[CollegeContemplative is featuring Guest Bloggers from October 2013-February 2014. Welcome, Tami Augustine (Taug4)!]
Our contemplative work continues together – the teacher candidates and I continue to walk down this amazing path together. I have been reflecting on just how fortunate I am that I can bring together these two important pieces of my life. My passion for teaching and my passion for spiritual practice. Each week I get to plan classes – not just full of content – but to also tend to creating a classroom environment, creating community, and co-creating our learning experience. Items, I feel, are too often overlooked, especially in the age of standardized learning.
For me, an integral part of contemplative and mindful pedagogies is classroom space. Intentionally creating space that supports learners in their acquisition of knowledge and skill. This is not always easy at the University with classrooms that have a variety of furniture, get used by multiple professors and students each day, and, as of late, have a wide variety of temperatures.
The first thing I do in working with the teacher candidates is find out what makes them feel comfortable and at home in any space. Then we compile the list and we see what we can work with, keeping in mind the limitations of many University classroom. It amazes me what a difference this makes. It is the beginning of building our community – creating a space that, according to my students, helps them feel safe to explore both contemplative practices and challenging academic work. And, what I love is that each year students have different needs for their classroom space. Admittedly, it helps that I am working with teacher candidates because it connects nicely with creating classroom spaces for middle school students. Again – blending teaching and mindfulness. A blessing.
This semester the teacher candidates need coffee and tea. That is fairly common. They also like no overhead lights. The classrooms have wonderfully large windows that, if you just lift the blinds, allow plenty of light to enter during daytime classes (we do need to lower blinds when using certain pieces of technology – but often one blind will do). They also want flowers. Fresh flowers. And music. On their own, they contributed to a “classroom space” fund. And, I would pick up the items.
Each week we transform the classroom space. I get to class early and find all the blinds are down and closed – no natural light coming in at all – so that is the first thing to change. Then the lights go off. I pick up the trash left behind. I get music going – the time class begins dictates the type of music. I do ask what music they prefer and they consistently ask me to surprise them. Considering my love of music – this is such a gift to me. I then get the coffee and hot water going. Class size is fairly small (no more than 25 this semester) and I set up the desks to be close enough to feel like we are sitting in a family room, yet also giving us enough space to work. We also have a SPOT – Special Place of Tranquility – at the front of the room (http://www.brightdawn.org/dailydharma/SPOT.htm). The SPOT is a place where we can leave our burdens – or a representation of them – or leave things we want to celebrate or simply share. This is also where the flowers sit. The SPOT is similar to an altar perhaps, but I wanted to be sure to use secular language. Students have shared student work as a way to celebrate what is happening in their field placements. One student placed a cough drop there so he could set his coughing aside for one class. One student stated, “I enjoy having a safe space to place objects that are important to us or are stressors for the duration of the class. I put my planner there because I am constantly making to-do lists and thinking about what I need to get done. By putting my planner up there, I felt like I could focus on the discussion in class, rather than being distracted by seeing my planner right at my seat with me.”
Again, all of this works wonderfully as we talk about how different classroom set-ups support different types of learning. I would love to have everything set up for the students when they come, but over the course of the semester they arrive earlier and earlier. They have only a short break between their classes – so they begin to just grab lunch together and bring it to class. They help me set-up and then enjoy their meal together. I take all of this as a good sign. But, I just cannot get there early enough!
Throughout the semester what the teacher candidates pick up on is the intentionality and purpose of creating the space. Being mindful of all the aspects of it. I do not tell them that explicitly– they just begin to comment. They use the word intentional and it makes me smile. They tell me that the classroom space honors who they are – how they feel – and it helps them feel more comfortable and ready to learn.
Classroom space plays a significant role in our ability to be present to accomplish our work together. We can often find ourselves so busy moving from place to place that we forget about the space we occupy at any given time and the impact that space can have on each other. Dillard (2006) and Palmer (1998) indicate that classroom spaces should be open, hospitable, balance the individual and the community, encourage dialogue, and give opportunities for reflection. When creating open classroom spaces, dialogue that encourages many viewpoints and discussion of controversial issues and topics are embraced and encouraged. This, however, is a topic for another post.