Sunday, August 26, 2018

Lichen and the local economy

Lichen on one of our chairs
I saw a wasp attack a patch of lichen on our Adirondack chair.

Wasps are fascinatingly creepy as they stalk prey among the flowers, but this one got fooled. It stalked the lichen, then made its attack. After a moment or two of trying to do something with the lichen, it flew a couple of feet away and then cleaned its legs, classic displacement behavior.

(It was embarrassed.)

The chair was made by a local man, the price not cheap, but more than fair, and he was surprised we opted not to oil them. We like to see things age as much as we do, and, in the local way of acceptance that is under-rated, he nodded and went on his way.

Because we chose not to oil our chairs, they have turned grey and are covered by lichen. They are now ten years old, and will likely last another 5. With oil, they may have outlived us.

When we need new ones, we’ll seek the same man. We do not need chairs to outlive us. That's what plastic is for.

Because we chose not to oil them a decade ago, I got to see a wasp explore the lichen, which might not seem like much, but I enjoyed seeing that a wasp could be as easily fooled as a human.

We are all easily fooled--life is foolish, in the best sense of the word.

On collecting seeds

We trust our words more than our hands, the abstract more than our senses. This will make you unhappy (even if it makes you rich).

Dill seeds from the garden

I collect seeds to let my fingers be fingers, the dexterity and subtle touch I miss when just hitting a keyboard or groping a pen.

I collect seeds because each one has a story, each one has a shared history, each one is alive.

I collect seeds because I can imagine the flower it once was, and is no longer, and the bees that visited, and may still be around.

I collect seeds because I am sloppy, and some will scatter and get washed by the rain to the crack in the driveway, where a singe dill plant once stood.

I collect seeds because I like to be outside under the sky.

I collect seeds because I like to. I buy them anyway, because it’s easy (and cheap) enough to support folks who still trust their hands, and I end up with plenty of leftovers in cute packages that I share with my students.

Never underestimate the value of a cute paper packet to a 14 year old child..

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Baby trees in the classroom

I have access to baby trees. Odds are pretty good that you do, too. Look around your yard, your park, your school grounds, and once you know what to look for, once you know that there's something to look for, you will see them.

Every weed you pull out of the ground has a history, a family as deep and ancient as yours, and a yen for life. A sapling has no need for a rosary to know what matters.

If you pull a tiny tree out of the ground carefully, put it in a pot with some dirt, some water, and some sunlight, there's a good chance it will survive.

Knowing that that baby trees exist, knowing what's possible, that's the point.

For less than a dollar a pot, I have a chance to change a child's world.

National Forest Foundation plans to plant 50 million trees!

The problem with human imagination is that it cannot hold the natural world within its vision. Nothing on a screen can replicate a small pot holding a tree. a tree that will be much bigger than the child who holds it, a tree that will, if planted carefully, outlive the young person who planted.

We hide this from kids, their mortality. We fear our own mortality. We do not talk of the dead in America.

(Yes, I know each of our tribes have the stories, and each of our tribes shares the stories, and each of our tribes commune with those who have left this Earth, but that is not the American story that refuses to accept limits.)

Most kids will not want a tree, and a few who want it will be too fearful to ask. A few of the trees will die before next spring.

But a few will survive this winter, settle into the Earth, and will grow, knitting carbon dioxide into the stuff of trees, the stuff of us, and a child will notice the tree, long after I am dead, because the tree is interesting.

What else could a teacher possibly want?
My camera is not working well--photos whenever I can.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

STEM is not the answer

A year ago young adults marched through an American city carrying torches.
One was wearing a shirt suggesting he was an engineering student.
So I'm throwing this up again.

The push for STEM rests on the misguided premise that public education exists to serve the nation's economic and military interests, as though our economic and military objectives are set in our Constitution.

There are many good reason to study math and science in school, but serving the international economy is not one of them. Maintaining the world's most powerful military while decimating its diplomatic corps is not a good reason, either.

I'm betting that the young man on the far right (see what I did there?) is not wearing the ARKANSAS ENGINEERING tee just for show.

Why is he marching? He's probably angry about something. Maybe engineering isn't as lucrative as he had hoped, maybe he blames the rising tide of Indians or Korean or Japanese, maybe he's unhappy because he's been chasing a carrot he realizes never tasted good.

Maybe he really believes that the young woman who kicked his ass in fluid mechanics got an extra 20 points on her final exam because, well....

If you are a science teacher, never forget that any compulsory education, science or otherwise, is never politically neutral. You have the same ethical obligations to our students that your social studies faculty have.

Don't hide behind "but I teach science." Don't hide behind "but I'm color blind."

You're teaching children some exceedingly powerful stuff--help them develop the maturity needed to handle it

(It's all I can do without sputtering....)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Nagasaki, again

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.

Monday, August 6, 2018


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.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Why prepping for the new school year is an absolute waste of time.

The hardest (or rather impossible) part of prepping for the new school year is not knowing my students yet.

I have access to their prior grades, their neighborhoods, their IEPs and 504s and whatever else defines them on their permanent record. I even have their photos (which, as a parent in the same district, I find a tad creepy).

But I do not know them yet.

And that is all the difference.

And yet I try each year anyway.
The triumph of hope over experience.

A handy guide to teaching

I take more pictures of things in my hand than I do of selfies.
Not sure where I am going with this, but few things as miraculous, as sensual or sensuous, as our hands.

Blueberries from the yard.
I like to hold things in  my hand, things that matter to me. My hands are scarred from my carelessness, and I am better for the scars.

Some people in my class fidget, need to hold things. I am one of them.

Basil pods, each one holding a few tiny basil seeds, each one dependent on a honey bee's work
Most things I hold are in some stage of edibility, stuff weaved mostly from the air, fueled by the sun, stuff to stuff, energy to energy.

Many of my students do not know where their food comes from, nor where their shit goes. Same is true for many of my colleagues. "Knowing" the answer to this in an intellectual sense is not knowing at all.

So we plant in class, a lot, and continuously.

A live sea horse, Delaware Bay
Unexpected surprises--a live sea horse just cast on the beach, a yearling horseshoe crab scuttling along the shore, and seeds, so many thousands and thousands of seeds, most which never see the light of day.

The sea horse surprised me by wrapping its tail around my finger. I put it back. 

Young horseshoe crab.
The critter above, put together from organic stuff lying along the bottom of the bay, sitting on metal forged in a nova, now sitting on a warm finger, until the finger turns cold. Grains of sand, broken and driven down from mountains hundreds of miles away, each one still exists--some on the beach, some in my home, some, no doubt, now nestled in the Atlantic.

We come from mud, the Bible gets that much partly right, but mostly from the same air that plants weave for us. I like the way warm mud wraps around me when I dig for clams in summer. I do not eat every clam I dig up--these guys went back, and may outlive me.

Staking the beans
I like using my hands, most of us do, though not all of us are as aware of this as we might be. Before we learned to harness electrons, before we knew how to tame petroleum, our hands made our worlds.I stake with jute, plant fibers woven together. 

Over the year, the jute will become thinner, weaker, easily torn off the stakes when the time comes, then tossed into the compost.

Fossil shark tooth, found on the beach, North Wildwood
But there were conscious worlds long before ours, and will be more worlds long after we are gone. 

I fear our compulsion to prepare our kids for the future when they do not have enough to do with their hands now. 

If you do not know your hands now, what possible use could you have for them in the abstract future? 

And if you have hands that work (not all of us do), and you have no use for your hands (beyond banging on a few keys to change the screen in front of you), then I suspect you will become unhappy before the rest of your body becomes as useless as your hands.

Somewhere in the above nonsense is why I teach...but I still have a few weeks to sort that out. =)

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Why do we teach?

I got to loll in the Delaware Bay today. The water and the air were both about 80°F, the breeze about 15 mph, with clouds and sunshine taking turns playing on the beach. I got to see the sun while under the bay, something I love.

Delaware Bay, Jersey side
I know I am mortal. (Well, maybe not deep in my soul, but deep enough to profess on a blog.) I cannot swim as far as I once could, and, the surprising part (to me, anyway) is not needing to swim farther today than I did yesterday.

Death does not come to most of us in a day. Blame Lughnasadh.

I teach, and as each year approaches, I question why I teach. I think everybody who teaches owes it to their students to address this question.

If you cannot answer this, not saying you should quit. We all need to eat. But I think you owe it to your kids to tell them that you are not sure why you teach.

I will tell my kids why I teach. I do every year. It's between me, my kids and their families, and my administration (who have backed me for years, a huge part of why I continue to love what I do).

To teach to change the world is too damn abstract--spitting into the wind changes the world, changing the world is easy. Manipulating the world is a whole 'nother topic.

But I still love what I do, so I'll keep doing it.

And, BONUS!!!!, I'll keep lolling in the bay in late summer.....

Lammas, again

Yep, mostly the same post eighth time around--I like the rhythm of the year.
Nearing end of my 6th decade--more a spiral than a cycle, but it's OK.

"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.
The modern myths are not enough.