Monday, August 31, 2015

My annual school prayer

please grant me

a slab of slate
a chunk of chalk

a live critter
a dead ego

a magnet
a marble

curious children
and a sundial's sense of time.


Sundial at Rockefeller Center, NYC, National Archives

Goals for the start of the new school year

These were my goals in 2008.
Haven't changed much for 2015.

Teachers report tomorrow, students on Wednesday.

Tomorrow's goals:
  • Find a pair of pants-> iron them
  • Find a tie that does not involve alcohol or sex or Disney
  • Find my shoes (I spend summer mostly barefoot--winter, too, outside of school)
  • Find a pen
  • Memorize my student roster
  • Say a prayer for the end of summer

Wednesday's goals:
  • Remind myself the universe is beyond my grasp
  • Remind myself that there is order in the universe (even if I cannot find my pants)
  • Remind myself that I am only here to remind my students of the above--anything else is arrogance, nonsense, or both

Photo is "The Sun Sets at Harris Beach, 1938" from the National Archives; 1938 was 70 years ago--anyone who remembers seeing this particular sunset is more likely dead than alive. But we still have the image. 

And should Homo sapiens go the way of the Neanderthals, the sun will still set on this same beach.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Insane things I hope to avoid this year: Micromanaging microscopes

In America, many high school biology students go through the ritual of memorizing the parts of a tool they will then use to analyze a newsprint letter "e" under various powers and positions, only to put the tool away for the rest of the year their lives

This ritual can go of for days, as students struggle to make sense of this new tool, of the requisite worksheet asking deep questions like "Which way does the 'e' move?" and a teacher seemingly obsessed with a particular letter of the alphabet.
 (You can even buy a letter e slide, preserved using
"state-of-the-art preservation techniques."

This is often followed up by having students look at preserved (and very dead) specimens of critters they never knew, except for that kid in the corner who chewed on his chapped lips enough to surreptitiously look at his own blood.

Mark my words--a student struggling with focusing a scope will get excited by an air bubble, then get his own bubble deflated as he hears "that's just a bubble," followed by criticism for improperly mounting his specimen. (Talking about "mounting specimens" with sophomores has its own entertainment value, right up there with talking about the blue nitrogen atoms in your 3D molecule model set.)
Live slug from my backyard more interesting than letter "e"

Heck, if a child gets excited by the beauty of a bubble in his microscope, share the excitement! It's a step in the right direction. Then let your students play. Get some pond water, a dead ant, a piece of hair, floor dust, anything but some assigned slide a child has little interest in, and let them play.

Give your students permission to use the scopes whenever they have a reason to use one, which, in biology class, can be pretty much every day! Encourage your students to look at everyday objects they choose to look at.

They will very quickly learn the limits of the tool.

Otherwise you're wasting everybody's time--no need to know how to use a hammer if you live in a world that has no nails.

If your microscope lamps are not burning out now and again, you're not using them enough.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

My best new trick last year: Errorometer

While sharing pints with a few teachers upstairs at McGinty's, Chris Harbeck took a sip of Guinness, then tossed out a few words that changed my teaching--
"I give out points for anything, a thousand here, a thousand there. They don't mean anything."

Simple. Cheap. Effective.
Print out your errorometer, laminate it, hang an Expo marker next to it--done.

Every time a student gives me a reasonably well thought "wrong" (or even an unusual but "right") response to anything going on in class, even if only tangentially related to the natural world, a student can put a point up on the Errorometer. For every 10 points, everybody in class gets 10 out of 10 points in the Test/Quiz category.

Yep, everybody.
Yep, it diminishes the "value" of points individuals receive on tests.
Yep, everybody's grade gets a boost.

But, as a wise Canadian math teacher told me over a pint (or two) of Guinness, if points mean nothing (and we agreed that was true), then giving them out freely and frequently means nothing as well.

Image PD, quote added by Golda Poretsky.

No points are given for thoughtless answers--and it doesn't take long for the kids to catch on. Doesn't take long before the kids are debating among themselves whether a wrong answer deserves credit. (The fancier pedagogues among us might even call this metacognition.)

(Yes, points are just about meaningless....even the perpetual A students get to like this after a few weeks....)

Chasing dopamine, amygdalin, and death

My brother and I have well over a hundred birthdays between us, but both of us still love to dig holes and find things--living, dead, ancient, new, doesn't really matter--it's the moment just before discovery that matters, Dopamine is dopamine, no matter how you get it.

We needed to clear a small patch of ground for a patio that we'll get done sometime between this lifetime and the next, and while scurrying around like woodchucks, I ripped out a black cherry seedling, and, for whatever reason, sniffed the roots.

I do not know what I expected, but I did not expect the round, deep cherry-almond aroma overwhelming the earthy soil smell.

We both took turns sniffing the roots, like two children in the garden that once was. Under the hypnotic cherry-almond roundness was a hint of something uncertain, unnerving, yet still compelling.

Amygdalin, again.
Sugar and cyanide linked together in a compound with a bitter, incomprehensible allure

I am pulled to amygdalin, always have been--I chew on apple seeds with abandon, will gnaw on a peach pit for literally hours, have since childhood.

I plan to take some black cherry roots back to school. Maybe I'll draw the symbol for amygdalin on the board, maybe I'll bore the class with a minute or two on the life history of a tree native to Bloomfield, and then I'll pass around the root shavings.

For the younger among us, what do you think you would remember 5 decades from now?

Friday, August 21, 2015

White on white

Part of the reason for my recent silence....

I am working on "White on White," a blog that will explore white privilege, geared towards white folk (like me).

I thought it would launch weeks ago, but the deeper I go into the rabbit hole, the muddier it gets, not the least because of the layers of subtle (and not so subtle) racism I need to dig through beneath my own epidermis.

At a minimum, a blog purporting to witness what appears to be obvious to some, oblivious to others, should do no harm. (Not no anger, not no outrage, not no hurt, but no harm.)

Starting a blog mostly for whites by whites certainly is nothing new--Trump is no accident--but asking whites to think about their own humanity enough to pose to other whites awkward questions they usually reserve for people of color could short-circuit faster than the clamming of pale lips when one of "those people" walks into a room unexpectedly.

Feel free to email me thoughts. I do not need ideas for material, Lord knows every hour of paying attention provides enough fodder for years. Just wondering if the pale folks among us think that a public forum by whites for whites to enlighten whites could work?

I welcome words, both here and (for now) privately.

On green beans and models

The world, the one outside anyway, is incomprehensible. We nibble on models as we nibble on green beans, mindlessly consuming them as useful without grasping the wholeness they represent. In school we reward students for "mastering" the abstract without a thought to whether they grasp the real.

The students who cling to the earth learn their roles quickly. There is little place for dirt and dreams in the school to college to career pipeline. Middle school launders the few who still stare at puddles.

The same green beans we nibble on for dinner leave us like ghosts as we sleep, zing their way through our veins, our lungs, escaping as tiny particles, breath by breath, as we dream our limited human dreams. That's not a model. That's the reality.

The essence of animal life requires breaking things down back to the ghost of carbon dioxide, releasing tiny particles back outside where dandelions and such knit stuff back together, using the energy of sunlight to push particles together that would otherwise stay as they are.

I watched a spider on its web this morning, as she wrapped up her prey in a fresh silken shroud, then dragged it back into the corner of the eave. She will eat most of it, and she will breathe much of it out, tiny particles that mingle with the tiny particles I breathed as I watch her, some of which will end up in the beans, again.

You can get a degree in biology without ever having slaughtered an animal, without ever having grown a flower, without ever even caring to ponder your place in this living world.

You don't need to ponder any of that to be useful in most fields that require a biology degree--degrees today are used as certificates of successful completion of the abstract, so that more abstract can be done, usually in the service of abstracting money.

I teach biology in high school. I also helped start our school garden, which has fed me a couple of times already this summer. In a couple of weeks, I'll munch on a green bean or two as our students tour our garden, and get, once again, "you can eat something that comes from the ground?"

And I'll smile and say of course not, I eat things that mostly come out of thin air....

Sunday, August 9, 2015


On August 9, 1945, just over 2 1/2 pounds of plutonium was converted to energy 1650 feet over Nagasaki.

Two and a half pounds--about the weight of a 28 week premature newborn baby.



Yosuke Yamahata, A Japanese army photographer, took this picture the day after the Fat Man fell over Nagasaki.

More of Mr. Yamahata's photography can be seen here.

The photo and the quote are from © The Exploratorium,

Yes, this is a repeat, and will be repeated every year that I maintain the blog.
We must never forget what we are capable of doing. Never.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Hiroshima, again

Hiroshima was destroyed on August 5th, 7:16 PM, our time--just under an hour before our sunset.



Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese army base. ... It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. . . . What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history.

It happened on this date, this "greatest achievement."

New technology used to "solve" an old problem. We cannot help ourselves.

Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, suggested "we ought to stay out of the nuclei." Until we have a clue what we want, sounds like good advice.

You cannot separate tools from the critters who use them. Teaching science as some compartmentalized thought process without cultural context is a dangerous game.

What is our responsibility as teachers of science?
As citizens of the United States?
As human beings?

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.
-J. Robert Oppenheimer

And now I teach science to (very) young adults. I have a responsibility to them, to the state, to myself.

Harry S. Truman called the bombing of Hiroshima "the greatest achievement of organized science." If that does not give you pause, you should not be teaching science.

You should not be teaching anything at all.

This is posted every year, as a reminder to me.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Lammas, again

Yep, mostly the same post fifth time around--I like the rhythm of the year.

"No ideas but in things."
William Carlos Williams

The English had a sensible name for this time of year before William the Conqueror blew through--weed month (weodmonað). We teeter towards the dark months. Things fall apart.

The sunlight diminishes perceptibly now. The plants know.

The past week we've eaten deep purple eggplants and bright pink brandywine tomatoes, yellow summer squash and green-and-red striped beans. Today we will pick basil for pesto, some for tonight, some for February. A bowl full of ripe blueberries waits for us, sunlight incarnate.

But the sunlight is dying, and the plants know.

We do not speak of religion in class, at least not formally. Students occasionally ask religious questions, and I deflect them. I explain that some things cannot be known through science, and that what I believe beyond the limits of science falls outside the province of class.

In class we talk of light and hormones, photoperiods and abscisic acids, to explain how plants know. We talk under the hum of fluorescent lights, time marked by defined blocks of time. In class, September light is exactly the same as February light, and class is always 48 minutes long, no matter where the sun sits.

Today marks the start of Lammas, or Loaf Mass Day--joy for the harvests that are coming and regret for waning sunlight. Lammas used to be celebrated--the first wheat berries of the year were ground into flour and baked into bread offered in thanks, some used for Communion, some for the feast that followed.

We thank God (or Tailtiu or Lugh or some other forgotten gods)--harvest time reflects death and grace, whatever the culture. Death and grace feel foreign in the classroom, indeed foreign in our culture. We pretend, at our peril, that life is linear.

Lammas falls halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. The days are shortening, winter is coming. Until you feel the seasons in your bones, until you follow a grain of wheat from the ground to plant to bread to you then back to the ground again, the modern myths may be enough.

Science can explain why plants produce fruit when they do, and I can teach the steps. We can test whether a student learns what I present, and the students that do this best have access to all our culture offers.

You can become very powerful, very rich, without knowing grace. You can go far in life if blessed with intelligence and beauty, degrees and citations, without ever knowing what a wheat berry looks like, without ever kneading a lump of flour and water and yeast into glistening dough.

In the end, we don't know much, and may never know much. We can, however, recognize grace. We might not grasp it rationally, but we we can grasp it--a good reason to celebrate Lammas.

The Skeleton of Death dances every hour in Prague--photo of the Prague Astronomical Clock by Sandy Smith found on VirtualTourist.