Friday, June 29, 2012

Nothing doing

For the cost of sitting by the edge of the bay, doing, well, nothing, I got to see a skate's wings rhythmically slicing through the water's surface.

I got up, walked along rhe edge of the beach as the animal gracefully glided along in knee deep water.

There's no point to this story.

For the cost of sitting by the edge of the bay, doing, well, nothing, I got to see an osprey carry a live, decent sized bluefish, no doubt bringing it back to its eyrie to feed its young.

The bird hesitated as it reached the edge of the sea, banked towards us for a few yards, then arced back towards the land. We have seen the same bird several times follow the same path.

There's no moral to share.

For the cost of sitting by the edge of the bay, doing, well, nothing, I got to see a ghost crab peer out over its hole, slip back down again to kick out more sand, then mosey on out again, as though admiring his fancy digs.

Another crab ambled too close, and the first one scuttled quickly towards it, chasing it away, then stalked back into his burrow, just its eyes peering out like two tiny lollipops.

There's nothing to sell here.

A day of sitting still hardly counts as a day of education, of course, and without a lifetime of learning, I might not get the same joy from watching critters go about just going about.

Stillness matters still, despite the human noise that dominates our culture on this patch of the Earth.

How many children spend how many hours learning less under fluorescent lights than I learn doing nothing? Don't just stand there--do nothing.

I think I now know what's fundamentally wrong with an iPad replacing a piece of paper. We're confusing sleekness with sensuousness. The iPad is visually stunning as a work of human artifice, it's professional looking, it's sleek. Most of the work has already been done. A piece of paper's joy lies in its texture, its smell, its possibilities. I know my beach stories are connected to the iPad/paper disconnect, but I don't (yet) know how.
I'm going back to the beach to ponder that some more...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Know your place

Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and all kinds of other crazy rich folk want to colonize your town. And they are succeeding, because we let them succeed.

If you teach, know your place, the earth under your feet. Stay grounded.

If you teach history, know who walked the street that runs past our school. Learn the names of the townsfolk killed in action--their names are on our street signs--their kin walk in our halls. Talk to the locals wiling away their final days in the old folks home just two blocks away across the Green. Was the tunnel found at Bloomfield Steak and Seafood  used to free slaves?

A century old when the Declaration of Independence was written

If you teach language, bother to say "good morning" in the varied tongues found in our town. Bengali, Gujarati, Spanish, Tagalog, Creole. And "thank you." Portuguese, Patois, Mandarin, Greek. Learn the names of moves on a skateboard, on a bike, on a dance floor.

If you teach science, share which plants are edible on the school grounds. Mention the Manhattan Project research that now sits as a dead zone where Westinghouse used to be. Bring some tiny critters in for the weekend--roly polies and millipedes need little care. Know what creeks wend through town.

Jean Giamis is looking for help--did you work here? Know someone who did?

If you teach any of the arts--ne'er mind, they already got this covered.

Every true teacher in our building is a history teacher, a language arts teacher, a science teacher, an arts teacher. We all have a lot to learn and a lot to share.

Ironically, those we fear the most are those the least grounded. Ambitious folk who move around to garner power cannot be trusted with what they cannot know.

I work hard to know my place--I wish Arne and his ilk would start to learn theirs.

Our Acting Commissioner of Ed Chris Cerf cannot even figure out what county he lives in...sigh

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Counting cats in Zanzibar

It is not worth the while to go round the world
to count the cats in Zanzibar.
Walden, Henry David Thoreau

It's all about the stuff.
Don't call it matter.

It's all about how the stuff changes.
But don't call it energy.

I found this caterpillar on one of our dill plants yesterday. It has spent its entire life on the dill plant, yet looks nothing like it. Its parts are made of the parts of the dill.

Soon it will form a chrysalis, rearranging its parts into a butterfly, unless a wasp gets to it first.

My kids can tell you about the molecular structure of a cell membrane with about as much understanding as they have of the dill and the caterpillar. Most do not feel connected to either.

If we want to get children passionate about the natural world, to guide a few of our tadpoles into fields like biology and physics, we need them to engage them.

Science teachers may not be the best folks to make this happen. Elementary school teachers preaching the Next Generation standards will not fare much better.

Until you get that the caterpillar is made up of the same stuff as the dill, tiny particles rearranged into different patterns but still the same tiny particles, no sense wasting time contemplating cell membranes.


If you stop eating, you lose weight. Obvious and intuitive.

Where does it go? Not so intuitive.

Every few seconds, you lose countless particles of the stuff that makes you you. You are breaking down larger molecules into smaller ones, flinging off CO2, too stable to be of any use, out back into the air.

(Not sure where we'd put this in the curriculum, but what we poo is not part of us, never was except for a trifling amount of bile and bits of bowel sloughing off.)

That  stuff you breathe out is as real as the monitor in front of you. Most of us don't believe this, and even fewer understand it.

Adding complexity to the curriculum misses the point, if the point is about grasping and loving the world.

To be fair, Arne and company say the point is to create a global workforce, and I suppose a child who starts to understand the world, to understand limits, to understand what a happy life requires, would make a lousy serf.

A child wiling away an afternoon watching part of a dill plant become a caterpillar learns everything she ever needs to know in a lifetime about cell membranes, unless she chooses to become a biologist.

And she knows more about biology than many of those who call themselves science teachers.

Dear teacher,

I know you want to proselytize.
I know you want to save the world.
I know you see yourself as guiding an amorphous being into truth and light.

But tell the truth, as we know it.
And we don't know it yet.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A great day to be a Bloomfield Bengal!

Tomorrow our Class of 2012 will walk to Foley Field to receive their diplomas.

It's is hard to capture the culture of any particular high school, but our kids recently put together a video that did just that.

(Full disclosure--they included me around 4:05)

Part two can be found here.

John Spencer made a good point--no mention of test scores anywhere.
See our motto? Learn to live. Amen.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lightning bugs and honeysuckle

If you're not outside at dusk these days, go there.

The lightning bugs in Jersey are ridiculous now, and the dusk honeysuckle aroma wraps around me like Granny's afghan. Light matters for the cerebral among us, but the honeysuckle takes me past language.

Granny's dead, has been for a long time, but tonight she has arisen again, as real as the shadowy outline of the hop bine crossing the slate sky a few feet away.

In a few weeks June's tumescence will turn rancid, as the sun starts to creak its way back south again, as it always has.

But tonight it is still edging north, and Puck and Peaseblossom play with us in the late shadows, Saturn rising in the eastern sky, when anything (and everything) are still possible.

Bugs that flash for love, ringed planets, impossibly delicious air, and critters who dodge my slaps to steal some blood, my blood,  so they may have some children--it's June again, and always has been.

I love June.....

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A life worth Achieving, Inc

The process of science has not changed much the past few hundred years.

It's messy, always has been. Our worldviews, the concrete ideas we carry around in our heads about what's real, are no more solid than the mass of goo we hold in our skulls.

It's controversial, always will be--folks (including scientists) don't like their worldviews shook up.

It's powerful, more than we know. We play at science at our peril, like ants with a magnifying glass. Because it's powerful, it matters to those who hold power.

From the National Science Education Standards, 1996

Achieve Inc. is an organization made up "of governors and business leaders." It has a worldview, it's controversial, and it's powerful, but it has no business serving as the lead organization to develop science standards.

Michael Cohen runs Achieve. He looks like a nice guy, and he has made a comfortable living converting corporate dollars (Aspen Institute, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, etc.) into fancy programs with undue influence on what should be public education. I'm sure he, like many eduwonks, sincerely believes in what he is doing, and has little reason to question it (and a few big reasons not to).

In a few years, folks will look at those men who wielded this generation's magic wand and wonder how foolish the whole run was, and shrug. There will be plenty more charlatans with their own wands ready to feed from the Gates and Broad troughs--our culture rewards sycophants.

You cannot love what you cannot know. Oh, you can go through the motions, you can get all kinds of rich, you can get powerful, but you cannot love what you cannot know.

If students must learn "science" in order to pass a test, then many of them will do just that. If you want a child to love science, though, she must first get acquainted with the natural world.

The photo above is from the NGSS site, ironically labeled "OutdoorLab." The focus is literally on the machine.

I am not opposed to net-books or graphs (or even slide rules)--but if you want to create a child interested in the world, the blurry young man mucking about the edge of a pond has a lot more going for him than the one collecting the data.

Oh, and by the way--a child in love with the natural world is less likely to carelessly destroy it, even if she chooses not to become an engineer. She might find more joy at a pond's edge than at Mall of America. She might (*gasp*) prefer creating to consuming.

And the world will have one fewer eduwonk.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Midsummer madness

We pretend otherwise, but we're living in times of magical thinking.
And this is dangerous.

If you're reading this on a monitor, you are probably directly connected to a turbine somewhere, turning a magnet in a huge coil of wire.

The light that's triggering the images on your eye's retina was generated by passing electrons, which were pushed mechanically, either by wind or by steam.

The steam likely came from either burning coal or oil. It may have come from the heat of nuclear fission. How it came matters not, steam is steam.

My grandfather was born in 1898. The video below was made two years later.

We've become the gods in our own universes, and it's not going to end well.

I've been charged with teaching DNA replication to 15 year old children in New Jersey, children who do not know where food comes from, children who do not see stars, children who plug into walls without wonder.

I don't write much in June--the light, the air, the humming of life outside remind me what matters, and what matters cannot be found in words.

Words are wonderful. The love of my life is a writer. I get that we are human, and that our words help define us.

But in June, the casual brief grasp of an ornery grape vine grabbing my arm as I go through the back door silently reminds me that we have no more (nor less) privilege than any other being busy breaking down complex molecules made by other beings, all of us tied together by energy from the sun, none of us any wiser than any of the rest of us.

My Grandfather knew this, which is why worshiping on Sundays made sense to him. He learned to trust this new-fangled electricity thing, but it never replaced the world he lived in, the world that exists around us.


Nothing (and everything) makes sense in June. Midsummer madness is here.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Good is not good enough

I'm in a dangerous place, not unusual for June, when light exposes our frailties and conceits.

I love the idea of public school, but I fear what it produces now. And it's going to get worse.

Tomorrow I will lead my merrie band to the beach--they will be reminded that the world is much bigger, much more complex, far more beautiful than anything created by humans alone.
  • A few now know where food comes from, but most still do not.
  • A few now know how tenuous our grip on what's real is, but most will continue to feast on facts.
  • A few will start to trust their senses, their minds, more than they trust authority.

And "few" is far too few.

I am turning my contract in tomorrow, and I wonder: have I earned it for my town of Bloomfield, where stoops still matter, and folks still know how to bake and brew?

Have any of us?

No, not an existential crisis--my ego is big enough to think I've done as good as anyone else could have here.
But good is simply not good enough.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Pixels and plastic

I've spent the last couple of days asking kids to look at horseshoe crab molts. The molts are (mostly) unfamiliar, with all kinds of tiny surprises. We're going to Sandy Hook in a few days to see some live ones in the bay.

I can't draw.

The vast majority of my students spend hours a day staring at screens, and why not? The screens dance and flash through millions of sounds and colors, a tiny world screaming how wonderful its user is, and how much more wonderful she can be if she only does this....

I can't draw.

The closer you look at a screen, the less you see. That's the world our children live in.
The toys they play with as children are made of plastic, the details of each one identical to thousands of other.

Details elude them, because, for most of what they see, details do not exist.

I can't draw.

 I don't argue with them. I don't care if they can draw. I care if they can see. It's not intuitive, not anymore.
Look again, what do you see. Trust me, look.

And several times today a smile broke out, and I heard the word.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Lightning bugs, again.

On Saturday, I wandered down a spit of land that splits two sounds. It used to hold a railroad track, but the ties have been replaced with a bed of sea shells. Thousands upon thousands of sun-bleached whelk shells lay in piles.

Along the way I saw a diamond-backed terrapin laying her eggs in a shallow hole she had dug, just a few yards from the aptly named Turtle Creek.

That evening, I saw the first lightning bug of the season.

I never tire of lightning bugs.


Dusk settled on the lake. I could hear the kiss of bluegills as they sucked down insects struggling on the surface.

A few lightning bugs flashed above the mirrored surface. Attracted by their own reflections, they swooped ever closer to the lightning bugs flashing below them.

Fish may not be smart, but they're not all get-out stupid, either. And a bluegill will jump if hungry enough. A few were hungry enough. Inside their bellies glowed a few foolish lightning bugs.

Lightning bug light is cool-literally. Luciferin combines with ATP, the energy molecule of life--the resulting compound combines with oxygen, catalyzed by luciferase, and light results.

Even tiny amounts of ATP will cause luciferin to light, as long as oxygen is present. While man has never been to Mars, bits of lightning bugs have--luciferin is an extremely sensitive detector of ATP. If it flashes, carbon-based life may be present.

Scientist have yet to synthesize luciferin, so they buy lightning bugs.

My daughter dug out a tiny mudhole for me in our backyard. At dusk, I sit opposite the pokeweed I am learning to like, under a stray white birch I have always liked. Lightning bugs arise from the earth, flashing their "J"'s, looking for love. Harry Potter, like the Bible, makes sense sitting outside on an early June evening.

I read until the dusk chases words off the page, my feet resting on a small stone wall we built together.

A flash just below my right foot.

I break from Harry Potter. A second scurrying critter rumbles about the flash. The flashing becomes frantic, several short blips in less than a few seconds. My eyes adjust--a spider dances around its prey.
I've never seen a lightning bug flash quickly like that, but then I've never seen one eaten by a spider either. A lightning bug makes a flash by adding a tiny bit of ATP to luceferin. In our mechanistic view of the world, not a bad worldview if you're in the business of conquering it, lightning bugs flash instinctively. They are not known to flash for defensive purposes.

I cannot know why this one flashed, but I do know that lightning bugs, at least this one, had a pattern distinct from its cherchez la femme mode when struggling with a spider.

I almost didn't try to "save" it--a good naturalist observes, does not interfere. The spider has as much a right to the meal as I do to mine. Death by spider is likely to be quicker than death by starvation if the critter could no longer fly.

I pulled the frenetically flashing bug out of the web--a white wisp of web stuck to its backside. I set it on a leaf of the birch with mixed feelings. It will die slowly because my imagination would not allow me to let the spider bite it.

As the critter struggled with its first pair of legs to grasp the edge of the leaf, I gently pulled back the stick. The spider silk stuck to my stick. The lightning bug scootched a few millimeters, no longer flashing, and stood still.

I watched a moment longer. The lightning bug opened up its beetley shell, opened its wings, and flew away.

A moment later, a lightning bug brushed my leg at the bottom of its "J". No way to know if it was the same one. And it really doesn't matter.

Some Asian lightning bugs flash in unison. The lightning bugs in the Jersey area, at least the ones that make a J, are not known to do this (according to the scientists). Oh, occasionally they'll accidentally flash together a few seconds after the flash of a bright light, as though they were all resetting their bellies after seeing a god, but left alone, our fireflies are supposed to be the individualistic sorts.

The local critters must be illiterate--once or twice a dusk, they amuse themselves with synchronous flashing. (“Amuse” sounds like anthropomorphizing, of course--it’s an interesting word, comes from the French amuser, “to stupefy”--we’re most amused when our brains are buggy.) .

One poor fellow one evening couldn’t turn off his belly --he’d glow properly enough in his “J”, but still fizzled a bit as he looked for a response--doubt he could see much light beyond his perpetually lit self.

I muttered “padiddle.” .

Lightning bugs are, obviously alive. They have a lot of ATP. They have a lot of luciferin and luciferase. We made lightning bug earrings, lightning bug drawings, we’d smear dying and dead lightning bugs over our faces and laugh and scream like the atavistic creatures we were, mock Indian face paint.

I am a science teacher; I am not a scientist. A lot of folks are confused about what constitutes science. We want children to be amazed. You can purchase, via PayPal, a lightning bug “collection system.” You have a choice of sizes, and the handle glows in the dark. Imagine that! No doubt safer than punching holes in a half-rinsed mayonnaise jar.
Kids can study and be fascinated by all the little bugs found in the average back yard. Firefly lanterns allow children to watch the lighnting sicbugs light up. The bugs can be returned to nature where they were found after a day or two of enjoyment.
Plum Creek Marketing Entomology Products for Kids.

Another “experiment” suggests that kids catch lightning bugs in a jar for 5 minutes, record their observations, then let them go.

Took me 40 years to realize I learn a whole lot more doing nothing, feet up on a tiny stone wall next to my daughter’s puddle.

Friday, June 1, 2012

June, again

June again--I liked this one in 2010, and I still like it.


I want to crawl face down in the fields
and graze on the wild strawberries, my clothes
stained pink, even for seven years
if I must, if they exist. I want to lie out
on my back under the thousand stars and think
my way up among them, through them,
and a little distance past them, and attain
a moment of absolute ignorance,
if I can, if human mentality lets us.

Galway Kinnell, from The Seekonk Woods

I have never regretted any moment outside. As in under the sky.
Not one single moment.

I've been cozy, chilled, hot, wet, dry, stung, caressed by the breeze, and almost drowned in the sea. I've feasted on wild berries, feared wild beasts. I've watched ants for hours, and the moon forever.

I've seen life take life, and I've taken lives. I've heard the last yelps. I've eaten critters that squirmed in my hands. I watched a lightning bug flicker in desperation as a spider wrapped her silk around and around and around.

Tonight the honeysuckle blossoms steal words from my cortex, and I welcome the thieves.

June lasts forever when it comes, and is impossible to remember when it's gone. No words are needed in June. None. Life is as abundant as the light. I cannot help myself--I worship the sun now, so tangible on my skin, so obviously the giver, as it settles in the north for a spell.

Tonight somewhere in my town a child is doing homework on an early June dusk. Probably safer that way. Can't have children shirk responsibilities. Keep them indoors. They must stay focused!

Say you're a biology teacher, and, say, you know a lot more biology lies outside the textbook than in it. You're older now, with many more Junes past than any yet to be (graciously) received. What does a 15 year old child need to know? What do any of us need to know?

Ambition is well-rewarded in our culture. Delayed gratification is a virtue. If you want to be rich or powerful, chances are pretty good you won't die in the same town that welcomed your birth.

There's also a good chance you won't know where the local wild mulberries lie ripe for the picking, or where clams can be raked.

In June, my motives are clear--teach the children to see the world under their noses. The world offers riches beyond a wealthy family's dreams, but you need to go outside.

Kids know this until we teach them to forget. Most classes fit well in a classroom--a good biology class tends to ooze outwards.