoring things where humans are besides the point, we will become just that.


I teach biology, the study of life, in a culture that fails to recognize death. The children spray themselves with Axe, yet shy from the pond water and the mud brought in from outside.

I can hardly grade a child on her ability to keep a plant alive in a public building . I cannot ask a child to slaughter a calf in class. I can ask her to tell me how many NADH molecules are generated from one molecule of glucose during the Krebs cycle.

With the return of the sun comes the return of my sanity, when I feel comfortable letting go of the words again, learning (again) that what I thought was besides the point is the point.

Photos by us.