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Lately I have been pondering the practice of paying attention, vis-à-vis my habit of keeping a notebook to capture impressions, details and memories. I finished my last post with a question: can paying attention be taught? I am interested in this as a writer and as an educator both of children and teachers.

The example of Anne McCrary Sullivan would suggest that it can. Her experience of watching her marine biologist mother going out each day to lay nets on the beach in the morning, then observe the microscopic plankton she found there later in the afternoon, taught her the practice of paying ‘attention to the complexities of surface detail and also attention to what lies beneath those surfaces.’

This mirrors precisely the social-constructivist theory of Vygotsky and Bruner, namely that children grow into the ‘intellectual lives’ of those around them. Other factors also need to come into play, of course: opportunity, motivation and affirmation to name a few. But it is a start, and a powerful one, to have modelled to you as a young learner creative habits of mind, not just the thing itself, but its name and impact on the individual concerned.

This is why I say to the trainee teachers I work with that it is important to show the scrappy bits of writing they do when they are drafting something, be it a shopping list, an essay, or tomorrow’s shared writing. How else are children going to find out that all writing is provisional and does not just fall out of the skies, perfectly formed, onto the board?

McCrary Sullivan provides examples of teaching attention in her article Notes from a Marine Biologist’s Daughter. She describes taking classes out to the field behind the school building, ‘each to sit alone and watch a small patch of grass, to observe and record ‘what happens there.”

She continues: ‘The wording, ‘what happens there’, was important. Skepticism about this assignment was generally high among my students. ‘Just stare,’ I would say. ‘Stare at the grass until something happens.’ No one ever failed to see things happen. Small events became sources of excitement — an ant crawling up a blade of grass, a flutter of motion produced by a breeze, a shifting of light, the crossing of a cloud shadow.’ Other assignments included finding a place where there’s nothing going on: ‘Sit there for ten minutes and record everything that happens.’

These remind me of a lesson I once saw Philip Gross teach to some teachers on a course at the university where I work. We were going to go outside, he said, on a ‘poetry walk’. He handed out post-it notes to each teacher, no more than five or so, and out we went into the sunshine. The thing we would be practising, Philip said, was noticing. Not judging or commenting, but noticing. We had barely left the building when he stopped us. We were standing on an unprepossessing section of asphalt, near to the doors, next to some bushes. We had all passed them as we entered the building at the start of the day. ‘Stare at the bushes,’ Philip said. ‘Write down one thing you see.’

We performed the same task at several different stages of our route, each time with a slightly different twist ( a member of the group chose where to pause; we would look up, or down at the ground next to our feet; or close our eyes and listen), but each time doing the same essential action: pausing, noticing, recording.

Back in the classroom Philip asked us to choose two of our five observations to work on. If we wanted to change certain words we could, he said. Or rearrange them into short lines.

We read them out:

one ant

shivering

on an old, old leaf

Very gently, we let out a gasp. Breathing in the room slowed; silence thickened around us. We began to see what he had been teaching us. By focussing attention, albeit in a guided manner, we had captured the essence of things we would otherwise have not taken time to look at.

I am certain we left the space altered from how we came in.