January 22nd, 2017 – Let me start with a premise; the classroom can be a sacred space. This premise is not equally held by all educators nor is the classroom always sacred. But I do know it strikes a resonating cord with many teachers and students conceptually and in practice. When a classroom is sacred space I mean to suggest that at its best the practice of education, which means “to draw out”, signals that something beyond the ordinary is transpiring. The educator and the student are no longer engaged in activities and experiences associated with the more typical ways of being together in the act of transferring knowledge from teacher and text to student. A different kind of exchange occurs that is akin to the notion of flow when everything just clicks and the teacher recognizes both the fire of understanding in the learner’s eyes as well as the passion for content in the deepness of his/her teaching heart.

Parker Palmer refers to this process as deep speaking to deep; the deep understanding of the teacher meets the deep longing for knowledge of the student. There is an intense state of vulnerability, at least as I experience it, that invites me and my students into a relationship with something greater than my role as professor or their role as learner. We are invited into a state of humility, awe, and appreciation for the mystery of knowing that we have come together to explore and be changed by. Like the creation of any sacred space there are rituals, practices, and traditions in the classroom that foster the sense of the sacred; an invitation to shift from normal time and normal ways of being to something beyond the ordinary. And this sense of the classroom as sacred is transient, rarely lasting the full time, nor are all encounters between teacher and student of the deep kind.

But when the classroom is at its sacred-best the risks are high for both the teacher and the learner; neither leaves at the end of the class period quite the same as when they walked in at the start of class. Let me provide a concrete example. Recently, after a particular class that approached, at times, the level of the sacred I was wandering around the classroom gathering up stray pieces of paper, markers, and other trappings of teaching. I was doing this as the next class, which I wasn’t teaching, began to enter the classroom space. A student, who I know from previous classes, asked how I was doing. I realized as he asked me that question that I was engaging in a ritual I associate with classroom as sacred space. A tradition that I often practice unconsciously when my teaching is at its best. I was doing more than cleaning up the detritus of teaching; I was gathering up pieces of my teacher-self. I knew from previous classroom interactions with this student that given his philosophical orientation he would find an honest response to his question more engaging than the more typical social response. I stopped in front of him and stated: “I’m gathering up pieces of myself that I’ve left behind during teaching.” I told him that I once heard a Lakota elder share the advice that when leaving a place of deep experience it was always a good idea to speak your name out loud three-times so as to call back the pieces of yourself that want to remain connected to that place and experience. With no hesitation on his part, my student stated: “well of course that makes sense if you treat the classroom as a sacred space.” I also know that this student has a playful side when it comes to interactions with authority so I asked, “Do you believe this or are you just saying that because you know that is what I believe?” He paused and in a more reflective tone he answered: “No I think that is true.” Teaching, I believe, can leave an educator fractured when teaching goes sideways as well as when teaching reaches transcendence. The only real questions are why, how, and what will the teacher do about re-gathering the scattered notions of self?

Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (ELPS) alumnus and Denver Public Schools (DPS) graduate Allen Smith has led a highly successful career in education administration that has taken him across the country and earned him national  recognition. Smith, who earned his MA at the Morgridge College of Education (MCE) and completed the ELPS Ritchie Program for School Leaders Certificate program, credits his education at the University of Denver as a major influence in his success.

A Colorado native, Smith has served as principal at multiple DPS schools, as well as filled superintendent roles in North Carolina and California. He was honored by President Barack Obama for his work as the executive director of Denver Summit Schools where he implemented innovative community engagement efforts. Smith currently serves as the associate chief of the DPS Culture Equity & Leadership Team.

Smith says that the opportunities in the ELPS program helped to establish a larger career trajectory and enable him to more effectively create a lasting impact. To this day, he translates the tools and lessons acquired in the program into his work.

Career Achievements

Smith founded the Skyland Community High School which serves at-risk students in Denver and graduated its first senior class with 100% graduation and 100% college acceptance rates. He also worked at Barrett Elementary School, where he reduced discipline rates and increased student achievement and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College (MLK), which, under his leadership and a turnaround initiative, improved from one of the nation’s lowest-ranked schools to one of the top schools in DPS. The MLK Early College was also recognized with two Distinguished School Awards from the Colorado Department of Education. Smith acknowledges the support of fellow ELPS graduates, who served as assistant principals at the school, with helping to make a lasting impact on the environment.

January 8th, 2017 – What do you find most annoying as a teacher? What student behavior makes you the most frustrated? If you could change one thing about student/teacher interactions what would it be?

In my early years teaching in higher education classrooms I was often bothered by one thing; food in the classroom. I took offense when a student brought a sandwich, for instance, to class and started eating during a break. This seemed so rude and inappropriate (even though I recognized that students get hungry and need to eat). To address my displeasure of food in the classroom I began articulating, during the first class session, my feelings on eating in class. This tactic stopped or at least slowed the consumption of food in my classroom, but something still felt incomplete. And when an instructional move feels inadequate to me I take this as an invitation to keep exploring the deeper why behind my discomfort. Over the next several years I tested my gut-sense against a number of tweaks to my no food policy. I considered the power differential between my students and me. I tried talking to individual students before or after class about my annoyance with eating in class. I experimented with varying degrees of permissiveness and acceptance. I wondered if my discomfort was equally distributed across all types of food and drink.

I can no longer remember when the breakthrough happened but I eventually sorted through my annoyance to get the core of my concern and once there I was able to formulate a response that felt right. At the heart of my issue with food in the classroom was a deep and abiding sense of the classroom as sacred space. I had never fully articulated this point before in my teaching; just acted on it without making my belief plain to my students or even myself. And because it remained “hidden” I constantly felt bothered when students brought food to class. As soon as I named my belief in classrooms as sacred space I began to see a way to bring together, in meaningful ways, my need for respecting the integrity of the classroom with the need of students to eat. I realized the obvious, that food is a central element of many spiritual practices and community gatherings. Once in possession of this truth I wondered how I might make food an essential part of honoring the sacred nature of higher education classrooms.

Out of this exploration I initiated a ritual that I enact now during the first class session of every course I teach. In fact, this ritual is so ingrained in my teaching that if I wait too long into the first class session to introduce it a student will often raise and hand and ask: “Are we doing snacks in this class?” There it is, my secret sauce; snack time. I begin the ritual by telling the story of my initial annoyance with students bringing food to class. Then transition to my epiphany that my dislike was rooted in a deep commitment to classrooms as sacred space. Which lead me to the realization that food is compatible with an educational community engaged in a shared exploration of something greater than self, a core quality of any educational setting or community with sacred rituals and practices. At this point I state that we will be taking a 15 minute break during class for a time to gather together, share stories, talk about the text, and enjoy a snack together. The final step is passing around a signup sheet for students to bring a “little-something” to class to share with classmates.

My experience is that “snack time” becomes a central moment of community and learning. A student who brought a culturally unique dish will share the story of how it is made and why it is important. Students gather around the chips and salsa and continue the conversation we had as a class right before break. Other students check in with each other around courses to take next quarter or how their final paper is going. Food is fostering a sacred space by serving to feed both physical and relational hunger. I’m deeply appreciative of the patience of my students as I worked out the core of my frustration with food in the classroom. Without that gift I would likely not have re-conceptualized my instruction to see food as essential to the creation of classrooms as sacred space.

December 20th, 2016 – I frequently start my higher education classes with a poem, typically a poem that has little direct connection to teaching, my primary area of expertise and interest. Why and toward what end? What if anything does poetry contribute to an understanding of history, philosophy, or social context of schooling?

The poet Emily Dickinson in her poem Tell all the truth but tell it slant opens with the line “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” and she ends with the explanation “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind”. T.S. Eliot, when asked about the value of poetry replied, “The chief use of the “meaning” of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog”. I find that poetry is an effective way to introduce core ideas and concepts about teaching and schooling but in a way that is less direct, thus increasing the chance that students will incorporate or at least strongly consider the main points of the class. Poetry allows for the introduction of controversial or strong ideas but at a “slant” or like the burglar who brings a “bit of nice meat for the house-dog”. The poem opens up the learning heart of my students while temporarily distracting their academic mind. By starting class this way I find that my students are more likely to express their understanding of the text through fresh critical eyes instead of the voice of well-trained students trying to impress the professor.

How do I introduce poetry to my students? I initially tell them that poems are like a Rorschach test where the psychiatrist asks a patient to interpret an ink blot on a piece of folded paper. In my case, the poem invites their inner teacher to see or hear what they most need to understand about the poem as it connects with the text for the day. I make it clear that like a Rorschach test each student will likely hear or see something different in the poem. In a subtle but direct way this conveys the message that intellectual diversity is valued in our community of scholars. I pass out the poem and read it out loud (there is something about hearing a poem read by someone else that goes deeper into the space of meaning than reading a poem in silence). I hold a few minutes of silence for the deep meaning of the poem to sink into the deep learning spaces of my students. I break the silence with an invitation to share a word, image, or phrase that speaks to them about the link between the poem and the essence of the texts we read for the class.

For the next 10-15 minutes at least three things happen. One, I get a real time sense of how my students understood, in a truly personal and intellectual sense, the readings for the class session. Two, students get a chance, in a non-threatening way, to hear the different ways that their classmates connected to or made sense of the readings. Three, all of us (teacher and students) slow down and settle into the class period. In no way does poetry provide an escape from the rigor of engaging critical ideas but as Emily Dickinson argues: “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind”.

Kaleen Barnett—Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (ELPS) Ed.D. student—has been selected to run the Colorado High School Charter (CHSC) satellite campus serving Denver’s Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods.

CHSC is a charter school for students who need an alternative academic environment to succeed and to achieve post-secondary goals. The satellite campus, which opened in August 2016, supports a low-resource area with a high underserved population. Barnett’s goal with the new campus is to “create a tailored curriculum in an inclusive environment that values community partnerships” and to “empower students to succeed in their life and positively contribute to their families and community.”

The campus has partnered with the Colorado Construction Institute to provide vocational training, infusing the curriculum with individualized skill-building to help students reach future goals. Barnett says there is nothing like it in Denver for a school to run an outsourced model which utilizes existing, strong, established training already rooted in the community.

Barnett cites her education in the ELPS program as something that has prepared her for this opportunity, saying that “because of DU I’m better equipped to utilize a cultural leadership lens and continue to help create a community that values inclusivity.” The infusion of turnaround leadership into all ELPS coursework has prepared Barnett to step into a leadership role responsible for transforming a community.

This story is featured in our 2016 Dean’s Report, which you can read in its entirety here.


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