Reading the world: training the eye outside the classroom

Reading the world precedes reading the word, and the subsequent reading of the word cannot dispense with continually reading the world (Paulo Freire, The Importance of the Act of Reading, translated by Loretta Slover)

Many years ago, after a long winter in the US midwest, my students and I yearned for spring. Those who live or have lived in the northern hemisphere may remember that the arrival of spring is announced by a few signs.

I am not referring to the most obvious signs, such is the blooming of flowers. Of course, this is the classic form and therefore the easiest to notice. But there are several others.

After years living in the north of the Equator, I started to observe some other more subtle signs like the shy return of some birds, a different kind of rain (this will be difficult to explain…), a peculiar smell in the air, the gradual extending of day light…

Having all that in mind, in a time when I was working the topic “look” with one of my classes, I asked my students to take pictures with whatever camera they had access to (the majority used their own cell phones) what they saw as signs of spring. At that point, we had been exploring the above mentioned topic by the means of literary representations, mostly.

I made clear as I assigned the homework that I was not interested in the most emblematic, and cliché, icons such as the emerging of the little flowers that were dormant under the soil and that started blooming as if for miracle. No doubt it is a beautiful and exciting sight, but I wanted, I reinforced, something not so obvious.

Their task was to bring me an interpretation of the spring’s arrival under their unique perspective. I pointed out that the more creative the better! After all, our topic was exactly about looking,the act of seeing and the peculiarity of one’s glance, and from there we were exploring how this manifests itself in the narrative form.

The activity resulted in beautiful photos and I would love to share some of the best. Unfortunately I did not save this register and I strongly suggest you always do that. So you never have to regret it as I sadly do now.

The point of this story is that the activity worked so well that I repeated it a few more times with different groups in that same course, which I taught for some years. It was a course in Reading and Conversation, an intermediate class for college students in a Portuguese as a foreign language program on a American university.

One of my favorite works came from a student who, while walking around Chicago on a sunny day, took a picture of the famous monument at Millennium Park, known as The Bean.

People take pictures of this cool monument all the time. Hers registered the reflex of a group of children playing in front of the artwork in a clear day of almost spring.

The subtlety (and beauty) of her view became for me a symbol of this activity. The nice part of the experience, however, was the realization that the participants understood very well the variety of ways by which we perceive and translate a concept or a happening. So much that they went beyond what I could think of myself. Our discussions, then, took paths I had not predicted: symbols, language, cognitive codes, imagery…

Here a beautiful picture of the sculpture, Cloud Gate, popularly known as The Bean. This shot, however, is plenty of autumn. Photo by Bhargava Marripati from Pexels

In an article published by Faculty Focus, in 2018, the emeritus professor from Penn University, Maryellen Weimer, warned us about the importance of not using an activity per se but for reaching clear learning goals. It is a true thing and I completely agree with that. By the same token, we must not forget and should value the so-called unintentional learning.

No doubt the most recommended thing to do is plan our classes to detail, always when possible. It is however important to be open to the opportunities of unveiling new paths; and never limiting the curiosity and the interest of the learners, but rather guide them with genuine enthusiasm and respect.

As teachers we must be aware that learning may arrive and bloom in a range of manners, just like the spring.

Featured image: Photo by Elijah O’Donnell from Pexels

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