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Classroom Ecologies: A Proposal

To: Punctum Books
From: Anne Dalke  and Jody Cohen
Re: A Proposal for a New Project Exploring "Classroom Ecologies"
Date: October 4, 2013

A bird sanctuary,
guerilla cell,
resistance group.

An ecotone,
on the border,
high density,
high diversity.

A testing ground:
random discoveries,
edge effects.

A wildscape, ruin,
liminal space,
boxed in-but-not enclosable,
ripe for breaking through.

Neither this nor that but

In restraint,
bursting out,

Contained yet uncontainable.
The unexpected rules.

If the liberal arts behaved more like ecology, and less like our human endeavors to control the environment, might small U.S. colleges function as borderlands, ecotones where we could ride, on the one hand, against the ruins of classical education, and on the other, the industrial rigidity of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top? 

Querying the “Natural”:
Re-thinking Classroom Ecologies

In such a context, what new shapes might our teaching and learning take, as liminal spaces and excursions, arising in the midst of the crucial, yet impossible separations between country and city, school and not-school, inside and out? Traversing the edges of promise, desire, nervousness  and threat, surprising conjoinings that are neither this nor that, contained yet uncontainable, inviting always the unexpected?

In Class/Out Classed:
On the Uses of a Liberal Education

In the middle ages, European monastic communities preserved learning that the Catholic Church forbade; in the 18th century, U.S. slave culture required learning to read in secret. We experience liberal arts colleges as occupying a similar position today: endangered themselves by wide-spread valuing of the technical-and-vertical, attended by students who are read either as privileged outsiders, or as scapegoats prey to predatory fiscal policies and scoffing from “the real world.”

Women in Walled Communities: Silence, Voice, Vision

We want to tell a different story, one that identifies the liberal arts as a political-and-spiritual cell culture, a resistance group with the capacity to challenge the leading paradigms in American education.We will do so by tracking the chaotic and unpredictable, both unconscious and environmental, as deeply educative, creative, stretching our zone of the possible. We will ask where else this kind of work/play is happening: how broadly can we construe "classrooms"? Teaching (separately and) together, for many years, at a small liberal arts college for women, we now envision a project about “Classroom Ecologies” that enacts and seeds radical teaching practices, in- and outside of classrooms.

Crafting Sustainable Teaching Practices

We want to explore a pedagogical orientation that is both ecological and sustainable,
in the very largest sense of these terms: engaging teachers and students in
re-thinking classroom practices, and our larger lives, as complex, networked,
unpredictable, ever-expanding eco-systems. We are imagining a book project with a
certain kind of porous, interactive energy: a hypertextual, interactive web
publication, with a differently configured book option, which invites reader-
participants into pedagogical spaces where they might attend to the shifting
borderlands between what we’re more familiar with and what feels edgy, new--with
the goal of transfiguring what spaces of teaching and learning are and can be-and-
do. We propose weaving through our own voices--stories, images and propositions--
those of students and colleagues with whom we have taught, learned, co-presented
and co-written. We’d like this to be a genre-crossing project, a dialogue working
across verbal and visual forms, telling some good stories, inviting others in
response, demonstrating the complex playfulness of collaborative and
transdisciplinary forms of teaching and learning, and incorporating concrete
suggestions about how academic and other structures might work to open this up.

Transition and Location: On Leaving Home, In Search of a Place of Understanding

We want to explore classrooms as testing grounds, paradoxically boxed-in spaces that cannot keep their promise to enclose, categorize, or name, and thus can become productive of conditions ripe for breaking through to experiences of reality, to the piercing that is possible in the intensity and unpredictability of border ecologies. The project we envision would feature the range of our co-teaching experiences, with a particular focus on Bryn Mawr's 360°program, in which an interdisciplinary cluster of courses are designed to address a shared theme or question.

Eco-Literary: A 360° Cluster

Beginning to imagine the shape this might take, we invited friends, colleagues, and students to comment on what might matter to them in their own work and play. We received an astounding array of rich, imaginative responses, which both affirmed for us a potential readership, and made a powerful case for finding a venue and format that actually enacts the interactive energy of classroom ecologies.

And so: we now address this proposal to Punctum Books, and are of course eager to hear your response.

Ava Blitz


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