Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A letter to my classroom visitors

Starting this year, teacher evaluations will involve folks from outside our building. I am blessed with a great principal who encourages innovative ways to get students involved, and I have been teaching long enough now that folks in the building know about the leprechaun, the giant hissing cockroaches and millipedes, and the collection of stuffed toy bunnies to allay test anxiety (though a better solution might be to toss the tests).

All in the name of education, of course.

Some days my class flows like a Beethovian symphony, with the occasional dissonant notes only highlighting the beauty of flow in the room. Other days, however, resemble the Keystone Kops meeting Pickles and Peppers:

To minimize confusion, and to cover my ass, I have written a letter to my classroom visitors.

Here it is, verbatim:

Dear Room B362 Visitor,

There are several areas of the room that students may visit just about any time except during assessments, each with its own purpose and peculiarities.

Play Station:
This activity (lab table in the back) is changed about once a week—students can go up one at a time for up to 5 minutes to play with a science education manipulative. Students are encouraged to write  about their experience in the notebook  at the station.

Perpetual pencil pot:
Students who need a pencil may grab one from the small pencil pot attached to the front bulletin board. While some people fear this may feed a student’s “laziness,” I must confess that even in my 6th decade I occasionally find myself stranded at meetings without a pencil.

Big Green “What We Want to Know” Box:
This box sits on the back shelf and serves as a place where students can ask pretty much any science question they care to ask. While many questions can be answered in class, sometimes students’ ideas wander away from the topic at hand. When that happen, the students can put their questions in the box.

Madagascar hissing cockroaches station:
Yes, they’re big, and can be loud, but they’re clean and harmless. Students may spend a few minutes now and then holding a cockroach.

Period notebook boxes
The color-coded boxes are where the students keep their in-class science notebook, used for recording observations and for recording “Do Nows.”  The boxes also have folders for each student for returned work.

20th century whiteboards:
These are showerboards cut to size to be used during interactive problem-solving sessions. The kids know where to find them, so if I say “get out the boards!”  you will see kids wander about getting boards and markers.

Liam the Leprechaun:
No, he does not exist—but try to “prove” he doesn’t. You can’t! And that’s the point. Yearlong exercise demonstrates what science can, and cannot, do when faced with charlatans.

I'm not saying chaos is good in a classroom--it's usually not.
I am saying, though, that dead silence is at least as bad, unless your goal is obedience.

And we already have too much of that....

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Understanding By Design®'s flaw

Right idea...
Understanding By Design® seems, on the face, to be a wonderful idea, and backward design has been practiced under various names for a long time before Grant Wiggins found his fortune. I've read the books, attended the conferences, practiced the method, and while there's much to be said for it, I've had a niggling, vague discomfort that has been growing over the past couple of years.

There's a huge chasm between the idea that students will be "provided with complex, authentic opportunities to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess" and the nuts-and-bolts of the program itself.

Wiggins' idea of developing a few essential questions resonates with me, but watch a room of teachers wrestling with essential questions is like watching a priest pry open a condom. We're uncomfortable, we're not quite sure if we're doing it right, and at any rate, we have no real intention of using them anyway.

I suspect one reason so many people have trouble developing essential questions is because so many of us, in our fast and furious lives, fear examining why our lives matter. We cover curriculum as well as we can, grumbling along the way about "these kids," and look forward to summer.

Wiggins does a (mostly) admirable job chunking down essential questions, but in his valiant (and profitable) effort to make essential questions more palatable for the classroom, he offers a third definition that ultimately wrecks UbD (though makes for better sales):
There is a third important connotation for the term “essential” that refers to what is needed for learning core content.
Educators  latch themselves onto that kind of question like a joey on a roo's teat, comfortably wrapped inside a pouch, oblivious to everything else except that.

I suspect that if Wiggins had not given us a place to hide, his program would not have the roaring success (for him, anyway) that it has had.

For many of us, though, it's become just another template.
Memento Mori, "To This Favour," William Harnett, 1879

So what would be the essential questions of our profession?
I'll toss a few out there....

What, in the end, do you want your students to learn?
This question drives curriculum committees, but is is a bad question, particularly for science classes. It reduces the child to a receptacle ready to be filled with knowledge.

We can no more answer this question than we can live our children's lives.

What matters....?
Before we delve into what should we measure, we need to be explicitly clear about what matters. This is not a conversation that happens much in public schools, for a variety of reasons, but it's a conversation we need to resume if we hope to reclaim some

What conversations we would have, a maelstrom of morality and mortality, passionate discussions of the sort that got the Pilgrims tossed to Plymouth, ideas worth fighting (and dying) for....

Most of what happens in school would be washed away if we explored what truly matters, but I bet it would be a happier place.

...and how do we get there?
This is the crux of education, and the essential question of our profession, if we choose to become a profession.  

So long as we're mere agents of a curriculum developed by "professionals" who have never lived in our towns, who do not (and cannot) know our children beyond their purchasing power, we will have little say in "how do we get there."

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Separate and unequal--the story of (Saint) Philips Academy

 Philip's Academy dropped the "Saint"--the devil's in the details

For years I spent most of my awake time working with kids in neighborhoods most Americans either ignore or demonize. I saw people shot, stabbed, and beaten. I got to go home at night, but my young patients lived there.

I do not talk about the bad stuff much, because so much good stuff happened, too, and most of those I know, unless they've lived similar lives, would edit my stories to fit the world they believe exists, not the one that my kids lived in.

I do not begrudge any parent who sends their kids to St. Philips; I do not begrudge the staff and administration that runs St. Philips; I am aware that they only want what's best for kids.

And so do I.

I want to be very clear on this--I am not attacking the school, it sounds wonderful. I am attacking policies that drain public school monies that exacerbate the walls that keep our children from succeeding.

For all the grace provided by Philip's Academy, its policies are exclusionary. I'm OK with exclusionary--I'm never going to make it to the NHL, my chances of becoming a priest are just about nil, and the Glen Ridge Country Club will never offer me an invitation for membership (though I bet they'd let me work in its kitchen).

Berlin Wall by under CC by Matt Biddulph

When you compare "public" charter schools with my Title I public high school, open to all who can get here (and if you can't we'll send you a bus and an attendant to make sure you can), you are comparing cars the parking lot of my school with those at the Glen Ridge Country Club.

So what's the problem, Mr. Public High School Teacher? We hold a lottery "witnessed and verified by an independent certified public accountant," the ol' exclusionary sleight of hand trick.

The lottery is not the problem--getting your name in is. How is it exclusionary? Let me count the ways:

1) Transportation is not provided. This kindergarten through 2nd grade school sits on Central Avenue in downtown Newark. Even the few kids within walking distance would need an adult to walk them to school. You are not going to let a 5 year old walk down a busy city street on her own.

2) The guardian needs to provide three forms to prove residency. Most of the seven forms allowed require some domestic stability:
  • driver's license or other form of government ID,
  • recent property tax bill
  • recent bank statement
  • deed or mortgage statement
  • employment documents
Just for the record, the other two are recent utility bills or a voter registration card.

3) Uniforms are required.

Before someone gives me shit about how those kids wear expensive clothing, and uniforms are cheaper, there's a whole world of hurt out there where kids are wearing clean, worn clothing from the local Goodwill. 
I'm figuring those requirements would eliminate a good chunk of the kids that come to my high school, children who through no fault of their own manage to stumble into a chaotic clan.

My school has a bronze BHS Bengal statue outside its doors, but it may as well be the coppered lady gracing the New York Harbor just a few miles away. We take all comers.

 By Brian G. Wlson, under CC

The crippled, the future pro athletes, the undocumented, the slow of mind, the bound for Harvard, those who speak languages most Mercans have no idea even exist from countries they never heard of, the poor, the wealthy (who see the value of truly public education), the gifted, and everyone else, too.

More importantly, we're accountable for them until they graduate or move to another district. That's the law, and it's a good one.

Philip's Academy Charter School plays by different rules. I get that. They can afford to cap their classes at 21 students while my school scrambles to find more desks.

But they shouldn't get to play with house money, at least not my money. The school  raised 5 million dollars the past couple of years, and they "would like to see many of those dollars go into capital projects rather than operating expenses, and we can do that if we become a charter school.”

By using public money.

Hey, you want to send your kids to Philip's, no beef from me. 
But if you want to build shiny new campus toys with my kids' monies, I'm going to go after you.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

It's the world, not the microscope, that matters.

Do you need to know what a solenoid is in order to drive?
Didn't think so....

The point of a microscope is not learning how to use a microscope, no more than the point of a car is learning how to drive it.

Yet that's what we do in school.

We fetishize the process. We ask students to label the parts. We admonish them for starting with the highest power. We make a ritual out of preparing wet mounts.

Some of my happiest moments are when an ├╝ber-cool, barely-can-be-bothered student shouts "Holy shit!" as an errant protist bumbles its way across his filed of view.

Hard to get mad at well-placed enthusiasm, and the response it, well, almost as appropriate as it is real.

The name of the critter hardly matters, though students usually ask. I shrug as if I don't know, because, in fact, I usually don't, one of the perils of using pond water instead of specimens bought at Carolina Science Supply.

Getting a kid to learn how to use a microscope  is easy once he knows there's something worth looking for--but by then the real purpose of the lab has been accomplished. The child's living universe has just become unimaginably more immense from a single drop of water.

(In my class, a child may grab a scope and some pond water pretty much anytime except during exams--if they're interested, they get pretty adept, and if they're not interested, what's the point?)

I can develop worksheets so the child can "prove" to me he gets this, and I can analyze the squiggles he draws to make sure he did not copy them from his lab partner, and in the past I have done just that.

This year? For some struggling students, a spontaneous, heartfelt "Holy shit!" will go down in the book as an A, as 100%, as whatever symbols we care to use for when a child accomplishes what we set out to do.

A kid engrossed in the life and death struggles seen in a drop of pond water doesn't care about grades.
And neither, dear science teacher, should you.

Microscope photo from Adafruit Industries

Thursday, July 11, 2013

"I don't want to know..."

The essence of science is digging deeper into the natural world, scientia (from scire), to know. Conscience comes from the same root.

We pretend that our economy depends on knowledge, but if we did not temper our knowledge with "I don't want to know," our economy would collapse in a week.
  • I don't want to know the person who made my shoes for less than a dollar an hour.
  • I don't want to know what pesticides do to developing human brains.
  • I don't want to know where the 50,000 pounds of shit produced by my town today goes.
Helen Keller paraphrased--I work in a good place.

It take a special kind of thinking to take the pleasures we gain through our economic dominance while ignoring the costs to those of us we do not (and care not to) know.

Public education does this much well--it teaches children to compartmentalize. Separate what's real from what matters, and you've produced the perfect consumer.

Separate science from the arts, separate math from music, separate the quantitative form the qualitative, and you can produce the kind of citizens that, well, we have.

If you compartmentalize science, frame it within a classroom and some predictable "experiments," you strip a child of her right to see the natural world as it is, which is a lot more difficult than it seems.

Egg lain in my garden, where it sat for days.

If you give her the tools to see, question what's true, to be skeptical without cynicism, you have made her world magnitudes larger. (This is what happens in any good class--high school literature has opened far more doors than high school biology.)

I don't talk much about the work I used to do for a lot of reasons, but the strongest has been this--the children I spent years trying to help heal have been exploited by so many in the name of good that I feared my voice joining the Dudley Do-Right White Flight Choir.

I'm a teacher now, haven't faced up close the grinding wear of poverty I used to see daily. Oh, a few of my students face it every day, but schools are compartmentalized enough (Crisis/Guidance/SRO/I&RS Committee) so that I no longer see it closely.

Even our magic is compartmentalized...[Photo:  Leslie Doyle]

I used to steal medicines from various hospitals for families that had to choose between food and medicines. It was an open secret, and while it made the few who helped me feel like Robin Hood's Merrie Crew, and while we managed to put out a few fires here and there, we were just Band-Aids.

(I think just the act of being available, every day, even when all we could do was hold hands, mattered more than the medicine we practiced.)

Some of these children are in your classroom. Children need to know worlds exist beyond their limited spheres. Some of our teachers do, too.
Conscience requires knowledge, and knowledge worth acquiring requires conscience.

I teach science, but science can no more exist in a vacuum than literature, or music, or wood shop (where some of our students are clandestinely fed), and all matter.  Our little spheres of influence fail if we do not share the larger sphere of humanity.

Yeah, I'm on a soapbox--I can see better from up here.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Hey, science teachers! We're not the show

My goal is for the kids to know less by the end of the year than they thought they knew in September,
an admirable goal if we hope to create scientists thoughtful adults.

If science paralleled our intuitions, we'd all still be alchemists. Common sense arose from our billions of years of evolution, in order to help us survive and make more of us; science comes from a neo-cortex we've just figured out how to use the past couple hundred thousand years.

If you do not wake up every day stunned by idea that  trees are made out of the same stuff we breathe out, don't teach biology. If you're not stunned, you're not getting it.

Kids deserve a teacher who gets it.

Science teachers get to do fun things, but sometimes forget that we're not the show.You don't need a funny hat, you don't need a mad scientist lab coat, you just need the universe.

The universe can be had cheap.

The kids have to believe (because it's true) that the universe and common sense parted ways long before they were born, and that the universe is real. Most kids (and adults) keep science in a tidy little box, separate from the "real" world.

It's easy enough for a child to memorize the equation for simple combustion. Here's what happens when you light propane (C3H8) and oxygen:

C3H8 + 5O2 → 3CO2 + 4H2O

Every child knows what H2O means--water is water is water. Yet very few children accept that fire "creates" water.

So why not show them?

Showing them is not enough, not even close. If the kids do not wrestle with accepting what they just saw, it's charlatanry.

No, it's not. 

I've been doing this for years, and I still wrestle with it--it defies common sense. Science doesn't truck with common sense.

The value in the demo is not the Wow! factor--my students have more Wow! in their phones than I have in my supply closet--the value is in letting the kids know that I am every bit as flabbergasted as they are. Every time.

It's confusing, confounding, unexpected, and real.

Don't let those young'uns tuck it back into that box.

 I do the propane demo about 117 times a month....and it amazes me every time..

"Science is Magic' photo via

Friday, July 5, 2013


I have a small problem with the Arne, Eli,  and Bill Circus' goal to create "college and corporate career-readiness." I still have a soft spot in my heart for democracy and the pursuit of happiness, and these unhappy men in suits keep popping up like greenhead flies. On the whole, I prefer the greenheads.

Photo by Tom Murray, under modified CC license. at BugGuide.Net

Suppose for the moment that college and career-readiness should be the goal of  public schools, that we should create a caste of worker-bees for the greater profit.  Suppose that we truly wanted to make a creative class of citizens, ready to design nuclear warheads and cure cancer. What if?

Here's the very, very sad part. The push for STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) is exactly the wrong way to go.

Arne's Army is right about a few things--the first world human world will be vastly different in just a generation, in ways we cannot predict. We will need to solve problems beyond how to build a better corkscrew.

Half of STEM is static, and useless for this--technology and engineering do allow for a better acronym, but they won't produce better thinkers.

If the point of requiring technology and engineering is to enhance a child's ability to solve problems, let's call it problem-solving. Let's trade the "TE" in STEM for a "P." While engineering abounds with problem-solving, I can do it a lot cheaper with matchstick problems.

At any rate, solving problems just for its own sake, as fun as it might be (and I grew up feeding on Martin Gardner's endless questions), does not justify spending the billions of dollars a year we spend on public education.

Problem-solving without cultural context is like masturbating--as much fun as it might be, in the end, not a whole lot is accomplished. Which is why we need arts.

That we even need to question the purpose of the arts in our humanity shows how far back with slithered to our reptilian roots. (Am I the only one who thinks I see the eyes of Voldemort's snake Nagini when looking at headshots of the ultra-wealthy?)

Not Nagini, from TED

The other nice thing about "arts" is that it starts with an "a," a convenient letter for any acronym.

So we drop a T and an E from STEM, and add an A, what do we get?

MAPS are what we once used to help us get less lost.
Today, more than ever, we need  to get less lost.

I prefer SPAM, but folks think I'm daffy as it is.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Divide and conquer

In the open air the distinction between the kingdoms--mineral, vegetable, animal--seems blurred.
John Berger, Here is Where We Meet
Grown by a sophomore student, Room B362

In western culture, to understand something means to break it into its parts. This makes sense if the point of understanding something is to manipulate it, and our history the past thousand years or so is marked by the things we broke.

Science is acceptable (and only barely so in some quarters) not because it gives us a greater appreciation of the mysteries around us, but because it works. We can make predictions, we can make wonderful things, and we can break things if other cultures get in the way.

For every Feynman whose love of the universe grew as he unraveled its patterns, we have 450 LGM30 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles ready to destroy life. Just yesterday we released 4 much smaller missiles via a drone in Pakistan, killing at least 16 people in a "volatile tribal area."

The crew of the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) sat thousands of miles away here in the States. Today they will get to watch fireworks, celebrating a document famous for this line:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

RPA crews "experience mental health problems like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan."

Separating the pilots from the plane does not separate them from their humanity.

If we continue to teach science by treating the natural world as parts to be separated, named, and memorized, while stripping away the awe that inspires the best of our scientists, we will continue to get human drones that can separate what they do from the consequences of their actions.

Me, on a small mountain of dredge spoils somewhere in Cape May.

Here's a partial list of words 12 year old children are expected to learn in North Carolina (courtesy of Bill Ferriter--read the post, it will break any teacher's heart):
Conduction, Convection, Radiation, Heat Transfer, Mediums, Frequency, Amplitude, Pitch, Wavelength, Longitudinal Waves, Transverse Waves, Trough, Crest, Rarefaction, Compression, Electromagnetic Energy, Disturbances. Melting Point, Boiling Point, Solubility, Solute, Solvent, Saturation, Phase Changes.Density, Igneous, Sedimentary, Metamorphic, Oceanic Crust, Continental Crust, Plate Tectonics, Alfred Wegener, Convergent Boundaries, Divergent Boundaries, Transform Boundaries, Primary Waves, Secondary Waves, Surface Waves, Parent Rock, Contour Plowing.Eclipses, Phases of the Moon, Tidal Patterns, Hubble Telescope, International Space Station, Fermi-Gamma-Ray Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Gravitational Force.
Pieces are much easier to deal with than the messy whole, and a whole lot cheaper to test. Every time we reward a child for separating herself from the world--and memorizing vocabulary of concepts you cannot possibly grasp at your age falls under this--we teach her that the parts matter more than the whole.

I don't want to help train engineers (or soldiers or corporate scientists or CEOs) if what they do requires them to separate themselves from the universe.

I take "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" to heart, and I take it literally. There's no place for cynicism for those of us entrusted with children.

"In the open air the distinction between the kingdoms" becomes blurred because the distinctions are human, not universal. The distinctions matter, the distinctions allowed us to trade magic for science, but if we treat science the way we treated magic, as a tool for manipulating the world and for acquiring power, we we've made a Faustian bargain.

Pursuing knowledge of the world, for the purpose of knowing it better, for knowing a little more about the whole, can (and does) make us happier critters. We are all mortal, we will all fall apart, no magic can save us. Technology cannot save us.

But maybe happiness can....

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Augmented reality, sex, and beer

I love beer.
I love sex.
I could learn to love augmented reality.

But none of those belong in a young child's classroom.

If the goal is to increase testable content knowledge that will raise CCCS test scores to Duncasmic levels (and sell a few more toys along the way), well, you got me there.

If the goal is to help children discover the world, love its richness, and become reasonably happy citizens, we have a problem.

The less glass between the ant hill and the owner of the young neurons staring at it, the more real and complex it becomes.

This takes time, of course, and I suppose AR could deliver a child to some goal sooner.
"Mommy, Mommy, look, bugs!"
"Yes, let Mommy show you how to identify them."
The mother aims her device over the anthill. A reassuring voice rises from glass--
This is a colony of  Formica accreta ants. I have added it to your child's log of tagged organisms.

The young woman pauses a moment, watching as her child starts to poke the anthill. "But are they dangerous?"
There have been no recorded instances of fatal interaction, but there is always the remote possibility of an allergic reaction.
She gasps as she scoops up her daughter. "Thank you, Siri!"

She slips hear ear buds back on, hits her Soothe Me Now playlist, and heads back to her climate controlled car.

Back at school, the child will have a beautiful photo to show, and a story to tell.
She'll look, sound, and feel smarter.

Credit: Steve Paine, via CC

And in the new human world where "look, sound, and feel" triumph over the rich aromas of life (and the fetid smells of mortality), another child gets lost in our limited human universe.

It's a pretty amazing place out there, this natural world. Augmented reality can be an amazing tool for those among us who still have a reasonable grasp of the vastness of the universe (or who at least admit that what's real surpasses anything we can imagine).

We are not the creators of the universe, nor are we just spectators. We cannot augment the natural world, just the blinders our machines have put on it.

Even beer and sex have their limitations.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Biology matters

I dropped the red worm into the beaker--a pulsing black ribbon undulated its way over, then attached itself to the worm. A second leech soon join the first. The worm writhed as the two predators took what they needed.

This went on for several minutes. One student was repulsed (as I was), another fascinated. The worm paled as the leeches feasted.

Had I done it during class, I'm sure I would have had complaints, for good reasons. There may be better reasons, though, for showing it.

Most of us without septic tanks have no idea where our shit goes. Most of us without wells have no idea where how our water gets to our taps. Most of us who eat meat have never slaughtered for food.

Claws of death

Getting a high school diploma in New Jersey requires successful completion of  a year of biology. Seems a fair question to wonder why.

Here are the reasons I think kids should learn some biology:
Not sure the state department of education exactly concurs, but they do say that "(s)cientifically literate students possess the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity."

I've yet to produce a scientifically literate student--it takes years for that, and even most college graduates do not come close to the goal, but I will keep trying anyway.

Because it matters....