Mindfulness in the Classroom: A Conversation

Today Erstwhile editor Alessandra Link and Dr. Rebecca Kennedy de Lorenzini (Lecturer, History & Literature, Harvard University) discuss mindfulness in the classroom. Link points out that many academics cast a wary eye towards the subject of mindfulness. And yet universities are increasingly turning to mindfulness strategies—an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of techniques aimed at decreasing stress and promoting attention to the present moment—to enhance the classroom experience. De Lorenzini attended a week-long Mindfulness for Teachers workshop at Episcopal Academy in 2008 and has incorporated many techniques in her classrooms since that time. Both Link and de Lorenzini reflect on the classroom as a space for holistic learning and a forum for nurturing skills and knowledge essential to navigating both history and everyday life. De Lorenzini concludes with offering mindfulness tactics from her own teaching experiences.

 

The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.

– James Baldwin (1965)

 

Alessandra Link: James Baldwin’s well-worn words grace the top of my U.S. history survey syllabus. If my course had an epitaph (though I hope it still has many more years of life ahead of it!), these words are it. Baldwin reminds me and my students that history is personal, not merely a set of facts to ingest and regurgitate with near accuracy. No, Baldwin insists, history is a set of ideas, of narratives, many of which are lodged within us and shape our existence.

In recent months, I’ve turned anew to these insightful words and to the ways in which they inform my teaching practice. Historical topics have gained more public prominence since Trump’s election, which leaves me less burdened with the task of stressing the significance of history to students and the general public. And yet, I’m struck by what I’ve failed to consider about Baldwin’s sentiment, and how it might generate more productive classroom engagement. I place so much value on the histories—the content—of my course that I often overlook the very vectors carrying them: we, the students, the teachers. I’ve begun my class making a plea for students to consider and interrogate the histories they carry, while ignoring the people who carry them.

Rebecca Kennedy de Lorenzini: Yes, our students are complex people who carry their personal stories into our classroom. In our web of collective experience, we engage in the time-honored ritual of storytelling: creating, analyzing, and entering conversations around narratives that carry messages about the past, always with contemporary implications. Inevitably, and naturally, there are physical, emotional, and mental experiences that can inhibit this process, shifting the learning experience. I see a variety of these regularly in my classroom: stress, exhaustion, distraction, re-hashing the past and planning the future. I imagine that the runaway train of thought in my students’ minds is much like my own: it spends much of its time re-playing conversations with others, preoccupied with relationships, being critical of past actions and reactions, and daydreaming about job applications, papers, and finances of the future.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous distraction of them all is one not so easily recognized when we live it: self-consciousness and fear of embarrassment. Students and teachers alike are often terrified of speaking publicly in class. The thought of saying something incoherent and drawing unwanted attention can be paralyzing. While this scenario is hardly one of life or death, our amygdalas, the reptilian brain in our nervous systems, overreact and hijack the rest of the body to promote a response of fight, flight, or freeze in a threatening moment. None of these responses are conducive to effective learning, robbing us of the most productive and enriching learning experiences that we know are possible. A caveat: not all students carry this fear; some are remarkably self-confident, and class experiences vary along lines of gender, class, race, age, and other social identifiers. Either way, speaking in class is a scary prospect for many students.

Fortunately, the burgeoning field of mindfulness in teaching has produced easy, effective tools for abating nervousness and bringing teachers and students more fully into the present learning experience. Jon Kabat-Zinn has led the field of mindfulness meditation practices, and modern Western science has studied the physical shifts that result in the brain from such practices—all beneficial to increasing focus, memory retention, and productivity in the classroom. These tangible benefits are helpful for both teachers and students. Being attentive to the present moment allows educators to be aware of how they and their students experience the classroom from a holistic perspective: linking their emotional and physical selves to their academic work.

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AL: Fellow Kentuckian bell hooks brought this concept of wholeness to my attention in her powerful Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994). Hooks offers a platform for teaching called “engaged pedagogy,” one that stresses a holistic approach to the classroom and that does not draw sharp lines between the workings of the mind, the body, and the heart. She differentiates her “engaged pedagogy” from feminist and critical pedagogies in its emphasis on well-being. “That means,” she writes, “that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.”[1] To teach well, we have to take care of ourselves.

This care should extend to our students, another Bluegrass resident explains. Tara Strauch, an Assistant Professor at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, recently shared how her teaching strategies have shifted after the Trump election. “If I walk into the classroom expecting them to disappoint me with their beliefs, they will,” she writes. “When I walk into a classroom trying to win recruits or silence the opposition,” she adds, “I reinforce their expectations about academia and about adults.” “If I treat them as individuals instead and care for them as people,” Strauch concludes, “then I can engage with them in scholarly debate and critical thinking.”

Many academics bristle at the mention of well-being or self-care. Our lot is devoted to the intellectual life of the mind, our goal to harness it to the task of interpreting the past with rigor and discipline. The kind of self-actualization hooks calls for asks us to open doors within ourselves for interrogation, to apply the rigor and dedication we bring to our craft to our dynamic inner lives. A daunting task. Add to that the reality that mindfulness has now morphed into a $4 billion industry, and it is no wonder that many question its growing popularity.

But a recent study at the University of Virginia (UVA) suggests that educators who actively pursue stress-reducing strategies generate a more productive classroom, one where teachers are more attuned to students’ needs. Meditation might enhance cognitive and academic performance. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching devotes an entire page to “contemplative pedagogy” and UVA and the University of California Los Angeles boast centers dedicated to contemplation and mindfulness. Harvard University’s Center for Wellness offers workshops for faculty and staff in mindfulness practices and the university recently invested $21 million in opening a new Center for Happiness to promote “positive psychological wellbeing,” of which practicing mindfulness is a key component. These topics have become the subject of genuine inquiry and interest. How might educators consider incorporating mindfulness strategies in the classroom?

RDL: To start answering this question, we should turn to some of the most common mindfulness practices. Listed below are four practical, easy exercises that I’ve used to decrease stress, increase presence, and model emotional intelligence in the classroom. Instructors could also incorporate pauses in their classrooms so that students may engage in these practices, all of which are meant to establish calm and attentiveness.

 

  1. Grounding/Establishing Roots 

– Stand in the front of the lecture hall or classroom with the back straight, feet hip’s distance apart, and gaze forward.

– Soften the gaze, take a deep breath as you roll your shoulders up, and exhale as you roll them back. Return the shoulders to a neutral, straight position.

– Engage the muscles of the legs from instep of the foot all the way up to the hips. Maintain the muscles engaged, but not strained.

– Move your attention to the soles of the feet. Where is your weight distributed through the feet: toward the heels, toward the toes, toward the inside, toward the outside, evenly distributed? Does one foot carry more weight than the other? Just notice this, then try to evenly distribute the weight across both feet.

– Close your eyes (if you are able, this can be done with eyes open so that students don’t even know that you’re doing this!) and imagine that tree roots are growing from the bottom of your feet into the ground. Picture them, as best you can, growing deep into the ground, connecting you to the earth.

– Feel the stabilizing energy of those “roots” move up your body from your feet, all the way to the crown of the head.

– Take several deep breaths, and remind yourself that you are strong, grounded, and stable.

I’ve found that this grounding exercise fosters increased calm, clarity, confidence, and awareness of audience reception.

 

  1. Coming into the Body

             Known also as a “body scan,” this exercise tasks the participant with paying close attention to the physical state of the body—be it the pressure from the contact of your feet on the ground, or the the tension held in one’s shoulders. This focus on the physical form is meant to pull us away from the cacophony of thoughts that crowd our minds and bring us into the present moment.

 

  1. Changing the Narrative

If there is a student or colleague who brings up frustrating emotions or is particularly difficult for you, it can be helpful to practice a loving-kindness meditation to change your own internal dialogue about them. This can have powerful benefits: the relationship can change over time simply from shifting your approach to the person or relationship. Emma Sepala, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, offers a guided meditation using this practice.

 

  1. Name the Experience

            We do not need to share our internal dialogue with students, but naming overwhelming emotions can model for them what mindfulness looks like. If our mind is fuzzy from lack of sleep, we can say something like, “I am feeling tired now and I am working on making these thoughts clearer.” Or perhaps after reading an especially moving or difficult passage from a text, we might respond, “This passage brings up an emotional response for me. I am just going to feel this for a moment.” Or perhaps, “I am feeling strong emotions about this passage, and I am just going to let them be there for a moment before I go into an intellectual analysis of this text.” Naming that the emotion is present helps student see what mindfulness looks like, and to take a moment to assess their own physical, emotional, and mental responses that have a direct impact on how they intellectually engage with a historical discussion.

AL:  Thank you, Rebecca, for sharing these insights! I think these techniques could be added to an educator’s larger selection of tools used to cultivate a productive and engaging learning environment.

 

Additional Resources from Rebecca Kennedy de Lorenzini:

Alison Cohen and Michael Gonchar, “Cultivating Mindfulness for Educators Using Resources from the New York Times” in New York Times, Sept. 7, 2017.

Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (2005)

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (1994)

Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, 10th edition (2007)

Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl and Robert W. Roeser, eds. Handbook of Mindfulness in Education: Integrating Theory and Research into Practice (2017)

Headspace: headspace.com

[1] bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, (New York: Routledge, 1994), 15.

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