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

Mid-October


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.

amen



Yes, a repeat, but what does amen mean?










Monday, August 28, 2017

On well-meaning whites, Chapter 23,456: This time #Edchat



*We* are tone deaf, color blind, and oblivious. But God knows *we* are polite.

This is a sanctuary question--it gives *us* a place to hide while ignoring the systemic cultural oppression.

#Edchat, a large community for teachers on Twitter, put this up as a possible topic this week. There should be no need for discussion, yet here *we* offer *our* rejection of the straw man as an act of atonement.

It's not the "bigots" that are the problem, as problematic as they are--it's *our* need to be civil when civility is the subtle tool *we* use to maintain a status quo that has resulted in a society where low SES becomes a synonym for black or brown..

Today marks the anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech. *We* eat it like a casserole at a potluck church dinner--soothing, warm, down-to-earth meal served in the local church basement, sharing food with the others. Then we go home.

Today also marks the murder of 14 year old Emmett Till. This is not a coincidence. But I bet more whites will celebrate King's speech than acknowledge Emmett Till's murder.


"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."


So here we are again, another school year, another year of hand-wringing over the test score gap--either you believe that children of color are inferior, or you believe something else might be going on.

Unless *we* believe a bigot here or there has this much effect on "our" children, *we* have to do more than out the "bigots" among us.





Right now the bigots are doing *us* a favor, relieving too many of us from our duty to dig deeper into the bigger problems.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Partial eclipse of the heart

Education is about living, not bucket lists.


The eclipse is a wonderful event, but just as spectacular is the bay tide--it's rising over 6 feet in 6 hours, twice a day.

Wadlopen: On the flats yesterday.

Just saw a hummingbird display its ridiculous aerial abilities. Watched a praying mantis on a bean plant this morning. Dug a few clams out of the flats a couple hours ago. Eating grace from the garden every day for the last two months.

Partial eclipse in Cape May a few years ago--through a CD.
The commonness of the day to day miracles shouldn't lessen our awe, and won't if you're paying attention. Get outside and pay attention, and be the mammal you are.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

STEM is not the answer

The push for STEM rests on the misguided premise that public education exists to serve the nation's economic and military interests, as though our economic and military objectives are set in our Constitution.


There are many good reason to study math and science in school, but serving the international economy is not one of them. Maintaining the world's most powerful military while decimating its diplomatic corps is not a good reason, either.

I'm betting that the young man on the far right (see what I did there?) is not wearing the ARKANSAS ENGINEERING tee just for show.

Why is he marching? He's probably angry about something. Maybe engineering isn't as lucrative as he had hoped, maybe he blames the rising tide of Indians or Korean or Japanese, maybe he's unhappy because he's been chasing a carrot he realizes never tasted good.

Maybe he really believes that the young woman who kicked his ass in fluid mechanics got an extra 20 points on her final exam because, well....

If you are a science teacher, never forget that any compulsory education, science or otherwise, is never politically neutral. You have the same ethical obligations to our students that your social studies faculty have.

Don't hide behind "but I teach science." Don't hide behind "but I'm color blind."

You're teaching children some exceedingly powerful stuff--help them develop the maturity needed to handle it



(It's all I can do without sputtering....)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

長崎, again

Nagasaki, again--because we must never forget.



On August 9, 1945, just over 2 1/2 pounds of plutonium was converted to energy 1650 feet over Nagasaki.

Two and a half pounds--about the weight of a 28 week premature newborn baby.

長崎





Italic


Yosuke Yamahata, A Japanese army photographer, took this picture the day after the Fat Man fell over Nagasaki.

More of Mr. Yamahata's photography can be seen here.







The photo and the quote are from © The Exploratorium, www.exploratorium.edu

Yes, this is a repeat, and will be repeated every year that I maintain the blog.
We must never forget what we are capable of doing. Never.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Hiroshima, again

Hiroshima was destroyed on August 5th, 7:16 PM, our time--just under an hour before our sunset.


 

広島



Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese army base. ... It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. . . . What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history.



It happened on this date, this "greatest achievement."




New technology used to "solve" an old problem. We cannot help ourselves.

Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, suggested "we ought to stay out of the nuclei." Until we have a clue what we want, sounds like good advice.

You cannot separate tools from the critters who use them. Teaching science as some compartmentalized thought process without cultural context is a dangerous game.

What is our responsibility as teachers of science?
As citizens of the United States?
As human beings?

***
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.
-J. Robert Oppenheimer



And now I teach science to (very) young adults. I have a responsibility to them, to the state, to myself.

Harry S. Truman called the bombing of Hiroshima "the greatest achievement of organized science." If that does not give you pause, you should not be teaching science.

You should not be teaching anything at all.




This is posted every year, as a reminder to me.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A mantis prayer

Because we do awful things to critters, we convince ourselves (and each other) that they are not aware.


The praying mantis saw me--she was sitting on an unripe pumpkin on a vine that meanders along the back yard, green on green. I was on my belly, my head a foot or two away.

I turned my head, she turned hers. I turned my head back again, and she followed.

I could not now her mindset, or if she even had a mind. (To be fair, she could not know mine, either).

A tiny ant wandered over to one of her back feet--she lifted it up, then put it back. The same ant then wandered over to one of her middle feet, and again, she raised her leg, then settled it back on the pumpkin, green on green, all the while staying focused on me.

I watched her for a few minutes, and she watched me. We both had the time, midsummer is kind that way.

In September, once school starts, chances are I will be too busy to lie on my belly watching another living being go about her business on a pumpkin. She will also be too busy to pay me much mind--the nights are growing longer, she'll be restless looking for food, for a mate, for a place to lay her eggs.


By November, she will be dead, and I will, God willing, be carrying on in my classroom, sharing what I know, and at least as important, what I do not know.




Our breaths are finite.
What do you want your mortal charges to know?





Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Lughnasadh, again

Yep, mostly the same post seventh time around--I like the rhythm of the year.
Nearing end of my 6th decade--more a spiral than a cycle, but it's OK.


"No ideas but in things."
William Carlos Williams


The English had a sensible name for this time of year before William the Conqueror blew through--weed month (weodmonað). We teeter towards the dark months. Things fall apart.

The sunlight diminishes perceptibly now. The plants know.

The past week we've eaten deep purple eggplants and bright pink brandywine tomatoes, yellow summer squash and green-and-red striped beans. Today we will pick basil for pesto, some for tonight, some for February. A bowl full of ripe blueberries waits for us, sunlight incarnate.

But the sunlight is dying, and the plants know.

We do not speak of religion in class, at least not formally. Students occasionally ask religious questions, and I deflect them. I explain that some things cannot be known through science, and that what I believe beyond the limits of science falls outside the province of class.

In class we talk of light and hormones, photoperiods and abscisic acids, to explain how plants know. We talk under the hum of fluorescent lights, time marked by defined blocks of time. In class, September light is exactly the same as February light, and class is always 48 minutes long, no matter where the sun sits.

This week marks the start of Lammas, or Loaf Mass Day--joy for the harvests that are coming and regret for waning sunlight. Lammas used to be celebrated--the first wheat berries of the year were ground into flour and baked into bread offered in thanks, some used for Communion, some for the feast that followed.

We thank God (or Tailtiu or Lugh or some other forgotten gods)--harvest time reflects death and grace, whatever the culture. Death and grace feel foreign in the classroom, indeed foreign in our culture. We pretend, at our peril, that life is linear.

Lammas falls halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. The days are shortening, winter is coming. Until you feel the seasons in your bones, until you follow a grain of wheat from the ground to plant to bread to you then back to the ground again, the modern myths may be enough.

Science can explain why plants produce fruit when they do, and I can teach the steps. We can test whether a student learns what I present, and the students that do this best have access to all our culture offers.

You can become very powerful, very rich, without knowing grace. You can go far in life if blessed with intelligence and beauty, degrees and citations, without ever knowing what a wheat berry looks like, without ever kneading a lump of flour and water and yeast into glistening dough.

In the end, we don't know much, and may never know much. We can, however, recognize grace. We might not grasp it rationally, but we we can grasp it--a good reason to celebrate Lammas.





The Skeleton of Death dances every hour in Prague--photo of the Prague Astronomical Clock by Sandy Smith found on VirtualTourist.
The modern myths are not enough.

Friday, June 16, 2017

In memory of her

Philipp Salzgeber, CC
She was a kid.

She was dying.
Everyone knew, and yet no one would say it.

Her mother ask that no one tell her child what was going on.
I saw her after her surgery, her head wrapped like a genie, sitting on her bed.

Her mother wanted me to promise I would not tell her.
I told the mother I would not lie if asked.

The comet hung in the sky like a jewel that summer 20 years ago.

It was evening.
I was tired.
The mother was tired
The child was dying.

I asked the other if I could take her child to a room where the comet was visible.
The mother said OK.
She did not come along.

I knew what I would say if the child asked.
The mother knew as well.

And the child never asked.

But she saw the comet.
The last one she saw.
Not the last one I saw.

And Hale-Bopp makes me sad every time I see a photo.




She never asked so she could protect the adults around her.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

End of another year

Another year is winding down--our last day is a week from tomorrow--and what have my lambs learned? What have I learned?

I'm not nearly the teacher I want (or need) to be, few of us are.

You cannot hope to add much to a child's knowledge in the conditions imposed by this thing we call "school," but just might alter the way a child approaches a problem, examines a claim, sees herself in the world beyond the cinder block walls.


Or maybe she'd figure that out a lot quicker if she just lingered outside the school building a few minutes each morning, breathing quietly, simply paying attention to a tiny critter crawling on the crumbling bark of the ancient tree that looms behind our school's message board.

Beer, sex, and augmented reality in the classroom

I love beer.
I love sex.
I could learn to love augmented reality.

From The Brain That Wouldn't Die.

But none of those belong in a young child's classroom.

If the goal is to increase testable content knowledge that will raise PARCC scores and sell a few more edu-gadgets along the way, well, you got me.

If the goal is to help children discover the world, love its richness, and become reasonably happy adults, we have a problem.

The less glass between the ant hill and the owner of young eyes staring at it, the more real and complex it becomes.

This takes time, of course, and I suppose AR could deliver a child to some goal sooner.
"Mommy, Mommy, look, bugs!"
"Yes, let Mommy show you how to identify them."
The mother aims her device over the anthill. A reassuring voice rises from glass--
This is a colony of  Formica accreta ants. I have added it to your child's log of tagged organisms.

The young woman pauses a moment, watching as her child starts to poke the anthill. "But are they dangerous?"
There have been no recorded instances of fatal interaction, but there is always the remote possibility of an allergic reaction.
She gasps as she scoops up her daughter. "Thank you, Siri!"

She slips hear ear buds back on, hits her Soothe Me Now playlist, and heads back to her climate controlled car.
Back at school, the child will have a beautiful photo to show, and a story to tell.
She'll look, sound, and feel smarter.

Credit: Steve Paine, via CC

In the new human world where "look, sound, and feel" triumph over the rich aromas of life (and the fetid smells of mortality), another child gets lost in our limited human universe.

It's a pretty amazing place out there, this natural world. Augmented reality can be an amazing tool for those among us who still have a reasonable grasp of the vastness of the universe (or who at least admit that what's real surpasses anything we can imagine).


We are not the creators of the universe, nor are we just spectators. We cannot augment the natural world, just the blinders our machines have put on it.



.
Even beer and sex have their limitations.
And yes this is an old post.