Saturday, May 31, 2014

Whale poop and public education

I know what folks will pay for this.
I also know what it's worth.
Two very different things....

I have a chunk of ambergris, found it years ago, and while briefly tempted to sell it, am grateful now I kept it.

I mostly forget about it, but now and again I walk through a cloud of its molecules and get briefly taken to, well, not sure where, some vague place of immeasurable joy.

Not immense.

In the literal sense.

You cannot measure the pleasure, the joy, the presence of the herenow that lump of aged whale shit brings.

The big data junkies among us might argue that all things are measurable, and I supposed you could take pre- and post-ambergris exposure levels of my serum oxytocin and plot them over time, but that becomes impractical.

Turns out measuring some pretty important things in education are impractical, too. Brilliant writing. Unorthodox but rational thinking. Sense of public duty. Joy. Ability to observe subtle details. Flexibility when confronted with new ideas. Empathy.

When our ability to measure outcomes trumps our choices of which outcomes matter, we've stripped "public" from education.

Tell the data junkies what you already know--not everything that matters can be reduced.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hey, kids, get a life!

What do you want?
What do you need?

If you cannot answer both (or even either) you should not be teaching.

If you do not know what you need, you will tell children they need what others want to sell to them.
If you do not know what you want, you will teach children to want what others desire from them.

Mr. Duncan thinks he knows what your child needs.
I know that I do not want my life defined in terms of the global economy, but our Federal government insists that creating "workers" to compete in the "global economy" is the major purpose of public education. I have kids who can parrot the formula for photosynthesis yet have no idea what it takes to grow a bean plant.

Turns out you do not need a cell phone. You do not need to wear Nikes. You do not need to know quadratic equations. You do not need to be compliant.

What you do need is safe shelter, sustenance, and love. I have kids coming to school who lack one or more of those on any given day.

Did what you teach today help a child better build a life here in town? Can she fix a broken lamp, grow a small garden, slaughter a fish? Is she any less dependent on the adults around her than she was yesterday?

From last year's flowerheads come this year's basil.

Kids don't need schooling, they need living....

Saturday, May 24, 2014


Another reminder that humans aren't all that. (Photo by Leslie)

This was happening this past Wednesday on a beach in Jersey.
No modesty, no holding back, no fear of consequences, no reticence.

If  a Limulus polyphemus has enough sense to lose its senses on a late May afternoon when the sun grows longer than a Kansas cornfield, what are we doing herding human children into rows under the hum of florescent lighting?

At least Shakespeare got it right in A Midsummer Night's Dream....

I am (clearly) part of the problem....

Teach like it matters

Not so long ago, the lambs in front of you were no more than a few dozen cells bouncing down a woman's Fallopian tube. Before that, they were nothing. And into nothingness they will return, long before the oak tree on your town's green gives up its final acorn.

The humans before us, the one's in our classrooms, are anything but abstract, yet that's how we officially see them here in Jersey. Data points dictate what we do in the classroom.

I wish I were making that up.

The parsley in our garden decided to bolt, so we ate it. I chopped up most of the plant, as well as a few dozen cilantro sprouts rising towards the May sun, and mixed them with some potatoes and honey, and celebrated the start of summer.

A parsley plant lasts a couple of years; we last about 38 parley plant lifetimes, give or take  few--that's a finite number.

I saw a lot of people die back when I practiced medicine, and most of them were young--pediatricians carry a special kind of sadness.

Parsley plants are not abstract. Recipes, until eaten, are.
Children are not abstract. Global economies are.
Fingers picking parsley plants are not abstract. Words are.

So why write?

I once had a child come on our van with a stab wound to the heart--her blood graced the ceiling, the windows, and our bodies. That she survived spoke more to her will than our ability. Her resuscitation was a clusterfuck, but she survived anyway.

I wonder what she is doing now. Is she living her life as passionately as we hoped we'd save it?

Looking around, the answer is probably no.

Are you?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A good kind of tired

My mum-in-law was in the ER tonight--she's OK and she's back home now.
But never take a single breath for granted.

A classroom carrot

Drifting towards the end of another year with the usual deep-bone tiredness that comes from believing one's work matters, a reasonable trade-off.

Before the year ends, I will take my lambs out with shovels and pots, and we shall collect "baby trees," which amaze my students and, truth be told, amaze me as well. I'm betting at least a few of the saplings will outlast me, and I'm praying one will carry my soul to the next generation as my now aged student tells the story of her tree to her grandchildren.

Helen Keller was close--I think this is closer.....

Before the year ends, I will take my lambs out to sea the sea, to watch the tide rise, to hold horseshoe crabs and sand fleas, to seine the edge of a watery world that extends out to where most of us came from not so long ago.

Before the year ends, I will show my lambs how to plant the beans and the basil and the Brussels sprouts they planted when the nights outlasted the days. My windowsills will again be empty. A student asked me last week if he needed to bring his seedling inside on the days it rains. We're so lost I want to cry.

Before the year ends, I will give my lambs many of the trinkets we've accumulated over the year.  Whelk and clam shells, a few lenses, a home-made Cartesian diver, a stuffed animal or two retiring from their days comforting students halfway between the womb and the first years of  senescence.

Before the year ends I will sing another song or two in class, maybe with the uke, maybe the guitar, but always with joy. I love the company of my kids--and that they matter to me matters to most of them, especially the ones not so sure this human thing is worth all the fuss.

(But it is, it is....)

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Parable of the Quahog and the Horseshoe Crab

(This is a true story--turns out other critters can be as dangerously rigid as humans.)

Not so long ago, I spent an afternoon tossing a bucktail into a channel behind West Wildwood.  The sky was steely, a mist was falling, the clouds and the sea merged as one.

While working the beach I stumbled across a couple of the holes we left clamming the day before. A few feet from one of the holes I saw a grand-daddy of a quahog--a huge chowder clam just sitting on the flat exposed by the low tide.

A quahog that big may well rival me in years on this Earth. It didn't get that large by acting stupid, and there's hardly enough nervous tissue for clams to get senile. Still, there it was.

I went to pick it up. It resisted.
I went to pick it up again.
It resisted again, as if glued to the beach.

I tugged yet a third time, and the sands shifted--the clam was stuck to the base of an old horseshoe crab, now buried in the sand. Her now kicking legs pushed the sand next to the clam.

A large horseshoe crab may well be 20 to 30 years old.

Here they were, an old horseshoe crab tethered to an even older quahog, waiting for the tide to rise. The quahog, guided by millions of years of instinct, clams up tight at low tide. With the edge of the horseshoe crab wedged along it edge, though, it faced dessication.

I tried to remove the clam again, but dared not pull any harder than I did. I left the two critters there to square their issue with the next full tide.

Some things cannot be anticipated, and some things cannot be fixed.

A generation of children have now completed their public school careers under NCLB.
It's still a bad law, we still have it, and still we clamp done harder in our obliviousness.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

On human beans

The beans are in the ground now.

In a week or so, they'll be churning carbon dioxide and water into sugar using the long light of late spring days.

For all the chatter about preparing children for the global economy and markets and growth, what ultimately matters in economics gets measured in bushels and bellies.

From the New York Times Business Section

Every day, a handful of young adults tend to their beans, basil, and pumpkin seedlings in our classroom, grown from seeds planted with their hands, in what used to be a rite of passage in elementary school, now lost as schools chase data points as abstract as the ether, and about as useful.

Matt Ridley is a member of the British House of Lords, no doubt considered a learned man, educated at Eton and Oxford, but somewhere along the way, he forgot how to grow a bean, a common deficit among the elite folks bred to believe that it's possible to separate the body from the earth while we still breathe. (I have no idea what happens after death, but figure we got enough on our to-do list  in the herenow to keep us busy until the therelater.)

In his essay "The World's Resources Aren't Running Out" published in the Wall Street Journal a week ago, Mr. Ridley says he  "lean[s] to the view that there are no limits because we can invent new ways of doing more with less," a remarkable view for a man who was once an academic ecologist.

Most of the essay is the usual biffle of the abstract sort promulgated by those who stand to gain from such biffle, but Ridley makes an extraordinary claim that somehow slipped by the WSJ editors.

"Economists point out that we keep improving the productivity of each acre of land by applying fertilizer, mechanization, pesticides and irrigation. Further innovation is bound to shift the ceiling upward." 

We have limited windowsill space in our room. My lambs learn quickly that light matters, and if a riot ever breaks out in my room, it's going to be over a plant, not a Nike. (Kids get real passionate about these things.)

Lord Ridley of the Abstract Class neglects a basic limiting factor: sunlight.

All the bean counters in the world aren't worth a hill of them if they forget our connection to the dirt beneath our feet and the sun above our heads. 

If I ever meat Arne, I'm giving him a handful of purple trionfo violetto pole beans
Yes, I know what "biffle" means in slang, but it's the right sound for what I mean, so it stays.