Teacher Takeaways from The Art of Gathering
Most good educators want their classrooms to go beyond ordinary: we want them to be extraordinary. Don’t we all want our classes to be memorable, impactful, rich with purpose and meaning?
As a Christian educator, I feel a profound responsibility to carefully steward each hour I have with students. My spouse would say that my extensive preparation for each class may have diminishing returns. But as in the Japanese saying ichigo ichie, each hour is a one time, one meeting; it cannot be repeated or redone. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. God has called me to be with these students in a given time and space. It is imperative to ask, “How can I contribute my utmost to the mission of the school and its vision for these students’ development?”
Though not directly about education, Priya Parker’s 2018 book The Art of Gathering has so much to offer those of us leading in schools. After all, her book is for “anyone who has ever wondered how to take an ordinary moment with others and make it unforgettable—and meaningful” (p. xii).
As an educator, the first step is to see yourself as a host. The host has more power than anyone else to influence the outcome of a gathering. It is the host’s job to clarify the gathering’s purpose, then do everything possible to support that purpose, from invitation to preparation to closing.
Below are takeaways from The Art of Gathering that apply naturally to education. As you prepare for a new school year, perhaps these concepts can enrich what happens in your classroom.
Move from what to why. What is the purpose of today’s gathering? Even in this age of standards-based grading and assessment-driven curriculum, it is so easy to think primarily about what is happening in class today (these chapters, this activity) vs. the purpose of what’s on the lesson plan. As Parker says, “Every meeting should be organized around a desired outcome” (p. 24). Make that purpose clear not only in your own head but verbalize it to students or project it on the screen. When students understand that their time with you is valued and planned, they are more likely to attend and engage.
Physically embody the purpose. Whereas we may not have the clout to select the location of our class, we can choose to use the space in ways conducive to student learning. If we want students to listen to each other, we need to disrupt the front-facing rows. If we want them to work independently on a project, offer them the space they need to concentrate. When possible, include simple images on slides to help students attach information to something visual. Ask students to do things with their bodies that help them embody concepts (such as the time I turned students into human dominoes to help them understand sentence cohesion). Teaching is a creative act, so think outside the box! (And maybe get out of the classroom!)
Greet your guests by name. I imagine that many of you are like me, trying to learn as many names as possible even before Day 1. When guests are recognized by the host, they feel treasured—that their presence is needed for the event to be successful. On the days I have my act together, I stand by the door to greet students as they enter the world of my classroom. It is a chance to ask about last night’s concert, how their lawn-mowing job is going, if baby sister is walking yet. For some students, your words may be the first (and possibly only) kind thing said to them that day.
Set and enforce gathering expectations. I was surprised to hear Parker say that even in a social gathering, people want to be governed gently, respectfully, and well. She describes the Alamo Drafthouse movie chain, which not only clearly states a no-texting-and-no-talking-during-movies policy, but employees compel customers to follow the rules. The student teachers I’ve supervised are surprised that student evaluations tell them to “be tougher.” Students want respect to be shown. They want to be productive. Just as the Bible reveals God’s direction for how to live and thrive in this world, educators need to exercise a generous, respectful authority, outlining behaviors that will help the community meet its purpose for gathering.
Definitely don’t start with logistics. Open in a way that irresistibly invites students from their frenzied world into the world of your classroom. Parker challenges, “Your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people” (p.178). If you can surprise students or connect the day’s content with something they care about right from the beginning, you awaken their brains to the possibility that this class may have something meaningful to offer. In my writing class, I start one lesson with these sentences:
The wedding venue overlooked Rocky Mountain National Park. After stealing my brother’s ball glove, he chased me all around the diamond. $150 is just too much to pay for a pair of jeans. The woman at the tech desk was able to replace my computer battery.
The confused look on my students’ faces is priceless. But they quickly figure out why I start class this way: sentence cohesion matters. And because I made them feel an emotion (confusion), neurons are firing and hopefully receptive to learning.
Reserve time for a strong ending. From the teacher’s point of view, class periods zoom by—the bell is ringing, and students are off. But in those final minutes, give students something to carry away other than just the assignment. (This is one reason to post any assignment details on an online management system so that the end of class is not needed for that logistic.) Involve students in recalling what happened and why the material matters. Think of the closing as a benediction!
These are just a few of the insights shared in The Art of Gathering. And let me be clear: the list above is aspirational. Given the realities of our lives, it would be near impossible to execute every class with this much craft.
But aspirations make us better. This book has made me rethink church gatherings, informal social gatherings, civic meetings, and yes, the classes I teach. My prayer is that your classroom can be a sacred place led by a loving host who stewards each hour as a gift from the Lord.