Sunday, June 14, 2015

Teaching in June

From a June half a decade ago.

She wrote, simply, "hi mike."

I assumed I was the Michael she meant, but it does not matter, berries are for all of us, so I am using the photo. The hand belongs to Jessica Pierce, the berries to whichever mouth gets them first.

Along my walk to school are several cherry trees--the cherries are ripe now. I get to school with a tongue stained purple.

I found two blueberry bushes three blocks away yesterday. The mulberry trees are about to give up ripe fruit in the next week or two. It's a great time to be a mammal (or a bird).

The cherries are small and dark, full of bitter tannins countering their ridiculous cherriness.

When I eat a cherry, I believe in God. Not the wordy omega John God--I keep Him in my pocket in late autumn. I mean the atavistic, prehistoric sun god, the Ra, the one who sets off week-long dancing and unpardonable ecstasy. The mysterious one. The unknowable one. The one found in a June-warmed cherry.

Most of the year, I can talk myself into anything. In June, I simply cannot talk. No need. Life is bursting around us.

When I was still young, I feared dying in spring or summer, feared missing what was to come, dying in the midst of plenty.

Now I fear dying in winter. I do not wish to die, few of us do, but when I do, I want to be surrounded by possibility, by sunlight, by berries.

I want to be the bee found nestled in the flower at dusk, her last day spent exhausted and resting on clover petal, a life well spent. I do not want to die in the hive. Even a 5 star accredited hive full of well-intentioned bees trained to transition me to the next life.

I am not transitioning anywhere. In June I am here, and no other "here's" exist. In June William Blake makes sense. W.B. Yeats makes sense. Even death makes sense.

The school year is winding down. And what have we learned?

I live in a good town. I teach in the same town. I am paid through taxes given up by my neighbors. I work hard, and so do they.

The least I can do is teach their children the ecstasy found in June berries and honeysuckle blossoms, pursuing the happiness of sweet stained lips instead of the demands of a petulant man-child dictating education policy several hundred miles away.

The least I can do is show them our local lichen and hawks and bees, instead of just words in books written by strangers who know nothing about the pair of mallard ducks who slumber on the Bloomfield Green.

The least I can do is show children why I still get excited when the sun rises over our town, our gardens, our homes, and why so many of us choose to stay here. The sun worth knowing is not the one in the textbooks, the one of fusion and distance and solar storms.

The sun worth knowing is the one that keeps us alive, the one that we can feel on our faces, the one that pulls the bay over my clams, the one that blesses the cherries with sugar.

If you want to teach science, start with joy. If you cannot tie joy to wild berries, go play on Wall Street or Pennsylvania Avenue.

Real education starts right here in Bloomfield..

Monday, June 8, 2015

Technically we've lost our minds

These will be part of the state-mandated curriculum starting September here in New Jersey.

Enter information into a spreadsheet and sort the information.
Identify the structure and components of a database.
Enter information into a database or spreadsheet and filter the information.

For children in 2nd grade--children 7 to 8 years old.
Oh, it's doable, and even maybe a little cute, watching the young'uns enter data like their mommies and daddies working at their desks under the fluorescent hum of lights making enough money to pay the bills.
But it's not something anyone needs to do before sprouting axillary hair.

Technology is not going to fix the cultural injustices that haunt our hallowed halls. But we can pretend.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Amidst the chaos and the entropy, sunlight streams in and helps us put things back together.

We're pretty good at this as populations, much better than as individuals, all of whom share the same fate. Life goes on, but we do not.

The sparrows and the squirrels do their squirrel and sparrow business just as they did when I watched them so any decades ago, but they are not the same sparrows, not the same squirrels.

If I teach a child about squirrels, should she be interested in them, and I fill her up with all kinds of squirrel trivia, she knows some facts about a common rodent, but she has not learned a lick of biology.

If I tell her to go find a squirrel on the Bloomfield Green, and watch it for the duration of its life, she will learn a little bit about squirrels (in general) but know a whole lot about the business of being a mammal in the wild, during which it will grow, probably reproduce, and certainly die. She will never see squirrels the same way.

But I didn't do that.

As the year slips to its end, and another few classes of biology students wander out my classroom door for good, I realize I have failed again to teach biology.

And I become just another teacher, always there in the classroom, as interchangeable and immortal as the generic squirrels flitting in and out of a child's life.

I'm going to plant more seeds this weekend. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Death of the drones

(This one's for me.)

Leslie and I are proud (but very temporary) guardians of a young honey bee hive. It sits in a cardboard box in our backyard. The last couple of days were dreary, but June finally awoke today. So did the bees. I sat a few feet away watching honey bees go, honey bees come, the colony streaming with life.

It's easy to romanticize life in the June sun. But then I saw something I had never seen before.

Drone in flight (photo by Waugsberg CC BY-SA 3.0) 
At first I saw just the one--an extraordinarily large honeybee with anime eyes, pulling itself up a clover flower, then once on top, pawing upwards towards the sun, then tumbling back to the ground.

Then I saw another, just a foot or so behind, also striving to reach the top of our overgrown ragtag "lawn"--it, too, toppled, but then started its way back up again.

Both bees, drones, were clearly dying. As I watched, I found several more, about a dozen in all, climbing up the lawn forest, reaching up towards the sun, then falling.

I knew they were dying, and I suspect they did, too.

But what else could they do, while their hearts still beat, but rise once more to the June sun?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

May you find peas

"For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life." 
William Blake

Handful of grace, picked this morning....

About 10 weeks ago I poked a finger into the ground a few dozen times, dropped a pea (and an occasional stray buddy) into each hole, smoothed over the dirt, then let them be, hoping (but not truly believing) today's harvest would come.

Today soft leaves stroked the same finger as it reached in through the mess of pea vines to pick a good part of tonight's dinner, just over two months past my Saint Paddy's Day planting.

Despite my six decades breathing, eating, and drinking the grace found on this patch of the universe, I still plant more out of hope than belief--words and imagination only go so far in this primate.

Yet we tell 8th grade kids they need to memorize the parts of a mitochondria and the year the Magna Carta was signed in order to get a high school diploma half a decade later.

School (mostly) sucks.

I am plowing my way through a new science curriculum, this time using the NGSS as the guide, this time hoping (but not truly believing) that school won't (mostly) suck half a decade from now.

One thing won't change, though, should I still be teaching--kids will plant and see, many for the first time, the creation of more life from a seed, some dirt, water, and our collective breath.

Yesterday I found a tiny pea pod erupting from a spindly vine planted by a student back in March. She will see it on Monday.

And for a moment, school won't suck....

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Church of Technology, the truth of science

"I rather like this . . . outside all laws except gravitation and germination."
Sue Bridehead, Jude the Obscure

All of us are bound by the laws of physics, entropy, and mortality.

All of us are open systems consuming organic materials, stripping off the energy and stuff we need to live, then tossing off the useless remnants to be put back together again and again and again by the sun, as close to a corporeal god as humans will witness.

This week thousands of children here in NJ will be given the state biology "competency" test, at significant cost in time and money. Turns out you can be competent in biology without knowing anything about life.


Few folks read Hardy's Jude the Obscure anymore, and aside from his rich descriptions of life before electricity and petroleum raised our culture to its current (and temporary) fantasies, I've little reason myself.

Sue and Jude had "escaped" (temporarily) from the culture that molded the roles of men and women of the time.

"You only think you like it; you don't. You are quite a product of civilization."
Jude in response to Sue
Image by Steve Paine, CC

Our children are the product of the lies we share with them. The images and the voices on the screens we give them, knowingly and willingly, help create the fantastic and false universe they live in.

Technology perpetuates fantasies; science, done right, demolishes them. They both grant humans immense power to manipulate the world.

The European Church, the center of power in the western world, supported science early on, until the truths of science shattered deep truths of the Church.

When we confound technology with science, when we insist that engineering hold the same place as science in a classroom, we are perpetuating our fantasies at our peril.

None of us live outside the laws of gravitation, or germination, of life, of entropy, and of, ultimately, death.

If a child "understands" entropy without a nightmare or two, you're teaching tech not science.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Seeds of faith, seeds of fear

"There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places

and desecrated places."

Wendell Berry (from "How to be a Poet")

I planted a few seeds back in late winter, when I had faith that the light would return, though I did not believe it. The light has come back (again), and though I cannot believe it was ever dark, I fear its return.

Faith and fear drive my past and my future. But neither past nor future are sacred places. Only the real is sacred, and only now is real.

What once were seeds now sit in flats,  now growing, now knitting together the stuff of life. The stuff of life is the stuff of biology, the stuff in us, of us. Today I will plant them into the earth, aware again of the only world that matters.

In class we worship the unreal--the heiroglyphics of biochemistry that make class feel modern and scientific, the cycles of Krebs and Calvin. A not so old biology text book, about my age, sits on a lab bench, next to the pond water on the windowsill.  You will not find the structure of DNA in it.

We grow stuff in class. Each morning many of my students, half-child half-adult critters still learning what's real and what's not, head for their seedlings before sitting down. Watering has become a ritual. For a few moments, they are engaged in biology, before we start whatever rites required by the day's lesson.

I turn on the computer to start class, desecrating the space that holds life.

You cannot teach life in desecrated spaces.