Students seemed mezmerized by one small change I had made to the classroom: a black cotton sheet that stretched over the waist-high bookshelf at the back of the room. It was the first week of class, and I was a second-year teacher who had just moved to Cincinnati and spent two weeks cleaning out and setting up my classroom. I had made other changes, too—my antique books were arranged on another bookshelf, book cover posters were displayed on the wall, and the brightly-colored posters with trite sayings about completing homework on time were thrown away. But what captivated students most was the idea of the black curtain, and a few days into that first week, they asked to look inside.
Of course, the only thing they found underneath it, as I warned them, were piles and piles of textbooks that we weren’t using that year, and a few empty shelves for the books I had already handed out. But they still seemed puzzled, so one student ventured out, “But why? What’s the black curtain for?”
“Because stacks of textbooks are ugly,” I said, “and I figured none of us would want to look at that all day.”
Some of them stared at me as if I wasn’t speaking English, and one student simply said, “Thank you.”
It struck me that day that students, and possibly many of their teachers, hadn’t considered the aesthetics of the classroom as one would consider carefully the aesthetics of the home. But once I began thinking of my students as guests, I had no choice but to consider the setting in which our learning took place.
A frequent comparison with the modern school is the jail. As a teacher, I’ve always been offended by this, but the more I know about and visit schools, the more I have to concede this diagnosis. This, of course, is excluding schools that are attempting to do something different, like many of the classical schools and charter schools that are taking a distinct approach to the school day. However, students in more traditional school settings often feel imprisoned in their white-washed classrooms, with few breaks, being forced to sit in uncomfortable chairs, having to ask if they can stand or go to the restroom, and reduced to cattle being herded—or minds simply needing to be filled. And even if this isn’t true of your particular school, this is the common conception that students have in mind when they think of school, as it is the overarching cultural metaphor.
To defeat such an image, there is work to be done. My students would complain of this captured feeling, as if they were being tortured and held for ransom, and graduation was the opening of the gates of freedom when “real life” would finally begin. And no matter how many times I tried to tell them that it wasn’t true, I came to discover that the best way to demolish their imagined walls was to convince them that their humanity was valued in the classroom. This happened slowly and painstakingly, but that black curtain was the beginning. A large part of this process was the time I took on the classroom itself, creating glimpses of beauty that would refresh my students’ spirits when they walked in.
In my last post, I considered responsibilities of a host towards a guest. But before a guest ever enters your house, there are ways that you prepare the space for their arrival. It might be adding some chairs to your table, returning the clutter to its given place, vacuuming up yesterday’s crumbs, or arranging fresh flowers. And though a classroom has its limitations, it is possible to make the space more conducive to the sort of class culture that humanizes students, encouraging them to participate in their studies as guests participate in a meal.
Of course, not all classrooms will or should look the same. A teacher of literature must consider different aesthetics than a teacher of science. But the underlying idea is the same: in what way can my space welcome my guests?
Since I’m a literature teacher, I wanted my classroom to feel as though we were sitting in a library or living room for discussion, and I let that guide my classroom planning. I still had the normal classroom cinderblock walls, a whiteboard, and storage, but there were some things that I could control: eliminating clutter, dimming the bright white lights, adding beautiful fabric to bulletin boards, and choosing works of art instead of popular posters to decorate with.
Another opportunity I had to welcome my students in my classroom was a tea table, complete with an electric kettle, sugar cubes, a tea box, and white ceramic mugs. The students were welcome to have tea during book discussions, and it even became a way for students to show a sense of ownership in the classroom as they often contributed boxes of tea or sugar to the collection. This is only one example, and one that won’t work in every classroom.
Hopefully, an outcome of fostering a hospitable environment for students is that they begin contributing to it. The most beautiful item in my classroom during my year of teaching was a piece of art painted by one of my students. I had told her that my favorite Lewis work is his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” so she crafted some of his best words onto a canvas: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit, immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Not only did these words remind me who I was teaching each day, but they welcomed my students as well. And not only were they words that reminded each of us that we’re human, but they were words encapsulated in a beautiful form, recognizing our human need for beauty and order.
The most basic question to ask of any classroom, like you would of your own home, is does this room feel stressful to me? Cluttered? Uncomfortable? If you feel that way in your own classroom, your students probably do, too. It could be as simple as covering the ugly textbooks with black cloth, changing the lighting, or providing Kleenex during allergy season. It could be creating a beautiful space that encourages lingering in long conversations about age-old stories.
When I arrived in Ukraine five summers ago with only four fellow travelers, we had been flying and in airports for thirty-six hours, and we entered Kiev disoriented and exhausted. Yet we still had to spend a night in Kiev with a Ukrainian family before heading out to the small village where we’d be spending the summer. But I’ll never forget arriving at the house in Kiev. The family had adopted several children, and lived in a fairly small house. But they had beds ready for us, towels folded for us, and breakfast set out. They took time to pick us up, and greet us, and make us feel at home. Even in those humble surroundings, the care that they took in preparing for our arrival was noticeable and appreciated—I slept better that night than I would the rest of the summer.
And though each classroom comes with its own limitations, may we strive to prepare for and welcome each guest that walks into our classroom, for none of them are ordinary people.