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The Geography of the Classroom

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While Reading in Motion may be one approach to facilitate student engagement, writer and teacher John O'Connor has a more stationary method. He found that if he really wanted to connect with his students, he had to put the brakes on classroom hierarchy. It's a lesson he learned in an unusual place. I first started thinking about classroom design during a brief stint in jail. As a young teacher, I spent four months in a maximum security prison teaching an extension course for Penn State University. (Back then I joked that I was teaching at Penn State and at the state pen). Since all of my students were felons and since there was a guard with a rifle stationed just outside the classroom door, it may have been inevitable that this was the first time I considered the physical space of my classroom – and not just the location of the emergency exits -- but where my students and I sat in relation to each other.

As I prepared to pass back these students' first set of essays, a man named Tree, who sat front and center, challenged me. He told me I was afraid of them. When a guy in prison is named Tree, you know he is either sequoia tall or he is roughly the size of a garden gnome and the victim of merciless irony. This man was about 6'7”, and nothing he said was ever taken lightly by anyone in the room.

“That's ridiculous,” I countered, hoping the guard outside had not decided to go for a coffee break.

“Then why do you hide behind that big old desk of yours?” he asked.

I had to admit he was right. My feet were firmly planted behind a large oak desk and I reached across its surface to pass back their stories. I was hiding behind the desk, a fortress of my own defensiveness, and I could only see the forest because of Tree.

So, I walked around the desk and passed back each paper individually, hand-to-hand, sharing their space and breaking the fourth wall. I thought, for the first time, about the shape of the room, the geometrical grid of desks – five rows of five. It was tidy and suggested order, but not one of my own devising. This is the default shape of classroom geography – a neat array of small desks all facing the big desk at the front. The effect of the shape is unmistakable, all power, all knowledge, is located within the teacher and the traffic flow of information usually goes one-way.

So, I moved the desks into a circle, a shape without a definite beginning or end, an arrangement that suggested a student-centered, democratic flow of ideas in which we could learn from each other.

I thought about that prison class the other day while a colleague and I were discussing how frequently literature – even drama – is taught in stasis. How easily we teachers can imprison ourselves behind a lectern or a large wooden desk, our views on texts we've taught for years as fixed and rigid as our place in class. Too often students remain “in their place” as passive consumers of information, rather than active creators of meaning, carrying and being carried away by another person's language. Literature, those prisoners reminded me, must move us.

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