To “Errorometer” is human

Science is about recognizing when something doesn’t fit a current model of the natural world, which is just about all the time in science. Science is all about telling someone else they’re wrong.

Schooling is all about being “correct” and getting high grades. High school science is an oxymoron. I wrestled with this for years until I met Chris Harbeck, a different kind of teacher.

While sharing pints with a few teachers upstairs at McGinty’s, Chris took a “sip” of Guinness, then tossed out a few words that changed my teaching–

“I give out points for anything, a thousand here, a thousand there. They don’t mean anything.”

Chris Harbeck
The original Errorometer

Print out your Errorometer, laminate it, hang an Expo marker next to it–done.

Simple. Cheap. Effective.

Every time a student gives me a reasonably well thought “wrong” (or even an unusual but “right”) response to anything going on in class, even if only tangentially related to the natural world, a student can put a point up on the Errorometer. For every 10 points, everybody in class gets 10 out of 10 points in the Test/Quiz category.

The COVID no-touch version….

Yep, everybody.
Yep, it diminishes the “value” of points individuals receive on tests.
Yep, everybody’s grade gets a boost.

But, as a wise Canadian math teacher told me over a pint (or three) of Guinness, if points mean nothing (and we agreed that was true), then giving them out freely and frequently means nothing as well.

(The fancier pedagogues among us might even call this metacognition.)

Whale poop and public education

I know what folks will pay for this.
I also know what it’s worth.
Two very different things….

I have a chunk of ambergris, found it years ago, and while briefly tempted to sell it, am grateful now I kept it.

It was sitting right on the edge of the bay just north of Lincoln Avenue. It wasn’t much to look at, and I am not sure what possessed me to pick it up. Even then I almost tossed it back into the bay.

I mostly forget about it, but now and again I walk through a cloud of its molecules and get briefly taken to, well, not sure where, some vague place of immeasurable joy.

Not immense.
Immeasurable.

In the literal sense.

Delaware Bay, North Cape May

You cannot measure the pleasure, the joy, the presence of the herenow that lump of aged whale shit brings me. It apparently has the same effect on others, why else would anyone offer thousands of dollars for a slab of shite?

The big data junkies among us might argue that all things are measurable, and I supposed you could take pre- and post-ambergris exposure levels of my serum oxytocin and plot them over time, but that becomes impractical, and it’s not important anyway..

Turns out measuring some pretty important things in education are impractical, too. Brilliant writing. Unorthodox but rational thinking. Sense of public duty. Joy. Ability to observe subtle details. Flexibility when confronted with new ideas. Empathy.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is horseshoe-crab.jpg
The light of sunset through the shell of a horseshoe crab. [Photo credit: Leslie Doyle]

When our ability to measure outcomes trumps our choices of which outcomes matter, we’ve stripped “public” from education.

The pursuit of happiness


I took a walk barefoot along the edge of the bay today.
It’s December, so I am re-posting this.

A rose hip in December

The dark days. Again.

My imagination fails me, as it will, surrounded by human light, human sounds, human smells. I cannot remember the smell of honeysuckle or the soft glow of lightning bugs or the warmth that wrapped around me in early summer.

I keep a small jar of rich soil dug from my compost pile on my desk in school. Now and then, in the middle of class, I take a whiff. The children see my joy I get from the earthy aroma.

My lambs know by December that I want them to have happy, useful lives. They know I want this for every one of them.

Why else bother teaching?

***

Thomas Jefferson got the tone just right when he penned “the pursuit of happiness.” It is not an idle phrase, though it does sound a bit embarrassing in context of the modern classroom, the modern office, the modern mall.

Jefferson lived before we learned how to distract ourselves with twisted visions of immortality. We have become our own gods. Mortal illness comes as a surprise, dismissed as an inconvenience. Our cultural psychosis belittles those among us who dare to expose our mortality–if they only believed hard enough, they would be cured.

Ironically, the generation closest to achieving immortality is least equipped to deal with it. Time spent on-line chasing zombies or aliens or a Nazi nation long since quelled hardly seems worth all the fuss.

We no longer seek a life worth living. We’d just rather avoid death.

Death is inevitable. Pursuing happiness is not.

***

Yesterday one of my students came running up to me with a pot of tiny basil plants she had sowed a few weeks before.

“Smell it! Smell it!”

I did. And I glowed. Growing a plant in a classroom fits in the curriculum. A child sharing her joy at its sensuousness does not.

The seed, no larger than the head of a pin, darker than a cloudy December night, grew in a pot of peat. Shiny green leaves erupted from the seeds, now effusively shedding aromatic molecules that made me grin in December.

Something from nothing, at least nothing we could see. The poets have something to say, but so do the biologists. The aroma released from the leafs was made of carbon captured from the breaths of the same student clutching the pot.

If you’ve never sown a seed before, this is a big deal. If you’ve sown seeds for much of your life, it’s still a big deal.

A hundred years from now, the human world may be very different, but seeds will still grow when planted.

(I am having pesto for dinner tonight from last summer’s garden.)

None of us know what this world is all about. A few among us will tell you to live a certain way in order to reach worlds that no one has seen. A few among us will tell our children to live a certain way to strengthen abstract concepts like country, or economy, or success.

Success is a slippery word, but happiness is not. You know when you’re happy, even when you’re not sure how you got there.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–how many of these fit into your district’s curriculum? How many fit in your classroom?

If we continue to raise our kids for a better economy, a better nation, a better world while neglecting their inalienable right to their pursuit of happiness, we risk the “blood-dimmed tide” Yeats spoke of.

Happiness is not happenstance, nor is it trivial.

Mortality is not happenstance, nor is it trivial.

Why did you walk into your classroom today? Did you give your lambs at least as good as reason?

Photos are mine, and now yours (CC, yadda yadda)….