On a morning like every other, Jim Baichtal and his geologist buddies are having coffee. On a rock outcropping, naturally. They’re on the shore of Tongass National Forest in Alaska, on the hunt for fossilized remnants of prehistoric marine reptiles.



It’s May, extremely low tide ~ prime conditions for monitoring this area which had previously yielded fossil vertebrates.

A sip of coffee, an offhand remark ~ Hey, Jim, what’s that?  How ‘bout a donut over here? So, ya’ think it’s anything?  They take a closer look. It isn’t a fishbone or a branch. They give it a kick, it doesn’t move.



An extreme low tide near Kake in Southeast Alaska in May revealed the tail of a thalattosaur fossil. Photo by Patrick Druckenmiller

It. Is. Indeed. Something. It’s a complete intact section on an exposed layer of rock in a place where the tide only occasionally leaves it uncovered.


What the low tide revealed. The excavation team works to remove the rock where the thalattosaur fossil has been embedded for more than 220 million years. Photo by Patrick Druckenmiller



Jim and his buddies discover the entombed bones and vertebra of a Thalattosaur, an enigmatic marine reptile that swam in the tropical waters surrounding the supercontinent Pangea during the late Triassic period of the Mesozoic era, 200 to 230 million years ago.


Hunting: Thalattosaurs inhabited the seas for about 30million years, a relatively brief time geologically


Jim and his team know there is a very good chance that more of the skeleton is still intact inside the dark gray calcareous shale near the tail section. They cut the top slab layers above the fossil, removing each section as they work their way down. A slab containing the original discovery is recovered and a second fossil-bearing slab comes free just as the tide again covers the site.



The evolution of life can be learned from evidence contained in something as basic as a rock. Given the amazing, diverse life forms that have existed on Earth, adaptation to environmental change shapes the characteristics of the survivors. What geologists try to do with the fossils is unravel what’s happened ~ to read and interpret the fossil message.

What ‘s next for the Thalattosaur fossil?  It’s at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks where the staff will process the slabs with x-rays, hydrofluoric acid and micro-sandblasters. They hope to isolate more fossil remains from inside the slabs and, eventually, display the images and casts. It’s too much of a treasure to lose, says Baichtal.

Speaking of treasure ~ In the next decade, half of America’s teachers are likely to retire. What we do to recruit, train, and retain our new teachers will shape public education in this country for a generation. All of us are where we are today because we had great teachers in our lives. Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, wants to make our schools better. He can learn how from the Alaskan geologists. They go to a place that has a history of fossil finds. They know what to look for, observe with intent, talk, talk, dig deeper, then read and interpret the message.



Patty’s latest scheme involves sitting in a corner of a classroom. By choice. In a teacher-as-stranger role. (Others of us have memories of being sent to that corner, kneeling on hard tile squares, and have no desire to return.)  She’s going to target strategies that work, and then tell the stories that show why they do. She is the geologist in the classroom. She knows where to look and what to look for. And she’s eager to share what she’s learned with a parent, a principal, a teacher,and yes, even a Secretary of Education.


Arne Duncan US Education Secretary Arne Duncan smiles as he speaks with a group of sixth graders at Paul Revere Elementary school May 22, 2009 in San Francisco, California. Secretary Duncan toured Paul Revere Elementary school during a visit to San Francisco where he met with mayors and school district superintendents to discuss how the federal stimulus plan will affect schools.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Arne Duncan


The basis for academic success can be learned from evidence in something almost as basic as a rock ~ a classroom, the kind of classroom where most of the students reach goal. We need to take a cue from the geologists. Patty knows this. She’s going to observe, reflect, and interpret the message. So, Arne, listen up. The message is about the future of our kids. It’s too much of a treasure to lose.

Toni 8/12/11


  1. I don’t remember who said this; I’ve said it so much I forget I didn’t come up with it myself. It’s a big part of my stance toward parenting and teaching.

    Our kids are the messages we’re sending to a time we’ll never see.

    So let’s get this schooling right.



  2. And, Toni, thanks for expanding on my archaeology example–the part where I say they know where to look for the knuckle bone that will make all the difference. This piece is great. Beautiful.


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