Sunday, March 31, 2013

A seahorse tale

The tide was ebbing. The seahorse lay on the beach, just beyond the reach of the receding waves. I assumed it was dead--until I saw the tiniest movement of its tail.

I picked it up and let a few waves wash over my hand. Its head flicked a couple of times, spasmodically, without intention.

Then I felt its tail wrap around my finger.

Edge of the Delaware Bay, March 30, 2013

I do not presume that this seahorse had any awareness of me. It was in trouble, and may not have survived the day, but that's not why I am telling the story.

I am sharing the story because I felt its tail wrap around my finger with surprising strength, with an unexpected vitality.

 I do not believe that the seahorse was in any sense communicating with me--dying critters do not waste energy talking to alien beings. I had nothing to say to my seahorse, and the seahorse had even less to say to me.

The tail of this seahorse had wrapped on hundreds, maybe thousands, of things before me. It clung to eelgrass, to its lover, and if a male, grappled with other males who dare to separate him from his partner.

If this was the seahorse's last few living moments, the last thing it held was my finger.

Seahorses do not share language with humans, but if they did, their tales would be shared through their tails. If this particular seahorse felt any sense of vitality from the palm of my hand, the only way it could share this would be through doing just what it did--hugging my finger.

Another visitor from the bay

This is not why it did, of course, and that is not the point. But if the only way for a creature to share its world with us is a way that we dismiss as reflex, then we will forever see a mechanistic universe, and we will remain the lonely species we are.

We need evidence! Proof! Substantiation! Concrete facts!

Today much of the world rejoices over an event pieced together with the slimmest of evidence--the oldest of the Gospels, written more than a half century after the death of Jesus, ends with frightened women fleeing from an empty tomb (Mark 16:8). The rest is appended history.

I am not going to equate the curling of a dying critter's tail with the scantest of evidence that (in a perverse form) drove much of European history. Both evidence and faith have their place.

Still, if we cannot allow for the possibility that perhaps even a seahorse has a story to tell, then the slight tug of a seahorse's tail, a twitch of life on an early spring beach, means nothing, and everything is just noisy chaos.

Seahorses, it turns out, are monogamous.
Noisy chaos is cool, too, if you can enjoy the music....

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A piece of wood

Tell me the story of a piece of wood. How did it come to be?

How did it get to Home Depot? What was it before that?

How did it get to the spot where it grew? Was a squirrel involved?

How many years did it grow?
How deep were its roots?
What sits there now?

Where did the stuff of the wood come from?
What was the carbon dioxide part of before it became part of a tree?
Did it come from an animal's breath? Did it come from yours?
What cell did it come from? Does every tree in our woods hold CO2 from the heart of a bear?
Did the bear's exhaled breath freeing the CO2 fog up the chilly December air?

And what did that bear eat, the stuff broken into CO2 and water?
And how far back can any of us imagine?

Right now the sun is shining on me, energy released as protons lose tiny tufts of mass.
What forces pushed protons together to form helium and release this light?
What forces pushed protons together to form carbon, to form oxygen?
Where was the carbon before it was on Earth?
Hold old is the soul of a carbon atom in one of the neurons firing that allow you to read these words?

Tell me the story of a piece of wood, and I will tell you the story of our universe.

A child could spend a lifetime piecing together the story of a piece of wood, which is, when you get down to it, the story of all of us.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On chunking numbers

For the next couple of days I get to spend time at Discovery Ed with a bunch of bright folks who are not "educational" experts, or "cognitive science" experts,  or "business" experts--they are here because they're interested in the world around them, pay attention, and take advantage of our brain's plasticity. I hope to take pick some brains.

The brain is a funny animal. What we know influences what we do; what we do influences what we know. That was true back in the day, and it's true now, and it will remain true long after the current crop of educational experts fade from the scene.

I have always had an irrational love of numbers, but not in a Sesame Street fetishistic way, where performance matters more than purpose. Numbers help sort patterns, and help us see the world. Humans love patterns, for whatever reasons, and numbers intensify what we can see. (Some people smoke pot to intensify their experiences, I play with numbers.)

In the past few years, I have seen more and more kids who are functionally innumerate. Some of these students do fine in algebra yet struggle with science. Numbers, already a level of abstraction, become symbols without meaning, punched into machines programmed by others, to give results that will lead to faint promises of success. (Get the correct answer, your grade goes up, and eventually you get to heaven. Or something like that. I lost track of the story decades ago.)

Somewhere along the way, numbers lost their connection to the patterns they represent. We no longer need them. No need to make change. No need to figure out how long it will take to walk to the diner to meet up with others. No need to build tree forts. None of this is news to teachers.

What may be news, though, is my recent (and anecdotal) recognition that one reason kids struggle with numbers is because they cannot "feel" them anymore. Show a reasonably bright adult a few objects clumped together on a desk, ask her how many are there, and she will immediately know it is "five" or "seven" or whatever the number happens to be. We chunk numbers, nothing a few other mammals can't do, and we do it well.

Clever Hans, the counting horse.

Or at least we used to. I am seeing more and more kids needing to count out what should be automatic. I see students flying through algebra without a decent grasp of arithmetic.

Are others seeing this to?
Does it matter? 
Can we fix it?

I do confess I need to count my quahogs individually once I get past a dozen or so....

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Beyond the Textbook 2013

When you walk into the Discovery World Headquarters, as I have now several times, you are greeted by an amazing piece of sculpture that gongs, clanks, boings, and sings out all kinds of sounds as balls travel along mazes built into the piece.

I have watched it for embarrassingly long periods of times, following various pieces, searching for sources of particularly engaging sounds, with the same fixed gaze I've seen students use with their iPhones.

There were other things there--a ridiculously cool motorcycle, a Tyrannosaurus rex, and a piece of a mastodon--but the sculpture spoke to me. And in a few days, I get to chat with it again.

If I could bring that awe into my classroom, I'd never have a late student again...

I have the great fortune to be invited back to Discovery's Beyond the Textbook Forum 2013, a chance to help generate ideas for their Techbook, surrounded by some of the best heads in the business. I think they ask me to shore up the Luddite end of the spectrum--I may be the only one in the building who does not own a cell phone.

I enjoy going for a few reasons, not the least being the incredible generosity of the Discovery folks and the wonderful conversations that flow through the discussions. Steve Dembo, the ringleader, is a mensch, and last year's crowd was full of folks who could simultaneously hold strong opinions and listen at the same time.

You don't get that often in traditional professional development.

There is no question I get a lot out of the deal--I get jazzed by ideas and kinetic sculptures, and I return to my classroom with more bounce in my step. What do I hope to give in return?

I want every child in every classroom to feel the same awe I feel when my brain is engaged with the world, the wonder I feel each time I walk along the bay or into the atrium of the Discovery building. When they do, incredible things happen.

The image above comes from the Discovery Education page extolling the benefits of the Techbook--it is simple and profound, a child's hands holding a small plant in a upful of soil, a microcosm of our living universe.

A picture of a plant cannot teach a child much about a plant's (or a child's) place in the world. Textbooks cannot deliver the world, and I have serious doubts electronic textbooks can either, even with flashy images and moving music. But that's not what Discovery is trying to do.

Last year we experienced their vision firsthand--we rotated through various hands on stations under the watchful eye of Patti Duncan. Things got a little out of hand when we jammed up the more interesting tables and abandoned some others.

 Given the constraints imposed on public education today, the impending NGCC standards, the obsession with tests, not sure how far the Techbook can stretch classroom boundaries.

But I wouldn't bet against a company that made Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters household names, melding passion and science into entertainment.

I have a few ideas I will share, but here's your chance to contribute yours. Think big, think broadly, and let me know what you want me to bring to the table.

Disclosure: Discovery is covering my expenses for the conference.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ungated communities

"You think you've lost your fur and your tail for a purpose spelled with a capital P and sold to you in some book that explains how everything was just a prelude until you came. If you do, you're happy I take it, and you'd be better off not to be following me or this crab or lifting up stones and looking under them."
I like to follow ghost by Tracy Parris, NPS

Our district is in trouble.

We're facing 10% layoffs, and the possible loss of our extra-curricular activities. We're paying to revamp our technology to enable us to take the PARCC exam in a couple of years, an exam just about guaranteed to demonstrate we're "failing" while we silence our musicians.

Few of those making the big bucks in our district live in our district. Those of us who live in town are subsidizing the lifestyles of folks who would never consider living here.

Our town is not the only one caught in the tidal change in our national economy where the efforts of folks in towns like Bloomfield pay for someone's grapes from Château Margau. Things are getting grim for many of us.

Lifted from All My  Eyes

I can take on Bill Gates mano a mano, but his dollar-driven army (and those of his ilk) will likely win in the public battles that matter. Teachers, parents, citizens have sat silent too long.

So why do I bother teaching "science" in a system that has been rigged to fail?

Here's why: the natural world, the one that matters, the one that feeds us, the one that brings joy, the one that was here long before words were uttered and will be here long after all of us are silent again, that world, is virtually unknown to most of us in our culture.

Know this world, the world that matters, and you can still forage for food, and know grace.
Know this world, the world that matters, and you can still lose yourself, and find peace.
Know this world, the world that matters,and you can still sleep, and feel restored.

Most of the kids I teach face dim prospects if they define themselves by the rules of Bill Gates, if they judge themselves by the shiny objects that drive them to debt, if they cannot see the larger picture.

If my lambs learn nothing else in my classroom, they at least witness the creation of food from their breath and water and little else. They are reminded of death. They are gently prompted day after day after day that there is a world larger than any of us in a drop of pond water, a teaspoon of soil.

Should I ever meet Mr. Gates, I'd give him a basil seed, a small pot of peat moss, and a prayer. I'm sure he "has people" that could do this for him. I'm sure he is reasonably happy, or thinks he is, and really, what's the difference?

 Here's the secret--there's a huge difference. 
Children who know the wild sing more robustly, dance with more abandon, sleep more soundly than children behind the Gates. 

Photo from NPS site, should be fair game...will replace with mine once I find one of the 3 gazillion ghost crab photos we've taken.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Algebra, puberty, and Arne's delusional vision

I'm not an esthete mathematician, but I'm no dummy either. I managed to wrangle a slot in Dr. Piranian's class at  Michigan back in the '70's, no mean feat. (I also managed to annoy him when I dropped out--I thought that 2 or 3 hours a day on a problem were more than enough for anyone--he disagreed.)

But here's my dirty little secret--when a few of us tiny hotshots were hit with algebra in 6th grade, I could not even begin to grasp it. It was as foreign to me as the pheromones that would alter my life just two years later. (I wanted to be a priest--Robin cured me.)

Pre-algebra brain

Algebra did not make sense to me until girls, mysteriously, started smelling good.  Before that, I could no more will myself to solve a quadratic equation than throw a 105 mph fastball.

There's a correlation--brain development matters, and does, indeed, happen to correspond to the hairiness of one's genital area.

Algebra brain, just a few short years later

Hate to be so damn coarse about this, but I'm a retired pediatrician with a better grasp of neurodevelopment than most folks, and certainly more than our current Education Czar Arseny Duncan.


Back in the 1940's, a Russian "scientist" Trofim Lysenko held erroneous belief in Lamarckian inheritance and led the political silencing of true scientists who dared point out his flawed (and dangerous) reasoning.

And here we are, decades later, letting our own Lysenko pseudoscientist Arne Duncan propagate propagandist nonsense that will lead to years and years of harm. Not everybody is developmentally ready to tackle algebra in 8th grade.

It's the 21st century, and here we are clicking our ruby heels together three times hoping for miracles, in a land where more of us reject evolution than accept it. Arne, do you truly believe the nonsense you preach?

If you do, you're a dangerous fool, and if you do not, a corrupt one. Either way, you have no business at the helm.

Mr. Obama, are you blinded by political loyalty?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Minding my daughter's beeswax

The comb

 It starts with curiosity, with love, with whatever this thing is that compels us to sit outside and just look, just sniff, just listen. If you watch honeybees long enough (and you can never truly watch bees long enough), you begin to get just how crazy crazy this living thing is, and maybe a little humbled, too.

Humans are not the be all and end all after all.

The melting comb
Bees screw up, too, it turns out, and the bees who made this comb didn't study the bee hive long enough to see that the frames were not in place. (I have no idea what I am talking about, my daughter and her beau are the apiarists, not me.)

The summer heat melted the combs enough for them to collapse in a heap on the bottom of the hive.

Beeswax melts around 145-150 F, but takes longer to melt in a double boiler than you might expect.

And what do Kerry and Eric end up with?

Beeswax, of course, made by bees--and if Wikipedia is right, then a pound of the stuff represents about 150,000 miles of flight, or well over halfway to the moon.

The spoon used to stir the beeswax

I keep a hunk of ambergris in my home, because I like it, and that's reason enough. I have no idea what will become of the beeswax, but for me, knowing it exists is reason enough for joy.

Great job, Eric!

Ain't life grand?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Science is for the birds

If you get upset at the idea that birds are truly reptiles, or cringed when Pluto fell off its planetary pedestal, then you practice science the way most Christians practice Christianity--seeking what's true is besides the point.

I tell my lambs I do not give a rat's behind if they remember anything about DNA polymerase after they hit the NJ EOC exam come May (and even then I'm not sure how much they "need" to remember), but I do expect them to think.

And I am failing at this....

A square foot patch of earth anywhere outside our high school carries far more complexity than anything a child can find online. Seeing a patch of earth as anything more than a pixellated version of the digital world requires effort.

Our children are no more lazy than our grandparents were--we are mammals, and when you strip out the frivolities, most of what we do has something to do with getting oxygen, food, and water into us, and getting carbon dioxide, nitrogenous wastes, and undigested food out while avoiding getting killed in the process.

We occasionally a chunk of time out of our day to day survival behaviors to reproduce and rear our young.

The less energy we expend to get the stuff we need in and out of our mammalian forms, the better our chances of surviving. Laziness is not a character flaw, it's a successful part of our evolutionary heritage.

Until a few decades ago.
Steve Paine, under CC

We are visual critters--we react to what we see. All light is real, all images are real, and our brains can hardly be faulted for not grasping that the flashy stuff on our screens is not real. And until a few decades ago, what was real did not change much. When something changed, we reacted quickly--we had to if we wanted to survive.

Science is about challenging what we know to be true based on observations of the natural world. Children spend most of their waking hours connected to a digital world, where the rules of survival are different, dictated by dollars. People make stuff up.

Adults live in this same unreal world, too.
Arne Duncan makes stuff up. Michelle Rhee makes stuff up. Chris Cerf makes stuff up. And it's very difficult to know what's made up when adults no longer care to seek the truth.

Which gets back to the birds. How many school teachers bother to mention that birds are reptiles, not because a naturalist says so, but because of a bird's relationship to a crocodile and a snake?

Such distinctions hardly matter, I suppose, if getting to what's true matters less than restating whatever nonsense is found in some outdated textbook.

In the end it does not matter whether a young child can parrot her teacher's nonsense about where to categorize a parakeet. What does matter is whether a child has the ability (or even desire) to challenge nonsense thrust at her.

 What's my solution?

Before we make birds abstract ideas, reduced to pixels on a screen, let a child observe a real bird, for a long time. Give her a pair of binoculars. Go outside. Watch.

Let her hold a bird in her hands, a live one if possible, but a dead one will do.

This one is alive! Debbie Courson,  used with permission.

Save the abstract until she has had a chance to observe the natural world we abandon when we stare at a screen.

I (perhaps naively) maintain that the truth helps set us free. The more I play this game, though, the more I think we're working hard to free us from the truth.

There are no lies in the virtual world.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Daylight Ravings Time: Ra Ra Ra!

Yesterday the sun hung in the sky for 11 hours and 39 minutes in these parts.
Today the sun graces us with three more minutes, lounging around for 11 hours and 42 minutes.

Way I figure it, I gained minutes of Ra time as he travels on his night-barque. 
The eggplants, now just seeds put together with last summer's light, sit patiently in little envelopes, about to be born again, to do this thing we and all living things do.

It's in our shared DNA, our shared ribosomes, our shared glycolysis, putting things together, then breaking them down again.

The sun makes this possible .

What possible hour do we think we lost last night?
What hubris allows us to believe we can break time from its essence, our link to the sun and the stars?

If I must chose betwen the sun and hubris, I choose the sun.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Is there life in high school biology?

I'm going clamming in a couple of hours because I enjoy it, because it makes me forget about language for awhile, and because I like to eat clams.

While we prattle on about genetics in class,  I think of clams and millipedes and all kinds of critters in these parts, and every one of them closer to us than my kids realize. All the big questions of how to survive on this planet were answered billions of years ago. The rest is just fine tuning.

Humulin, sold as human insulin, is made by E. coli, the same E. coli found in poop.


Because if you put a piece of human DNA into bacteria, the bacteria will treat it as its own--there is fundamentally no difference between the DNA found in your skin cells and the DNA of the critters in your poop. All life forms we know are this closely related.

"Knowing" high school genetics well enough to ace an exam may give you a little jolt of satisfaction, but will not, by itself, get you closer to understanding anything about the living. Words are hardly necessary for survival, they've only been a round for a few thousand years, and I suspect they won't be around in a few thousand more.

Words, however, define most of what we think matters, and so long as we think that, kids will be able to pass biology tests without the vaguest notion of what being alive means.

You need a mudflat for that.

How do you test a child's sense of connection to the universe?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

A repeat from a couple of years ago, in honor of Theodor Seuss Geisel.

We have tiny newborn fish in our classroom. Life happens.

The critters are tiny, and regular fish food won't do. They survived the first couple of days on their tinier yolk sacs, but sooner or later, living requires taking life.

I projected a drop of our class pond water  through our microscope camera. Tiny creatures darted across the screen, startled by the sudden bright light beneath them.

The kids got it right away--put some of the pond water in with the tiny fish. And I did. I'll see Monday if any survive.

The pond water has sat by the same window for three years now, generations upon generations of daphnia and snails and paramecium live out their lives, fueled by light caught by the plants and algae.While some of the students are amazed by the occasional birth of snails or the frantic journeys of daphnia, none are startled by the microscopic life anymore.

That's not to say that they are blasé--it's just that they expect to see something under the scope now.The living world is larger now than it was in September. Doubt that the state exam will test that in May, but that's not why I teach.

Through a combination of good luck and a wonderful supervisor, I am sitting on a committee that will help develop early elementary science curriculum in our district.

The idea is use the combined expertise of high school and elementary teachers to create a program that better prepares students for what awaits them in high school.

I am not an expert in early childhood education. I am, however, a retired board-certified pediatrician. I know something about child development, even raised a couple of tadpoles of my own.

Today I reviewed a science learning site designed for K-6. It has garnered awards, and, by golly, you can invest in it on NASDAQ. Maybe I don't know enough about readers but there was a lot of repetitive sentences with only 1 word change in each. For example, "Some live where it is...." was repeated four times with hot/cold/wet/dry. It may be pedagogically correct, but if that's what kids are required to read, little wonder some kids run away from books. 

As I read through this stuff, some of it factually wrong (no, not all animals move), I wonder how any child can even pretend to love what schools label "science."

If our goal is to get kids to see the natural world and to teach them how to read, why not Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears A Who? That would tie in well with the invisible worlds swirling in a drop of pond water.

Why not Green Eggs and Ham, a story about a hypothesis (you would like green eggs and ham) with multiple variables tossed in (in a house? with a mouse?)?

Why not One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, a classic introduction to taxonomy?
From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things
are everywhere.

As good a lesson as I can hope to teach a curious kindergartner about the our natural world.

The company, nameless for now, does not make awful stuff, but why not aim for greatness? 
Why not get it right? I doubt getting it right would cut into the stock value.

"Rule 7: The Only Rule is Work"

Happiness of itself does not matter--you either are, or you are not, and while it's nice to be happy, that is not a goal any more than saying existence is a goal.

Doing things that matter generally makes folks happy.

A child should dream, as should all of us, but a child needs to know that dreaming is not nearly enough. But we tell them otherwise.

I teach science because we're mammals, and part of something larger, and most of the children I've met in my life need reminding of this, because they have been told otherwise.

At the end of the day, it really does not matter if a child knows what DNA polymerase does.

Sister Mary Corita, who wrote "10 Rules for Students and Teachers" below

We no longer need to work for what we need, or so we think.

We barely work for our music, for our water, for our fire, for our lives.We barely work for our calories--and it's killing us.

While it's true (and still rather surprising, to me anyway) that each of us will die, it's also true that we've been doing this for quite some time now, and that the ancient ways, reflected in our ancient hands, our ancient tongues, our ancient memories, matter.

Teaching biology, when done right, is one way to remember our ancient roots. If I take a tiny piece of your DNA, and put it into anything alive, it can make a tiny piece of you. We're all that close.

We all come from stardust.
We're all alive today.

Educating a child for employment does matter, of course, but not so much for the workforce. Someday my students will need to be able to pay for their living expenses: toilet paper, utility bills, some food for the belly.

If she falls in love with the universe, though, much of her other expenses fall away--and she can pursue the work that matters.

Here is the full list of Sister Mary Corita:

They're on our classroom wall.