Friday, June 16, 2017

In memory of her

Philipp Salzgeber, CC
She was a kid.

She was dying.
Everyone knew, and yet no one would say it.

Her mother asked that no one tell her child what was going on.
I saw her after her surgery, her head wrapped like a genie, sitting on her bed.

Her mother wanted me to promise I would not tell her.
I told the mother I would not lie if asked.

The comet hung in the sky like a jewel that summer 20 years ago.

It was evening.
I was tired.
The mother was tired
The child was dying.

I asked the other if I could take her child to a room where the comet was visible.
The mother said OK.
She did not come along.

I knew what I would say if the child asked.
The mother knew as well.

And the child never asked.

But she saw the comet.
The last one she saw.
Not the last one I saw.

And Hale-Bopp makes me sad every time I see a photo.

She never asked so she could protect the adults around her.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

End of another year

Another year is winding down--our last day is a week from tomorrow--and what have my lambs learned? What have I learned?

I'm not nearly the teacher I want (or need) to be, few of us are.

You cannot hope to add much to a child's knowledge in the conditions imposed by this thing we call "school," but just might alter the way a child approaches a problem, examines a claim, sees herself in the world beyond the cinder block walls.

Or maybe she'd figure that out a lot quicker if she just lingered outside the school building a few minutes each morning, breathing quietly, simply paying attention to a tiny critter crawling on the crumbling bark of the ancient tree that looms behind our school's message board.

Beer, sex, and augmented reality in the classroom

I love beer.
I love sex.
I could learn to love augmented reality.

From The Brain That Wouldn't Die.

But none of those belong in a young child's classroom.

If the goal is to increase testable content knowledge that will raise PARCC scores and sell a few more edu-gadgets along the way, well, you got me.

If the goal is to help children discover the world, love its richness, and become reasonably happy adults, we have a problem.

The less glass between the ant hill and the owner of young eyes staring at it, the more real and complex it becomes.

This takes time, of course, and I suppose AR could deliver a child to some goal sooner.
"Mommy, Mommy, look, bugs!"
"Yes, let Mommy show you how to identify them."
The mother aims her device over the anthill. A reassuring voice rises from glass--
This is a colony of  Formica accreta ants. I have added it to your child's log of tagged organisms.

The young woman pauses a moment, watching as her child starts to poke the anthill. "But are they dangerous?"
There have been no recorded instances of fatal interaction, but there is always the remote possibility of an allergic reaction.
She gasps as she scoops up her daughter. "Thank you, Siri!"

She slips hear ear buds back on, hits her Soothe Me Now playlist, and heads back to her climate controlled car.
Back at school, the child will have a beautiful photo to show, and a story to tell.
She'll look, sound, and feel smarter.

Credit: Steve Paine, via CC

In the new human world where "look, sound, and feel" triumph over the rich aromas of life (and the fetid smells of mortality), another child gets lost in our limited human universe.

It's a pretty amazing place out there, this natural world. Augmented reality can be an amazing tool for those among us who still have a reasonable grasp of the vastness of the universe (or who at least admit that what's real surpasses anything we can imagine).

We are not the creators of the universe, nor are we just spectators. We cannot augment the natural world, just the blinders our machines have put on it.

Even beer and sex have their limitations.
And yes this is an old post.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

My weed creed

An unexpected (and unearned) gift.

A patch of yard was torn up--our neighbors needed to fix their fence, and we had no particular attachment to the English ivy that sneaks up on you when you're not paying attention.

I take a laissez-faire attitude towards "weeds"--I live with a woman who finds dandelions at least as interesting as roses, and at least you can eat dandelions. Or maybe I'm just lazy.

This week we were rewarded with a spectacular display of flowers from our weed--turns out it is a common mallow, Malva silvestris, a plant with a long shared history with humans.

Also turns out parts of it are edible, too.

I'm sure there's a metaphor here somewhere about weeds, expectations, and high school students, but we're in the last few days of school, and I'm just going to enjoy my mallow for its mallowness.

Who defines the weeds in your circle?

Monday, June 12, 2017

What you do and why you do it

I teach children, and I suspect my motives differ a bit from those who ostensibly dictate the curriculum.
In the end, I want my lambs to be happy.
Not rich, not "successful," not professionals, not leaders, though any of those may well be a by-product of what I do.
Happiness matters if you're mortal.
From Travel Vermont, lifted without permission
"The Savages of [Canada], in the time that the sap rises, in the Maple, make an incision in the Tree, by which it runs out; and after they have evaporated eight pounds of the liquor, there remains one pound as sweet ...."
from British Royal Society paper, 1685,"The Maple Syrup Story History of Maple Syrup"

It takes a sugar maple growing in the northeastern United States nearly 40 years to reach a diameter of 12 inches, wide enough to tap for maple sap, more than half a lifetime for most of us. A tree this size will yield about 10 gallons of sap in a season, which gets boiled down to a quart of maple syrup.

A quart of fancy grade maple syrup at retail prices will get you about $15-20 dollars. To get this quart of syrup, 10 gallons of sap needs to be boiled down, either using wood or petroleum for fuel. Making maple syrup will put a little cash in your pockets.

The same tree will yield about $50 worth of wood if sold to a timber company. The retail value is much higher, of course, but without lifting a finger beyond signing a contract, the landowner can exchange his tree for a stump, and pocket 300% more money than he would make in a season making maple syrup, were he so inclined to do the labor.

If you take an accountant's view, with labor a minimum of $5.15/hour, well, you end up losing "value" or money or whatever it is we think is more tangible than currency. It's thinking like that that got us the 98% corn syrup version of syrup. If Indians were better accountants, we would not know what real maple syrup tasted like.

Fortunately for us, the Indians needed calories more than cash. Maple syrup and maple sugar provided calories in a time of the year when other sources were scarce.

When the Indians gathered in northern forests to collect maple sap, it was cold. The full February Hunger Moon marked the trails at night as families gathered at the sugaring grounds. While it is easy to romanticize maple sugaring, late winter evenings in Vermon] are cold. Animals and people starve.

One Indian myth parallels the fable of Eden. Maple trees once ran full of syrup, but a god filled trees with rainwater to make the Indians work for their bounty. I do not know what offense caused the god to dilute the sap. Our God punished us for seeking knowledge we ought not seek--something we seem to have forgotten.

Imagine shivering on an icy March night, under the waning moonlight. Your children whimper. The trees look inert, dead. The stars are visible through the leafless branches.

The trees are gashed, and the next day the sap flows and flows and flows. Fires are started. Rocks heated in the fires are dropped in the wooden vats holding the sap, to drive the water off as steam.

You are a hungry child. Your first taste of spring is maple syrup. You are alive.

Indians shared their knowledge with the pale folk. In our warm homes with our exuberant bellies splashing maple syrup on pancakes year round, we forget that calories mean life.

The process of maple sugaring remains essentially the same, which means it remains inefficient. It will never be profitable to those who insist on selling pure maple syrup. General Foods figured this out a long time ago. Look at the ingredients on Aunt Jemima Syrup. Look again. How much maple syrup is in it?
Trish Norton and Art Krueger, lifted without permission.
Sugaring is the act of gently gathering what the maple tree has to offer, and then feeding your senses with it through every step of the process; and knowing that you will be able to do it again next year and the next, without harming a thing.
Trish NortonWhat We Do and Why We Do It

Ms. Norton will never make it as the CEO of a publicly owned company. She probably would not last long in a cubicle. She might even get a bit cold in February, trying to coax heat from maple logs in her wood stove.

The Krueger-Norton family taps about a thousand maple trees each spring. Trish's daughters spent hours and hours in cribs in the sugar house, the maple steam humidifying the air. The family burns 6 tons of wood a day during peak sugaring season. It doesn't make much economic sense, but I bet her kids are healthier for it.
I'd be willing to wager she will have fewer regrets than most of us when our vision fades. You might want to ask her--she lives in Cuttingsville,Vermont, and you can call toll free: 1-888-486-9460.

If you really like the maply in maple syrup, look for Grade B. Maple sap was traditionally used for sugar. The less color and flavor in the final product, the higher the grade--the point was the sugar, not the mapleness. The grading system persists today.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

On graduation speeches

Ferdinand, of course--who else better to represent a valedictorian's dreams?
It is not possible to have the best day of your life—none of us can grasp a day’s worth of living in a moment’s thought.

But we can have wonderful moments. Indeed, moments are all we have, wonderful or not, and ranking them, if one is paying attention, becomes impossible, because one pays attention.

A few of my favorite things--photos live in moments, not days
So in this season of graduation speeches, where young folks spew out platitudes they still believe, remind them that while what they want is not possible, what is possible can be more than what they realize they wanted.

Otherwise it just falls back into cynicism, and mortality does not mix well with cynicism.

And you (yes you, dear reader), are mortal, too.