Why are we alive?

Listen first

“Daddy, you know what… I think the first bite of an apple is always the best.”

~Delaney, age 9

I’ve said it before. We need kids to teach us how to see the world anew in all its beauty. If you’re not listening, you’re missing out. This alone could easily have been the impetus to write.

Delaney Reading with Apple

See the icky wear and tear on that book? After once again questioning her (I have asked at least 4-6 times on previous occasions) she says she honestly estimates that she’s read it approximately 18 times. I actually believe this. After a more typical back and forth on the differences between Anomalocaris and Pikaia, and a bit of silence that followed, she added: “Here’s a question I think about a lot…  why are we even alive?

What works

The title of Delaney’s favorite book at this point in her life has clearly been “Evolution” by Hosler, Cannon & Cannon. There are a million reasons why this might be so. Included in these reasons are the facts that both Mom and Dad were upper level biology teachers for much of our lives, and that this book, among thousands of others, are titles that exist within our shelves at home. Beyond this, the answers are murkier. We never did ask her to read it. And yet, since age six, she has gone back time and time again to not only read it, but to talk about it… at the dinner table, on the deck during a 70 degree day in February, ad infinitum. Almost.

One could clearly and logically assume that the above interaction just “makes sense.” And it does. Children who grow up bathed in household discussions that revolve around the inner workings of the natural world might ask these questions. Yet, this leaves out a pretty crucial bit of the story. I would argue that the key element here is that over the past few years when she has had questions about the content of this book, she always finds one or two adults willing and able to carry on the conversation, and to poke and prod for further understanding and unanswered questions. This has led to a tapestry of questioning, understanding, reading, questioning, understanding, reading, etc. over a protracted bit of time.

Penrose triangle

The nerd stuff

Herein lies the key to deep understanding of some of the most profound discoveries of human history: it doesn’t happen in a “chapter,” a “unit,” or even the most carefully designed series of lessons in May just before culminating in state testing at the end of the year. There is a pretty clear reason we live in the most technologically advanced society in the history of the world, and yet we still have an electorate lacking even basic understanding of some of the key underpinnings of biology as we know it today. This is tough stuff. In the cacophony of tweets, Facebook posts of cats, Donald Trump election memes, competing state and national standards, and an externally-dictated, rapid-fire scope and sequence that pushes us to glaze over deep conceptual understanding… we miss it.

As a district administrator in academic services, I face a regular “Administrator Paradox,” as my former Superintendent, Todd White, referred to it. It is sometimes a “dual truth” that causes us to struggle with those things that lead to “performance” on regularly measured assessments of understanding vs. what we know to be a deeper truth on some level. I know the system needs to move along to achieve wins as agreed upon by state and national standards. Yet, I also know from a career of practice, that to achieve true conceptual understanding of the foundations of biology, we need longitudinal conversations with kids as they grapple with complex ideas at their own pace over time. We also need educators who understand this and are willing to adhere to external pressure, all the while staying true to what we know about children. And learning. And the struggles along the way.

We don’t face the same pressures at home. We don’t do benchmark assessments at home. We don’t do final exams. We don’t halt the conversations at agreed-upon artificial deadlines because we have to. As parents, we set up an overall ecosystem where learning can happen organically. We engage our children here and there and when they are ready. We don’t push when it isn’t necessary. We understand that the only true learning is that which is constructed in the minds of the little ones we are blessed to be near.

I struggle with this every day of my existence. As a school administrator, I am charged with fostering a program that delivers agreed-upon public measures of success. As a parent, I am free to act upon a lifetime of learning about learning. And as a thinking human being, I grapple with these dual truths. Not a single day goes by that I don’t try and try again to leverage my experience as a professional learner at home and at school to design the best system for our children. I listen long, and then act accordingly. I try to make the best of a complex understanding between what I can do and what I know should be.

In 2016, I know we need to break free from “third period;” from the Carnegie Unit. I know we need flexible systems that honor the fact that conceptual understanding doesn’t necessarily happen in a chapter or lesson, or even the most craftily-designed long-term unit. I know schools do not operate in a world apart from the learning that happens (or doesn’t) in our homes. Biology isn’t rocket science. It is messier.

Swimming hole - Evolve 2011

It doesn’t get easier

Seventy degrees in February. On the deck. Eating tangerines and apples. A little kid trying to understand how all of the bits and pieces of the opera of life come together. Our Daddy-Daughter conversation tonight ultimately ended with a short back and forth resulting from this question:

“Here is a question I think about a lot…  why are we even alive?”

The answer to this in my head is an essay. Many essays. I struggle to remember my responses to questions like this in the heat of the classroom. Tonight, however, I left it with a messy bit about how science doesn’t actually seek to answer the why of such things… but rather the how. That other schools of thought are best equipped to address the why. Religion. Spirituality. The interplay between the two, if you believe that exists, etc. My daughter and I had another in a long line of epic chats. As a science teacher, I understand the subtle differences between the scientific search for truth and other fundamental human quests for truth and understanding. Ultimately, I hope that in my lifetime we can find a way to ensure that as a system we understand these complex differences and their inherent challenges… but also that I’m guiding my little girls at home in the way they most deserve.

I know a bit of what works at home. I know a bit of what works at “school.” I wish the differences weren’t so stark. This is a paradox. Dual truths are apparent here. I wish for and commit to working toward a future where these two truths aren’t separated by an artificial wall of our own construction.


*My iPhone photo of Delaney on the deck tonight. Eating an apple. Reading some science. Talking some science. Asking some big, fat “why?” 

*Penrose triangle by Cabrera Photo via Creative Commons on Flickr

*Swimming hole – Evolve 2011 by sand_and_sky via Creative Commons on Flickr




On Avocados and Presidents

Life moves pretty fast

So, it happens that I was just checking out at the grocery store with my youngest daughter, Neve, by my side. While she danced around behind and beside me (literally), the checkout girl, who I could tell was quite green, asked if the bag of produce were avocados, “just to be sure.” My reply:  “Yep… they sure are.” I smiled warmly in an attempt to soften her subtle, but obvious discomfort in having to ask.

A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.

A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.


Meanwhile, my littlest one pulled her 3-4 year old frame (she’s rather tiny for five) up over the edge of the counter by her hands. With her lips barely perched atop the rim and her feet afloat above floor tiles, she said to the girl: “Avocados are a fruit. They’re not really a vegetable.”

The checker replied: “Oh yeah… how do you know that?”

Neve: “Well… see… they have a seed in them and that makes them a fruit. (significant pause) …Even though some people think they are a vegetable. They’re not really though.”

The checker looked up to me for what appeared to me to be a slightly sheepish content check. I’m not sure what exactly I did in response. Did I wink? No, I probably nodded. I think. Maybe. She then said to Neve: “Wow. How do you know that?”

Neve: “I don’t know… it’s just in my head.”

Checker: “How old are you… five? Wow. You’re really smart! Maybe you could be president some day.”

Neve: “Nahhh… I don’t think girls are presidents.”

My "doorman" …or, "doorwoman."

My “doorman” …or, “doorwoman.”


I had a bit of consulting to do after that last line. If you either, A) know me personally, or B) have read a bit of this blog, you can likely imagine our conversation in the car on the way home.* All of this has me wondering about the roots of empowerment. Do we really consider how early and deeply ideas become rooted in the brains of our little ones? When is “too early to matter?”


Actually, if you happen to be one of those die hards from the old days on the blog, you might remember a related story here: But Math is Hard. If you have not read it, you now have your assignment. And really, toward the end of the comments on that post, a rather beautiful thing was born. The web of links there will take you to a content area reading/writing strategy that I use to this day every chance I get. Now that I think of it, Miss Neve quite possibly learned that bit of history while observing the purely male string of presidents on Presidents Pro.

*These talks are usually the silver lining in the cloud of a 50 minute commute that is soon to come to an end. Why is this a negative thing? For one, I’ll just plain miss those long car conversations. Well, that and hearing her sing about 90% of the 96.5 The Buzz playlist from memory. (and yes, of course I have to switch to the iPhone playlist at times during The Church of Lazlo, she’s five.  😉


-“inside the beast” by Darwin Bell on Flickr via CC
-“door opener” by me. 


There is no WHY in science?

Once again, blame him

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve pointed toward Michael Doyle’s blog. But if you’re a new reader, and you have yet to visit his place, you can at least thank me for that much today. In reality, the rest of this post is essentially a response to Doyle’s post, “Just because…” from this morning. There, go read it. Go read it and come right back please. Save his site and spend those three hours trolling through all of the goodness he has there for later. Doing so right now will almost certainly throw you off task. What are you waiting for? GO.

The response:

Remember, this train of thought response to Doyle’s post won’t likely make a great deal of sense on its own. You are hereby warned:

“I really like how Gary Stager refers to the way science is often taught as being more or less… Science Appreciation. He’s right.

I’d say much of my “teasing out the nature of science” occurred during the six years I was crawling around knee deep in the hanging prairies of the Loess Hills landform in NW Missouri and SW Iowa. There is something very crucial to being able to “get inside” a scientific endeavor, and really bruise your knuckles on the nuts and bolts of it. It is perhaps the only way to learn the layers of complexity in this way of “knowing” the world.

A look across a Loess Hills ridge in the extreme southern part of the range in Missouri. These hills become less forested as you move north into Iowa.

When I needed to classify and assign a latin name to everything green on a mid-grass prairie undergoing secondary succession, when I had to come to terms with the subtle mathematical ways of describing how the distribution of each species relates to the total ecosystem, when I had to figure out how I was going to then convert all of this data to warm, acceptable, humanspeak, when that humanspeak was going to happen in public and be picked apart by far wiser and more experienced peers, then… I suppose I had to come to some sort of soaked-into-the-cells understanding of the affordances and limitations of science in being able to describe what was happening on my prairie.

This takes gobs of time, and there is most certainly no app for that. As science teachers, even the best among us attempt to package up little experiences that allow for every element of the above. But there’s just something about time in this case. Perhaps it’s the weeks of thinking and reflection in between any of the “doing” that makes it a deeper experience.

I can realistically tell you this, the only students who have left me with a deep understanding of science, were students in a course we called Science Investigations. This course was from one to three years in duration and really sought to bring a true authenticity to the student experience. From the development of an authentic, self-designed (with coaching, of course) study, to the defense of said study to university professors… these kids did it all. I only had 10 to 18 students any given year, and there is truly no way I could have coached any more than that at any given time. My recollection of those days are memories of some of the best work I’ve ever done.

I say all of that because each year I also had another hundred or so students in Zoology, Botany, Ecology, Dual-Credit Biology, etc., who ultimately left us knowing quite a lot about the natural world. That might sound really great to the uninitiated, but I’m certain you see the distinction. Sure, many of those students were inspired enough to go off and become far more accomplished scientists than I ever was. But they didn’t really learn to be scientists from me. Perhaps they were ripe for this sort of learning when they arrived at the clock tower, but it was there they actually put the pieces together.

I don’t know… we require students to work deeply through the writing process from beginning to end don’t we? Don’t we expect them to be able to write independently and effectively when they leave us? (don’t get me wrong, I’m a writing-across-the-curriculum guy) But show me where we expect a similar efficacy in the processes and performance of science. We don’t. We just expect them to “*know a bunch of stuff.” Sure, we examine elements of the process, but only in chunks. Learning to write only in chunks leaves you quite short of that as well. In my opinion, it is worth getting upset about because changing this systemwide approach really wouldn’t require magic. It would just require a rearrangement of national and state priorities. Good luck, eh?

My classroom on the first night of class, August of 2003. Notice the sign in the upper-right. I might reconsider if I could go back now.

Back to the “sign wars” in your department… and your giant “WHY?” sign in the classroom. This might be one of those great minds think alike moments. Maybe curious minds is a better word. I had those four poster-board-sized characters on my wall from about 1993, on. Although, you’ll see that I, instead, used an overhead projector. Hey, I’m a font nerd. In practice, I tended to point in that direction as a “why do you say that?” in order to encourage students to provide reasoning for their claims. It was also a huge nod to the realm of wonder.

If I still had that classroom, I really think I might go in this weekend to change it from WHY? to HOW? I think your colleague is right on that one. How likely is the better word here. Although, there is also beauty in tapping into the why at the edges of what we study… even in biology class. You don’t have to be a card-carrying reverend, or the like, to at least point in another direction.

Sure, science is known by many for a set of processes it often includes. And yet, it is also truly a way of knowing. It certainly has limitations as that, but hey, so does religion, etc. Knowing a little about those limitations, and perhaps even hammering out a SCIENCE/SPIRITUALITY venn diagram on week one of class might be good.

You’re making me think too much (or at least report on such thinking) for a Saturday morning. Way to go.”


How do you tell the difference between commenting on someone’s blog and actually attempting to hijack it? I’m not completely sure, but I bet it looks something like this:

I blogged here pretty regularly in ’08 and ’09 when I was in the classroom more. As my role has changed over the past few years, somehow that frequency died back a bit. I suppose it is easier to comment elsewhere than attempt to relocate your own “voice.” The above screen capture was the result of trying to respond to Doyle’s blog with about 2X the character count of his original post. I’m glad I was checked on this one. Sheeesh. What a blog hog.

In the end, this little reflection took me back to the roots of how I learned to be a biologist… why perhaps I was able to foster the same in a percentage of students each year… and why curriculum and philosophy matters so much when trying to help students develop a true understanding of the world in which they live.



On Being a Public Educator, or: Once Again, Why I Love The Web

Transforming by connection

In my time as a teacher, I have tried purposefully to connect my students to experts beyond the walls of our classroom. When I began as a teacher in 1991, this was a pretty difficult task compared to today. Contacting local experts in biology or conservation took going out of the way to recruit the efforts of kind, caring professionals who were willing to share their experience with my students and I. Today, it can happen almost accidentally. Today, a few extra steps can flip the equation to a reality where talented individuals can find you. While balancing a myriad of responsibilities in the classroom of today, this shift in reality can be a transformational one… helping to bring relevance and authenticity to the lives of students.

Allow me to quickly switch to the issue at hand, and then wrap up my case by the end. Today, I bring you yet another opportunity to assist the education of students in Missouri, from wherever you may be. Cutting to the chase, a talented and giving artist from the state of Florida recently contacted my students and I with the offer to contribute an a work of art to help my students pay for the fees of a field study on the coral reefs of Andros Island, in the Bahamas.

Connecting to art

Cheryl Ferrari is a passionate artist and a giving person. My students and I are quite happy tonight to announce an opportunity for you to own an amazing piece of art while making a donation to hardworking students who are doing extra work on their own time to learn about something they are interested in. On Friday, I will be able to add an actual photo of the actual work. It is an beautiful and massive 36×24 inch print on canvas. Not only was the work donated at an approximate value of from $2000 to $3000… but the framing was donated by a local company. J. Franklin Gallery of St. Joseph donated the $400 framing.



Clicking the “buy now” button above will allow you to enter a credit card via PayPal from wherever you may be… to an SJSD account to earn a chance to win the print. This is essentially a donation where 100% of the funds go toward a rich educational experience for my students. We are offering each chance at $5, and three chances for $10. The raffle will take place on the night of March 28th, the eve of our upcoming field study in The Exuma Cays.

Yes, public

You see, I take the idea of being a public educator rather literally. In short: whenever and wherever possible, I pull open a window of transparency allowing a peek into the work we are doing. Softening the walls of the classroom in this way has brought us many powerful connections over time. Cheryl Ferrari is a Florida resident who grew up snorkeling and diving on Florida’s coral reefs when they were vibrant and healthy. She no longer dives today, and relies on photographs from those who do as inspiration for her work.

Cheryl messaged me via Flickr in April complimenting the work we are doing in chronicling the life (and sadly, death) of coral reefs today. She kindly asked permission to reference our work, and three months later, she messaged again with the image you see above. We could clearly see the elements of the painting that were inspired by photographs we have taken and shared. After more conversation on the details of our program, she offered to donate a limited-edition print to help student offset the costs of the field study portion of the course. And really, though you can’t quite tell it here, this connection has almost left me speechless at times.

Connecting to science

Since 2000, we have had authors join our discussions of their works. We have had the Center for Biological Diversity request photos for use in a formal federal petition to list two Caribbean corals as threatened, and eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. (it worked, by the way) We have had a former student of this program now with a Ph.D. and working on national marine policy, rejoin our community from time to time, as one of our informal teachers. We have had students live blog hurricane landfalls from the gulf, and report back from their work in fisheries from Dutch Harbor, Maine. And on and on. I’m certain I’d leave someone out if I tried to name them all.

These connections have transformed our classroom time and time again. It is this sort of real transformation that makes expenditures of modern technology worth the cost. Join us in some way. Take a chance on owning a bit of our story, and thanks so much in advance, from all of my students and I, for donating to such a relevant and authentic cause in the lives of kids.

Artwork thanks

Turtle Flirts” by Cheryl Ferrari… photograph of oil on canvas

Massive Sea Fan” is one of ours. See the connection?

Mike Westfall – Thumbs Up” is also one of ours

Another Thousand “Whoa” Moments

Defining whoa

A whoa moment is somewhat akin to the recently ubiquitous aha moment. And yet, there are important differences. Trolling online definitions of the “aha” moment generally returns descriptions of sudden comprehension or the “flash of insight related to a problem.” If I could be trusted to launch my own five-cent definition, I’d loft the “whoa” moment for your consideration. Allow me to stitch together a few words in defense (offense?) of such an idea…

whoa moment |wō|

Informal in usage. Used to indicate a scope of reactions to a learning experience ranging from basic cognitive connection and mild surprise to profound respect and awe. Often uttered momentarily due to a lack of ability to define an experience at the time. Whoa moments often spur deeper future connections and learning along the original topic.

Some of these moments are certainly cerebral, but many others seem to originate deep within the limbic system. I challenge you to justify that sort of experience in today’s rather narrow description of learning. Benjamin Bloom roughly hammered out the Affective Domain of learning over fifty years ago. The affective domain is the domain of attitudes, motivation, and valuation of learning. As we move toward a more “national” definition of what should be learned, we rarely ever touch on anything beyond the cognitive domain. Even within the cognitive domain, consensus is tough to find. But really, when you can stuff so much of the cognitive domain into multiple guess questions, why bother with the rest? Characterizing the rest is just so… hard.

I’d suggest that whoa moments (beyond those of Bill & Ted fame) put the fringes of the affective domain, the elements of valuing… into something we can touch, taste, and marvel over. I’m not here today to hammer out a treatise on the whoa moment, and the value of immersion and authenticity in education. While that might be a worthwhile future endeavor, today I came here to share a bit of our recent Marine Biology field study on Andros Island in The Bahamas. This program was conceived back in 1999 and I have written about it here several times in the recent past. This was our seventeenth field study over the past twelve years, and like each of them, taught us all more than our share for one week.


Finding a rare snow white hermit crab married to a bleached out mollusk shell, watching a lowly flatworm attack and kill a nimble crab, exploring a multitude of minute creatures in a natural reef nursery, finding a completely new and hidden crack into the chilly belly of the Earth (the locale of which is too good to mention in detail here)…  are all just a few of the subtly epic moments that were experienced during a week abroad and in the field this past April.

I’m certainly not suggesting that you aim for whoa in every single granular learning objective that falls within your curriculum. And I’m certainly not suggesting that learning out-of-doors, in the field, suits every academic pursuit. I don’t think it has to happen everywhere, but I do believe it has to happen. Somewhere.


The world is an amazing place, and we live in amazing times. Big moments are all around us. Get on it.