Have you ever…?

          Tell me, what is it you plan to do

          with your one wild and precious life?

How’s this for a “have you ever..?” question – one that’s much too specific to be used on any questionnaire practicing the present perfect.

Have you ever really loved a quote and written it down and read it often and thought about it and then one day you saw it in its original context and realized that you’d misunderstood it all along? If so, this post is for you.

One of the gifts of this blogging project is how it’s given me the opportunity to look through my teaching journals and notes on reflective practice. I have been thinking over what I’ve written in the past and seeing connections that I hadn’t recognized before. And so my understanding of reflective practice is deepening.

As a lover of quotes I’ve seen and written out the following couplet by Mary Oliver numerous times.

          Tell me, what is it you plan to do

          with your one wild and precious life?

It’s a beautiful, compelling line that somehow always made me think of goal-setting, action plans, and bucket lists.

Time is short! Don’t waste it! Get stuff done! Write that book that you keep talking about! Get busy and change the world!

It’s a beautiful, compelling line that always stressed me out.

And then I reread the poem that the couplet comes from.

You can read it here: The Summer Day Take your time.

Better yet, listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16CL6bKVbJQ


As you can see, it turns out my interpretation was completely wrong.

Mary Oliver wasn’t talking about all the things she’d gotten done or how she’d changed the world or the exciting experiences that she’d had.

She was writing about paying attention. Paying attention. She is using her one wild and precious life to pay attention.

As I reread the poem I was struck by how what seems to be a rhetorical question, “Who made the grasshopper?” becomes so specific in the next line. “This grasshopper, I mean—” followed by a rich, detailed description of the insect on her hand. As she walked through the grass and spent her day in the field she paid attention to what she found there.

Language teaching has a lot of questions that are difficult to answer. How do students learn languages? How will they gain fluency? What’s the best way to teach English?

These kinds of questions can be paralyzing, until we turn to the specific. How does this student learn – the one sitting in the front row trying to answer all the questions? How about that guy in the back row who never does his homework? How about these two in the middle who are always chatting?

If you saw a woman kneeling in the grass feeding sugar to a grasshopper on her outstretched palm, would you say she was making good use of her wild and precious life?

If you saw a teacher watching and taking notes as her students hesitatingly talked about what they did on the weekend, would you say she was making good use of her wild and precious life?

I think they both are, if they’re truly paying attention.


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