Is This a Sluggish Strategy?

The following verse was created in response to and in reflection on the following mass-media story:  Sea Slug Surprise: It’s half-plant, half-animal.  Overall, this post starts with a bit of participation and play, continues with the story of how the “Sci-Po” fun began, how I gave it a shot in the classroom, and why this sort of thinking matters.  It then ends with a few specific resources for biology teachers.

Elysia chlorotica

Is this a sluggish strategy?

Thieving genes seems crazy to me
When seeking food in the mighty sea.
It doesn’t take a Phd
To locate a parcel of green algae.

And yet this shell-free busy bee,
A sea slug with a far lesser degree,
Attempts to boost his MPG
By somehow producing chlorophyll b.

My thoughts on this: In harmony.
I appreciate getting food for free.
Many beasts have green devotees
With sugar secretion their docking fee.

It isn’t merely charity
This molluskan peculiarity,
For algae ultimately die in this
Symbiotic irregularity.

This may seem like barbarity:
Genetic coup of the highest degree.
But I’d bet when we search we’ll see
Biological regularity.

Though no degree from MIT,
I know a fair bit of biology.
I’m nowhere near insanity,
This twist: a slant I just I failed to foresee.

Perhaps we’ll get some new study
That changes the rules for you and for me.
Starvation ebbs, but we shall see:
Would we submit to our skin being green?

What is a “Sci-Po”

Sci-Po.  You read it correctly.  A digital (thus far) friend of mine, Dr. Punya Mishra (who is an associate professor of Educational Technology at Michigan State University), recently wrote a post on his blog about a little project that his daughter had been working on. Shreya is ten years old and writes at Uniquely Mine, her blog. Give it a look- I think you’ll like it.

Punya wrote about the blog and the “Sci-Po’s” within it as a comment on this blog post of mine about some truly ugly mathematical poetry within Mother Goose.  Everything up to and including these two blog posts was completely unrelated.  Months later, another comment to this post was made by Sue VanHattum, a community-college math teacher in California. She then wrote a blog post challenging her readers to write a positive poem about either the beauty or significance of math. Even her first comment by a reader named John is rather impressive.

Punya then responded to this whole woven set of communications by people from all over…  and of very diverse ages. His post on this emerging phenomenon: “Poetry, Science & Math, OR why I love the web.” He was then inspired enough to write a few Math-Po’s of his own.

What’s a guy to do?

At this point, I had to shift my personal involvement in this issue over to my teacher identity and present this little instructional sub-genre of poetry to my students.  By this point in the year, they are likely rather comfy with new.  Be sure to check out the developing thread on our classroom network regarding SciPo’s.  At our last meeting, I invited my students to play along.  I suggested finding any single reading from this past semester as a starting point.  Below is what I personally see as the anatomy of a “Sci-Po” (or a “Math-Po” for that matter).  Allow me to suggest a protocol:

  • Read an interesting article in a field of science (I teach biology, thus the more specific origin of our work).
  • Re-tell the article in your head.  This is summarizing folks.  It is not an autonomic reaction.  Many have published this fact.  At the very least, demonstrate this for your students before you assign it.
  • Reflect on why the article matters.  If it doesn’t have lasting impact, then don’t use it.
  • Retell the main ideas from the article in poetic verse.  You may choose to go back to the original Mother Goose verse and spin yours as well with a sing-songish rhyme.  Somehow I think this even adds a step in the challenge direction.  Try it yourself, you’ll see what I mean.  The poem above is my shot at a Sci-Po.  It came from an article we used for a read aloud earlier in the week.  I cannot imagine expecting students to do something you aren’t doing along with them.  You shouldn’t either.
  • Link back to the article in your post.  My students seem to have taken to creating this link within the text of their poem.
  • Publish in some open Internet forum.
  • Reflect.
  • Communicate.
  • Rinse.
  • Repeat.

The other thing you must understand at this point is that as a classroom project, this one was thus far done in a vacuum.  During this first trial, my students were provided virtually zero instruction toward composing poetry.  Several remarked that they had never actually been required to author their own work in a related genre.  I say this to be fair to those students.  This is experimentation out loud.  As a science teacher, I feel that it is imperative that I give my students the opportunity to explore biology through many other lenses that carry the potential for personal engagement.  I say this because, as of now, that thread includes scientific poetry that is the result of 100% inspiration and 0% instruction in terms of constructing poetic verse.

Let’s get this straight:  I’d love to provide this instruction.  Time is always the issue here.  Even students who feel comfortable with this genre could learn from content instructors with differing vantage points.  However, our current NCLB-influenced curricula almost inhibit such a crossover approach.  Disclaimer:  My Dual-Credit Biology curriculum currently permits experimentation.  My students earn one-university-semester worth of work (5 credit-hours) in an entire high school year.  We have time to enhance and explore.

Personally, I’d find a way to make something this rich work in my classroom at some point regardless.  However, as an instructional coach who has worked with many teachers in the course of the past four years, I would understand the hesitation to do so.  Since NCLB, our core curricula have become more broad, and yet more screwed-down to specifics.  This tends to inhibit innovation.  And yet we must push through that somehow.  The more these content goals are lasered, the more rich pedagogy gets clipped in a vain attempt to meet such specific goals.  The more pedagogy gets clipped, the more student engagement is allowed to plummet.  Lack of student engagement is the first step toward disaster.  Anyone care to talk graduation rates with me?  How did we get to this topic from…  scientific poetry?

simplicity is hard

At this point in my life as an 18 year educator with two toddlers, I seem to see fewer silos and restraints on what we do during the day as teachers than many folks do.  I realize that perhaps the best thing I can contribute to education (outside of what I do in the classroom) is to show folks that there is an alternative to shooting disparate facts into the heads of kids.  In writing that sentence I realize that I intend to stand up for a philosophy of education that pushes beyond segmented practice and into a space where students can find something that inspires them to thinking deeply about new things… whatever those are determined to be.

I believe in and I am certainly analytical enough to help teachers hone in on specific curricular goals with laser precision.  However, I somehow seem to find myself more frequently asking, “why wouldn’t you consider connecting this to that?”  I hope our national system doesn’t soon drive us all to the point where those connections go the way of the dinosaur.

If you are still rather rigidly delivering disconnected lectures in secondary science and mathematics…  find a way out.  If doing anything else feels too fluffy or out-of-sorts, grab a constructivist colleague by the sleeve.  Sit with someone doing things differently.  Find a consultant.  Give another approach a try.  If you really are that traditional, then I certainly recognize the potential for this blog to annoy the daylights out of you.  For another… since you are still reading, I wish you’d have seen the faces of my kids during the 30 minutes of class time I allowed them to explore this on Friday.  I am accustomed to engaged kids, but these were the furrowed brows of surgeons in a pinch.  I love it.  I plan to continue working on it.  I’d love to do so inclusively.  Anyone want to play along?

Content matters?

For the biology educators:  this blog post is a rather nice outline (more content than MSNBC above) of the ecology of the aforementioned little critter.  New Scientist does this one nicely as well.  Even better, Dr. Mary Rumpho, at the University of Maine has a nice little website advocating, as well as supporting, the use of Elysia chlorotica as a model classroom organism for study.  There seem to be a ton of positives to this.  I once had a student keep a colony of hundreds of Hydra viridissima alive and thriving for months (until Christmas break) for an independent research project… and those are some delicate beasts to keep.  Biology teachers: (and perhaps many elementary educators) I suggest giving them a try.


*Image of Elysia chlorotica.  This one is now all over the web, and sadly, it is tough to nail down the origin.  Therefore, no citation, nor linky.  Anyone?
*”simplicity is hard” by Will Lion on Flickr



Good conversations

This rather dull snapshot was taken with my phone at the recent NECC 2009 conference in Washington, DC.  Funny.  Sometimes it’s the non-conference things that really push my thinking forward.  EduBloggerCon was one of those, “sit around with smart folks and discuss and debate self-selected topics of interest in education” kind of days.  What, you don’t have those every day?  Ok, I’ll admit it- sadly neither do I.  One of the sessions in particular, led by Jonathan Becker was entitled: “Where School Reform Meets Madonna:  Can public schools fundamentally reinvent themselves?”  The rule in this one was that if a “tech tool” was even mentioned that the violator would have to stand on the table and sing.  EduBloggerCon is certainly an “unconference” about more than edtech tools.  Good conversations do more than stimulate your brain during the immediate time in which they are occurring.  Good conversations are those that change the way you see the world in some small way from that point on.

Washington Public Library

The building above is found in Mt. Vernon Square and has an interesting history.  A much better close-up view from Wikimedia shows that this was one of Carnegie’s libraries.  The building was also recently a City Museum and still serves the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

While walking the city with Jeanette and Luke (Principal and Asst. Principal at BHS) during lunch at EduBloggerCon, we ran across this building.  Initially, I was interested in the architecture.  However, upon closer inspection I became much more interested in the three bold words embedded into the marble front of the building:


These three words, especially appearing below the phrase: “DEDICATED TO THE DIFFUSION OF KNOWLEDGE” were enough to haunt me the next couple of days.  By the way, I had probably better let you know that if you came to this post looking for answers… prepare for a 10:1 question vs. answer ratio from this point.  Sorry about that.

A light word study

Let’s talk about those three little words.  Do you have thoughts on this triplet as it was laid out so many years ago?  Truly any three words could have been chosen, yet these are the three that were cut into rock.  For one, I am a pretty big fan of all three of those words.  If you dig through the “poetry” tag here on the blog, you’ll certainly find a thing or two that relates over the past year.  Science is the obvious one.  I have been a science teacher since 1992.  Further… for me, history so often provides not only context to the world in which we live, but also connections in and amongst all fields of study.

But I live out my days in an American high school.  Where are the other two great core areas of study?  Where lies Communication Arts, or English, or Language Arts, or…?  Where do we fit Mathematics?  Perhaps the folks who laid out this building saw those as modes of communicating the ideas of science and history.  And poetry?  Perhaps this is the art that takes human communication to creative and innovative heights.

altered playing card - inspiration - davinci

Step outside a moment

Imagine a school where the base subjects are those three: science, poetry, and history.  What would that look like?  Now of course I’m not suggesting we look away from all of the other myriad courses in our world such as practical arts, physical education, etc.  My friend and Principal, Jeanette Westfall, would be quick to remind anyone discounting the importance of the “non-core” subjects, that these courses (and their teachers) represent about 60% of our school today.  Anyone pushing this part of high school life aside would be someone with a rather narrow view of the American high school scene of 2009.

But instead of seeing a focus on science, history, and poetry as narrow…  what if we saw it as something much larger?  What if we found a way to teach all of the subjects we care about today within this framework?  Could that be done?  What if we dissolved our hallowed curricular walls and found a way to deliver all of those wonderful bits of learning through very broad lenses such as these three?

I can see a million problems.  Where does engineering fit?  Engineering isn’t really science.  It is most usually an outgrowth of science.  Engineering is science applied to life.  However, aren’t the best examples of engineering a marriage of art and science?  There are others of course.  I welcome the discussion following this post.  Writing online is great like that, right?

23, 24


Perhaps the largest thorn in the side of such an experimental approach is our compartmentalized teacher certification system.  Not only that, but with most of us as products of such a linear, territorial system- could we even create a small number of schools that could do this at a high level?  I understand why this is different in secondary vs. the elementary world.  The content knowledge required in the higher grades in 2009 is daunting for sure.  I get it that most folks couldn’t deliver calculus.  Most of us couldn’t prepare teenagers for college-level physics or a journalism program either.  And yet, what percent of your student body did I just include by mentioning those two courses?  More importantly, perhaps restructuring schools toward a more integrated nature seems more daunting to the “closed four walls” of the typical classroom.  Perhaps those who have opened up the walls of their classroom to colleagues near and far can more easily imagine a new and innovative structure for schools.

Of course this couldn’t really fly in a public school today, could it?  But then again, how is what are are doing right now working for us?  Many universities have “honors” programs within the normal school.  These programs are often about collaboration and integration of subject matter to create a more relevant and rigorous environment.  The same goes for gifted ed classes.  It seems that we continue to create opportunities for both our most talented kids as well as those who display “buy-in” to the system of schooling as it is today.  Of course I think this is a great thing.  But, what about the massive chunk of the teenage populace who see school as not immediately relevant to their lives?  What needs to happen for us to imagine a learning environment that is chunked up in some way different than we have already tried?  The huge numbers of disaffected or otherwise uninterested teens can’t wait much longer.  I wonder if their vision could be any more comprehensive.

3d glasses

As is often the case…  far more questions than answers here today.  Once again, I’m appreciative for the ability to think aloud in a loose forum full of smart and enthusiastic people.  What about those three overarching “subjects” mentioned above?  Are there three you’d propose alternatively?  Hopefully an idea or two will be left stirring in your head.  Feel free to share below if so.


*science:poetry:history via iPhone by me
*altered playing card – inspiration – davinci by Blazing Moon on Flickr
*23, 24 by Rob Shenk on Flickr
*3d glasses by dryxe on Flickr

A Synthesis Blogging Whitman

My Sunday morning started with these words from Walt Whitman:


My science-friend, my noblest woman-friend,
(Now buried in an English grave–and this a memory-leaf for her dear sake,)
Ended our talk–“The sum, concluding all we know of old or modern
learning, intuitions deep,
“Of all Geologies–Histories–of all Astronomy–of Evolution,
Metaphysics all,
“Is, that we all are onward, onward, speeding slowly, surely bettering,
“Life, life an endless march, an endless army, (no halt, but it is
duly over,)
“The world, the race, the soul–in space and time the universes,
“All bound as is befitting each–all surely going somewhere.”

…long, organic, rhythmic free verse.  Ahhh…

Back in September I wrote a post about an interesting little web service called DailyLit.  I had just signed up and received the first of 423 installments of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass via email.  I spoke of how you could integrate small chunks of text like this into your school’s literacy program.  Given that from age 14 to 18, and from AP Physics to PE, we read for different reasons and in different ways.  For these reasons, I saw this service as an interesting and free way to add rich sources of text for classroom analysis, or even simply for volume or pleasure.  As of today, it is the “pleasure principle” that made me check back in on this web entity.

Fast-forward to today’s email (you can also choose RSS) which contained installments 368 and 369 from Leaves of Grass.  Grounding.  Things like this can help to keep my head in check.  I love it when the wisdom of brilliant and creative people from ages gone by is held up to the present for inspection, reflection-  and in this case: inspiration.  And by the way…  which “Evolution” is he speaking of here?  His capital “E” puts it on level with Geologies, Histories, Astronomy, and Metaphysics.  Thus, in my mind, he speaks of Darwin’s fresh theory of biological evolution.

Evolution found in the trash.

So this led me to a quick inquiry.  What year again was Leaves of Grass first published?  A quick check returns 1855.  Now, I remembered reading about how Whitman constantly revised his works again and again.  However, one only need know that the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was in 1859, to want to question this text a bit more.  So apparently, between the first edition of Leaves in 1855, and the final in 1882, he changed not only verse and style…  but content.  I now have something to research for myself.  Find the text from 1855.  Do a comparison.  I wonder what I will find.  I wonder if any of you feel like helping me out in this endeavor. (?)  Did I ever notice this date interplay prior to blogging about this poem today?  No.  No I didn’t.

Chalk up another win for the synthesis found within the act of blogging.  I love it.  I love what it does to my brain.

As I sat down to tap out the post this evening, I realized something really cool.  What began as a rather humble re-blogging of a famous work of art from the 1800’s, has led to me evaluating text, inferring intent, and questioning context.  Hmmm…  I wonder if these are behaviors we seek to foster in our students.  I wonder if blogging can help deliver this.  In reality, this wonder contains less doubt and more certainty than it did less than a year ago for me.

So I leave you with installment #369 for your evening of March 22nd, 2009.  God, I love these words:


Small the theme of my Chant, yet the greatest–namely, One’s-Self–
a simple, separate person. That, for the use of the New World, I sing.
Man’s physiology complete, from top to toe, I sing. Not physiognomy alone,
nor brain alone, is worthy for the Muse;–I say the Form complete
is worthier far. The Female equally with the Male, I sing.
Nor cease at the theme of One’s-Self. I speak the word of the
modern, the word En-Masse.
My Days I sing, and the Lands–with interstice I knew of hapless War.
(O friend, whoe’er you are, at last arriving hither to commence, I
feel through every leaf the pressure of your hand, which I return.
And thus upon our journey, footing the road, and more than once, and
link’d together let us go.)

*Artwork thanks

Evolution in the trash. by nyc dreamer on Flickr

Gifts On A Dark December Day

On a day when the only thing bigger than the snowflakes is the deep gray loneliness of the sky, I bring you a minuscule chunk of one of my favorite Christmas gifts.

Cemetery Angel

My wife, Erin, has a thing for finding the perfect book to send me off on my April exploration of the Bahamian backwoods.  Normally, when I unpack the mystery book from my jumbled bag on board a sailboat anchored on Andros Island, I delight in the pen-sloppy scribblings just inside the front cover.  Last year it was Pablo Neruda.  What will this Spring bring?  Someday perhaps I’ll do a post on those messages.  Though parts, to be sure, will stay private forever for me.

Today’s words for winter:  by Galway Kinnell.  You (and I) can thank some nifty old guy on the east coast for this book.  He knows who he is too.  I’m glad Erin reads his blog as well, for she is an excellent gift-giver.

Cemetary Angels by Galway Kinnell

This verse is from A New Selected Poems from Galway Kinnell.  I feel OK about posting the words to this poem here in hopes that it will gain a larger readership.  I will, of course, retract if ever asked.

We humans do create fires here on Earth.  We create warmth in a universe where, aside from stars, cold is the norm.

Amazing words here.  Poetry compared to language is the inverse of DNA compared to a tree frog.  While poetry can be seen as shiny distillation of our daily talk, biochemicals tell little of the quickness of life.

Artwork thanks:  Cemetery Angel from Adam Selwood on Flickr.