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The Peripatetic Classroom

Within a walking group, rarely does everybody agree on all issues at hand.  Although people from one small geographical area might more closely align with one another in sentiment (the stereotype about The People’s Republic of Boulder as a small island surrounded by reality is more truth than stereotype) that is not always is that the case.  Even in Boulder, all one has to do is bring up subjects like placing large co-operative housing units in areas zoned single-family residential and all hell breaks loose.  Long time residents and homeowners rightfully decry betrayal of trust in buying into a certain zoned area and decrease in home values; students and low-income workers shoot back with accusations of elitism and rocketing home and rental rates..  Walking at three miles per hour diffuses the fight or flight impulse through release through movement.  Without the edge, we can talk — or choose not to do so.

Recently, I discovered that the classroom — or getting out of the classroom — provides a great laboratory for testing this theory.  Early June marked the first day of Summer Session where I currently teach writing at the University of Colorado.  Classes last five weeks, five days a week, 95 minutes per class.  With the sun and outside noises badgering the large windows on the east side of classroom (let me in!), demanding attention despite the hard-jawed face of academia, keeping students’ attention on the matter at hand can be particularly daunting.  Engaging them in discussion – asking them to speak in front of a room full of strangers, makes the whole proposition worse.  Students feel that they need to be “right” – in the eyes of the instructor, at least – to open their mouths.  Who wants to speak with that kind of intimidation and be judged on the first day by people one doesn’t know?  Nobody, that’s who.  Forget firm-faced academia.  We are “other-ized” from the get-go — instructor versus students, students competing against one another — not a good breeding ground for a discussion-based seminar.

The class addresses the essay.  Not the boring, Procrustean five-paragraph academic thought constricting kind, but the real essay, in the sense of Michel de Montaigne, who is considered to be the father of the Western essay.  The word “essay” derives from the French verb “essayer,” meaning, “to try.”  Not to prove, to argue, nor to write five paragraphs, nor even please the teacher.  Simply “to try” to understand something about the human condition.  In our case, “understanding the human condition” meant understanding one another.

So we went for a walk.

Crossing the Norlin Quad, the students engaged in conversation with somebody they didn’t know, talking about their backgrounds, what led them to the class, and anything else that might come up, given that walking prompts free-flow conversation.  In addition, I directed them to notice their surroundings.  Three-quarters of the way through the walk, we halted in front of Old Main, the three-story building built in 1878 that once constituted the entirety of the University of Colorado.  I told them a bit about its background, and the fact that none of the trees or grass they saw was part of the original landscape – it was all unnatural.  Several students commented on creepy experiences they had encountered in the building, and I mentioned the rumor that the building was haunted by the first female faculty member of CU.

We moved on to the pond situated on the northwest corner of campus.  I explained how walking moved the thought process like a ping pong ball back and forth across the left and right hemisphere of the brain, so both rational and creative processes percolate thought, enabling freedom of random conversation.  Walking also resembles essaying, where the mind goes whither it will as it ponders a subject, and incorporates the surrounding influences into the process and resulting text. When I asked what they had noticed, the response was minimal.  So they changed walking companions and we started back by way of Mackey Auditorium, also reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a young woman killed by a custodian.  On our return, they indicated that they had seen a bit more, but mainly spoke with one another.  They laughed, relaxed, comfortable in each other’s company.  I said that what I noticed was that none of them used a cellphone throughout – a very unheard of concept on this campus in regard to ambulating students.  They grinned.  “Actual face-to-face conversation,” somebody shouted out.  Exactly.  They wanted to continue the process throughout the class.  And they continue to speak openly to one another about the essays we read, about each other’s work in constructive ways, and about issues as contentious as health care — something our own representatives in Congress can’t do.  Classroom crisis resolved.

All because we went for a walk.

Four weeks in, five days a week, hours at a time, they still speak openly and readily to one another.  Although a majority claims roots in the United States, a third hail from foreign countries:  Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Mexico, Vietnam, and Puerto Rico.  Some don’t have firm command of the English language, some are Muslims, some are Buddhists, some Christians, and some agnostic.  When I walk into the classroom, they are laughing and joking with one another over everything from pets to what happened the night before.  Nor do they stop talking when I come in — they feel reasonably comfortable around me (until I assign something, and they all go owl-eye silent).

I still think it’s because we went for a walk.

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Author: Sarah Massey-Warren, Walk2Connect Co-op Member-Owner

As a daily walker since high school, a writer, and a landscape architect, Sarah Massey-Warren has explored diverse environments for decades. Her explorations have allowed her to push boundaries in places as diverse as the California High Sierras, the Maine beaches, Michigan lake country, New England and Colorado mountains, Texas plains, Omaha bluffs, and urban areas in the United States, Canada, France, and the Czech Republic. She brings creative ways to explore the land, promote walkable environments, and to write about the importance of walking. Sarah’s full profile page will be coming soon! Contact Sarah MW at: sarahmw@walk2connect.com (303) 921-8334

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