Monday, August 26, 2013

The freedom of absurdity

Back when we still stratified classes at my school, I loved teaching "low level" freshmen--despite the occasional behavioral issues (the rare fight and even rarer fire under a student's desk), I got to teach more science as science than in any other class because, well, no one outside the classroom really cared what happened inside.

The less administrators heard from these classes, the better. No blood, no write-ups, no problem.

Freed from the crippling boundaries posed by standardized tests, I got to take the kids wherever the problems took us. Armed with safety glasses, and just enough sense to keep us outside of the Health Office, we pushed boundaries and solved problems. (Here's a dirty little secret--most of my students who grow up poor have a short lifetime's worth of solving real problems. It's not lack of problem-solving abilities holding them back in school.)

With the new evaluation system kicking into place, where part of my job security depends on how my students do on state testing that has little or nothing to do with science, where correlation now becomes causation, absurdity reigns.

Les Songes Drolatiques De Pantagruel

Here's how you deal with absurdity: you don't.

Until reality creeps back into education, I will happily teach students what reality means.

Do I fear the scores? Of course I do. I fear death, too. Until I can control either of them, though, acting on that fear is foolish.

Puts a new spin on live and learn....

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Life on a beach

North Cape May

This was last evening.
This is our bay.
This is the sunset.
If you look carefully, those are dolphins.
Small fish were breaking the surface just a few feet in from the edge of the water.
I waded out to see them, but the glare of the sun kept them invisible.

Atlantic Ocean tide pool, Stone Harbor Point

This is a hermit crab living in a shell made by a moon snail. 
The moon snail is dead, but its shell is still useful.
Our shores are littered with the stony carcasses of countless beings.
We collect shells because they are beautiful.
Maybe we collect them to remind us we're alive.
Those are my fingers.
When I die, my skeleton will last long after the flesh has been consumed.

Delaware Bay, North Cape May

This is a moon jelly.
It is an animal--it eats to live.
I pass by thousands every summer, dead and dying, jewels on the beach.
More beautiful symmetry in a dead being.
A moon jelly is as evolved as you and me, and every bit as alive, when it's alive.
And we'll be every bit as it is when it's dead.

If I can get a child to see a piece of the unimaginable vastness of life outside the pixels that define most human lives in these parts, I'd have earned my pay. 

Where in the biology curriculum can we find the living?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Huh, Arne?

The continuing Arne chronicles....

The fact that we’re still teaching with a nineteenth century model makes no sense whatsoever....
 Ah, yes, the straw man again. Get ready for the punchline, here it comes....

That's why organizations like Khan Academy are so exciting.
Because they use 20th century technology to enhance 19th century pedagogy?

Duncan looks more and more like an ass, living in his Land of Toys.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On Algebra II, badges, and race

Found on our classroom typewriter....

Algebra Two (A2) came under the cross-hairs of Harper's Magazine, and Jose Vilson, a math teacher and educational leader whose words I read a tad too close to religiously, wrote a compelling response, pointing out that eliminating mandatory A2 would add to the hurdles already imposed on kids of color:
If someone said, “Let’s end compulsory higher-order math tomorrow,” and the fallout happens across racial, gender, class lines, then I could be convinced that this was a step towards reform.
Jose Vilson

But of course it won't.

Algebra II has become a badge, one of many, that pretends to separate middle class white boys from, well, everybody else.

You can pass A2 without understanding a whole lot about mathematics, or even numbers, but the vast majority of careers that "require" A2 do not actually require that you actually use it--they just require that you have some kind of certificate saying you passed a course labeled Algebra II.

This is a predictable consequence of commodifying education, where the badge matters more than the knowledge. The Wizard of Oz is a morality play--the Scarecrow gains his power not because of what he knows, but because someone with power (an old white guy) grants him the paper that bestows him this power.

A child who truly knows A2 is far more dangerous than most kids who (finally!) pass algebra and never look back. Without the appropriate badges (or a mouthful of silver spoons), that child may as well drop out for all the good knowledge alone will do you in our culture of badges.

White boys are consistently told they are good at math.
And even if they suck at math, they know that if they persevere long enough to get the badge, they will be rewarded with gold.

Yes, I know "Arne's" grasp of the Pythagorean Theory is a tad weak--I was paraphrasing the Wizard of Oz.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

...and why I teach anyway

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver, from "The Summer Day"

Higbee Beach, Cape May

None of us are here for more than a lifetime, so long as "us" refers to the living.

I grumble in the summer as I plow through ed policy, through the machinations of very rich people whose happiness does not match their wealth. I grumble as I see my classroom walls become more impervious to the natural world, as education transitions to training.

School starts soon, and it's time, again, to remind myself why what we do matters so long as we practice teaching in a way that makes it matter.

Mudflat grace, off Richardson Sound

Why I stay:
Watch a child at play on a mudflat. The unfolding drama at the edge of the sea holds a lifetime’s worth of study and of joy. Same could be said for just about any patch of Earth under open sky. I want all kids to know this.
We are here together on a planet, inextricably linked to each other and to everything else alive, and to many things not. Many live in worlds that are but shells of the fundamental one defined by dirt, water and sun. I want all kids to know this.
I teach about the natural world, or rather, how we think about the natural world. There are moments when the classroom is humming, when students tend to their fish, their wheat plants, their sow bugs, or their slugs. The natural world is worth knowing. I want all kids to know this. 
You Can't Pray a Lie, Mary Ann Reilly, 2012

A teacher assumes an awesome yoke of responsibility—when a teacher succeeds, a child’s world grows larger.

Why else bother?
Bits and pieces lifted from other posts--this one is mostly for me.

Why I fear the American Diploma Project...

 I posted this back in 2008. It still matters.

 I've been reading Wendell Berry again. He's a teacher, a farmer, a writer, and a prophet. He gets me thinking, and thinking gets me trouble.

I teach high school science. I also prepare students for the New Jersey End of Course Biology Test. While these are not mutually exclusive activities, there's no sense pretending that preparing for the test does not diminish real science in my classroom.

I may be misguided anyway.

The state is pushing for children to take Algebra II, and our commissioner announced in April, 2007, that our children will be taking a joint Algebra II test shared with 8 other states, part of the "American Diploma Project Secondary Math Partnership."

I posted this four years ago--
“This new exam will help to ensure that our children are learning the math skills that are becoming more and more essential in an increasingly competitive job and secondary education marketplace."

The "American Diploma Project" is a joint effort of Achieve (a partnership between government and business executives), the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (whose mission is promoting school choice), and The Education Trust, which believes "all children will learn at high levels when they are taught to high levels."

I suspect the first group's primary aim is to create workers for the corporate world, the second's to dismantle traditional public education funding, and the third, well, I'll put them in the Lake Wobegon School of Ridiculous Optimism, where all children are above average.

And naive me, I thought public education was about 
creating a functional citizenry.

Again, our stated goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Still, take a few moments to look at the boards of these organizations. Look at their goals. Analyze what they mean.

And tell me I'm not being paranoid.

With folks finally waking up to (mostly) old white guy shoving the dollars to create a quasi-governmental educational fiefdom, thought I might share it again.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Dear New Science Teacher....

Yes, that's me.
Yes, that's my tin foil hat.
Yes, I posted this one before.

You're going to get lots of advice, too much really, much of it self-contradictory. Let me add to your growing pile of nonsense.

*Children are innately curious; students, however, are not.
Unless you're getting a fresh crop of toddlers, most children learned long ago that questioning in a classroom leads to all kinds of problems. If your kids do not rise like flies to the wonderful poop you bring to class, don't get all sour-pussy about it.

If your enthusiasm lasts until November--which it will if you stop expecting the kids to care how much you spend out of class "for their benefit"--they'll start spilling out their curious guts, which leads to a different kind of problem.
My recommendations:
  • Treat your students as you would human beings that have been traumatized by years of schooling. Because they have.
  • If a child want to know what happens if... let her try it (provided it's safe to do so). Memorize the state standards that pays lip service to exploring science, and be ready to rattle it off should an administrator wander in just as Brian attempts to see how long he can stand shocking himself with a hand-cranked generator. (In New Jersey, it's NJCCCS 5.1.12.B.1 "Design investigations, collect evidence, analyze data, and evaluate evidence to determine measures of central tendencies, causal/correlational relationships, and anomalous data." This covers pretty much everything.)

*Demos usually suck.
Why? Half the kids can't really see what's going on, and traditionally demos are followed by some inane worksheet, or quiz, or some kind of assessment that just sucks all the cool factor out. Even if you don't zap them with a quiz, their response is Pavlovian. I'm not saying don't--just don't expect the students to fawn over you like the Pied Piper.

My recommendations:
  • Do 'em anyway. If you singe an eyebrow or two (yours, I mean), you'll be an instant legend. 
  • Accidentally trigger the smoke alarm during a chilly rainstorm in November--your fame will spread beyond your classroom.

*Live critters reproduce.
And poop. Your lovely tank of cute roly-polies will become a teeming mass of stink by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, and you won't have time to clean them.
My recommendations:
  • Do it anyway, and let 'em stink, tell them it's the natural world, and keep a butterfly net around so that when some horribly fierce looking critter breaks out and buzzes around the room, you can non-chalantly catch it as you meander through tables of differentiated groupwork. Kids learn more from these tiny reeking cesspools of life than they'll ever grasp from a PowerPoint.
  • Forget using filters in fish tanks--they're loud and need maintenance. Just use water plants--they'll take up the nitrogen, then scrape the algae off the sides every month or two with a microscope slide.
  •  If something stings you, smile, pretend it doesn't hurt, and keep the EpiPen handy.
  • Never, ever bring in spiders. You'll get a few thousand anyway wandering in to eat the various flying critters erupting from your terrariums, and you can honestly tell your principal you didn't bring them in.

*Science teachers stay late...
So what? We do what we love! We get the big rooms! We blow things up! We have showers in our rooms!
My recommendations:
  • If you'd rather be streaming out the door at 2:45 PM like a lost lemming, go take a few courses and get certified in...well, email me privately, I don't need to get into a pissing match with about 4 other departments. Just stand by the door and see who streams out first. (Be careful, though--those English folks carry out enough papers to fuel the Netherlands for a week in December. They may work more than we do.)
  • Squirrel away a lot of granola bars, power drinks, and a toothbrush.
  • Quit. This isn't for you.

Stop reading advice and go teach! Bust your butt, enjoy the good moments, move on past the bad--the children know who's in this for real, and who's mailing it in. You'll find your way if you fundamentally like kids, and you stick with it.

No shame if you don't. This profession breaks a lot of people. The kids are here because they have to be. They deserve teachers who are there because they want to be. 

I suspect a few veteran teachers could use this, too....

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Maybe I'll try teaching science for a change

Saw a double rainbow just before dusk....

Science did not create Little Boy and Fat Man.
Technology did.
Little Boy

But our knowledge of the natural world made the technology possible.

I do not train engineers, I do not train scientists--I share the natural world with children. Our classroom is just over a mile from where the folks from the Manhattan Project originally purified uranium--the site is still contaminated.

Our Superintendent-in-Chief Arne Duncan believes that "we have to educate ourselves to a better economy." In a world defined by the global economy, education is reduced to a tool needed to create citizens worthy of this new world empire.

For this Scarecrow, the degree matters more than knowing

Most of my kids remain blissfully unworthy, still filled with a  joie de vivre that requires taming for success in Arne's world.

I have little faith in Duncan or anybody else who places ambition over love, though I do grudgingly admire their machine-like pursuit of a life not worth living. Such a life gives him the option of not living within a stone's throw of a radioactive field.

Connecting my lambs to the natural world takes more time than the curriculum allows. Seeds simply do not sprout fast enough in ArneWorld to make biology education efficient (though Zeus knows we try--go read about Wisconsin Fast Plants®).

Every August, as the sunlight dims, I ask myself the same question, and this year I am asking aloud.
What will it be, science teacher?
Wheat, grown in our classroom

"Biology 101" again, or helping young adults build real connections to a deep, deadly, and beautiful universe, connected to and of this Earth, where food and feces trump  finances and fear.

Biology feces much more interesting than the shit we pretend matters....

Thursday, August 8, 2013


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. Never.

Monday, August 5, 2013



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?


This morning I saw a cicada wasp drag a paralyzed cricket along the edge of the driveway. The wasp was not much bigger than the cricket, and the wasp struggled. At one point she let go, stepped back a few inches, stroked her head a few times (much like a human facing a big task), and eventually dragged it down a hole by the driveway garden. The cricket was still alive, but paralyzed.

I did not intervene.

The wasp will lay her eggs in the cricket, and they will hatch in the cricket, still alive, and the cricket will, of course, suffer.

I did not intervene.

The larva wasp will use the the cricket, still alive, for food.

And still, I did not intervene.

Photo by Bruce Holderbaum


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

Ken Allan is a blogger on the other side of the Earth. ( Kia ora e Ken.) He's quirky, bright, thoughtful, and well worth reading.

He sent me the this video:

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.

(Yes, this is from older posts, timeless ones.)
The photo is by Bruce Holderbaum
and can be found here--used with permission.

This is posted every year, as a reminder to me.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

David Coleman and the victorious SAT

David Coleman has never taught in public schools
but "was turned down for a job teaching public high school in New York.
so at least he tried, eh?

David Coleman sent me a letter.  
(Well, not just to me, and to be fair, the return address's domain was "," but still....)

David Coleman is both the President and CEO of the, it said so right in the letter, but hope he forgives me if I'm a bit ignorant and have no idea what the difference is between a President and a CEO. Apparently it matters to him, because he wanted me to know.

Mr. Coleman was in full chest-beatin'-horn-tootin' mode as he rambled on about the new SAT he's we're developing, how the New York Times loves the direction he's we're going with the new test, and with the "College Board's special commitment to help low-income students see broader college possibilities."

The College Board is engaged in a listening tour! It's listening to us! Just like David Coleman listened to teachers as he led the development of the Common Core.

The final line in the letter sealed it for me:

"[T]he SAT will be a substantial victory for students, K-12 and higher education."

Substantial victory? Maybe for the few kids who end up on top, but what an odd, nonsensical way to end the letter. "Victory" has all kinds of connotations that play well in corporate boardrooms, but not in my classroom.

Mr. Coleman, the same man who guided the construction of Common Core, possibly the most influential person dictating the content that will appear in your children's classrooms, ends a letter meant for thousands with, well, mushy pablum that would not get past a sophomore high school English teacher.

Apparently the new SAT frowns on the Oxford comma....
OTOH, it loves irony,- highlighting a "listening tour" in a noreply letter.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Lammas, again

Yep, fifty-fifth time around.

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, though students will occasionally ask religious questions, and I will 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.

Sunset Wednesday marked the start of Lughnasadh, or Lammas--joy for the coming harvests and regret for the 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 that life is linear, and we pay for our pretenses.

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.

They're not enough for me. I pray they will not be enough for our children.

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 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.

Recruiting "Young Scientists for Jesus" in the classroom

If you use your curriculum as catechism, as a "doctrinal manual" passed from on high used to dictate the content of science to be tested using predictable questions with memorized answers, well, you may as well be proselytizing for the Catholic Church.

Neither will hone your knowledge of science, but at least the latter gets you a lottery ticket's chances of getting into Heaven.

If you expect a freshman high school student to grasp the structure of DNA before she knows the nature of chemical bonds, you are asking her to worship the canonical double helix like a Crucifix, the heart of the Mystery.

But that is what most of us do, with predictable results--some adolescents grab the DNA molecule for dear life, reverently chanting the prayers to St. Erwin, "A goes with T, G goes with C," carefully studying the Scriptures interpreting the mysteries of transcription and translation.

Others go through the motions just enough to get to Purgatory--recite the right words, kneel down before the Microscope, and slide out when the bell rings, every day seems an eternity in Hell.

The saddest, though, are the damned, the ones who reject the Gospels of Charles, James, Francis, and Rosalind,the free thinkers who dare question our catechism and abandon "science."

Have a come to Jesus moment, throw away your catechism book. Proselytizing has no place, none, in a science classroom.

No matter what Pope Arne and his archbishops say....

Bless me Father for I have sinned....
I need to change a good chunk of my classroom practice.

The archbishop picture modified from The Daily Beast.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

iPlant before iPad

A rambling preamble that finally gets to this point:
If a kid knows more about screens than seeds, our republic is doomed.

I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws our country.

The "example" was the British aristocracy, long before we were saddled with the American sort, a particularly hideous blend of corporate money and private power feared by the author of the above, Thomas Jefferson.

Public schools are in trouble because our status as a republic in trouble.
State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.

Children should learn science as a means to know the natural world, and as a source of joy, but neither of these is sufficient to justify its high cost in public school.

I think the most important reason children need science is to develop a rational skepticism.
Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle. Permit us to question -- to doubt, that's all -- and not to be sure.   
--Richard Feynman

Our children are being led astray by "artificial rules." They spend hours a day in an artificial universe that alternates smacking around their amygdalas with squeezing pulses of dopamine from their brains. Our children live in a constant state of the edge of fulfilled desire, prepping them for a life as consumers.

So I'm making a small change in my classroom this year.
No machines until you grow something in class, something from seed, something you can eat.
I'm even tempted to make eating a part of the plant the student grows part of the requirement.

A student grew this, but was afraid to eat it--so I did.

Once a student shows me she knows what a seed is capable of becoming, then she can turn her attention back to the machine. And she will.

But someday, when she realizes something is fundamentally wrong, she just might remember the carrot.

Democracy works for farmers....