Designing Paradoxical Classrooms

  • High School
Sean Riley

In August, for many days, the Pacific Northwest was on fire and in smoke. In Seattle, a city known for outdoor fitness, people stayed indoors. Even the most industrial parts of the city smelled like campfire. August days normally alive with lakeside laughter and weekend hikes plodded along silently, eerily, and emptily.

A few weeks later, on September 7, my son was born. He came out screaming and kicking. His skin, his ferocity, his toes, his instincts impressed me with a repeated message that some evenings carries me to sublime heights: life is miraculous.

Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach, writes, “Teaching always takes place at the crossroads of the personal and public, and if I want to teach well, I must learn to stand where these opposites interact.”

My personal life--becoming a father--is intersecting with a public reality--climate change, and I find myself wondering how the tension of life and destruction will influence my teaching. How do I teach in a way that asserts the realness and importance of beauty and love while also asserting we have urgent, human-caused emergencies that require immediate attention?

In the introduction to Thomas Merton’s book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Moore writes, “We need real innocence or we will be condemned to the cynicism we see all around us. We need real-world political savvy or we will be condemned to the innocent irrelevance of those who are caught up in their personal dreams and narcissistic ambitions.”

When I ask myself what the purpose of education is, I usually land on one of those planks: to stay pure or to get politically empowered. I now think my answer, as it usually us for us centrists, is both. But how does one do that?

For Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach, the answer is embracing paradox in one's pedagogy.


Palmer provides a helpful framework to encourage paradox in the classroom. He provides six pedagogical principles that I find to useable mental checklist.

  1. The space should be bounded and open.
  2. The space should be hospitable and “charged.”
  3. The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group.
  4. The space should honor the “little” stories of the students and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition.
  5. The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community.
  6. The space should welcome both silence and speech.

In my own classes and others’, I’ve felt learning experiences when these paradoxes are in balance. There’s a hum to the room of curiosity, community, exploration, and motivation. Students trust the process. I have felt rooms that skew far in one direction, classes that value only group work, classes that are so polite there’s no intellectual friction, classes centered on individual achievement on tests. Or to extend this, I’ve felt classes so focused on the political, there’s no space for imagination, or classes so focused on beauty, there’s no space for critique. These rooms can be productive but inauthentic; they can be measured with external tools and yet result in no internal change.

(I would also argue that these paradoxes illuminate some fundamental and thrilling requisites for democracy.)

I feel empowered to return from paternity leave focusing on number two.

For me, the idea of creating “charged” classes stands out. At West Seattle, I’d venture to say--to return to my opening paradox--95% of students know climate change is real. As a cohort, we can talk vaguely about corporate greed and the Paris Accord. Conversation is hospitable but can also lack energy.  That we--who know about climate change--constantly do things that exacerbate it, how do we accept that? With a problem that vast, can we even hold ourselves responsible? Do we even believe it can be stopped? Slowed? When a matter seems fated like this, does ethical stewardship even matter? Is capitalism our best tool to address climate change?

These are tough, rich, charged questions, but ones we--partly because of my facilitation--may avoid because rather than having simple, factual answers, they result in varied, ethical dilemmas that not only challenge students but challenge me. Creating a "charged" classroom puts onus on people in the room rather than just blame on those outside of it.

Yet I’m also reminded to charge my classroom with innocence. Palmer writes, “Intellect works in concert with feeling, so if I hope to open my students’ minds, I must open their emotions as well.” I must be emphatic and vulnerable and charged about the beauty, the tragedy, and the actual importance of what we’re examining. That requires raising the stakes: this work will make us feel. That’s good. Because when we feel, we grow our inner lives, and when our inner lives evolve, we have the fortitude and urgency and hope to act.

Embracing "both/and" over "either/or" is a humane framework that allows students and teachers to live and work in human paradox. To be in this complexity doesn't burden engagement, it increases it. It doesn't destroy hope, it matures it. When we actually examine paradoxes and work within one, at least as my theory goes, we do what America education has always intended: we each have to think for ourselves.

  • English Language Arts
  • Professional Development
  • Student Engagement
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