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Around the Harkness Table We Go

If you were to glance inside my classroom, as visitors to GA sometimes do, you would likely see my students and I gathered around a big oval table, books cracked open in front of us. If we were working on an essay that day, you’d spot young people tapping away at their laptops, or perhaps staring up at the SMART board, unimpressed, as I drew manic circles around a semicolon. You might catch us, some other afternoon, on our feet, positioning ourselves throughout the room to indicate our stances on various philosophical or ethical propositions, or clustered together in groups, creating symbolic depictions of relationships in a novel we’re studying. The odds are good, though, that if you stopped by room U-135 on a random Tuesday morning, you’d see fifteen fresh-faced young people, and one somewhat less fresh-faced instructor, sitting at a table together, talking.

The piece of furniture around which we gather, the Harkness table, takes its name from one Edward Harkness, an American philanthropist who inspired and propagated an inquiry-based, student-centered approach to education. It’s a big table – seven feet by twenty – lifted straight out of that scene in the movie in which the scheming executive ousts her rival, and then the other board members pivot, in unison, to watch his exit. Fortunately for me, my students and I share endeavors more collaborative than competitive, more collegial than cutthroat. The Harkness table is where we ask questions, examine evidence, and pitch theories. It’s where we recognize ourselves in the literature that we study, and where empathy and imagination open doorways into the lives of others. It’s where we work towards moments of clarity and comprehension, those epiphanic highs that remind us how and why we ought to live.

The Harkness Table is used in English and History classes at GA.

I dread public speaking – lecterns haunt my dreams – so I find it both a pleasure and a relief to claim a seat at my own table. As a beloved former colleague used to say, I am not, nor will I ever be, the Answer Man. I’m an air-traffic controller, managing take-offs and landings; I’m the DJ, not the party. And oh, what a party it is! Every day, my students light up familiar texts in new ways. They make me laugh – man, they make me laugh – to the point that I have to cover my face or put my head down on the table in defeat. They catch me off guard with their insights, their flashes of generosity, their vulnerability. They move me more often, and more deeply, than I let on.

When I read students’ evaluations of my courses, the comments that I prize most highly say little about what or how I teach; they focus, oddly enough, on where I do it. An Odyssey-averse young scholar might write, for example, “This classroom has a good vibe. I didn’t like all the books we read, but I liked coming here”; a senior whom I’d taught years earlier, in English 9, might note, “I missed this room.” To be clear, when I read such sentiments, I don’t gaze in pride at the monstrous rubber plant by the window or smile lovingly at the fluorescent lights overhead. I assume that my students are expressing themselves indirectly, through a kind of metaphor – that they’re thinking not about my classroom itself, but about what it means to them. They’re considering an atmosphere: an intellectual energy, a sense of comfort or fun. They’re reflecting most of all, I suspect, on how they felt about themselves in the space that their classmates and I created together, at the table where we warmed our hands, as if huddled round a fire.

Written by Dan St. Jean, Upper School English teacher and College Counselor