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Fostering a mindful learning community

For some time, I had been curious about trying mindfulness activities at the beginning of my classes to foster community, connection, student engagement, and deeper learning. Once the pandemic hit, fostering resilience also became important. An article I’d read, The Possible Learning and Teaching Benefits of Short Mind-calming Exercises in Undergraduate Courses, inspired me to try, but I was unsure of how my academic and research writing students would perceive and receive breathing and focusing activities in my classroom, nor of how I would feel guiding them. Although I was already in the process of exploring and weaving mindfulness into the background of my teaching, feedback, and assessment strategies, would I be comfortable foregrounding it, actually inviting my students to join me in practicing mindfulness in class, and how might they respond?

As I deepened my interest and intention, I learned from practices and experiences of other academics. I found research linking mindfulness practices with learning, self-learning, resilience, and social-emotional learning (e.g., Chick, 2010; Ergas, 2015; 2019; Hoyt, 2016; O’Donnell, 2015; Siegel, 2018; Wenger, 2012-2013; Wetzel, 2016-2017), all of which resonated with my pedagogical practices. My intention was to practice mindfulness “as” and “of” education (Ergas, 2019). In other words, I hoped that introducing brief breathing and focusing exercises in my classroom could reveal the ways that mindfulness is a complementary learning process that enables both students and professor to become more intentionally aware of where we direct our attention in our academic experiences and how we perceive those experiences, ranging from positively to negatively, not only through our cognition, but also through our bodies and emotions as sites/sources of connection, engagement, empathy, community, resilience, and deeper learning and teaching.

In the Spring of 2020, faced with the global pandemic, my sudden conversion to a “classZoom” (as opposed to “classroom”) professor, homeschooler, and stay-at-home child activities coordinator, and needing to dig deep to nourish my own resilience, I took my first steps, offering brief, optional meditations at the beginning of the non-credit Graphos Peer Writing Group I convene, consisting of eight congenial PhD and Masters students in the Social Sciences and Humanities. To my pleasure and surprise, group members were open and interested, and the optionality of the meditations gave me a friendly, low-risk environment in which to try different kinds of practice, such as a five-minute breathing space, visualizing biting into a lemon, focusing on sounds, and reading passages on mindfulness practice (e.g., Nhat Hanh, 2013; 2017). One group member even twice led us through her own meditations.

In the Fall of 2020, still facing the pandemic and a resilience-testing full term of remote teaching and learning, I decided to try incorporating mindfulness practices in my classZooms by inviting my 49 undergraduate students (combined total for two sections of the same course) to join me in brief breathing/focusing exercises for the first three minutes of each class. My intention was for us all to learn what it felt like to know where our attention was so that we could learn how to direct our attention intentionally to each other and our learning experience and objectives. Since the pandemic created a whole other level of distraction for so many of us, I also intended for the breathing/focusing exercises to offer a few calming moments to first direct our attention internally to our breathing, to our bodies and senses, and to our full presence in class. Despite mediation through Zoom, I endeavored to create a learning space and community, and attenuate distractions by asking students to close all other open windows on their computers, turn off and put away phones, and give themselves “the gift of being fully present for the next 80 minutes or so.”[1] I used the same breath/attention awareness script for all classes until the end of the drop-add period so that students would know to expect such an exercise as a part of the course. The exercises were optional, though. After drop-add, I tried other scripts as I had in my Peer Writing Group, and added some more, such as focusing, shifting, and re-focusing our attention with the metaphor of a flashlight (Siegel, 2018), blending focused attention and open awareness (adapted from Beth Sherman at CUNY), and visualizing and re-embodying a happy moment with all our senses to foster a mindset primed for crisp, vivid details in a subsequent writing revision activity (Wetzel, 2016). To foster the mindsets of vulnerability and empathy during peer review, I read students the poem “Compassion,” by Miller Williams (2019, p. 98).

At mid-term, I gave students an optional survey in which I tentatively asked, “Would you like to continue to do the brief breathing/focusing/awareness exercises at the beginning of class? Please explain.” To my delight and surprise, of the 30% of students who completed the survey, 93% responded “Yes!”, followed by their perceptions that the exercises centered their thinking, were a relaxing start to class, supported their mental health, relieved stress, cleared the mind, offered a calming moment in stressful weeks and amidst the pandemic, and gave time to mentally transition from a previous class or home to our class. When I later incorporated these practices into my Winter 2021 course, students similarly reported that the exercises helped them calm down and prepare to focus for class, offering a rare opportunity to just breathe, and reminding them to not get caught up in the daily stress of living through a pandemic. For the Fall section where one student responded, “No, I don’t find it useful” and another reported sometimes feeling anxious during the exercises, I re-emphasized the optional nature of the exercises, and strove to offer alternative writing and revising prompts that students could do in lieu of the breathing/focusing exercises.

At the end of each term, I offered another optional survey asking, “Reflecting on the different breathing/focusing exercises that we did at the beginning of most classes this term, how do you perceive that these exercises may have contributed to your learning, to you personally, and to the classZoom environment?” Students at the end of the Fall term perceived that the exercises calmed them, enhanced their learning, allowed them to settle into the space, were a great way to begin class, limited their distractions so they could focus and concentrate, eased pre-class anxiety, supported their mental health, and greatly helped them feel more relaxed and ready for class and the day ahead. Students in Winter 2021 additionally perceived that the exercises “created an extra connection with the professor as it shows genuine caring for our mental wellness,” helped them de-stress, focus on the class, and feel more productive in class. Of note, the Winter 2021 class became a blended offering as of mid-February, with class meetings once a week in Zoom and once a week in person, leading one student to report feeling “a bit embarrassed to practice mindfulness together with the entire class” as this student thought of mindfulness as “something private.” As we transition back to in-person teaching and learning, I’ll have to explore ways to foster in-class mindfulness practices while keeping in mind that students will no longer have the option of turning off their video cameras and muting their microphones. Even so, despite low end-of-term response rates (5/25 students in one section and 4/ 24 in the other in Fall; and 3/12 students in Winter), students who did respond were all positive on what they perceived as the calming, focusing, learning, and even connecting benefits of mindfulness practices at the beginning of class. As for me, I also felt more calm, focused, and resilient (especially appreciated on the days Montreal “basculait entre orange et rouge”!), more connected with my students, and even enriched in my teaching practices, with new activities, vocabularies, and mindsets to share with my students. After all, if students felt that our brief mindfulness practices deepened their awareness and experiences of themselves, their attention, and their learning, it occurs to me that these same practices opened me to what I might call “deeper” teaching. Alas, I’ll have to reflect on that another day…

What might inspire you to try practicing mindfulness with your students?

[1] I thank my yoga teacher, Susy Molgora, for inspiring me with this phraseology that she has used in our yoga classes.

References 

Chick, N. (2010). Mindfulness in the classroom. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/contemplative-pedagogy.

 Ergas, O. (2015). The deeper teachings of mindfulness-based “interventions” as a reconstruction of “education.” Journal of Philosophy of Education, 49(2), 203-220. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9752.12137

Ergas, O. (2019). Mindfulness in, as, and of education: Three roles of mindfulness in education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 53(2), 340-358. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9752.12349

Hoyt, M. (2016). Teaching with mindfulness. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 31(1), 126-142.

Nhat Hanh, T. (2013). The art of communicating. Harper Collins.

Nhat Hanh, T. (2017). The art of living: Peace and freedom in the here and now. HarperOne.

O’Donnell, A. (2015). Contemplative pedagogy and mindfulness: Developing creative attention in an age of distraction. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 49(2), 187-202.

Siegel, D. (2018). Aware: The science and practice of presence: The groundbreaking meditation practice. Tarcher Perigee.

Wenger, C. I. (Winter 2012-13). Writing yogis: Breathing our way to mindfulness and balance in embodied writing pedagogy. JAEPL, 18, 24-39.

Wetzel, G. (Winter 2016-17). “The most peaceful I ever felt writing”: A contemplative approach to essay revision. JAEPL, 22, 33-50.

Williams, M. (2019). Compassion. In J. Crews (Ed.), Healing the divide: Poems of kindness & connection (p. 98). Green Writers Press.

Image credits:

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Focus by pixiodesign,ID in theCamera Collection 

Zen rocks Wenjie, KY 

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