In the summer before I started teaching, I sought out one of my own childhood teachers and asked, 'What is teaching? How do I support children in learning? What is it that I am trying to do?' She answered, 'At the heart, help children find experiences of wonder.' That does not mean that teachers don't share information; they do. At the same time, understanding and able engagement (and, not incidentally, joy) usually come after we realize the fullness of what is before us. A mathematician enters into the infinite variety and elegance of his symbolic language. A painter begins to see the possibilities in his paints. Perhaps wonder is both the response to vivid existence and the perspective that allows us to see the fullness of our world. Still, these abstract descriptions carry us only thus far. Even if what I've said is true, how do you help students discover the world? I'm not sure. I write this article to share how this seed of an idea grew when I planted it in the ground of Rishi Valley, and my students came happily to help care for it, believe in it, and play in the shade that it quickly gave back to us.

The course in question happened in the spring of 2012, when I was asked to create a writing programme for classes 7 and 8 in Rishi Valley School. The programme was meant to support students who were less familiar with writing in English, while allowing all students to explore writing more freely, though with no less focus. A lot of our work was technical: we discussed paragraph structure, organization, and how many exclamation points belong at the end of a sentence. ('One,' I insisted; eventually I managed to get them to leave off four of five, which only left one or two.) At the same time, as we worked together week by week, the students taught me what I had known when I was a child—that writing is not just a way to create, through fiction, different worlds, and to communicate, formulate and solidify what we know. It is a way into the world.

My students taught by taking the ideas I suggested and building with them: by showing what was powerful and useful in each exercise, and revealing what could be changed. I knew from my own childhood that teachers can teach by taking students out in the valley and the forest, by looking with them at growing things, by pointing out the water they can drink and the earth they can dig their toes into. Now I learnt that students teach too, by growing in ways we have hoped and in ways we have never imagined.

Creating a world

In the early part of our classes, we played sense perception games involving movement, as an active body can help create an active mind. In one of my favourite games, each of the students put on a blindfold and silently explored, alone, a patch of forest. I watched one young boy picking his way through the forest, and instead of being blind, he was 'seeing': I could tell by the careful, conscious movements of his hands and his feet that he was in a forest. It was not the forest I saw, because he couldn't see, and there lies the importance of fantasy and imagination. Most of the time, by summarily seeing and feeling only 'what is there,' my students and I could walk through a beautiful forest and never feel the trees bending in a wind that was almost too soft to hear. But this boy felt the trees and listened to the wind, and if he could not see the birds above him, he could hear them. As I watched, he turned his ear toward a crow's cry, and then listened, with a smile, to the beating of its wings. He could feel (he told me later) the difference between a soft, pliable green leaf, and the light, brittle, sharp edges of a brown one. Another student wrote while reflecting on this exercise: 'When I had eyes, I could only see the world. But now I can feel the world, smell the world, listen to the world, get the wonderful tastes of the world on my tongue.'

I still wonder what the first child 'saw' through his fingers, through his ears and his nose. When he described it later in his writing, he said it was a forest of magic: a forest where there might be mythic creatures and where, when he reached out his hands, he could feel the sap pulled up through the tree trunks behind the rough bark. Did he keep this world, and was the world he saw when he opened his eyes again deeper because of the time he had spent blindfolded? I can't be certain. I hope so.

The wonder and the fullness of feeling, the rich texture of the forest, the strong motion of the sap brought up behind the bark, and the grace with which a bird unfolds its feathers and beats its wings through the air—the students went out into the forest to discover all this. And they wrote it to understand it a little more, to explore the thought, create it with their attention, and remember it. Another time, we played a listening game. All together, we sat silently, and heard everything we could. I gave them a few directions: listen to things as far away as possible. Now listen to things as close as possible. Afterwards, as we shared what we had heard, I asked questions to draw out their experience: if they had heard footsteps, were the footsteps coming or going? Were they the steps of a child or an adult? One student raised her hand: she had heard the leaves on the trees in the wind, and she had also heard the separate sound of the fallen, dry leaves on the ground as the wind grazed over them. She added, 'When we started listening, there was nothing to hear and I was bored. But the more I listened the more there was to listen to, and by the end I wanted to hear it.' With their attention they created the world.

After these games, in the second part of our class we would read and we would write. In the first months, most of the students' ink went into descriptions. Descriptions of forests, of oceans; of the sun, the stars, a rock; a beloved pet, or a dog that frightened them; a storm, and the changes in the valley when the wind slowly washes through. I would often pull writing cues from imagined stories. We would close our eyes and imagine a mean-looking wizard: his nose, staff, hair and clothes. What did his castle look like? Their pens would dance across their notebooks as they described it. I saw this as an imaginative analogue to sense perception games— instead of exploring with our hands and our ears, we explored a world that we made inside.

Going beyond descriptions

I began with descriptive exercises because description is the art of 'seeing' and showing someone else your world. The students showed me that description is much more than that: it is easy to conceive of a 'mean wizard,' but once you start to describe him, there are more questions. 'How is he mean?' one student asked. 'Is he an evil wizard, or just a mean one?' asked another. 'Can he look mean but not actually be that mean?' wondered a third. 'Can he be nice to his pets?' 'Or to his daughter?' What are we saying when we say, 'He's mean'? Many of my students had their own experiences of being mean, and most of them said that sometimes (though they said it shouldn't be) being mean is fun. What kind of enjoyment do we get from it? Can we understand the part of ourselves that wants to be mean, or at least responds meanly; can we take a close look at the part that enjoys it? The purpose of all these questions is not to answer them. I never did, and really, in their writing, the students didn't either. Instead they began to look at them: the fact that there was a question showed that there was something to think about. The task of describing, of imagining one way life might be, made them ask what was possible.

Out of environment flowed emotion. All landscapes had character: every storm, field and hill—seen well enough to describe and written well enough to show—pulled out some individual response. I think this contact between the outside and the inside world was important and useful, though I'm still not completely clear why. Perhaps it is because the hills stopped just being hills: they became rolling, silent forests with the quiet drip of moisture and the thunder of a far-off waterfall, or else baking dunes where the sand was almost in flames. As the hills became something nuanced and multi-faceted, the students did too, and they started to go into the tenderness and variety of their own inner lives. For example, when I first asked students to write about courage, almost all of them wrote about being an unbeatable warrior (or soldier) killing the other bad warriors. (Many of my students played Grand Theft Auto, read Percy Jackson, and went home over the holidays to watch movies about spies and guns.) But when I asked them, after helping them walk their words over a mountain and through tall trees, if what they had earlier described was really courage, almost every one of them said, 'No.' They said there was something missing, and they started wondering what that was. That opened a space for rethinking, editing, and rewriting, which gave the opportunity to push farther, to build upon what had already been done and to follow the glimmers of what might be possible.

In our reading and writing, we would also often draw from novels, poems, and other stories that we read aloud together in class. In one series of classes, we read three interlocking Norse myths, looked at pictures of the mountains in which these myths were made, heard the creation of another world, and talked about what we heard. Then each student continued the story we had read: he took a peripheral character and wrote his own version of who that character was, and some of the adventures he had experienced. In another week we read the first few chapters of a novel aloud, and then each wrote a continuation of the story before going on to hear what the author had written.

In the last part of our class, students were given the chance to share parts of what they had written. They were often excited to read aloud from their writing. At its worst, this part of the class involved one engaged student sharing while the others drifted away. At its best, the students went happily into one another's adventures, tasting the fruits of far away forests and sitting down next to rivers that had never been part of their world, but might be, from now on. Many students were proud of what they had written. Some wanted their friends to write more, so that they could hear more of the story. There was plenty of ink on their pages, but in the end, their writing was only in part about putting words on the page; it was also about an imaginative, involved, perceptive relationship to the world, and about sharing the joys, insights and uncertainties of that relationship with those around them.