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Curriculum, School Community

Entering the Third Space

In early autumn, as the wheat turns to gold and the geese begin their escape from the harsh winter to come, a young girl carries large thermoses of steaming coffee over stubbly fields. She tows a young brother and heads to a group of men – father, uncles, and neighbours working the fields. Seeing the approaching child, the men stop their work, wipe the sweat from their brows and settle into the long grass on the side of the field. The young girl pours coffee clumsily, and listens while the men drink and talk of acreage, cost per bushel, and the impending war with Germany. When the men are finished their coffee, the young girl and her brother gather the thermoses and lug them, with less urgency, back across the fields. The men, refreshed, return to their work.

My mother tells me this story, has told me this story. She frames her life by coffee. When my father was alive, she would have the kettle on and they would sit in the warm sun drinking coffee each morning and late each afternoon. When I was in university or between jobs, I would join them. Now, without my father, my mother continues the long tradition of coffee drinking with neighbours and friends. When my children arrive at my mother’s home to visit, they go expectantly to the table, understanding that coffee is the start to the day. In the late afternoon, before returning home, we linger for our afternoon coffee, understanding that this ritual brings with it something necessary and nourishing.

Ray Oldenberg writes about the “third space”– a space removed from home and work, free from government or institutional influence, from responsibility, rules, and institutional norms. He suggests that we all need such a space, that it is in this place where classes, ideas, ages, and ideologies mix and where civic life and democracy are built.[1]   

Today, civic spaces within our society are shrinking. Both the private and public selves of children and youth are increasingly being driven by external agents and institutional policies. Their private spaces (home, after-school time, and weekends) are being claimed by television, technology, homework, and structured activities. Their public spaces (schools, sporting events, extracurricular activities) are being claimed by technology, industry, and corporate interests. Expectations of childhood and constraints on time are increasing. Accordingly, third spaces become ever more important as they carve a little freedom into the lives of scheduled children and youth.

With shrinking civic spaces, I look to the event of coffee drinking in the creation of the third space. Drinking coffee involves men sitting in tall grasses at the edge of fields while discussing war and economics.  Drinking warm milk with grandmothers involves remembering old dreams and envisioning new paths. Drinking coffee involves students gathering in dimly-lit coffee shops to discuss dissent and society. The event of coffee involves, of course, conversation. In this conversation, a middle ground between home, school, work, and institutional life can be occupied.  In this conversation, individuals prepare themselves for active citizenship.

The Third Teacher (published in 2010 by design architects Cannon Design, VS America, and Bruce Mau Design) resonates with the idea of “third spaces” and suggests that these spaces can be created through thoughtful reflection on the design of educational spaces. Some of their ideas include the promotion of spaces that are connected to the community, spaces that allow for exploration, spaces that support bodies in motion, and spaces that sensibly facilitate students’ ability to engage in learning and life. They theorize that the design of our learning spaces can lead to open moments where students prepare to become active citizens.

If schools are to promote democratic ideals, they need to provide spaces where students can explore what it means to be a citizen within society. These spaces may be events (coffee drinking or cookie eating) or places (gardens and lunchrooms where you want to linger). They may also be something completely different…new schedules (open times for exploration and social interaction), curricula (fort-building for inner-city kids), ideas (schools organized around social justice or citizenry themes), and professional learning directions. In an increasingly fragmented and pressured world, the spaces on the edges of fields, on the edges of our classroom schedules, and on the edges of our daily routine, provide centering and democratic possibilities for our children, our youth, and ourselves.


[1] R. Oldenberg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of Community (New York, NY: Marlowe & Company, 1999). 

Meet the Expert

Sheila Giesbrecht

Sheila Giesbrecht is an educator interested in issues of educational equity, alternative pedagogies, and the academic success of low-income populations.

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