November 01, 2005

Campfire in the classroom

One semester when I was teaching in a small classroom without windows, I complained to my students that the overhead lights were bringing on a migraine. One student, who also suffered from migraines, was sympathetic. She took a flashlight out of her coat pocket and suggested we turn off the lights. (At any given time, my students can usually produce a flashlight, a compass, or a knife.) My head was really bothering me - my vision gets blurry and I can't even read - so I agreed to have class by flashlight. It made sense at the time.

The class was a course in contemporary nature literature, about fifteen students who were mostly seniors; we all knew each other pretty well. The class before, we had been discussing the kind of learning that takes place in the classroom versus the kind of learning that happens in a forest, near a stream, or on a mountain. Experimenting with the classroom setup seemed like a good idea. We put the flashlight on the floor in the middle of the room and circled around it like it was a campfire.

Turning out all the lights did change the classroom dynamics. It was strange to not be able to see anyone's face. I admit, even though I had been teaching for years and we were talking about a text that I knew very well, I had a moment of panic at the thought that I could not look at my notes or even the text. I realized how dependent I was on reading quotes from the text, to articulating some kind of close reading to make my larger points. Unable to see my book, I moved more quickly to the overarching themes in the piece we were discussing, which happened to be the epilogue of Terry Tempest Williams' book Refuge, a piece that connects the high incidence of breast cancer in Mormon women in Utah to atomic testing in the desert.

What surprised us all, though, is how the quality of the discussion changed. I talked less, because of course, I couldn't see my notes. Protected by the darkness, the quietest students - the ones who don't usually talk unless they have to -- spoke up. The discussion got intense very quickly. Students talked about their own fears of cancer. They connected the text to larger cultural issues. The discussion was more personal than usual, more serious. Silences felt comfortable.

At the end of the class, we talked about how what it had been like to have class by flashlight. My students talked about how intimate discussions can be around a campfire and how much more willing people are to speak up when you can't see their faces.

19 comments:

Songbird said...

Last week at Bible Study we took time at 6:30 to remember the 2000 soldiers who have died in Iraq. My friend and colleague, who pastors the new church start that meets in our basement, brought candles, and we lit them and just sat there with the lights out and talked. The conversation went deeper, and although we eventually blew out the candles and turned the lights on again, we remained in that deeper place.
You are such an awesome teacher, jo(e).

Nels said...

I practically have that entire book memorized, though, so I'm not sure the lack of notes would stop me from going on and on. I can even think of the page numbers of my favorite passages right now.

Teri said...

I haven't read Refuge in ages. Maybe 10 years or more. I wonder if I can find my copy.
It sounds like that was a deeply more class for your students - the kind that will have an effect on them for years to come.

wolfa said...

It's like blogging -- or usenet, or email -- in that way: you can be freer about some things because you don't need to watch people respond. (I always felt it was harder to see how people respond than to see them watch me. I usually look away.)

RussianViolets said...

This is a great idea, Jo(e). I've never done it but have asked them to turn off their computer monitors and just write -- freeing them up from the self-censoring that seeing their words can bring. It worked well, and I really kind of want to try this.

Jane Dark said...

Lovely. I want to try this.

kyra said...

This sounds like a wonderful idea. As a lifetime non-talker in classrooms (!), I can see how this would be more comfortable. What always made me freeze was seeing everyone's eyes on me.

Scrivener said...

This does sound like a wonderful exercise. I would love to say I'd try it, but I have a pretty hard time seeing myself doing it. It's not reliance on notes or even of the text that would bother me, but my own self-criticism. I'd be sitting there thinking "this is hokey ... the students are all going to think I'm weird, or worse, a pushover, now" and so on. Maybe someday when I've got seniors and/or students that I've worked with in small groups over time. I find it hard to imagine doing it with my first-year comp students.

Mo said...

Wolfangel read my mind - I think this is exactly why blogging works. It's so much easier to open up when you're not so vulnerable...

Phantom Scribbler said...

Yes, I had the same response as Wolfangel -- it's just like blogging. Except that we still get to read from our notes...

I wish I'd had the opportunity to discuss that text in such a setting, jo(e). Your students are very lucky to have you.

Dr.K said...

All of my classrooms have windows, but now, in all of them, we turn off the flourescent overhead lights. At first I would ask students if this was OK, but now, when I walk in, they've turned off the lights already. This is done in the spirit of going with the day outside--if it's a cloudy day, then we have a cloudy classroom, and we go with it. The students love it, and I think it's just one little thing more keeping us connected.

Kathryn said...

Thanks, jo(e),- you've made me think, not for the first time, and I blogged the direction my thoughts took me.
I would have loved to be part of that class, not least as I don't know the text at all.

No Chaser said...

Wow, what a terrific class session. I've had similar discussion with students about how we *don't* show certain emotions in class, and I love how class by flashlight breaks that down a bit.

I also get migraines from flourescent lights and will have to remember your solution if I am ever in a situation to use it.

listmaker said...

What a great idea. I think that would have helped me as a painfully shy student.

Wolfangel's absolutely right in comparing it to blogging. I write about things I'd never tell people in person; I hate feeling put on the spot. I think the campfire classroom would be a great help to students who don't feel comfortable being in the spotlight.

Piece of Work said...

I agree--the first thing I thought of was--it's just like blogging. Is that the parallel you were drawing?
Sounds like a wondeful class--and your students are so lucky to have you!

Piece of Work said...

Oh, and--I LOVE the new look!

halloweenlover said...

I agree, you are such a fabulous professor, Jo(e). I wish I'd had someone like you when I was in school.

wolfangel said...

Am I the only person who really doesn't mind being put on the spot or being watched (the best thing grad school ever did for me, though I was always willing to talk in class anyhow), but who minds seeing people's reactions?

frog said...

No, wolfangel, you're not.