Tuesday, August 26, 2014

August light

This one's from two Augusts ago.


The days fade quickly now--in three weeks we'll have an hour less sunlight gracing us than today.

We will assault children with a sterile view of science, reduced to a method and streams of vocabulary, "ideas" we can test.

The sun slides south without notice as we huddle under the subtle, damning hum of fluorescent lights, each one filled with vaporized mercury, coated with phosphor, a steam punk amalgamation of  early 20th century technology and vision.

We talk little of either, the sun or the hum, the light of our lives.

Here's the heart of biology: We're matter put together in an orderly fashion by light. When light fades, we fall apart.

Follow the energy--the breath you take brings in oxygen that allows you to convert the toast you ate this morning back into carbon dioxide and water. You literally breathe out a few bites of your breakfast  by noon.
Wheat grown in our classroom

The toast, of course, is mostly wheat--these days we take out the best part of the grain and feed it to animals (flour keeps better on the shelves this way), but what's left over , is still wheat, a plant, like most plants, that combines carbon dioxide and water into marvelous strands of carbon compounds, weavers that rival Rumpelstiltskin--the miracle is in the flax, not the gold.

And yet when we talk of "photosynthesis" the kids groan under the weight of the terms: photolysis, ATP synthase, electron chain transport, chemiosmosis....sighing vast quantities of carbon dioxide molecules, drooling on the desks.

Yes!...there's your breakfast, in the sighs, in the drool!

The fading light is not metaphorical--it is real. Outside the classroom windows the living world is dying, as it does every fall. The hunger season is coming.

We start the school year in late summer, as we do, as our bodies, still untamed, feel the dying light. We pretend otherwise, talk of the "new year" and of "objectives" and "benchmarks"--as the sun slides slowly south, the shadows lengthen ominously, and the ice returns.

We teach children to stop paying attention to what matters, to focus on the trivial. That is how you survive in a world of concrete and glass, in a world where many of our children would not recognize their breakfast in its raw form.

Biology is the study of life--let's shine our light on what matters.

Back to school is a bittersweet time...

Why teach biology?

Wheat grown on our classroom windowsill.

Right now you are making water, the real stuff, not some abstraction, from the oxygen you breathed in just moments ago combining with protons and electrons stripped from the the peanut and butter sandwich you ate.

You are breathing in oxygen stripped from water molecules broken apart by the dandelions you tried to poison with Round Up two months ago.

Your food was alive not so long ago--even a Twinkie came from a plant.

Biology is mandatory in public schools in New Jersey. Mandatory anything is rarely a good thing, and mandatory what-passes-for-science in high school is, well, predictably disastrous for many of my lambs.

But if I succeed in getting a young adult to see the connection between what is real and the food in her belly and the air in her lungs and the water she drinks....
  • To ponder more than a moment why she, a mammal, must chase abstract ideas that churn the "global economy" in order to guarantee that she will be able to eat in a few years when she is an adult
  • To question how the few real things in her life that matter have been so removed from her world that we judge who we are more by how much we extract than by how much we create
  • To ask her local politicians why incinerators are built in dense but poor neighborhoods
  • To wonder why her in our own town tons of potential carcinogens were pumped into the air just a mile from our school.

Well, I'll have helped create another functioning citizen in this fine land of ours, Arne and his abstract economy be damned.

And who knows, maybe she'll go on to be a scientist, too.

Friday, August 22, 2014

First Day of Biology

I chased killifish today with a woman who once had a career studying them professionally, her husband who teaches math, and their daughter. We had no net, and despite various strategies and plenty of opportunity, we caught none.

This was not an abstract exercise

The reason I wanted to catch one was because I learned today that killifish talk in frequencies that most humans can hear. They will chirp at each other when stranded in tide pools. This is the kind of thing that makes biology more interesting to me than comets. Comets are cool, but killies live in my neighborhood.

Killifish are not abstract.

I teach young adults as well as I can, but much of what I am required to teach (as proscribed by law) is the sentimental nonsense of the abstract. That my lambs can chirp about nucleotides and proteins well enough to pass a state-sanctioned exam does not mean they are any closer to understanding the killifish that swim just a few miles away from our classroom.

Biology is not abstract.

That my students can graduate without grasping that everything that breathes is connected to everything else alive, that food comes from the air, that everything alive will die, means I have wasted their time pretending I teach biology.

Not sure how I can fix this, but I am going to try.
Every child walking into Room B361 in two weeks is getting a seed.

I'll let you know how it goes....

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Seeding time

The plants know.

The lengthening shadows trigger the cilantro, basil, and dill to throw their energies into making seeds for next year, motes of hope, pockets of life that will lie on the hard, cold ground in January. In just days, vibrant green beings fade to oeuvres of ochre.

Every August I collect seeds--some to eat, some to sow next spring, some that will sit in plastic bags, forgotten for a year or two, until I stumble upon them again.

A few, though, will be planted in September by my students, many of whom have never planted anything before. The seedlings will emerge along the window sill and then fade away as the sun slides south toward the solstice.

In an unannounced observation years ago, an administrator walked in on a lesson on seasons. One child held a light, another a globe as she "orbited" the sun, and the students in class made observations about the shadows on the globe, particularly the part that marked our place on the planet.

Yes, the lesson is a classroom cliché, but the kids were engaged, and, for a few moments, some kids grasped how summer and winter can exist simultaneously.

My observer later asked why I was teaching seasons when I was supposed to be teaching biology. I explained (more reasonably than I felt) how all science rests on energy and matter, and that the cycles of sunlight define the boundaries of life in a given patch of earth.

If you view the world in compartments, with life as neatly divided as your browser tabs,  you're going to miss a lot of what's going around you.

And yes, I miss too much of what matters.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Dear (White) Teachers, revisited

If you want a handle on all this, read Jose Vilson's This Is Not A Test.

A couple of days ago I was asked by Valerie Strauss if she could share my previous post with a link back, and I said sure, while joking to Leslie that we better be ready for a brick through the window.

It has not been my most read piece by a long shot, but it has hit a nerve, as it was meant to, but not the right one.

Part of the problem of removing a blog post from its crib is that it loses context. The WaPo article uses a different photo than I did--leading off a post meant to push the discussion of race with a young man wearing scowling at the reader pushes a few of us off the ledge of reason, which I suspect is pretty much the point.

I can argue until I'm blue in the face that what I wrote is clearly black and white--but if a post is misunderstood, I take it personally, because it is the writer's responsibility to make sure the words crafted can be understood.

To a point.

Normally I'd fine tune the post on the fly (as I have done for years)--it's just a blog, not an academic paper, and I slap up first drafts then play with them. That's not to say that I do not respect truth (or grammar), but that I blog mostly to shape up ideas swirling in my head, and I have an audience of one--the woman who sits across the table from me each morning as the sun rises.

Now to the gist of the "misunderstandings":
  • The post was not an appeal to turn every teacher's classroom into America's Newsroom. Older kids of color already have a pretty good idea of how the privileged view them. I was focusing on the white adults who teach them.
  • I am aware of my contractual duties to teach biology, thank you, and also aware that my salary is paid by my neighbors.  My door is always open, and pretty much anyone who wants (and has permission from my Principal) can drop in, announced or otherwise.  
  •  I never said discuss the events of Ferguson in your classroom, or anywhere else. Ferguson is not the issue--institutionalized, ingrained racism is. Heck, I don't start school for another two weeks, and chances are we'll have yet another town in the national news by then. You have plenty to talk about in your town alone.
  • Yes, I worked on the docks briefly; yes, I worked as a tech in a booze bottling plant as well; in both cases I was happy to have a job at all, and I enjoyed working in Port Newark. Both are briefly noted on the blog, and Ms. Strauss thought it would be interesting to include in the piece. Why this inflames folks escapes me.
  • I'm entering my 9th year teaching--getting to veteran status.

Interesting (to me, anyway) is that no one challenges the one line I thought would result in new windows:
Race has been criminalized in our public spaces.
I was hoping that would be the sticking point, but silence on that line bothers me far more than any of the frothing comments found on the Washington Post site. 

So let me spell out my thesis:
If you accept that race has become criminalized in public spaces, and you, as a public school teacher, are an agent in public spaces, then you have a responsibility to address the issue.

Any misgivings on the WaPo piece?:
  • The photo chosen by WaPo was the wrong one to use.
  • My shot at Xanax was a cheap trick--I could have used any number of non-drug activities, and I suspect that Kumbaya feel-good sing-a-longs rely more on oxytocin than GABA surges.
Thanks for listening....

As much as I loved Might Mouse,  I'd much prefer Courageous Cat.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dear (White) Teachers

Michael Brown via Daily Mail

I did not know that Michael Brown.
Chances are pretty good you did not either.
But the name evokes strong emotions.

His color evokes strong responses.
Ferguson's description as an "inner-ring suburb" with a "somewhat transient" black population allows readers to quietly judge a town they never knew existed until the past week--ah, but it's OK, we know that kind of town, and those kind of people.

His size evokes adrenaline.
But you rarely read that Michael Brown was a "large man" without "black" slipped in as well.

Well, the rational abstract mind points out, those are descriptors, nothing more.
Yet we hear it over and over again--because it is effective, over and over again.

Every time you read it, your amygdala, the wordless part of your brain, flashes raw fear and anger.
We read the news to fire that amygdala, to feel like we're part of something, to feel like we're part of anything.

Michael Brown's killing was a public act by a public official working under the authority of a publicly-run department in a public space. Please read that carefully.

If you have been paying attention, you are not surprised. 
Eric Garner. 
John Crawford. 
Ezell Ford. 
Dante Parker.
All less than a month ago.
And yet we will act shocked when the next name rolls through our newsfeed.

Those of us who teach in public schools, who earn our living using public dollars, are obligated as civil servants, and more importantly, as human beings, to carry the discussion of what it means to be public. For us to be people.

Credit: Jessica Pierce
I teach young adults in a public space. Their space. My space. Our space.
Race has been criminalized in our public spaces.
Has been for a long, long time.
That's our problem.

I have long lost hope that I can much change private discourse of folks of privilege, though I bark enough that some conversations get shorted when I'm around. But silencing private conversations will not change a damn thing, despite the ooh-goody-goody dopamine dose of self-righteousness you might feel.

Let's talk about our roles as public teachers in public spaces publicly.
Let's remind our students (and ourselves) that the public belongs to all of us.
Let's remember that abstractions, as powerful as they are, are not real.

I'm not looking for a Kumbaya fest--if you're all about the neurochemical surges of joy, we got Xanax for that. No, it's time we dug into that amygdala and stare at the beast that makes us who we are.

And really, you need to stop asking POC what "they" think.