Archive for September, 2010

Lessons from the Backyard: What are you Noticing?

When we bought our house about eight years ago, we moved into a house that was already seven years old. From the bare yards all around, it was obvious the whole neighborhood had been clear cut when it was built, and even when we moved in, not many trees had been replanted.

So, among our first priorities was populating the lawn with some beauty, shade, and interest. Over the years, the trees and bushes have done well. Our apple, fig, and pear trees are incredibly productive. The dogwoods are coming along. Eight years later, the yard is starting to mature.

We have many beautiful plants. This summer, though, the biggest surprise has been the butterfly bush. I’d say it’s about the size of a VW Beetle – bigger, actually. As a plant, it’s not particularly pretty to look at. But over the summer it has become a hangout spot for, at any given moment, 20-30 butterflies of various shades and sizes. Watching the butterfly bush is a mesmerizing delight, full of fluttering fanciful flyers, constantly moving their wings, hovering, and then sailing off again. I could watch the butterfly bush for hours.

Recently, I realized that I’ve started noticing butterflies more and more in other places – on a walk at the park, getting out of the car, even stopped at a traffic light. I tend to “live in my head” a lot of the time, and I usually don’t notice much of nature unless something is brilliant. So, noticing the butterflies in my everyday life has been something of a surprise. It’s as if a switch turned on. Now, when I see a butterfly while going through my daily routines, I’ll notice it, and find myself comparing it to the butterflies who frequent the bush in my yard.

I also find myself wanting to know more about the butterflies who spend the day at our bush – what kind(s) are they? Why do they like the butterfly bush so much? How does the bush nourish them? Most importantly, will the butterflies stay here all year?  I’m reminded of Laurence Pringle’s amazing book An Extraordinary Life, which taught me so much about monarch butterflies when I read it years ago.

Why does all this matter?

Our butterfly bush reminds me of several elements of education, from kids all the way to adult learners (like educators!).

First, it reminds me of the kinds of noticing we do in writing workshop. We encourage writers to notice decisions about craft in writing. We immerse them in amazing examples through libraries and lessons. Then, we hope, they take that noticing eye and carry it with them to other pieces of writing they come across in their everyday lives.  They start noticing the butterflies that may have fluttered past them before.

Second, it reminds me that what we surround ourselves with can affect how we notice the world. For a professional example, if we are reading a lot about e-books, or bilingual education, or (ahem) butterflies, it is only natural that we would start to notice mentions of e-books in the news, stories about bilingual education, and so on, in our everyday lives.  I think we pay attention more, anxious to make connections with what we’ve been learning. This makes me want to be more intentional in what I read, knowing I’ll be on the lookout for those topics in my everyday life. It also makes me wonder how I can find out more about what my students would like to surround themselves with – what can I connect them with that will help them learn and notice?

At the same time, as I start to notice certain things in my everyday life, and work to use this to my benefit, I worry that my focus might narrow a bit too much. To use a personal example, I follow many people on twitter who share my interests and, to a great degree, my point of view about libraries, literacy, technology, and other topics. How do I keep from becoming too closed off and insular? One thing I have tried is, when I see one of my twitter friends arguing with someone I don’t know, I follow the person who thinks and believes differently than my friend (and, usually, me). One worry I have with twitter is that it is easy to build our networks without diverse and dissenting voices.  I try to push back at this consciously, but I’m not sure how successful I am.

For another crude but related example, when we go to the park, my youngest daughter is always trying to catch frogs. She has special places to look for them on the path we often walk. I try not to be too busy looking at butterflies to miss the frog that is hopping a foot to my left. So I have to remind myself to attend to many things, not just butterflies. Having her around and being interested in her interests helps keep my eyes open to different things.

Keeping my eyes open – I guess that is what it all comes down to. It’s amazing how a seed planted years ago can change the way we see today. What seeds are you planting, for yourself, for others? What have you been noticing lately? What would you like to notice more of?


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