February 06, 2008

Teaching in the dark

My classroom during spring semester is a small, square, airless space that could serve as a torture chamber for someone who gets migraines. The walls, which contain no windows, no windows at all, are made of cinder blocks painted with a glossy paint that reflects light from overhead fixtures which hum and vibrate until I swear I could get motion sick just by trying to focus my eyes on a text. In most classrooms, I avoid the horrible migraine-inducing lights by keeping them off and using natural light, but it's sort of tough to do that in a room with no windows.

Today, as soon as we'd gathered in a circle, I said to the student closest to the door, "Hey, can you shut the door and turn off at least one strip of lights?" It's one of my peculiarities that I simply can't teach with the door open. It drives me crazy.

Swishy Hair got up and shut the door, and switched off not one, but both strips of lights. Suddenly, the whole room was dark. Really dark. As I may have mentioned, it's a room with no windows.

"This is so much better," said one of the students. See, I'm not the only one who gets migraines.

"Want to have class in the dark?" I asked.

Two of the students laughed. I could hear Swishy Hair moving back to his seat, the scrape of his chair against the linoleum as he sat down. The lights stayed off.

We were discussing several essays from an anthology of urban nature literature, including a piece by bell hooks that explored connections between racism and the environmental movement, a piece that I knew had made some of the students uncomfortable. I figured that it might be easier to talk in the dark, just as people find it easier to talk when they are sitting by the campfire and no one can see their faces.

We usually begin class with students reading excerpts from their response pieces. I hesitated for a moment, wondering how we could do that in the dark. "That's not a problem, " said one woman. I noticed then that students were pulling out their cell phones, using them like little flashlights. All around the circle of desks, cell phones winked and glowed as students opened and shut them.

I thought it would make me nervous to teach without my notes, without being able to see the text. But the three essays we were discussing were ones I know well, ones I've taught before, and I didn't have any trouble remembering what points I wanted to make or what questions I wanted to raise. Of course, I am someone who talks with my hands, making all kinds of gestures and motions, which made no sense when no one could see me. The student next to me said, "I can feel you waving your hands in the air."

The hardest part was not seeing the eyes of the students. I normally spend so much time scanning their faces, watching to see who is engaged, who needs to be nudged into speaking up, and noticing the blank look that reveals a student who has not done the reading. Instead, I had to rely on the voices that came out of the darkness.

Some students did speak up more, assertive because no one could see their faces. And it was easier to listen somehow, with no distractions at all. We talked about the implications of bell hooks' ideas, we talked about white privilege and racism and prejudice. Students spoke up honestly, frankly, in this dark and quiet atmosphere. It felt like we were sitting around a campfire on a summer night.

I felt startled when a student looked at his cell phone and said, "Hey, I think class must be over." I had forgotten all about the time.

Swishy Hair stood up and turned on the lights. Ouch. Glaring brightness bounced off the cinder block walls, the linoleum, the shiny desktops. It was a dreadful, abrupt return. The only good thing was that I could see again the faces of my students as they packed up their backpacks, their cell phones, their books. Most of them were smiling.

30 comments:

Songbird said...

Picture me holding up my lit phone.

Wendy said...

We had a power failure one day when I was in undergrad. I remember sitting around with classmates in one of the lounges debating whether or not the prof would show up to our little windowless classroom. But he did, and we did, and he decided to spend the hour talking about some really advanced geometry instead of trying to teach us algebra. I kept drifting off, I'm a really visual person and it was hard to concentrate, but it was a very cool experience. I think it works better with English than with math though.

liz said...

Wah!!! I want you as my prof!!!

Not Quite Grown Up... said...

I have the same aversion to the painful fluorescent lighting, and hated windowless classrooms for that reason.

That's one class session that your students won't forget. It sounds like it was a really neat experience for everyone.

concretegodmother said...

even if they remember nothing about urban nature literature, bell hooks, racism, or the environment, they will remember the day they had class in the dark...and how cool that prof whatshername was. yeah, she rocked.

concretegodmother said...

oh, and i was wondering what the title of that urban nature lit anthology is. (i'm scheming lessons and readings and essays.)

maribou said...

Your teaching always seems so ... present.

It makes me happy to read about things like this.

jo(e) said...

The anthology of urban nature literature is City Wilds edited by Terrell Dixon.

Preacher Mom said...

What a cool class - and a cool prof! I'd have loved to have this kind of classroom experience in my college days.

traveller one said...

If you enjoyed this... come teach in Albania where you would have a dark classroom everyday and the students often have to do their homework by candlelight. It's not quite as romantic as your situation!

jo(e) said...

Traveller one: Yeah, these things always are more fun when they are by choice rather than necessity.

Sue said...

On behalf of your migraine student and other pain sufferers - thank you for your compassion.

kathy a. said...

what a wonderful class! i can imagine every student alert, listening; and the shy ones feeling more confident about speaking up.

the circle of cell phones cracks me up!

readingwritingliving said...

Wow. That is just... brilliant. And memorable. I bet most of the students are never going to forget that class, and what was discussed either. If you take away one sense, the others become much more acute, and I'm sure their listening skills were enhanced. Wonderful!

Silver Creek Mom said...

First- I wanna take your class. You'd be the type of teach I would Die to have.

Second- I wish you could have taken a picture. Seeing the cell phones lit like that must have been cool.

Hugs
Sharon

lizardek said...

What a wonderful teacher you are. I love that you did this and that you let your senses stretch to accommodate the unexpected.

jennifer said...

bell hooks is wonderful. You are too, I think.

billie said...

Jo(e), I love it when you write about teaching. It's all so easy to forget the beauty and wonder of what we do . . . and you always (always!) remind me what an opportunity and what a rare priviledge it is to teach.

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking about you today, jo(e) and your migraines -- so it was intersting to read this post. My 8 yr old daughter has started having migraines -- we are on the 4th one in 3 1/2 weeks. Your descriptions are helping me to try to understand her agony. Thanks.

Brigindo said...

Very cool post. Environment is so important and often our teaching environments are so not conducive to good teaching. I especially like the thought of discussing difficult topics in the dark--providing a sense of security that is often hard to come by in academic settings.

I'm a new reader but very glad to find you.

jo(e) said...

Thanks for the nice comments, everyone.

Anonymous: Your daughter has my sympathy. Migraines can be so dreadful.

Brigindo: Nice to meet you!

lifexhistory said...

Jo(e)-- the way you manage to turn every opportunity into a teaching and teachable moment is so inspiring. I wish I could get past my own anxieties about things being "just so" to take a deep breath and use such experiences to their advantage. Brava!

Anonymous said...

jo(e) -- Thanks for the sympathies for my daughter... and sorry ... I don't mean to be anonymous ... I'm just can't figure out how to have a name here ... anyway .. it's me ... Nancy from city where a famous Robert McCloskey book takes place.

dr. m(mmm) said...

I love, love, love this story, Jo(e)! Change the place in little ways sometimes, and you can change everything about the experience.

Helpful reader said...

I am going to attempt to show your readers how to sign in with any name they want.

First, where it says, "Choose an identity" -- pick Any OpenID.

Then where it says nickname, type whatever nickname you want.

Then hit publish.

Let's see if this works.

Helpful reader said...

It works so long as you remember to click on the "nickname circle" before typing the nickname.

concretegodmother said...

thanks for the anthology title, jo(e)! [rushes off to amazon]

Wayfarer Scientista said...

this is awesome jo(e). Everything I read in your posts about teaching makes me think you must be an inspiring teacher.

dp said...

I am priviledged to be one of your readers. This and all of your posts are heartwarming and funny. Thank you for blogging. You are an inspiration

Mary G said...

A Well deserved JP award. I felt as if I were in your classroom. Wish I had been.
Thanks!