Saturday, June 29, 2013

Maker Movement hit the underclass generations ago

Rich folks are discovering that the Maker Movement makes for good learning. They want their children to create new things, solve novel problems, to, well, think.

That this flies against what most kids do during most of the chunk of childhood time they wile away in school while the adults in the home drive off to places they'd rather not be doing things they'd rather not does not bode well for education.

The less economically blessed have been fixing things for a long time. Because socioeconomic status and school success tend to sink together, the "low" level academic classes often parallel economic class.

I teach science, or at least try to. I've long preferred doing hands-on lab activities with the lower classes, especially labs that require some true problem solving. (I'm not talking about behavioral issues here--but the few mild disasters I've had over the years add to the stories.)

I'm going to generalize now, using anecdotal evidence--feel free to call me on it.

Too many of my top students are afraid to screw up. We've trained them to be timid. I used to believe this was accidental, I'm no longer so sure.

Meanwhile, many of the kids from the wrong end of town attack labs, merrily screwing up along the way, encountering problems, fixing them, creating more problems to fix.

These are the kids who live cracked windows and duct tape. These are the kids who see adults around them patch things up, who know what it's like to wait in a disabled car, to live in a chilly home. They are a bit more immune to the learned helplessness we instill in our better students.

How many times are we we fed feel-good stories of the kid who made good despite the odds?
Maybe they are where they are because of the odds.

Please do not mistake my message--I am not advocating that we toss children into poverty for the sake of developing good ol' American know-how. No developed country does that better than us, and the overwhelming stress of poverty destroys far more too many children.

What I am saying, though, is this--before we get all starry-eyed over a population that pretends to have mastered algebra, how about we think about the myriad problems solved every time a child fixes a hand-me-down bicycle.

Maybe even acknowledge that children who can fix things have valuable skills too many teachers do not.

So yes, the Maker Movement makes sense in schools. Just be aware that a lot of your students and the families have been involuntary members of the movement long before the current fad started.

If a child is hungry, she's not going to learn anything except what "we" think she's worth.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Mitigating environmentalism: On quahogs and horseshoe crabs

My clam bed, our clam bed, has been severely damaged in the name of environmentalism. "Wetland mitigation" resembles The Inquisition--noble purpose, squiggly means, and disastrous consequences.

The quahogs left after Evergreen Environmental  "removed a portion of the old rail bed and restored 7 acres to marsh" are stressed. I'm stressed. The folks at Evergreen Environmental get blessed by the government to "improve" a patch of the planet that had just about recovered from the last time humans intervened.

I still managed to scrape up enough quahogs for a fine June meal, then wandered over to the bay to watch the sunset.

Dusk, June 22, Delaware  [credit: Leslie Doyle]

The water was high, and still rising under the Full Strawberry Moon--and along its edge, the annual orgy of horseshoe crabs, their shells glistening under the shared light of the setting sun and the rising moon. In this dreamy June twilight, anything is possible.

I had been worried about my horseshoe crab critters--Sandy had walloped us pretty good--but the writhing critters enjoying the June dusk reminded me there's a reason they have been around since before the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.

They will survive us, too.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Lightning bugs, again

 Lightning bugs back tonight.

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

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

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

I never tire of lightning bugs.


Dusk settled on the lake. I could hear the kiss of bluegills as they sucked down insects struggling on the surface.
A few lightning bugs flashed above the mirrored surface. Attracted by their own reflections, they swooped ever closer to the lightning bugs flashing below them.
Fish may not be smart, but they're not all get-out stupid, either. And a bluegill will jump if hungry enough. A few were hungry enough. Inside their bellies glowed a few foolish lightning bugs.

Lightning bug light is cool-literally. Luciferin combines with ATP, the energy molecule of life--the resulting compound combines with oxygen, catalyzed by luciferase, and light results.
Even tiny amounts of ATP will cause luciferin to light, as long as oxygen is present. While man has never been to Mars, bits of lightning bugs have--luciferin is an extremely sensitive detector of ATP. If it flashes, carbon-based life may be present.
Scientist have yet to synthesize luciferin, so they buy lightning bugs.

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

I read until the dusk chases words off the page, my feet resting on a small stone wall we built together.
A flash just below my right foot.
I break from Harry Potter. A second scurrying critter rumbles about the flash. The flashing becomes frantic, several short blips in less than a few seconds. My eyes adjust--a spider dances around its prey.
I've never seen a lightning bug flash quickly like that, but then I've never seen one eaten by a spider either. A lightning bug makes a flash by adding a tiny bit of ATP to luceferin. In our mechanistic view of the world, not a bad worldview if you're in the business of conquering it, lightning bugs flash instinctively. They are not known to flash for defensive purposes.
I cannot know why this one flashed, but I do know that lightning bugs, at least this one, had a pattern distinct from its cherchez la femme mode when struggling with a spider.

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

I pulled the frenetically flashing bug out of the web--a white wisp of web stuck to its backside. I set it on a leaf of the birch with mixed feelings. It will die slowly because my imagination would not allow me to let the spider bite it.
As the critter struggled with its first pair of legs to grasp the edge of the leaf, I gently pulled back the stick. The spider silk stuck to my stick. The lightning bug scootched a few millimeters, no longer flashing, and stood still.
I watched a moment longer. The lightning bug opened up its beetley shell, opened its wings, and flew away.
A moment later, a lightning bug brushed my leg at the bottom of its "J". No way to know if it was the same one. And it really doesn't matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love June.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Yearbook signing time

Spent part of the afternoon sharing a few gallons of the Delaware Bay with a small pod of dolphins, including one younger than my garden's parsley--they were as aware of us as we were of them.

And neither of us had a clue what that means....

Leslie and I kayaked about 400 yards off-shore--when we slowed down, so did they. The sound of a dolphin snorting hits me the same way the waving telson of a horseshoe crab does, or the buzz of a carpenter bee going eyeball to eyeball with me. Hey, I'm here, so are you, cool beans!....

Ate peas from the garden, spiced up with rosemary from the garden. Not sure who picked the garlic, but aware someone did, and am thankful for that.

We also had pesto, made from basil we planted back in March.I even used a few plants started by a student, who had no use for them.

I drank melomel made here under my roof from local blueberries and honey sent to me by a friend.

I didn't contribute much to the GNP today.

What does any of this have to do with teaching? With preparing our children for college or careers?
Not much.

What does this have to do with education?

I don't work for Microsoft or Pearson or the Pentagon. I work for the families who pay taxes here in Bloomfield, and despite all the press saying otherwise, most parents think I've done OK with their kids, and that's a big deal to me.

Trust and love, not test scores and metrics, define a functioning democracy, nurture happiness, create a community.

I am not as good a teacher I hope to be, but I am a better one than Arne wants me to be.

I am prepping my students for democracy, for happiness, for self-sufficiency. Long before Arne, our government offered 40 acres and a mule. The acres are gone, the mules sterile, but even a tiny patch of dirt will get you enough basil for a meal or two.

Growing your own food changes you.
Basil seeds, from dried basil flowers, for our classroom.

Every year we grow food in our classroom, plants made from the breath of the young adults who sit day after day under fluorescent lights, struggling through a curriculum designed by powerful folks who would not waste "valuable" time with nonsense like plants and love and light.

And I eat it, in class, and despite the feigned "ewwws," most of my lambs pay attention, because despite what you might think of our young ones, they still care about what matters.

And this, gentle reader, is why I still teach.

A note on "partial" deafness

I'm often labeled "weird," and I suppose I am, for a variety of reasons.
The biggest, though, may stem from my deafness.

I can hear well enough. Took me a tad longer to learn how to talk, and I was a silent enough child to be dragged to a shrink while all of 4 years old, who figured out I was a bit deaf.

I'm still deaf, and I'm still weird. The child psychiatrist could not fix either.

Suspect a lot of it comes from being (literally) shut out of the conversation, as I was, until computer communication started.
I never understood lyrics, never was quite sure what someone said, and even if I did understand, it was at the cost of a beat or two of time, and the conversation moved on without me.
I have trouble saying good-bye, I think, because that tiny pause between what was said and what I hear gets interpreted as me having something more to say. And sometimes folks say good-bye, and I miss it.

As much as I pretend that I am missing the empathy gene, that's a lie. What I am missing is living in the same time instant as everyone else, and that freaks people out, maybe at an unconscious level. It's a common thing among the partially deaf. We are (most of us, anyway), odd.
Traveling on a moor, no worries. Traveling anywhere else, where speech matters, a fucking nightmare. Even ordering a cup of coffee becomes a trial.

My deafness played a large role in making me the person I am--and for that I am grateful. I am a lucky man.

Heard dolphins snorting today while on the kayak.
Enough for me....

Which apple will your child hold?

I agreed to review an iPad education app this week, which led me to thinking,
which led to all kinds of problems--the review will have to wait.

To learn something requires physical changes in the brain--this is not metaphorical. If your neurons don't get more spiky growing more dendrites, then not a whole lot is happening. This costs materials and free energy. Learning, at some level, hurts, much as athletic training does, and both lead to observable physical changes.

Every organism alive today exists because its ancestors were clever enough to conserve their energy for things that mattered, Algebra II be damned.

A carrot from our classroom.

Saying learning should be enjoyable is like saying wind sprints with full pads on should be fun--there are good reasons to do either, but both require bucking a few eons' worth of evolution. Wouldn't know it from some of the nonsense floating around the ed world, though.

Turns out that the physical changes that occur appear to only occur on the relatively few neurons needed to master the task at hand.
"I think it’s fair to say that in the past it was generally believed that a whole cortical region would change when learning occurred in that region, that a large group of neurons would show a fairly modest change in overall structure.
Our findings show that this is not the case. Instead, a very small number of neurons specifically activated by learning show an expansion of structure that’s both surprisingly extensive – there’s a dramatic increase in the size and complexity of the affected neurons – and yet highly restricted to a small subset of cells."

This has profound consequences. Staring at a screen will create plenty of dendritic spikes, but, I suspect, in a very narrow range of cells.

What can a toddler learn from a screen? Which causes more wide-spread dendritic development, staring at a picture of a leaf, or holding one?

No one ever got rich packaging maple leaves for classrooms, though plenty of teachers, to their credit, continue to bring them into classrooms.

You want children to learn about the natural world? Toss the computers until they get to a place in abstract thinking when they can distinguish what's real from the tools that shape their world.

Steve Jobs and his cult of human design be damned.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Designed intelligence?

Back when I was still a tadpole, I took a metaphysics course with Professor Jaegwon Kim--he seemed interested in the natural world, he's a bright guy, and I was still naive enough to chase the unknowable.

Within a few weeks things went south--we fussed a tad over premises, which is really all that matters in philosophy, and I realized that this exceptionally rational man's world view still required a leap of faith I couldn't muster.

I left his class with a gentleman's B+ and the realization that philosophy wasn't going to solve much of anything, and for that I am grateful. There's a huge difference between chasing the unknown and chasing the unknowable.

It might also explain my intolerance for the Intelligent Design folks.

If we should ever manage to get to another planet, and there are critters just like us, well, OK, natural selection as the driving force of evolution takes a major hit, and the ID folks can start dancing (if their particular sect allows for that).

Et tu, Klaatu?

If, however, you find evidence that some things other than natural selection are at work, or evidence that natural selection is not sufficient to explain an evolutionary event (and examples abound), if you find examples that show our understanding of the natural world is incomplete, well, that's science.

Some things may be unknowable. I've heard through the grapevine that God is one of those things, which is a big reason I have no interest in learning more, but plenty of people plenty interested in telling me anyway.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A June song

From June, 2011.
Last night we had clams from the flats, rosemary and snow peas from the garden.

If I have anything worthwhile to pass onto they young ones, it is this--the world belongs to you, it is you. Not the human world of images and egos, but this vast, incomprehensible, and terrifying and loving ball of energy and stuff that surrounds us and the billions (billions) of living critters within arm's length.

It's June. Tonight we feasted on pesto made from basil from the garden, basil that was mere specks of black seeds just a couple of months ago. We ate snowpeas, now climbing to the sky. We ate radishes--pink ones, purple ones, white ones, red ones--riotous rainbows resting in the earth.

Our battle with the Arnes of the world matter, and I am not ceding anything tonight. But I am enjoying a soft June dusk, honeysuckle in the air, belly full of food that erupted from the earth because I spent a few moments putting seeds in the ground.

I'll watch the sun set. I'll play a wooden flute. I'll sing. I might dance, I might not. The lightning bugs will be here any day now. It's June.

Light drives us. Light is finite. We are mortal. A lightning bug blinks in the dusk.

Light, and dirt, and water, and air keep us alive. None of my students need Arne Duncan's nonsense. They need a piece of land, unadulterated air and water, and enough vision to know what they do today will affect their yet unborn children.

If our children can pass tests better than they can plant peas, we have failed as parents, as teachers, as humans. If Arne and Bill and Mike and Eli represent the pinnacle of our culture, then I don't want a part of it.

I believe those of us who dance to what's true will prevail. But if we don't, at least we had a reason to dance. And so we do.

Pictures from the front yard.