August 31st, 2018—Summer is coming to a close and students from Kindergarten through graduate school are heading back to classrooms to continue their educational journey.  How they experience the classroom will directly impact the depth and complexity of their learning.  In learning spaces where rules, protocols, and prescribed curriculum is the norm, students are likely to approach learning as a transaction.  They adapt their intellectual and personal behavior to align with teacher notions of “right actions and right thinking” in exchange for a good grade. In such classrooms the emphasis is on behavior rather than learning.  When the course is finished—the grade is given—and there is little need to retain the knowledge.  In contrast are the classrooms that strive for “moreness” where students and teachers “…go beyond what we were and are and become something different, somehow new” (Dwayne Huebner). In this classroom, knowledge as commodity is abandoned in favor of holistic understandings of wisdom as transcendent, mysterious, and transformational.  The language and experiences of spirituality replace the technocratic, product, and procedural definitions of learning.  Learning as “moreness” favors a trajectory toward newness for teacher, student, and text.  The classroom is alive with the possibility of change and growth for all.

How might a teacher go about creating such a classroom? What are the markers of the classroom as sacred space where teacher and students participate in shared activity that transforms the content and personal understandings into “moreness” that invites educator and learners together to “become something different, somehow new?” The idea of sacred spaces—a place where the extraordinary occurs—has been a part of the human experience for ages.  Long before the advent of written language and the spiritual codices that followed, the understandings and learnings associated with sacred spaces found expression through art on cave walls.  Sacred spaces are most commonly associated with places of and experiences with a connection to a power greater than human knowing.  The language and practices of sacred spaces as learning spaces is rich with possibility when applied to classrooms striving for an experience of “moreness.”

One of the early stages of sacred space formation is shifting power dynamics away from the dichotomy of me and you (teacher/student) and towards an overt recognition of being in relationship to something greater than either of us.  The separation of individual selves becomes unified—not homogenized—around a shared experience of awe, exploration, and reverence.  It is an easy leap to envision curriculum as something greater than both the student and teacher, therefore worthy of a kind of relationship characterized by reverence, awe, and mysticism.  Parker Palmer invites educators to ask, what is this “great thing” in the curriculum toward which we are willing to dedicate our life-energy in the service of understanding; even while knowing that our knowledge will always be tentative and transient?  When the choices of curriculum (texts and experiences) are influenced by transcendence (moreness) rather than goals (transaction), educators move toward classrooms as sacred spaces.  Curriculum is no longer static knowledge to be mastered.  Instead it becomes a doorway to newness—a passage that has always been present—but now students and teacher alike have the refined ability to see the doorway.  What was once illusive and perceived as separate from the learning space is now transparent and available to all.

The second aspect of classrooms that lean toward sacred space are the forms of pedagogy that invite learners into a transformational relationship with self, others, and the curriculum.  In the field of education it is known that certain forms of teaching confine and constrain learners.  For instance, an overemphasis on lecture elevates teacher knowledge over learner agency.  In contrast, there are ways to teach that empower learners to own their intellectual and personal growth.  For example, assessments that encourage students to choose the best form of expression to demonstrate mastery of the content as well as reflections on ways that the content has “changed” the learner.  Consistent with sacred spaces a good pedagogical question for educators to ponder is, what are the rituals, practices, and traditions in my classroom?  Do they open up or close off student agency toward learning, sense of self as transcendent, or shift the lens of power away from individuals to something greater than self? How does the history of our shared time together as learner and teacher infuse the classroom with the sense that we are experiencing sacred space—a different form of education—where we take off our metaphorical shoes?  The rituals, practices, and traditions of classrooms as sacred space can be as simple as beginning every class session with a minute of stillness to allow everyone to transition into the learning space.  Or as intricate as assessments that invite learners into deep reflection on changed behavior toward others, expanded intellectual understandings, or a more nuanced sense of self in the world.

My tepid orientation toward structure and instructional authority are not meant as a call for elimination; structure, authority, and instructional intentions are a necessary element of any well run classroom.  But I do think it matters toward what end formality serves; transaction or transcendence?  And when teachers work toward sacred space in their classroom a third quality, beyond curriculum and pedagogy, mystery is a helpful guide to instructional choices.  Do the rituals, practices, and traditions create more or less opportunity to experience and learn from ambiguity, spontaneity, and the unexpected when the candle of knowledge burns brightly for a student?  Learning as transcendence is mysterious.  It can be a permanent feature of the classroom when students expect a moment of stillness as they settle in.  And at the same time transcendence is illusive, temporary, and can feel mysteriously absent from the learning space. This means that during any particular instructional moment one student can experience transcendence while another sees only content to master.  Structure helps with transcendence but the spirit of learning is too illusive, mystical, and mercurial to yield to a programed appearance.

Curriculum, pedagogy, and mystery are the hallmarks of classrooms as sacred space.  How might you change one of these elements to achieve a greater sense of transcendence in your classroom?

Image courtesy Planeta Incognito

Morgridge College of Education recognized summer doctoral candidates with a Doctoral Hooding Ceremony, Friday, Aug. 17, in the Katherine Ruffatto Hall Commons. Thirty-three candidates received their official doctoral hoods which signify the completion of their studies. The following reception celebrated the achievements of all summer graduates of the college.

Dean Karen Riley provided opening remarks, reminding the candidates to provide a “ladder down” to those that would come behind them.

Closing remarks form Associate Dean Mark Engberg emphasized the role that each newly minted graduate will play in providing critical hope to the educational communities they will impact.

View the complete Flickr album of the ceremony and following reception here.

August 17th, 2018—Invoking winter may seem like an odd place to start an essay on summer but that is where I’m going to start.  Using winter as a metaphor; what were your most challenging moments as a teacher?  When do you feel least connected to your calling?  How would you describe the days when it feels like the warmth of connection to your content, your students, and your personal integrity as a teacher is just a distant memory?  Now that you are thinking of the winter of your teaching I invite you to consider what aspects of summer do you roll around in with joy?  Remembering winter has a way of naming and attending to the elements of summer you are most attracted to.  To be clear what I’m proposing is that all teachers experience both winters and summers in their teaching.  In fact most teachers spend more time in winter than in the summer of their teaching because most teachers are overly critical of their teaching.  This is why in the midst of the season of summer it can be helpful to reflect on and incorporate into your teacher being the metaphorical elements of summer that are experienced as abundance and fruition.

I have experienced a prolonged winter in my teaching and leadership this past year.  I felt more off my game than on it far too many times.  But now that summer is here and I’m finding great reward in paying close attention to the fruits of my winter-labor and acknowledging my willingness to teach and lead with fidelity despite the potential for institutional-frostbite. Summer provides me the opportunity to let go of old fears, self-imposed limitations, unproductive feelings, to breathe deeply, take note of my successes, and begin living into the next season of my professional journey.  It feels empowering to teach from a sense of summer agency and boundless potential, instead of holding my teacher self in the isolating constraints of winter.

One poem that guides my summer reflections is Marge Piercy’s, Seven of Pentacles.  The following line is particularly rich with connections between the working life of a professional and the rewards of gardening: “for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”  I hear in her words an invitation to consciously tend to the work, the winter struggles, because that is what teachers do.  And I also hear Piercy’s reminder of the importance of taking time to gather in the benefits of work well-done; winter and summer are partners not antagonists in the work I do. This is particularly the case in education where the norm is to focus, almost exclusively, on what is ineffective, below standard, or inconsistent with reform protocols.  But as Piercy suggests it is equally valuable and worthy to ask; what are you hoping to harvest this summer from the long season of tending to your work?  Who are the beneficiaries of the excess production from your labor?

I find that stories of teaching are helpful at centering my inner teacher/leader on a learning I need to incorporate into my teaching. Let me offer a story that combines winter and summer themes in new ways with direct application to my personal and professional journey.  One recent summer I was riding a bus to the airport and as we approached the terminal the bus driver pointed out a 26 foot tall, 7 ton statue of the Egyptian god Anubis. The statue was advertisement for the King Tut exhibit coming to my local museum that summer.  As we drove past Anubis, standing quietly at attention and gazing toward the terminal, the driver commented how odd it seemed to pick the god of death as the symbol for the exhibit. And that it seemed even more ironic and puzzling to install Anubis outside an airport terminal where the success of summer vacations was contingent on safe departures and return flights.

I had to agree with the bus driver that the statue was an intriguing visual paradox. Anubis (the guardian of the portal of death) facing the airport terminal (the portal to fun, sun, and vacations); metaphorical images of winter and summer in tension.  Symbolically the statue of Anubis was very compelling, standing with grace and power, staff in hand, patiently waiting for the earth to tilt away from the sun and toward winter, his season of death.  I remember Anubis less as a threatening presence ready to overturn the natural order of things, a well-deserved summer vacation.  Instead, he represented an affirmation of the precious but transient qualities of summer.  Anubis was my wise and attentive advisor reminding me to fully live the gifts of summer, to not squander the blessings.  I’m confident that if I use the fullness of summer’s rest and renewal I know that I will be moving in professional directions that are consistent with the gifts of my inner teacher/leader.  And I also know that if I get too complacent in the drowsy, fulfilling nature of summer and forget to take stock of my learnings, I can always drive to the airport where Anubis will remind me of the importance of gleaning all of my summer harvest.  Because as Mary Oliver writes in her poem The Summer Day:  “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  What are you planning on doing with your one wild and precious summer?

The Morgridge College of Education (MCE) Curriculum and Instruction program with a specialization in Gifted Education has received approval from the Colorado Department of Education to offer coursework leading to Endorsement in the areas of Gifted Education Core, Gifted Education Specialist, and Gifted Education Director. All three endorsements were approved in the State Board meeting on June 13, 2018 and will take effect for the 2018-2019 academic year.

”This approval provides a platform for [MCE] to serve educators dedicated to improving the lives of gifted students,” said Dr. Norma Hafenstein, Daniel L. Ritchie Endowed Chair in Gifted Education. “Whether as a teacher serving gifted students in his or her classroom or a district level leader developing and implementing programs, our graduate students will be provided exemplary training to impact the field.”

The University of Denver has been a leader in education of the gifted for over four decades. Teacher and administrator training, research, professional development and direct service to children have provided both depth and breadth of community impact. The need for trained educators continues to expand as too often children go unrecognized and are frequently underserved. The three endorsement programs provide multiple levels of training and opportunities resulting in impact on schools, children and families.

  • Gifted Education Core can be achieved through the MCE’s Teaching and Learning Sciences Teacher Education Program (TEP) and can also be met through a certificate program.
  • Gifted Education Specialist standards may be achieved via two different pathways; students complete a Masters level degree as part of TEP with a cognate in Gifted Education and then take additional coursework to address the specialist level standards; or, students meet the Specialist level standards through a Masters level degree separate from TEP.
  • Gifted Education Director standards are incorporated into the Education Doctorate (EdD). The Director of Gifted Education training is a combination of Gifted Education, Initial Administrator preparation, Curriculum and Instruction training, and Research Methods.

The next available term for the Gifted Education cohort is Summer 2019; applications for the 2019 term are open now.

The Ricks Center for Gifted Children, a preschool through grade 8 model school on the University of Denver campus and part of the Morgridge College of Education (MCE), is gearing up for the new school year and excited to capitalize on its model Innovation Space.

The Ricks Innovation Space, originally developed over the summer of 2017, came to life in response to overwhelming support from the Ricks community. Engaged parents in the Ricks Community Association (RCA) headed up a fundraising drive through the annual Gala. The MCE technology team saw the Daniels College of Business Innovation Center and decided to assist in additional funding toward the creation of an innovation space for a younger audience at Ricks.

Alexandra Struzziero was hired as the Innovation and Technology specialist at Ricks, and in collaboration with Josh Davies, MCE Technology Specialist and Website Administrator, developed blueprints for the space.

“We had a specific challenge because we needed to make a space where creativity and innovation is encouraged, but also make it specifically applicable to be used in an elementary school setting,” said Davies.

Anne Sweet, Director of Ricks, reached out to contacts at other independent schools, and Struzziero, and Davies toured several in order to gather ideas.

The final Innovation Space was designed specifically for Ricks, specifically for gifted students, and specifically with their unique needs in mind. Over the course of the last academic year, Struzziero and teachers facilitated the use of the space, and children used their creativity to launch it to the next level.

One student in particular, Quinn London, took to the space and expanded her thirst for education outside the traditional classroom setting. She asked for a 3-D printer for Christmas, and once her dad taught her how to solder, she took her tools to school and taught her class in the Innovation Space.

According to Quinn’s father, Brian, “the Innovation Space has really allowed her to grow and embrace this side of her education.”

Struzziero continues to build the capacity of the Innovation Space, integrating it with the curriculum while leaving room for students and teachers to explore through collaboration and origianlity.  She is ready to start this fall with a better idea of how to tap into students’ passions in innovation and technology.

“Seeing students, like Quinn, who really pushed the envelope and grew each time they used the Innovation Space gave us confidence and reassurance that we are on the right path toward collaborative, innovative exploration,” said Sweet.

Struzziero continues to build off students’ and teachers’ use of the green screen for audio visual technology, 3-D printing, and coding technology. Students are engaged in the “maker movement,” tinkering without limits as they design new ways to engage technology. The RCA and teacher communities at Ricks supported this year’s initiative to implement LEGO robotics across the K – 8 learning spectrum. Ricks is hosting a 2-day LEGO robotics training on August 8 and 10, and has opened the training to MCE faculty and staff, along with local independent schools.

Ricks begins is 2018-2019 school year on August 13 for educator professional development and opens its doors to students August 20. For more information about Ricks, visit their site.


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