Sunday, December 21, 2014

People in the nighborhood

I'm fine now, for now.
Most of us are, for now.
I was not so fine 36 hours ago.
Good to be reminded what matters.

I was treated at our local hospital Clara Maass, and I was treated well.
The people who took care of me played in our local Little League back when I was coaching, had kids in our high school, knew friends of my wife--these are the people in our neighborhood.

So while I appreciated the efficiency and technology of a local hospital humming like a well-run machine, it was not the machine that made it a place of healing.

It is, and always will be, the people that matter.

Bet that matters in the classroom, too.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Undeniable: Bill Nye is wrong

The Science Guy, via CNN
Unicorns and leprechauns are not real.
Double-wattled cassowaries are.

Bill Nye blames an easy target:
Nye (rightly) rails against money from the Creationism camp used to taint biology ed, but then adds "the concern is raising a generation of children who 'can't think.'"

Cassowary adult, by Victor Burolla, via CC

Fundamentalists are not killing the minds of our children. Our disconnect from what's real is.

Fundamentalism is a sadly predictable result of a people who have as much to gain by paying attention to the dope on screens as they do to the dope proselytizing in a classroom. If you think you can reduce evolution to a two minute discussion using Emojis and cute music, you're just adding to the noise.

If I tell a child that unicorns and leprechauns are imaginary, and double wattle cassowaries are "real," and can do no better than provide a projected image on a classroom screen as I pontificate the difference between what's real and what's not, well, who's the idiot?

Children would question just about everything we teach (at least the way we teach now) if children had something, anything, to center themselves.

Start with the local, with a bug or a plant or a bird or anything real that exists outside a screen. Until that local reality becomes more real than the stream of images and sounds we feed our children, we get the culture we deserve.

I bet I could convince a child that Mr. Nye is a robot.

His overall point is valid--kids need to be able to question things, to think, to be skeptical, in order to learn about nature.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

We're too damned polite

Well, I suppose if we're not bold enough to correct a teacher for saying Columbus discovered that the world is round, that plants turn sunlight into food, that gravity does not exist on the moon, and that Dr. King was all about peace and love, then we're not likely to say anything about her (not so) subtle racism.

We get the students that we deserve.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Technology bytes children

The United States Department of Education is pushing its latest public relations campaign, Future Ready, urging superintendents to sign a pledge to plunge into the digital age.

The pledge itself is a syntactical nightmare, a porridge of buzz words and jargon slapped together to render the pledge almost as meaningless as the one public school kids make each morning. (Before folks get their knickers all bunched up, I'm referring to the 2341st time a child makes the pledge--once should be enough for any pledge.)

Still, the pledge will make the plutocrats among us happy, and it's about as binding and effective as Ford's Whip Inflation Now campaign back in the 70's, my first exposure to just how searingly bad government flacks can be.

I'd love to debate the merits of these kinds of programs, but there's a more basic discussion that needs to happen first. Do the benefits of personal digital technology outweigh the harm done to small children?

Let's be clear up front on a few things:
  • Screen time affects children in ways that potentially have detrimental lifetime effects.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under two, and limited entertainment screen time (1 to 2 hours per day) for older children, and no "screen media" in a child's bedroom.
  • The "there's no stopping the Juggernaut/the cat's out of the bag" school of thought may assuage parental guilt, but avoids the central issue here. 
  • A class set of iPads does little to ameliorate the factors that have the biggest effect on school performance: poverty and racism.
from DVCE
When we genuflect before the altar of technology, thankful for the dopamine surges that fuel our midnight Facebook forays, we lose more than just sleep.

And now the state is telling our schools to sacrifice our children's time to the same god, to better prepare them for careers, and again we line the pockets of those who are selling snake oil, toxic to children.

Yes, this is a diatribe.

You want your child playing with an iPad at 6 months, that's your problem.
You want our children playing with digital media in public school before they need to shave?
That's our problem.

No, I am not a Luddite--you read this here first, no?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Elementary science

Here are the questions any elementary school teacher should be able to answer: None of us should be so specialized that we can laugh off our ignorance in the basic tenets of life, culture, language, and mathematics.
  • When we lose weight, where does most of it go? 
  • Why do we need oxygen?
  • Why do things fall down?
  • Why doesn't the sun burn up?
  • Why does it get cold in the winter?

These are not the right answers:
  • Poop.
  • To live (doesn't answer the question).
  • "Gravity" doesn't answer the question--you may as well say vishquishnosity.
  • Because it's really big.
  • Because we're farther awa from the sun.
The world's a wonderfully strange place, a place where trees take our breath and spin it into sugar, and we take the sugar and break it back down back into water and CO2, where all things made of stuff are attracted to all other things made of stuff, fueled by nuclear reactions in a local star unfathomably far away yet closer than the unfathomably large number of other stars that exist.

Losing our religion

Somewhere on a back bay in Jersey

Went clamming this morning--chilly dawn, quarter moon, and tame tide meant I may have burned as many calories as I raked up for dinner. 

But that's not why I clam.

After a week under fluorescent lights hearing folks reveal what they know to be true, I need to feel the back bay wash my over my feet to remind me what's real, to feel my fingers become clumsy as a toddler's as they grope into the mud to pull out another clam, to feel the human world of words dissolve in the chatter of geese and gulls.

If you do not know what's real, if your feet never (literally) touch the earth, then you will believe anything. And most of us do.

If you grew up in the States anywhere but a farm, chances are pretty good you learned of natural cycles through your church. While our dominant culture thrives on linear growth, most religions honor the cycles of life and death.

Science is the closest thing we have to true religion in public school these days, technology the furthest. Science seeks the mystery, technology exploits it. Very little science happens in schools.  
We're in the dark days now, and will be for some time. 
The dying sunlight reminds us, if we care to see, that all things fall apart.
The sun has shifted, the shadows have lengthened, the cold darkness creeps in.

Delaware Bay in winter, North Cape May

If your child spends most of her waking hours either in school or in front of a screen, she will learn to live in a world without tides, without death, without the slow grace of our sun. She (like so many others) will fail to discern the natural world, the one we're all tied to, from any of the multiple artificial universes available to her.

Of all the Commandments, the wisest may be the first:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.
What we see and smell gets down to molecules, which get down to mass/energy, which gets down to the unknowable. Science requires a basic faith in logic, in math, in entropy, in our senses, and ultimately a humbling recognition of our place in the universe. Science promises death.

School and the economy it now serves requires a disconnect from the natural world and ultimately a basic faith in what somebody else tells you. Our culture promises immortality.

Horseshoe crab spine, North Cape May

I'm going with death.

There are no standards or Commandments on a mudflat.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


We were in Asbury Park Friday night, and drove past the Silver Ball Museum.
Reason enough to re-post....

A long, long time ago, before most of you were even born (ca. 1976), pinball machines were still electromechanical, tied to the Newtonian universe. Real bells clanged, real thwack sounds when a game was won. Adolescent reflexes allowed mastering a game well enough to dominate a machine (and sell the accumulated games for more than the quarter it cost to play).

We played at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, on the Jersey shore. We fell in love with each other, ourselves, and the ocean. Play the silver ball, sell a few games, wander waist deep into the creamy night waves, kissing whoever wandered in with you.

Now and again, you entered the zone. Thwack, thwack, thwack! The game counter grew, the crowd swelled, and you were oblivious, except for the occasional glance at the woman you loved, and would eventually marry. (No matter what I do now--succor the afflicted, sit on the Supreme Court, take a bullet for humanity--I cannot glean the same gaze from the love of my life.)

We knew we were at some kind of cusp. In 1972, Prozac, the compact disc, and Pong were developed, harbingers of the digital revolution. Amidst this rising ugliness, Ted Zale (designer) and Dave Christensen (artist) created Fireball, the masterpiece of the electromechanical pinball. Bally praised its "lightning storm of scoring action," while Playboy hailed it as "the perfect pin."

 As the Human Torch threw bolts of lightning from the backglass, Odin and Wotan captured balls, allowing for multiball play. The bumpers kicked hard enough to keep play on the razor edge of control when in the zone. These features alone made this pin worth the two bits for 5 balls.

This was the 70's; we lost a war, our Federal government lost credibility, and we feared a nuclear winter. Oil was in short supply. We needed more than a good pin. Ted Zale knew this.

If you played well, a magical transformation took place. The lower flippers ("zipper flippers") came together, closing the gaping mouth at the bottom of the machine. A left side kicker grooved on, kicking back any errant ball slipping through the left gutter. For a moment you believed you had complete control.

Just as your shoulders started to relax, when you allowed yourself the myth that you were the master of Fireball, the whole center of the board started to spin rapidly; chaos reigned in the middle of your silver universe. You could just hold on and enjoy the ride as the ball clacked off the bumpers, got caught in the swirling center, and was hurled back at the bumpers. Like Job, you stood in awe of the chaos could not understand, much less control.

In a moment, the machine stopped playing with your helplessness. The wheel stopped spinning, the zipper flippers parted open, your ball was again at your mercy. Still, you knew better. Life could not be contained within the glass box.

No matter how glorious the box.....