January 10, 2021—This past summer I was visiting a place well known for its natural beauty. An area frequently visited by tourists enjoying the sights and wonders. The town’s economy is closely tied to the flow of outsiders, like me, and our purchases at restaurants, hotels, boutiques, and outfitters. I was there to enjoy the scenery, watch wildlife, and witness the profusion of wildflowers. Experiences widely distributed in promotional materials. Over the few days I was in town, I did enjoy the scenery, spent hours watching wildlife, and took lots of pictures of red, yellow, blue, and purple flowers. The trip was fantastic in that sense.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the stark contrast between the publicized and actual experience of hospitality. I was not ready for the profusion of “no trespassing” and “private property” signs. There was simply no way to experience the fullness of the area outside of the “authorized” tourist zones. There are plenty of good and defensible reasons to “post” one’s property. For instance, if there is some dangerous activity or landform that it is better for the inexperienced to avoid. My contrasting experience with the publicized message of welcome and the practical message of private spaces of exclusion started me thinking about education through a similar messaging. For many students, especially brown, Black, and Indigenous learners, schools try to welcome all, but in practice the “no trespassing” signs are everywhere. They tell students how to talk, how to walk, how to think, how to be fully human. Unlike the signs that where visibly tacked to fence posts, trees, and metal poles, the “private property” signs in education constitute the hidden curriculum; the unstated norms of behavior, thinking, and being.
As I reflected on these real signs of exclusion and segregation, I remembered another set of signs that dot the landscape; “open space”. These signs announce that all are welcome and invited into the presence of a communal resource, to share and appreciate. Even in open space there are rules and limitations, dos and don’ts, but they are typically designed to limit the kind of damage that is destructive to community. Imagine what schools or classrooms would look like or the experiences of students if the message was framed in “open-space” signage. The private signs of schools communicate a deficit model of humanness, an assumption that students need control and structure. They can’t be trusted with choice and exploration. In contrast, open space is asset based. It presumes good intentions and the capacity of students to make worthwhile decisions for themselves. It doesn’t assume that students will always act with right intentions; making mistakes is part of what being human means and it is a source of learning.
One experience with the “no trespassing” signs was particularly revealing and inviting for me, an educator dedicated to the creation of transformative learning spaces. Since the purpose of my vacation was nature study, I was constantly on the lookout for places where I could park my truck, sit, and watch. One day as I approached a bridge over a river, I noticed a baby tree swallow sticking its head out of a hole in a dead cottonwood tree. It just so happened that the tree was located in an ever so small gap between the fenced-off property and the riverbank. A minute piece of open space, free from prohibitions. I could sit and watch without violating the “no trespassing” signs.
Through my binoculars I saw that three or four swallows occupied the nest. And in no time the parents returned, flight after flight, with food for their growing brood. As I sat, watched, and listened, other signs of life’s profusion were brought to my attention. Higher up in the old cottonwood, four baby king birds were busy vying for the attention of their parents, who were flying back and forth between their hunting grounds and the gaping mouths of their children. Just a short distance away the cry of young kestrel was letting its parents know where it was, and that food was required. And finally, across the river, a pair of American dippers were belly deep in the shallows searching for aquatic insects. When necessary, they plunged into the current to capture prey. At the end of every dive they shook off the water and flew to a nest hidden in the overhanging bank. Over the next few days I made regular trips to this oasis of life. It was magical. It was unexpected. It was delightful.
I tell this story because I’m left with such an indelible memory of nature’s passion for life beyond human imposed constraints. But I also tell this story because it offers me much to think about when it comes to education and the ways I structure learning. I’m invited to consider how often I limit learning by fencing off the content, emotions, and hard conversations; posting private property signs keeping my students away. Even when my intentions are right and justified, the “no trespassing” signs in my syllabus, content, or pedagogy convey a message of limitation to my students. I’m encouraged to consider the value of posting “open-space” signs that redefined the student/teacher relationship as collaborative, not restrictive.
The vibrancy of life I witnessed near that bridge was short-lived. In a few days the baby birds fledged and were gone. I’m reminded that learning is not something that can be controlled. When the conditions are right, it happens at a frantic pace and is short-lived. I need to be vigilant and ready for those times in the classroom when I’m called upon to desperately search for and offer my students the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual nourishment they long for. I need to dive deep into the content, shake off what is unnecessary, and bring to all of us the best of myself, the content, and the mystery of learning.
My best moments of teaching and learning are not bound by the structure and pacing of my syllabus or lesson plans. They exist in the gaps. The spaces between the spaces defined by my “no trespassing” and “private property” signs. I’m wondering now, how often do I leave the narrowest gap for students to fully explore their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual world? I invite you too to consider where “no trespassing” signs exist in your teaching and to ask if they are required and important for keeping students safe? And when should you remove those sings and replace them with the invitation to “open space”? Look for the gaps in your teaching. The unexpected places where students shine and thrive. That is the place to begin the work of sitting, watching, listening, and being present to the very real learning going on around you.