gestures we’d made to help shift this, I found we were all acting in perfect accordance to the dynamics of a more typical (and passive) learning/teaching space. Half-way through the semester, with a clearly defined teaching objective to ‘create community within the classroom’ (an experiment in the kind of design processes we hoped to facilitate out in the world), I realized we didn’t really know each other. In our effort to prove ourselves worth the students’ time, credits and money (especially given our questionable status as peers) and our own pressures for the course to ‘produce’ for our thesis, I’d forgotten the importance of idleness—of letting the class wander where it needed to go. It took a rainstorm to dislodge us from this pattern. On that particular day, Emily and I pulled back. Rather than overplanning, we under-planned. And we skipped the snacks. What we did do was rearrange the tables in the room, ever so slightly, so that our circle was drawn just a little closer. And we started with a simple question: what was on your mind when you walked through the door today? Students seemed unsure at first, about how to ‘answer’. C’mon, throw something on the table, anything! Slowly with small, questioning smiles they began. One student was preoccupied with her husband’s job prospects, knowing he would be a determining factor in where they’d move once the year was out; another talked about a pow-wow she’d helped organize over the weekend—about one man who danced all the dances and was still dancing, with gusto, at day’s end. They talked about degree project presentations to come—those who had been through their own presentations shared advice. I could sense them loosening up. It was an architecture student who finally shared that on her way to class, all she’d really wanted to do was to splash in the puddles that had been deepening in the driving rain all morning. She’d just gotten through a major critique and was feeling that strange blend of exhaustion and relief. We could all empathize. I wondered aloud—what if this was our code word? Puddles. If someone dropped it into the room later, would we actually get up, go outside and do it? The thought sat in the space for a few seconds. We moved on. A student presented a slideshow about
their work and another began to set up theirs—but when their computer froze and we’d been watching that rainbow disk spin for what seemed like hours, I let it drop. Puddles. We looked at each other. Another voice, puddles? And another, puddles. Slowly we stood, put on our coats, and walked towards the door in disbelief, but with a certain momentum. In a minute, we were down the stairs and out onto the brick-paved promenade by the Providence River. In-between cracks, in the places where the bricks had settled, there were puddles—everywhere. A running jump, with two feet squarely planted, sent up the first splash. After that, it was easy. We roamed the yard, stomped, tested out the depth and breadth of each puddle (and the watertightness of our boots). With our pant legs still dripping, we trailed water into the store below our classroom and bought snacks. For the remainder of our class, we passed around gummy bears, chips and m+m’s, and lingered together well into dinner time, talking about the film we'd watched after our excursion. There’s something reassuring about thirteen graduate students impulsively stopping through puddles—letting all their pent up energy out, in a way that is as familiar as childhood but so easily forgotten. After that day, the class felt different. A student later said that it wasn’t until that moment that we started to feel like a community; that the conversations between us changed. Another admitted how hard it had been to think of Emily and I as peers, that she had in fact, been looking to us for answers—holding back her own contributions as a result. Contrary to what one might think, being knocked down from that particular pedestal felt good. The next week a student brought an enormous batch of home made cookies. The shift was weeks in coming. In retrospect, maybe it couldn’t have happened before that point. It wasn’t until that day that I remembered that letting go, is an essential ingredient of teaching; that listening for what’s needed on a particular day, even if it’s something as innocuous as this, is what it’s all about.
Published on Jul 1, 2011