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Paying attention, being astonished, and telling about it

The teachers at my son’s nursery school just returned from the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance conference in Florida, and they are brimming with ideas about how to transform their classrooms. One teacher is making a point of putting a bird's nest, shells and seeds out on tables in the morning. Another teacher is involving the neighborhood to paint a collaborative mural on an exterior wall of the school. A third—after watching her three-year olds fight over a bottle of bubbles at the playground—decided to organize and document a class study in bubbles. As part of the work, she arranged various liquids in clear jars, passed out straws, and spent several days guiding children through experiments around blowing bubbles in liquids of different viscosity.

No matter the particulars, these teachers are embodying poet Mary Oliver’s challenge to us all, "Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." Young children take up this charge naturally, and their teachers are wise to cultivate it. Yet establishing a classroom as a place of astonishment is often viewed as a luxury only those teachers of our youngest students can afford to take. The rest of us often feel too stressed by daily objectives and high-stakes tests and six subjects per day to build a curriculum of wonder. We don’t have time to gawk at birds’ nests or extrapolate on bubbles, and many of us underestimate the role of wonder in our curriculum.

I spent a recent Wednesday morning in a second grade classroom engaged in a nonfiction writing unit. Students had been studying travel books and crafting their own guidebooks of places they know well. I surveyed the room of writers and saw M. looking bored, flipping through a few pages in her folder, which she had half-filled with descriptions of her apartment. I crouched down and asked her how it had been going. “I don’t have anything else to add,” she confessed. I don’t know anything else about my room.” I could have chosen to offer M. a strategy to help her elaborate her piece. I could have told M. to close her eyes and picture the different parts of her building to help her generate more sections for her guidebook. But I resisted the urge to solve her immediate problem, and I stepped back, “Why are you writing this?” She mumbled something about the teacher and the class and the unit, and I fumbled on, “Who is going to take a tour of your house? Do you want people to come over to see your apartment? Are you writing this so they need to know what they’ll see?” She shook her head as if that would be out of the question, so I kept going, “You know, it not too late to switch topics. You can write a guidebook about any place you really want to convince others to go visit.” After spending a few minutes flipping through some online travel articles I had gathered, M.’s eyes lit up. “I could do a guidebook about Chuck E. Cheese,” she offered. “It’s a really fun place to go.”

In this line of teaching—through which I was mimicking countless writing teachers I have known and studied—I was trying to get M. to connect to what some may call “author’s purpose”, but which we could just as easily call a “sense of wonder”. Although her class had spent weeks learning to write guidebooks, I got the sense that M. didn’t really know why. And without taking time to peek her curiosity about travel writing—to help her to “pay attention” and “be astonished” by the travel books that fill the shelves of bookstores or the newspaper aritcles that spark my own wanderlust each Sunday--M.’s teachers were missing an opportunity to inspire her to “tell about it”.

Our job as literacy teachers is to help children generate and transfer their sense of wonder from the world to the texts in front of them, and then back again. We read William’s Doll and share tears (every time!) at the father’s lack of awareness. We study an article about molluscs and grow squeamish together at the description of the slug’s oozing body. We delight in a first grade inspired attempt to write a shape poem about a slice of pizza, and we offer him an opportunity to discuss his process with his class. What makes this interesting? Why did someone make this? Can I do something inspired by this? Making time to pay attention and be astonished is not easy, but it’s fundamental to the "telling about it", and nothing feels as important to this literacy teacher.

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