The Learning Theater Revealed

| November 26, 2018

Over the last two years, I have had the great privilege of working in the newly opened Smith Learning Theater here on the 4th floor of the Gottesman Libraries at Teachers College Columbia University in NYC. As we pass the one-year anniversary of the opening of the space, I want to reflect on some highlights, challenges, and lessons learned from those of us “backstage.” This is the first in the series of articles.

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In the summer of 2016, the concrete had finally set, the hard hat sign came down and TC was finally allowed to peek in at the fourth floor of the Gottesman Libraries. The community had dreamed big and the college had answered that dream with 6600 square feet of enticing Empty Space.  Although it would be nearly another year and a half before the Grand Opening, the pressure to fill this empty space, where the only limitation was our imagination, was already daunting. Space is a luxury, especially in New York City. Especially at Teachers College.

The TC Library team is comprised of educators and librarians many of whom are also designers, film makers, and theater artists. We know that empty space, like an empty page, can be both thrilling and intimidating. Trying to fill it with something great can take years or a lifetime. What would the TC community envision? Would we have the will to try things ambitious and new?  How much time and effort would it take?  Would those of us tasked with the “how” of the space be up to helping implement and support the great ideas when and if they came?

We designed our summer internship program to attempt to develop some of the ideas that came up during the years of planning and building the Theater. The program would challenge a select group of creative undergraduate students from diverse disciplines to create “immersive educational experiences”. The interns would have a chance to take on different roles in each challenge, and if all went well, they would have material for their portfolios, real world experience in creative collaboration, and memories of a creative summer in New York City. The Library would have the opportunity to see what could be done in the space with some imagination, high expectations and creative energy. And if they failed? We would all learn from that as well.

The interns were given four design challenges: each re-imagined a library education program. Library Orientation, Library Exhibit, Library Community Event, and an “Interns’ Choice” Library Workshop. The challenges included specific learning goals, a strict schedule of deliverables and other fun constraints (like “No chairs are available”, or “You cannot use spoken language”) to encourage discipline, decisiveness, and out-of-the-box thinking. We provided mentorship and materials, and we observed.

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The interns created learning environments in a big empty space. No furniture had arrived, no projector had been hung. They had a small kit of lights and some laptops and two weeks. They were given the charge to teach their participants something. And it worked. They created an orientation to the TC Library that evoked the spirit of the 2nd floor Rock Garden and physicalized a search through the online catalog. They installed an art exhibit (by a made-up artist) that provoked existential questions of life, death and the nature of fame; they immersed us in an active meditation on what it means to be “other.” Removing the chairs, desks, screen and podium; applying time constraints; and dictating clear learning goals worked to inspire really interesting, unique environments. With creativity and effort, the interns exceeded expectations.  In the end, we considered the intern experiment our first Learning Theater “Proof of Concept”.

For me, the interns confirmed the Learning Theater could be magical. Not because of the state-of-the-art AV infrastructure or the modular furniture or the gigantic projections or the fancy lighting controls. Those tools would prove to be nice to have, but the Learning Theater inspires magic because it challenges us to create space for our subject, our students, and ourselves.

Related Links:

Design Challenge Library Orientation

Design Challenge Artist-in-Residence

Design Challenge Library Workshop

This is the first in what I hope to be a series of articles on working in the Smith Learning Theater, an Innovative Learning Environment in the Gottesman Libraries.  Please leave comments or questions below!