Friday, August 31, 2012

Enough to make a biology teacher scream

There's a reason I have emblazoned on two of my four walls the words of Theodosius Dobzhansky:

"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" 

Here's what Americans believe, as of June, according to a Gallup poll.

The world is not flat, and humans have been around for a lot longer than 10,000 years.

And at the risk of Bible baiting, Good Lord, folks, if you choose to defend the Good Book (and as our cultural legacy, there's much worth defending), at least read it. Critically.

Then come chat with me--but I got to warn you, I can wile away an evening on Genesis 2:7--a beautiful passage that most "Christians" I know have all wrong.

Wise peoples knew the world more intimately than we ever can with our amygdalas hooked up to these machines of perpetual images.

They knew more than most of us can ever appreciate--even if we dumb down their words to fit the needs of our own.

The mystery is all around us--and science only enhances it.

August light

The days fade quickly now--in three weeks we'll have an hour less sunlight gracing us than today.

We will assault children with a sterile view of science, reduced to a method and streams of vocabulary, "ideas" we can test.

The sun slides south without notice as we huddle under the subtle, damning hum of fluorescent lights, each one filled with vaporized mercury, coated with phosphor, a steam punk amalgamation of  early 20th century technology and vision.

We talk little of either, the sun or the hum, the light of our lives.

Here's the heart of biology: We're matter put together in an orderly fashion by light. When light fades, we fall apart.

Follow the energy--the breath you take brings in oxygen that allows you to convert the toast you ate this morning back into carbon dioxide and water. You literally breathe out a few bites of your breakfast  by noon.

Wheat grown in our classroom

The toast, of course, is mostly wheat--these days we take out the best part of the grain and feed it to animals (flour keeps better on the shelves this way), but what's left over , is still wheat, a plant, like most plants, that combines carbon dioxide and water into marvelous strands of carbon compounds, weavers that rival Rumpelstiltskin--the miracle is in the flax, not the gold.

And yet when we talk of "photosynthesis" the kids groan under the weight of the terms: photolysis, ATP synthase, electron chain transport, chemiosmosis....sighing vast quantities of carbon dioxide molecules, drooling on the desks.

Yes!...there's your breakfast, in the sighs, in the drool!

The fading light is not metaphorical--it is real. Outside the classroom windows the living world is dying, as it does every fall. The hunger season is coming.

We start the school year in late summer, as we do, as our bodies, still untamed, feel the dying light. We pretend otherwise, talk of the "new year" and of "objectives" and "benchmarks"--as the sun slides slowly south, the shadows lengthen ominously, and the ice returns.

We teach children to stop paying attention to what matters, to focus on the trivial. That is how you survive in a world of concrete and glass, in a world where many of our children would not recognize their breakfast in its raw form.

Biology is the study of life--let's shine our light on what matters.

Back to school is a bittersweet time...

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why I left medicine to teach

I used to be a doc, the real kind with tongue blades. I am now entering my 7th year of teaching. 
Students often ask me why I left medicine. Here's what I thought last year, and it still holds.

I used to be a doctor, the kind with a stethoscope, the kind licensed to hurt you for your own good. It puzzles children to learn that a physician would walk away from medicine in order to teach, and there are days I am baffled myself.

I liked medicine. I love teaching. I did not know that this would be true when I left medicine, so while it is true, it is not enough to explain why I left. Why leave something you like, especially when it pays ridiculously well?

Every year children ask me this, and so far I have not quite gotten it right. I thought I had it right, but high school sophomores would kind of shake just a little bit sideways. I wasn't fooling them.

I think I got it right now.

I saw a lot of bad stuff in hospitals. I saw a lot of good stuff, too, but good stuff can be found in a lot of places. The truly bad stuff has a home in the hospital.

  • The unlucky (an elderly woman who slowly died from an infection caused by an errant piece of metal ripping through her car's floor, riveting in her thigh).
  • The doomed (a woman burned over most of her body, still conscious, still talking, immediately before we intubated her, rendering her speechless--we knew she was doomed when we did this. We did it anyway.)
  • The curious (two babies sharing the same torso, the same heart, the same fate).
  • The geographically screwed (an Asian toddler who needed a new heart, but who could not afford one, twisting away towards death as she lived in an American hospital as an alien).
  • The innocent (children wasting away from a virus we barely understood, acquired from a mother's heroin habit or her lover's proclivities).

I was very good at diagnosis, and not bad at making things better once a diagnosis was made. A few were better than me, but not many.

 When you are surrounded by hurt, there are two ways to respond if you want to remain functional--fix it, or pretend it does not exist. I did a lot of fixing.

If you do medicine long enough, and if you are paying attention, you give death its due. It's real, it's usually ugly, and it's inevitable.

I can't beat death--took me awhile to get to that realization, but I got there. And it's liberating.

Turns out living isn't the goal--living well is what matters.

I was pretty good at helping people live longer. Now I'm getting good at helping people live well.

I thought my job mattered before, but had my doubts in the pitiful wail of a dying toddler, bruised and bleeding as we laid our hands, our technology, and finally our fists in futile CPR on her tiny body as it cooled its way back to entropy.

A life worth living is our only compensation against the greedy hand of death.

So I help children carve out a life worth living.

I'm a teacher.

If you teach, teach as though lives depend on it. If you think this is excessive, get out.
Photos by me or Leslie--feel free to use under CC.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

First year survival guide: Pencil wars

For the price of a daily cup of coffee (and a bit less than a daily Lexapro), here's a little advice that will go a long way to saving your sanity--buy pencils.

Antique pencil vending machine, via Showtime Auction Services

Everyone, everyone, knows the rule--bring a "writing utensil" to class. There are some variations--some teachers require certain types (the ol' Number Two vs. the I said black ink ballpoint pen)--but all have the same basic idea. Bring your tool.

I worked on the docks a long time ago. I worked hard, and I mostly enjoyed it, except when a boss got up my butt. The simplest way to slow down a job was drop a tool into the drink, which meant getting off the barge and retrieving another one, which meant 10" of sauntering. For a few moments, I had control.

I teach high school students--they know the rule. So what do you do with a child sitting with empty hands as class starts? First let's look at a few things that don't work.

Do not ask a child if she has a pencil--either she doesn't, which is pretty obvious, or she does and is keeping it hidden, and she's got other issues that need addressing, but not during class.* Just asking the question wastes time.

Do not ask a child if she knows the rules. She does. The whole freaking world does.But you go ahead and waste time explaining the rule anyway, which only makes you look ridiculous.

Here are the usual solutions, which all stink for various reasons:

Points off class participation:
If a child deliberately refuses to carry a pencil, well then, you'll show her! 

Stop for a moment and think about your logic--you're engaging in her battle, and docking points for a behavioral issue, not good. If a child simply forgot, you're docking points for an action that has not been cured by 10 years of formal public schooling--not likely you will affect any real changes.

Next time a colleague bums a pen off you, sneer at him. See how far that goes.

Giving the child a half-chewed used pencil with no eraser/stubby golf pencil/My-Little-Pony-style pencil:
Har, that's hilarious! Works even better with a loud announcement to the class about how this is the third time this year that Lynnea gets to use whatever crippled version of a pencil you're handing out.

Humiliation and blatant reminders of who has the power always works with mid-adolescent children so charged up with estrogen and testosterone they make the bulls of Pamplona look like kittens, no?

You can watch the other kids focus on Lynnea as she saunters into class again without a pencil. It's showtime! And you're the clown. The kids know this even if you don't.

Giving the speech:
"In the real world... blahblahblah.... responsibility..... blahblumblah... unemployment.... blahbityblap ...starvation...."

Eyes roll, class time is lost, and now you've elevated this into a crisis worthy of the International Criminal Court.** Pencil-less children ultimately end up prone drooling in city gutters, and our economy goes to pot. Just ask Arne Duncan...


The solution?

I tack a red Solo cup on my bulletin board stocked with a few freshly sharpened spanking new pencils. If you need one, take one. Put it back when you're done. And yes, a few kids forget, because that's what some do--but even they eventually put one or two back.

The cost? Maybe 3 pencils a day, less than half a cup of coffee.
The return? Fewer battles, more trust, and (dare I say it?) a happier classroom.

*I am not talking about major issues, which, of course, should always be dealt with immediately. Latest spat with BF usually doesn't count.
**Yep, too far over the top...which is, of course, the point.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Do something

If you’ve got 300 million people, most of whom produce nothing for themselves or for the community and to whom everything has to be brought from somewhere else, then there’s no way you’re going to have limited government, or limited anything. All organizations feed upon the helplessness and ignorance and passivity of the people. 

Hammer, sow, slaughter, drill, knead, write, harvest, brew, sew, strum. Do something.

If you are in reasonably good health with no disabilities you should be able to make simple repairs. If you do, you quickly learn that even simple repairs often go sideways, and you need to solve problems.

A child's education should, at a minimum, teach her how to solve problems.


I sometimes make an overly hoppy ale, because I like hops, especially in ale. Occasionally I find myself calculating the cost per bottle, comparing it to the cost of a decent commercial brew I like. And that's a mistake.

You cannot monetize joy. Too many of us have monetized joy right out of our lives.

What does this have to do with public schools? Well, depends on why you think public schools exist.

Is it to create corporate-ready workers or to create citizens capable of inheriting a functioning democracy?

If you want the latter, then art, woodshop, music, cooking, and sewing classes matter, probably more than science, at least the way science is traditionally taught, because every one of those classes involves persistence, problem-solving, and joy.

If you don't like swarrin' or truth, skip the video--

It's hard to keep a self-sufficient joyful citizen happy in a corporate cubicle.

It's near impossible for democracy to flourish in a population that could barely feed itself if each citizen were given 40 acres of fertile land and a decent water supply.

My Mom grew up with "Georgie," the only kid in her neighborhood who could skate faster than her. 
I miss both of them.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dear New Science Teacher

Dear New Science Teacher,

You're going to get lots of advice, too much really, much of it self-contradictory. Let me add to your growing pile of nonsense.

*Children are innately curious; students, however, are not.
Unless you're getting a fresh crop of toddlers, most children learned long ago that questioning in a classroom leads to all kinds of problems. If your kids do not rise like flies to the wonderful poop you bring to class, don't get all sour-pussy about it.

If your enthusiasm lasts until November--which it will if you stop expecting the kids to care how much you spend out of class "for their benefit"--they'll start spilling out their curious guts, which leads to a different kind of problem.
My recommendations:

  • Treat your students as you would human beings that have been traumatized by years of schooling. Because they have.
  • If a child want to know what happens if... let her try it (provided it's safe to do so). Memorize the state standards that pays lip service to exploring science, and be ready to rattle it off should an administrator wander in just as Brian attempts to see how long he can stand shocking himself with a hand-cranked generator. (In New Jersey, it's NJCCCS 5.1.12.B.1 "Design investigations, collect evidence, analyze data, and evaluate evidence to determine measures of central tendencies, causal/correlational relationships, and anomalous data." This covers pretty much everything.)

  • *Demos usually suck.
    Why? Half the kids can't really see what's going on, and traditionally demos are followed by some inane worksheet, or quiz, or some kind of assessment that just sucks all the cool factor out. Even if you don't zap them with a quiz, their response is Pavlovian. I'm not saying don't--just don't expect the students to fawn over you like the Pied Piper.

    My recommendations:
    • Do 'em anyway. If you singe an eyebrow or two (yours, I mean), you'll be an instant legend. 
    • Accidentally trigger the smoke alarm during a chilly rainstorm in November--your fame will spread beyond your classroom.

    *Live critters reproduce.
    And poop. Your lovely tank of cute roly-polies will become a teeming mass of stink by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, and you won't have time to clean them.
    My recommendations:
    • Do it anyway, and let 'em stink, tell them it's the natural world, and keep a butterfly net around so that when some horribly fierce looking critter breaks out and buzzes around the room, you can non-chalantly catch it as you meander through tables of differentiated groupwork. Kids learn more from these tiny reeking cesspools of life than they'll ever grasp from a PowerPoint.
    • Forget using filters in fish tanks--they're loud and need maintenance.Just use water plants--they'll take up the nitrogen, then scrape the algae off the sides every month or two with a microscope slide.
    •  If something stings you, smile, pretend it doesn't hurt, and keep the EpiPen handy.
    • Never, ever bring in spiders. You'll get a few thousand anyway wandering in to eat the various flying critters erupting from your terrariums, and you can honestly tell your principal you didn't bring them in.

    *Science teachers stay late...
    So what? We do what we love! We get the big rooms! We blow things up! We have showers in our rooms!
    My recommendations:
    • If you'd rather be streaming out the door at 2:45 PM like a lost lemming, go take a few courses and get certified in...well, email me privately, I don't need to get into a pissing match with about 4 other departments. Just stand by the door and see who streams out first. (Be careful, though--those English folks carry out enough papers to fuel the Netherlands for a week in December. They may work more than we do.)
    • Squirrel away a lot of granola bars, power drinks, and a toothbrush.
    • Quit. This isn't for you.

    Stop reading advice and go teach!
    Bust your butt, enjoy the good moments, move on past the bad--the children know who's in this for real, and who's mailing it in. You'll find your way if you fundamentally like kids, and you stick with it.

    No shame if you don't. This profession breaks a lot of people. The kids are here because they have to be. They deserve teachers who are there because they want to be. 

    If you like, please send words. Dopamine beats alcohol.

    Wednesday, August 15, 2012

    Tribalism and truth

    False tales are, first of all, tales, and tales, like myths, are always persuasive.
    Umberto Eco. "The Force of Falsity," Serendipities, Language and Lunacy

    Our biggest fears lead to our biggest myths: Danse Macabre, Michael Wolgemut, 1493

    Tribalism, culture, whatever you want to call it, matters. Science has its tribes, but eventually every idea must fit in with the consensus view of what consitutes the natural world. It has a community dedicated to that.

    Still, as much as science folk love understanding the world, the day to day world remains remarkably detached from the scientific--and we risk losing our students by forgetting that.

    Perhaps the hardest thing to convince a high school sophomore is just how tenuous much of our grasp is.

    I ask my students how do they know that the Earth spins. The question startles them as a ridiculous. Why, everyone knows this!

    I ask again. Silence.

    The answer lies right outside our classroom windows. It's not obvious, and it takes time but it's there. Knowing it is so is not science, it's cultural. Everyone knows the Earth turns. Few know how we know this.

    Major election years are always interesting in high school--communities split as our discourse fails. Our discourse fails because tales, even false one, are persuasive, and when walls are crumbling, shared stories of mythical castles tie together voting blocs.

    How do we tease out the truth when few folks want to know it? Like our Copernican view of the daily dance of the sun, truth can be discerned from comfortable and seemingly obvious myths.

    But even with the sun, even consciously knowing what we know, we still feel the sun move:

    Our perception is still Ptolemaic: we not only see the sun rise in the east and travel through the arc of the day, but we behave as if the sun turns and we remain immobile. And we say, "the sun rises," "the sun is high in the sky," "it sinks," "it sets."
    Umberto Eco, "The Force of Falsity," Serendipities, Language and Lunacy

    Science is different--the process forces true community, the natural world (or at least our perceptions of it) is the final judge.

    Few of us truly live "scientifically"--we would go mad.

    We live in a culture that truly believes in magic, that resists anything that challenges our comfortable cultural myths that allow us to continue to behave the way we do.

    Election years offer students a chance to rediscover how to tease out truth.
    Not everybody lies. And while scientists themselves cannot claim to be paragons of virtue, in an odd way the field itself is a paragon of truth. The rascals get outed, because the community puts truth above all else.

    Sure, it's a stubborn, limited (and at times grouchy) sort of truth, but it's there.

    So how do we know the Earth rotates on its own axis, and revolves around the sun? I can show you. It's right there for you to see.

    Even if I wander to the bay most nights to watch the sun sink below the edge of the world.

    Should any student ask, I'll say I'm voting for Pat Paulsen or Frank Zappa.

    Sunday, August 12, 2012

    Summer vacation matters

    Education, ironically, suspends itself in a web of easily falsifiable myths. There's a reason folks selling snake oil flock around school administration buildings.

    Summer is winding down. One of the big myths in education is that summer vacation came about for agricultural reasons. That we even believe this shows how far removed most of us are from the land. Arne himself chirps in:

    "Our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working the fields today."
    Arne Duncan, The Daily News, 9/29/2009

    Few of us even know any small farmers today, for good reason. Hardly any left. But I do. He's pretty durn busy in the early spring, and he's just revving up now to be busy again as harvest begins. July, though, he spends more time with his slide guitar than with his pitchfork (or whatever tools farmers use today) while a couple of his friends literally fiddle alongside him.

    Few of our children (or adults, for that matter) have any sense of the agrarian calendar. Remnants can be seen at local farmstands as strawberries morph into peaches then apples, asparagus into tomatoes then Brussels sprouts as the daylight dwindles.

    The children who attend church still hear the seasonal stories of agrarian life, but those stories lose meaning as we lose touch with the plow.

    In high school, there are no seasons in a classroom.

    Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of summer vacations for children, and here's why.
    I believe that summer vacation has as much to do with creating lifelong scientists as any scheme Arne might scrape together. Few things fuel curiosity as well as free time out under the sky, and for the cost of a few scrapes, maybe a broken bone or two, and muddy footprints in the kitchen, we get young'uns who learn enough about the earth under their feet to care to learn some more.

    Until we transform our schools into homes of learning instead of the factories of facts many are today, children need time away from the inanities of modern educators.

    "Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play."
    Heraclitus "The Obscure" of Ephesus, ca 500 BCE

    I did not raise my own children to be "career and college ready"--my goal was to help guide them become sane, happy adults interested in the world.

    Arne has yet to convince me a child deserves any less.

    Saturday, August 11, 2012


    On August 9, 1945, just over 2 1/2 pounds of plutonium was converted to energy 1650 feet over Nagasaki.

    Two and a half pounds--about the weight of a 28 week premature newborn baby.



    Yosuke Yamahata, A Japanese army photographer, took this picture the day after the Fat Man fell over Nagasaki.

    More of Mr. Yamahata's photography can be seen here.

    The photo and the quote are from © The Exploratorium,

    Yes, this is a repeat, and will be repeated every year that I maintain the blog.
    We must never forget what we are capable of doing. Never.

    Wednesday, August 8, 2012

    The water is rising: the end of public education

    Arne Duncan should have been tossed when he praised Hurricane Katrina's effects on education. His words, it turns out, were not an aberration.

    from Alexander Phillips, Urban Times, August 10, 2010

    We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children.
    Eternity Christian Academy, Westlake, La
    On the verge of receiving public monies via vouchers

    [I]gnorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
    Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
    About to be extinguished in some quarters of Louisiana

    John White, a disciple of Eli Broad and the man Arne Duncan praised as a "visionary leader" for his work in New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans," now leads the way to disabling science in Louisiana.

    Arne remains silent.

    I have given him the benefit of the doubt for years, as I have Chris Cerf, our state Education Commissioner, and many others who have come through the Eli Broad pipeline, silencing critics with their mantras, zip code is not destiny, children deserve to be college and career ready, biggest civil rights issue of our time.

    New Jersey may well be hurtling towards Louisiana's fate--Chris Christie, an opportunist with a loose relationship with truth, is trying to out-Lipton Bobby Jindal as he boxes his way to supremacy in the GOP, a position that requires support from The Artists Formerly Known as Tea Baggers. No surprise, then, that Arne and Christie share the same bed.

    Arne Duncan's policies have contributed to the dismantling of public schools, to the dulling of democracy--his actions are anti-American, and traitorous. His allegiance should be to our broad stripes and stars, not Eli Broad's board of corporate stars.

    Public school teachers are notoriously polite and patient, except when their children are threatened. Our silence reflects our ignorance, not complicity--too many of us trust the facile words of smiling faces, unaware of the billions of dollars behind ulterior motives.

    A local connect the dots! Why not connect yours?

    It's time we wake up.
    Know who's running the show in your town. 
    And when your adrenaline starts surging, use it to take America back.

    By traitorous, I mean that Arne Duncan places Eli Broad's ideals over those public discourse and interests, plutocracy over democracy.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2012

    Fear of flying

    Dell has a disturbing new ad out, and even more disturbing has been its response--"[t]he Dell ad makes its technology feel human."

    I just spent a wonderful week as a Siemens STEM Institute fellow,where at Discovery Education  Hall Davidson and others showed us how to manipulate images just like this girl did. Most of my kids will love this, for a few moments, anyway, then on to something else. (Dopamine's half-life is about two minutes.)

    But it's not science. Beyond knowing a few keystrokes and where to find the software, it's not learning.*

    During this same week, we got to spend some time behind the scenes at the Smithsonian Institute, where we saw passion and joy as scientists described what they do. Turns out real live scientists like to hold things--skulls, nuggets of gold, dead fish, apples. Their passion was palpable, but even more notable was their joy!

    Here's an exercise we picked up, one worth doing as a department.

    Take an apple or two, real ones, pretend you've never encountered one before, and describe it. List as many of its qualities as you can in a few minutes. You will likely scribble down dozens.

    Now observe an apple model--you can use one of the plastic ones, which wholesale around 35 cents a piece. Scratch off all the qualities you listed about the real apple that can't be found of the fake one. The list gets dramatically smaller.

    Northern spyes, my choice for hard cider, via Village Voice.

    Now do the same thing with a photograph of an apple. You're down to a few words, maybe red, oblong, with a stem attached.

    And finally, this:

    To most of us, the word conjures up vivid memories of what we know of "appleness"--but the word itself means nothing to someone who has never seen an apple.

    What is the purpose of public schooling?

    If it is to produce "career and college ready" corporatizens, then mastering manipulation of the digital world becomes the goal. Virtual flying becomes meaningful, and an apple's visual appeal matters more than its taste--how else explain the dominance of the ironically named Red Delicious over the plain looking Roxbury Russet?**

    If it is to produce joyful citizens in a community, with all its human warts, well, then, Bloomfield and thousands of towns like us are trying to hang in there with our gardens and plays, our cooking and sewing classes, our wood shop and photography classes, our bands and choirs, our art shows, our sense of community.

    Our motto is generations old, and can be found on the floor of the foyer as you walk in:

    Learn to live

    If you want to fly, you need to build something that will let you do just that. You need to risk failure, ridicule, broken bones and even death--Orville Wright himself was involved in the first fatal airplane crash (which he barely survived--Lt. Thomas Selfridge did not).

    The girl who jumped off the roof with an umbrella in the Dell ad will not be satisfied with a green screen fantasy--she likely will lead a happy and productive life despite the casts and sutures she'll accumulate along the way. Not all dreams need be so risky--but dreams should not be avoided because of the risks.

    Green screen lives are safer in some ways--hard to fracture a femur playing Angry Birds--but, it turns out, are far more dangerous in the long run.

    Our sedentary screen lives are literally killing us--when we require children to sit still, when we ask them to watch a screen, we are shortening their lives.

    From Advanced ICU Care newsletter, Spring, 2009

    Beyond that, deferring life to virtual reality kills living long before a heart stops beating. Technology can keep that same heart beating a little longer, in a small cubicle surrounded with screens whose job it is to keep that heart going--a heart that stopped working long, long ago.

     *It's a great tool for story-telling, and story-telling belongs in science class--Hall Davidson is a master story-teller and gets this. Dell, at least in the ad, does not.
    **Yes, I know, hardiness and ability to survive shipping also matter. If you're going to make cider, though, I strongly recommend Northern spies.

    Monday, August 6, 2012

    Science not a "method"

    The scientific method is about as useful as the rhythm method--it works fine once you remove the human element. And like the rhythm method, takes a bit of spontaneous joy out of the room.

    I like humans, and that's who I teach, and we all could use joy.

    If you break down a "successful" experiment, it reads like a successful curriculum vitae. Things are all lined up in order, as though coordinated sequentially by the scientists. But that's not how things work.

    No matter how polished a resume, even one condensed to one page with no gaps, everyone's life is full of waterfalls and eddies, whirling moments blending into a chaotic river marked by events that choose us as much as we choose them. Some of us get buffeted around clinging to flotsam, some of us manage to build a tiny canoe with paper paddles--in the end, we have less control than we acknowledge, and we all drown.

    Kids still know this even though the adults around them have managed to fool themselves.

    So what do we do?
    From Clastric Detritus--a wonderful geology blog

    Toss out the canned classroom experiments for a week. Ask a child to hypothesize and test a very simple idea. What makes something fall faster than something else? Does a slug have a food preference? Do earthworms hear?

    Then let the child design the experiment. Most will get stuck. Sadly, most will need permission to get unstuck. They've been trained to get it right the first time. Ask them to keep notes along the way, but use them as guides, not as a graded assignment.

    Most of their initial attempts will fail miserably. Gleefully (but not meanly) celebrate the fine points of failure as the child modifies and modifies and modifies. Eventually (and it will happen in a safe classroom), you will hear a child laugh at herself, modify her work, and carry on--without you.

    Which is really the point, no?
    No one leaves the river alive, and no teacher reasonably expects to outlive his students.

    So stop teaching as though you will be around forever...
    The Rythmeter from BoingBoing!.

    Sunday, August 5, 2012

    An ally in the White House?

    I have been reading Herman Melville and it's August--so, yeah, this needs editing....

    Sir Ken Robinson is a superstar in the education world--he wows audiences with his humor, his wisdom, and (no small thing) his alluring accent. He's quite entertaining, and earns a comfortable sum making the rounds at various conferences.

    I just returned from a wonderful conference, the Siemens STEM Institute held at Discovery Education in Maryland. We didn't see Sir Robinson, but we did see Dr. Steve Robinson, who will ultimately have a much larger effect on my classroom.

    There's a subtle schism in Federal education policy, subtle enough to survive, big enough to give me hope.


    A lot of teachers are losing hope, or at least say as much--a teacher without hope is like a frog who can't hop, and survives about as long.

    Arne, Bill, and Eli got me gnashing a bit, but long as I got more than a handful of quahogs left to rake on Richardson Sound, despair shuns me. Clamming lets you see things you forget you care about. Clams are in no hurry to escape; the only urgency is the rising tide.

    Even the madness of Arne Duncan's edutheocracy fades as the edge of the sea licks my toes--no evangelists on a mudflat. Still, teaching pays a bit more than clamming around here, and as much as "educators" complain, we have a pretty good gig.

    The other Robinson (Steve) has not been knighted, a plus here in the States. Unlike his counterpart Arne, Dr. Robinson was a high school science teacher and taught in a real classroom for years,  because, it seems, he wanted to. (He earned his Biology degree at Princeton, his PhD at Michigan (GO BLUE!).

    The Siemens STEM fellows got to spend an hour with Dr. Robinson in the Indian Treaty Room--he's brilliant, he's nuanced, and (I think) he gets it. He used to work under Arne, now he has a more direct pipeline to the President sitting on the Domestic Policy Council. He and Mr. Kumar Garg explained the President's STEM Master Teacher Corps, then took comments and questions.

    Kumar Garg and Steve Robinson--our best hope?

    And here's where it gets interesting--the current push to improve STEM education in the lower grade levels competes with time dedicated to enabling kids to pass tests prescribed by various Race to the Top programs adored by Arne and his cronies.

    I pointed this out to Dr. Robinson, perhaps a bit bluntly, and got an intelligent, nuanced response that acknowledged the concern without tipping his hand, which, after years of inane soundbites from Arne, was enough to get me a tiny bit excited. This guy, at a minimum, gets the issues. He's not an evangelist.

    Robinson pointed out that trying to transform science education from the Federal level is like trying to perform surgery with big mittens. He demonstratively held out both of his hands--he's still got the teacher in him--and I thought (and this may be an over-read) that his expression was asking for a little breathing room. He's in a tight spot--he would not be feeling it if he was comfortable with Arne's action plan.

     It gets better--I looked up this Robinson guy when I got home. He used to work under Mr. Duncan, but moved from Education under Duncan to the White House closer to Obama in 2009. Folks noticed:

    What's interesting about Robinson's shift is that it further signals that STEM is a really big issue for President Obama, but perhaps not as significant for his education secretary.
    Michele McNeil, Politics K-12, Education Week, September, 2009

    Oh, Ms. McNeil updated the article after getting some noise from the DOE, and she added some updates, but she saw the same thing I see now. She even calls Robinson a "STEM guru".

    I now got hope for the change that needs to happen if Mr. Obama is serious about transforming education in this country. I have hope that Mr. Obama sees the inanity of trying to implement mutually exclusive goals.

    But I'm not naive. An hour with my Chatham scratcher working a back bay flat reminds me of what matters, and so long as I can rake clams, I can teach. Mr. Robinson, you're welcome to join me--just don't tell Arne.

    Ken Robinson photo and quote from his website here.
    The clam chart is from the State of NJ.

    Saturday, August 4, 2012

    Lammas again

    Yep, fourth time around.

    The sunlight diminishes perceptibly now. The plants know.

    The past week we've eaten deep purple eggplants and bright pink brandywine tomatoes, yellow summer squash and green-and-red striped beans. Today we will pick basil for pesto, some for tonight, some for February. A bowl full of ripe blueberries waits for us, sunlight incarnate.

    But the sunlight is dying, and the plants know.

    We do not speak of religion in class, at least not formally, though students will occasionally ask religious questions, and I will deflect them. I explain that some things cannot be known through science, and that what I believe beyond the limits of science falls outside the province of class.

    In class we talk of light and hormones, photoperiods and abscisic acids, to explain how plants know. We talk under the hum of fluorescent lights, time marked by defined blocks of time. In class, September light is exactly the same as February light, and class is always 48 minutes long, no matter where the sun sits.

    Sunset Wednesday marked the start of Lammas, or Loaf Mass Day--joy for the harvests that are coming and regret for waning sunlight. Lammas used to be celebrated--the first wheat berries of the year were ground into flour and baked into bread offered in thanks, some used for Communion, some for the feast that followed.

    We thank God (or Tailtiu or Lugh or some other forgotten gods)--harvest time reflects death and grace, whatever the culture. Death and grace feel foreign in the classroom, indeed foreign in our culture. We pretend, at our peril, that life is linear.

    Lammas falls halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. The days are shortening, winter is coming. Until you feel the seasons in your bones, until you follow a grain of wheat from the ground to plant to bread to you then back to the ground again, the modern myths may be enough.

    They're not enough for me.I pray they will not be enough for our children.

    Science can explain why plants produce fruit when they do, and I can teach the steps. We can test whether a student learns what I present, and the students that do this best have access to all our culture offers.

    You can become very powerful, very rich, without knowing grace. You can go far in life if blessed with intelligence and beauty, degrees and citations, without ever knowing what a wheat berry looks like, without ever kneading a lump of flour and water and yeast into glistening dough.

    In the end, we don't know much, and may never know much. We can, however, recognize grace. We might not grasp it rationally, but we we can grasp it--a reason to celebrate Lammas.

    The Skeleton of Death dances every hour in Prague--photo of the Prague Astronomical Clock by Sandy Smith found on VirtualTourist.