Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Shucking is a shellfish act

Another old post from over 5 years ago--it's my party....

Oysters don't make a lot of decisions, but they do make some. While still larvae the oysters can walk, and do. They can see (well, tell dark from light, anyway). A baby oyster ("spat") finds a spot it likes, ideally snuggled on top of another oyster, then stakes its claim.

Still not impressed?

If the spat doesn't like its new home, it can change its mind, at least for a few days. It detaches and moves.

Soon after it finds its home, the spat loses its foot and its eye, and life becomes much less complicated. Either open the shell and feed, or clam up.

A few years ago, some spats settled on our local jetty. Saturday I gathered a couple dozen grown-up oysters (and a few crabs and mussels as well), shucked them, and ate them. (A tiny, assertive crab no larger than my thumbnail was returned alive to the sea by Leslie.)

My left hand is a bit chewed up from the sharp shells. I bled a bit on the jetty, and a little bit more when shucking them. A couple of the tiny lacerations are slightly inflamed--my white cells will take care of the invaders.

The more I learn about oysters, the harder they are to eat, and the more delicious they become. We have both evolved from common ancestors. We both need oxygen. We both need to eat in order to live.

This oyster connection gets complicated, too complicated to understand. We both are here (well, were here) together. I will join the critters that were in less than a lifetime.

This morning I returned the shells to the bay--a few still held remnants of the sweet (though now rotting) flesh of my meal. That flesh has already been consumed, maybe by a crab, maybe by a lethargic striper just off the beach.

No way to know the particulars. 14 billion years ago something happened. It's still happening.

I don't know why I am part of it, and science won't (can't) tell me. Still, I'm happy to be part of it.

Slurping down live creatures is an abomination in a civilized world, but it makes me feel more alive.

My hope as a science teacher is to get a child as passionate about anything alive as I am about oysters, alive but not human. We think we are special, and we are.

But so is the oyster.

Photo by Leslie, who sees things I can't.

Monday, September 29, 2014

On mastering something new

A former student dropped by today to tell me she just got her pilot's license. 
She worked on it for over 4 years, and openly admits to being a little jittery first time she soloed'. 
This post is now 6 years old--but I need a reminder now and again.

By the time you hit your 5th or 6th decade, you're mostly competent at what you do. You've long abandoned the things you're incompetent at, and mortality precludes starting a whole lot of new things.

As a result, most older folk forget what it means to learn new things, forget what it means to be a decade or two old, when everything requires climbing a wall to gain mastery.

"Potential" becomes an albatross around the neck of the young. (Go read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner if you have not. Yes, it's Coleridge; yes, he can be onerous; yes, it's worth your time.)

I got a clam rake last spring. It's an old rake, and a good one.

I can only imagine how many clams ended up in a pot after being pried out of their homes before I got it. The tines are rusted brown, the handle oiled by the sweat of others before me.

Still, as good a rake as it is, it was almost useless in my hands last June.

Can you remember when you first drove a car? When every twitch of the wheel required thought?

Just about every 17 year old Homo sapiens on the planet has faster reflexes than me. Just about every Homo sapiens in the western hemisphere has more facility with technology than me. Still, All State Insurance charges me a bucketload less for auto insurance than any 17 year old I teach.

Teachers need to remember how hard it is to drive the first time.

Or else go clamming.

Back in June, the rake was a weapon--plow through the mud, rip out whatever it hit, say a prayer for another unfortunate creature impaled by its tines. Horseshoe crabs, whelks, worms--but very few clams.

These days the rake is an extension of my arm, its tines tickling the mud beneath the water. I can feel shapes, I can feel density. A tine or two bump against a clam, my sympathetic system reacts. Against a stone, nothing.

The horseshoe crabs are safe again. The clams are not.

I like clams.
I really, really like clams.

I practiced and practiced and practiced because I like clams, and slowly my brutal assault against any critter large enough to suffer from misguided tines evolved to a gentle prodding of the mud.

My students like driving.
Really, really like driving.

They practice and practice because they like driving, and slowly their jagged starts and turns evolve to hugging the road unconsciously.

Here's my plea to anyone of us arrogant enough to presume we have something to offer to the young. Try something new.
Try to master something you suck at but like to do anyway.
Now imagine trying to master something you suck at and don't really care for.

Welcome to high school.

Photo mine.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

An abstract on abstraction

The abstract world will not (because it cannot) forgive you.
The natural world does with every breath you take.

Our children are timid because we pound them with the abstract day by day by day.

Somewhere in North Cape May....

If a teacher evaluation system is based on a 4 point ordinal scale, the final average should not be carried out to 3 decimal places, to the thousandths--it literally makes no sense.

Yet we do it anyway.
To our students.
To ourselves.

Take a few moments each day to share something natural with your students before succumbing (again) to the world that does not exist except in the heads of a few critters who hold themselves above the laws of the living.

Our class errorometer

While sharing pints with a few teachers upstairs at McGinty's,
Chris Harbeck took a sip of Guinness, then tossed out a few words that changed my teaching--
"I give out points for anything, a thousand here, a thousand there. They don't mean anything."

Image PD, quote added by Golda Poretsky.

We train kids to fear mistakes.

That's not always a bad thing--I just spent the better part of this glorious fall weekend breaking a pipe that required cutting a hole in the wall because I have more confidence than skills, and may need to call a plumber to fix what I broke.

Still, I learned a lot about plumbing and 1908 pipe threads--things were not quite as standardized then--and I have to admit, I enjoyed solving the many problems that popped up along the way. Even if this project ends up an utter disaster, I had fun along the way, satisfying some evolutionary trait that kept my lineage around for over three billion years.

(I am convinced that "fun" is pretty much always an evolutionary artifact.)

Boy Scouts having fun, 1913, via Shorpy.

School is not fun; making too many mistakes gets you labeled as that kid, and too many teachers say that those kid will end up broke, homeless, and hungry unless we teach them to make fewer mistakes.

We fuck them up even more with the religion of ranking.
Many of my "top-ranked" lambs are my most timid.
So I worked on fixing this.

Here's one of my ideas that seems to have worked:

We have a class Errorometer Board. Each time someone makes a good mistake--and there are all kinds of errors that fall in this category--we add a point. For every 10 points, everybody in class gets bonus points factored into their grades, as real as any other points "earned."

Yes, some wackadoodle well versed in the school game will then say something deliberately wrong to earn points, and I explain why saying something deliberately wrong does not count. We're not about the school game, we're about learning.

Even after the novelty wears off, the kids keep track of the Errorometer--they will spontaneously evaluate whether a mistake has earned a point.  I also toss in points for great, unexpected right answers.

Chris Harbeck is right, the points mean nothing. I finally found a way to make them useful.
Frank Noschese and Christopher Danielson were sharing the same rounds.
Photo of Errorometer coming whenever I remember to take a picture.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

On teaching biology: sea urchins

I stumbled upon a couple dozen of these guys this afternoon--I'd seen them before, a few years ago, and (mostly) forgot about them, but here they are, still being sea urchins, in the same spot they were being sea urchins when I was less mortal than I am today.

How do you convey that in a classroom that supposedly teaches biology?

How do you convey that anywhere?

A grounded education

We have a small pile of composting leaves and twigs sitting in a terrarium just below the windowsill in our classroom, home to a community of roly polies we sometimes use in AP Biology. They get get a nice warm home over the winter in exchange for occasionally running around in Petri dishes, amusing young adult humans.

One on the driveway a few minute ago....

Soon after turning on the class projector on Monday, a high-pitched chirpy whir came out of our terrarium--we had an unexpected stowaway, a lovesick cricket, who after a week still sings his plaintive song of unrequited love to a projector that spurns his advances.

All this in a tiny patch of earth less than a foot square and an inch or two deep.

That we think we can teach cartoon models of DNA for meaning in a culture that fails to recognize the thousands of hearts beating within the sound of a child's voice every time she steps outside speaks to how ungrounded we have become.

You will not find roly polies inside a board room; you'll rarely find them underneath fluorescent lights at all.They do what all animals do, without ever giving thought to the abstractions that distract humans.

We are animals, have been for as long as the pull bugs and the squirrels and the squids that are doing all the same things all animals have done for well over a half-billion years. The first commercial fluorescent lamp was sold in 1938, not so long ago--my grandfather was already middle-aged by then.

He knew how to live.

Don't let the hum of fluorescent light be the plaintive song of your child's life....


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Buckets with holes

Buckets come as they are, and they do one thing--they hold things. Everything, actually.

In these parts they're generally made of plastic, the residual order of plants that took in the sunshine unfathomably long ago. (Oh, I could give you a number with a lot of zeroes, but let's be honest, none of us beyond the Feynmans and the Einsteins know how big a few hundred million truly is.)

Most of the buckets in my home were likely made in China, because it's cheaper to make them there than here, even with the cost of shipping. I used to work on the docks. I've been in the hold of very big ships. If the ship is big enough, it can carry enough buckets to make shipping costs almost negligible.

But someone making a bucket in China, a long, long away, cannot possibly know why I need this particular bucket today.

But I do. So I modify it.

I bottled a bucket's worth of mead today. Eric, who loves my daughter Kerry, keeps a couple of hives in Montclair. He gave me a gallon of honey from his hive. A gallon of honey weighs about 12 pounds,  a gallon of water about 8 pounds. There's a lot of stuff in honey that's not water.

Each pound of honey took over 50,000 miles of bee flight, so my melomel took the better part of a million miles of flight to make. Millions of yeast critters took the honey and converted it into mead--those surviving now sit in my compost pile in the backyard. I said a prayer for them, or maybe I said it for me, but I prayed anyway, because something good happened to me that I did not deserve.

My mead bucket has a 3/4" hole drilled near the bottom, so I can put in a plastic spigot (also made in China) that lets me drain the fermented mead in a controlled fashion.

I clam. Every couple of weeks I get enough meat from the mudflats around here to feed Leslie and me for a few days. I pray for the clams, too, as I drop them into scalding water. I have no idea what they  feel, but I know what I do, and praying helps.

My clam bucket has about a hundred tiny holes drilled in the bottom. I used an electric drill.

Beesleys Point Generating Station and Leslie

The power to drill the holes came from Beesley's Point Generating Station a few miles north of here. It burns coal (made from old plants, but not as old as those that made the plastic for my bucket). It also uses old tires, made from rubber plants likely alive in my lifetime.

And yes, I think of these things as I muddle through my day.
I pray a lot.

I teach biology. Our desires change all the time, but our needs are the same as they have been for millenia.

Our needs come down to the stuff of plants, of yeast, of love. Most of what we need I'll never understand, but I teach a very human process that gets us closer to understanding the infinite every day.

But, of course, the infinite can never be understood.

So I pray....