Classroom Design and Education: A revelation while teaching Introduction to Poetry this January

1st February, 2013 - Posted by Christine Perrin - No Comments

This January, I taught a college general education literature course (in other words, most students in the class were not English majors and were in the class to fulfill a requirement). I decided, at the last minute to hold the class in a room called “The Loft” which is a large living room with leather couches and a fireplace as well as lofty ceilings and a wall of windows. Because I didn’t reserve it until the last minute, there were a few days (4) when we had to return to the classroom to hold class. The classroom involved 37 chairs with desks in rows–a podium and smart classroom station at the front. I was shocked by the difference. In the loft we chatted amiably as we tried to understand not only the content of the poems but their inner workings, as well as the body of work of each poet we were studying (Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Hughes, Williams). We drank tea and sat near the fire. Students spoke of encounters they had in high school that paralleled the sensibility of certain poems. We started each class with recitation (8 people 8 poems) and found ourselves responding to the poems that people had ‘given’ us with their bodies, their instruments. Conversation naturally led us to link the print on the page, and on our lips, to the lives we lived. I often try to encourage this in literature classes but it wasn’t until we entered the classroom with the fluorescent lights and the desks in rows that I realized how much the environment we were in affected us and shaped our expectations.

In the classroom, students weren’t looking at each other. They spoke only to me at the front. They dozed under the harsh lights. Our conversations seemed to falter, flounder, flatten out. The smart technology was helpful for seeing the power point, but that also made us more reliant on the power point. People stood up awkwardly at their desks to recite their poems and turned their backs to half the class.

The difference was dramatic and I got to realizing that I can’t really teach well in such a classroom environment–it belies my anthropology as well as the material. Poetry is asking us to measure it’s truth against our experience–both material and spiritual. It was Wordsworth who said about his work: “I have wished to keep the reader in the company of flesh and blood.” I take this to mean that not only that poetry partakes of the world we live in our bodies, but figuratively it partakes in the lived life, the whole experience not ‘brain only’.

Seth Godin says we are in a post industrial, post geography world. This classroom is part of the industrial world, where we had the sense that you could create a formula, line all the parts up and just crank out whatever you were making to whatever scale you desired.

It took the radical juxtaposition of two different rooms on two days next to each other (though in total we spent 4 days in classroom and 11 in the Loft) for me to wake up to this reality. We probably can’t build 200 loft rooms on campus, but we could put wooden round tables in classrooms and change the lighting. If we did this, we would be saying something about what we believe about who human beings are and what it means to educate them.

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