I entered my classroom on the first day of the semester and found a beautiful seminar room with an internal balcony, the type in older libraries, with a small winding staircase leading up to it. The setting was perfect for a course on sacred space.
When I first saw the balcony, I thought of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s balcony metaphor, which they develop in Leadership on the Line (Harvard Business School Press, 2002). Heifetz and Linsky explain that, in any given situation, we might imagine ourselves as dancers on the dancefloor of a big ballroom: “a band plays and people swirl all around you to the music, filling up your view. Most of your attention focuses on your dance partner, and you reserve whatever is left to make sure that you don’t collide with dancers close by. You let yourself get carried away by the music, your partner, and the moment. When someone later asks you about the dance, you exclaim, ‘The band played great, and the place surged with dancers’” (53). We gain a different perspective, Heifetz and Linsky elaborate, when we climb the stairs and observe the room from the balcony: “You would have noticed all sorts of patterns. For example, you might have observed that when slow music played, only some people danced; when the tempo increased, others stepped onto the floor; and some people never seemed to dance at all. Indeed, the dancers all clustered at one end of the floor, as far away from the band as possible. On returning home, you might have reported that participation was sporadic, the band played too loud, and you only danced to fast music” (ibid).
Heifetz and Linsky develop their balcony metaphor to argue that gaining perspective by momentarily shifting one’s view – “taking yourself out of the dance,” “distancing yourself from the fray,” and “standing on the balcony” – allows a person to return to the dancefloor with a fuller picture of what is happening and thus the ability to intervene more ethically and effectively. They imagine an iterative process, in which a person is regularly alternating between being an active participant on the dancefloor and observing from the balcony, constantly reevaluating the situation and reflecting on one’s actions within it. They compare the process to the Jesuit principle of “contemplation in action” (51).
As my students filed in and started taking their seats in the classroom, several made comments about how beautiful and strange it was to be in a room with a balcony. I decided to begin class by introducing them to the balcony metaphor, and encouraging them to use the balcony as a visual reminder both to be active in class (our “dancefloor”) but also to reflect on our own process of learning – their individual participation in discussions as well as the class’ group dynamic – so that we could all work together to cultivate an inclusive and productive learning environment throughout the semester. With this brief introduction, I turned to the syllabus.
A couple of weeks into the semester, I met with each student during office hours. This has been a long-standing practice of mine, which helps me develop individual relationships with my students and understand where they are coming from and what they hope to learn in the course, so that I can be a better teacher for them. But this time, I had an additional purpose in mind for these student meetings, which was to approach my students as collaborators in teaching.
In Christopher Emdin’s book on reality pedagogy, For White Teachers who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too (Beacon Press, 2016), Emdin argues that students learn most when teachers involve their students in the teaching process. While teachers might be content experts, students know how most effectively to be taught. Teachers thus have a lot to learn from each group of students about how best to teach them, and students learn most when they participate in course planning and teaching. Emdin writes:
“Reality pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that has a primary goal of meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf. It focuses on making the local experiences of the student visible and creating contexts where there is a role reversal of sorts that positions the student as the expert in his or her own teaching and learning, and the teacher as the learner. It posits that while the teacher is the person charged with delivering the content, the student is the person who shapes how best to teach that content. Together, the teacher and student co-construct the classroom space… In a reality-pedagogy-based classroom, every individual is perceived as having a distinct perspective and is given the opportunity to express that in the classroom” (27).
Inspired by Emdin’s ideas, I wanted to implement them in my classroom. Thus, when my students came to meet with me during office hours, I didn’t only try to get to know them as people – I also engaged them as expert learners and teachers from whom I, as their instructor, had a lot to learn.
In one conversation, a student suggested that it would be cool to incorporate the balcony more fully into our class meetings because our classroom is the only one on campus with a balcony in it. She did not want to waste such a unique opportunity. Our course, about the history of Jerusalem, revolved around discussions of space and place, and her suggestion that we experiment with our own space of learning was astute. She didn’t, however, have specific ideas for how to do so. Instead of coming up with a plan myself, I remembered Emdin’s strategy of establishing a “classroom cogen” (a cogenerated conversation) in which a rotating group of students meet regularly with the teacher to check in, suggest new ideas for class, and work together to implement changes. What might happen if I brought together a few students to figure out how to use the balcony and then give them the responsibility of experimenting with the idea?
The following class meeting, I encouraged my student to make a brief announcement asking anyone interested in brainstorming about how to use the balcony to stay a few moments after class to strategize together. It was a seemingly minor intervention, but with the potential to be transformative for our classroom dynamic and the work we were doing together. In this cogen, another student suggested that during each class meeting, two students sit on the balcony to observe the class, synthesize the discussion, draw out the big themes and connections to previous discussions, and pose questions for further consideration. Then, in the last few minutes of class, they could share with their classmates their concluding thoughts, observations, and questions as well as reflect on the dynamics of our discussions. This student was drawing on the balcony metaphor I had introduced on the first day of the semester, and suggested that she and her fellow students literally alternate over the course of the semester between participating on the dancefloor and observing from the balcony in order to do the reflective intellectual work behind the balcony metaphor. We all thought that this was a brilliant idea, and we implemented it the very next class meeting. The two students who had initiated the intervention were the first to sit on the balcony.
For the remainder of the semester, students took turns on the balcony. I thus ceded my practice of summarizing and concluding each class meeting to my students.
From the balcony, students practiced listening and synthesizing without the pressure of participating in the discussion, they were challenged to find something meaningful to share with their classmates, and they gained practice verbally articulating their observations. They did the hard work of concluding a discussion. They asked big, open-ended questions. They were given more agency in guiding the arc of the course and highlighting the themes and issues they found most interesting and urgent. I was continually impressed that, when students had the responsibility of listening from above with the goal of synthesizing a 75-minute session, they listened more carefully and deliberately, they took better notes, and even the quietest students had many valuable insights that they were eager to share.
They also become more aware of our classroom dynamics and more conscious of how, when and why they – and their classmates – decided to join discussions or sit them out. This perspective also impacted how they decided more meaningfully to engage with one another when they returned the dance floor and, I hope, encouraged them to be more deliberate and reflective in other courses and contexts beyond our classroom. Some noted that they felt relief that they could focus on listening and learning without the expectation of continually participating; others shared with surprise how frustrating they found it not to be allowed to jump into a conversation and contribute to it until the very end. Each student noted how changing positions – moving from the seminar table to the balcony, from an active contributor in a discussion to an active listener of it – allowed them to gain new perspectives on the course material, the class, and themselves. They all became more reflective participants in our classroom community. They also all recognized that each of them played a distinct role in the group, that their voices and perspectives mattered, and that teaching and learning are intertwined practices.
Asking students to “climb on the balcony” is a pedagogical strategy that I will continue to incorporate in my future courses even when there isn’t a literal balcony on which to stand.
I will ask one or two students each meeting to step onto a metaphorical balcony with an eye towards listening, observing, synthesizing and reflecting on our discussions, and I will encourage them to experiment with different ways of seeing the course material, group dynamics, and the world more generally. But there are many additional ways of involving students in the teaching process; observing and commenting from the balcony is just one. I am thus also excited to see what else my students will propose when I continue to meet with them in cogens to learn from them how to teach well. My courses are better because of their diverse perspectives – from around the seminar table, the balcony, and elsewhere – about the subject matter and about the learning process.
Dr. Sarit Kattan Gribetz is an Assistant Professor in Fordham University's Theology Department.