Copyright © 1997, Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Thu, 2 Jan 1997 10:43:37 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Random Thought: The Classroom Should Be A Cathedral

I was cleaning out an attache case in my study just now that I hadn't used in quite a while. I get into these housekeeping fits only on the rarest occasion--usually under the duress of a stern ultimatum from my laser-eyed Susan. Anyway, inside the case I found a crumpled napkin from a pub in York, England. As, I unballed it out of both curiosity and as a reminder of the pubūs delightful pints, I discovered scribbled on it a "long-lost and forgotten" Random Thought that I had jotted down in the summer of 1995 while at a neat international conference on collegiate teaching in York, England. I obviously had stuffed into the case as in a safe place where I knew it wouldn't forget it. It didn't work.
I don't usually send out Random Thoughts on back-to-back days unless the spirits so strike me. I doing it this time for fear of forgetting oncce again this Random Thought I would like to share with you. Anyway, having read it I think it's as timely now as it was then. Here it is:

We're in the majestic 700 year old York Minister. Susan and I have been playing tourist all day and my feet ache. It's a nice July late afternoon, cool by south Georgia standards, warm when you talk with the people who live here. As I'm writing these words, I'm sitting on a bench that seems to be placed here for tired tourists. Above me the ceiling of the nave rises several hundred feet! It's daunting. I can't help looking upward constantly and feeling both humbled and uplifted. A few feet away a choir is softly practicing a chant that nevertheless resounds, but doesn't echo, through the Minister. The murmur of respectful whispers and the muted shuffling feet of the numerous visitors act as a muffled backbeat to the resonating voices.
As we entered the Minister, the rays of the fading dayūs sun were bathing the tips of the gray stone spires in soft amber. Now the light is dancing on the rich emerald greens, ruby reds, deep blues, saffron yellows, browns, white and a host of other glorious colors of the medieval stain glass, carrying a kaleidoscope of color on its rays as it passes through the panes, and splashing buckets of color on everything it comes to touch.
This Minister is a powerful prayer built in stone. It is as eloquent as Dante's Divine Comedy. I feel it opening my spiritual pores. It begets faith, an energy, an excitement. It beckons, instructs, waters, nourishes. It binds the people in community; it brings the people in contact with their inner spirit.
It's presumptuous to condense into a short paragraph a description of something that combines beauty and truth, faith and knowledge, art and mechanics, humility and bravado. The few grammatically unparalleled words will have to do: Awe. Breathless. Dynamic. Humble. Marvel. Vision. Magnificent. Devotion. Love. Gentle. Energetic. Beauty. Majesty.
I am impressed how inspiring this cathedral is. It's cornices, naves, facades, columns, vaults, figures, color, sounds, sights create an atmosphere that is releasing, uplifting, comforting, calming, embracing, supporting, and accepting. It's carved poetry, sculptured faith and knowledge, windowed drama, and chiseled art charms the senses and arouses the soul and stimulates the intellect. As I feel the need to express myself and my pencil glides across the wrinkled napkin--it feel almost sacrilege that the napkin is from a near-by pub--I'm amazed how conducive the environment it is to creating good feelings, how encouraging it is to thinking good thoughts, and how it urges the doing of good works.
And, having just attended some sessions and preparing to present a workshop at an electrifying international conference on collegiate teaching which I highly recommend--the First Year Experience--my thoughts of my classes are never far away. So I am thinking of my classrooms where I teach and students learn, of recent renovations, and of new buildings on the drawing boards as my institution passes through its years of puberty--from college to university--with seemingly little reflected and articulated meaningful vision and guidance.
I wonder what are the new classrooms going to look like. What beliefs and perceptions and attitudes--who we are, who the students are, what is the purpose and goals of what we do, how do we get to those goals and achieve those purposes--that are going to be written unthinkingly with glass and steel and plastic and concrete? Are they going to be models of dismal and prosaic professorial industrial production line, cost-saving, efficient transmission of information? Or, are they going to be inviting and electrifying centers of effective student learning and meaningful human growth?
Maybe your classrooms or those of your children's are like mine. I am struck how strikingly contrasting the stirring atmosphere of this cathedral is to the asphyxiating climate of the classroom cells to which I will soon return. When students enter a classroom their pens and pencils do not flow less easily as mine does here, their spirits are uplifted less than they would be here; it's harder for them to think good thoughts than they would here; it's more difficult for them to feel good than here; it's tougher for them to be confident; and, therefore, it's rougher for them to perform well.
Yet, the classroom is supposed to be a place like this-- something of a cathedral in itself--that stirs, kindles, fires, sparkles, releases, lifts, encourages, receives, supports, changes. It's supposed to be a blooming oasis that feeds, waters, and nurtures the mind, spirit and soul of each student who enters it. It's supposed to be a flourishing center of human betterment. Yet, if you look at the faces of most of the students who enter, sit, and leave those rooms, most classrooms are anything but electrifying. They're more like blown fuses. Few open students' emotional or intellectual pores. The classroom are essentially sterile and uninspiring. At times, they're wilting and debasing.
It's presumptuous to condense into a short paragraph a description of something that is so prosaic. A few grammatically unparalleled descriptive words come quickly to mind that are almost antonyms to those I used to characterize my feelings about this cathedral: Sameness. Cells. Dungeons. Antiseptic.. Discouraging. Bleak. Desert. Bland. Gloomy. Enclosing. Boring. Separating. Cold. Common. Weighty. Cheerless. Passive.
I am, like you, however, subject to the tyranny of the existing architecture. I sure can't move my classrooms to this noble place any more than I can bring its colonnades, vaulted ceilings, or stain glass windows into my classrooms There is little I can physically change other than move the chairs so students can see each other and get to know each other, and begin to enter into supportive and encouraging community with each other. Many of you, with classrooms of tiered fixed benches, don't even have that luxury. But, now that I think of it, as I struggle to created a classroom learning community, I do have the opportunity and power to introduce this cathedral's stirring atmosphere.
The truth is that if our present classrooms are to be an exciting places, if teaching is essentially a "people activity", it has to be the result of the "people factor"--the efforts of initially the teacher and then of both the teacher and enlisted students. We shouldn't allow ourselves the excuse, "The way the classroom is built won't let me...." We must create a climate, a presence, an emotional atmosphere, in spite of and without the help of the physical layout of the land if necessary. We must bathe the classroom in the uplifting floodlights and positive choruses of embracing welcome, affirmation, and encouragement that enhance self-worth and confidence, and brings out good feelings, thoughts, and deeds. Then, perhaps we can stir students, kindle their light, get them fired up, get them to sparkle; then we, as an oasis, water their talents, nourish their ability, feed their self-confidence, tap their potential to learn and grow. And, iIf we truly succeed, with the assistance of the students, we will have transformed the classroom into the inspiring cathedral it should be.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
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