Noticing What There Is to Be Noticed: A Tribute to Maxine Greene

Bike Sign Post

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

In the flurry of getting ready to leave for Spain, the release from the grip of news cycles while away and the catch-up game of coming home to scores of voice messages and emails, I missed the fact that Maxine Greene, champion of the imagination and the arts in education, died last month at the age of 93. My dear friend Mary Ehrenworth introduced me to her when we were writing The Power of Grammar together, and strangely enough I found myself thinking of her while I was away. Knowing now that she’d died, it’s tempting to wonder if some energy was released by her parting that I felt a whole ocean away. But then I was only aware of my desire to follow her injunction to “notice what there is  to be noticed” and to live in a state of what she called “wide-awakeness,” being fully present, receptive and curious to everything around me.

Traveling, I think, invites wide-awakeness, especially if you give yourself permission to ignore the calls of the digital world, which I more or less managed to do. We also decided to forgo the guided or audio tours offered at sites and museums in order to, in Greene’s words, “notice what there is to be noticed without imposing alien readings or interpretations.” That allowed us to feel the thrill of discovering sites on our own, like the moment when I noticed that one of the columns in Gaudi’s fabulous viaduct in Barcelona’s Parc Guell had morphed into a stone woman before I read anything about it,

Gaudi Viaduct 2

From Vicki’s iPad in Parc Guell, Barcelona 2014

and when it dawned on me that we must be in Girona’s old medieval Jewish Quarter because I kept noticing menorahs.

Girona Menorah

Of course, relying on our eyes instead of a guidebook meant that we missed a thing or two, but it allowed us to attend to other things, like the shadow of a lantern cast on the floor of the Girona cathedral,

Girona Cathedral Shadow

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

the origami butterflies we first spotted on the wall of the Archeological Museum and then started seeing everywhere,

Girona Butterflies

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

and the delightful details we noticed on an 11th century tapestry, in which Adam and Eve stood alongside Apollo and turtles looked like cats.

Creation Tapestry detail

We stood in front of that tapestry, drinking it in for quite some time in what I think Maxine Greene would call an “aesthetic encounter.” According to Greene,

“Opening ourselves to encounters with the arts awakens us, prepares us for deeper living because our imagination is at work, and with imagination, a possibility of our transformation.”

In this case, we tried to imagine the lives and beliefs of the artists who created the tapestry as well as the world they inhabited and to also probe why and how the piece spoke to us so deeply across so many centuries. And as happened with everything we noticed, we had a lot of questions, which Greene says is a natural outcome of any aesthetic encounter.

European Appliance SymbolsTo answer some of those questions, we did sometimes turn to guidebooks or google (which helped us figure out what some of the mysterious symbols meant on the appliances in the apartment we rented). But many of our questions, like what the origami butterflies were for, remained a mystery. And while we did consult maps and bike route signs, it was often what we stumbled on when we were lost that was the most memorable, whether it was the tiled water foundation we noticed in an eerily empty Catalonia village right when we needed more water,

Girona Water Fountain

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

the columns from an ancient Roman temple that were hidden in the courtyard of a medieval building in Barcelona’s old Gothic Quarter,

BCN Roman Columns

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

or the factory where the Catalonian beer we thought was the perfect accompaniment to mid-afternoon tapas was made.

Damm Beer Factory, Barcelona

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

Transitioning back now from vacation to work mode, it seems important to note that, as an educator, Greene envisioned having these aesthetic experiences not while traveling but in classrooms. And to provide those experiences to students, she believed that a teacher’s “educative task” was set students up to notice what there is to be noticed by creating opportunities that “nurture appreciative, reflective, cultural, participatory engagement with works of art,” along with “situations in which the young are moved to begin to ask, in all tones of voice there are, ‘Why?'”

Like the rich tasks I wrote about a few months ago, these situations and opportunities don’t have to involve extensive planning. They can be folded into practices and structures you already have in your room, such as reading conferences, simply by changing the questions we ask students. A 9th grade teacher I worked with, for instance, wanted to re-instate independent reading, which had been pushed aside in his classroom in favor of ‘complex’ whole class texts that many of his students couldn’t access. To keep his students accountable, he considered asking them to keep track of the literary elements in their books, and I asked if we could see what happened instead if we asked students what they noticed and what they made of that.

Game but skeptical, the teacher sat down next to me as I conferred with a student named Alex who was on the opening page of Gary Soto’s story “Broken Chain” from the collection Baseball in April—and in 9th grade, was only at a 5th grade reading level.


I began by asking Alex if anything had stood out for him on this page, and Alex responded by shrugging his shoulders. So I asked if he’d consider reading it again and see if he noticed anything that seemed interesting, confusing, cool, weird, or anything else to him. Baseball in AprilThis time Alex pointed to the line about Alfonso wanting to look like the Aztec warrior from the calendar, which he said was really weird.

I asked him then if he could say more about why he thought that was weird, and after pausing just long enough for me to worry that all I’d get was another shrug, he said this: “I think this guy cares too much about what other people think of him. And that picture’s probably not even real; I bet those cuts are air-brushed in. He should be okay with who he is.”

I believe that Gary Soto’s stories are works of art and that, when I gave Alex the opportunity, he started engaging with the story in the appreciative, reflective, and wide-awake way Maxine Greene says is needed if we, as teachers, are “concerned for teaching rather than training, for persons in their pluralities rather than potentional ‘job-holders and consumers’.” She also has these words to say to us, which seem important to keep in mind:

“To provoke students to break through the limits of the conventional and the taken for granted, we ourselves have to experience breaks with what has been established in our own lives; we have to keep arousing ourselves to begin again.”

Summer is a wonderful time to break with the conventional, whether you’re traveling or curling up with a great book. So with thanks to the wonderful Maxine Greene, here’s to noticing what there is to be noticed, staying wide-awake to all that’s around us, and opening ourselves up to new encounters.

Girona Greenway

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,




21 thoughts on “Noticing What There Is to Be Noticed: A Tribute to Maxine Greene

    • Thanks, Jan. Now the trick is to hold on to the beauty of the trees here in Brooklyn when the dishes & the laundry & the writing calls. It’s definitely not as easy to do as when I’m away, but I’m really working at it.

  1. Vicki, loved the post. Thank you! Many years ago I chaired the Colorado Language Arts Society’s state conference and invited Maxine Greene to keynote. It was one of the highlights of my professional life. Your post evoked memories of her talk and is nudging me to go back to reread her as well as to be awake.

    • So we share a love of Maxine Greene, too, Stevi! Unfortunately, though, I never got to hear her in person—despite the fact that she was only a borough away. And I’m sure that if you follow that nudge and carve out some time to reread her, that time will be as well-spend & inspiring as it was for me when I returned to her as well to find some great nuggets for the post. Maybe take her to Finland with you if you already haven’t gone.

  2. What a beautiful trip. The pictures, thoughts and connections to Maxine Greene are quite stunning. Noticing the beauty in the classroom is a little tougher when it is the day to day. Thanks for sharing the (eventual) art in Alex’s response to Broken Chain. The fact that he started with shrugging his shoulders and then got to something important demonstrates what is possible. Thank you and welcome home!

    • And what a beautiful reflection on your year’s read alouds, which I just caught up on! I LOVE the idea of graffiti walls for quotes and am eagerly awaiting what you & your students learned about reading notebooks, which I’m still working on myself. And . . . can’t wait to meet you in person!

  3. Vicki, your photos are stunning.It looks like your trip to Spain was amazing. Living a wide-awake life is a goal that I work daily to try to achieve. Sometimes, it feels like an exercise in futility, but your post reminded me how it’s so important to keep trying.

    Glad you are home safely!

    • So I followed your advice, Kim, as well as Maxine Greene’s in part because I think I wanted to do just what you said about your bike accident in today’s Birkin & Yaris post—that you’d write about if you could “find a way to relate it to teaching.” I found that and I’m sure you’ll find it, too. But thank god you were wearing a helmet!

  4. The pictures are lovely, & it is also nice that you shared some of the trip, connecting to the important words of Maxine Green, & what we would wish for all our students, to notice, to keep for themselves as they move through their own days. At my school, the journaling & capturing begins at the earliest age, & that question, ‘what are you noticing?’ is ever on our, & their, minds as they capture experiences & record through sketches & words. I’ll certainly share this with those I work with. Thank you!

    • Oh, how I want to see your school, Linda! I keep thinking about what would happen to students like Alex if he’d learned how to honor and make something of what he’d noticed from an early age rather than coming up through a system that was too often about right answers. I do think it’s never too late to change whatever story about being a reader students like Alex have constructed for themselves. But noticing and making something of what you’ve noticed is what I think should be spiraled up the grades. We’d all be in a different—and far more rewarding—place then.

      • I had to write my educational philosophy as part of the interview process to secure my job. I sent it to Maxine, and she wrote me back – it’s not often that such a brilliant mind is so accessible I will always be her student and forever in her debt. I can try to repay it by being the kind of teacher we all need to be.

  5. Vicki, there is so much beauty in this post. The gorgeous pictures from your trip make me want to bike through Spain. They way you connect them to Maxine Greene’s words, though, is powerful. Her reminder to “keep arousing ourselves to begin again” is so wise. Thank you for sharing them today. Greene’s advice, viewed through your “wide awake” eyes, was exactly when I needed to hear.

    • It does help to travel with a photographer who’s made me more attuned to angles and light. But I, too, needed Maxine Greene, especially when I got back. Her words have given more shape to my experience and something to hold on to as I get back to my everyday world, which I want to see with some of the wonder I felt everyday in Spain.

  6. I love this post, Vicki. Greene’s thinking provided much of the basis for Susan’s presentation last Saturday at Summer Symposium about her work with third graders this year. As is so often the case, you’re right in sync with what’s happening at Opal School – regardless of how far away you happen to be.
    Inviting aesthetic encounters to keep us wide awake – what a great bridge to summer!

    • Oh, it’s another uncanny moment! Or it’s just like minds thinking alike. Just as I found myself thinking about Greene while I was away, I kept thinking about Opal as I went back to Maxine Greene to pick some choice nuggets for the post because her aesthetic encounters are so much like the kind of playful literacy work you open the door for children to do. Cannot wait to continue these discussion in person in December!

  7. Vicki,
    I also love the pictures from Spain. After attending “Beautiful” and “Jersey Boys”, Allison and I have been discussing the importance of speaking and listening as well as the craft moves that are visible to a “play-goer” as the set changes are made. . . . a different form of transition that is not necessarily found in writing at the theater! So enjoying our trip to New York!

    • Sounds like you were noticing what there was to be noticed on stage as well as off! And so, so glad that we got to meet while you’ve been here in the city! It’s like we just added a whole new element to what’s already become such a valued online connection. Looking forward to repeating it!

  8. Pingback: Slice of Life: Opening Our Imagination | Reading to the Core

  9. Pingback: Becoming Protagonists in Our Own Learning: An Invitation to Inquire | To Make a Prairie

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