Friday, August 26, 2016

Why I left medicine to teach

I used to be a doc, the real kind with tongue blades. I am now entering my 11th year of teaching.
Students often ask me why I left medicine. Here's what I thought 5 years ago, and it still holds.

I used to be a doctor, the kind with a stethoscope, the kind licensed to hurt you for your own good. It puzzles children to learn that a physician would walk away from medicine in order to teach, and there are days I am baffled myself.

I liked medicine. I love teaching. I did not know that this would be true when I left medicine, so while it is true, it is not enough to explain why I left. Why leave something you like, especially when it pays ridiculously well?

Every year children ask me this, and so far I have not quite gotten it right. I thought I had it right, but high school sophomores would kind of shake just a little bit sideways. I wasn't fooling them.

I think I got it right now.

I saw a lot of bad stuff in hospitals. I saw a lot of good stuff, too, but good stuff can be found in a lot of places. The truly bad stuff has a home in the hospital.

  • The unlucky (an elderly woman who slowly died from an infection caused by an errant piece of metal ripping through her car's floor, riveting in her thigh).
  • The doomed (a woman burned over most of her body, still conscious, still talking, immediately before we intubated her, rendering her speechless--we knew she was doomed when we did this. We did it anyway.)
  • The curious (two babies sharing the same torso, the same heart, the same fate).
  • The geographically screwed (an Asian toddler who needed a new heart, but who could not afford one, twisting away towards death as she lived in an American hospital as an alien).
  • The innocent (children wasting away from a virus we barely understood, acquired from a mother's heroin habit or her lover's proclivities).

I was very good at diagnosis, and not bad at making things better once a diagnosis was made. A few were better than me, but not many.

 When you are surrounded by hurt, there are two ways to respond if you want to remain functional--fix it, or pretend it does not exist. I did a lot of fixing.

If you do medicine long enough, and if you are paying attention, you give death its due. It's real, it's usually ugly, and it's inevitable.

I can't beat death--took me awhile to get to that realization, but I got there. And it's liberating.

Turns out living isn't the goal--living well is what matters.

I was pretty good at helping people live longer. Now I'm getting good at helping people live well.

I thought my job mattered before, but had my doubts in the pitiful wail of a dying toddler, bruised and bleeding as we laid our hands, our technology, and finally our fists in futile CPR on her tiny body as it cooled its way back to entropy.

A life worth living is our only compensation against the greedy hand of death.

So I help children carve out a life worth living.

I'm a teacher.

If you teach, teach as though lives depend on it. If you think this is excessive, get out.
Photos by me or Leslie--feel free to use under CC.

Originally posted 5 years ago.

Monday, August 8, 2016


Nagasaki, again--because we must never forget.

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.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dear New Science Teacher

I live in NJ, and we do not start for another month.
For the rest of you, I've been told the season starts sooner.
So here's my annual advoice to new teachers.

Dear New Science Teacher,

You're going to get lots of advice, too much really, much of it self-contradictory. Let me add to your growing pile of nonsense.

*Children are innately curious; students, however, are not.
Unless you're getting a fresh crop of toddlers, most children learned long ago that questioning in a classroom leads to all kinds of problems. If your kids do not rise like flies to the wonderful poop you bring to class, don't get all sour-pussy about it.

If your enthusiasm lasts until November--which it will if you stop expecting the kids to care how much you spend out of class "for their benefit"--they'll start spilling out their curious guts, which leads to a different kind of problem.

My recommendations:

  • Treat your students as you would human beings that have been traumatized by years of schooling. Because they have.
  • If a child want to know what happens if... let her try it (provided it's safe to do so). Memorize the state standards that pays lip service to exploring science, and be ready to rattle it off should an administrator wander in just as Brian attempts to see how long he can stand shocking himself with a hand-cranked generator. (In New Jersey, it's NJCCCS 5.1.12.B.1 "Design investigations, collect evidence, analyze data, and evaluate evidence to determine measures of central tendencies, causal/correlational relationships, and anomalous data." This covers pretty much everything.)

  • *Demos usually suck.
    Why? Half the kids can't really see what's going on, and traditionally demos are followed by some inane worksheet, or quiz, or some kind of assessment that just sucks all the cool factor out. Even if you don't zap them with a quiz, their response is Pavlovian. I'm not saying don't--just don't expect the students to fawn over you like the Pied Piper.

    My recommendations:
    • Do 'em anyway. If you singe an eyebrow or two (yours, I mean), you'll be an instant legend. 
    • Accidentally trigger the smoke alarm during a chilly rainstorm in November--your fame will spread beyond your classroom.

    *Live critters reproduce.
    And poop. Your lovely tank of cute roly-polies will become a teeming mass of stink by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, and you won't have time to clean them.
    My recommendations:
    • Do it anyway, and let 'em stink, tell them it's the natural world, and keep a butterfly net around so that when some horribly fierce looking critter breaks out and buzzes around the room, you can non-chalantly catch it as you meander through tables of differentiated groupwork. Kids learn more from these tiny reeking cesspools of life than they'll ever grasp from a PowerPoint.
    • Forget using filters in fish tanks--they're loud and need maintenance.Just use water plants--they'll take up the nitrogen, then scrape the algae off the sides every month or two with a microscope slide.
    •  If something stings you, smile, pretend it doesn't hurt, and keep the EpiPen handy.
    • Never, ever bring in spiders. You'll get a few thousand anyway wandering in to eat the various flying critters erupting from your terrariums, and you can honestly tell your principal you didn't bring them in.

    *Science teachers stay late...
    So what? We do what we love! We get the big rooms! We blow things up! We have showers in our rooms!
    My recommendations:
    • If you'd rather be streaming out the door at 2:45 PM like a lost lemming, go take a few courses and get certified in...well, email me privately, I don't need to get into a pissing match with about 4 other departments. Just stand by the door and see who streams out first. (Be careful, though--those English folks carry out enough papers to fuel the Netherlands for a week in December. They may work more than we do.)
    • Squirrel away a lot of granola bars, power drinks, and a toothbrush.
    • Quit. This isn't for you.

    Stop reading advice and go teach!
    Bust your butt, enjoy the good moments, move on past the bad--the children know who's in this for real, and who's mailing it in. You'll find your way if you fundamentally like kids, and you stick with it.

    No shame if you don't. This profession breaks a lot of people. The kids are here because they have to be. They deserve teachers who are there because they want to be. 

    Friday, August 5, 2016

    広島, 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.

    Science, dogma, and the American Way

    I posted this about 8 years ago.
    I needed the reminder.

    The bishop has often compared our churches to a herd of horses grazing in a pasture. It is a beautiful picture to see them all grazing together contentedly. Everything seems to be going fine. But then there are always those who try to reach across the fence and get something they shouldn't have. These have to be brought back into the group. If they aren't, they will soon break down the fence, and then there is trouble. Not only will they slip out of the field, but they will open the way for the rest to get out as well.
    From The Amish in Their Own Words, compiled by Brad Igou, Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa 1999

    If you want to explain science as a process, you are going to run into questions about faith  or religion or natural  or some other vague word spouted off by an adolescent whose vocabulary does not yet include the (very useful) word "dogma."

    I can play it safe:
    This is science class. Science deals with the observable universe, and it has limits. Religion seeks other kinds of truths and uses different rules. Science and religion are separate disciplines that serve independent functions. (Go ask your mother)

    That usually quiets the truly curious, though the thoroughly evangelical child may still be a bit pesky when evolution is the topic (which is pretty much always in biology).

    I hesitate to give the science/religion dichotomy speech, though, because it's not true, and lying to kids in a class designed to teach them a way to discern what's true about our universe should earn me a trip to hell in a purple handbasket.

    Science does lead to questions about origins and meaning, and we fail as teachers if we do not distinguish scientific reasoning from dogma.

    Now, I am not about to challenge specific acts of dogma in science class, not directly (Holy See, Báb, Mohammad, Enki, Jesus, Abraham, Tlaloc, An, the Holy Ghost, Shangd, Moses, the Protogenoi, Bhagavan, many authorities, so little time), nor am I going to question any child's acceptance of whatever dogma happens to rule her clan.

    I am not going to pretend, however, that science does not challenge what most students believe.

    And I am taking it one step further this year.

    I am explicitly telling them there are going to be times when what
    what we know through science contradicts what they know through dogma. Which brings me to the parable. It is told by a bishop. It is a tale designed to help the parish stay true to dogma.

    You could apply the same parable to public education. Students are a lot safer if they stick with the herd and keep away from the edges. They are more likely to earn good grades. They will, on average, earn more money than those students who do poorly in school. They certainly aren't going to break any fences.

    If you're looking for Socrates, for Galileo, for Newton, for Einstein, for Feynman, you may as well find the hole in the fence and start walking.

    I'm not trying to create any Einsteins in my class. I'm just trying to get them through one more year believing there might be something outside this particular pasture.

    Top photo is one room schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,
    the bottom photo is little girl at a horse farm, both from the 
    National Archives collection

    Thursday, August 4, 2016

    Flat world science

    “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
    Richard Feynman
    Sebastian Münster (1489 - 1552)

    I do not believe in science. Nor do I believe in evolution, or climate change, or that the Earth is round.

    The vast majority of kids in my classroom believe that the Earth is round. And it's just that, a belief, fed by the adults around them, who also believe it, because they were told the same thing growing up.

    It is part of the catechism of grade school science.

    What is the evidence that the Earth is round?
    What is the evidence that the world is not?

    From a child's view, which set of evidence is more compelling?
    How about from your point of view?

    If you want to teach science to a child, you need to stop feeding the beliefs. You need to work (and work and work) with the evidence, play with the models, the numbers, the data, the natural world.

    And you must be ready to let go of everything you thought you knew.

    (You can always teach Sunday school instead....)

    A late Lammas, again

    Yep, mostly the same post sixth 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.

    This week 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.