Overviews: The World In a Grain of Sand

Think, for a minute, about ways of getting or creating an overview of a bunch of experience or information.

sketching time sample map cropped to squareMaps can do that–geographical maps, but also the very local maps-of things-to-be-built-in-the-future called blueprints, or the webs that some writers like to call concept maps.

Planning curriculum, mulling a big unwieldy thing, I found that it helped me to use charts made on pages with boxes. overviews first weeks edit“Those box things” students called them–and blank versions freely available worked really well as a note-taking strategy for kids who needed to see an overall structure as they took their notes, rather than waiting for that to emerge.

overviews sample outline editI sweated and swore over the classic outline, whenever I had to produce one as a student, especially in the days before computer word processing’s friendliness to second thoughts. Still, the classic outline, with its indented Roman numerals and subcategories, works well as an overview for some minds. (To the left, the sample in the report-writing guidebook for the Voyage of the Mimi animal behavior reports.) I never required a full formal outline, but some students found them helpful and made them voluntarily.

Linnaeus’s biological classification scheme–groups nested inside groups, as in the classic outline–provided an overview of all life that helped biologists begin to grasp the whole of it. Library classification schemes like the Dewey Decimal System reach out to hold a giant organization of the universe, living and non-living: turtles / planets / novels / kinds of dump trucks / religions.

Overviews can constrain or even warp how we see what’s inside them, but they can also help us consider more than we could possibly consider without them.

Now think of synecdoche, the Greek word used to refer to one of the literary devices we use frequently in everyday conversation. An example: Let me give you a hand with that. We never mean, when we say this, just the hand. The hand in that expression stands for so much, including the ways we can stand beside someone, and reach into his or her project, helpfully.

In synecdoche, a part stands for the whole. It’s the story told at a memorial service, or the story told in a progress report, that captures a person’s character better than any list of characteristics abstracted. It’s the photograph that can take the place of a thousand words, or images and poems that hold emblematic moments.

tracing watershed pathway croppedRecently Terry Lunt teased me about how many times I’ve used a particular photograph, of some kids working together with her at projects time. “Well,” I said, “it’s a great photograph!” What do I mean? I meant that much of what I want to celebrate–and propagate–shines in that photo. (Not naming those things; just giving you the photograph again.)

Here’s William Blake, on what the human imagination can do with tiny details, giving them the meaning of the whole:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Like Blake, like so many others of my species, I want to hold the world in “a grain of sand.” Still, I also want the classification scheme, the map that can convey directions to some specific neighborhood within a big picture.

When I first began writing this blog, I gave myself huge freedom, both challenging and delicious. I knew I wanted stories, not abstractions; the power of experience, not the power of arguments. I rarely planned ahead what I would write next. I let things sneak up on me, and addressed them helter-skelter, in no rational order, inspired by students’ work as I uncovered it in my sorting, or by the comments of past students, or by curriculum materials. Although I sometimes made rough outlines for individual posts, I absolutely did not have or follow any outline for the blog as a whole.

But then, a month or so ago, I realized that I had come to a lucky difficulty: I had written so much that I couldn’t remember all of what I had written about, or figure out easily what was still waiting for me. I couldn’t see the whole of my year to think it over, in either way, either overview or emblematic glimpse.

sal blue heronA side detour back to the Linnaean classification scheme, the one with families and classes and orders, groups nesting inside groups. It’s still useful much of the time. But sidle up to Steve Gatesy, Touchstone parent and paleontologist, and say, “I just found out that birds are actually reptiles!” and he will answer, “Well, actually those categories aren’t considered very useful any more.” Grin bravely as swaths of patiently constructed curriculum wash into the gutter. (At the left, an amazing photograph my sister took of a blue heron. In certain views, a heron really does look like a snake gifted with flight.)

In any case, my reading supports Steve: most biologists now prefer to think about clades, groups of related species each consisting of an ancestor and all its descendants, a single “branch” on the “tree of life”. (The Wikipedia entry is helpful.) The category of reptiles is not a clade.

I wasn’t thinking about biological classification, but somehow I decided to assemble groups of posts that had something like a common ancestor. Now, over the past few weeks, I’ve created five overview pages to hold together those clumps.

page names under the butterflyIn the world of my WordPress template, the names of pages, acting as links, always show, in a row up toward the top of the blog–in my case, just underneath the butterfly. This stands in contrast to posts, which push each other down a long scroll, so that only one shows on the screen at any given time. (You’ll only see the pages listed below the butterfly if you read the blog on the website, however. They don’t show if you’re reading a post in an email.)

In order to think over what I’d thought over (!) I took the huge unwieldy blob of everything I’d written so far, and I read and reread, and watched myself return again and again to certain themes,

Then I tried to figure out something short and snappy to call each of those recurrent themes. That was its own kind of torture, necessary if all of them were going to fit across the page menu. Like any eleven-year-old, beginning to watch myself learn, I observed the way arbitrary structure had imposed a useful, meaningful limit.

On each of the overviews, I wrote a summary or teaser or even slightly philosophical introduction, and I constructed links to the posts that seemed to me to clump together under a particular theme. I had fun choosing photographs or illustrations–emblematic glimpses for each post.

So now, here are the names and sequence of the five clumps so far:

Even if you’re reading this in an email, it should work to click on the link I’ve just constructed for each clump’s short and snappy formulation. (Short and snappy for me, at least.)

I hope all this will prove useful. Already, for what my high school guy friends called “me, myself, and I,” this process has helped me notice gaps I want to fill.

It has also helped me re-envision my purposes. I do want to be useful to others, to keep serving the educational vision that has motivated me for more than a quarter of a century. So I’m glad to see, from my backstage statistics, that some readers have already used the overview pages to explore the strands / clumps / clades of the life depicted here.

green turtlesFor the time being, though, I’ve had enough of metablogistry. I’m ready to write about turtles, I think.

Or maybe dump trucks.




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