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Third Places and School Community

“Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community. Third places are informal gathering places. They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the social landscape." - Ray Oldenburg

Who remembers "Cheers"? The television third place of libated conversation and humor, where everyone knows your name.

Are we creating school-based places where climate and community become positively established? 

Left to their own devices, students and staff will build segregated hangout bubbles in hallways, offices, and nooks beneath stairwells. Third places are comfortable confines between the private life of home and the prearranged areas of school and work. Informal and inviting, Oldenburg says third places offer tremendous opportunities for learning, "Managers have learned if they let people work where they want and when they want, productivity goes up. Additionally, if you get people sitting together, talking together, innovation comes quicker."

You would be hard-pressed to find an education conference without at least one session called, "Innovative Learning Spaces." Thankfully, rows and cubicles are becoming viewed as roadblocks to modern, collaborative learning. Libraries, churches, and community centers are examples of community-based third places. Bosu balls, carpet squares, and tinker centers accessorize classroom-based third places. Are there places at school that exist between the private and the formal where students and staff gather to tell jokes, discuss politics, and share their stories?

Oldenburg says there are ten essential functions of third places. Among these are; promote democracy, establish unity, create friendships, personal development, and intellectual forum. It was not uncommon for my father to hang out with the guys after work. Often, their third place would be my grandma's kitchen or patio. EZ-pops, my grandfather, kept the garage refrigerator fully stocked with Old Style. Today, I enjoy fitness classes at the local gym. Not only do I get to break a healthy sweat, but kickboxing and cycling have become opportunities to chat casually with neighborhood friends.

Our school library is nearing completion of a major remodeling effort. Eighteen hundred square feet of this project is a dedicated learning cafe. A few critics have expressed their displeasure calling the coffee shop a frivolous waste of money and space. However, school leaders and project designers see "Pete's Cafe" becoming a social hub for students and staff, a purpose-built third place. Much like Cheers, Starbucks, or Barnes and Noble, comfortable seating, casual decor, food, and beverages, will provide an inviting place to gather, connect, and grow. 

Oldenburg's research from 1989 focused on face-to-face interaction, but the internet has become a principle place for social interaction. Can third places be established in social media? Whether it's in-person or virtual, I believe in the power and longevity of informal learning. I am looking forward to raising a coffee mug in the name of our school community.

References and Related Reading

The Great Good Place... - Ray Oldenburg

Ray Oldenburg - Project for Public Places

photo credit: byronv2 cafe al fresco via photopin (license)


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