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The Thick and Thin of School Life

I love the Celtic concept of thin places–those places in the world where the veil between this and another world is almost transparent. It’s a powerful experience that almost defies description. I’ve come to recognize thin moments in my life; those moments where I’m overtaken by a powerful sense of inspiring awe. At times, those thin moments have come during rather solitary experiences:  walking on a country road, listening to a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, the first time I encountered a field of fireflies. Many more, however, have occurred in situations where I have not been alone: lively conversations in a local pub, family walks in the woods and, yes, even the classroom. Again, they are powerful, sublime and often beyond description.

I was reminded of the idea of thinness last evening, as I attended a Christmas eve service with my wife and two young children. Although it was billed as a children’s service, there wasn’t much there to capture the imagination of either a  4  or 1 1/2 year old…with two powerful exceptions: the candles and the handbells. Four year old Luke was totally enthralled with the part of the ceremony where he got to hold a lit candle during the final hymn. 20 month old Liam had his moment of intense engagement during the bell choir’s rendition of Gloria. The remainder of the 2 hour ceremony, however, seemed to be lost on them–too many words and not enough action.

My own thin moment came from watching my children so wrapped up in an experience that their attention was completely held. I’ll never know what was going in in their minds, but I know from their reactions that these moments held some power for them. And that was powerful for me!

I’m like many who write here in that I’ve found myself thinking of the connection to this place we call school. In contrast, I find our schools to be very thick places, layered with curriculum outcomes and expectations, overshadowed with a language of pseudo-accountability and often void of those moments of sublime, emotional connection. We need to find ways of opening up the learning spaces in our classrooms to the experience of awe–for ourselves and for our students.

In reflecting on my own years in this profession, I do remember times so intensely moving that many of us were forced to stop and declare, “Holy $*#$!” These were moments of powerful learning, and ones that none of us will forget.

Often moments of thinness aren’t planned, or even expected. Instead, they take us by surprise and knock us on our behinds. But that doesn’t mean we can’t create the environment where they are able to happen more often. Some of shifts in my own program that have allowed my classroom to be a thinner place, at least some of the time:

  • opening up time: looking for ways to integrate curriculum in order to create more flow and fewer interruptions during the day and the week
  • planning tasks and activities with deep connections in mind: thinking deeply myself about these connections
  • the use of the arts as a powerful set of languages to help us explore the world around us
  • getting out of the school: frequent artist walks around the neighbourhood
  • integration of multi-literacies to explore and present understanding
  • attention to the emotional ups and downs in the lives of my students: finding ways to allow these emotions to find a home in the classroom

Over the next few days I hope to have time to reflect on this idea a little more. For now, some opening thoughts!

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


2 thoughts on “The Thick and Thin of School Life

  1. Thank you for your story, Stephen, and that important list we should all ponder.

    I’m slowly realizing how it important it is to make time to help kids pay attention to their own emotions, as well – in working on tone and mood in text, it’s clear that we don’t have much vocabulary or practice in figuring out why we feel the way we do or in figuring out what we can do about our feelings.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 29, 2010, 6:02 pm


  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Thick and Thin of School Life « Cooperative Catalyst #cpchat -- - December 26, 2010

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