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by Marlene Cohen, Coordinator, Communication Across the Curriculum 

Ever read any of Parker Palmer’s work?  He’s a senior associate of the American Association for Higher Education and a senior advisor at the Fetzer Institute, where he designed the Teacher Formation Program for K-12 teachers.  He’s an experienced professor with thoughtful work on making the classroom effective through allowing the real person of the professor to be fully present. 

His strategies for classroom teaching emerge from a focus on understanding our personal motivations and ourselves, and then connecting our teaching to our students’ core needs. 

In The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, 1998, Palmer explains that he designs classroom sessions aware of six paradoxical tensions that he seeks to build into the learning that occurs in classroom space.  Consider if these can be helpful to your teaching: 

 1)  The space should be bounded and open. 

The boundaries are formed by the body of knowledge, keeping the class focused on the subject matter.  Within those boundaries, which are well defined, students are free to speak and to explore ideas.  There should be room for surprises and discoveries. 

 2)  The space should be hospitable and "charged."   

The climate for the class should feel open and safe, providing added reassurance when the issues are difficult.  But students should not feel too safe.  In Palmer’s words, students "need to feel the risks inherent in pursuing the deep things of the world or of the soul." 

 3)  The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group. 

Palmer argues that education can only occur when students feel free to speak in their authentic voices, including their ideas, emotions, confusions, ignorance and prejudices.  Then, through discussion, a group voice " is gathered and amplified" with the teacher listening and helping to play that voice back to the group for understanding and modification. 

 4)  The space should honor the "little" stories of the individual and the "big" stories of the
     disciplines and tradition. 

The classroom allows space for students’ personal experiences, through which Palmer feels each student’s inner teacher is at work.  But personal experience shouldn’t be a student’s only point of reference.  The big stories from the discipline should help frame the discussion.  We want to teach students to treat those big stories with the same respect as they give their own experiences. 

 5)  The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community. 

The integrity of each student’s own process of reflecting and absorbing ideas needs to be respected and not violated.  There is a danger that group norms can be imposed in ways that violate the individual and prevent learning.  But community provides an exchange in which our biases can be challenged and knowledge expanded.  The teacher can support and protect that sense of community. 

6)  The space should welcome both silence and speech. 

Silence is time to reflect and is also a form of communication.  But groups typically fear more than fifteen seconds of silence.  Students and teachers should respect reflection time as well as speech from other students. 

I have found these six paradoxes to be an extremely helpful framework for teaching.  And I think students benefit from understanding that these are instructor goals in some classrooms.  Palmer, by the way, provides good examples of his strategies.  Let me know your reaction to these concepts and if you’d like a copy of his extended descriptions and examples. 

 Communication Across the Curriculum – Featuring Debate Across the Curriculum
Two workshops entitled Using Debate Across the Curriculum as a Classroom Tool were held on March 5 and 6. They provided strategies and examples for using in-class debate as a framework for student research and exploration of multiple perspectives of complex topics.  Professors in English and Business at PGCC (the latter in an online class) are currently using adapted debate approaches to involve their classes in researching and developing arguments on multiple sides of complex topics. Debate is a motivator for students to take a high degree of ownership of their own learning.

Last summer U.S. News and World Report featured the Urban Debate League, a program sponsored by Emory University that brings debate programs to high schools of the inner city. The program has improved students’ involvement in their schooling, raised self-esteem and even improved test scores!

If you are interested in further information or wish teaching materials on the use of debate, contact Marlene Cohen at 301-322-0177 or


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 18, No. 3

Spring 2003