Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Negative Space in the Classroom

I've been thinking a lot lately about the concept of "negative space." I learned about this from my meditation teacher, Harshada Wagner, on a retreat in India this summer. I'll paraphrase here... Harshada talked about giving one another (the retreat participants) negative space such that we could become something new. Even when we're trying to change things about ourselves, as if that isn't a vulnerable enough proposition, it's usually also the case that we have the extra added pressure of our friends, families, and co-workers maintaining expectations for us that we'll be who (and how) we always were.

On a meditation retreat, I'm working towards letting go of lots of story about me (who I am, what I'm like in this situation and that, how I behave, etc.) It's helpful when the other people on the retreat give me negative space to become a new me - transformed, softer, more loving, more open, more curious. This is part of what makes it a retreat. It's a protected space where transformation is made to seem more possible.

School is also a space where students are working towards becoming new, transformed, wiser, more skillful creators, thinkers, relaters. Similar to the protected space of a meditation retreat, transformation should be made to seem more possible in school. In my role as a 9th grade science teacher, it's my job to create this kind of possibility for my students.

An experience in my classroom today prompted me to think about using the concept of negative space. FC was extremely creative and extremely disorganized last year. He was often not serious in class. He'd often test limits by wearing his hat in class (which is against the school rules). He was generally checked out and disinterested in the goings on of the science classroom. As much as I hate to admit this, there came a point last year where I stopped paying attention to FC. He kept doing the same behaviors, and I kept treating him as though he were going to do the same thing over and over again. What if I'd given FC negative space earlier last year? What if I believed that, at any moment, ANY moment, FC could be new? That he could do something unexpected. What if my expectation that he would continue to do the same things were exactly the reasons for him NOT to do something different? I have FC again in class this year. He wore his hat today. I asked him to remove it. But I feel differently this year - like I have more capacity to give FC negative space. I don't have an expectation that he will or will not wear a hat to class again tomorrow. I know that he can make different choices. Even if he wears his hat a hundred more times, or comes to class without his notebook, I want to give FC lots of negative space so that he could possibly be transformed by his high school science experience.

I imagine that all of my incoming 9th graders are thinking about very similar things. Will I be successful in school here? Is there a place for me here? Who will my friends be? Will I have friends at all? Maybe not consciously, but I think a lot of them are thinking about or hoping that this year will be better than last year (if last year left a sour taste in their mouths), or at least as good (if they enjoyed their last year of middle school). Or that they will be better or as good as last year. The beginning of the year feels full of anticipation. I know that my students are going to try on lots of different identities, or stories about themselves, over the course of their career in my classroom. It is my sincere intention this year to give my students (and myself and my colleagues) lots of negative space so we can all continue to be new, transformed, in each new moment.


  1. I think this is a powerful post. I've never used the words 'negative space' before, but I've seen similar ideas of always expecting the positive. Thanks for putting the idea into words :) --Ashli

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, Ashli. It feels great to know somebody read what I wrote... I'm new to blogging :)