Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Towels, Grate Art, Janet K. West, And Why I Haven't Posted About Ferguson - Choosing The Worlds We See

The Ferguson Grand Jury decision begs to be written about - and many, many people have given that beggar alms.  There's lots to write about Alaska's new governor and lieutenant governor.  The stock market is at record highs while so many people are barely scraping by.  What about the metamorphosis of our 'knowing' of Bill Cosby?

But my attention lately hasn't been controlled by cable news, newspapers, or even internet news.  No, it's been strongly influenced by two youngsters both under two years old.  That world looks very different.  I have posts bubbling up on "Why Do Toddlers Hate Naps?";  "Gaining Power By Learning To Put Words Together"; and  "How Babies Know Babies From Adults".

This post is going to focus on things we examined on a walk the other day.

Grate Art

This collage gets a little busy, but the busyness does suggest how much there is to observe in these generally unseen parts of our daily lives.  And it shows that even engineers consider aesthetics for their most mundane products.  And I couldn't help comparing the pattern on my little shark's hat, that her uncle knitted for her, to the grate art.

This puffball we encountered seemed to fit into this set of pictures well.  

But back to grates.  Here's a grate around a tree.  And in the next picture you can see what the arrow is pointing to, as people have taken this practical way to protect and water these trees stranded on sidewalk, to also honor someone they held in high esteem.

The grating does look a bit like an old zoo cage.  Does this tree feel imprisoned here?  Isolated from its tree friends?  The word we use for people, probably doesn't match what plants 'feel', but if you think this thought is totally ridiculous, read this at Scientific American.  There's so much we don't know.

I had a good feeling about Janet K. West after seeing this plaque.  However, the cynic in me also knows that anyone can buy an indulgence and replace one's past with a  rosier image.  The Catholics may have officially banned this practice, but Americans have embraced it.  Just look up the real stories of the many people whose money has put their names on public buildings and spaces.

So I did some searching about Janet K. West, and the little I found seemed to confirm that she deserved a plaque.

The first hit wasn't solid evidence, but a piece of data to be weighed along with whatever else I could find.  From the Housing Resources Board
Janet West 
This development was named after Janet West, a past mayor of Bainbridge Island and long time advocate of affordable housing. It is a nine-unit bungalow style complex consisting of one two-bedroom and eight one-bedroom apartments.
This sounds good.  There are lots of reasons they could have given, and being an long time advocate of affordable housing is a good one.  But alone, it's not convincing.  We can write anything about anyone.  But then I found a book chapter that Janet K. West wrote.  Here are just a couple of excerpts, but anyone who voluntarily gives up their power so that others can achieve more fully, especially teachers, is ok in my book.
"The biggest discovery I made when I started to have students evaluate their own work was that often they were the only ones who could do it. To put it another way, I realized I couldn't always teach them because only they could discover what they needed to learn. This revelation came when a writing class of college-bound students was working a painful route through Loren Eisley's Immense Journey. I wanted to see how much of the man and his attitudes they'd begun to discover. We had struggled with vocabulary, style, and ideas. I say "we," for I too was struggling to find means to help them cope. They took dialectic notes. We had had almost page-by-page oral analysis. They had written precis. Nothing broke through the wall of frustration, confusion, misconception, even hostility that grew higher daily. So along about Chapter Five, I turned to an exercise I'd learned to use in literature classes to help students understand the characters- the bio- poem. This time, though, they were to write one about the author."

A biopoem?  I didn't know what that was.  But  Read Write Think quickly remedied that.  Here are  the first of the 12 lines of a biopoem:
"How to Write a Biopoem 
(Line 1) First name 
(Line 2) Three or four adjectives that describe the person 
(Line 3) Important relationship (daughter of . . . , mother of . . . , etc)"

And the end of the Chapter:
"With so much going for it, I'm embarrassed to think how long it took me to discover peer evaluation. I knew, with a kind of desperation, that my students would be weaned (if only by graduation) and only by happy circumstance would have a college roommate, a secretary, or a spouse to do for them what I'd been doing-showing them the weak- nesses and errors in their writing. I also knew I hadn't provided them with enough tools or practice to do the job for themselves, to be their own evaluators. Now I feel more confident that these vital dimensions are being added to their education, largely through use of writing-to- learn exercises, which frequently require sharing and peer response. It has benefits for me, too. I can and do assign more work in smaller chunks, while actually decreasing my paper-grading load, because most of the small assignments lead to formative evaluation. Both my students and I know more clearly what I'm looking for when I grade the final product. I have a much clearer idea of the quality to expect when I read that product. Best of all, they've learned more: about the subject, about themselves, and about learning."
I can relate to this.  I used to harangue my grad students that they had to learn to think for themselves.  What were they going to do when they graduated and no longer had teachers to tell them what to read and then helped them figure out what it meant?  They were going to have to do it on their own.  So, yes, I think I'd like Janet K. West and I'm glad I got to meet her with my little shark as we walked down the street and paid attention to the little things around us, without any thought of Ferguson or Cosby.

Oh yes, the towel up on top.  It was hanging on the bench at the playground.  When we went back the next day, it was still there and I thought we could use it to dry the slide, which had some ice and snow on it.  But when I picked it up, it was frozen solid.

The shark decided to skip the slide, but had a great time on the swing after I used some leaves to dry the seat.  And she learned a little bit about the effects of cold.

I'm not saying we shouldn't pay attention to the Fergusons, Cosbys, and other national and international events.  But let's put them in perspective.  If we all could enjoy the little wonders around us, perhaps we'd have more joy and less hate altogether.

And as I write about Janet K. West, I realize I know nothing about her but these tidbits.  And possibly the people who admired her didn't know about or ignored some hidden trait she had that cast her in a less positive light.  We all have done or said things we wish we could take back.  We have to learn to understand the complexity of human beings who so often combine both great, admirable qualities  with darker ones.  And we have to figure out ways to minimize the darkness and find just ways to deal with the darkness when it casts shadows on the greatness.

Being with young, young children helps one concentrate on the possibility inherent in each person and reflect on what mysterious (and not so mysterious) forces stain, or even derail those possibilities in so many.  Reading great literature from many cultures, reminds us that the complexity of humans has been around since the beginning in every culture.  


  1. Thank you for the beautiful musings that come up when you're on kid-time. I'm an Alaska grandma taking care of two Portland area granddaughters, and I too have spent hours inspecting grates, tree sap, slug slime, leaf textures and forms, discerning background noises, creating echoes, creating shadows, etc.....and generally having an amazing time experiencing parenting as an older, more patient person. Thanks for your insightful meanderings.


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