Sacred Learning Spaces As Sanctuary

by Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk with Paul Dull and Mark Ponstine

So the classroom where truth is central will be a place where every stranger and every strange utterance is met with welcome” (Palmer, “To Know,” 74).
In our research to unpack Sacred Space Pedagogy (SSP) over the past five years, it has become increasingly evident that teachers and administrators at the schools we observed have a definite inclination to create places for students that provide safety, support, and room for risk-taking. We also discovered that faith-focused questions and convictions infiltrate their classrooms. Yet teachers and administrators often lack the vocabulary or language they need to describe and develop their notions of providing “sacred space.” We visited five schools in particular: Mustard Seed in Hoboken, NJ; The Potter’s House in Grand Rapids, MI; Daystar in Chicago, IL; Grand Rapids Christian Elementary in Grand Rapids, MI; and Kemang, one of the schools in the Sekolah Pelita Harapan system in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Administrators were able to articulate broad visions of faith-infused schools, but language was often vague about what it means to provide Sacred Space Pedagogy for their students.  While teachers’ eyes lit up when we probed for evidence, language was limited. In fact, when first asked about where sacred space was evident in the school a common response was to invite us to chapel services and to review chapel programs for the academic year. Their first inclination was not necessarily to take us to their classrooms.

Defining Sacred Space

Barbara Brown Taylor defines sacred space in her book An Altar in the World as places and practices that pronounce blessings. Our quest has been to discover how and where to practice sacred space in our schools. Beyond this, we think practicing sacred space is a matter of feeling at home enough in our own skin so that we might celebrate with and bless others in their skin (see Delpit).

We think of Sacred Space Pedagogy as connecting spiritual, structural, and teaching practices that unify the head and heart and link to ways of living and learning in our communities. Parker Palmer articulates it in this way:

“What do I mean by sacred? It is a paradoxical concept—as one would expect when exploring the most profound truth of all. On one hand, the word points to an ineffable immensity beyond concept and definition, the sacred as Rudolf Otto defined it in The Idea of the Holy—the mysterium tremendum, the numinous energy at the heart of reality. On the other hand, sacred means, quite simply “worthy of respect” (“The Courage” 111).

In conducting research, we selected schools where we believe special attention is being given to exploring the intersection of learning and sacred space. We looked for places where power structures were acknowledged and altered enough so that safety for all could be created. We found examples of teachers and students exploring sacred space at The Potter’s House, Mustard Seed, Daystar, and  Sekola Pelita Harapan.

The Classroom as Sacred Space

We found several instances suggesting that teachers are exploring how to use spaces in this way. For example, Aubree Cantral, a teacher at The Potter’s House, provides time and space in daily classroom work for her students to draw prayers related to their current topics of study. She then encourages students to fly them as flags in the windows. This practice demonstrates a practical way to unify the head and the heart with classroom learning. She is providing sacred space.

Finding Sacred Space in the Local Community

To further develop a picture of what these teachers and administrators are engaged in, we looked in particular at the way schools treated not only interior but also exterior spaces located in each school’s local community.

Claiming and Creating a Shared Space

Remarkable to us was the use each of the schools we visited made of nearby community parks. Several of the schools find themselves in busy, urban environments. Rather than searching for separate or isolated playground space, or resorting to interior gym spaces for recess and play time, each of the schools has incorporated local community parks.

These schools have managed to find a creative way to provide sacred playground space. The typical fallback spaces of gyms and classrooms for inclement weather just do not suffice for regular use. Another solution was needed: the parks. Our conclusion? When the sun shines and the breeze is present, the parks provide true sacred space—an opportunity for students and teachers to thrive in community that is both shared and sustainable. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Works Cited

Delpit, Lisa D., and Joanne K. Dowdy. The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom. New Press, 2002. Print.

Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism. Eerdmans, 1943. Print.

Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life Jossey-Bass, 1998. Print.

—. To Know As We Are Known: Education As a Spiritual Journey. HarperSanFrancisco, 1983. Print.

Taylor, Barbara B. An Altar in the World. HarperOne, 2009. Print.