On the Cusp: Learning to Pay Attention to the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

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Appearances welcome and unwelcome: In northern Vermont lynx have returned for the first time in forty years; in our central Vermont town Starbucks is reportedly about to make an entrance for the first time ever. Even here. Is this a faint echo of the strange careenings in this country, between the hopeful: the beaver in the Bronx, and the disastrous: the government’s anti-earth policies and actions? What does this have to do with thoughts about my teaching and learning?

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Since fall I’ve been in an unfamiliar, sometimes unsettling space and time, on the road a lot, in between, and it’s not been easy finding my bearings, or balance. But it is precisely those moments of disequilibrium that carry the promise of deep learning, of pulling me out of my complacency, of sharpening my sight. It’s so easy not to pay attention, to settle into the blur and selfishness of routine. Being out of my element has been good for me. I have missed some momentous local events altogether: the Vermont blizzard, for one,
snowdrift hearing or reading, instead of living, the stories of my daughter snowshowing the third of a mile length of our driveway in deeply drifting snow to get a ride to town for her job, or of our large flat-coated retriever getting stuck in the snow and needing to be fished out. I’ve had to learn how to listen instead of speaking.

bethelmountainroad Nearly every week for months I’ve been driving the three hours over two mountain passes to New Hampshire and then down the interstate to the town I grew up in to stay with my parents in their retirement community, and two or three or four days later, I turn around and drive home again.

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My father is dying. And in spite of his being just shy of 89, it’s still a stunning fact to face, a difficult sentence to utter. He has been a tremendous force in my life, my role model as a teacher, a touchstone in many ways. Traveling with him and my mother and my brothers through these challenging, touching days has pulled me out of my own orbit, far from the details of daily home life and my students and the computer and their thrall.

It has taken slowing down, going deep, having some time for thoughts to bubble up and rise slowly–to look around, to feel the power of the ordinary instead of just talking about it. I’m also reading differently: picking up the magazines strewn about the laundry room at the retirement community: reading several times the poems in the torn issue of New Yorker (a lovely one by Louise Gluck, “Noon,” for instance) or the articles in a pristine looking Preservation –a powerful, short piece, for instance, by Wendell Berry, adapted from his foreword to James Achambeault’s Historic Kentucky and think about what he has to say about photographs:

Photography is surely the most temporal of the arts…The picture that results is the realization of a unique instant. Looking at it, we are aware of an implied insistence: This picture could not be made again. The light that made it is past. The photographer cannot return even tomorrow, even later today, and make the same picture. Because it is so insistently temporal, photography is also insistently historical.”

and as I watch the elderly gentleman next to me fold his laundry slowly, perfectly, to the side of his walker, I put down the Berry and my thoughts journey from the article and the man’s flannel shirts and his bent hands to John Berger and what he writes recently in Orion Magazine:

“It’s a commonplace to say that photographs interrupt or arrest the flow of time. They do it, however, in thousands of different ways. Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ is different from Atget’s slowing-down to a standstill, or from Thomas Struth’s ceremonial stopping of time. What is strange about Jitka’s forest photos…is that they appear to have stopped nothing! In a space without gravity there is no weight, and these pictures of hers are weightless in terms of time. It is as if they have been taken between times, where there is none.” (“Inside Forests” November/December 2006)

Is this why I’ve been taking so many photos of the ordinary details glimpsed through windows, to steady myself within a moment without end, to try to understand it?
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Such unexpected discoveries in someone else’s magazines and moving about a world filled with old people brings me to thoughts of my students so young and intoxicated with possibility. In the fall I want my students to explore and experience a visual and aural understanding of their world as they write about it. I want them to have the pleasure of observing people and place, of diving into the writings of the Berrys and Bergers and Glucks of the world in a leisurely way, as I am now. For years I have been guilty, I believe, of what David T. Hansen describes in his introduction to the outstanding John Dewey and Our Educational Prospect:

“The explosion of information in the world today, the rapidity of interaction via contemporary modes of communication, the continued blurring of the lines between providing education and offering marketable degrees and diplomas: these and other forces conspire to push educators into a mode of incessant busyness, with increasingly scarce time for solitude and the conversation so indispensable for thoughtful study and reflection.”

Even with this reflective blog and my posts about blogging as letter-writing and slow-blogging, I know I moved too fast, glancing at the books piled high, at the road, at the world around me, at the colossal problems in my community and the world. Now I observe the nuances of my father’s expressions, reading his face and his body for signs of pain. I do jigsaw puzzles with him, slow piece by slow piece, noticing the subtle spill of colors and contours of the picture. I go to the community’s library and pick out a wondrous array of books in the discard box–I wonder which of the men and women I pass in the halls donated the Lawrence Durrell, which the books on Ancient Greece, the pulpy thrillers, the self-help volumes, the Ogden Nash, the Pico Iyer. Some of them look well-read, others untouched. I look inside the front covers, think about writing a post of found inscriptions, remember how as a child I collected antique spectacles and old photos of people until someone (a brother? a friend? a teacher?) told me it was kind of creepy. I wonder where those spectacles went.

I read slowly as I sit with my parents, slow-moving books, deep-observing books such as Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home, about his long walk from his home in Vermont to his home in the Adirondacks, a book I will use in my new class in the fall, a book that combines close observation, personal narrative and an urgent call to action. This I want my students to read, especially as we move into a year of presidential campaigns, of critical questions about Iraq, about who we should be in the world. I want them to have time to slow down and turn over in their hands the urgent questions of our time and I want them to think about time and place. I want them to remember their own collections of spectacles and connect them to the world.

How do we help our students, these Milennials who, Marilee Jones, Dean of Admissions at M.I.T., described during her keynote (at the Tufts University’s conference: Educating the Ne(x)t Generation), as the least healthy (most anxious, sleep-deprived, poorly nourished) generation ever: “The collective pressure is making kids sick.” As she pointed out, we have only ourselves to blame for this debilitating pressure: parents and most of their teachers are Boomers, the self-involved generation all about happiness and self-actualization and choices, our identities caught up in careers, caught up in our kids’ identities– we’re over-involved with them, we live vicariously through them, and have high expectations of them. How are they expected to slow down if we don’t? How are they supposed to have time to think creatively or mess around outside if even the playgrounds we build are managed?

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The new rituals of traveling back and forth to New Hampshire, of hanging out with retirees instead of college students during my semester leave, of being with my father as he slowly moves towards the end of life and then with my seventeen-year-old daughter at home as she moves towards the beginning of life away from home have me wanting to take a class on a trail–the same one week after week, sometimes with notebooks or cameras or recorders, sometimes without, silently, sometimes as a group, sometimes solo and see what happens. It has plunged me back into the pleasures and significance of unexpected informal learning, the importance of paying attention to the local, of learning to look at the road every week and see it, really see it for the first time in twenty-five years, instead of listening to music or zoning out into thoughts of my teaching, of my blogging, of my parenting, of all the things I have left undone.

The road is one I’ve been driving for over twenty-five years but never every week. At first, this fall, the shifting light and color of the natural landscape (fall melting into winter) and the shifting rhythms of the human travel week (quiet Tuesdays, busy Fridays) kept me occupied. At first I played around with my camera:
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Then gradually I started taking note of the particulars of the humanscape I had never noticed along the way:

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And now back home I think about how lucky I am to be on this journey right now: how next week I’ll be giving a workshop in Denver to independent-school teachers with Barbara Sawhill who has written a beautiful post about informal learning with her students through Skype and talkand then back to my Vermont-New Hampshire commute before heading to the U.K. to give a talk to educators in the post-16 sector. Thinking about K-12 learning, about post-16 learning, about teaching, about what social software has to do with any of this, all while tracing this quiet, intense passage with my family has been remarkable. I am acutely aware of the importance of examining how and why we privilege certain kinds of learning and learners in our classrooms and to thinking about the value and context of everyday informal learning as Peter Sawchuk does in his excellent book: Adult Learning and Technology in Working-Class Life. In those talks I want to explore ways in which moving out into the connected spaces of the internet can bring huge gifts to the classroom–any classroom– if we ground our learning communities in the very real and present local. Even in traditional learning institutions teachers and students will benefit from considering and sharing their own learning histories, then noticing and experiencing the contact zones within this learning community, noticing and experiencing the landscape and peoplescape around them, thinking about why and how such things as blogging might help to deepen the learning or inhibit us as Laura wonders in a recent post, as we connect to one another so publicly as my student Katie explores in a wonderful post that in part answers, I believe, Jill’s question about whether students are tiring of blogging.

In our classrooms we have for so long woven pretty pale, stiff excuses for richly hued, complex, textured tapestries of a group’s time together thinking, listening, talking and creating. We can do better. I can do better, by honoring the personal and informal and ordinary within the confines of formal learning, by slowing down, by messing around, by looking for signs of the lynx and beaver all while asking why people crave the sameness of a Starbucks, while as BBC Washington correspondent Matt Frei says about recent stories in the news: “We have been captivated because each one of these escapades featured an unscripted moment of hilarity, insanity or frailty in our otherwise so scripted world.”

I’d like to explore other kinds of unscripted moments in my classes–slowly– the personal and ordinary, turning them over and over in our hands, connecting them to our formal learning experience and to each other in our pursuit of deep learning about ourselves and the world and how we want to live within take our participatory culture .

Ganleymen1939.jpg My grandfather, my uncle, my father ( the older brother) in 1939, Upstate New York