Sunday, July 16, 2017

Why Two Whitman Seniors Returned to 9th Grade

It was spring of my senior year in college, and there was just one more class I needed to take before I graduated: 9th-grade biology.

Every Tuesday, my fellow nature-nerd Eva and I volunteered in a Wa-Hi classroom. You can watch our interview with the Walla Walla Public School District here, and read below for the whole story.


When you live in Walla Walla, the name "Wa-Hi" rolls off the tongue. It's short for Walla Walla High School, one of two (along with Lincoln High) in the Walla Walla Public School District. That's about all I knew until January, when I got to Whitman for my senior spring.

During my three years at Whitman, I'd been wanting to get more involved in community service, but there never seemed to be time. I volunteered in small ways: I brought Whitman's crested gecko and rock python to bilingual elementary-school classrooms and did yard work for the elderly on Martin Luther King, Jr. day. Then I got an e-mail from our Science Outreach Coordinator asking for volunteers in a Wa-Hi 9th-grade biology classroom. I signed up for one hour a week on Tuesdays. My friend Eva signed up for the same time so we could carpool and work together.

The Wa-Hi campus.
Photo credit: Breanna Baltrusch.

When we got to Wa-Hi, I was amazed to see a barn full of sheep. In high school, I would have given anything for the chance to attend a rural school with an Future Farmers of America (FFA) program. And here I was, living ten minutes from an FFA school! I wish I'd gotten involved on my first day in Walla Walla, maybe volunteering with the FFA kids or a local 4-H club.

The campus is spread out between green, grassy commons and bisected by a restored section of Yellowhawk Creek. Eva and I signed in at the main office and walked through a maze of outdoor hallways to find Ms. Burt's classroom.

The Wa-Hi hallways are outdoors.
Photo credit: The Whitman Wire.

Mary Burt is one of those teachers students feel lucky to have. Even though these 9th graders were not always thrilled to spend their 7th period learning about cells and forest ecology, they were always happy to see Ms. Burt. She has a sense of humor that keeps her classroom's attention through laughter instead of discipline.

Here I am in the classroom with Eva, my volunteer partner, and Ms. Burt, the 9th-grade biology teacher.

I loved working with Wa-Hi students. I would have liked to invest more than one hour a week, but even so, I got to know the students' names and personalities. That's the great thing about high schoolers -- they'll tell you exactly what they're thinking. When a student would tell me, "No, I'm not going to do the work; this is boring and I hate it," I took her at her word. I remember feeling trapped by worksheets and standardized curriculum.

I tried to make every interaction about the student first, asking how he was doing and building a human-to-human relationship instead of just a teacher-to-student one. Second, I tried to bring in curiosity.

"Science is not about memorizing things, it's about asking questions," I told one student. "So if you don't know the answers about cells, why don't you write a list of questions?" Then, we'd pick which question sparked the most curiosity, and I'd help the student pursue the answer to that question instead of the ones on the worksheet.

Some students were motivated by drawing, so I encouraged them to draw their work. Others were distracted by YouTube during class, so we found relevant videos as inspirations for project topics. One student was making a scene by drinking a Dr. Pepper instead of working, so I asked him to explain the day's concept, diffusion, in terms of soda. His improvised explanation was so good, I used it with other students for the rest of the class.

The barriers to success in this classroom were high. It was the last period of the day; the honors and Advanced Placement students had been separated into other classrooms; and I imagine Ms. Burt would have loved to have a full-time assistant rather than a couple of volunteers a week. There were simply not enough resources to allow for the creative, engaging education these students deserve.

This semester, I was a teaching assistant for a Whitman course, Plant Identification Laboratory. Spending Tuesdays at Wa-Hi and Thursdays in a Whitman lab, I was amazed and disappointed by the enormous gap between the two classrooms.

Picture Wa-Hi: the desks were mismatched and graffitied. They barely fit inside the small classroom. There are no paid assistants, only once-a-week volunteers. The students were responsible for stacking the chairs each Tuesday so the custodian could mop, and Ms. Burt was responsible for keeping the blackboard clean. There are about 1700 students, and the student-faculty ratio is 19:1.

Now picture Whitman: the students are spread out across five rows of pristine laboratory benches, with extra space in the back for projects. The microscopes and stools are upgraded regularly. There are two paid teaching assistants (me and my friend Lia). We can leave the blackboard messy with chalk because the custodian will take care of it. There are about 1500 students, and the student-faculty ratio is 8:1.

I made up a name for this divide: the Classroom Privilege Gap. Obviously, a private college and a public high school are not parallel institutions, but this gap also exists among high schools, rural or urban, private or public, north-end or south-end. Working in these two classrooms each week was a reminder of how unfair and damaging this gap is.

Behold the Whitman classroom, replete with 45 microscopes and carefully arranged plant samples.

The weekly lab is planned by our professor, Heidi (right), set up by two paid teaching assistants (Lia and me), and supported by the biology department staff. Compare that to Ms. Burt's five-days-a-week Wa-Hi biology class, run entirely by Ms. Burt and a couple volunteers.

Teachers like Ms. Burt need more support, and students like the Wa-Hi 9th-graders deserve better school infrastructure. There's no easy solution, but adequately funding public schools is a place to start. Only 2-3% of the federal budget goes to education, and the Trump administration's budget called for a $9.2 billion (or 13.5% cut) to education spending. We can do better.

Finally, I'll leave you with this sign I read every Tuesday in the Wa-Hi office:

I love this sign. It doesn't require you to believe that you are special or perfect or amazingly talented; it just reminds you to do what you can with what you have.

What can you do? Call your representatives. Volunteer in public schools. Vote for administrations and taxes that support education. If you have more ideas about getting involved, leave them in the comments. I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

"I Dive Like a Girl, Try To Keep Up!" Celebrating Women's Dive Day in the Eelgrass of Puget Sound

Did you know that today, July 15th, 2017, is the third annual PADI Women's Dive Day?

Only about a third of certified scuba divers are women. Today I joined a welcoming and adventurous group of female divers from Seattle Scuba Schools to dive the Junkpile, a smattering of sunken debris off Alki Beach in West Seattle.

I came to the event alone, so I was paired with Hannah as my dive buddy. Diving is a great way to make friends, even though there's not much chance for conversation underwater...

These photos are to show my underwater-photography learning curve. I figured out how to take stills from a GoPro video, yay!

And so you can admire the beauty of neoprene-hood cheeks, of course.

It was my first chance to use my new GoPro, a Hero 2 I bought on Craig's List. Here's a short video of our dive through the eelgrass bed. (Sorry, no critter close-ups. My battery died before I found the sea stars.)


I adore diving in Puget Sound, even though the cold water requires bulky gear (a two-piece, 14 mm wetsuit plus boots, gloves and hood), and the green algae limits visibility to ten feet. What I love is getting to know this underwater ecosystem right next to my home, the city of Seattle.

We saw lots of flounder, a ratfish, a Dungeness crab, a striped sea jelly, and the siphon of an enormous clam. Best of all, we saw sea stars! A Leather Star, two Sunflower Stars, a Giant Pink Star (think Patrick from Spongebob), a Sunstar, and an orange star that could have been Ochre or Mottled.

This icing really took the cake.

After the dive, we were treated to a delicious summer barbecue hosted by Cathy from Seattle Scuba Schools. Now I have to go put away all my gear that's drying in the sun!

Happy, salty, hungry divers.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Lake Ballard: A Lively Capitalist Ruin

On May 27th, I explored Lake Ballard with my mother, Jane.

Jane birds Lake Ballard through a chain-link fence.

If you're from Seattle, you might pause to wonder what I'm talking about. The house-boated Lake Union is well known, as are the duck-filled Green Lake and the bridge-spanned Lake Washington. But Lake Ballard? You've probably never heard of such a thing.

That's because Lake Ballard is actually a puddle of water that has collected in a huge empty lot at the intersection of NW 46th St and 15th Ave NW (better known as the Ballard Bridge). It sits across the street from Ballard Blocks Shopping Mall, home to Trader Joe's and LA Fitness, among others.

Lake Ballard contains multiple habitats: calm freshwater, concrete pads, and blackberry brambles.

The concrete foundation has been growing a forest of Himalayan blackberries since its industrial buildings were torn down several years ago. Online neighborhood forums have generated many complaints about this "wasted" space, with commenters referring to it as an "eyesore" and calling for rapid development.

One commenter wrote, "You mean that swimming pool? It's about time they did something with that. Boggles the mind how property owners can afford to just sit on land like that without doing anything. At least turn it into parking for boats and RVs to pick up some cash."

The capitalist spirit is alive and well in Ballard.

You never know what you might find in Lake Ballard -- perhaps a chair and a fire extinguisher.

Seattle's bird-watching community has taken a different perspective, as have an impressive number of migrating shorebirds and urban resident species. Birders have dubbed the construction site "Lake Ballard." We frequent it with our binoculars, report sightings on the Tweeters listserv, and submit eBird checklists. Highlights have included semipalmated plovers, least sandpipers, greater yellowlegs, spotted sandpipers, and solitary sandpipers.

Because it is fenced off from human trespassers and isolated from most predators, Lake Ballard is a safe haven for a duck to raise her family.

I watched this mother mallard supervise six ducklings in the frothy waters.

Here, a mallard and her duckling sleep behind a killdeer, the only shorebird we saw today.

A female house finch picks seeds from a pioneering shrub.

Next to Lake Ballard runs one of Seattle's famous drawbridges, the Ballard Bridge. A host of streetwise birds make their homes here, in the traffic-rumbling shade.

Jane is framed between the Ballard Bridge and Lake Ballard.

Pigeons are the most dependable sightings.

European starlings live here, too.

A native and intelligent American crow watched my mother and I with interest from a telephone wire.

Most excitingly, a colony of cliff swallows have plastered their mud to the bridge's underside. Concrete cliffs suit them just fine.

This view is looking straight up at a hanging weed, fence-top pigeon perch, and cliff swallow nest below the bridge.

Close-up of a cliff swallow's mud nest.

Another nest with a white, blue, and orange head poking out.

A cliff swallow makes adjustments to her corner abode.

I have become fond of Lake Ballard and its avian inhabitants. To me, this empty lots holds several lessons:

1. Birds in Seattle are desperate for freshwater, and they need more aquatic and riparian habitat.

2. Nature is resilient, and it will fill in the weedy margins of capitalist development at any opportunity. We have the potential to coexist, humans and wildlife, in ecosystems that are contaminated and collaboratively built by all of us. (For more on this idea, I suggest reading The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Tsing.)

3. Waste is never wasted. What a developer sees as a "waste of money" or a neighbor sees as a "waste of space" is a resource that will be used by marginalized populations, in this case birds and blackberries.

And with these lessons in mind, I am sad to share the news that Lake Ballard will soon be developed into a grocery store, marine retail, and a restaurant. A big white board (formally known as Notice of Proposed Land Use Action) declares the lake's fate underneath graffiti of an incredulous fox. I picture a thought bubble over the spray-painted canine's head:

"Do we really need another grocery store across the street from Trader Joe's?"

A notice of Lake Ballard's impending demise, with commentary from a graffiti fox.

Of course, Ballard is growing, and the stores will be frequented by customers happy for a source of high-end foods on which to spend their money. It's a capitalist dream to replace this wasteful swimming pool with economically productive businesses.

Yet, I imagine an alternative use for this land. What if Lake Ballard were immortalized into a small urban park? What if Ballard's residents worked together to demand that this vacant lot be turned into a freshwater oasis for shorebirds and waterfowl amid bustling concrete and air-conditioned gyms and grocery stores? My dream has been met with enthusiasm when I shared it with Trader Joe's clerks and shoppers, my only audience so far.

Resistance to development is not a stranger in this place. Across from Lake Ballard, wedged between Ross Dress for Less and LA Fitness, sits an odd and unexpected home. It's the house of the late Edith Wilson Macefield, a Ballard legend who refused to sell her property for exorbitant offers. So, the Ballard Blocks Shopping Mall was built around her.

Edith Wilson Macefield's house tucked defiantly between behemoth units of Ballard Blocks Shopping Mall.

Clearly, the birds are willing to call this ruin home. I would like to take a leaf out of Edith's book and defend this "waste" for the organisms who recognized its potential not as a generator of profit, but as a nursery for ducklings, a source of home-building mud, and a garden of seeds and berries. I would feel more at home in my city if I could visit Lake Ballard years from now, spend a few moments with its inhabitants, and remember that all of us -- all organisms -- are in this game of survival together.