This post is designed to highlight – and share – some of Paul’s responses to student work produced within Out of Eden Learn. Given Paul’s limited availability, we periodically put together a package of student work for him to comment on; individual students then receive a reply from Paul, which other students in their walking parties can read as well. Here I pick up on three features of how Paul interacts with students. He:
- Makes connections between the students’ work and his own writing, offering them advice
- Addresses the students as his peers and encourages them to take their work seriously
- Engages playfully with the work of our youngest students.
- Making connections between the students’ work and his own writing
We have elaborated in this blog on the ways in which we encourage young people in Out of Eden Learn to engage in the kind of slow looking, attentive listening, and thoughtful storytelling that is evident in Paul’s “slow journalism”. Paul often points to the synergy between the students’ work and his own practice.
For example, Aly, from Cairo, Egypt wrote a detailed description of his desk, adding: “I think that taking pictures of everyday life around us, makes us take a better look at what we have got. It lets us actually look at a thing that you would not look at because you got very used to it and do not actually look anymore.”
In his response to Aly, Paul attests to the power of slow observation and the potential value of photography as a tool for careful looking and relooking at the world: “Great job of close observation, Aly. By studying the everyday world–like the small refuge of your desk–we can come to understand how mysterious everything around us truly is, if only we stop to consider it for a while. Photographs allow us to do this more easily, because in real life our eye never “freezes” an image. A photograph, captured by a machine, however, stops time: That photo of your desk, taken in a fleeting moment, can be studied closely for minutes or hours.”
Similarly, Paul offers advice to kgtvillage from Massachusetts, USA who writes “if I could walk anywhere I would walk to Cincinnati, Ohio. Most of my family lives there and I go twice every year. We always drive there and everything moves by so fast it’s hard to see a lot of what is around me, we drive past so many amazing landforms, I drive through the Appalachian Mountains, and across many beautiful lakes and rivers! By taking this walk I can see all these gorgeous things up close and I can see them at a much slower pace.” Paul’s comment (which her family may or may not thank him for!) is as follows: “You’ve noted a lot of details already, even from the moving car window. One idea: stop along the way, and walk around for a few minutes or an hour, before driving on. You can get to feel how the landscape changes that way, too.”
In a different example, he connects with the observations that Amar11 from Erbil, Iraq has made about the everyday life of refugees in his community. Some of Amar11’s stories, which he has learned from his mother, are harrowing. However, he also includes examples that point to the durability of the human spirit: a neat little tent built by a man for his new wife, children being treated to a visit to the cinema, and seasonal decorations – “they brought a cave and a Christmas tree just the children to be happy.”
Complimenting this student as he might a fellow journalist, Paul writes: “An eye-opening report from the front lines of a major refugee crisis, Amar11. Your descriptions are very alive, very human, and put me there among the tents and the cold and the suffering. But you were also observant that even in the worst of situations–a refugee camp–there is human joy. I have noted this, too, and it always gives me heart. Great photos.”
- Addressing the students as his peers and encouraging them to take their work seriously
As the previous example illustrates, Paul writes to the students in a way that recognizes their potential as budding journalists or writers in the process of perfecting and developing their craft. For instance, TheDarkChipmunk of Connecticut, USA, wrote an evocative description of taking a neighborhood walk for Out of Eden Learn.
My breath fogged up in front of my face, and the cold air began to eat through my jacket. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and forged onwards, intent on my goal of doing a circuit around my town. The lights were off in peoples’ houses, on their porches, on the street. The snow crunched under my feet. I don’t like that sound. It always reminded me of two Styrofoam pieces rubbing against each other, like nails on a chalkboard. A few minutes, I got home. My ears were burning, my cheeks were red, and my hands numb. Then, I curled up under a blanket near a fire and watched a movie.
Paul encouragingly replies: “This is one of the best descriptions of a cold day that I’ve read since Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Great job, TheDarkChipmunk. You have an eye for the telling detail (the steam of your breath) and you use all your senses to set the scene (that familiar, uncomfortable squeak of dry snow). Keep going–you are gifted with the storyteller’s tools.” Here Paul points to the specific features of the text that make it strong and perfectly naturally compares the student’s work to that of a famous author. To another student – Sangel from Manila in the Philippines – he writes “Your descriptions of your neighborhood are very clear. You write cleanly, like a famous American novelist named Hemingway.”
He also takes students’ advice seriously. For instance, AGrima1 from Barcelona, Spain suggested that Paul should talk to both villagers and city dwellers in Azerbaijan and then compare and contrast their stories. “Your suggestions correspond well with my own method of recording the stories of people I encounter. I use each story to contrast another. The differences tell us about larger truths. The entire world is a net of stories; we’re all knotted together. That’s how we find our place within it. Thanks for the input.” Here he is using the opportunity to give students a “behind the scenes” glimpse of his craft as well as to share some of the philosophy behind the Out of Eden Walk.
- Engaging playfully with the work of our youngest students
I will close by sharing a delightful interaction between Paul and a class of preschool students based in Calgary, Canada. Rhonda McLean, their teacher, writes:
It is a cold week here in Calgary and so our discussion about where we would like to walk turned out to be a great escape. Our class decided that we wanted to walk to Hawaii. Below is a description of our route and our thoughts on what we would need. We are including rough sketches of our thinking. Our plan is to leave Calgary today and walk west over the Rocky Mountains, through the middle of British Columbia and over the coastal mountains to Vancouver. Once we are in Vancouver we will walk south to San Francisco, along the west coast. We chose San Francisco as our destination before crossing the ocean because we would like to meet the people from our walking party who live there. Once in San Francisco, we would buy a sailing ship to take us to Hawaii. … Our supply list for the boat ride and stay in Hawaii was more detailed: Water, Juice, Gatorade, Food, Coconuts, Ice Cream, Life Jackets, Bathing Suits …”
To which Paul replies: “You guys gave me an idea: I need to carry coconuts and ice cream. I admire your plans. Your walk covers a lot of beautiful country and by walking along the ocean coast you can enjoy fresh fish and chips. San Francisco is expensive, so I would recommend that you pass through the city quickly, after riding the streetcars, and set sail for Hawaii soon. I have a request: Can I borrow your map? I’ll be walking that same route down the West Coast. Good job, fellow walkers.”
Later, Rhonda McClean shared some thoughts about her students’ reaction to this message from Paul: “We were absolutely thrilled. We were not expecting it. The children … had a hard time believing that the man on the cover of a magazine in our room could be writing them. They loved that he asked if he could borrow their maps…” She continued: “I think that it is worth mentioning that the children make connections to Paul’s work all the time. On our bi-weekly walks to the library, they take time to look up and look down, just like Paul. At the zoo last week, they commented on how the camels there were just like Paul’s. After our post about the trip to Hawaii the children transformed the block centre into a Walking to Hawaii centre, I just threw in the backpacks and they did the rest with the blocks. There was some animated discussion about who got to be Paul.”
Please note that we will be featuring student work on our blog from now on, regularly changing the images.