Sunday, January 26, 2014

Truth be told

I teach "science," but it's not science my lambs need.

They need to be able to see the world as it is. I also hope they feel the beauty of the relationships between matter and energy, something worth knowing, but they need to discover that on their own, unforced. (It's why we plant seeds all year long.)

Grown by a student, in Bloomfield, in Room B362

They need to know that there are limits, that excluding the god-like transformations of nuclear reactions (as good as reason as any to worship the sun), the stuff we start with is the stuff we end up with, that when you burn gasoline you end up with the same number of oxygen and hydrogen and carbon atoms you started with, and that that free energy is now gone for, well, forever.
(Truth be told, we will not survive capitalism.)

North Cape May, before the big freeze

They need to know where there food comes from, where their shit goes, and what sunlight and water have to do with all of this.
(Truth be told, we will not survive beyond our limits.)

The bounty of South Jersey, given freely.

Students need to have a sense of the power, of the possibilities, of the awe atomic energy. Students also need to know our history as the primates we are, our experiences with power, our gleeful destruction of anything alive that's not us, from bacteria to aborigines. What other species worships Lysol and death?
(Truth be told, we will not survive our hubris.) 

For all the squawking about CCSS, NGSS, ETS, ACTs, SATs, and a whole bunch of other acronyms that mean, literally, nothing, our children are organisms foraging on this blessed Earth, and the world belongs just as much to each and every child the day they are born as it does to the Bill Gates's of this world.

It also belongs just as much to the mockingbird that hovered over my pond in the frigid cold, sipping at the water flowing freely from the pump head, one I keep open by hacking at the ice so the fish below survive the winter.

 Dear Cailleach Cailleach, get me to Imbolc....

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Death and dollars

I posted this a few years ago.
It's mid-winter, and I wanted to share it again.

Last night we met an old friend. His dead brother lay in an open casket just a few feet away. He was a brilliant, and more important, a kind man.

I had a classroom observation today--I was not in my best shape, wakes rattle me a bit (as they should), but the kids, perhaps not as brilliant as the corpse once was, were every bit as kind, and we muddled through.

Kindness won't make you wealthy, and it won't make you powerful.
It's not a marketable skill.

I've never heard a teacher say "Get good grades, or else you won't be as kind!"
I have heard teachers say get good grades or you won't be rich.

I never heard a teacher say "Go grab a rake and harvest some clams. The seas will provide."
I have heard teachers use clammers as examples of what happens to bad students.
I misinterpreted their advice, and worked hard to be a good student.

I like to clam. The more I learn about these critters, the closer I become to them, and each clam I pull from the mud now tells me a story.

Slaughtering critters with stories to tell is hard, but I do it anyway. They might even taste better now that I hear their stories.

I count their rings.
This one is four, that one forty. The tide rises, the tide falls.

I search for their scars.
Anything alive for a decade or more will have scars, scars I never saw just a year ago.

I stare at the impossibly purple marking inside their shells, a rich purple deeper than the thickness of the shell, swirling patterns of beauty never meant to be seen.

If we learned about clams at all, it was measured in tons of imports or exports, noted in dull grey tables found in old social studies textbooks measuring the wealth of a nation by how quickly it can convert its resources into trinkets.

Manhattan was bought for $24 from a people who used wampum to barter, the shells of quahogs, and we were young children, so we believed we earned the land because we were smart and educated and not Indian. We used paper, not shells.

The inside of a quahog shell is mesmerizing in its beauty; the flesh is high in protein, iron, and calcium. Fresh clams taste as sweet as June honeysuckle.

Knowing that, though, won't make you more employable. It might even make you less so.

What is the purpose of public education? How does the happiness of a reasonably successful clammer compare to the wealth of a Wall Street trader?

Accumulating wealth matters to the immortal. Last night, again face to face with death, a gray corpse tried to tell me something. I can pretend I did not hear what he had to say.

I have 48 minutes a day to spend with each child, in a classroom filled with other children.
I have 48 minutes a day to make a difference.

If I knew I only had a few weeks left with my students, what would I teach them about the clam?
Would I share the words the dead man told me?

He said you are not special, you will die too.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

On peeling garlic outdoors in January

Garlic, CC
I peel garlic almost nightly. 
It's a ritual. I step outside, and in the dark wintry months, look up at the stars. I am usually barefoot, even in the snow.

It matters to me enough that I've done it for years, and hope to do so until the senses dull too much for it to matter anymore.

The  garlic cloves yield their dry coats under my probing thumbs. I watch the husks slide east with the wind on good days, south on the stormy ones.
Sometimes I think about the garlic, where it came from, where it will be in a few days.
Sometimes I think about time, or seasons, or matter, or some other abstraction that counters the firm life in my hands.
Mostly I think of nothing--I have a task, a good one, and I concentrate on the task at hand.
The heft of a garlic bulb comes from the union of carbon dioxide and water, the electrons in its sugars stressed enough to release considerable free energy when returned to their native states.

Of all the organisms on this planet, humans are the only ones who burn other organisms simply for this free energy.

It may be wood, it may be peat, it may be wood, it may be gasoline.
In all cases, we are using up what once was food to release a power no other animal knows.

Everything that burns easily in my classroom owes its combustibility to a plant that captured sunlight, either in my lifetime or eons ago.

Wool, paper, plastic, rayon, cotton--all with electrons trapped in stressed positions, ready to tumble into the welcome arms of oxygen, releasing their stress in a blaze of light and heat.

Garlic burns, too, but we will eat these cloves tonight, their warmth felt three times--once from the work of chopping, once from the reassuring heat on the tongue and throat, and finally in the heat that radiates from my skin, up to wherever through the thin skin of a dry January evening atmosphere.

I could burn the skins, too, I suppose, but I let them drift to the ground, to feed creatures I cannot even imagine, with stuff put together by the sun, which I can.

We are living on the sustained efforts of other organisms, efforts that have accumulated over years, over eons.

Oil, coal, peat, and wood all take time, and work. The energy released when we burn any of these is not inconsequential--we have become gods.

When I was born, there were less than half the humans on Earth as there are now. We are consuming millions of years of free energy captured by plants like a plague of locusts, with similar consequences.

When we lose our connection to our relationships with the rest of the sphere of living things, when we consume others for anything other than food and shelter, when we fall out of the cycle of life, we lose our religion

Wandering out in the mid-January darkness to peel garlic is a small way to recapture it.

The Bambification of Dr. King

When I die, I hope nobody mistakes my kindness for niceness. I am not a nice man.
Dr. King's life profoundly affected mine.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice....Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

Martin Luther King, Jr., from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

Death's shadow stretches long on a mid-day January beach.

Energy's no longer cheap. Last year's abundance has become scarce, and  the sun is too oblique to fulfill last summer's promises.

Purple sandpipers picked at the remnants of horseshoe crabs that failed to return with the last tide; several vultures hunkered down at the edge of the bay. Glistening glass orbs marked the end of comb jellies just out of reach of the receding waters.

We stumbled upon a hole dug by a gull, its presence betrayed by its footprints. Next to the whole lay a small, live clam. I tossed it back into the bay, figuring the gull had given up.

A few steps later, I found another displaced clam, again sitting next to a hole dug out by a gull, and again I tossed the critter back in the sea.

Then a third.

Winter beaches kill the ignorant. I looked around. Several similar holes, each with a clam next to it.

Gulls know how to open clams--I've watched them do it. They pick them up, hover over the jetty, then drop them, following them as they fall, ready to eat the freshly exposed flesh as the shell shatters on the rocks.

I suspect the clams had been left to die--their gaping shells would have saved a gull a few trips over the jetty.

I left the remaining clams on the beach.

One creature's death is another creature's grace. Powerful stories emerge daily from the beach--stories of grace and power and even love. None of them, however, are "nice."

Bambi never lived in the real world.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was loving, and kind, and powerful. His words still resonate, should you choose to hear them.

Do not confuse non-violence with passivity.
Do not confuse kindness with niceness.

During school announcements yesterday, our students were told that Dr. King pushed "cooperation." Rania Jones, a 3rd grade winner of the Milwaukee Public Schools' "People Must Work Together" King contest wrote "That's what we must do today - demonstrate cooperation." This is the Dr. King lite version of a complex story. This is the version that gives so many of us the day off on Monday.

"Love" is a complex word, and one not easily used in public settings. "Cooperation" is much safer, more sanitary.

And it's the wrong message.

My Dad joined  the 1963 March on Washington, dressed in full uniform, a proud US Marine officer. He flew A4 Phantom Skyhawks off carriers, in love with a country that let poor first generation children fly.

My dad was pulled to the front of the parade, or so the story goes. If you see a full-dressed USMC officer in photos from the parade, it may well be Bill Doyle. Dr. King later went on to oppose the Viet Nam War as unjust, and my father, a die-hard leatherneck, resigned his commission for the same reason.

I grew up in an Irish Catholic home, but Dr. King held as much influence as the Pope, maybe more, years before he was assassinated. My Dad loved the man, not the cartoon he has become.

Read "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."
Take a walk outside and watch the grace and agony of life around us.

Yes, it's complicated. Life is complex,

Bambi's just the celluloid illusion of a corporation that owns a good chunk of the airwaves today, including ABC. I'm betting you won't hear much about King's letter from jail Monday.

You want to learn about Dr. King? Go read his words, listen to his speeches, learn everything you can about him. But don't "cooperate" with those who would steal his image without his words, the Glenn Becks, the Arne Duncans, the innumerable talking heads that will piously bow on Monday.

Take a walk on Monday, a walk outside, away from noise. Carry a copy of King's letter and read it under the January sunlight.

Share it. Live it.
Don't let the dream die.

The photo of Dr. King (D.C., August, 1963)  is from the National Archives and is the public domain.
The crab claw was taken by Leslie.
This is a repost.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A paradigm shift: "How do you know?"

Before science we had language.
We trusted our tongues, our ears, our skin.
We knew trees and water and the last agonal gurgle of death.
We knew what we wanted.

Until recently, high school biology meant mostly just watching.
Children saw forests, then trees, then leaves, then the shapes of the leaves and their veins.

Children categorized animals by shapes and size, by the presence of hair or scales, by their number of toes, by their number of holes going in and going out, by how they ate others, how they got around.

A child's first contact with a frog usually involved a chase and wet feet, not a warning to wear goggles.

Francis Crick's early DNA sketch

We've wandered into dangerous ground now.
We care that a child can draw the abstract idea of a DNA molecule without noticing she can no longer sees the forests. She may be more useful to someone eventually, but there's a price to forsaking the concrete.

Grab any high school science teacher with his guard down, and ask him what's wrong. Dig deep and I think you'll hear a common refrain. Many students have lost their connection to the only world that's real, the world that's the basis for science. The abstract may make the economy hum, but it's the real that makes most of us happy.

I have been struggling the past couple of years trying to make the world real again for my students. I have wrestled with how we all use words, with how many of us use numbers, with an education culture that worships abstract measures more than knowledge, more than wisdom.

The deeper I dig, the more I've come to realize how little we can know of the abstract without some connection to the real. Science is built on models, on analogies, on mathematical relationships, but the foundation is the ground we (literally) walk on, the air we breathe, the swirling mystery of matter and movement around us.

And it truly remains a mystery, a mystery that can only be unraveled by appealing to our senses. A microscope is only useful in as far as it helps us to see things that really exist, an idea far less obvious than we realize.

Until a child can use ordinary language to describe what she sees in the microscope, she may be seeing less than I realize when she uses fancy terms prescribed by our curriculum.

Enter the Common Core, an ill-conceived attempt by monied folk and the Federal government to wrassle away local control of our schools, and its sister PARCC, a testing consortium of sorts, I suppose, but one already lined with Federal money and blessed by New Jersey.

Despite its ignominious gestation and birth, the CCSS is not quite the monster feared. (Even The Christ Himself had a less than auspicious start with a dubious conception.)

It's not going away anytime soon, and schools like mine face Armageddon next spring when our children first face the lions in the PARCC arena. I feel like the executioner's trap door (CCSS) has opened but PARCC's noose has yet to snap our necks.

Few folks get to report on the feeling one feels during a fatal fall, but I'm guessing no one worries about next month's electric bill. Since the trap door opened last year here in New Jersey, I've been trying to maintain an impossible juggling act, prepping the kids for a content-based state biology test while focusing on the language we use in a science classroom.

This week our science classes were told we're undergoing a paradigm shift, that our focus should be on the language and math skills outlined in the Core Curriculum. While we will still be rooted to the content of the curriculum, our focus shifts now to language, to fluency, to  how children show how they grasp the natural world, to how children know something.

We were asked to focus our students on this question:

 "How do you know?"

I'm running with this, and why not?
It's the heart of science.

(Still not going to feel good next spring when the PARCC noose tightens.....)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Halfway to Groundhog Day

A handful of grace

Yesterday, the last day of the darkest 6 weeks of the year, my seeds came through the mail. Little paper packets holding tiny pockets of life.

The cold snap killed the dill and the daikon, and wounded the rosemary bush. Winter around here is hard on all of us, but the light is returning to put the pieces back together again.

Yesterday, I raked a few critters from the mudflat, put a few back, and ate the rest. Each quahog I wrestle from the mud feels like a miracle, each one a palm's worth of grace.

Grace, again.
I have spent an inordinate amount of time pushing stuff as stuff, energy as energy. Our children live in a world of shifting light and sounds transformed by humans, for humans.

Ask a child what food is, and listen--we have a generation of American kids who believe that food is energy, and why not? Most of what they see as real is nothing but photons on a glass screen, much of what they hear vibrations dancing to the whims of two magnets pushed and pulled by the ideas of other humans.

Just about every day I ask my lambs where did this come from? Who put together its parts. Where were its atoms before its atoms were this? What is thisness?

It's a big question.

Much of what passes as science curriculum rests on the assumption that we know what matter is, what energy is. I suppose a few people do, but I'm not one of them. That matter is conserved in our day to day Newtonian universe is a huge idea, and every day I forget this.

My clams are made of non-clam stuff, put together by the clams to make more clamstuff in the universe. I took the living part of their clamstuff, broke down some of it to use to replace some of my humanstuff, and exhaled the rest as carbon dioxide.

I am close enough to the bay that some of the atoms of the carbon dioxide I breathed out decades ago ended up in the clams I killed last night.

Without grasping this at a local (and very real) level, the rest of biology is, well, dull, unless your goal is to get a degree, get a job, and use science education as a means to something else. The Next Generation Science Standards  says as much:

If the nation is to compete and lead in the global economy and if American students are to be able to pursue expanding employment opportunities in science-related fields, all students must have a solid K–12 science education that prepares them for college and careers.

I don't know what "solid" means, but I'm guessing it's not happening in my classroom. I believe it cannot happen until my lambs have some sense that the returning light makes life possible.

I want to help them literally see the light around them, the light that has existed long before humans roamed the planet, light that will likely shine long after we're gone.

Every day I put the local sunset time on the board. Every few weeks I point out the changing shadows in the room.

Tomorrow I will again ask where did this come from? What was it last week, last year, a decade ago, a thousand years ago? On Friday the "this" was the plastic lid of a coffee cup, tomorrow it may be the shell of a clam that was nestled in a mudflat yesterday.

Halfway between the solstice and Groundhog Day, back into November light. 
And we're still here.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Math, magic, and machines

All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion.
                                                          Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2117

The Magic Circle, 1886, John William Waterhouse

We once feared magic--it challenged the order of the time.
Kings reigned, Popes pontificated, and we each had a place.
Magic gave those outside the mansions a dangerous tool. There's a reason witches were slaughtered.

Royalty and the church have kept their hold, as they have, and as they will, so long as we remain mortal. Our deepest fears respond to power's siren of promised heavens, so long as we do its bidding.

And we, for all our noise and talk and chatter, do power's bidding.

Science has proved far more powerful than magicians. Astrology fell way to astronomy, a man from Galilee to Galileo Galilei. Science levels power, makes democracy possible. Rational thought unleashes its own unfathomable powers.

If the folks used to being in power care to remain in power (with the usual divvying up between various hands of plutocrats, church elders, and royalty), they need to make magic matter again.

It looks like they're succeeding.

For a child to have any hope of grasping the universe, she needs a chance to understand how things work.

Some things are easy--clarinets, bicycles, and roller-skates are open-source  machines. You can see the parts, you can directly observe how the parts interact, and you can modify the parts (usually to worse effect) if you want.

Before I learned to drive, my Dad insisted that I learn how a car works, in an era when car engines were still all mechanical, and the parts (mostly) accessible. Cars broke down a lot more then, but we were a lot more capable of fixing them.

All of that is technology, not science, but technology then reinforced the idea that the universe has relationships, and those who mastered those relationships, well, mastered their worlds. When something broke, we had a chance at fixing it, if we  grasped how the parts interacted.

Our world was defined by tangible relationships.
Arithmetic is hard, harder than those of us good at it remember.

Grasping it today may be harder, ironically, because of the calculator. In our rush to create little scholars, we toss away memory tricks because memorization is not necessary in a universe that holds our working memory in external devices. Insofar as we're able to slide the work over to machines, I agree.

A math machine--once my Dad's, now mine. Still works.

We do not memorize the ways machines do, though. We do not create rigid tables of sculpted data on our brains. We create schema, elaborate networks of gossamer, connecting disconnected ideas with one another in an elaborate fabric where ideas rustle together like the flowing waves in a dancer's dress.

When an idea, a concept, a thought does not fit, it's like a wrinkle on that same flowing dress--we rub at it, press on it, maybe rub some spit on it until it, too, becomes part of out schema, sometimes altering it in ways that the thought no longer has its original meaning.
Or we toss it. We do this all the time. 
When we memorize numbers, when we memorize their relationships, when we struggle with our times tables, we are not simply  chiseling ideas onto stone, we are wrestling with relationships.  It's how we learn.

When we confound the binary code of the efficient calculator--so fast, so accurate, so sleek in design--with the chaotic mess of ideas we struggle to weave into what we already know, we lose a place in our universe, the only one that matters, the one we create in our minds.
When we lose our sense of arithmetic--never mind algebra, or trignometry, or calculus--but "simple" arithmetic, we lose our chance at feeling how the natural world works, a world that runs on harmonic rhythms.

The loss of these sensuous rhythms makes high school science a ghost, the class reduced to memorizing incantations of imagined power. E = mc2 becomes a mantra, and passing science becomes a sacred rite of passage.

It also becomes pointless.

Christopher Danielson continues to re-alter my schema on how kids learn math: Talking Math With Your Kids

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Wanton wilderness, wanting wilderness

Newton, by William Blake, at the Tate

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

William Blake, from "Auguries of Innocence"

We fear wilderness, and understandably so. We prefer edged lawns to thistle, Lord Tennyson to William Blake, textbooks to open and changeable sources.

A wild child fails in our culture. Thankfully, we do a pretty good job at school, curing our children of natural impulses, of wanton behavior.


Wanton is an old word, now infused with ill will. It comes from wan, or lack (as in "for want of"), and togen, or pull. The roots literally mean "unpulled." To be wanton means to be unbridled. The word used to mean "sportive or frolicsome, as children or young animals."

As we dive deeper and deeper into a culture of efficiency, a culture dependent on artificial standards and goals, a culture that defines joy on its terms, we have less tolerance for the wild ones.


The wild ones got us here:

Isaac Newton (the same man who predicted the Apocalypse may fall as early as 2060, a man obsessed with alchemy and the Bible) "seem[ed] to have shown little promise in academic work. His school reports described him as 'idle' and 'inattentive'."

Einstein, an excellent math and science student despite the myths, believed that “it is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education."

The history of science is littered with bright folks sticking things into places where they don't belong, just to see what happens. If you already know what's going to happen, what's the point?

School is designed to protect the order of things, to keep us safe, to tell us what is going to happen.

Except for science class.

Sparks fly, test tubes erupt and spew off foam and flames, white flies spontaneously generate among rows of peas and carrots that look so incongruous in a government building.

Stains on the ceiling, cracks in the world, and incident reports in central administration remind us that wilderness exists, even in a building where young lives are pre-planned, curricula set, protocols enforced.

If you teach, guide your lambs to the ledge:
  • If you teach language arts, push the wilderness. Read Blake with passion; you grasp that all this is miraculous, and that all this will end. Let your children see you bleed.
  • If you teach history, let the smells and sounds of battle waft into your room, let fear and hope swirl in your room as it swirls around us in the world. Let your children taste the blood that has spilled.
  • If you teach physical education, push a child to feel what reckless abandon feels like, when the body is allowed to break from the human forms of chairs and desks and burst into motion. Let the children fall and bleed.

We do not shed enough blood in the classroom, and there are good reasons for that. We fear lawsuits, we fear unruly classrooms, we fear chaos.

I think we most fear the wilderness. Order is seductive, civilization seduces us all. Schools produce the graduates we deserve.

Civilization matters, of course. I like my hot showers, my iPod, my tap water, my clothes. I like order and the daily insulation from death and entropy. I do not plan to paint anarchistic slogans on my walls.

I do hope, though, that I am a little bit more courageous sharing the wild with my students this coming year.

Yes, I know, we adore Blake now--he is safely dead, tucked in a dead and long ago age we call Romanticism. If you can read Blake without wanting to scream and run off naked into a July thunderstorm on the edge of the ocean, you're missing the point.

The Newton page predicting 2060 as our end is from, fittingly, Armageddon Online here.

Yep, a repost.