Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Samhain, again

 An old one, but Samhain is creeping up, and the ancients revered the cycles. I'm creeping towards ancient status.

(I've been running a fever the past couple of days...we'll return to our regularly scheduled programming once my complement system wakes up and starts kicking some H1N1 ass.)

Despite whatever virus is playing tootsies with my hypothalamus (or maybe because of this), I found myself in thigh deep water on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean at dusk, trying to catch a striped bass. I spent the evening shivering under a blanket.

The waters here are about 62 degrees, still plenty warm for wading. The air temperature wasn't bad, either, and the wind didn't bother me until the sun set. In my feverish napping, I realized that for all my training and prepping and struggling as a science teacher, a student can learn far more about life on the edge of the Hallowe'en sea than she ever will in the classroom.

As the sunlight recedes on Samhain, the dead walk among us.


This morning I noticed a drop of water on the shower curtain. Light rays were bent by the drop of water clinging to the curtain, and the threads of the curtain loomed larger than life. At least that's how I perceived it.

If I had not been there to catch the bent rays of light, the light rays still would have been bent for whatever light-sensing creature might pause to look at it, or so I believe. Faith, really.

This past week we have been talking about diffusion in biology class. I started the year off with a mini-history of the universe, talking about two huge articles of faith in science:
  • Whatever rules apply here at this moment apply everywhere in the known universe (given, of course, the same conditions), and
  • Whatever rules apply now (at this given spot) applied throughout the past and will continue to apply in the future.

If we're going to tackle issues of faith in the classroom, may as well tackle them head on. Science requires a special kind of faith.


Like the drop of water visible only to me, or the fin of the striped bass cutting through the surf while I stood alone at the beach, most moments only happen once. We see patterns in our moments, and some patterns, particularly those based on the natural world, become predictable. (This borders on tautologous--if a moment defies observable patterns, we toss it out of the science realm.)

The dead among us walk among us. My mother, my father, my sister, my grandparents, and great aunts and uncles and the hundreds, thousands of my clan that preceded me still live in the common spirit our clan shares, carried by me and others, passed to our children.

We ask children to study the complement system in the face of viremia, something none of them will see in a lifetime, yet deny the ghosts they see in the shadows, as real as the refracted light on my shower curtain. I know that the shower curtain threads did not magically enlarge, and I know that ghosts do not lurk in the shadows.

What I know and what I believe, however, do not always mesh. On the edge of the ocean at night, I am afraid. Perhaps without reason.

We try to bend them to a scientific view of the world in a place where science rarely happens, in a classroom, on a forced time schedule, in order to educate them "to a better economy."

We teach models as though they are real. Science is useful, but it is based on models, a special way of looking at the universe, a way that has resulted in all kinds of wonderfulness, but not real.

Or rather, no more real than the shadows lurking under the early November moon, reminding us that we, too, will walk among the dead, no matter how education we have. If I did not believe this I would not fear the night, even though I know better.

Photo by Immanuel Giel, no permission needed

Sandy and the Core Curriculum

The guitar leaning against the wall still plays.
Even if you don't know a lick about diatonic scales, the physics of harmonics, or how cochlear hairs work.

The shovel leaning on the fence still digs.
Even if you don't know how steel is forged, the physics of levers and wedges, or that its handle grew.

The old manual typewriter still writes letters when the internet is down.
Even if you don't know the history of our alphabet, how the ribbon was made, or why ribbon ink is a technological marvel.

Why do we learn anything?
Cape May getting slammed, from The Christian Science Monitor

I agree with Arne Duncan and his wealthy cronies that education matters, but I care about the parts that matter to my students, to my town.

My town is digging, cutting, raking, rewiring, sawing, hammering its way back to normal.
We're also sharing tales, drinking ales, and wasting precious hours not contributing to the global economy. No worries, though, we'll spend enough on Chinese supplies at the local Home Depot to contribute something,

If we had school today, most of my lambs would be too shook up to grasp the intricacies of the receptor tyrosine kinases we would be studying. Hard to study when the reality of shelter and food issues poke into a child's life.

All the education in the world could not stave off Sandy, and very little of what we teach today is of much use in its aftermath.

After the storm, my guitar is worth more than Arne's platitudes, but that's not saying a whole lot.

We got work to do, right here in New Jersey, with plenty of people who are capable of doing it. We need to rebuild, and we will. The arc of a hammer's swing is a lovely sight, the harmonics of a true strike resonates with the soul.

Do we need to teach science? Of course.
Does every child need to learn the quadratic equation? No, but Arne would have us teach it anyway.

from Let's Be Clear blogsite

There are only so many hours in a school day, so many hours during childhood. Few of our children truly master quadratic equations, but muddle their way enough to pass state algebra exams with their flexible standards.

Fewer master how to fix a damaged home, but there's no fudging those results.

Home matters. Families matter. Stories matter. Life matters.
It shouldn't take a storm to remind us. 

For many children, the uncertainties of Sandy mirror the uncertainties they face daily.
Are you listening, Mr. Duncan?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Men's room science

The public bathrooms along the Garden State Parkway have fantastic hand dryers, so much fun even I bother to wash my hands after a splash at the urinal.

The XLERATOR the Ferrari of public bathroom, uses a 5/8 HP motor, and blows at 16,000 linear feet per minute, over 180 mph! It's even the Official Hand Dryer for the New England Patriots.

And it just looks sexy, in a steam punk kinda way.
But that's not why I'm talking about it.

The XLERATOR is green certified by various agencies, not something I spend a whole lot of time worrying about, but if you want to be green certified, you need to cut your watts down somewhere. The machine uses a 900W heating element, but it also uses a thermostat--the air temperature is controlled, and tops at 135°F where your hands should be.

This matters--you can play without frying yourself. [WARNING: the temp gets a bit warmer when you put your hands right at the vent--if you feel your hands frying, pull them away...]

If you push your hand right up to the vent while it's blasting a few zillion air particles, you'll reach a point where your hand suddenly gets pushed towards the vent, Bernoulli's principle in action! This amazes me every single time, and is enough excuse to make a pit stop just because...

You can't, of course, drag a whole class of kids into the men's room, at least not more than once. But you can do this.
  • Grab a spool of thread--we usually have about 9 of them attempting to mate in the junk drawer. If no one sews in your home anymore, go to grandma--she'll have a few.
  • Stick a short pin through a file card, then guide the pin into the hole in the center of the spool.
  • While still holding the index card, face the floor and start blowing hard through the spool opening.
  • Let go of the index card.
  • Be amazed.
From Mr. Right's Amazing But Simple Science Experiments series on English Sabla

If you're in a pinch for a class demo, you can simply hold up two strips of paper and challenge a kid to blow them apart--the harder the child tries, the closer the tighter the strips cling together.

For the record, paper towels are more sanitary, and you can use them to open the bathroom door if you're particularly worried about folks like me. I've become quite cozy with our prokaryotic friends, and worry more about Eli Manning's QB rating than I do about bathroom bacteria.

No, you are not allowed to comment about Bernoulli's principle and airplanes--
I know it's not just Bernoulli's forces that allows planes to fly. Go find a physics forum.

Don't get me started on anti-bacterial everything....

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Storm coming

Wanted to go clamming today before the DEP closes the beds for God knows how long, but we got work to do to get ready for Sandy. If she's even half as ferocious as she threatens to be,  the prepping will be as useless as tits on a bullfrog, but it gives nervous hands something to do while we wait.

North Wildwood, 1962 storm. Press of Atlantic City

Should she hit, or the earth shake, or the sun flare, or the magma erupt, you can either be useful, or not.
When calamities happen, and they will, work needs to be done.

Care for the wounded, clean up the rubble, solve the hundreds of small problems you will face as they come up. The needs become obvious quickly--decent water, shelter, and (eventually) food. Waste has to go somewhere. Some sort of order needs to be maintained through the chaos.

A guitar or a harmonica can help, too.

Life becomes very public, and culture defines who will thrive, and who will not. Problem solving at the local level trumps the Arne's false security of "an educated, skilled workforce that can compete in a global economy".

After the storm blows through, when what you can do matters to the people you live with, what kinds of skills matter?

If any decent thing comes out of a mother of a storm like this one promises to be, it's this much: it helps remind us what matters, at least for those who care to be reminded.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"Label the parts of a microscope..."

Parts of a doorknob, by Henry Robinson Town, 1904

                                microscope worksheet
                label microscope
                label the parts of a microscope
                                       parts of a microscope worksheet

Google allows me to peek under the hood to see how various folks stumbled onto the blog. One of the tools lists the searches used to find my site.

Five of the top 10 searches were the phrases above.

Yes, I know it's kids looking for an easy way to do their homework, or a desperate teacher or two on a Sunday night looking for something, anything, to get through the next day.

I like that particular post--"The microscope "e" lab kills science"--and what I wrote then I still believe now:

          It's not about power, it's about seeing.

Because of the cultural power of grading, children across the States continue to memorize, or at least pretend, the parts of a microscope. Their future depends on decent grades and their ability to jump through hoops. Such is the fate of the landless.

Who says irony is dead?

One of the best biology lessons I've seen was shared here by Jeffrey Michals-Brown:
How bout some solid ideas for "homework" that's worthy of doing? I'll begin: Go home and find some wild dirt. (If you don't have a yard, find some in a weedy lot near home.) Put a good double-handful of it (just the dirt: no plants or roots) into a biggish transparent jar with a lid. A big mayonnaise or peanut butter jar (wash it well!) is just the thing. Put your name on jar and lid. Bring it to school and leave it on the classroom windowsill. We'll water it a bit, and leave it in the light for a few weeks. We'll poke around in it periodically. What do you think will happen in your jar? Why?

How many kids  know what would happen? How many kids have seen it happen?

There are only so many homework assignments a child can do in a single year of biology (if you believe homework is worth doing at all). What is your "Label the Parts of the icroscope" worksheet replacing?

Why do we need to know the parts of a microscope?

Here's a list of words unfamiliar to most of us:
                                escutcheon plate
                            rose insert
But I bet every one knows how to use a door knob--and even if you didn't, learning the various parts of its mechanism won't help you a lick, no matter how motivated you might be to get out of the house.

So why do we do it?

It's easy to test, easy to grade, it's "scientific",and, when you get down to it, we simply do not value a child's time enough to do otherwise.

Or ours, either.

If we knew what we wanted out of a lifetime, if we truly believed there's a life worth living beyond the tiny pops of dopamine surges we get from the thousands of artificial images and sounds we pay to receive daily, money some of us get for grading worksheets that have children label microscope parts, then we would not do this.

We are all of the earth. We are all finite. We are all capable (and worthy) of joy and creation.

Biology means the study of life--if I have a drop of pond water squirming with critters more bizarre than anything George Lucas can imagine, I won't have to prod a child into figuring out how to use a scope. I'll know she figured out how with the first Wow! out of her mouth as others jostle her for a peek.

She might not know a lick about the names of the parts, but she'll know how to use them, and she'll know how to use them because, in the end, life is interesting.

Do you realize how many folks forget those last three words?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Star hustling

If you bother to look up at the stars tonight, you may be blessed with the bright flash of a piece of Halley's Comet as the Earth slides through pieces of its tail, as we do every year around this time.

Last time that comet passed through our piece of the solar system was over a quarter century ago. My students today will be in their mid-60's the next time it rolls around, and I'll be long dead.

Halley's comet, 1986, credit NASA
A couple of students spent a chunk of their Friday afternoon learning how to use a telescope. We get the usual silly remarks ("Hey, it works better in the dark") from folks passing by. We practice in the daytime because we're visual creatures, and until the students get to know a scope with their hands, our star parties have a bit of fumbling. 
If you ask a child if she has any interest in a starling--a rather nondescript bird that has taken over urban landscapes because of some rich ass who decided to introduce the birds of Shakespeare into Central Park about 120 years ago (and which led to, among other things, the death of 62 people seventy years later when a few thousand birds sent a plane down in Boston)--she'd say no.
European starling, via Globe Tribune

They're everywhere, these starlings, and when we see one, we see dozens, hundreds--the mass of dull screeches and drab feathers blends into just one more uninteresting thing we pass by every day.
You'd say no, too.
Unless you see one, just one, sitting on the top of an evergreen, singing, preening, being the bird that it is, while you spy on it a hundred yards away, with a decent scope.
I have no idea why we find things interesting in general, except we never find things interesting "in general"--love lies in the details, and in an 8" scope with a decent Plössl eyepiece, individual feathers fill the view. Wow!

Every person who has looked through our scope while we practice getting our fingers to learn what our eyes already know has a similar response--because living critters, when watched closely for what they are (and only that), are interesting.

You don't need your fingers to watch  meteors--just look up.
If the first visible meteor takes more than a few moments before it makes its grand sweep across the sky, keep looking up.
Look at individual stars. We're just a few days past the new moon, so it should be plenty dark--dark enough to see the Milky Way if you get away from the artificial light that defiles our night skies. Look at the color of each star. Look at the patterns the stars make. 
If you can hold still long enough (and this is a hard thing worth learning, this holding still), your sense of urgency that drives you through the day will leak out of you, and you will see the stars move. Literally. Just look to the southwest along treeline, and look. The stars creep up at an angle.
Polaris pins the rest of the starry pinwheel against the black velvet as we continue to spin. You can see this if you care to--and if you care to, your life changes.

A meteor streaking across a sky is interesting, and brings joy--I do not know why, but I have seen hundreds, possibly thousands, of meteors, and every one of them brought me (and those who shared the view) joy.

Every year I try to get a few (or more) students to look up, to find joy in the starlings and the stars. I am a star hustler.

Jack Horkheimer was the original star hustler--made a career out of it, talking star stories on PBS. 
He learned about stars because they interested him, not because of any science class. (He was a drama major in college.)

It'd be nice to think a student or two might remember learning about Halley's way back when they wandered outside on a Saturday night to catch a meteor or two--but that's besides the point.
 As it should be.

Friday, October 19, 2012


 Disobedience is not an issue if obedience is not the goal. 

What are our children missing?

In a word: gumption.

Easy enough for me to toss some more marshmallows on the flaming pit of hopes we're burning in front of the ones we pretend to love.

Gumption requires hope.

Despite the long hours I see my students habitually toss away youth for incremental blips in a GPA that promises them some kind of future, there's little joy in habits alone.

Diversions substitute for joy, at a cost far deeper than the couple of bucks tossed  at a barista in the morning, the few quarters tossed for a loosie at the convenience store, the buck tossed at Apple for a new tune to serve as today's theme.

I teach good kids. Real good kids.

Our town used to have the Charms Candy Company--they left in '73, as the last war Americans could identify as a war wound down.

Our town filled an order for processed uranium back in 1943, 69 tons of it for the Manhattan Project. Westinghouse left, the radioactivity will be here for generations.

Our town held the Scientific Glass Apparatus Co.--the buildings are gone, the mercury remains.

Our town welcomed Peerless Tube--the CEO headed our county GOP. Our neighborhood smelled like a pool liner as we got sprayed with tons of vinyl chloride. They're gone--we're still here.

If our kids could feel the history of the soil beneath their feet, they'd leave as well. Our town is littered with the carcasses of broken promises. Ronald Reagan visited us way back when because we are that kind of town.

Our kids are still striving to be those kinds of citizens in a country that no longer needs them.

So what does a teacher do?

Show them the natural world, the one that uses a currency foreign to the dollar, to the yen, to Renminbi.
Show them the joy of song, of dance, of learning, of knowing.
Show them the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address.
Show them how to sow, how to harvest, how to discern, how to live.

Then trust that they will choose joy.

I know a few happy people, but I know few happy people who found happiness inside anything controlled by humans.

The world keeps its promises even when humans do not. I want the kids to know this.

Joy is trickier than the errant path of a dollar bill in a nor'easter...

Friday, October 12, 2012

Star struck

Wendell Berry was right...anyone who thinks they can live in two places lives in neither.

Tonight the Milky Way stretches across a sky lit up by at least a thousand stars. A hundred and fifty miles north of here, in Bloomfield, the Milky Way is a paragraph in a textbook, and nothing more than that.

I live in both universes, the one with stars, and the one without. One with tidal flats, one with concrete. One with surreal moments under the sea, the other chasing the #34 bus.

Something as simple as that, the presence of stars, affects how I see the world, which means it profoundly affects who I am.

I forget this every day. Every day.

Words remind me, of course, but they ultimately fail.

If you trust words more than the sky, you may be human, but you will not be alive. If I have to choose between them, give me the night sky. Howling at the moon is wisdom enough.

Here's the trade we make--electric lights for an October night sky.  We lose.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fuck pink

This was written a few Octobers ago--my friend died this year.
I'm really tired of the propaganda. Here's why....

A friend has just been diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer. She has a young daughter.

I teach science in the classroom. Many of the young women (and a young men) I teach today will lose a breast (or two) in the next few decades because of environmental factors.

I remember the first breast I saw no longer attached to the body it once helped define. I had seen body parts in various forms before, but this one was fresh. A flap of sallow skin with a wizened nipple defining it, a long trail of fibrous fatty tissue trailing off the slab.

The pathologist, smoking as he dictated, handled the breast like a butcher handles meat about to be weighed, though not as kindly.

Incidences of breast cancer change in populations as people migrate from one area of the world to another, suggesting that environmental factors contribute to this disease. There is a continuing effort at the NIEHS to identify these environmental factors and the role that exposures to specific chemicals could play in this disease.
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

I shaved my mother's head when her cancer recurred--bony metastases in her skull made the shaving more difficult. She walked like a marionette the weeks before she died. In a radiology reading room, we'd call them "goobers." Goobers on the brain.

Unless it was one of our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends--then they were metastases.
Since 1985, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals has been the sole funder of October's National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM). Zeneca has promoted a blame-the-victim strategy to explain away escalating breast cancer rates, which ignores the role of avoidable carcinogens. Zeneca's parent company, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), is one of the world's largest manufacturers of petrochemical and chlorinated organic products -- including the plastic ingredient, vinyl chloride -- which has been directly linked to breast cancer, and the pesticide Acetochlor.

In addition, Zeneca is the sole manufacturer of Tamoxifen, the world's top-selling cancer drug used for breast cancer. In return for funding the "awareness" campaign, ICI/Zeneca has control and veto power over every poster, pamphlet and commercial produced by NBCAM. "A decade-old multi-million dollar deal between National Breast Cancer Awareness Month sponsors and Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) has produced reckless misinformation on breast cancer," said Dr. Epstein.
"Chemical Industry Funds Breast Cancer Campaign"
Cancer Prevention Coalition

The media focuses on the strength of cancer survivors, and I have seen tremendously strong women live and die graciously through months and years of chemotherapy and radiation and surgery. The magazines will show glossy pictures of proud women, and these things matter, of course. Avon will sell "Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer Lipsticks," Mars, Inc., will sell you pink and white M & M's, and General Electric will sell you a Senographe 2000D mammographer.

They do not show a mother cowering in her bathroom, her bald head bare, blood all over the toilet from a nose-bleed that will not stop, her teen-age son standing awkwardly, bravely holding her head.

They do not show the vomiting, the pain, the fear. They do not show a mother with her arm in a machine trying to squish out the fluid building up from lymphedema. They do not show the bony protuberances on a skull, the smell of dying cells.

They do not show a child wiping her mother clean because she is too proud to use a bedpan and too weak to use a toilet.
polychlorinated biphenyls
polychlorinated dibenzodioxins

In 1991, these were the 6 most common carcinogens found in breast milk. The news has gotten worse since then. We are at the top of the food chain--toxins accumulate.

It has been known that breastfeeding reduces your chance of getting breast cancer. The longer you breastfeed your babies, the lower the risk. This has been attributed to hormonal changes related to breastfeeding--breastfeeding women cycle less, and had less exposure to estrogen.

There has been speculation (and it is only speculation), that breastfeeding may help reduce the chemical pollutant load on the mother. Guess who gets the chemicals?

The lifetime risk of a woman developing breast cancer was just less than 10% in the 1970's, or 1 in 10; it is now 13.4%, or almost 1 in 7 (NCI, 2005). In the 1940's, the risk was 1 in 22. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death in women 34 to 54 years of age.

Janet Jackson flashes a breast, and our Federal government rushes in to redefine obscene. Certain words and phrases will cost lots of money.

Here's an obscene phrase that won't cost anything--it used to be heard a lot in Octobers past:

Early Detection is the Best Protection.

This makes no sense--once detected, you already have it. The best protection is prevention which, admittedly, would require massive, radical changes in the way we live.

The NBCAM folks got wise--they now say "Early Detection Saves Lives"--if you go to their website, they pretend that this is what they have always said.

So it must be true.

I'm tired of cute images generated by multinational corporations pretending to save the world. I am tired of AstraZeneca playing us for fools.
This is what a double mastectomy looks like.

Laura Ellis is a remarkable woman who has shared her photos so the world can see beyond the "pink fuzzy teddy bears."
She gave me permission to use the photo.
You can read her story here. I don't have permission for the Zeneca photos, but I figure this all falls under education.

Thank you, Laura.

Me? I'm going to go find solace on a mudflat in south Jersey somewhere. 
I'm not so adverse to dying as I am to being killed.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Learn to live

There is danger in letting life creep into a classroom. The lovely ivy creeping up the side of a wall ultimately destroys what the wall was meant to protect.

There is danger in letting voices chase their own music The beauty of a choir disintegrates into a cacophony of noise that threatens the calm order we cherish.

There is danger in public spaces. Kooks and oddballs and stray dogs threaten those of us who just want to get a little sun on a lovely October day.

October zinnias

We had a very long week here in Bloomfield, and it's going to be a long time before the sunlight soothes our sadness.

Our children showed us this week they can handle life outside our cinder block walls, that they can stand in silence when they needed to scream, that it's not the kooks and stray dogs we need to fear.

Our school motto is "Learn to Live"--and that's what we do here.

Not one corporation wasted a single tear about losing a potential worker for the global economy.

Monday, October 1, 2012

They always do...

Sunday morning, I wandered over to Cape May Point to see the butterflies, thousands of flimsy critters assembling at the edge of the sea, grabbing tiny sips of nectar, shoring themselves for the passage across the Delaware Bay.

They clearly recognize themselves, these Monarch butterflies--groups of five or seven, more or less, will flit with each other. Not sure what they're saying, but sure they're saying something in whatever language matters to those with wings larger than their imaginations.

There is so much we do not understand.

I got home to prep for school, something all teachers worth the title do on Sunday afternoons, and I checked my school email.

We lost a child, one I knew, one everybody knew--she was that kind of person.

I wandered out to the garden to collect seeds, because when these kinds of things happen, as they will, it is in the garden I find solace. 

And today many of my students planted zinnias and marigolds and basil seeds, and the seeds will germinate, and they will eventually flower again.

We're grieving here in Bloomfield, and we will for some time, but I need to bear witness today to what i saw--hundreds of young adults under tremendous pain taking care of each other.

I mentioned to someone in the office that the kids were taking as much care of me as I was of them. She looked up and said:

"They always do."

They're at the edge of a wide sea right now, and they do not yet know how they will cross it.

But they will.

They always do.
Butterfly pictures by a variety of Logeman/Carsons (Brendan, Diane, and maybe Sue), used without permission.