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


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?

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.


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?

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?


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:

Then gradually I started taking note of the particulars of the humanscape I had never noticed along the way:

weybridgebarn rochestercemetery

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


16 Responses

  1. What a jaw-droppingly powerful, beautiful post. I’m not sure where to begin – in fact, I already fled to one of your many gorgeous Flickr images, then to the sanctuary of my blog.

    Would a comment consisting of the word “yes”, repeated many times, be apposite? Perhaps.

    Then one note. I find it impossible to separate fully, to reflect and blog in different spheres. As my wife and I snowshoed in the dark to get to the plowed bit of road during the storm you missed, I thought about the sounds made by a single leaf skittering along the snow’s just-frozen scrim, our dog’s mixture of delight and terror at the dark, the agony of feet pulling through snow and yanking my injured back, the way the track we’d made had weak sides as we tromped back over it… and how I wanted to write all of this, and that “write” meant “write in a social way.”

    All best to your father, and to your family, at this time.

  2. I’m on my way through a re-read of Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” and here is your post. A marvelous synchronicity.

    Thank you for sharing yourself with us.

  3. Hi Barbara – thanks for your wonderful thoughts on this. The juxtaposition of parent in the twilight time…daughter in the “new life” stage…and yourself in the middle gives pause for thought.

    I grapple at times with the effectiveness of learning at hyper-speed. Hundreds of daily emails, hundreds of blogline posts…a continual, steady stream of information washes across my daily life. And do I learn? Yes, but of what nature is the learning? Is it as deep as dialoguing with a parent? Reading a beautiful book or article? Solitude, reflection, silence, and deep understanding are spaces that exist as an anchoring point in life, and yet, I find myself returning to them less frequently than in the past, yet longing for them more than ever before.

    Best wishes as you care for your father.

  4. On the deeper things of life

    Barbara Ganley has posted a “jaw-dropping beautiful” (to quote Bryan Alexander) reflection on learning in environments of abundance, and being called toward reflection by the events of life….

  5. Barbara, beautiful as always. I can’t tell you how happy I am to know people like you and Barbara and Bryan, who think about this whole realm of technology in such interesting and expansive ways. I was thinking of you as I contemplated quitting the blog. I think what I was feeling was a lot of what you express here–the rush of information without the time to process it all. The blog had been a place for me to process, but I was feeling I had to leave out too much. Or something like that.

    I also love what you say about the photographs. Doing the project 365 has really opened up another world for me. I start looking at things around me in a completely different way. And it is so temporal. I think that’s what I find fascinating about it.

    Hugs to you.

  6. Wow, what lovely lovely comments greet me as I pull up my blog this afternoon!

    Bryan, I am so pleased that you share here one of your blizzard tales–I am sure that Ripton was a magnificent wonderland and that you spent many days digging out. Yes, some of us have that urge to write in this social space–and look at what gifts we receive as a result. Your kind, kind words, for example. Thanks, my friend.

    Gardner, what a great reminder of a book I so loved and have meant to return to within the context of this connected, reflective space. I’ll go down to the library at my parents’ in the morning and see if I can snag a copy–perhaps there’s a wonderful inscription inside…

    George, I know you understand the power and the joy of learning through connecting (I have learned a great deal from you on that score), but I’m glad to hear you, too, long for quiet space and solitude to think in the kind of extended reflection and playful noodling few of us seem to have time for any more. Thanks for sharing that. Perhaps what we all need is a bloggers’ retreat–offline. 😉

    Laura, thanks for venturing over here– you are such a generous commenter (unlike yours truly…). I loved that you posted about the tensions rising within you about blogging. I sometimes find it a real challenge to carve out enough mental space to write these long posts of mine. I’ve thought about how much easier it would be for me not to blog. But blogging really does help me clarify my thinking, learn from these amazing people we’ve met along the way, and force me to challenge myself to grow in my teaching and learning. And taking photos, weaving them into my text is an absolute pleasure–I think it’s my way to meditate. Glad you’re having fun with yours!


  7. Hi Barbara. I wish I had time to respond to this properly, but I wanted to say hello and remark on what a lovely reflection you’ve shared. Your notes on the sort of “trail learning” were particularly striking for me — what a wonderful sort of class. I left Seattle on Saturday. It’s a trip I’ve made quite a bit in the last three years, and it seems fairly routine at this point. I get up early, drive the long drive to the airport with my mother, and then — miraculously — I’m somewhere very different in a matter of hours.

    What was odd this time around was how deeply sad the trip made me. I wonder if the repetition of trips like this doesn’t intentionally tease out our emotions. With a trip so similiar, so routine, the unusual bit each time is who I am at the moment of traveling, who I am and where my relationships with my family and this place are.

    You’ve sparked thoughts for me about traveling and noticing that will certainly be with me for the next few weeks — at exactly the right time, I might add! I take off for Germany tonight, in fact. I very much enjoyed reading your post; I hope you’re well, and that your trips to New Hampshire continue to be safe and thought-provoking. Your family and your father’s health are in my thoughts.

  8. Thank you Barbara for this beautiful gift of thought, story, and visuals. After a day of being glued to my laptop, I am going to shut the damn thing and go outside just to breathe.

  9. Thanks, Barbara. My parents are both in their eighties and will not live forever. My mother opted for Do Not Resuscitate about 6 months ago. I brace myself and catch myself trying to prepare for their deaths. I am also more aware that I am performing my own dance towards death. Often, I muddle through – do I remember to enjoy the now of living? Am I in a tunnel and racing dutifully to the end? Our children will continue to live after us – we hope. Do I have enough time for my children?

    With busy busy, we are reactive doing things that we just have to do often using autopilot. To a degree, we are not responsible because we are not in control with our self-prescribed time filling routine. The repetition can yield relief and protection but at the cost of numbing our senses. The familiar can tranquilize us. With travel, we often end up in the same place.

    Life becomes the path that we have followed many times and one that we no longer see or appreciate. It is easy to forget that life teaches itself to us and not the other way around.

    My son (11) and daughter (9) keep telling me that they want to see a real live beaver (like the one in the Bronx!). It is not enough that I tell them about my experiences with beavers growing up in a rural place. We traveled to a distant wilderness area but the advertised beavers were gone. Park officials moved them to a remote area as they tended to cut down all the trees and make dams that flooded out all the prepared trails. Beavers will be beavers! Is now the right time for my kids to see a beaver? Okay, we will.

  10. Barbara,

    I am so touched. To grant ourselves the permission to be silent, to simply observe without feeling the need for immediate analysis, to just . . . sit with people–we move so fast.

    I am so happy you are making these trips. I love going home nowadays; my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather are living with us. Their presence changes the whole pace of my family. We laugh more; we talk more; we even dance more. We have dinners together. My eighteen-year-old brother massages my grandmother’s feet.

    What beautiful pictures of this physical and reflective journey. Thank you.

  11. More wonderful comments! I wasn’t sure readers of bgblogging, thinking they’d get some kind of this-is-why-social-software-makes-sense-for-teaching-and-learning post would want to read a long personal piece. I’m so glad to have this time to explore more expressive blogging and see where that will take me next fall in my teaching.

    Katie, you are in Germany by now (or off on your ore-school travels through the continent) tracing new paths instead of old. I look forward to following you on your blog! Indeed, I thought of you as I sat on the plane yesterday heading to Denver, how you must know the contours of the country. I tried to take pictures out the window the way Remy does, but couldn’t quite capture the expanse.

    Robert, I love how you describe what so often happens: “The familiar can tranquilize us. With travel, we often end up in the same place.” I have started back into Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on Gardner’s prompting, and find very much the same sentiments in the opening chapter as you express here. His redwing blackbirds are your beavers. I hope you and your kids find your beavers–we are so lucky in Vermont to have them everywhere.

    Megan, I remember you writing so beautifully about your grandparents, and I know you honor the extraordinary in those seemingly ordinary moments–your brother massaging your grandmother’s feet. These are the very kinds of moments I want my students to write about next fall, and I will point them to your blogging for lessons in how to have the courage to write so “close to the bone.”


  12. Solitude. Serenity. Meditation as inner medication. Indeed visualizing with your words and helpful pics these passing scenes of our fleeting life do help to put the temporal vs eternal into better bas-relief perspective. After reading your lovely blog, i say w the Psalmist, Selah! =Pause & think about that for a while! Indeed “the earth is the Lord’s & the fulness thereof…& all they that dwell therein.” JPL

  13. Barbara. Speaking of photos, have you checked out voicethread? Jonathan, my boyfriend, has a close friend who helped get the site on its feet. With all your work on podcasting and digital storytelling, I think you’d be interested in taking a look if you haven’t already. It’s somewhat similar to Flickr but with so much more dimension. I think it has great potential, and they recently made it possible to link voicethread (like Flickr) to blogs. Anyway, I’m all over it.


  14. Barbara, my thoughts are with you, and I can only imagine how difficult this time is for you. Your dad has lived a long life, and as wonderful that is for him and for all of his family, it sure doesn’t make it any easier when they are dying. You’re doing the right thing though – spending as much time with him as possible 🙂

    I also love all your pictures, and as far away as they are taken they still bring a lot of memories and thoughts. It’s funny what age does to you, and how we see and think differently. My daughter, who turned 21 yesterday (March 8) spent Christmas in New Hampshire, and has probably driven along the same roads as you do. She, however, was busy taking pictures of the Empire State building and other New York sites, and the only nature pictures that were sent my way were her horseback riding adventures on a beach in New Hampshire. She is young, and her mind is everywhere else but in the beauty of nature. I know I’ve been like her once, even if both of my kids call me a hopeless tree hugger. I can’t help it, nature gives me something that nothing or nobody else can supply, whether I’m climbing a mountain or sailing the ocean. It’s a marvellous feeling!!!

    I love lynx and wolves, and I’m so pleased that the Canadian Lynx is back to Vermont!! I hope for Vermont that they decide to stay, and that the hunters don’t kill them!

  15. Thanks, John for the feedback. As I prepare my next talk, I keep reminding myself to look up from the computer and out the window at the snow, the birds, the important things of the here and now.

    Megan, thanks so much for the site link! I have been playing around with some web-based image sharing/editing sites and will certainly try out voicethread. Sounds like an EL170 tool to me 😉

    Toril, good to hear from you, especially knowing how busy you’ve been wrapping up your coursework. It is a small world indeed that you sitting in Norway have a daughter traveling the same roads as I am in New England. And I know that many 21-year-olds experience but do not necessarily reflect on the beauty of a branch, a leaf, a bird. (Of course Megan, who is in her twenties, is one who does notice the tiniest details…but my 21-year-old daughter who is in NYC surely does not ;-)) It reminds me of the first chapter of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I’m now re-reading thanks to Gardner’s comment above. You should read it if you haven’t. Lovely stuff.

  16. Thank you Barbara for this beautiful gift of thought, story, and visuals. After a day of being glued to my laptop, I am going to shut the damn thing and go outside just to breathe.

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