Monday, November 17, 2014


I have a broken oak tree branch attached to the wall, right next to the whiteboard. The leaves are still green, and will remain so. The leaves have not fallen, and will not. Next to it I have a mini-poster asking when the leaves will fall.

I found a slug crawling in our sunny school hallway, looking for all the world like it had a place to go, and in a hurry (for a slug) at that. He (and she) is now living with the potato bugs, where he (and she) will spend a comfortable winter before returning to the garden behind the school.

We saw dolphins just a few yards off the beach a couple of days ago. Not sure the noticed us, not sure they would care if they did.

A dead green bird lay on our stoop Saturday morning. Not sure what it was, and not sure it matters. It no longer matters to the bird. It was likely on its way to South America, munching on bees and wasps along the way.

On Sunday, we took a walk along the edge of the sea. Beach flies served as scouts. A sand piper had one good leg, the other one broken. It twirled like a baton every time the critter hopped along the edge of the sea.

And yet I talk of diffusion in class, despite the dead, the dying, and the departing that marks mid-November.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mary Beth Doyle

10 years today
Some things you do not recover from....

Today marks the anniversary of my sister's death, when a self-described Christian missionary ran her off the road, left the scene, then wrote to me (after being apprehended by the police a day later), that this was God's will.

Apparently some modern day apostles have the power to know these things.

I'm not an apostle, and I'm hardly a fan of what passes for Christianity these days (not sure Jesus Himself would be welcome at some of His more popular franchises), but I do enjoy the Gospels, which are at least as wise as, say Who Moved My Cheese, though actually practicing any of that ol' time kindness (in its finest sense of the word) would get you kicked off most corporate boards.

I take my solace from knowing what's left of her is in our hearts and in the now leafless limbs of some apple trees in Tipton, Michigan, her ashes overlooking Irish Hills.

Here is a story about her, told by a friend of hers, and I'm stealing it verbatim:

Twenty years ago today, Mary Beth and I arrived in the fabled Hunza Valley, the model for Shangri-La, in northern Pakistan. We stayed in a town on a cliff 4,000 feet above the valley floor, in a hotel that cost about 5 bucks with a view of 4-mile-tall Himalayan peaks. The poplars lining irrigation canals – brimming with pearly and opalescent glacier runoff, feeding stone terraces of apricot wheat, mulberry, grapes – had just come to full flame. An orange and yellow hearth fire lapping at the feet of the mountains 18,000 feet high, capped in blue glaciers.The altitude started getting to me. So, Mary Beth took a walk.

A few hours later, she came back, her fancy scarf from the Sindh – the one with real silver threads, presented to her by relatives of the mayor of the town of Khaipur – traded in for one of the rough cotton veils Hunza women wear working their terraced fields.

“I traded my scarf! And got some presents!!” She was carrying a huge bunch of grapes and a loaf of bread that smelled like a fire place and was so dense, huge, and nutritious it took us a week to finish off.

“I met some farmers! Check it out!” She’d spent the afternoon in the compound of a Hunza family, a rare privilege. “They all thought I was insane once I got them to understand I wasn’t lost. Kept asking ‘where’s your husband? (in this medieval world, it was just easier, and more sensible, to claim we were married)
Why did he let you come here alone?’ How the fuck am I supposed to explain I’m the one who dragged my ‘husband’ to Pakistan.” (Coming here was Mary Beth’s idea. That’s another story.)

She was glowing from the encounter. Not a lot of people are served tea in the kitchens of Hunzakot matriarchs. Not a lot of people are like Mary Beth. Travel is like being a rock star in that to succeed,
it takes a certain talent – the kind Mary Beth possessed in spades, wheel barrows, truck loads full.

Later, we shared this experience: that evening, Hunza was celebrating an Ismaili Muslim festival. After sundown, people scaled the surrounding mountains and set bonfires. As the peaks faded into the night, the whole valley – dozens of miles long, and thousands of feet deep – came alive with bonfires. The sight left even MB speechless. Unforgettable stuff like this made Pakistan her favorite location of the whole year we spent in Asia.
I'm going fishing in a moment, but it's not fish I'm looking for.
I miss you, Mary Beth.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Artificial intelligence

I may need to start a school on the mudflats, or rather
share the school that's been there before we ever showed up on its shores.

With all the fuss over the Next Generation Science Standards (whose biggest fault may be the ridiculously Trekian sounding "Next Generation"), our real problem stems from our cultural confusion over what is real.

If you expect a two year old to distinguish the natural world from an iPad screen in a culture where millions of Americans will wile away a lovely Autumn afternoon screaming at images on television, you are fooling yourself (your business) and harming the toddler (my business).

Every child should:
  • Plant a seed and watch it grow from nothing before hearing the word chloroplast.
  • Watch the tide roll in, and then out again, before using the gravitational constant.
  • Play with a magnifying glass before using a microscope, an abacus before a calculator. 
  • Know what a wheat berry feels, grind it into flour, and make a loaf of bread before taming her taste buds on Thomas' English muffins. 

 Add your own ideas to the list--before you teach a "science" lesson, ask yourself if a child has had a reasonable chance to connect to piece of the natural world you are about to share. Take each and every standard and run it through this test.

If you cannot connect it to something real, abandon the lesson and take a recess. Outside. Toss away your phones, your screens, your fluorescent lights, your earbuds, your books, your markers, your words, your voice. 

Sit under the sky, quietly, and listen. 

A child born in our culture today has little chance of discerning what's real from what's not. 
I'd say the same is true of most adults today. 

We are all part of something bigger than the "limitless" technologies conceived by those around us who grew up feasting on the artificial images of the generation before them.

 The most valuable thing I have to "sell" to my lambs is the happy old man standing in front of them babbling joyfully on about the world that belongs to all of us, and in between the noise I make about mitochondria and cell cycles, we pass around sea shells and plant beans.

Just read parts of the NGSS again, and realize it's just not going to help.
I'm waiting for the standard that says "Give a child a rock, and spend the next few months knowing what makes a rock a rock."

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A letter to my AP Biology students

A letter for my AP Biology students today for their contract signing ceremony:

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
Galway Kinnell


Galway Kinnell is my favorite poet. Mr. Kinnell died last week. We met a few times, even shared a meal once, but I doubt he remembered me, and that does not matter, his words still profoundly shaped who I became in college and who I am today. With his death a door closed. I last saw Galway two years ago. I will never see him again. I miss him.

Senior year in high school is scary. Most of you do not know where you will be this time next year. Most of you are seeing doors close for the first time in your lives. Rejection is hard. Failure is hard.

Many, perhaps most of you, have too little time to do the things you want to do. I am not talking about playing video games or watching Scandal or rooting for hopelessly inept NY football teams. I am talking about the kinds of things you (and me) live for.

AP Biology takes time, a lot of time. If science is not your passion, AP Biology takes too much time.

I trust that those of you who are truly interested in science will chase hypotheses down the darkest alleys, and learn to love statistics and data and natural truths as much as I love quahogs and pesto. You do not need a contract.

Many of you are taking this course because you thought (for a variety of reasons) you needed to take this course, and you signed the contract because you were told to sign the contract.

If you are taking AP Biology because someone told you to take it, I pray that Kinnell’s prayer above will help guide you once you get beyond the traps set in high school, traps that will lie in wait your whole life, stealing time and money and faith. Write a contract about what matters to you, sign it, then put it somewhere safe where you can read it when things roll the wrong way, as they occasionally will.

The good stuff, the true stuff, the immortal stuff, is right there for you, on your path. You cannot map the path ahead of time, but you will see it as it grows. Each moment matters more than the day, each day more than the years.
Make the right, the just, and (I daresay) fun decisions along the way and you will be fine, so long as plants keep trapping light’s energy smush together CO2 and water, because, well, just because….

For the few of you who refused to sign the contract, you’re already a few steps ahead of where I was in high school. Congratulations!

My contract to you is to keep teaching how to take ideas apart and put them back together rationally and coherently, and to remember that as much as I love biology, each of you has your own path, your own dreams, your own life.

This as much for me as it is for them.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

SGOs, Samhain, and sanity

I have spent, in the basest sense of that word, hours upon hours
of my God-given life working on a document required of teachers here in Jersey.
That I do these things speaks to a cultural insanity, and mine as well.

Do ghosts "exist"?

I've lived  long enough to know that they don't.
I've lived long enough to know that they do.

That odd, inexplicable events happen, and happen daily, is evident to anyone paying attention. The shame is that so few of us are paying attention to the natural world, we miss the rhythms and the mysteries that  envelop our modern minds every moment.

Today is All Saints Day, to celebrate the sanctified among us, as though following some moral order could save us from the coming dark, a world in which wasp larvae eat hornworms alive, from the inside out, and humans die monstrous deaths lying in ICUs with multiple tubes pierced into the body, hoping that like St. Sebastian, we will miraculously recover.

If you need a video to be convinced ghosts exist, you don't truly know what it means to know that the dead are among us.

The question of ghosts is not an idle one. We follow spirits of our own making all the time. We follow rules and rhythms of our own making now, wrapping ourselves in a sad cocoon of  hubris, wiling away our hours fulfilling nothing more than deadlines upon deadlines without a hint of irony.

I'm headed out to a mudflat in an hour or so, under a wet and wild early winter sky, to rake up a few clams, alive as I am, and as alive as I am, I will be as dead as those clams will be tonight in less than a lifetime.

Until you believe in the ghost you will be, you cannot truly live.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Samhain, again

 An old one, but Samhain is creeping up, and the ancients revered the cycles. I'm creeping towards ancient status.

Despite whatever virus is playing tootsies with my hypothalamus (or maybe because of this), I found myself in thigh deep water on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean at dusk, trying to catch a striped bass. I spent the evening shivering under a blanket.

The waters here are about 62 degrees, still plenty warm for wading. The air temperature wasn't bad, either, and the wind didn't bother me until the sun set. In my feverish napping, I realized that for all my training and prepping and struggling as a science teacher, a student can learn far more about life on the edge of the Hallowe'en sea than she ever will in the classroom.

As the sunlight recedes on Samhain, the dead walk among us.

This morning I noticed a drop of water on the shower curtain. Light rays were bent by the drop of water clinging to the curtain, and the threads of the curtain loomed larger than life. At least that's how I perceived it.

If I had not been there to catch the bent rays of light, the light rays still would have been bent for whatever light-sensing creature might pause to look at it, or so I believe. Faith, really.

This past week we have been talking about diffusion in biology class. I started the year off with a mini-history of the universe, talking about two huge articles of faith in science:
  • Whatever rules apply here at this moment apply everywhere in the known universe (given, of course, the same conditions), and
  • Whatever rules apply now (at this given spot) applied throughout the past and will continue to apply in the future.
If we're going to tackle issues of faith in the classroom, may as well tackle them head on. Science requires a special kind of faith.

Like the drop of water visible only to me, or the fin of the striped bass cutting through the surf while I stood alone at the beach, most moments only happen once. We see patterns in our moments, and some patterns, particularly those based on the natural world, become predictable. (This borders on tautologous--if a moment defies observable patterns, we toss it out of the science realm.)

The dead among us walk among us. My mother, my father, my sister, my grandparents, and great aunts and uncles and the hundreds, thousands of my clan that preceded me still live in the common spirit our clan shares, carried by me and others, passed to our children.

We ask children to study the complement system in the face of viremia, something none of them will see in a lifetime, yet deny the ghosts they see in the shadows, as real as the refracted light on my shower curtain. I know that the shower curtain threads did not magically enlarge, and I know that ghosts do not lurk in the shadows.

What I know and what I believe, however, do not always mesh. On the edge of the ocean at night, I am afraid. Perhaps without reason.

We try to bend them to a scientific view of the world in a place where science rarely happens, in a classroom, on a forced time schedule, in order to educate them "to a better economy."

We teach models as though they are real. Science is useful, but it is based on models, a special way of looking at the universe, a way that has resulted in all kinds of wonderfulness, but not real.

Or rather, no more real than the shadows lurking under the late October moon, reminding us that we, too, will walk among the dead, no matter how education we have. If I did not believe this I would not fear the night, even though I know better.

Photo by Immanuel Giel, no permission needed

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Paradise Lost: On data driven drivel

I am watching the shadows change 
as I spend hours on the latest conceit from Trenton, SGOs.

This was written last fall--you would think I'd learn to live.

The "pond"

I spent a chilly few minutes yesterday pulling out some elodea from the pond to take to school--each time I pull up a garland, I let it drip a bit over the pond, wondering about the lives of the critters found in each drop.

(I worry about the few drops that hit the ground.)

When I start to think I am losing my mind thinking about these critters, I peek at a drop or two under my microscope, and see, once again, the dance of foreign life doing familiar things.

That's enough data analysis to remind me why I teach.

If we're going to preach data-driven instruction, and use it to take us to the Holy Land, we need to agree on whose Holy Land matters. And my Holy Land includes the critters I kill every time I take a step.
The gargoyle guarding the pond.
If you're alive, it's impossible not to see ourselves in the living around us.
If we see ourselves in the living around us, we care more about the world.
The abstract has no meaning when torn from the earth.

Being alive is a big part of being human, though you'd be hard-pressed to see evidence of this in our data-driven world culture.

It's late October, the morning glories in the shadows stay open through the day.  The dead will be dancing in the shadows soon. The world freezes over, and our children are taught not to notice.

The morning glory knows.

Good thing, too--if the children could see what we're stealing from them, they'd never sit still long enough to take the PISA's, the HSPAs, the NJASKs, the PARCCs, the SATs, the AP exams..

I'm still naive enough to believe the point of education is to help young'uns find their paths to thoughtful, productive, and happy lives. There's plenty more data to be found at the edge of a pond than under the flicker of fluorescent lamps.

But this data-driven nonsense isn't about accountability, or data, or education at all.
So I will keep teaching and keep praying, both for children and for the critters found in a drop of pond water the children no longer know exist.

The last of the hops flowers

You cannot dance if you're thinking too hard (or at all) about the rhythm.