Sunday, February 24, 2013

First crocuses, 2013

What, after all, do parents owe their young that is more important than a warm and trusting connection to the Earth that accounts for our evolutionary history? 
Theodore Roszak
The Voice of the Earth

I just took this photograph.
No photograph, of course, can do justice to a flower.

If a child learns about crocuses from a picture, that child will know what a picture allows it to know.
No more. No less.

If a child truly knows a crocus, as a crocus, then that child's heart might dance a few decades from now, when he sees the first blooming crocus marking winter's near end, even though he's at an age where boundless promises of what will be give way to entropy and age.

If a parent cannot do this, maybe a teacher can.

"Public" matters

I wrote this a couple of Februaries ago. 
Sometime I need reminding.... 

"That broad [public trust] doctrine derives from the ancient principle of English law that land covered by tidal waters belonged to the sovereign, but for the common use of all the people. Such lands passed to the respective states as a result of the American Revolution..."

I clam on a tidal flat a few miles from here.  A few others do as well. Tidal water is public--any of us can walk anywhere below the average high tide mark, and so long as the water is deemed safe, rake for clams. Or fish. Or launch a kayak. Or just lie on the beach letting the sea lap at our toes.

Lots of people have eaten my clams, our clams. I have caught a lot of my fish, our fish. I have wiled away hours and hours at the ocean's edge, my ocean, our ocean.

"Public" is not a four-letter word. You can count the letters.
Public is, however, a misunderstood word.

If we keep misunderstanding it, our republic will fail as a republic. Some would argue it already has.

I teach science, but keep a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights on the wall in class. right next to a tiny poster describing New Jersey's snakes. Every now and again someone asks why, and I'm all too eager to explain. Public schools exist for the benefit of our republic. Our republic depends on a learned, thinking citizenry.

We forget that sometimes.

Some classes are obviously tailored for this. Civics (where it still exists). History. The various vocational arts (cooking, wood shop, metal shop, home economics). Physical education.

Some less obviously so. English, when reduced to grammar, not so much. English, when sharing great ideas and helping citizens craft their ability to share those ideas, wonderfully so!

Science, when reduced to teaching the cell cycle, not so much. Science, when pushing children to look at the natural world, and start putting the pieces together, thinking about how things work, more so.

(We are, as a nation, confused about science--we think we need STEM education to produce technicians who will lead us into the New Glorious Economy, at least that's what those in power keep saying. The more we push science to feed our technocracy, the worse science education becomes.)

Public education, like the tide's edge and public parks, has become one of the few common spaces left. Few people know what "usufruct" means anymore.

Democracy cannot survive gated communities. Democracy cannot survive a constant drum of propaganda beaten into the heads of folks who have given up thinking for tribal acceptance. Democracy cannot thrive when small, powerful groups dictate the rules.

I fear for public education. Every time a family says my child's life is worth far more than yours, the commons shrinks. Every time a child has walls built around her to shield her from the world, the commons shrinks.

The walls are insidious. Charter schools (which, though "public" in name, defy the commons), SUV's, A&F t-shirts, gated communities, gerrymandering, and on and on and on create the image that your child is special, is elite, is immune to the world.

Does your Mayor send his children to public schools?  Do your local board of ed representatives? Your school district superintendent? Does your Senator send hers to the local public high school? Where do Bill Gates' children go? President Obama's? (I will give he devil Arne Duncan his due--at least he sends his children to public schools).

Yes, the reasons are myriad. Yes, we all want what's best for our children.
If you think the commons matters, if you think about that at all, then realize that your choices matter.

We may be beyond the tipping point. Some folks worry about the clams I rake, yet think nothing of the packaged clams dredged up hundreds of miles away by strangers. How do I know they're safe?

If you trust strangers more than your neighbors in the name of safety, and many of us do just that, then the local town hall becomes a quaint memento, the public school roof will start to leak, and democracy will fail.

I'm going to keep clamming as long as I can. I'm going to keep teaching in a public high school as long as I can. I'm going to keep writing as long as I can. We have a great thing going here in America.

The sad thing is, so few know what we got, they'll hardly miss it when it's gone.

Yes, we ate all the critters, (excepting the human kind) in the photos.

Leonard Cooper

“I started growing my hair out in 2008. I pick it out every morning and made extra-sure it looked good for the show. It’s what protects my brain.”

It's not so much that Mr. Cooper is black, it's that he's apologetically who he is. And part of who he is is a bright man of color in an area famous for its race issues.

I would love to know what tee shirt he is wearing underneath--a peek of purple lettering protrudes from where the other contestants wear a tie.

His final answer gives us a reason to gawk--it's brilliant, and it's funny. He's poking fun at all of us, which makes him safe again.

We like "safe," especially in our young, black brilliant youth who wear Afros and sneakers.

Why do we react as we do?

Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated. ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I do not know Leonard Cooper. I reacted to him anyway. So, apparently, did millions of others.

I have many children in my class who are similar--bright, engaging, with an edge of fearlessness that does not usually work well in institutionalized settings.

Leonard Cooper, whoever he is, reduced the separation between what we see and what we carry internally. We risk reducing him to a caricature, and indeed, his features, emphasized by his Afro, add to the dissonance that makes this vignette work.

I bet that's no accident. In a brief Daily News article, Cooper's hair gets more notice than his intelligence.


I learned about Leonard Cooper through an acquaintance of mine, another older white male with a different worldview than mine. He sent it out on G+ to poke folks, as he will:
A fairly interesting thing happened today. Several years ago, a perfectly competent black man was the superintendent of public schools here in Little Rock. Everyone seemed to agree he was doing a good job. However, he was not playing nice with the unions, the school boards, or the race-hustling plaintiffs lawyers who had been bleeding this school district dry for years and years....

Today, on Teen Jeopardy! One of his students won the entire tournament along with $75,000.
This is the story we tell ourselves. But it's not exactly true.

The "perfectly competent black man" Roy Brooks was not supported by all on the board. He was chosen over another man, in a vote divided along racial lines, and not the way you might think.

Have you ever heard anyone chat up "a perfectly competent white man"?

Didn't think so....

Monday, February 18, 2013

"You can't pray a lie...."

I enjoy Mary Ann Reilly's words and works. She persistently (though gently) arouses us from the cultural slumbers that allow us to continue to do the things we continue to do, even though we know better.

"You can't pray a lie" comes to us from Mark Twain, of course, through the voice of Huckleberry Finn.

You Can't Pray a Lie, Mary Ann Reilly, 2012

Go read her if you want to wake up from your nap.

We can hide behind our curricula, behind our rules, behind our cultural norms, but when we teach children anything, anything, not worth the time we steal from them, we sin.

We will be playing with dancing daphnia this week--and some of them will be killed either through negligence or just the stress of being placed on a slide. Some will be squashed, some will suffocate under the cover slip. Some will get too warm from the microscope's light. Some will fall in a drop of water onto the lab table, unnoticed, swirling around as the its world slowly evaporates away.

My kids, many of them jaded by years in a system that sees them as test scores and graduation rates, feel bad for the daphnia, at least once they get to know them.  Others will fall in love with vorticella, or with rotifers, but just about all of them will feel attached to life they had no idea existed.

Every year, my kids are much more careful putting their critters back than they were at getting them. The more they learn about the natural world, the kinder they become.

We need to be more careful with what we do in the classroom.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A reminder to AP Biology teachers

We're knee-deep in molecular genetics now in AP Biology--and it's not your father's biology anymore, or even your older sister's.

She only had to contend with mRNA, tRNA, and rRNA.

Created by WGScott, shared under CC

The biology world has exploded with RNA confetti!

miRNA  siRNA. 
tasiRNA and rasiRNA

While this leads to big fun for old AP teachers who love to joust with other AP teachers (and you know who you are), I realized this week that even my most interested biology superstars can only take so much RNA fun in a month.

I keep about 10 gallons or so of pond water in my basement during the winter months. I pretend I do it to save money--I can overwinter my elodea--but I really do it for my sanity.

Once or twice a week I peer into the bucket, tap its side, and watch the daphnia dance. I watch a water strider hunt, a spider weave, larvae wiggle just under the surface,

I brought in a pint this week, ostensibly to test run our new microscopes. Within this pint lived hundreds of daphnia, and all kinds of other strange critters simply going about the business of living, something my AP students gave up years ago, so that they can live later.

It's a harsh trade, schooling for living. The cracks are starting to show.

With snow on the ground outside, the local ponds half frozen, a few brilliant, exhausted kids peered into a drop of pondwater, and remembered why they fell in love with biology in the first place.  
Wow! Look a this! Yuck! I'll never swim again!

Shame on me for letting them forget.

 I forget every year, too. Time to read Kim Foglia's letter again...

Saturday, February 9, 2013

October light again

On the last day of October, a couple of days after Sandy had reshaped our shores, the sun rose at 6:27 AM here, then snuggled its way west at 4:53 PM, ten hours and 26 minutes later. The sunlight was dimming.

Today, for the first time since Sandy, we had ten hours and 26 minutes of sunshine, again. We're shoveling out of a moderate winter storm, but we're OK, again.

And the sunlight is returning.

I teach biology, but most of my lambs will leave my classroom in June, and not really get their connection to the sun. Every step they take, every thought of those they love, every complex molecule in their bodies owes its existence to the sun.

I'm OK with this.

What I am  not OK with is filling their heads with so much nonsense that they no longer notice that the sun comes, the sun goes, and then comes back again.

I expect I have a few more days left with exactly 10 hours and 26 minutes of sunlight. But not so many as I used to.

I have no desire to tell my students what to do.
I do care, though, to let them know they only have a finite amount of time to do it.

I teach children. What do you do?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Super Bowl Hates Children

The Super Bowl is a big deal in this part of the world.
Other cultures can learn a lot about us, and our "love" of children.

If we cared about kids, we'd not push milk on them.
If we cared about kids, we'd not push soda on them.

If we cared about kids, we'd not sell cars by using babies as toys.

But we don't care about kids.
We care about the idea of caring about kids.

But it's not the same thing, not the same thing at all....

Childhood poverty is not an accident nor an act of f God.

Science is sensuous

Many of my students are unaware they are being watched in class by critters other than teachers.

As a child gets up to sharpen her pencil, a salamander scurries back under a rock, a fish darts to the surface looking for food, a cockroach slides under some lettuce.

As they become aware, and they do over the months, they start to watch. They bang on the glass, overfeed the fish, feign fear of the cockroach.They fail to see how perceptive these critters are, at least for awhile, but over time start to get to know them.

I promise my kids very little at the beginning of the year except that they will know less in June than they do in September, that the natural world is bigger than they know, and that they are not just part of it, they belong to it.

This last part is a big deal.

If you do not know this world, the one that bathes us with oxygen, feeds us with grain and flesh, refreshes our thirst, you cannot love it.

And, for the most part, we don't.

If you hope to teach a child the abstract models needed for science, you best start by cultivating her love of the world instead of the sad task of earning good grades for the love of her parents.

Somewhere along the way, our children lose their way.
Somewhere along the way, we encouraged this.

We threaten our laggards with tales of woe should they fail to earn a diploma, a place on the honor roll, recognition as a National Merit Finalist. Children respond to fear, as we all do--it's what drives our politics and our economy.

Fear might generate enough engineers among us, but it does not create scientists.

You cannot love the natural world in the abstract; the natural world, by definition, is sensuous. We use abstract thought to make sense of the sensuous. That defines science.

If your child sees the beauty in Fibonacci numbers but fails to see the deeper beauty of a pine cone's spiral, you are raising a professional student, and we have more than enough of those.

If your child is "wasting" her time staring at a pine cone instead of logging hours of math homework to please the adults who keep her alive, she just might hold onto her curiosity and love of the world long enough to do something useful as an adult.


I am not saying learning math is useless--quite the contrary.
A child who loves the world develops a fondness for patterns, and will have a use for numbers.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Groundhog day

Halfway through winter, again.

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

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


A few summers ago, Leslie and I left Doolin on foot, and headed up the trail to the Cliffs of Moher, Cailleach's country, climbing over stone walls and electrified fences, keeping an eye out for bulls, as we wend our way up to the cliffs.

A few times we crept carefully along trails just inches from a fatal fall. We were foolish, and we were rewarded for our foolishness with the gift of life and shared love.

(You can, of course, go to the "official" Cliffs of Moher, and pay your euros for safe walkways, clean bathrooms, and an interpretive center to tell you what to experience.)

We live in a linear world, or pretend so. We try to teach our children to live in the same world, the world in our heads, the safe one. They buck this, as we did when we were young.

Winter lived well reminds me I will die.
So will you.
So will our children.

Cailleach, the goddess of winter, destroys what is useless to make room for new life, and makes spring possible again.

Should my children again wander over to Doolin, my brain will urge them to stick to the sanctioned trails.

My heart, though, hopes otherwise.
I want my children alive, but I want them to live.

Photos by Leslie: winter jetty taken Sunday, my leg over a cliff .
And Leslie reminded me that our eldest has already walked the same trail--we did something right.

Old post repeated, for me.