Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year's Eve

A couple of year's ago on New Year's eve.
Closest thing I come to resolutions these days.

I watched the sun as it set yesterday.
I watched the sun as it rose again this morning.

I don't do this often enough, few of us do.

Just a few minutes after the sun broke through this morning, a twitchy squirrel sat on top of a fence post, still, facing the sun, then resumed his twitchiness.

A vulture flew within 20 feet of me, its under feathers reflecting the sunlight as it banked.

I just watched.
It would have happened anyway.
And it's happening anyway.

And it will keep on happening....

Saccharin or sugar?

A letter to *us*:

It really does not matter if you proudly proclaim your allyship, wear Malcolm X t-shirts, march with thousands of others, or openly weep for fallen social warriors.

It really does not matter if you count your friends of color on more than one hand, count your tax deductions to the NAACP, count the number of people killed by angry, frightened cops.

It really does not matter if you groove to the Sun Ra Arkestra, Kendrick Lamar, or The Ink Spots.
None of it matters unless you do the things that need doing, in your loop, right now.

Ms. Garner had a more poetic way of summing this up--she got straight to the point, one of her many strengths.
Erica Garner (credit Aaron Stewart-Ahn via Twitter)

Yep, it may cost you more than that psychic hairshirt you wear a tad too proudly. Nope, you don't get any points.

Yep, your social circle may cinch up a bit. Nope, no one cares. Erica Garner reminded us what it means to hurt, to fight, to live.

Want to be sugar? Do what you need to do. What you already know needs to be done (but keep asking anyway hoping maybe saccharine is enough).

You can still wear that Malcolm X t-shirt, but keep it hidden under your clothes. Might make you feel a little bit like Clark Kent. You got the power, but nobody needs to know it.

Except you.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

E-phemeral words

Found on our classroom typewriter....
Not so long ago, likely within your lifetime and certainly within mine, high schools had the same cliques and cruelty, but with a big difference. Bullying was personal.  This does not make it any better, and in some ways made it hurt more, but cyber-bullying is easy and anonymous, a big reason it is so prevalent. We crowd-source our cowardice.

Simply telling a child to lose her smartphone for a week is not going to work. She may feel better for a few days (once she gets past those first few hours of dopamine deficiency), but unless she has a relationship with the world around her, or with books, or with a few close people, she has been ostracized from her community.

We need to reclaim writing as a physical form--an act of creating a physical connection shared intimately (and only) with those with whom we choose. Folded notes passed discretely during class, etched words (not just penises) on desks, hearts carved on trees, letters delivered by mail carriers, all physical manifestations of our ideas

In our haste to move forward, we forget what we leave behind.

It's not nostalgic if you're still using it....

The arc of teaching

If you're preparing her for next year's class, and that is all you have to offer her when she asks why she's doing this, you are not doing this right.

If your biggest goal is to get her past the PARCC, the NJ ASK,  the NJSLA-S, the Regents, the SBAC, you are not doing this right.

If you're getting her set for college, polishing her essays, tutoring her for her SATs, writing her recommendation letters, and think that's enough, you're not doing this right.

If you're setting up internships, bringing in astronauts and engineers and lawyers and entrepreneurs into your school to inspire her to do similar work, you're not doing this right.

If you can imagine her in her last few years, aged, slower and in declining health, yet see her looking back at her life's arc with some serenity and peace, and your life had even a little something to do with this, well, then, you've earned your due.

You did it right....

Monday, December 25, 2017

A pill bug Christmas story

From three years ago

Less than a mile away, in the dim light cast by the plant lights in our classroom, a pill bug wanders around the compost. It moistens it gills, bumbles into a fellow pill bug, exchanges greetings with a brief twitching of touching antennae, then ambles over to nibble on a piece of potato.

Wild pill bug, loitering on a North Cape May driveway
It knows of existence, and the existence of others like it.

Christmas means nothing, of course, to a critter no bigger than a wheat berry.
But living does.

The light is returning.

There is joy and wisdom in silence and darkness.
Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Solstice dawn prayer

The sun creaks through the gray dusk, etching the branches of a tree I did not plant. The branches are orderly but not symmetric, each fork with its own story of past light and winds, crafted from air and rain.

Every tree is different. Every branch is different.
Every tree is the same thing, whatever that same thing is, being a tree.

I am, for a moment, wordless, as I watch a world etched by purpose but not understanding. Wildness everywhere.

There is nothing to understand, but there is something to remember. We did not arise from wilderness.

We are wilderness.

We have as much purpose as a leaf on a tree.
No more, but far more important, no less.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Biology only worth knowing if life is.....

I liked it before, so I'm posting it again.

A slug on my driveway.

I suppose it's a bit much to ask students to ponder their closeness to plants in a culture where humans barely recognize other humans. Things have broken down.

Yet this much is true:
  • Humans and plants share the same genetic code--we can make their stuff, they can make ours.
  • We both reproduce sexually in a spectacular dance of the chromosomes, mixing us up every generation, so that even the perfect among us are perfect for only a generation.
  • We both rely on ribosomes to build our proteins, microtubules and mitochondria to get us through the day, and an innate will to do whatever we need to see the next sunrise.
Humans and basil share a common ancestor. We share a quarter of the same genes. Many of our proteins do exactly the same thing, others not so much.

But we're pretty damn close at the most basic levels of life. Which is pretty cool.

We're even closer to insects--we share about 60% of our core genes with fruit flies. 

If something effectively kills plants or insects, and you see no connections between plants and insects and humans, then you likely do not contemplate the tons and tons and tons of herbicides and pesticides poured on our food in our "war" against weeds and weevils.

Basil going to seed, after a week or two of wild sex.

If you don't contemplate about food or water or folks in your neighborhood, it's unlikely you contemplate much about anything that matters.

Hey, who won the game last night?

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Teaching isn't about you....

Some stuff on my windowsill,
given freely by the world.
It's not about passion of the teacher, finding the soul of a child, or lighting a fire in a kid's brain. It never was.

 It's simply showing a child the world that's herenow beyond the human noise.

The recent rush to classroom love-fests fails to acknowledge the value of the old curmudgeon who taught a few decades ago, gruff yet beloved, because she was not the point of class.

The world was.

Why do you think books matter to children so much?

Solstice salad

Late autumn sunset on the Delaware Bay
I do not do well with the shorter days. Chances are, you feel the same.

Despite bathing in the glow of electric light, the sun still matters physiologically and psychologically (and that great gray area between). And it has been disappearing slowly for several months now.

Lettuce in the cold frame.

With less sun I grow more tired and less food.

I cannot control the sun, but turns out a lot of plants are tougher than I realized. With no help, the parsley, arugula, and Brussels sprouts are doing just fine through the dying sun. They're taking things a little slower, of course, but there's pretty good advice for all of us with the dying light.

I've got lettuce and baby kale tucked in the cold frames I made back when I had a bit more energy, and even a very determined bean plant that's plastered itself along the cold frame window.

So last night we ate from a mid-December garden.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Christmas story

Not Daphne--but the same desperate stare.
(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

The saddest patient I ever had was dying of AIDS, before we knew what was going on. Her family was afraid of her, and much of the staff.

Truth be told, I was a little bit scared, too, but was so deep into a ward full of children dying back in the early 90s that I figured if it was that contagious, I was doomed as well.

So I spent a lot of time with her.
And I did a lot of things to her that hurt her anyway.

And now as I slowly descend the same arc she traveled too quickly, as we all are traveling, I think of her.

Her name was Daphne.

I can blather on about how I learned from her, how she was heroic, how what we learned from her helped us help other children later.

But that's all noise.

The Christmas story is a powerful one, and part of its power is the juxtaposition of a baby and a fate we know too well.

I am not sure what the point to this story is--maybe there is no point.
But I know this much--what we do not do matters as much as what we do.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sunsets and the solstice

Sunset on the Delaware Bay
The earliest sunset of the year (in these parts anyway) happened a couple of sunsets ago ago. The sun is setting later today than it did yesterday.

Folks will argue the point, but I am not so interested in their arguments as their need to have the discussion at all.

We are truly trapped in an abstract of our own making. Noon once meant the time the sun is as high as its going to get on a particular day, and solar noon still means just that, but the sun peaking at noon only happens four times a year now.

And despite what my teachers told me, the sun is never directly overhead in this part of the world.

So I can point folks to the United States Naval Observatory to support my claim, and I often do.

North Cape May winter beach
Here's a better idea, though. Go outside (or at least to a window) and look. Tomorrow do the same. Do it for a week or two. Do the same for sunrise.

I guess it really doesn't matter if someone knows the sunsets are getting later. It may be trivial to most of us. But that's not the point.

If we can so easily fool ourselves about the rise and fall of the sun, imagine the nonsense we do not know that we do not know....

What we believe becomes who we are.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Anyone up for a good book burning?

The Bible of biology

"I think the Bible ought to be ceremoniously and reverently burned every Easter, in faith that we need it no more because the spirit is with us. It is a dangerous book, and to worship it is a far more dangerous idolatry than bowing down to images of wood and stone."
Alan Watts, Myth and Religion

I think we ought to do the same with our biology textbooks, except  burn them on Darwin Day instead--I'll get enough grief burning books without adding apostasy to the fire.

It's early December, way too warm for the season. I am still wandering around barefoot, murdering cabbage worms picked off the Brussels sprouts. I'll wander along the edge of the sea later today, stumbling across live critters going about their lives, and fossils of those long gone.

In biology we worship the mitochondrion and the chloroplast, require children to draw them, learn words like "cristae" and "thylakoids," and use analogies for which children have no reference.

Ask a child what a powerhouse is. Ask anyone.

Basil on my windowsill this morning

The children should be the ones murdering caterpillars, getting muddied and bloodied on ridiculously warm December days. Biology, the study of life, is a mandatory course in New Jersey public high schools.

Living life, apparently, is optional.

Fuck it, I'm going outside.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The pleasure of feeling

A reminder for me....

Backyard basil in September

November crept in on us again, as it will. The shadows lengthen as the daylight dwindles. We talk about the cold and the rain, but we rarely dark of the darkness. Many of us don't see it, our eyes fed by the steady glow of pixels.

Those who see shadow, feel it deep in our bones, have learned not to talk of it. Among the dying it feels rude to talk about death.

Gardeners know.

Countertop sweet potatoes last week

I had a small patch of sand in back, tossed in compost and manure last June, and threw in a few slips of sweet potatoes, bought cheap because bought late, just to see what would happen.

Sweet potato leaves are lovely to look at and almost as lovely to nibble on, and sweet potatoes need about as much care a a patch of dandelions (also lovely to look at and nibble on).

Summer rolled into fall, the sweet potatoes sprawled out of their patch, even flowered at one point. I left them alone, occasionally watering them, more out of habit than out of need. 

I pulled a "test" plant out late October, found no tubers. I set the roots in a bottle, and it sits on my sill for winter now. The first hard frost was coming a weeks later, so I left the rest alone.

Windowsill sweet potato this morning

Last Friday, with the hard frost coming on in before the next sunrise, I went out to my tiny tater patch, not particularly hopeful, but I had already gotten more than I earned. The air was chilly, but the ground still warm and welcoming. 

I pulled up a plant--scraggly roots, no tubers. Oh, well.

The warmth invited my fingers to dawdle in the dirt. I was already on my knees, in no hurry to get up, and digging in dirt with the sun warming my back was what I wanted to do at that moment.

So I did.

And there it was--an inch or two deeper than I expected, the unexpected flesh. I tried to pull it out. It held its ground much as a clam does, snug in its world, not resistance its only defense.

I wiggled it out and ran to get Leslie, and a minute later two happy and excited humans rooted through the dirt, finding tuber after tuber, joyfully sharing our finds with each other.

Fresh dug sweet potatoes

I grew up hearing the Aesop's tale of the dutiful ant and the lazy grasshopper. The ant worked and worked all summer, the grasshopper played. The shadows lengthened, the days grew chilly, the grasshopper knew it was in trouble.
"Making music, were you?" the ants cried. "Very well; now dance!" And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.

The moral? "There's a time for work and a time for play." It's an awful parable because of its awful message, and it took me decades to throw off its chains. 

There is no need to distinguish work from play or play from work. Turns out the things in life that bring me the most joy mingle  together, and fingers feeling the earth need no justification.

But we will enjoy feasting on the sweet potatoes just the same....

Saturday, November 11, 2017

On the pleasure of seeing

From 2008, with 27 views. I liked it then.
I still like it now.

Mack cleared his throat. “Friends, on behalf of I and the boys it gives me pleasure to present Doc with this here.”

Doc looked at the gift—a telescope strong enough to bring the moon to his lap. His mouth fell open. Then he smothered the laughter that rose in him.

“Like it?” said Mack.

“It's beautiful.”

“Biggest one in the whole goddam catalogue,” said Mack.

Doc's voice was choked. “Thanks,” he said. He paused. “After all, I guess it doesn't matter whether you look down or up—as long as you look.”

John Steinbeck, "Sweet Thursday" 

We need more telescopes in biology.

We keep magnifying and magnifying, driving deeper towards molecules, creating new worlds, and that is all fine and good. But we could use a telescope, or at least a pair of binoculars. I could spend a period or two out in front of the school, just letting the kids stare at squirrels and pigeons.

Until a child has a rudimentary idea what a squirrel is, won't matter to her how close her DNA sequence is to that critter.

Ten  years ago late May, I was busy rattling on about something when my eye caught a few bees buzzing near our 4th story classroom window. I stopped whatever nonsense I was doing, probably lecturing back then, and wandered over to look.

The class, a small but gregarious one (13 girls, 1 boy, all sophomores, enough said) suddenly hushed. They knew something was up, but not quite what.

Outside the window, just across the street, honeybees were swarming.

By Mark Osgatharp - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

We just watched. And watched.

The bell eventually interrupted our reverie. We lost half a period, gained a lifetime memory.

"After all, I guess it doesn't matter whether you look down or up—as long as you look"

Friday, November 10, 2017

Bugs, children, and compliance

"Disobedience is not an issue
if obedience is not the goal."

Daron Quinlan via Teacher Tom

The Liberty Science Center was crowded this past Tuesday--tribes of human larvae were running, laughing, pushing through the exhibits, while other organisms prowled and stewed in their tiny glass homes.

I stumbled upon a small glass cage teeming with Australian spiny leaf insects. Most were munching  leaves on twigs, a few were just hanging out, but one was standing on the topmost twig, stretching upwards as though trying to reach the sky.

Photo by Thomas Bresson, CC 3.0
I like watching critters, and this one looked interesting, so I sat down on the small bench next to the terrarium to watch.

The top of the terrarium was covered with a transparent plate, probably acrylic, clearly solid. I could see this one tapping the acrylic.

And then I realized what this critter was doing. After each tap, it moved its foot slightly over, tapped, moved again, tapped, then again, tap, along a line perpendicular to its body. When it reached across as far as it could, the critter then stretched a little more, and started tapping another line.

By the time I left, the insect was fully stretched out, precariously clinging to the twig by just three legs, reaching, searching, aware of something beyond the cramped cage.

I got kids like this in school. Not many. Most have stopped trying to find the gaps, because we knock them down pretty much every time they try. Look at your procedures, look at your school policies, look at your schedule, look at what you are asking your students to do day after day after day.

If one of my lambs keeps tapping the glass, no need to ask why. I'd rather know why the others have stopped trying.

Yes, I am romanticizing and anthropomorphizing a bug.
Maybe it's time we anthropomorphize our students as well.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

EDT cannot save us

A yearly reminder....

Yesterday the sun hung in the sky for 10 hours and 25 minutes in these parts.
Today the sun cheats us out of two minutes, only hanging around for 10 hours and 23 minutes.

Way I figure it, I lost two minutes of Ra time as he travels on his night-barque. 
The eggplants, now barren, cast long November shadows as the world dims.

What possible hour do we think we wrought last night?

If I must chose betwen the sun and hubris, I choose the sun.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Samhain, again

I have spent, in the basest sense of that word, hours
of my God-given life working on a document required of teachers here in Jersey.
That I do these things speaks to a cultural insanity, and mine as well.

And here it is a year later, and I'm doing it again.

Do ghosts exist?

I've lived  long enough to know that they don't.
I've lived long enough to know that they do.

That odd, inexplicable events happen, and happen daily, is evident to anyone paying attention. The shame is that so few of us are paying attention to the natural world, we miss the rhythms and the mysteries that  envelop our modern minds every moment.

Tomorrow is All Saints Day, to celebrate the sanctified among us, as though following some moral order could save us from the coming dark, a world in which wasp larvae eat hornworms alive, from the inside out, and humans die monstrous deaths lying in ICUs with multiple tubes pierced into the body, hoping that like St. Sebastian, we will miraculously recover.

If you need a video to be convinced ghosts exist, you don't truly know what it means to know that the dead are among us.

The question of ghosts is not an idle one. We follow spirits of our own making all the time. We follow rules and rhythms of our own making now, wrapping ourselves in a sad cocoon of  hubris, wiling away our hours fulfilling nothing more than deadlines upon deadlines without a hint of irony.

I'm headed out to a mudflat in an hour or so, under a wet and wild early winter sky, to rake up a few clams, alive as I am, and as alive as I am, I will be as dead as those clams will be tonight in less than a lifetime.

Until you believe in the ghost you will be, you cannot truly live.
Originally posted 3 years ago. I like rhythms.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Digital learning

Gardening as a radical act.

I wandered barefoot out to the garden at dawn, picked a few dried bean pods, heard them crackle as my hand felt for the seam, then slid my finger down through the velvety crease and stripped bean after bean from the pod into my open hand.

Back inside, I dropped the beans in with the others I collected last week, then plugged into the electronic "world," doing my weekly due diligence on #satchat, a fine group of edu-folk trying to improve our classroom practices.

The conversation went as these conversations tend to go, but the dichotomy of the life I live and the life we push in the classroom shook me this morning, so I'm tossing out these words mostly as a reminder (and a warning) to myself.

Blindness comes in many forms, but rarely voluntary. We are blinding our children to the dirt beneath their feet, to the air they breathe, to the sun and stars above. To the sensuous. To the world.

Monday, October 23, 2017

A pointless life

Self-indulgent and previously posted. But hey....

The garden is dying now—without the energy to keep itself together, a plant falls apart. As the summer sun slides off its altar, reminding us who reigns, the world around us dies. Literally.

From the tired garden yesterday.
Life will return when the sun does, in its glorious ooziness of critters and plants and archaea and bacteria and fungi and whatever else has crawled from our common puddle of life eons ago.

I enjoy being part of this oozy thisness, but we only get to play in its rhythms for a short while, metaphorically for most, literally for some.

If my sister can die, so can you. So can I. And we will, in due time. 
I spent part of the afternoon ripping up autumn earth, rich with life, getting ready for the time when the sun will return. Then I took a walk along the edge of the bay, whipped up into a brown frenzy by the blow we’ve had the past couple of days, looking for fossils, reminders of lives long past but still with a remnant of order, a "fuck off" to the entropy that will eventually turn even the stoniest fossils back to dust.

I found two, a broken shark tooth and another I could not identify, and I’ll carry them around a few days until I lose them or give them away. (My students love fossils as much as I love the idea of fossils, so I’ll keep collecting them because it gives me pleasure.)

As I walked up the short but steep sandy path back to my bicycle, passing a ghost crab burrow along the way, I realized, again, just how lucky I am, doing pretty much what I want to do just about every single day, for no particular reason beyond the joy it brings me.

Two Mile Beach, photo by Leslie Doyle

I break clods of rich sod with my hands, drink hoppy ales, ride on an aging recumbent bicycle the kids think is cool, bang on various stringed instruments, rake up clams from the flats, walk along the edge of the sea, stare at the stars and a galaxy or two at night, share what we know about the natural world about half my days, and get to walk barefoot until it snows, and even then sometimes. I live with my best friend, and my kids are decent adults leading good lives.

Oh, and I get to write long, unedited nonsense, which I have not done for a little while, about a pointless life, but that, you see, is exactly the point.

Live every day as if it could be your last, and give the same courtesy to your students, at least while you can. I’m not a bad science teacher, nor am I a great one, but I pointedly live a happy, pointless life.

Self-indulgent, true, but cheap--if you add up the money spent for the above and 
divide it over the couple of decades (at least) that my toys last, 
we're talking about four or five dollars a month, less than 20 cents a day, 
unless you include the beer.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Flip the wrench, NGSS style

I once worked on the docks of Newark. I am glad I did, even more so since the asbestos in my lungs has not (yet) led to mesothelioma. *Knock on wood* (oh yes I did).

I learned how to fix things.

"Things" like gears, cables, and booms were no longer magic, but things made by men (and a very few women back then). Not much you couldn't do with a torch, an arc welder, and a machine shop.

While taking apart some hydraulic apparatus I knew little about, John the Polack offered this timeless advice:

If it don't fit, don't force it.
Turn it over and try again.

John was old. He fed the feral cats, gave me coffee loaded with whiskey (but only during overtime), and he's probably dead  now.

But he was wise, he was kind, and he spent his life loading ships headed for places he would never see. nor will you.

What does any of this have to do with NGSS?
Pretty much everything if you do it right, if I am getting the thrust behind the new standards.

When you use a wrench in tight spaces, flipping it with each turn gives you a hair more turn. If you use a wrench, you know this. It's not innate, but it feels like it after a few decades using wrenches.

We are clever mammals, both blessed and condemned by our cleverness. We cannot be our mammal selves playing on screens. We need more screws in our lives.'

Teach kids how to fix things. It will make them a lot happier than learning most of anything else we pretend to teach them in high school.

I'm not kidding.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

It's not all about science

This popped up in my Facebook feed today.

Sean Nash says I said it, and I'll take his word on it.
I must have liked it then.

I still like it now.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


The number of years I have of days growing shorter is growing shorter, true for everybody, I suppose, but still surprising to me.

The sun has gotten lazy, the night more bold.

Monarchs will land on my shoulder now, and a hummingbird buzzed inches from my ear a couple of weeks ago. Other beings no longer see me as a threat, though I still have most of my teeth.

I continue to teach, hope to do so for some time, and some time is all we can ask for. As the stridency of the college-ready, career-ready corporate crowd rises to octaves above this old man's range, the reason I teach, and the reason public education matters, gets down to empathy and the pursuit of happiness.

As we head to darker times, knowing (and remembering) what matters matters.

I think I am a happier creature than many (if not most) of my lambs. I'd like to make that untrue.

So I teach.

I trust I make a difference.
I hope I makes a difference.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

My sister's birthday

Written by Leslie, my love, about my sister.
She was killed by a Christian missionary who told me it was God's will.

Mary Beth Doyle's birthday falling at the start of the school year is always a reminder to me to approach my classes with the warmth, wisdom, compassion, and humor that she brought to every moment of life. Particularly with the way the world is now, I hope to have the strength she had. I wrote this almost 13 years ago and shared it here before; seems like a moment to share it again:

"I am at work, sitting under my desk, listening to Mary Beth’s voice. I have done this several times this week. It could become a bad habit. There’s hardly room for me and the computer under here. I’m hoping no one comes to the door. It would be difficult to explain why you’re under your desk, listening to your dead sister-in-law speak about avoiding toxins in everyday life, holding back tears, again.

The radio interviewer is good; his voice is warm and clear and he asks pithy questions that open up the conversation to right where MB wants it to be. But her musical, low-pitched voice doesn’t carry well through the desk from the speaker of the computer tucked underneath. Even with the volume up high, I can’t make out her words. So I try sitting underneath, right next to the speaker. This works, and I find out I kind of like it down here.

Mary Beth and I met almost thirty years ago, before I was dating or married to her brother. We did some dumb things together; not lethal or illegal or the kinds of things you don’t tell your kids, just dumb in the ordinary sense. ‘Cause they seemed like they might be fun at the time. Like going up a down escalator. That kind of thing.

One day, way back before real life had set in, we were at a pinball joint on the Jersey Shore in Long Branch with a bunch of friends. Wizard World. My favorite pinball machine was “Old Chicago”, beautiful Art Deco shapes in pink, black, silver and tan. But after hearing the “special” light thunk a few times, I was ready to call it a night. MB was done with whatever she was playing, too, so we walked down to the beach.

The waves were huge that night; there’d been a storm recently. Salty spray speckled us, so we figured, what the hell, why not walk out on a jetty? The flat black rocks were slippery, but it was a beautiful night, and the view back from the end of to the beach and the boardwalk lights was lovely. Until the first wave hit us.

Now, waves don’t usually break across the jetty; it stands up pretty high. After all, that’s what it’s there for, to limit and control the waves into some kind of polite, sloshy order. But some combination of high tides and offshore storm was sending these waves slap across our path, threatening to knock our legs out from under us.

Cleverly, they’d waited till we were out at the end and coming back to pull off this little bit of theatricality. I can attest that there were no drugs or other mind-altering substances involved, but MB and I thought that this effort by the ocean to bat us off the jetty into possible deaths by skull-crushing rocks or drowning was just the funniest thing ever. We kept plowing forward, laughing, and waves kept crashing around our knees. When we finally made it to the beach, we were soaked to the skin, and still convulsed with laughter.

Her brother, my future husband, thought, I think, that we were nuts—you know, a piece of driftwood in those waves would’ve knocked you both off. But, on the other hand, I like to think we’re two of his favorite people, and he’s been known to do a couple needlessly life-threatening things in his time. Eventually, the three of us ended up at the same college.

Eventually, I married her brother, and our lives followed different trajectories as we became young parents, while MB traveled the world, providing my kids with a really cool postcard collection—who else had regular correspondence from Turkey, Israel, Egypt, France, Germany, Argentina, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh? She was the exotic aunt who swept into our tiny apartment with dolls and elephant puppets from India, and tales of camel rides in Egypt, baby lion pets in Sri Lanka, tea every afternoon for a summer in Turkey. And whenever she visited, everyone danced.

As time passed, she settled in Michigan and became an important mover in the environmental health and justice movement. Two jobs and two kids kept Michael and I pretty busy. No matter what else was going on, though, we knew we’d always see MB in June. Our extended family spent a week every summer at Cape May on the tip of the Jersey Shore. Michael and MB and I bought kayaks and hauled them there, us from North Jersey, her all the way from Michigan. We paddled every chance we could get.

The other time we saw her regularly was Christmas. A nonbeliever, she nevertheless came to Christmas Eve service for a number of years with us. She liked the music and the candle lighting, but especially, I think, she adored the afterwards tradition wherein our family and whoever was visiting drove to the next town to see an elaborate Christmas display including two-story wooden houses filled with Santa’s elves and Biblical characters which moved when a bystander pushed a button, lots and lots of lights, piped-in carols, and live reindeer (really). Now, that was her kind of Christmas celebration!

Afterward, she would wait up with me for the kids to fall asleep to help put the presents under the tree, and roll her eyes at my inability to resist over-consumption despite knowing better. She and I often sat up long after everyone else had fallen asleep, me drinking Amaretto and her Sambuca, watching the tree lights blink, and catch up on each other’s lives.

Mary Beth had an uncanny ability, and this was repeated over and over by speakers at her memorial service, to understand you at your best, and help you through your worst. Some years ago, when I felt my life was falling apart, it was she who strode beside me on the jetty, acknowledging how slippery the rocks were, and how goddamn sneaky the waves had been, but fairly sure, I think, that I’d get back to the beach. Which, in the end, I did.

So when I opened the door to the sight of two policemen on my front porch, on a beautiful Saturday morning last fall, asking if my husband was home, and if he had a sister named “Mary,” nothing in me was prepared to hear of her death on a dark Michigan road the evening before, and I wanted to scream, No, no! her name is Mary Beth, you’ve got the wrong house.

So here I am, now, sitting under my desk, listening to her voice full of reassurance and grace, gently explaining how to protect your children from household toxins, just about a month before she died. The day of her memorial was declared “Mary Beth Doyle Day” by the governor of Michigan, we were told, and a couple months later, a portion of a Michigan bill designed to remove toxic flame retardants from the environment was named after her, because she’d worked so hard on the issue.

And her message on this broadcast, which I listen to over and over, is to be vigilant, to do the best you can, raise your voice for justice, and then sleep well at night. And that’s what I’ll try to do, if I can get out from under this desk, off this jetty, back to the beach."

Some things you just never recover from.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Parts of the cell

  • Ribosomes are not like factories.
  • The nucleus is not like a brain.
  • Mitochondria are not like power plants.
Using analogies for cell organelles presumes that the students know what how brains or factories or power plants work. Most students do not. Most teachers do not, either.

Building a "cell city" gives the illusion that learning science is happening. It is not.

When a child creates a cell model based on analogies, they learn that compliance (and using lots of pastel colors) gets you ahead in the school game. 

Students believe getting ahead in the school game matters because that gets you a leg up on the job game so you can make more money. They believe that because we tell them that, and at least that's more reasonable than telling a student that the nucleus is like a brain.

I want a child who, if she spills a drop of blood in class, imagines one of her white blood cells sliding through its liquid world, desperately fighting the microbes among the hordes that sit on her desktop.

A child who uses her brain in school is much more difficult to "handle" than the child who slides by on compliance.

Which child do you want in your classroom?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Science teacher's prayer

please grant me

a slab of slate
a chunk of chalk

a live critter
a dead ego

a magnet
a marble

curious children
and a sundial's sense of time.


Yes, a repeat, but what does amen mean?