Sunday, November 30, 2014

Technology bytes children

The United States Department of Education is pushing its latest public relations campaign, Future Ready, urging superintendents to sign a pledge to plunge into the digital age.

The pledge itself is a syntactical nightmare, a porridge of buzz words and jargon slapped together to render the pledge almost as meaningless as the one public school kids make each morning. (Before folks get their knickers all bunched up, I'm referring to the 2341st time a child makes the pledge--once should be enough for any pledge.)

Still, the pledge will make the plutocrats among us happy, and it's about as binding and effective as Ford's Whip Inflation Now campaign back in the 70's, my first exposure to just how searingly bad government flacks can be.

I'd love to debate the merits of these kinds of programs, but there's a more basic discussion that needs to happen first. Do the benefits of personal digital technology outweigh the harm done to small children?

Let's be clear up front on a few things:
  • Screen time affects children in ways that potentially have detrimental lifetime effects.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under two, and limited entertainment screen time (1 to 2 hours per day) for older children, and no "screen media" in a child's bedroom.
  • The "there's no stopping the Juggernaut/the cat's out of the bag" school of thought may assuage parental guilt, but avoids the central issue here. 
  • A class set of iPads does little to ameliorate the factors that have the biggest effect on school performance: poverty and racism.
from DVCE
When we genuflect before the altar of technology, thankful for the dopamine surges that fuel our midnight Facebook forays, we lose more than just sleep.

And now the state is telling our schools to sacrifice our children's time to the same god, to better prepare them for careers, and again we line the pockets of those who are selling snake oil, toxic to children.

Yes, this is a diatribe.

You want your child playing with an iPad at 6 months, that's your problem.
You want our children playing with digital media in public school before they need to shave?
That's our problem.

No, I am not a Luddite--you read this here first, no?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Elementary science

Here are the questions any elementary school teacher should be able to answer: None of us should be so specialized that we can laugh off our ignorance in the basic tenets of life, culture, language, and mathematics.
  • When we lose weight, where does most of it go? 
  • Why do we need oxygen?
  • Why do things fall down?
  • Why doesn't the sun burn up?
  • Why does it get cold in the winter?

These are not the right answers:
  • Poop.
  • To live (doesn't answer the question).
  • "Gravity" doesn't answer the question--you may as well say vishquishnosity.
  • Because it's really big.
  • Because we're farther awa from the sun.
The world's a wonderfully strange place, a place where trees take our breath and spin it into sugar, and we take the sugar and break it back down back into water and CO2, where all things made of stuff are attracted to all other things made of stuff, fueled by nuclear reactions in a local star unfathomably far away yet closer than the unfathomably large number of other stars that exist.

Losing our religion

Somewhere on a back bay in Jersey

Went clamming this morning--chilly dawn, quarter moon, and tame tide meant I may have burned as many calories as I raked up for dinner. 

But that's not why I clam.

After a week under fluorescent lights hearing folks reveal what they know to be true, I need to feel the back bay wash my over my feet to remind me what's real, to feel my fingers become clumsy as a toddler's as they grope into the mud to pull out another clam, to feel the human world of words dissolve in the chatter of geese and gulls.

If you do not know what's real, if your feet never (literally) touch the earth, then you will believe anything. And most of us do.

If you grew up in the States anywhere but a farm, chances are pretty good you learned of natural cycles through your church. While our dominant culture thrives on linear growth, most religions honor the cycles of life and death.

Science is the closest thing we have to true religion in public school these days, technology the furthest. Science seeks the mystery, technology exploits it. Very little science happens in schools.  
We're in the dark days now, and will be for some time. 
The dying sunlight reminds us, if we care to see, that all things fall apart.
The sun has shifted, the shadows have lengthened, the cold darkness creeps in.

Delaware Bay in winter, North Cape May

If your child spends most of her waking hours either in school or in front of a screen, she will learn to live in a world without tides, without death, without the slow grace of our sun. She (like so many others) will fail to discern the natural world, the one we're all tied to, from any of the multiple artificial universes available to her.

Of all the Commandments, the wisest may be the first:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.
What we see and smell gets down to molecules, which get down to mass/energy, which gets down to the unknowable. Science requires a basic faith in logic, in math, in entropy, in our senses, and ultimately a humbling recognition of our place in the universe. Science promises death.

School and the economy it now serves requires a disconnect from the natural world and ultimately a basic faith in what somebody else tells you. Our culture promises immortality.

Horseshoe crab spine, North Cape May

I'm going with death.

There are no standards or Commandments on a mudflat.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


We were in Asbury Park Friday night, and drove past the Silver Ball Museum.
Reason enough to re-post....

A long, long time ago, before most of you were even born (ca. 1976), pinball machines were still electromechanical, tied to the Newtonian universe. Real bells clanged, real thwack sounds when a game was won. Adolescent reflexes allowed mastering a game well enough to dominate a machine (and sell the accumulated games for more than the quarter it cost to play).

We played at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, on the Jersey shore. We fell in love with each other, ourselves, and the ocean. Play the silver ball, sell a few games, wander waist deep into the creamy night waves, kissing whoever wandered in with you.

Now and again, you entered the zone. Thwack, thwack, thwack! The game counter grew, the crowd swelled, and you were oblivious, except for the occasional glance at the woman you loved, and would eventually marry. (No matter what I do now--succor the afflicted, sit on the Supreme Court, take a bullet for humanity--I cannot glean the same gaze from the love of my life.)

We knew we were at some kind of cusp. In 1972, Prozac, the compact disc, and Pong were developed, harbingers of the digital revolution. Amidst this rising ugliness, Ted Zale (designer) and Dave Christensen (artist) created Fireball, the masterpiece of the electromechanical pinball. Bally praised its "lightning storm of scoring action," while Playboy hailed it as "the perfect pin."

 As the Human Torch threw bolts of lightning from the backglass, Odin and Wotan captured balls, allowing for multiball play. The bumpers kicked hard enough to keep play on the razor edge of control when in the zone. These features alone made this pin worth the two bits for 5 balls.

This was the 70's; we lost a war, our Federal government lost credibility, and we feared a nuclear winter. Oil was in short supply. We needed more than a good pin. Ted Zale knew this.

If you played well, a magical transformation took place. The lower flippers ("zipper flippers") came together, closing the gaping mouth at the bottom of the machine. A left side kicker grooved on, kicking back any errant ball slipping through the left gutter. For a moment you believed you had complete control.

Just as your shoulders started to relax, when you allowed yourself the myth that you were the master of Fireball, the whole center of the board started to spin rapidly; chaos reigned in the middle of your silver universe. You could just hold on and enjoy the ride as the ball clacked off the bumpers, got caught in the swirling center, and was hurled back at the bumpers. Like Job, you stood in awe of the chaos could not understand, much less control.

In a moment, the machine stopped playing with your helplessness. The wheel stopped spinning, the zipper flippers parted open, your ball was again at your mercy. Still, you knew better. Life could not be contained within the glass box.

No matter how glorious the box.....

Stroking our global economy through miseducation

Might want to read this after you eat the bird.

Cecil, H. C. and M. R. Baks
"Volume, sperm concentration, and fertilizing capacity of turkey ejaculates obtained from successive cloacal strokes during semen collection,"
Poult. Sci 64:12191222.

"My Daddy did what?" [photo: Peter Griffin]
In just a few days, many of us will sit down in front of a perfectly browned turkey, so oddly shaped that its conception depended on someone stroking its father's genitalia.

With all the nonsense spewed about technology, and efficiency, and how to educate our way to some economic Nirvana, we lose sight of a few simple truths:

  • All economic value ultimately comes down to just a few absolutes--what you eat, what you wear, how you stay warm, and who will take care of you when you falter, as we all will, sooner or later. 
  • Their methods of delivery matter, too--from tractors to ambulances, we've forgotten how to carry each other--but cultures before us managed to carry out the essential stuff without a drop of motor oil.
  • Economics is a zero sum game--thankfully we have been blessed with abundant sunlight and soil, so there's plenty to share. We just don't want to.
  • At market's close on Friday, hard red winter wheat, the kind great for making your own bread, ran $6.94 per bushel, under 12 cents a pound. Food is ridiculously cheap in the US. There's a reason for that.
Most of what we buy, we do not need. Much of what we need, we need not buy. You can go through 15 years of American public schooling, pre-K through high school, and miss this. I have seniors who cannot recognize wheat berries clamoring to major in business next year. This disconnect is not accidental.

Follow the money in our culture, and you will see what we value.

Wealth is not a result of strokes of genius, nor mere strokes of luck. It comes down to the brutal cloacal strokes of a poorly paid American we'd rather not know.

Happy Thanksgiving!A true economy does not grow--it cycles.

Monday, November 17, 2014


I have a broken oak tree branch attached to the wall, right next to the whiteboard. The leaves are still green, and will remain so. The leaves have not fallen, and will not. Next to it I have a mini-poster asking when the leaves will fall.

I found a slug crawling in our sunny school hallway, looking for all the world like it had a place to go, and in a hurry (for a slug) at that. He (and she) is now living with the potato bugs, where he (and she) will spend a comfortable winter before returning to the garden behind the school.

We saw dolphins just a few yards off the beach a couple of days ago. Not sure the noticed us, not sure they would care if they did.

A dead green bird lay on our stoop Saturday morning. Not sure what it was, and not sure it matters. It no longer matters to the bird. It was likely on its way to South America, munching on bees and wasps along the way.

On Sunday, we took a walk along the edge of the sea. Beach flies served as scouts. A sand piper had one good leg, the other one broken. It twirled like a baton every time the critter hopped along the edge of the sea.

And yet I talk of diffusion in class, despite the dead, the dying, and the departing that marks mid-November.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mary Beth Doyle

10 years today
Some things you do not recover from....

Today marks the anniversary of my sister's death, when a self-described Christian missionary ran her off the road, left the scene, then wrote to me (after being apprehended by the police a day later), that this was God's will.

Apparently some modern day apostles have the power to know these things.

I'm not an apostle, and I'm hardly a fan of what passes for Christianity these days (not sure Jesus Himself would be welcome at some of His more popular franchises), but I do enjoy the Gospels, which are at least as wise as, say Who Moved My Cheese, though actually practicing any of that ol' time kindness (in its finest sense of the word) would get you kicked off most corporate boards.

I take my solace from knowing what's left of her is in our hearts and in the now leafless limbs of some apple trees in Tipton, Michigan, her ashes overlooking Irish Hills.

Here is a story about her, told by a friend of hers, and I'm stealing it verbatim:

Twenty years ago today, Mary Beth and I arrived in the fabled Hunza Valley, the model for Shangri-La, in northern Pakistan. We stayed in a town on a cliff 4,000 feet above the valley floor, in a hotel that cost about 5 bucks with a view of 4-mile-tall Himalayan peaks. The poplars lining irrigation canals – brimming with pearly and opalescent glacier runoff, feeding stone terraces of apricot wheat, mulberry, grapes – had just come to full flame. An orange and yellow hearth fire lapping at the feet of the mountains 18,000 feet high, capped in blue glaciers.The altitude started getting to me. So, Mary Beth took a walk.

A few hours later, she came back, her fancy scarf from the Sindh – the one with real silver threads, presented to her by relatives of the mayor of the town of Khaipur – traded in for one of the rough cotton veils Hunza women wear working their terraced fields.

“I traded my scarf! And got some presents!!” She was carrying a huge bunch of grapes and a loaf of bread that smelled like a fire place and was so dense, huge, and nutritious it took us a week to finish off.

“I met some farmers! Check it out!” She’d spent the afternoon in the compound of a Hunza family, a rare privilege. “They all thought I was insane once I got them to understand I wasn’t lost. Kept asking ‘where’s your husband? (in this medieval world, it was just easier, and more sensible, to claim we were married)
Why did he let you come here alone?’ How the fuck am I supposed to explain I’m the one who dragged my ‘husband’ to Pakistan.” (Coming here was Mary Beth’s idea. That’s another story.)

She was glowing from the encounter. Not a lot of people are served tea in the kitchens of Hunzakot matriarchs. Not a lot of people are like Mary Beth. Travel is like being a rock star in that to succeed,
it takes a certain talent – the kind Mary Beth possessed in spades, wheel barrows, truck loads full.

Later, we shared this experience: that evening, Hunza was celebrating an Ismaili Muslim festival. After sundown, people scaled the surrounding mountains and set bonfires. As the peaks faded into the night, the whole valley – dozens of miles long, and thousands of feet deep – came alive with bonfires. The sight left even MB speechless. Unforgettable stuff like this made Pakistan her favorite location of the whole year we spent in Asia.
I'm going fishing in a moment, but it's not fish I'm looking for.
I miss you, Mary Beth.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Artificial intelligence

I may need to start a school on the mudflats, or rather
share the school that's been there before we ever showed up on its shores.

With all the fuss over the Next Generation Science Standards (whose biggest fault may be the ridiculously Trekian sounding "Next Generation"), our real problem stems from our cultural confusion over what is real.

If you expect a two year old to distinguish the natural world from an iPad screen in a culture where millions of Americans will wile away a lovely Autumn afternoon screaming at images on television, you are fooling yourself (your business) and harming the toddler (my business).

Every child should:
  • Plant a seed and watch it grow from nothing before hearing the word chloroplast.
  • Watch the tide roll in, and then out again, before using the gravitational constant.
  • Play with a magnifying glass before using a microscope, an abacus before a calculator. 
  • Know what a wheat berry feels, grind it into flour, and make a loaf of bread before taming her taste buds on Thomas' English muffins. 

 Add your own ideas to the list--before you teach a "science" lesson, ask yourself if a child has had a reasonable chance to connect to piece of the natural world you are about to share. Take each and every standard and run it through this test.

If you cannot connect it to something real, abandon the lesson and take a recess. Outside. Toss away your phones, your screens, your fluorescent lights, your earbuds, your books, your markers, your words, your voice. 

Sit under the sky, quietly, and listen. 

A child born in our culture today has little chance of discerning what's real from what's not. 
I'd say the same is true of most adults today. 

We are all part of something bigger than the "limitless" technologies conceived by those around us who grew up feasting on the artificial images of the generation before them.

 The most valuable thing I have to "sell" to my lambs is the happy old man standing in front of them babbling joyfully on about the world that belongs to all of us, and in between the noise I make about mitochondria and cell cycles, we pass around sea shells and plant beans.

Just read parts of the NGSS again, and realize it's just not going to help.
I'm waiting for the standard that says "Give a child a rock, and spend the next few months knowing what makes a rock a rock."

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A letter to my AP Biology students

A letter for my AP Biology students today for their contract signing ceremony:

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
Galway Kinnell


Galway Kinnell is my favorite poet. Mr. Kinnell died last week. We met a few times, even shared a meal once, but I doubt he remembered me, and that does not matter, his words still profoundly shaped who I became in college and who I am today. With his death a door closed. I last saw Galway two years ago. I will never see him again. I miss him.

Senior year in high school is scary. Most of you do not know where you will be this time next year. Most of you are seeing doors close for the first time in your lives. Rejection is hard. Failure is hard.

Many, perhaps most of you, have too little time to do the things you want to do. I am not talking about playing video games or watching Scandal or rooting for hopelessly inept NY football teams. I am talking about the kinds of things you (and me) live for.

AP Biology takes time, a lot of time. If science is not your passion, AP Biology takes too much time.

I trust that those of you who are truly interested in science will chase hypotheses down the darkest alleys, and learn to love statistics and data and natural truths as much as I love quahogs and pesto. You do not need a contract.

Many of you are taking this course because you thought (for a variety of reasons) you needed to take this course, and you signed the contract because you were told to sign the contract.

If you are taking AP Biology because someone told you to take it, I pray that Kinnell’s prayer above will help guide you once you get beyond the traps set in high school, traps that will lie in wait your whole life, stealing time and money and faith. Write a contract about what matters to you, sign it, then put it somewhere safe where you can read it when things roll the wrong way, as they occasionally will.

The good stuff, the true stuff, the immortal stuff, is right there for you, on your path. You cannot map the path ahead of time, but you will see it as it grows. Each moment matters more than the day, each day more than the years.
Make the right, the just, and (I daresay) fun decisions along the way and you will be fine, so long as plants keep trapping light’s energy smush together CO2 and water, because, well, just because….

For the few of you who refused to sign the contract, you’re already a few steps ahead of where I was in high school. Congratulations!

My contract to you is to keep teaching how to take ideas apart and put them back together rationally and coherently, and to remember that as much as I love biology, each of you has your own path, your own dreams, your own life.

This as much for me as it is for them.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

SGOs, Samhain, and sanity

I have spent, in the basest sense of that word, hours upon hours
of my God-given life working on a document required of teachers here in Jersey.
That I do these things speaks to a cultural insanity, and mine as well.

Do ghosts "exist"?

I've lived  long enough to know that they don't.
I've lived long enough to know that they do.

That odd, inexplicable events happen, and happen daily, is evident to anyone paying attention. The shame is that so few of us are paying attention to the natural world, we miss the rhythms and the mysteries that  envelop our modern minds every moment.

Today is All Saints Day, to celebrate the sanctified among us, as though following some moral order could save us from the coming dark, a world in which wasp larvae eat hornworms alive, from the inside out, and humans die monstrous deaths lying in ICUs with multiple tubes pierced into the body, hoping that like St. Sebastian, we will miraculously recover.

If you need a video to be convinced ghosts exist, you don't truly know what it means to know that the dead are among us.

The question of ghosts is not an idle one. We follow spirits of our own making all the time. We follow rules and rhythms of our own making now, wrapping ourselves in a sad cocoon of  hubris, wiling away our hours fulfilling nothing more than deadlines upon deadlines without a hint of irony.

I'm headed out to a mudflat in an hour or so, under a wet and wild early winter sky, to rake up a few clams, alive as I am, and as alive as I am, I will be as dead as those clams will be tonight in less than a lifetime.

Until you believe in the ghost you will be, you cannot truly live.