Sunday, April 26, 2015

Lessons from Ferdinand the Bull

The blossoms are blooming again--originally posted a year ago.

The Story of Ferdinand

The cherry blossoms are a week late this year--they know better than I do when the bees will be around, so I do not begrudge their timing.

Several cherry trees line Liberty Street here in town, a road I've walked a few thousand times on my way to and from Bloomfield High School. A few have branches low enough for me to bury my nose into their blossoms, so I do, but not before I check for bees. The bees have work to do.

We are (mostly) visual creatures. We analyze light, look for patterns, capture it digitally so we can show others what we think we saw. We have cameras to compare our various abilities to capture light, to hold the world in a frame.

Me and my nose live in a different world, a world of curves not  angles, smudges not sharp borders, a world where time and distances dissolve into layers of fog swirling into each other.

Cameras capture the sensuous, pleasing the cortex, blending thought and analysis and the beauty of order; my nose triggers the sensual, flaring up the olfactory lobe, part of our more primitive brain, visceral, without language.

Branch Brook Park, April, 2010

If you have never slid your nose into an hours old cherry blossom, no words can describe wash of peppery sweetness that takes you to nowhere but here now. Noses are like that.

Yellow pollen sticks to my nose like fairy dust.  I wipe it away, vaguely self-conscious, ignoring the strangers who pause to stare at this madman burying his nose in the flowers.  It takes me a moment to regain my bearings.

In a week the blossoms will be gone, and I will have nothing but a false memory left of what once was.


This cerebral, abstract culture of ours does not deal with noses well. Odors are just so hard to control, the memories they arouse so unpredictably deep, and the sense of smell is, well, too primitive for those of us who dwell in the abstract world of words, numbers, and big data.

We talk about stopping to smell the flowers, but we focus on the stopping, not the wave of sensuous, even sensual, deep aroma of flowers that give us reason to pause. What does it mean to stop and take a break, to get away from it all, when the all can be found in a moment spent on the edge of a city street, face buried in flowers.

One of my favorite books growing up was The Story of Ferdinand,  a bull who would rather spend his days buried in flowers than fighting. The book was banned in many countries.

Things as they are would, of course, fall apart if too many children figured out that what we want them to want is more about success of our economy than about them them. Ferdinand is a dangerous role model.

You can live your life working for the next big thing, dreaming of your next vacation, your next car, your next hazelnut macchiato, You can dwell on the moments you will (or not) eventually have, but the idea of anything worthwhile is still just that--an abstract thought, reduced by the limits of imagination, and ultimately unsatisfying.

If you continue to see the kids in front of you as potential professionals, as potential thieves, as potential laborers or soldiers or teachers, you cannot see the child in front of you now, on a dreary April morning, here, in a room defined by its sharp edges and word salad on the walls.

Kids know if you're present in the classroom.  Passionate teachers are effective not so much for their passion, but for their presence. You can fake passion--teachers are good actors--but you cannot fake presence.

If you need to fake it, you're not doing it right.

Death by dialed up dopamine: a rant

Texting while driving destroys bodies.
Texting while living destroys souls.

If you give a child her own soundtrack, a world where she can alter reality, and a device that feeds a dopamine loop during virtually all her waking hours, you can create the ultimate consumer.

Photo by Steve Paine, CC
One who can no longer question because she has no frame of reference.
One who craves but cannot define her desires, primed for a life of seeking favors from strangers.
One who has no idea, and no desire to learn, how she is connected to the land, to the water, to the air, to the bacteria in the dirt and her gut.

Filling a dopamine void drives much of our behavior--but it does not drive happiness.

If you want to help raise a grounded adult who knows what she wants, not what others would have her buy, and who knows enough to care for this world which we have through grace alone, you need to show her what's real.

Life on a classroom windowsill.
If all you're selling is obeisance, trivia crack, and a sheepskin that can be bought online now, you're not a teacher.

You're an enabler.

If you're doing it right, someone is going to try to stop you.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

On tying knots

Every spring I tie knots--some for fishing, a rare one for clamming, but plenty for the peas and beans that climb in my garden.

Every year around this time, when the sun has returned and the earth comes alive again, I tie knot after knot, one of the few things I do consciously and mindfully, aware of the moment, tied to so many moments before.

I couldn't find my ball of twine, so I untied some of last year's knots holding last year's twine still hanging on the bean poles, then stripped the dried vines off.

Untying work from last year to tie together this year, a year of change, a year of reminders that I have tied far more knots in the past than I will in the future.

The peas and beans that climb this year's twine are not the same as the ones that climbed last year, but the rhythm is the same, as it has been for generations, and as it will be for generations so long as a few humans remain tied to the earth.

Each knot is as personal as one's hands, and as fleeting.

Time to ban personal devices from schools?

I took a class outside this past week, ostensibly to study species richness on our town green, but mostly just to show them the variety of plants and critters that thrive around us. In the spring, hundreds of tiny saplings rise from the town green's grounds; I am no longer surprised at their surprise that "baby" trees exist.

I went to public school a long time ago, wandered out into the real world for a quarter century or so, then re-entered the classroom about a decade ago, this time on purpose.

When I left, back at my high school graduation in 1977, the cinder-block rooms had machines that transported us away from the local--film strips, and the occasional 16 mm movie shared a world we hardly knew existed. A large television could be wheeled into a room, strapped onto a cart with huge black bands, like a crazed, troubled patient on a gurney.

via Gilea Collectibles

Still, at 3:00 PM, we'd break through the school doors, happy to be back outside on our way to whatever adventures the afternoon held. By dinner we were often muddies and bruised, and we had stories to tell.

Today children carry in their pockets a far larger world than the one the schools of my youth could project on the wall. A child now has a pocket of toys and tools in her pocket, and can wile away an afternoon "interacting" with her machine and her "world," and with others who share her pocket world.

 For some, this is reason enough to end traditional schools.

These pocket worlds give our children a sense of well-being; they live in an orderly universe that thrives until a screen is shattered, but a screen can be replaced.

These pocket worlds also give our children anxiety and fear, as their bodies fail to meet the ideal in these new worlds, worlds driven by commerce and sensationalism, as strangers compete to capture the eyes (and mind) of your child.

What these pocket worlds cannot do, however, is give a child her sense of place in the natural world. When we lose that sense, when we no longer have our feet on the ground, we lose our frame of reference of what matters. All of us.

Wheat grown on our classroom windowsill

So maybe schools need to be the one place left where a child can rediscover the mammal she is, put her hands into the dirt that supports us, breathe in the air freely given to us, learn about the people who lived and died within walking distance of her home.

For all the clamor of how the power of the 21st century tools have reshaped the lives of children and made much of schooling obsolete,  I have heard few people discuss what matters to children, to all of us.

If a life of self-sufficiency and happiness matters, if a republic requires thoughtful citizens capable of solving problems, then public schools need to help foster a grounded life.

Maybe what our children need is a less-connected classroom, one that focuses on the life in and around the building, the sunlight streaming into the windows, the words on tombstones just a block away, stories of the ground from local old folks warehoused in senior citizen "homes," stories from the ground in school gardens and community plots.

A pile of cow manure tells more about life than an iPhone ever will.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The knowledge economy is neither

We will pay for our hubris, as has every other civilization that presumed to know more than is knowable.

"Education is still the key to eliminating gender inequities, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, and to fostering peace.... "
Arne Duncan, November 4, 2010

On our dollar bill, via Wikimedia

I am charged with teaching young adults biology in a culture that thrives on fantasy. Education could help eliminate gender (and race) inequities, reduce poverty, and create a sustainable planet, but in its current incarnation, it plays a larger role in maintaining the status quo.

But it's the next line by Mr Duncan where he jumps off the plane of reality altogether:
"And in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity. "

People ask me if I get flack for teaching evolution--I get some, but not much, and ignorance of our origins hardly harms any of us in the long run. Creationists get to pray for our souls, we get to chuckle in the teachers' lounge, and life goes on. To be fair, most non-apocalyptic religions recognize and trust life's cycles, recognize mortality and limits, and, until humans muck things up, have their hearts in the right places.

Here's something biology teachers should tackle head on: the knowledge economy, the mantra of the newly ordained masters of money.

Where did today's dinner come from? Where was your water a month before you drank it?
Why doesn't air get used up? Where did your shit go last time you flushed?

Where does your gasoline come from? The tires on your car?
How about your electricity you're using right now? The plastic case holding your screen?

The knowledge economy is about extracting as much goods and services from the people who do the actual work of extracting what we need.
Lewis Hine, "Power house mechanic working on steam pump" 1920.Records of the Work Projects Administration.
The most advanced genetically modified plants we know still depend on sunlight, on soil, on water, on carbon dioxide from the countless beings around us breaking down what other beings put together. And I still have a class full of kids who know more about the structure of a DNA molecule than they do about wheat flour.

Here's the dirty secret we keep from our kids, and worse, keep from ourselves. There are limits, real limits, and they will come to bear when the hubris is no longer enough. True perpetual economic growth is a fantasy.

In a land where the dominant religion has joined with the dominant political and economic forces, free market capitalism has become sacred--to say otherwise is heresy. But there are limits.
Salted almonds, via Wikimedia

California continues to water its almond groves--about 10% of its water.
Most of these almonds go out of the States--and a few Californians make a lot of money.
Our knowledge economy cannot replace the water any faster than the clouds can, yet California continues to divert water for nuts.

And the poor go thirsty because a few educated folk figured out how to extract water faster than their neighbors--"Shallow wells have run dry, depriving several poor communities of water."

Read that line again--people in our land are losing their access to water because of technology developed by educated people to serve the global economy.

The rest of us will pay for this later this year when food prices go through the roof. But we will pay, because we need to eat.

But you'll pay a little less if you learn a thing or two about biology. Here, let me share a few seeds--they cost me nothing....

Basil seeds from the garden in my hand.
Everything comes from something. Stuff comes from stuff. Our screens, while entertaining, remain just that--pieces of glass and plastic sandwiching liquid crystals. If you want to see the magic, break one.

When you do, there is nothing to see, the magic is gone, because, well, that's how magic works.

Stop inviting kids into the looking glass.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

All economies start with a seed

In the U.S., we are still just talking about the steps many leading countries are actually taking to prepare their students for a competitive global economy. Falling behind educationally now will hurt our country economically for generations.

The global economy, or the abstraction we call the global economy, is doing  immeasurable harm to countless beings, including humans. I do not care to prepare students for this. I am a public school teacher working in a public space to help students learn how to see, how to think.

Claim. Evidence. Reasoning.

The word "economy" comes from Greek roots that mean, literally, to manage one's household. "Global economy" is an oxymoron.
A classroom carrot--long since eaten, from breath back to breath.

Next week many of my students will plant the seeds to grow the plants that will bear food, using little more than calories from the sun, a patch of earth along the south side of our high school, the breath of  living organisms that live in and around our neighborhood, and rain from the sky.

This is about as simple and local an economy as one can hope, and even this is beyond true comprehension. A teaspoon of decent soil holds a universe of mystery. Still, it's a start.
Classroom basil, also long since eaten, from breath back to breath
A seed will sprout for anyone, rain is still free, and our sun's energy fuels us all--the Big Mac could not exist without all three. The fourth piece, carbon dioxide, the "waste" we breathe out, is as much a part of this as the rest--what we waste becomes what we build. Life is a cycle.

A true economy has little waste.

When somebody else plants the seeds for you, lifts the shovel for you, poisons himself for you, picks the harvest for you, slaughters the harvest for you, trucks the harvest for you, and you've lost the connection to the seed, you've lost your connection to life and to the living.

Local economies matter--Hurricane Katrina is an economic story
What makes life potentially infinite is not limitless resources, but cycles. Every piece of everything that enters your body eventually leaves it, in one form or another, and eventually gets used again, in one form or another.

The global economy is based on a race to extract as much from this land and from most peoples as fast as possible in order to, um, well, the why is not so clear.

Education matters, of course, but not for the reasons Mr. Duncan purports. A global economy, such as it is, depends on us wresting a child from her roots. A decent education, a decent democracy, a decent life depends on those very same roots.

You can "earn" a college degree without a basic understanding of how life depends on cycles; just pretend the abstract is real, accept the lies of your culture, and collect your money. Ignorance is bliss.

Harvested by hand, by me, for little more than the cost of my time.
Me? I'll continue to show kids what they're missing, continue to teach them how to see (and to trust what they see), continue to assure them (even as I have doubts myself) that a better world is possible. I also remind them that each and every one of us will die, as all living things must.

Most will still be fit for the global economy despite my efforts--our culture immerses kids in an abstract world early on, feeds them the mythologies that feed the economy.

Pursuit of happiness matters more to a democracy than pursuit of desires.