Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hotei in the classroom

I have a variety of pots sitting on my windowsills, most of them with plants growing inside, some for years.

I have silver ivy growing since I was a child in the 1960's, in various incarnations, which once draped my childhood kitchen sill. I have a couple of grape fruit "trees" started from seeds from the school cafeteria a couple of years ago, that look (so far) remarkably like bonsai cork trees. I have thyme just so I can stroke its tiny leaves now and again to remind me that the sun will return.

In school we grow all kinds of things just to grow--and I tell my lambs the story of photosynthesis over and over again. Stuff comes from stuff, stuff comes from stuff, stuff comes from affects the relations of stuff to stuff, but plants do not transform light into stuff.

The stuff of the plants in our classrooms comes from the breath of those around them. With each breath, we release pieces of us into the air, and the leaves around us quietly knot them back together again.

That's as close to to religion as you're going to get in a public school, and about as close to religion as you're going to get in any gilded temple as well.

Plants, thankfully, do not live sanctimonious lives, and do not seem bothered if we do not revere them as we should.

I have mystery plants that spring up now and again in my many pots--I am not a meticulous gardener (or meticulous anything else) and it fun to see what happens.

One of our pots has an errant amaryllis, given to us by a wonderful man who is now my daughter's husband. The plant spends months outside, months on the windowsill, months in a brown bag in the pantry--I really have no idea what I am doing, but it still rewards us with a beautiful flower or two during random times.

When we brought it in last October, I just dug it out of the ground and plopped it into a pot. By December, tiny plants sprung up around it. I let them be.

Yesterday, the  same man who gave us the plant touched one of its companions in the pot, and a seed pod exploded! We touched a few more, laughing each time, and now we have tiny curls of hairy bittercress all over the windowsill.

Today I will sweep up the tiny pieces of happiness to take to school. I will not, of course, mention Hotei, but when I see the kids laughing later in May, I will hear him.

The painting is by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and is now at the British Museum.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


 Anomie is a new word for me.

A total of 13%–20% of children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year, and surveillance during 1994–2011 has shown the prevalence of these conditions to be increasing.
"Mental Health Surveillance Among Children — United States, 2005–2011"One in
Children at Risk Foundation (CARF), via CC

One in 6 children "experience a mental disorder in a given year." We know something is wrong.

The brain we have, the one that got us through untold generations of the folks before us, does not change because a few of us now worship the global economy. What has kept us alive for millions of years has been paying attention, close attention, to the earth we (literally) walk upon.

The hormones that surge through us now and the thousands of generations before us responded to real threats, real people that shared the air we breathed. Now we seek our lusts through flat screens, manipulated by strangers, and we respond with symphonic surges, weaving dopamine and oxytocin, cortisol and adrenaline as we wile away our time, emptying our wallets and our souls.

Arne Duncan wants us to train our children for the global economy, an oxymoron. I want to teach our children how to live happy lives right here in Bloomfield, or wherever else they lay down their roots.

 Brookdale Park, Bloomfield, by Eric shared via CC

I do not teach 21st century learners, I teach human children.
I do not teach biology as a discipline per se, I share with young humans our connections to the earth, the air, the water, and the organisms around us.

Until a child knows the life in her neighborhood,  under her feet, in her very gut, teaching biology as just another mandated high school course is a waste of her time and mine.

We plant a lot in our classroom--most of the plants do not do well, not at first. Still, the seeds and the pots are available every day, and a few students persist. Right now there's some lettuce, one carrot, about a dozen basil plants, and several pea plants wending their way up makeshift wooden stakes.

And in our specialized, detached world, even something as simple as planting a seed has become "professionalized"--another sign that we have lost our way.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Mayflies in the basement

Just back from a wake. 

I melted some snow to add to the few gallons of pond water sitting in our basement. Turns out it takes a long tome to melt really cold snow, and it turns out that there's not a whole lot of water in 10 inches of snow.

The small bumps of pleasure I get watching daphnia scuttle through the water as an occasional mayfly dances near the fluorescent light help get me through winter.

I suppose I look like a mad man peering into my tub of muddy water, searching for tiny bits of movement, sniffing through the slight putrid aroma that suggest my tiny pond may be going anaerobic on me.

Still, the critters I watch dancing in and around this basement oasis in the middle of February remind me just how tenuous and crazy this whole life thing is.

And it's no crazier than staring at the glow of a screen sending images of people you'll never know doing things you'd never do.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Hits from Google searches

A silly review of search phrases that drive people to my blog.

Sometimes I peek at the Google searches that get folks to my blog--some make sense, some less so, and some are just bizarre.

Here are some from this week:

"barometer worksheet for kids"
Please, no--just give a child a barometer, the old-fashioned kind, one that is easy to see, no magic beyond the magic of changing air pressure.

Here's one for less than $30. Hang it on the wall, maybe have the kids record its changes, which itself would be a great activity. How do we quantify changes? 

Can be found (and bought) at Stanley London

"3rd grade tide tables"
Not sure how you'd alter a tide table for the pre-pubescent crowd--if a child lives close enough to tidal water to watch it rise and fall over the years, and seems interested in the tides, she'll figure out how it works.

Those of us who grew up along the shore had them slapped up on the fridge--no sense swimming in the bay at low tide, you'd have to walk halfway to Staten Island to get in water higher than your knees.

"are human ashes good fertilizer"
I get this one regularly, not sure why, but the human ashes you get from the crematorium are more like gritty gravel than some nitrogen-rich source of fertilizer

My step-mother dumped my Dad's ashes on his garden, but she made sure she chopped down the flowers before she did. Yeah, our clan has issues, but I never did return to see if the garden grew any better.

From our little blueberry bush in our front patch of earth.
"why are blueberries blue"
Another frequent search, and I am embarrassed to say that off-hand, I have no idea why blueberries are blue, but I am betting their named that because of their color, but apparently I had a clue back in 2011.
I do make a lot of blueberry melomel, and blueberries may be my favorite all-time fruit.

 "label the parts of the microscope"
Seriously, don't.

Study Island gets a lot of hits, too--but I don't want to talk about it.....

A taste of last summer

Sometimes I just write to remind myself of things I should not forget, but sometimes I do anyway.
This is one of those posts.

Tomatoes and quahogs harvested with our hands
Josephine lives across the street from us. She is a generation ahead of me, her bones that much older than mine, yet she was out shoveling. She comes from the old country, and her garden here in Bloomfield knows this. Tomatoes and eggplants and grapes erupt from her tiny patch of earth every summer.

I do not envy many gardens, but I envy hers.

This last snow was heavy, heavy enough to draw a "Mama mia!" from her. But she kept at it.

I joined her, and between shovels we talked, as neighbors will. The young man paid to do her driveway had not gotten to hers yet. She offered me a drink, she offered me money, but all I asked for was one July tomato from her magnificent garden. She promised many, but I refused.

Just one tomato, Josephine, just  one. I stopped a moment to imagine what it would look like, to feel its heft in my hand. I knew better than to imagine its taste--some things require more faith than I know.

She recognized the look, and smiled.

A few hours after I'd finished, there was a soft knock on our door. Josephine stood there with a brown bag, and inside it, a jar of last summer's tomatoes, as startlingly red as fresh blood on snow.

We ate it last night, and it was good. Very good. Indescribably good.

And now I must wait until July to taste it again.

Tomorrow we reach October light, again. The sun will creep just over 35 degrees from the horizon, the first time since Halloween, before sliding back to the horizon.

The sun not so long ago, sliding to the south.

October light is strong enough to ripen tomatoes, and strong enough to melt February's ice. The gray grip of winter will give way. I do not (yet) believe this, so I hang on to the shifting shadows of the sun, to the tables in my almanac, to moments with neighbors I do not see enough.

Every day in class I write down the sunset time--it creeps forward a over minute each day now. Tomorrow it sets at 5:24 PM--just a few weeks ago, we lost it almost an hour earlier.

A few students notice, just a few, and maybe they're the ones who would have noticed anyway. So we notice together, me so ancient to them, as Josephine feels old to me.

February is rough. The returning sunlight makes it bearable

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Six More Weeks of Winter

Ebb-tide has come to me as to the sea;
old age makes me yellow;
though I may grieve thereat,
it approaches its food joyfully.

Beginning of "The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare"

We're halfway through winter. American children will hear tales of Punxsutawney Phil tomorrow, wrapped in cozy classrooms, many with bellies full of lunches made of stuff grown and prepped by people they will never meet.

The groundhog saw his shadow today--six more weeks of winter, or so the story goes.

On the same day Phil amuses us in Pennsylvania, An Cailleach Bhearra, the Hag of Beare, wandered around back in the 10th century in western Ireland, looking for firewood. If she needed plenty to last through a long winter, she made sure the day was sunny. If winter's going to be short, she made the day gray, and she slept in.
The crocuses are breaking through the clam shells.

I am not a pagan, but if you're going to celebrate humans dragging rodents out of their burrows, doesn't hurt to know the science behind the American myth, based on stories of early Christian myths (Candlemas), themselves founded on earlier pagan myths developed back when paying attention to the natural world might keep you alive one more winter.

Why not make this a special day for elementary science education?

The next three months will see the days grow longer faster than they do at any other time of year. We gain over two more minutes a day of sun now at our latitude. We'll gain a quarter hour of sunlight a week, over an hour's worth in a month.

So when children gather around the internet this morning to see Phil's forecast, brush up on your astronomy and spend a moment or two asking the students to watch what happens to daylight in the next few weeks.

I'm going to look for crocuses today.

Corn dolly from Miskinfolk website here
Punxsutawney Phil's cartoon from his official site here

And 2014 update--yesterday's warmth melted almost all the snow--and I saw the first crocus spear of the new year!

This was originally posted in 2009.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Mythical "New Economy"

Today I'm tending to my strawberry melomel, a lovely liquid amalgam of honey from a family hive and local strawberries picked under last June's sun. The yeast have tuckered out-- maybe they're just too cold or drunk to continue, but I'm going to try to shake them awake today.

I do little to earn this--bees in my daughter's yard made a few million trips to gather the nectar made by plants that harness the sun. Most things in life are like this. Every piece of clothing you own was stitched together by plants at some point along the way. Same is true of the last mouthful of food you ate.

Economy is an old, old word, its roots mean "household management"--back when managing a home meant managing our basic needs. Our needs have not changed, though the word  has long been butchered beyond its literal sense.

"Global economy" is an oxymoron--we have no home in the abstract.

There is no "new" economy--our needs have not changed, and, for most, neither have desires. We breathe, we eat, we sleep, we play. Everything we needs comes of the earth. We come of this earth. That's not some poetic ethereal thought--it's the concrete truth.

There is no "knowledge" economy--wheat is still wheat, cotton still cotton. There are clever machines run by clever people who have gotten very good at extracting  "value" from economic exchanges, but knowledge per se won't make the corn grow any faster.

I am teetering on the edge of a professional chasm. Every time a child leaves our high school knowing more about the Super Bowl than the swamp hosting it, a vast estuary just a few miles from our high school, we have failed her.

So long as we are pretending to prepare our children for a "global economy," for the "knowledge industries," for the many euphemisms we slap onto the destructive extractive practices of powerful folks, we fail in our duty to help our children lead productive and happy lives living in the only economy that matters, living locally, living well.

If nothing else, a loaf of bread made from freshly-ground wheat  slathered with roasted tomatoes from your backyard goes real well with a glass of strawberry melomel, the WTO be damned.

Photos by Leslie and me.