Saturday, May 30, 2015

May you find peas

"For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life." 
William Blake

Handful of grace, picked this morning....

About 10 weeks ago I poked a finger into the ground a few dozen times, dropped a pea (and an occasional stray buddy) into each hole, smoothed over the dirt, then let them be, hoping (but not truly believing) today's harvest would come.

Today soft leaves stroked the same finger as it reached in through the mess of pea vines to pick a good part of tonight's dinner, just over two months past my Saint Paddy's Day planting.

Despite my six decades breathing, eating, and drinking the grace found on this patch of the universe, I still plant more out of hope than belief--words and imagination only go so far in this primate.

Yet we tell 8th grade kids they need to memorize the parts of a mitochondria and the year the Magna Carta was signed in order to get a high school diploma half a decade later.

School (mostly) sucks.

I am plowing my way through a new science curriculum, this time using the NGSS as the guide, this time hoping (but not truly believing) that school won't (mostly) suck half a decade from now.

One thing won't change, though, should I still be teaching--kids will plant and see, many for the first time, the creation of more life from a seed, some dirt, water, and our collective breath.

Yesterday I found a tiny pea pod erupting from a spindly vine planted by a student back in March. She will see it on Monday.

And for a moment, school won't suck....

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Church of Technology, the truth of science

"I rather like this . . . outside all laws except gravitation and germination."
Sue Bridehead, Jude the Obscure

All of us are bound by the laws of physics, entropy, and mortality.

All of us are open systems consuming organic materials, stripping off the energy and stuff we need to live, then tossing off the useless remnants to be put back together again and again and again by the sun, as close to a corporeal god as humans will witness.

This week thousands of children here in NJ will be given the state biology "competency" test, at significant cost in time and money. Turns out you can be competent in biology without knowing anything about life.


Few folks read Hardy's Jude the Obscure anymore, and aside from his rich descriptions of life before electricity and petroleum raised our culture to its current (and temporary) fantasies, I've little reason myself.

Sue and Jude had "escaped" (temporarily) from the culture that molded the roles of men and women of the time.

"You only think you like it; you don't. You are quite a product of civilization."
Jude in response to Sue
Image by Steve Paine, CC

Our children are the product of the lies we share with them. The images and the voices on the screens we give them, knowingly and willingly, help create the fantastic and false universe they live in.

Technology perpetuates fantasies; science, done right, demolishes them. They both grant humans immense power to manipulate the world.

The European Church, the center of power in the western world, supported science early on, until the truths of science shattered deep truths of the Church.

When we confound technology with science, when we insist that engineering hold the same place as science in a classroom, we are perpetuating our fantasies at our peril.

None of us live outside the laws of gravitation, or germination, of life, of entropy, and of, ultimately, death.

If a child "understands" entropy without a nightmare or two, you're teaching tech not science.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Seeds of faith, seeds of fear

"There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places

and desecrated places."

Wendell Berry (from "How to be a Poet")

I planted a few seeds back in late winter, when I had faith that the light would return, though I did not believe it. The light has come back (again), and though I cannot believe it was ever dark, I fear its return.

Faith and fear drive my past and my future. But neither past nor future are sacred places. Only the real is sacred, and only now is real.

What once were seeds now sit in flats,  now growing, now knitting together the stuff of life. The stuff of life is the stuff of biology, the stuff in us, of us. Today I will plant them into the earth, aware again of the only world that matters.

In class we worship the unreal--the heiroglyphics of biochemistry that make class feel modern and scientific, the cycles of Krebs and Calvin. A not so old biology text book, about my age, sits on a lab bench, next to the pond water on the windowsill.  You will not find the structure of DNA in it.

We grow stuff in class. Each morning many of my students, half-child half-adult critters still learning what's real and what's not, head for their seedlings before sitting down. Watering has become a ritual. For a few moments, they are engaged in biology, before we start whatever rites required by the day's lesson.

I turn on the computer to start class, desecrating the space that holds life.

You cannot teach life in desecrated spaces.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Faith in science education

We live in a land of magic and ignorance, where faith trumps the seemingly more mundane business of living--faith in a supernatural world, faith in life-saving technology, faith in a life lived on screens, faith in faith.

The practice of science holds immense power--there's a reason politicians and economists push STEM--but they confound science with faith in science.

Technology is not science.
Learning the vocabulary of mitosis is not science.
Building bridges from toothpicks and marshmallow is not science.
"Knowing" the Earth revolves around the Earth is not science.

The Church of Science Education works much like most churches of western civilization. Wow the faithful with rituals, create awe through virtual stained glass and incense, and have them recite the sacred scrolls "for understanding."

Anything that separates our children from the natural world lessens their chances of knowing science. Much of what we call science in school does just that. Over and over and over again.

Should I have faith in the Next Generation Science Standards?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

As the world turns....

The Next Generation Science Standards needs teachers who know science, and kids who trust their own eyeballs.

The idea seems so simple, so basic, that to challenge it leads to ridicule.

How do you know the Earth revolves around the sun?
What evidence do you have?
What evidence do you need?

 I've got plenty of evidence that the sun revolves around the Earth, evidence easily available to our children. The sun rises from one side of the horizon, and settles a few hours later on the other side.

If you sit still in late afternoon, you can see the shadows lengthen. Next time you "teach" a child otherwise, you better have a firm grip on the evidence--otherwise you are teaching science as religion.

Every year a few children passionately challenge evolution in our classroom, often using ideas with them by loving adults infused with (literally) the fear of God.

No one has ever challenged me about the Earth revolving around the sun.

The evidence for evolution is much easier to demonstrate than that for our relationship with the sun, yet not one child questions that.  My faith in teachers took a hit at a young age--I was told that the sun was overhead at noon.

I checked one day. It wasn't.
I checked again and again and again and again. Not once was the sun directly overhead. It never is in these parts, no matter what my teacher said. I could either trust her, the expert, or trust my own eyes. I went with my own eyes.
Science gets down to this: 
Claim. Evidence based on the natural world. Reasoning.

School gets down to this:

No one feels compelled to defend the Ptolemaic view of the universe because no one (in these parts anyway) fears damnation for accepting that the Earth revolves around the sun.

It would be a helluva lot more fun to teach if folks did, though.

I have a leprechaun in class--his existence cannot be dis-proven, and that is the point. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Why the Next Generation Science Standards are doomed

I really, really like the idea of teaching science to kids. Maybe one day we'll even try it. But the Next Generation Science Standards, as currently written, won't get us there.

The drive behind the standards is economic, not philosophical. It's about children being prepared "to succeed in a global economy," about "essential preparation for all careers in the modern workforce," for fixing our "high-tech trade deficit."

Even so, I had hope--science is science, and a child immersed in studying the patterns of the natural world, learning how to analyze, mastering the logic needed to pull us out of our culture of magical thinking would make for happier children and a healthier culture.

There are at least three fundamental flaws in the standards:

Fundamental Flaw One:
The obsessive need to stick to a tiered script creates an unnecessary and artificial separation of science disciplines in the early grades. The emphasis should be on science practices, not science disciplines. Children should be able to "do" science at the local level.
I get why NGSS is split into "major science disciplines" (though it all boils down to physics), but in its fetish to maintain order in a coherent, tiered system, the lower grades have multiple performance expectations in different disciplines.

This shouldn't matter in a world of bright teachers with autonomy, it does matter in our world of scripts and Federal oversight (aka "testing"). Teachers will be charged with creating multiple units on simple concepts. A child could spend hours in kindergarten studying plants on a windowsill, and only a plants on a windowsill, and gain as good (or better) appreciation of science practices as she will get through a march of BOE-approved commercial materials aligned with the mish-mash of NGSS expectations

Fundamental Flaw Two:Grades 4 through 6 present concepts that require a nuanced background in science to teach well--and most public schools do not have the staff to do this.
Here's an example. The introduction to the 5th grade standards includes a statement that should make every science teacher cringe:

"Students develop an understanding of the idea that regardless of the type of change that matter undergoes, the total weight of matter is conserved. "

I can hear the apologists already--it's just semantics, and the committee acknowledges that "at this grade level, mass and weight are not distinguished." Well, why not? If "mass" is too much for a fifth grader to grasp, why not just call it "stuff"?

(If you teach a child that matter is something that has mass and takes up space and leave it at that, you're teaching religion, not science.)

The biggest hurdle in teaching high school science is getting kids to unlearn what they know to be true. These standards in the wrong hands supplemented with commercial products that allow administrators to tick off a checklist of standard will worsen our students' grasp of science.

Fundamental Flaw Three:The insistence on placing engineering design as part of the heart of the science curriculum confounds (and dilutes) the standards. Science and engineering are related, true, but are very different disciplines--squeezing the two together highlights the economic nature of the standards.
Lumping science and engineering together is like lumping together physical education and ballet together--while ballet is an extension of physical movement, and could be a fine elective in a phys ed class, giving it the same stature as, say, aerobic exercise would skew gym class towards something (fine arts) that it's not.

I'm not opposed to teaching engineering any more than I am opposed to teaching ballet. Heck, if ballet had economic import, we'd all be wearing tutus. But it wouldn't make me a better dancer.

Gonna grab my old slide rule and a pocket protector and pretend I know something about engineering until we come up with something better.