Author Archives: toesinthedirt

About toesinthedirt

Teaching some, learning more, as a science teacher and mom.

Something’s not right – this is too easy.

It’s not about the hours in preparing lessons for ten different subjects, crafting new interactive assignments on paper and in my mind. Not about grading piles of papers, or the challenge of appropriately customizing assignments for those that need that. Not about calling parents or attending meetings, dealing with a down WiFi network or stuffy, windowless classroom with too few electrical outlets. That sort of thing would be a given no matter where I’d teach.

What’s not quite right is that these students make me feel like I’m good at this, when really, it’s just that they are extraordinarily non-diverse and conformist, unusually trusting, loved, and supported by their families and community. So all I have to do is be reasonably creative, cheerful, energetic and organized, and things come off pretty much without a hitch. What a good teacher I am. They even give me birthday cards and presents, and a giant teacher appreciation poster at the end of the year. At the close of each class, at least two students say thank you. The principal leaves little treats in our mailboxes and brings muffins and fruit to staff meetings, and parents believe what I tell them about their kids and thank me for all my efforts.

It’s not natural.

After my year at the alternative school (having survived to want to fight on), I was exhausted, but also fired up to get out there and use what I’d learned. I wanted to get out there and make a difference, share the incredible burden teachers take on of trying to meet the educational needs of a diverse, broken culture whose youth are experiencing loss, racism, abuse, the reverberations of childhood trauma, culture shock, mental health issues, and family dysfunction. AN in addition to all that, the worst thing of all, a sense of not being visible or valued. I

All the staff and most of the parents at my school are nice Christian people. Even the guy who I would say isn’t part of that culture must have mentioned God eight times in the graduation speech, because he knew that was how to relate best to these grads and their families. There was also a giant “Jesus” sign behind him only partially hidden by green and gold balloons. A prop of the congregation whose building we rent, but at any other school, it would have been covered up in case anyone complained that one religion was being emphasized in a school event. In this town, it’s covering it up that would cause problems.

Other than three Latino kids, who are adopted, one or two of slight Asian lineage, and a good number of (white, Christian) Russian families, the students are pretty much Dutch Reform Evangelical stock. Two of the female staff do have husbands of color, most likely they got aquainted out of town. Which just goes to show, one can’t make a lot of assumptions about viewpoints, only about demographics and related cultural norms.

I like an easy job as much as the next person, don’t long to be in an uphill battle all the time, but I want to have the wind in my face sometimes, to have someone to stick up for, and against, to feel useful in a bigger way. I gravitate toward the students who struggle, who irritate others, who resist, don’t fit in, need something more.

I told myself, and my family, I’d give it three years. By that time I’ll have set down some good routines and organizational strategies, become more efficient with my time and energy, and accumulated some good lesson and project plans in three levels of math and at least three sciences, as well as teaching experience from elementary up to twelfth grade. Then we’ll see. I’ll probably run out of room for the cute little presents that will come my way all that time. I just hope I haven’t got stuck in my groove, and forgotten why I’m in this profession.



Posted by on June 12, 2017 in Education, Places & Experiences


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Teach me to live in a biosphere, which is real, not a global economy, which is not.

Sat on the chaise lounge and watched the bumblebees work over the raspberry blossoms in a sea of green. After three days of warm, sunny weather I felt confident in my decision to put away all winter coats, turn off the pilot light to the gas fireplace insert and switch off the main furnace. I’d seeded another round of four inch pots in lettuces, peas, onions,herbs, and a few flowers, and sowed beans and chard in the new garden plot off the patio, reclaimed from another corner of lawn. The air was turning cool, with rain expected–perfect for the seeds, though the tomatoes would slow down a bit. Almost time to put a bird net over the cherry trees, and the gangly limbs of the apple trees definitely needed some training and support–they were loaded with baby fruit.

I was thinking about the ways in which some of my students, maybe even a decent body, had been brought to understand something of the laws of nature–the ones that we humans ought to stop trying to ignore–such as there being finite resources on Earth that needed to be continuously recycled, that evolution is a constant and inevitable process, whatever religion says, and that there are fascinating miracles to explore at every turn, as well as inexorable forces we must reckon with, organism among organisms as we are, perched on this spinning rock blasted with radiation more powerful than thousands of nuclear bombs.

I have a mental space full of faces, ever expanding as I go through these years of teaching. Names may fade, but I will never un-know these young people, the 35-odd students I taught last year, the around eighty this year, counting middle, high and third graders. For once I get to teach at the same school–another novelty I look forward to. Ninth graders I’ll see in Physics and Algebra 1 next year, this year’s group will move on to the next math and show up for physics, too. Could be teaching some of the younger ones, though mostly high school. All the same colleagues with the addition of a new teacher–I hope I like her, bet I will.

Dan O’Neill, writer I sublet my summer office space from gave me his book, The Firecracker Boys, to give to my father, and since he’s all the way across the continent, I’m reading it before I send it there along with my son when he goes to college. It tells the story of how the Atomic Energy Commission started a group that was eager to test “peacetime uses” of nuclear power, and their first project was to be blasting a new harbor into the coast of Alaska. Their ignorance about the systems of the Earth and the disastrous effects that would result from their plan is astounding, and even though I know how the story ends, with the killing of the project and all similar ones due to the newly birthed environmental movement that arose there, I feel sick just thinking about how it might have been.

In environmental science we discussed why humans can have, want to have, even, such an outsized effect on the Earth’s systems, and yet do not seem essential to any of them in comparison to other organisms, such as, say, ants or eelgrass. The students were in agreement that if all humans suddenly vaporized, nothing would fall apart. We also explored the question of why humans, of all organisms, deliberately flout ecological principles, and what effect that might have, long term, on our species, on society. And, could there be a way to reconcile our ambitions to discover, build, and create, with the limitations that scientists are discovering that we must live within? Not to overly credit scientists–it took them hundreds of years, two steps forward, one step back (or vice versa) to catch up to some of that instinctive body-knowledge, that innate genetic wisdom, of our pre-historic ancestors.

The Fall–when and how did it happen? Was it the dawn of agriculture, or just agricultural commerce? Did it derive from the spread of the expression of new genes of cognition and self awareness? Was it accelerated by symbolic language and institutionalized ancient religions? Or was all that, really, progress?

Nowadays, just like the real estate bubble, we are talking again, in education circles, economics, science and technology, as if trends, what is happening, are the same as vision. “It’s a global economy–it’s an information age, so let’s get with it.” As I asked a mom I confide in periodically about my doubts about the value of schools systems, “Who’s driving this train and why should I get on–just because it’s going somewhere?”

My younger daughter shared with me how stressed she was about school–with the drive to maintain good grades, the pace, the hours, the lack of joy, the social pressure. By all appearances, she’s a successful student, but here she was in tears, wondering what the purpose of it all was. Her teachers were part of the problem, just because they had bought in. Their success wrapped up in rigor and performance-based assessment, not impact, enlightenment, and empowerment. I thought about the pressure I put on my Monday/Wednesday high school students, how as the test approached, I accelerated the pace of content exposure, started giving them testing tips and practice (while advising them, as the testing websites claimed, that success did not come from “test practice”  or extra study.

Friday classes were different, with only “delight-directed” activities (such as we could manage), no grades, no homework. That too appears to be about to be corrupted by the managers of the system, with a drive toward more “accountability” and record keeping. Hearing this fact at the staff meeting, I expressed my displeasure, tried to voice how dear are the values, to many homeschool families, of freedom and flexibility, as they are to teachers and students. Yes, it would drive away some families, it was acknowledged, this change, but it was what the state needed for financial accountability. Yes, families should drop out–they should save themselves, I thought. Funny how this whole parent partnership started to rope back in some of those opted out families with our flexible.part time program, and now that they’re hooked on the funding and free curriculum, we change the rules.

I sanctioned some respite for my daughter, called in and excused some skipped classes without giving clear reasons to the voice mail recorder, ignored the alarming-sounding letters citing the Becca Bill and mentioning court. She explained why she was skipping–the others were doing standardized testing she didn’t have to do and there was a sub; she’d already done the work and they weren’t learning anything new; they were playing soccer instead of having a lesson; she wanted to spend a few hours on her ceramics project. The ceramics studio, and its teacher, being the sanctuary so many students needed, a kind, blind eye turned and no questions asked. Refreshing subversion.

School is definitely part of the problem. We only need school because we’re a modern industrial society on a crash course with our destiny of ecological disaster, and it takes a lot of rigor to learn all the techniques that have got us into this mess, let alone the ones that maybe could get us out without sacrificing any modern luxuries–the ones we need at the end of our twelve hour labors. The future is coming. Let’s get there first.

Or, we could learn contextually everything we really need to know, like a cub from momma lion–how to get food and water, defend oneself without unnecessary energy expenditure or excessive harm to anyone else’s system, key social norms and boundaries (with the option of challenging them), how to play a musical instrument, and never to poop  in the water hole.


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Enter title here. There is an easier way to create. Add media, add poll, ADD CONTACT FORM! And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Publicize: Not Connected. Show image, video, quote.  All categories (most) used.

Thank you for creating.

Word count: 49
saved at 8:53:11 pm.:)

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Posted by on May 1, 2017 in Uncategorized



Earth mama is getting wired

I eat granola I made myself with yogurt (I made myself). I make my own juice from berries I grew (myself), and the other day, I used up the last of my 2016 potatoes (with some of my frozen red peppers and herbs I dried and hung from my kitchen light fixtures), then went out and planted some more in my hand-cultivated beds, making room by pulling up some overwintered kale for this week’s salads.

As I casually mentioned today to the piano teacher after serving him some of my dried mint tea –rain water brewed–in the mug I threw and baked in a kiln I built, it was difficult to have to kill a rabbit I’d snared as a teen, but I’d got it done. The fact that I never ate them (Dad did, being raised in subsistence, partly), and that I then quit snaring, I regarded as an inconsistency, a weakness.

Did I mention I can sew, knit, and do macrame? Macrame is useful for hanging planters, and all you have to do to get a plant is pinch off and root a spider plant section, keeping it wet long enough. The more you stress a spider plant, the more likely it is to bud offspring, hopeful for a new life for its genes. This explains the declining birth rate in Western nations, and makes it likely that evolutionary favors the offspring of the resource-poor, stressed, and fundamentalists.

I can’t shoot a gun, though I have thought of taking lessons. Bow hunting would be better, as I think I could get away with bagging a few of the urban deer, if I kept quiet, and in theory, I could build my own hunting gear that way. I’m not into defending my property so much, or shooting migrants–they have as much right to survival as I do. I hope we can all work it out peacefully. They’re all the more likely to add some traditional skills back into our community, so hooked on tech. I bet a lot of them just want to pull out their seeds and plant a garden, just like me.

Sounds like the last, loud wail, death cry of the seed of culture I carried all this way. I am desperate, like the stressed spider plant, to pass on my memes. I have tried to root them,  but all my children are interested in careers in tech, because human services doesn’t pay. If I teach for my remaining few decades, I don’t know if anything will stick, and I am getting tired.

I watch Netflix now, relaxing into my (writing) chair after work, door closed on my family members, who want to watch something else. I log in, click, and let my mind drift, and consume. I thought I was strong, since I used to be little tempted to binge watch, or web surf, or download the usual apps (after reading the privacy policies). Nover even cared to master the art of the remote control, of which we have three. I thought I was an informed, enlightened user, selectively online for the information, the music and art, inspiration for my own creativity, and a little remote banking routine I started while overseas. I scoffed at those who scoffed at me for not upteching, (inconveniencing them in the process), thinking, someone has to be the remnant–I want to stay in the real world, be a producer, not just a consumer.



Posted by on April 29, 2017 in Places & Experiences, Technology


The manner of her departure

Small pods of cells, tested, were interpreted as being out of line. Blood tests revealed showed hints of future troubles. And she wondered why she had become so lax, no longer stepping out in the cool of the evening to catch the rising scent of mown grass and crushed moss, or at rosy dawn to hear the chorus of birds. Why not travel, finally, to Alaska by boat this summer. Not even to take pictures, or write about it, but just to be in every moment she had left. Probably a long time, really–there was nothing to say otherwise–only the usual matters that arise in one’s sixth decade of life. She had been fortunate it had taken so long. “Really? No medications? None at all?” the nurse had repeated, incredulous.

She saw also in her alum magazine that it was that time, that death in her generation was no longer a tragic anomolgy, but a trend. Some had perished by fire and flood, but most were merely managing in bodies shutting down, or experiencing runaway biochemical processes that could not be stopped, only alleviated. Each name read opened up a porthole in her memory out of which flooded images, words, songs, various times of day and feelings. Each one a thread leading out of the rend between life and death, at least for a time. Each one who knows another bears a few such threads. Are they strengthened by writing it all down, or is that meaningless except to the writer. No, I think not.


Posted by on April 24, 2017 in Places & Experiences


What will it be–teach from the heart, or teach to the standards?

AU* dropped in this morning, and we got to talking, as he looked around at my science posters and paraphernalia, about how wonderful it is to learn, along with the students, what’s being discovered in genetics, subatomic physics, archaeology, history, and all.  How amazing, and cool, and ever changing in a way. Love this guy–I hear him wondering and thinking fresh thoughts every time we chat, hear him singing along with his first graders songs he’s written about historical figures and events, see him suffering through health problems that cause him a lot of pain regularly. Thankful I am to have no problems but a sore bunion and some unmentionable minor battles.

For my part, I’m thrown back into “my field,” biology, but there’s so much to it that I’m always learning something new (and recalling stuff I hadn’t thought about for decades, like the amazing work of nephrons, and the evolution of parasites to symbionts–take those and add them to your MS Word dictionary). Feels like I still only know the basics, but the students know even less, so what I get to teach them is very fresh and interesting to all of us. For example, the 9th and 10 graders started out being completely mystified (and making various guesses) about how we get energy from in food into our cells to do work. I pretended I was a smart 5th grader and asked them all kinds of questions to see what they could work out, and in the end, they saw (with some major hints), that chemical bonds store energy in them, and it can be got at by cells’ mitochondria. So many things happening inside ourselves that we don’t understand, let alone out there in the rest of life, time, and space. I told them–you think this is cool, imagine what more there is to know that biology majors get to study!

Not everyone is on fire to learn it, though, whether archaeology or biology, or even business math. Later LM stopped by to let me know that one of our students had left the school to go back to his old one–no warning or anything. He drifted in on the advice of a friend that this was a “better school” than the regular high school he’d started at, and was getting a lot of our attention due to not doing a stick of work or showing and ability to learn or understand or respond to questions, except in a way that deferred the issue. And for spending lost of time with that friend,  who had been caught cheating on several tests, and also did almost no work. I thought we were ready to actually help this second one, having seen through his apparent unwillingness, to a serious need for academic support, and, poof, he was gone. I’m sure that won’t go any better–he’ll slip through the cracks, probably. LM wasn’t sorry to see him go, nor are any of us, I guess. Doesn’t make the school look good, for sure. Still, what now for him? And why am I again wanting to edge back into that other kind of teaching job where feeling like a “good teacher” couldn’t be one of your goals at all, that it was all about pouring out the best love you had in you, a soft heart under a thick skin, and every student coming in with heavy baggage of uncertain content and origin?

I heard some of my colleagues talking and laughing a few doors away, and went over–it was a Friday with no students, no meetings, early release, and a coming spring break, a good time to connect. Everyone was tired, especially SF, the SpEd teacher, who had a load of paperwork still to do, and AU, 1st/7th teacher, who was fighting a bacterial infection. But there was a delight shared among us to be doing what we do. The 5th grade teacher CML passed on something that had lodged in his as he was reading, that it was important to let every student take center stage when it was their turn to speak, show 100% attention, make them feel listened to fully, and teachers needed to model that to students so they’d to do that for each other. He and LM talked about the applause battle that had started up between their two classes, 4th and 5th, LM having everyone applaud after each student presentation, which got louder, and of course CML had to add foot stomping and shouting, and the next thing he knew the pastor was at the door looking really annoyed, to remind him that his office was downstairs and he was trying to work. The pastor who had said that our being there (renting the space) was an answer to prayer had got more than he bargained for. Which, by the way he described it, was pretty much the story of CML’s life–the one who, as I said in a previous post, went back and apologized to all his teachers after he got involved in coaching and teaching. So he understands that need to be attended to, and feel important for the right reasons. “CML” stands for “changed my life.”–what teaching did for him.

As we talked about this and that, it came out that we were all feeling pushed and hurried an our teaching, with no time to go deep, or help the students pull together a cool project for the Share Fair in a few weeks. Always pressure to cover all the things someone has decided are most important, in less time than usual, since we only see the students twice a week. Now in our district, it’s shifting to a focus on “skills,” more than content knowledge, and to identify the “ten most important things,” or even five.. In a way I agree, if the word “skill,” can be replaced with “understanding.” “Skill” smacks of being marketable, which to my liberal-arts-loving (though mine was a science degree) mind means everyone being a cog in the machine and leaving the complex understandings to…what or who–the market?

CML noted that there would always be some tension on that between teachers and administrators (“creative tension,” I added, despite feeling that from my side it’s a force of evil to be creatively resisted and subverted; but as I biology teacher I know full well that it truly does take all kinds to make an ecosystem, and so, a society). I said it seems to me it’s better to go deep through 60% of what’s on the test, but at a meaningful level (which can’t be tested,) than to gloss over 100% for a pass on the test and then forget it all. In this I think we were in agreement.

Recently the principal told me that the administration of the regular high school wished it had someone who could teach AP Environmental Science. He perked up his ears at that, since they were discussing ways the two schools could work together, and here I was, a new environmental science teacher. He wondered if I might be interested. Puts me in a dilemma, because environmental science is my top pick course in terms of importance today, and I’m eager to teach it every year here, in this conservative farming community. Yet as I had told the principal before, AP style is not my idea of a good way to teach ES, because it was so difficult to go deep when you were teaching to that test, that projects and community expertise and field trips and student-organized forums had to take a back seat to taking notes from the text and getting through all the units at breakneck speed. But I told him I was open, very interested in teaching environmental science for sure. Besides (I thought), I could be wrong. AP classes do tend to attract high achievers, and so maybe the energy usually devoted to keeping motivation up really could be channeled into teaching for depth of understanding. At least I’d learn some new things, and I hope the students would, too.

There are a standardized tests in the spring, for which I am expected to prepare my students. I think I’ll just assume they were made by smart people about important concepts, and I’ll teach what I think is important, and the two will necessarily line up. A little help with managing the format and buttons and pitfalls of the data collection machines, some reassurance that tests aren’t worth stressing over, and that’s the limit of my “teaching to the test.” But don’t tell anyone this–no sense stressing out the principal either. He really means well, after all.

*made-up initials to represent my colleagues

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Posted by on April 3, 2017 in Uncategorized


Poem #3

Grampy Robbie was a journalist,
With an Underwood typewriter on a roll-top oak desk
And a beige reel-to-reel in the back parlor.

When he interviewed there,
I could hear manly voices through the door
From my perch on the stairs.

Sitting on his lap, facing out
I could rap my knuckles against the wood above the knee.
He said it had been shot off by a cannon.

“Give us a smooch,” he’d say
and lay a grizzled kiss on my cheek.
Ever after, for me a smooch implies scratchy warmth.

He smelled of apple juice
Which Grammy told me to bring him
that if I did, he’d give me all his money when he died.

Then one time when I visited,
He was laid out in a coffin in the back parlor
Not far from Grammy’s unbelievably fancy satin pillows
in rose and black.

Do you wonder whether I expected to inherit?
No, that was just Grammy’s way of saying
She didn’t believe in true love.

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Posted by on April 3, 2017 in Uncategorized