Sunday, April 28, 2013

Build, harvest, brew, be human

When I clam, I put a couple back. I know there will always be more when I do this. I am also keeping a promise to my niece, who has a habit of returning more quahogs than she actually rakes, though she eats them readily enough. (Hi, Claire!)

When I build something permanent, I try to get it right. Wood is forgiving, to a point, and it will last past a lifetime if cared for properly. The tree has already given up the ghost, and I will soon enough.

I obviously need sunscreen on my head now, photo credit Leslie

Every piece of wood I ever worked with had its own personality. Cedars tend to act like cedars, oak like oak, but even within a species is just enough variation to keep things interesting. 

I stacked together hundreds, maybe thousands, of rocks back in my early twenties, to build a wall that would outlast my life. I built it carefully, and I hope someone acknowledges as much a hundred years from now. No way to know, of course, and in the end, the admiration of someone who has yet to breathe is besides the point.

That's me, being by Leslie again
What matters is caring every moment we have.

Not sure my students grasp why I do half the things that I do, but by this time of year, they trust why I do them. It's a good time of year to be a teacher, if you've been doing this right.

And for all the errors I make every day, I mostly do this right. 

And all we have is moments.
I have a chance to write for a national organization, and I may yet, but I need to do it for the right reasons.
In the end, why we do things matters almost as much as what we actually do.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

My children still live in our village

If you want to be universal,
sing your village.
-Leo Tolstoy

Arne Duncan wants your children prepared "to participate in the global economy."
I want our kids to learn a little bit about the natural world.

I took the AP Biology students out to the Bloomfield Green today, ostensibly to study ecological relationships. They're only here for a few more weeks before they're off to save the global economy, and I thought poking around a few dandelions might serve them better than anything else I might offer under fluorescent lights.

A honey bee doing her part in our local economy.
At least one of my lambs had never seen a honey bee before, and while I have no doubt she has the tools to become one of the finest international trade lawyers ever to grace our land, I still have her here in Bloomfield for a few weeks, and I want her to remember what home feels like.

If you've never seen a honey bee up close, you're a long way from home.

It's not the homeless in Bloomfield who are wrecking my town, though--it's the homeless in D.C., sitting under fluorescent lights, scouring abstract charts, manipulating statistics, and dictating policy that only alienates our children more from the one world they can ever truly know--the ground beneath their feet.

I suspect the power folks are not happy people, but I have no way to tell, and I am not interested in Arne's happiness quotient anyway. I do care, however, about the happiness of our children here in Bloomfield, and Arne's ill-thought journeys into education policy have affected my ability to teach children about things that matter, about lives worth living.

Not saying we need to make honey bees part of any national curriculum.
Just saying if a honey bee is part of the local fauna, and you want to know anything about the world, you should see a honey bee.

The Tolstoy quote was lifted from Bill McKibben's
Hope, Human and Wild.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Teaching a skink Latin

This week in my classroom, really my home...
  • My lambs groaned as I ate a carrot a child grew from seed under the light of the weak winter sun--and a few wondered, out loud, if it tasted like a carrot.
  • We fetched our salamander guy from our terrarium to let him loose in the suburban wilds again because a student wanted to bring him a mate, then thought maybe the little guy would be happier out looking for his own when we couldn't decide how to sex a salamander.
  • Our eggplant and basil seedlings grew their first set of true leaves, which we hope to transplant into our new school garden in May (itself an interesting lesson in politics and territoriality).
  • A student brought her two foot long pet blue-tongued skink to class and shared it with everyone.
  • Some of us held earthworms, millipedes, snails, slugs, and mealworms--the hissing cockroaches had a quiet week (despite a suggestion that we offer one up to the skink).
  • "We" (mostly me) droned on about restriction enzymes to several dozen mid-adolescents who have yet to be exposed to chemistry.

Last year's carrot--I forgot to take a photo of this year's "crop."

Guess which one will be forgotten by Monday, never mind May when our kids face the state biology end of course exam?

To attempt to teach biochemistry to children with little connection to the natural world they can directly observe is like trying to teach a skink Latin. Even if it could be done, it makes little sense for the skink to waste energy mastering a skill that does nothing to improve its chances of living and loving.

Maybe that's the real lesson here--laziness is a valuable evolutionary trait. No sense wasting ATP on an activity that doesn't make lives worth living. Even skinks know that.

Question from Biology (Campbell, Pearson)

Really, what are we doing when a child is too scared to eat a carrot she grew from seed, and then wonders what that orange carrot-shaped thing tastes like?

What are we doing?
Why are we doing it?

Content is dead.
Long live content.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

To Serve Students

To Serve Students--with apologies to Rod Serling

As Arne and his cadre of Eraserheads mobilize our children for the global economy because, well, the whole point of education is to create a corps of corporate citizens, I keep thinking of Twilight Zone's To Serve Man episode.

Turns out the Common Core State[sic] Standards Initiative is a cookbook!

Scary thing is, Arne Duncan might actually believe that his actions are benevolent.
Funny what money and power do to aliens people.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

On sunspots

Do not do any of this without the right equipment.
Galileo likely did not go blind from his work with sunspots, but hey, it makes a good story.

We took a walk along the edge of the bay at sunset, as we do, and I stared at the sun, as I foolhardily do, and I saw the spot.

I took a picture of it, brought it home (an anachronism from when we "carried" pictures on film until we got the film developed), and blew it up.

Just to the lower left of center, you can see the smudge. It was more noticeable nekkid eye, but you can see it well enough above.

Not so long ago, that would be the end of the story. I could check again the next day, see the spot travel across the face of the sun (as they do), and ponder the imponderables of distances and spinning stars.

(I used to use Pop Tart packages as sun filters--they were made of Mylar, and you can see the sun through them. DO NOT DO THIS! I would follow clusters of spots for days.)

Here's the 21st century version of the same game:

From, credit SDO/HM posts daily photos of the sun--you can see "my" sunspot in the April 5 shot, in the same spot as mine.

Here's my question (and I am not asking rhetorically)--which feels more real to someone who grew up with these lightboxes that now define our vision, the sunlight that hit my retina, or the image by

Do children even need to be warned not to stare at the sun anymore?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Impolite to ask

I just saw the sun set on the bay--another day past, but it's OK, the stars reassure me.

What did you eat today? Who slaughtered it? When was its last breath? Does it matter?

What did you sing today? Who wrote it? Did you sing alone? Do you have a kazoo?

What was that smell? Where did the molecules come from? If you recognize the smell of someone you love, are her molecules really flying off her like dust from a comet? What is comet dust made of?

What questions did you stop asking long, long ago? Do you still care to know the answers?

Do you ask questions anymore?

Light, light, light, light....I forget how much I missed it until it returns.

"Teaching and folly share an interface"

 It's daffodil season again....

"Most educational establishments are mysterious, perhaps because teaching and folly share an interface."
John Berger, Here is Were We Meet

It's spring, and plants are grabbing stuff out of thin air to make the stuff of life itself, fueled by the sun. It all comes down to stuff and energy (or mass-energy for my post-Einsteinian friends), and the stories we share about this stuff and energy.

Science is obviously about this, though we make a mess of this in high school. We somehow manage to make stuff uninteresting. Simply holding a pebble, though, can emanate joy. If you have forgotten this, pick up a pebble on your travels today.

...or basil seed pods or almost anything

We attach too much seriousness to this STEM business, and our seriousness distracts (and detracts) from the joyful nature of just being. "Just being" depends on the play of energy and stuff, which gets back to plants and sunlight, which gets back to teaching biology.

What if we look at everything else we study with the same lens?

History is what we remember about when stuff and energy got pushed this way or that. Physical education reminds us we are made of stuff and energy. Math shows us that stuff and energy dance together in patterns we can visualize.

Economics is all about distribution of this stuff and energy. Politics is about how we manipulate this distribution. Art is nothing but playing with stuff and energy to help us see, to know our place in all this stuff and energy.

When we drift away from our connections to this universe, when we worship our words and forget their physical basis in neurons, in vibrating vocal chords, in the flick of our muscles clicking the keyboard, we lose the whole point of learning.

You can teach to the curriculum, or to the common core, or to "the test," but unless you are sharing the only universe that matters with your students (and they trust you enough to share theirs), this swirling sensuous world of stuff and energy, you are teaching mere folly.

A belly full of folly may make you rich, but it will never make you, nor your students, happy.

Thank you Tom Hoffman for the book. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Cutting edge? I'm on the backside of the blade....

I take a perverse delight in my Luddite Lite view, but it's really as simple this. Anything that distances me from the natural world, from my connection to the stuff that comes in (and leaves) my body, from the delicious sensuous (even sensual) symphony of particles and light dancing on and in my body, this body, the one with a beating heart, well, deserves a critical eye.
  • I am materialistic--I like the stuff around me. 
  • I am cheap--the air, the water, the earth I walk on, the gravity that keeps me grounded, are all free.
  • I am mortal--I am made of this same stuff, and will be returned to the same stuff, and my particles will be dancing on other conscious beings within a few decades, perhaps sooner.
Our iPods separate us from our voices, our kazoos and guitars, our hands and our harmonies.

My favorite teachers out there talk about making stuff. Tom Hoffman and Shawn Cornally cure meats,  Mary Ann Reilly creates canvases, John Spencer writes music and stories, and on and on it goes.

I do not know any effective teachers who are not passionate about something they created by the fusion of their mind and their hands, about their connection to the stuff of creation.

I confess I love playing with iPods and iPads and anything else that keeps my brain buzzing with dopamine. They are a lovely distraction from our mortality.

If I am charged with teaching a child about the universe, though (and why else teach?), the natural world should be the distraction.

A good first step would be to show them that it even exists....

I'm not Amish, but I get the point--be wary of the things that would separate you from the things you believe matter.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Common core of a quahog

The northern quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria) has already figured out the same important things we have.

Their shells are now in the garden.

It knows how to get the most out of glucose, letting oxygen sweep out electrons as the glucose breaks down to pyruvate, and eventually carbon dioxide and water.

It knows how to generate voltages across cell membranes, so work can be done.

It knows how to catch food, excrete waste.

It knows as much about its environment as you do yours, and responds with about the same level of sophistication.

It has a beating heart and its kidneys work as well as any dialysis machine.

via Freshwater and Marine Image Bank (PD)

There's no particular reason to know the specifics of the quahog, nor is there any particular reason to know the specifics of, well, anything when you get down to it.

But after 14,000 hours or so of public education, wouldn't it be nice if a graduating young adult had a clue that the natural world is at least as interesting as, say, the sex of Kim Kardashian's fetus?

No, Arne, we do not need to make clam ed mandatory....

Monday, April 1, 2013

Speeding to success

About one out of five high school boys "have" attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which means we are now free to pump them up with performance enhancing drugs.

Make no mistake--Adderall is speed, and it works. If you want to do better at something, anything, that depends at all on alertness and reaction time, Adderall will improve your scores.

And that's what school is all about now.

You can look up the side effects of amphetamines, and find anecdotal stories detailing its occasional horrors. It's habit-forming, can induce hallucinations, and on rare occasions kill.

I was once a doc, even prescribed the stuff on occasion, and none of that perturbs me too much--the whole point of drugs is risk vs. benefit, and if there were no risks, there'd be no need for prescriptions.

Here's the scary part for me--we have a culture that worships competition, that accepts winning at any costs, and simply does not love children (or humans at any developmental stage) as much as it cares about numbers.

Numbers which, paradoxically, are rarely understood in our innumerate world.

Go ahead an dope up your kid. It will help her in school.
With a little luck, it will give your child the edge that gets her into that Ivy.

Hokey pokey parenting: That's what it's all about!

A bloody tale

It's a rare week I don't bleed enough to require at least a minute or two of attention. Part of this is diving into stuff I don't know much about, part due to inattention, and part because I use a lot of sharp things.

If it weren't for bones, I'd have sliced off just about all my digits by now.

All bleeding eventually stops...

I am OK with blood--mine, yours, pretty much anyone's now. Years of working in a Trauma Center will do that.  Pretty amazing stuff, and we replace it fairly quickly, so unless the ceiling's turning red, I don't get too excited.

I planted a few peas yesterday. The ground is workable but cold, cold enough to numb my hands, the kind of cold where bleeding is seen before felt. (I do not wear gloves, add that to my list of why I bleed a lot.) My hands were covered with good loam, and after a quick inspection, no blood noted.

As I washed my hands, the red-brown dirt swirled in the sink, indistinguishable from the hundreds, maybe thousands of times I have washed my blood and others into sinks.

The peas I plant will grow, I have that much faith. I also have sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, so my faith lies couched in the material universe.

We are of earth and blood.
Spring is here, again, and most of us who saw the last solstice are still here, again, too.

We do not bleed enough in our classrooms....