Saturday, April 28, 2012

The good life

We have never worked harder and have never enjoyed work more, because, with rare exceptions, the work was significant, self-directed, constructive and therefore interesting. 
Helen and Scott Nearing  
Grown by a student in B362.
Our children are not working for themselves. They are working for the global economy, for corporations, for efficiency, for tests scores.

This is not an idle thought. Our Secretary of Education has stated that the purpose of art in school is to promote the global economy.

Money is indeed a powerful thing. In our culture money gets you food without dirt, water without lifting, a roof without hammering.Science and art are pushed by Mr. Duncan because they contribute to the global economy.

If I'm a kid, this is what I am hearing: the only kind of work that matters is the kind that makes money, usually more for someone else than yourself. We're asking them to do things in school so that they can "compete" in a "global economy"--what does that even mean?

You know what my students are most proud of in school? The kind of pride that has a kid come to me before class and say "Look at this!"?
  • A shirt designed, cut, and sewn by her own hands.
  • A cookie mixed and cooked by his.
  • A silly riff on a ukele composed while meandering between classes.
  • A simple paper certificate for winning a drama competition.
  • A carrot grown in class.
 Significant. Self-directed. Constructive.

My students are younger than the idea of a global economy. They're still genetically human, and they behave, for the moment, as humans have for thousands of years.

Learning about levers back in '75

How much longer will we keep trying to tear the human out of them?

On a good day I feel like a teacher.
On a bad day, a colonialist.

Arne on the Arts

The arts are an important part of a well-rounded education for all students. All of the arts – dance, music, theatre [sic], and the visual arts – are essential to preparing our nation’s young people for a global economy fueled by innovation and creativity and for a social discourse that demands communication in images and sound as well as in text.

The are the words of Mr. Duncan, the man in charge of education here in the States, from Homeroom, the official blog of the US DOE.

Homerooms, by the way, are disappearing--in our quest for ├╝ber efficiency, we no longer have 10 minutes to spare each morning taking attendance, making classroom announcements, saying hello to each and every one of our students as they come in to the building.

Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School in Pennsylvania lost theirs just this year:
Principal Dave Harris said the decision to eliminate homeroom gives the district a chance to add a minute daily to each instructional period.
And to be fair, if Arne's right, if the purpose of public education is to prepare young adults for the global economy where efficiency and standardization matter more than what matters at home, homeroom is a colossal waste of precious minutes.

Frederick Winslow Taylor would be proud.

Thankfully, the Edumacator in Chief has found a loophole for art, the same one he uses for science. We teach it because it helps sustain his twisted worldview, where some abstract ideal of global trumps human.

Without art, without science, we lose a part of being human,
Without human, we lose the point of both.

Yes, Arne spelled "theater" with his pinky fully extended. What an arse.

She says she says this in jest. I hope so. We need her brazenness back in the classroom.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Why I teach (again and again)

I used to think that if people seemed reasonably happy with their fantasy lives, living the good life through media fantasies (Did you hear? Robin Gibb woke up!), I had no business reminding them what they may have lost. No one likes an in-your-face John Milton type. But now I am a teacher.

Science is made up of stories that help explain how the universe is put together. The stories are based, as they must be, on how we perceive what surrounds us, and because our perceptions are limited, so must be our stories. Science can never explain everything, nor is it meant to do so. The deeper our perceptions, the deeper the mystery.

I like looking at things, and I like putting things together. Scientists and artists (and you really cannot be one without knowing something about the other) both broaden our views, and ultimately add to the mystery.


Technologists do neither, but their tools increase efficiency, which matters because that improves profit margins.

I am looking to buy a new clam rake. There are several types available, and a few are much more efficient at getting clams than my rooster style Chatham scratcher.Were I making a living at this, I'd likely get a large bull rake, and tear up a lot more bottom than I do now, gathering bushels instead of dozens.

Either way, I'm hardly making a dent on the Jersey coast, and no one knows what damage I do but me. Still, yesterday I managed to impale a small, soft-shelled blue crab. I pulled it off, still wriggling, then tossed it back in the water, where it feebly swam into the muck, no doubt a meal in less time than it takes me to write his epitaph.

And I guess it shouldn't matter, but it matters to me. As long as I get what I need with my rake, with a minimum amount of damage, I'll get another one just like it.

Because I rake my own clams, I know that it costs lives. If you eat, you kill. In our magical thinking efficient universe, most of my students do not understand this.

If you do not understand the consequences of what you are doing, some things get a whole lot easier to do.

Schools should be places of reflection, learning spaces helping children see the world, to see their role in the world, the whole world.

If your building is designed to prepare the children for a global economy, then science and art both lose. "Global knowledge" is an oxymoron, and the "new economy" rips us from the only things we can possibly hope to know, that which surrounds us.

I'll leave that ol' polemicist Milton be--we have Thomas Friedman now, enough for any generation--and end  with William Blake, who, in "Auguries of Innocence," may have written as good a reason for education as any.
To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.
 And, of course, to love.

Scatterbrained and busy--take with a grain of salt.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Digital divide?

The Pew Internet & American Life Project just released "Digital differences"--another look at who uses the internet, and who does not. While there remains a digital divide for economic reasons, a good number of folks could use it but do not "because they don’t think the internet is relevant to them."

This bothers some of the digiterati.

But I think the unconnected my be less disconnected than we think.

A few years ago, I spent a few Sunday (First Day) mornings at Quaker meetings. You sit, waiting in silence, to be moved by God, or if that makes you uncomfortable, call it wisdom.
Your brain fires too rapidly, too many thoughts and images of the week of the year blazing past.

After a time, you lose time, and, rarely, you lose self. (If you become aware you've lost self, you've lost your lost self and you're back in the walls of your ego. Those Quaker folk know what they're doing.)

The first few minutes, as I sunk away from my verbal universe,I'd stare through a large window at a large tree. A telephone line ran through it. I would try to guess how many bits of information could travel through that line in a second.

On a good day the question became nonsensical.
Everything you glean through a computer must be blown to bits first, then reconstructed. Everything is filtered by humans. Any sense of mystery, anything at all that cannot be reduced to bits, has been removed.

We're pretty good at it, this digitizing thing, because we've gone done fooled ourselves into what we think matters. Our visual cortex, our language centers, rule our world. We like to be stimulated.

Or so we think.

When we sense a threat, we need to do something.  It's this need, this desire, that kept your clan alive this far along in the game. (We're talking billions of years.) When we do something, we feel relief.

We spend much of our day seeking relief--buying tchotchkes, popping zits, taking that first sip of wine at the end of a "long day."

Very few things we seek on the internet add to our wisdom--someone has already done the thinking for us.
If you're on the internet for information, you've come to the right place. Just remember that every piece gleaned passed through a human filter.

The computer is the Eniac at U Penn, back in 1946. I think it's PD.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Zip codes and cortisol

Suppose you had a child who had sustained a moderate head injury in a car accident, how would you assess her her first few months back?

Her memory may be wobbly, she may be prone to bouts of inattention.

You'd be kind, no? You'd work with her to help her get through her material. You might even whisper to her that there are bigger things in life than this week's homework assignment.

You certainly would not blame the child for the extra work you both need to do to get her through the curriculum.

Suppose you had a child who's just returned from home instruction after a particular rough bout with treatment for his brain tumor. He's doing better now, thanks be to God, but he's not quite as sharp as he was.

A colleague mentions to you he had brain irradiation. You get a vague 504 notification that he needs more time to complete his tasks, that he needs an outline of all class activities. You'd be more than glad to take on the extra duties. You're a teacher, and like most teachers, frequently take those extra steps for children who need them. You do not need a 504 reminding you to be human.

You certainly would not blame the child.

Now imagine you have a child who has been exposed to a drug during early childhood, a drug known to shrink a portion of the brain called the hippocampus.

You do a little research on the hippocampus, a critical component for new memories and for spatial awareness. You ponder what it must be like for a child facing challenges in an increasingly competitive and unloving school system.

You can predict how such a child might do in today's schools.

The drug? Cortisol.
The source? A child's own adrenal glands, a response to stress.
The cause? More often than not, poverty.

I worked for years as a pediatrician in shelters and public housing in some of the most stressed neighborhoods in New Jersey. I saw plenty of love, strength, and beauty under conditions that crushed souls. But I was putting band-aids on the gaping wounds of systemic neglect that continue and continue and continue.

A child who lives under constant severe stress has, literally, smaller hippocampuses than a child not exposed to the same stress.

I sat a table's width across from Governor Christie last spring as he spouted off one of Arne Duncan's soundbites: "Zip code is not destiny."

And I agree. As brain tumors and moderate brain injuries are also not destiny.

But if you think any of them have no effect on a child's education you are simply not thinking.

Would it had made a difference if I screamed at the smugness that accompanied the remark?
A remark by the most powerful man in our state, speaking of the least.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Clamming on Good Friday

It's Good Friday, which matters for a few of us, some for good reasons, some for less. I usually spend a few hours in the garden, but today I elected to spend them on a mudflat.

This is what's left after we're done.

At about the same time the Christ would have uttered "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I raked up a clam that had obviously been broken 2 or 3 years ago, possibly by my rake, likely by someone else's. It does not matter.
The shell had healed along its breakpoint, which extended from the lip all the way back. 

Two things popped up in my mind.
Miracle. Mind you, it's Good Friday.

What does this tell me about the immune system of a quahog that it can survive a rupture of its shell? Mind you, I'm a science teacher.
The two are not incompatible.

I did not have a camera. I put it back into the mudflat. It survived some traumatic event a few years ago, and it survived my rake today. That won't always be true.

But it's true today, on a spectacular spring day whose abundance of light reminds me of what I will lose someday, but not today.

We are here now, and that's enough, for now.

OK, I'll resume the regularly scheduled programming in a day or two. Not every day I stumble on a miracle.
And yes, I am aware that I am hyperacutely looking for miracles today. That's the point, no? 
Our reference changes moment to moment, at least mine does....

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Slaughtering science in the classroom

It's planting time--as has been for the past few weeks. I poke a small hole in the earth, drop in a seed, push dirt over the hole, then go on to the next.

It is an act of faith that each seed will erupt into a growing organism, thrusting it roots deep into the dark, its leaves arching towards the sun. It is through acts of science that we "know" how.

I can tell you the science behind germination, a complex and fascinating dance, and if I'm feeling particularly cognitive, grasping this complexity brings joy. That's not what I think about though when sowing, when I think at all.

I pick up each basil seed one by one from my palm, each seed felt as it clings to my moist finger. Live seeds, even tiny ones, have a vital heft. I know this through experience, something I have done for years because I enjoy it, and because I like to eat fresh basil.

It's a good reason to pray, so I do.

I do not believe in science. A lot of folks do, but a lot of folks are confused. Science is not so much about the "real" world as it is the natural world--and therein lies a world of difference.

Science is not a belief system, it is a process, a particular process of  story-telling to help us understand the events we're capable of perceiving in the natural world. Science is not based on faith of any sort except that there is some kind of underlying universal order, without which science would not work.

And science works.

No one has seen an atom's nucleus, though we all know the story. No one has measured the gravity imposed on us by a random star 12 billion light years away, but we trust that the mathematical expression of gravity applies. We cannot visualize chemical bonds, yet our students draw stick figures of molecules using a line to represent what they call a "bond."

We test these things regularly--and most of our kids mindlessly pass those tests.

We fetishize science, finding huge meaning in facts when what really matters is how we write the stories, how we enhance our senses to see what is part of the natural world, and what is simply part of us. (The two are similar, but not identical.)

Praying for a basil seed's being makes at least as much sense as drawing stick figures of molecules. The stories of science are meant, simply, to understand what we can perceive. My prayers acknowledge that I cannot perceive everything that matters through senses alone.

When we fail to make these distinctions, when science defines reality and everything else dissolves into mere fictions, we not only demean the arts--we kill science.

The basil is from our classroom.
The stick formula drawing from Joachim Schummer, "The Chemical Core of Chemistry I: A Conceptual Approach"

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Why kids love science anyway...

As much faith as I have in natural laws, I have much less faith in my ability to lasso them as needed in a classroom. I've had some spectacularly loud, messy failures.
Kids like this.

As much as the Arne's and the Eli's and the Bill's want to control curriculum, they cannot control a child-driven experiment. To be fair, neither can I.
Kids like this.

We grow beans and basil in class, edible stuff from the breath they exhale--at first they resist the idea, as any reasonable creature would, and I don't give them any particular reason to believe it, but some do anyway.
Kids like this.

Many of the hypotheses generated in class are as good as mine. A few are better. Now and again a child develops a spectacularly good idea, beyond anything I'd likely generate. Their ideas, crafted within the nature of science, count as much as mine.
Kids like this.

I am wrong a lot. Science teachers in general are wrong a lot. What we "knew" not so long ago is less true than it used to be.
Kids like this.

We have critters that swim, crawl, fly, hiss, poop, pee, and screw pretty much whenever they want to. Kids can't do any of those things without permission during school, except maybe hiss, and even then, very quietly.
Kids like this.

I don't quite know what the word "authentic" means, as much as it is bandied about in edutopia, but I do know that it is impossible to fake science. Children have eyes and noses, they have brains, and they have imagination. They get to use all three, and while there are some days they'd rather not, most of them find pleasure in using their bodies the way nature intended them to be used.

Want more science teachers, Mr. Duncan? Let us teach science....
All photos from B362

Why we hate science, 2

Leslie and I walked along the edge of the Atlantic this afternoon, arguing just what that meant. She believes the edge is ephemeral, abstract, and I drew a line at the highest point of the last wave. It was a pointless discussion, and done in play, but it gets back to the words thing. So many words approximate what we think we know.

If we knew what we were talking about, we wouldn't be so chatty.
From Fishing Destin Guide

I saw a sand flea on its side. I picked it up to look at it, and it kicked its legs a bit. I dug a hole at the edge of the ocean to give it a chance to survive, and accidentally uncovered another one. I dug another hole, disturbed yet another one. Thousands upon thousands of sand fleas lay under our feet, betrayed by the dying one lolling upside down in the tiny trench washed by the surf.

I buried it an inch or two, said a prayer, and walked on.

There is far more to this universe than we'll ever know. 

To reject expertise, to reject scientists, is not the same as to reject science, but the distinction can be fuzzy. Science research can be (and is) dictated by powerful folks who drive our economic engines. Scientists can be (and are) influenced by money, by rewards, by fame--everybody wants to be a rock star.

Science itself, though, can be practiced by anyone with a reasonably intact brain and a decent command of written language (a scarce commodity), anyone willing to follow where the natural world takes you.

I might say the same for democracy, substituting "rational thought" for "natural world"--and this similarity drives my passion for teaching in a Title 1 public school system. I'm not worried about the children in private schools, nor those in the elite suburban public schools. Our culture has their backs.

Democracy wasn't promoted by our British aristocratic roots--the first man killed in the Boston Massacre was once an American slave, a dockworker of both African and Wampanoag descent. If we ever remember our own history, we might avoid our habit of electing Tories.

The problem with science is that it tells the truth, at least as far as the natural world goes. You do this, you get that. We don't always understand the "that," and much of the creative joy in science is creating models of the "that" that can explain all this stuff outside our brains in a way we can understand.
  • Our current dominant economic system requires "growth"--it does not recognize natural limits.
  • Our current dominant political system depends on raw emotions--it does not recognize rational thought.
  • Our current dominant culture requires magical thinking and deference to humans--it does not recognize the mystery around us.
I am part of the bourgeoisie, a Christian when it's convenient, a social liberal who walks by the homeless, and I still get teary-eyed with a good rendition of our national anthem. I thrive in our human community, though many of my students do not.

Then I pick up a "dead" sand flea, and its feeble kicks tickle the palm of my hand, reminding me I know nothing, then dig up several others while trying, foolishly, to save the one.

The push for STEM education comes about for all the wrong reasons, and will fail for the same. We need to kick China's ass, we need to fix the economy, we need to kick Russia's ass, we need to provide workers for our multinational corporations, we need to kick India's ass, we need to get more energy, we need to kick Europe's ass....

Science, real science, starts with the first time a child's simple observation of the natural world conflicts with what she knows, the first time she realizes that the world most of us live in, as comforting as it may seem day to day, is made of mirrors. She has a choice to make, a huge choice that will push her into a new world that will separate her from her culture.

I have known a few real scientists in my classrooms, and most of them do not thrive in our building. The life of a scientist requires hard work, and may pay less than the high school science teacher who pushes them into a field he himself could not master.

You can no more make professional scientists by pushing high school science child than you can by eliminate obesity by requiring every child to take physical education.

We do it anyway.

What do you remember from high school science?

Sand flea by Fishing Destin Guide, permission pending
The STEM chart from New Voices for Research

Approximation to adequacy: why we hate science

The individual concepts of children, and the individual concepts of most persons who live and die in this world, are exceedingly vague, crude, and obscure. That is, they are vague, crude, and obscure in comparison with any approximation to adequacy.
Francis W. Parker, "Observation," Talks on Pedagogics, 1894

Leslie and I startled a black duck-like critter as we stepped over to the other side of a jetty. It scrabbled its way back to the water, its legs flailing against the sand. It had a bright orange-red beak, and it swam a lot better than it ran.

What was it? Not sure. We'll find out eventually by putting together its shape, color, location, season--all things recorded by others, things I can look up. Right now I suspect it was a black scoter. A few minutes on the internet, and I'll figure it out.

Science requires observation, of course, but it also requires a way to record those observations. Humans (and other mammals) when left on their own will see what they need to see. Context matters.

Writing things down matters more than we realize--we give life to words, because words make moments permanent. We can compare a moment we had two years ago with the one we have now. It turns out our words are less fallible malleable than our memories. Before the written word, our stories were certain and true.

Words make our stories more certain, and over time, less true. We trust the book (in whatever form) over our elders now, no small reason we have formalized our warehousing of the old. We no longer need the old folks for their collective memory, and books don't soil their beds.

Science works because the natural world follows consistent rules, and because those who practice science trust their written words over their intuitions. It still upsets me that an American dime (2.3 grams) falls as fast as the  CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (almost 3500 grams) when I drop both from about 8 feet on the first day of class.

They both hit the floor at the same time, every time.

I know that they will, but I still don't believe it.  Cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance hurts, a lot, and for good reason. A mammal who hesitates, who is confused by competing interpretations of its environment, may soon end up in pieces, torn by the talons and teeth of a critter a bit more focused.

If my students aren't grabbing their brains complaining that all this science stuff hurts, then I'm not teaching science, I'm teaching trivia. I teach a lot of trivia.

Ripping away the comfort of cultural reality creeps people out. On a rare day, I'll see a glimpse of fear in a child's eye as she feels the floor drop under her feet. I won't push this, but I will acknowledge it--"the world is bigger than any of us can know" or maybe "welcome to science."

What I won't do is pretend it's not terrifying, this cognitive dissonance, bucking hundreds of millions of years of evolution that taught us to fear the shadows, fear the dissonance.

I'm sure a English Language Arts teacher sees the same when a child grasps that Gilgamesh shares his fears of death in a poem written almost 3,000 years ago. An art teacher sees the joy on a child's face as she recognizes the power of her hands and her imagination, so rarely expressed in a classroom.

None of us see it during review for the state tests.

Yes, I am working my way to this...
Thanks, Kate Tabor, for the book!