noticing as feeling: finding what's essential

My friend who is a Kindergarten teacher sent me a video of her students opening their first pen pal letters from children in a Kindergarten class on the other side of the city. The video is only twenty-two seconds long. I have watched it no less than fifty times.

The pen pal letters include a photo, a drawing of something each pen pal likes to do, and a sentence introducing themselves. Although this is what I might notice first when opening a letter from someone new, and although this is the most colorful information taking up most of the space on the page, this is not what these children opening their letters noticed first. 

What they noticed were their names written on the top of the letter (“Dear ______,”). “He drawed my name!” “Here goes my name!” “Her know my name!” “My name, too!” One little boy pointed to where a classmate could find her name, “up here.” “My name!”

What I can’t show adequately in writing are the eyes of the children when they saw their names. Wide open, intense, sparkly, amazed, delighted, pure joy—none of these descriptions is enough. 

I have been in the presence of thousands of children throughout my career who have experienced many moments of delight and learning found in an ant, or a button, or a new book, or a kind word from a friend. Children’s joy from something small is not new. And to be seen and heard and known by name, although seemingly small, is actually immense. Children never fail to teach us about the immensity of small things. 

But there is something more here for me. Perhaps the reason this particular moment of joyful learning is so striking is because I have been able to watch it again and again. And in my noticing, I have been given an opportunity to move beyond what I see and hear in the scene, and have been able to absorb more of what is possible to feel of the moment. 

How many times in life are we afforded an opportunity to do this?—to replay a moment of joy over and over to enter into spaces of noticing as feeling.

Noticing is more than a process of looking closely, it is a process of getting into the skin of what is being noticed. Seeing beyond what is there. Seeing into one’s own seeing, thinking, and feeling about noticing itself. (

As I enter into this new year, I am anchored in this approach of noticing as feeling, of noticing in spaces unknown and not easily described. I am inspired to find more opportunities to get into the skin of noticing, whether of joyful learning or otherwise. We need more noticing of this sort, and we need the rich description of what’s beyond what can be seen. We need this kind of noticing so we can learn more about our contexts of teaching and learning, especially if we care about rich, relevant, joyful learning for all children.

I think of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s portraiture approach and the beautifully described, brilliant children in Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby. We need rich, complex stories of children learning. We need rich, complex stories of educators, too. There is more to notice and tell beyond what’s often listed, charted, interpreted, and evaluated way too soon.

I think of Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus and How to Be a Good Creature, and how much we as humans have to learn from creatures who have ways of knowing beyond what we can possibly understand. We need more noticing to not-know, to wonder, to find new layers from which we can reimagine ourselves out of the boxes, categories, and next-step solutions that rarely result in anything other than more of the same inequities.

And I think of this group of five-year-olds opening their pen pal letters and how I will keep noticing that twenty-two second video to find more that I can’t possibly know. I will find new ways to describe that scene of joy because I trust there’s always more to learn from small things.

Won’t you join me in creating 2019 as a year full of deep, nuanced description inspired from noticing beyond what can be seen? After all, “one sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, p. 63).

With joy,

Melissa A. Butler

melissa butler