Building a Student-Centered Third Place

Chris McNutt
March 25, 2020
Even though I don’t usually interact in these spaces, the feeling of being surrounded by other people and being apart of a greater societal culture is enlivening.

People appreciate a third place, their usual hangout spot — a community center, park, library, church, restaurant, mall, coffee shop, or gym. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve felt dismayed by a lack of community connection. Even though I don’t usually interact in these spaces, the feeling of being surrounded by other people and being apart of a greater societal culture is enlivening. To an extent, social media can fill that void — but as we all know, social media can be an intolerable, disagreeable, and harmful space, especially for young people.

Third places allow us to connect with other people, verbally and non-verbally, beyond a production mindset. As Ray Oldenburg writes in The Great Good Place,

What Georg Simmel referred to as “pure sociability” is precisely the occasion in which people get together for no other purpose, higher or lower, than for the “joy, vivacity, and relief” of engaging their personalities beyond the contexts of purpose, duty, or role. As Simmel insisted, this unique occasion provides the most democratic experience people can have and allows them to be more fully themselves, for it is salutary in such situations that shed their social uniforms and insignia and reveal more of what lies beneath or beyond them.

There’s not necessarily any end goal — there’s no one watching over us or assessing us, nor is there the familiarity of the home. As Oldenburg further writes,

It is special in that such people have neither the blandness of strangers nor that other kind of blandness, which takes zest out of relationships between even the most favorably matched people when too much time is spent together, when too much is known, too many problems are shared, and too much is taken for granted. Many among the regulars of a third place are like Emerson’s “commended stranger” who represents humanity anew, who offers a new mirror in which to view ourselves, and who thus breathes life into our conversation.

For students, a third space is often the same as their second. First is the home, second is the obligation/job (school), and third is that cultural, social place. Many find their best friends and passions within the school walls — clubs, sports, or just hanging out in the classroom. When that tie is severed and we’re limited to only our first space, we miss out on important community connections which make us whole.

Our new “virtual reality” ultimately destroys that space. Even though some classrooms have moved online, these sessions are often void of any meaningful social connection. The space has been boiled down to concise instructions and methodology. And although this is a good place to start (we wouldn’t want to overburden students by overscheduling), we can take actions to build a third space within our classrooms.

Referencing Gehl — an urban center for designing public spaces — we can construct our own virtual spaces which flourish for all. Gehl provides resources to build physical public spaces, but their methodology still applies:

  1. Survey people to figure out what needs they need met. (What connections are they missing? Do they have access to the Internet? To basic resources?)
  2. What challenges do we need to attempt to solve?
  3. What tools can we use to tackle these challenges?
  4. How can we equip others to help us utilize these tools?
  5. Finally, how do we analyze this data and build upon it?

It is most likely that a virtual third space will manifest itself in activities beyond the traditional classroom curriculum. After all, much of our student’s interconnections does not lie in content, but in the moments between reading, listening, and participating in class discussions. Educators have a unique opportunity to build cultural centers online. Although none of these connections will be as good as actual human-to-human contact, they allow us to experience each other on a human, rather than purely academic, level.

Maintaining this connection is crucial for students, but also for the educator. I know I didn’t want this school year to end so suddenly, and not seeing my students until the Fall is depressing and draining. There were still so many opportunities and avenues to explore, and we won’t have class together again! These suggestions will at least dampen a complete shutoff of the community we built together. And as we rebuild this lost connection, let’s not forget to be welcoming, kind, and considerate toward all. As Oldenburg writes,

Though a radically different kind of setting from the home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends.

Just as we would traditionally establish communal norms with students and build a thriving classroom culture, we must reestablish the same in the online world. We must build a place where students feel at home, are able to express themselves, and have an outlet for their energy — a place where they can connect with each other and maintain their humanity through the crisis.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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