August, time to plan

Wheat grown on a classroom windowsill in northern New Jersey

I am a science teacher. I teach young humans when ridiculously high levels of testosterone and estrogen course through their veins, I teach young humans with developing frontal cortices, I teach young humans just beginning to realize that much (or maybe most) of what adults have shared with them is less than true.

I have a lot of fun teaching, and I am a reasonably happy adult too old to pretend that “everything will work out,” but comfortable enough with mortality not to freak the young’uns out.

I have a curriculum (as all public school teachers do), but not much of an agenda beyond helping my lambs learn how to put things together using their wits, their senses, and their humanness. (I am convinced that humans are reasonably comfortable and happy being humans when allowed to be just that.)

Horseshoe crabs on a Jersey beach at sunset.

Not sure what I’m doing (and no decent teacher ever is), but here are things I plan to put in the hands (or heads) of my students this year–wheatberries, fossil shark teeth, thoughts of mortality, magnifying glasses, pill bugs, human bones, daphnia, northern brown snakes, an abandoned bald-faced hornet nest, words from James Baldwin, pocket microscopes, and, if the pandemic allows a trip this year, live horseshoe crabs.

Anyone of those is enough to change one’s view of how this world works.


11:19 P.M.

Near solstice sunset, on the Delaware Bay from the Jersey side

11:19 P.M. here–the sun stands still, shifts its mass*, and heads back north.

6 months ago, when we sat on the opposite side of the sun, I celebrated the summer solstice, a joy tinged with the weight of knowing the sun would start its slow, long course southward.

Winter is only hours away, and winters can be brutal here. The light, however is returning.

When I was a child, winter meant cold, summer heat. I did not, could not, grasp why the elders got so excited late December, at the cusp of winter, when we faced long wintry days.

I get it now.

The spine of a horseshoe crab, its ghost long gone.

A decade ago I stood outside in the chilly night with my youngest, now well over thrty years old, watching our shadow drift across the moon, a wavering copper-gold washing in from the moon’s left.

My mom used to tell me she could see me as an infant even as I stood before her as a man. I laughed, of course. I am big–over 200# big.

I get it now.

Beer World, Villas, NJ

Solstice literally means the sun stands still.

Very few students notice how far the sun has shifted since class started just 3 1/2 months ago. There’s no need. Food comes in boxes, heat in radiators. The whole world of technique is magic to them.

In Ireland this morning, the sun rose, as it has, as it will. A shaft of sunlight flashed through a chamber in Newgrange built thousands of years ago, before the Great Pyramids, before the Celts arrived, before Stone Henge.

We will not study this in science, nor will our students study this in history class. We will create a class ready for the 21st century, for the abstract, for a culture that confuses bank profits with economy.

If children owned the winter solstice, the dying light, knowing what waits for each of us before a 100 winter solstices pass, would they come to school?

Would you?

I believe schools can be worth the time children invest in them. I am not convinced we’re there yet.

At least not as long as I keep practicing education as religion, using a script written generations before me.


*The sun may indeed change direction if we use Earth as the reference point, but “shifted its mass” is, of course, incorrect, since it implies uneven forces were applied to it. Since I have yet to find a better explanation for “mass” beyond “the amount of inertia stuff has,” even a poetic license does not give me permission to spew such nonsense.

But I spew it anyway….

Clamming in late autumn

They’re alive, just an hour or two after leaving the bay, and will be until they are cooked an hour or two later.

I am alive when I take this picture, and will be even after these particular clams are eaten.

Quahogs raked from the back bay in late November

The air is chilly in the shadows, but the water is still warm enough for sandals.

In a generation or two, different clams will fill the same basket, different hands will hold the same rake.

The shells of the clams above now sit under a maple tree outside, resting among the shards of so many other shells, all raked up alive, all eaten, all dead.

If you’re a high school teacher, here’s a macabre exercise that I think is worth doing once or twice a year. Wander out into the hallways in between the periods, when the kids are being kids, in varied kid positions, using kid slang.–walking/strutting/slouching/skipping/dancing/sliding with in your face vivaciousness .

Now imagine those same bodies a years after they are dead, their skeletal remains as lifeless as the ghostly white clam shells sitting under my maple tree.

Clam shells under the maple tree.

And then ask yourself, what are you doing today with these children whose lives are as mortal as the clams.

(Mortality should influence your curriculum at least as much as capitalism does….)