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  • Beyond Walls: Reconfiguring the Classroom for Active Learning
  • Pearl Chaozon Bauer and Jennifer M. Murphy

The first time I walked into the class, I immediately noticed the rugs and like I guess you could say the crazy looking puppets. . . . I honestly am really thankful for experiencing new things because it helped me widen my perspective in what life can be defined as when we went to the chapel and we were basically going through like music meditation, or when we all volunteered in community service.

Student reflection, December 2018

In the fall of 2018, we co-designed and co-facilitated a student-driven freshman seminar on mindfulness and meditation, weaving together inquiry-based and experiential learning to promote self-discovery and social transformation within an intentional community. In this seminar students explored different meditative practices by analyzing scientific research and by experiencing meditation and mindfulness themselves. As the above student reflection underscores, this photo essay illustrates how, with minimal resources and support, we dared to conceive a classroom that not only eschewed traditional rows, desks, and tables but also utilized communal spaces beyond the four walls of a traditional classroom. In this way we reimagined our notion of the experiential learning classroom to create a freshman seminar that supported active and engaged learning.

Reconfiguring the physical classroom invited students to reexamine their relationship to learning from being passive recipients of knowledge to becoming active agents in their education. Because our university lacked funds, we sought assistance from Philanthropic Ventures Foundation and received $1,400 to purchase meditation cushions and yoga mats. The new configuration enabled twenty students and two facilitators to sit on the floor facing each [End Page 174] other on meditation cushions, yoga mats, or in a chair or wheelchair. Many of our students were first generation and racially minoritized, with histories of antagonistic relationships with teachers, school, and the classroom itself, and this step away from a hierarchical top-down approach to teaching enabled students to embrace new ways of learning.

Even though this transition was uncomfortable for some at first, the supportive nature of the class eased them through the transition quite naturally. When we welcomed students to the learning space on the first day, we encouraged them to join us in taking an active role in building the class, not only physically (for example, by putting together meditation chairs) but also intellectually (by developing a classroom culture through discussions of what to invite into our collective space). By the end of the three-hour seminar, the apprehension they showed upon first entering the classroom had dissolved. For the rest of the semester, the students bravely participated in active discussion, writing, and reflection. With meditative practices, we cultivated trust, dignity, respect, openness, vulnerability, transparency, honesty, and imagination. Our approach to mindfulness encouraged listening from the heart, critical engagement, and a commitment to each other without flattening structural, social, political, and historical power relationships. The space allowed different kinds of meditation practitioners to help deepen the students’ understanding of meditation as a commitment to personal transformation and social justice actions.

After fifteen weeks, we realized that our class helped first-year students bond in transformative ways. The space itself supported the students to be less inhibited and to be unafraid to ask questions and ask for help because there was freedom to acknowledge mistakes and fears without judgment. The students had greater success, which was reflected in their final grades and self-assessment, and, more importantly, in their increased confidence and sense of belonging in higher education. They were committed to holistic learning, not for the grade but for themselves.

The photographs below are snapshots of our journey. They capture moments of the co-creation of space, knowledge, and community. While the seminar topic supports this learning reconfiguration, it could be borrowed, adjusted, and adapted across disciplines for virtually any discussion-based seminar. [End Page 175]

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Figure 1.

NDNU has limited classroom space: large classrooms house lecture-based classes rather than seminars. We pushed to procure a classroom big enough to hold our vision. We then moved the desks and chairs to the back of the room and reconfigured the...


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