The Classroom as Retreat Space

On September 19th at noon, around two dozen faculty members from Assumption College gathered for our first formal event of the semester, a Food for Thought program hosted by MCLC professor Esteban Loustaunau on the thought-provoking subject of the classroom as a “retreat space.”  After this wonderful kickoff to our 2016-2017 academic year, we asked Prof. Loustaunau if he would contribute a blog post on this topic.  His thoughts, which formed the subject of his presentation and are currently being expanded into a longer, reflective essay, are below.

The Classroom as Retreat Space

Esteban Loustaunau, MCLC

As a language teacher, I always look for ways to help my studephoto-sep-21-12-38-11-pmnts feel more comfortable speaking in class.  Since often students remain quiet when I as a question, I want to better understand some of the reasons why they avoid sharing their thoughts and ideas freely during class time.  I’ve come to think that in order to motivate my students to speak more in class, I need to rethink how we spend our time together in the classroom.  A better learning experience for my students and I come s by rethinking the classroom as a retreat space.

As teachers many of us believe that a discussion-driven classroom can motivate students to become more active, confident, and engaged learners. Yet, many times we find it difficult to stick to our discussion-driven strategies when, despite our best efforts, students resist to talk in class.  In my experience, students feel more comfortable speaking when they work in pairs or in small groups. Facing students’ resistance to talk in class, and feeling the pressure to stick to the syllabus, too many times we end-up lecturing to our students.  Of course, there are many benefits to a good lecture and in my courses I lecture once in a while to provide students with useful historical background and context, but for the most part I expect students to interact with each other in class discussion.

In my years of teaching undergraduate students, I’ve attended lectures and workshops, read pedagogical books and articles on teaching strategies such as learning by doing, small group discussion, and flipping the classroom.  All of these have given me valuable insights and ideas, and have motivated me to try new things in the classroom.  Yet, most of these strategies have failed to point out a key component of learning: building relationships of trust with students.  In order to better teach my students I need to know them and understand where they are coming from.  The same goes for my students.  If I want my students to trust me as their teacher, they also need to know me as a person.

This semester I am teaching a section of SPA 204: Introduction to Literature in Spanish.  It is an elective SOPHIA course that focuses on helping students to think deeply about their life purpose and vocation.  In this class, students work hard at listening to their inner voice that would lead them to their life purpose.  One way of doing this is through class discussion.  On the second day of classes I asked students to spend the first five minutes to write about what they remembered from the previous class.[1]  In particular, I wanted them to remember our earlier conversation on a photograph titled “The Passage” by Robert Parke Harrison showing a man building a boardwalk on water, heading into the horizon.

Students also were invited to write about how they could apply the meaning of this photograph to their own lives.  After the five minutes were over, students shared their ideas with each other by working in pairs.   Once they were finished, I asked for volunteers to describe their thoughts to the rest of the class.  Not surprisingly, only three students volunteered.  They commented on how the photograph was about building confidence, motivation, and hope in the face of uncertainty.  These are all valuable emotional skills for students to feel safe to share their ideas in front of others. Yet, they found it difficult to apply these skills to the exercise at hand.

Feeling a bit frustrated with students’ lack of participation, I decided to put my lesson plan on pause. Continuing in Spanish, I asked students to list the reasons why they wouldn’t talk.  Their main reasons for not speaking included their fear of saying photo-sep-21-12-12-44-pmsomething wrong, vergüenza (shame) of sounding stupid, and the dread of disagreeing with others, especially the professor.  This developed into an open and honest conversation where I shared with them my own fear of speaking in class when I was their same age.  When I started college I was afraid of sounding stupid in class due to my lack of English oral fluency. Most of my students are still developing their fluency in Spanish, just as I did in English years ago.  But I also reminded them of their own interpretation of “The Passage” and how they could apply confidence, motivation and hope when facing their fear of speaking in class.  My personal story and my students’ insights on “The Passage” helped us to build common ground in the classroom.  From this common space, together we realized that we needed to let go of the false notion that in order to speak we first must possess enough knowledge and self-confidence.  I then explained how we sometimes can’t help but to start from failure, and how we should not be afraid when this happens.  Recognizing failure can be a form of liberation for students so that they can to speak honestly and respectfully without worry or shame.  This unplanned connection with my students is what I call turning the classroom into retreat space.  This is a moment when we can step outside the regular habits of the classroom, where the professor to student relation can be turned into other kinds of relations such as person to person or mentor to mentee with no syllabus, lesson plan, or graded assignment to interfere in the conversation.

After the retreat time was over, we turned our attention to Augusto Monterroso’s short story “El paraíso imperfecto” (“The Imperfect Paradise”).   In this micro-story only three-lines long, the narrator describes how the only bad thing about getting to heaven is that once there, heaven can’t be seen.  The irony of this story brought us back to our discussion of students’ fear of failure.  As one student put it so eloquently, perhaps it is not that we need to start from failure in order to free ourselves from our fear of it, but that we are often unable to see our own success when we face it.  She was absolutely right.  After class was over, I extended our retreat space by sending my students a recent article that my wife had mentioned to me a couple of days before.  In his article comedian and writer Mike Birbiglia mentions the importance of losing our fear of failure: “Don’t worry about failing,” he urges the reader “[f]ailure is essential.  There’s no substitute for it.  It’s not just encouraged but required.”[2]

The learning that happened on that day would not have happened if I had not let go of my lesson plan.  The lessons shared on that day came about through patience, courage and collaboration, by turning the classroom into a retreat space.  Carving retreat spaces in our courses can help us find common ground with our students.  Common ground is indispensable if we want to have real, honest conversations with others.  When students and faculty find ways to connect and trust in each other they can begin to build mentoring relationships to help students discover something new about themselves, find a purpose, a career path, and a calling to serve others.

These are five ideas of how you can turn your classroom into a retreat space:

Connect with students on a personal level.  Treat your students as who they are, full human beings.  Remember that they are more than students, so try to learn their names as soon as possible.

Share from your own life experiences. The point is not to have students be like you, but to show them that you were once like them.  Don’t be afraid if students see how imperfect you were/are.  This might be necessary if you want to show just how much you care about them.

Carry things beyond the classroom.  Find a short article, image, or video to help students continue to reflect on a conversation that started in retreat space.  These can be about your academic discipline but they don’t need to be.  They should mostly be to encourage students to continue to think about what was discussed during class.

Reflect.  Encourage students to write before, during, and after class.   They should write down their ideas and reflect on the conversations held in retreat space.  Have them keep those paragraphs handy in good and bad times: whenever they may experience joy, but also when feeling frustrated or discouraged.

Adjust your lesson plan. Be open to pause and adjust your lesson plan to give way to retreat space.  Besides learning new skills and concepts in your discipline, your students will remember that you took time to know them better.

[1] I first learned about this assignment idea from Jim Lang in his article, “Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class.” Chronicle of Higher Education 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 12 Jan. 2016.

[2] Mike Birbiglia, “Mike Birbiglia’s 6 Tips for Making It Small in Hollywood. Or Anywhere.” New York Times 30 Aug. 2016. Web. 2 Sept. 2016.

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