The Practice of Wandering

Transcript: The Practice of Wandering

♫ gentle acoustic music♫

Jacqueline Simmons: I remember going on my first walk at the start of the pandemic in early April. I had a doctor's appointment, so I felt as if I had been given permission to be outside, but very few other people had emerged from quarantining, and I felt almost alone as I walked through Central Park. I was so shocked to see that while we were all indoors, spring had arrived. As I took a simple walk through that park, I was startled again and again by my senses.

♫birds chirping♫

There was an assault of sounds from a cello player in that tunnel leading to Bethesda Fountain who could barely compete with the bird song. It was so loud, I thought for sure there were thousands of birds nesting in the tunnel eaves. And then I found myself under an explosion of beautiful color from a blooming magnolia tree. I slowed my pace almost to the point of leisure, and I cried. It was such an emotional backdrop for so much grief and hope that I was holding in my body and in my mind.

Wandering is not just about walking. It's any time we slow down and when we remove expectations and when curiosity leads to new motivations to wonder, to experience emotions, and perhaps learn something new. Aimless walking in my own neighborhood risked repetition, but slowing down resulted in an almost hyper-attentiveness to my surroundings that led me to pass places and see details I had never noticed before. And this left me with pedagogical questions. What is gained from wandering, from slowing down? When multiple senses are activated simultaneously, how does knowledge enter in different ways? Can emotions foster different kinds of openness to new ideas and experiences?

There were openings in slowing down, and I found myself metaphorically wandering through other kinds of tasks that I previously considered mundane. So cooking is one of them. I became completely animated about the meals I prepared, which were suddenly a rare joy and not a rushed chore. I wandered through old cookbooks that I haven't consulted in years. I excitedly waited for the weekly "New York Times" recipes to see which ones I could try with the ingredients already in my pantry. I grew a sourdough starter that I named Igujenie after my mother's childhood friend, because it seemed so full of spunk like the stories I'd been told about her. I took a photo of every single stellar meal and every incredible loaf of bread, sometimes to post on social media, but also just to have on my phone to wander through later.

I also found myself wandering through my mother's things after she passed away. It was an unimaginably painful loss in such an unforgiving time. I wandered through her closet and found old suitcases filled with clothing from another lifetime, before I and my siblings were born. Old photo albums, saved postcards, the things she had kept with such care prompted a rush of memories, intense grief, and also some solace in the opportunity to remember and explore her life in this way, to ask questions about her life in Korea before the wars, about the stories she wasn't able to tell us because of the language that stood in the way, the materiality of objects, their texture, and weight, the unmistakable smell of childhood preserved in her handbag. These were all a part of her. And while painful, it was also soothing in her absence. I have found that my wandering in the pandemic has opened spaces for deeper understandings, for new knowledge and questions, and for learning gained through the emotions and through the body, and not just through the intellect.

I helped to create a research and design space at Teachers College called the Black Paint Curriculum Lab. We call the activities at the lab black paint for the metaphor of remaking surfaces that are meant to be written on, erased, and then remade again. Throughout the pandemic, the Curriculum Lab has been experimenting with wandering as a practice for teaching and learning. Wandering opens a way to experiment with ideas, play with pedagogical approaches that seem strange, and discuss forms of curricular knowledge that often gets avoided in conversations about what to teach. There are openings when information is experienced or felt, verbally, visually, aurally, and spatially, temporally, and physically.

By paying attention to our senses, to place, to material objects and movement, we can activate learning, spark emotional connections, engage memory, and foster creativity and curiosity. If there's just one thing I wanna remember from this time, it's that wandering has opened a space to think differently. Wandering has allowed me to move away from all the taken-for-granted assumptions about what's worth knowing and doing and trust more in my own experience and my own truth. Wandering has reminded me to value my reactions to life's patterns of being, the disruption and the loss and the opportunities as part of my work as an educator.

Black and white headshot of Jackie Simmons
Jacqueline Simmons

Jacqueline Simmons, Ed.D. is Senior Lecturer and Director of the Master of Education Program in the Curriculum & Teaching Department. Her teaching and research examines the design, theory, and critical analysis of curricula with particular attention to youth, media, and sense-making. She is co-creator of a curriculum lab called Black Paint, a collaborative space to reimagine possibilities for curriculum making as a public endeavor.

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