Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: the Retreat

The retreat was held at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, Wednesday 6/4/14 3:30 p.m. to Friday 6/6/14 lunchtime. Thursday was a 12+ hour day, very intense. It was a group of faculty, half from GVSU, half from Ferris.

My goals were to learn how to:
  • apply mindfulness to teaching, especially in single class sessions
  • help students be aware of & present to their learning
  • help students be more empathetic, integrated, more aware & less distracted, & to pay attention
Notes from the sessions
Neutral/secular ways to frame contemplative practices: observing, noticing, being aware, paying attention, focusing. I might ask students: "What in your life do you notice, pay attention to, focus on, observe?" "When you consider this, how would you describe the experience?" Neuroscience describes what happens in the brain (learning = new neural connections, etc.).

Relate mindfulness practice to disciplinary discoveries, e.g., "pre-writing" in rhetoric, Barbara McLintock beholding corn in her study of genetics, Einstein trying to visualize traveling with a wave of light for several years until he was able to formulate the formulas/theories. These practices are also good for coping with stress, which we all experience in careers, life. They help with learning retention. The keys are consistency, practice, noting one's progress.

Ch.4: mindfulness can lead to discomfort - important to help students cope afterward - be aware of their reactions, provide resources to help them if needed (e.g., counseling center contact info). Important to give students "opt out" choices such as just sitting quietly, journaling, walking quietly. "Hold the space" (mindfully create/envision the classroom/lab as a safe & trusted, maybe even sacred space, intentionally connecting people to each other & the universe, etc.).

Find commonalities between people & yet acknowledge difference. "Just like me" exercise on p.180 for creating safety/trust - can have pairs 1st, then pairs share with pairs. Although it's very intense - maybe emphasize that while looking at the other person, they don't have to look directly into each other's eyes!

We can note our own resistance when doing the exercises & not judge it.

I think that mindfulness is a threshold concept in teaching & learning. The "mindfulness position" is sitting upright, eyes closed or open in a "soft" focus about 6 feet ahead, attention on the breath. Noticing thoughts or distractions that arise but letting them go and returning to the breath.

Physics practice at the beginning of each class session: 3-5 minutes of being aware of one's breath, thinking to oneself during each inhalation, "I smile to my natural ability to learn" and during each exhalation, "I let go of anything (worries & anxieties) that interferes with my learning." The 1st time - 1st class session of the semester, only for 1 minute, then for 6-8 class sessions do 3-5 minutes. (Other faculty used it at the end of classes, to allow for journaling about what one realized or how ideas connected.) Then uses an exercise to improve concentration & focus by holding & looking at an object (paperclip, for e.g.), closing one's eyes & re-envisioning it, paying particular attention to the texture, shape, direction of the curves, length/angle of the flat sides, etc.

A similar exercise is with sound: "I'm going to make a sound--pay attention to the pitch, duration, quality, etc., & follow it to its end." 2nd time: "Recreate it in your mind" (repeat attributes). After a moment, "Return to your breath, & when ready, open your eyes or refocus, & we'll begin class." Sound could be anything that resonates.

Also, "holding a question" -- not to answer but to explore it. Focus on breath, create sound, recreate sound, ask "What do I know about X (e.g., wave/particle duality, etc.)?" or "What does X mean to me?" After the 3-5 minute exercise, introduce that topic for the day--whatever X was.

"Speaking/talking circles" work well with problem-solving, slow the process down, are inclusive, empowering, allow participants to feel connected. No responding to what another person has said, at least during the first go-round! Use an object for the speaker to hold, one which allows surprise & spirit-led speaking instead of planned speech. Use with charged topics, & after each speaker is done, says "thank you" as s/he passes the object to the next person. The pause & thanks removes tension. Could use a ball of string to make connections after an initial sharing. Speaking "leanly" = 1 sentence only.

"Embodied Social Justice - Integrating Mindfulness into Anti-oppression Pedagogy" webinar by Beth Beria:
  • Objectives: openness to novelty, alertness to distinctions, sensitivity to contexts, multiple perspectives, orientation to the present.
  • Teach students to apply learning to their lives - how to understand issues, why students have reactions to them, language for responding, tools for processing reactions.
  • Compassion & empathy = embodied self-reflection, unlearning internalized oppression, practice compassion instead of violence for self & others. Cultivates the witness, teaches us perspective, helps us detach (not dissociate), nonjudgmental awareness, accept responses but not oppression, without minimizing differences. Discernment = adaptability = intentional choices, honoring the experiences. Move stimuli from limbic system to prefrontal cortex - pause to switch into rational rather than instinct. Connect with hope, resilience.
  • What happens in classroom - students & faculty have complex lives, institutional space not safe = vulnerability, there are different levels of development & self-understanding. But we can help cultivate beginning to create internal safely. 
  1. Assume that someone in class has suffered trauma.
  2. Prepare students for this beforehand by giving them language ("can bring up tough things," "be sensitive to others & self").
  3. Offer discreet alternatives for opting out.
  4. Provide support resources.
  5. Hold the space (see above).
  6. Leave lights on.
How to use any of the practices in library sessions?
choosing/narrowing a topic using "holding a question"? Journaling or freewriting using questions like, "What is information?" or "What is communication?" or "What does X (student's topic question) mean? Why is it relevant? How will I use it?"

At LOEX 2014, there was the following session, but I didn't attend.
Sculpting the Mind, Shaping the Learner: Mindfulness Practices in the Classroom. Jill E. Luedke (Temple University) and Deborah Ultan Boudewyns (University of Minnesota)

Teaching librarians are gaining greater responsibility in the classroom with high expectations to facilitate learning in a way that supports and encourages lifelong research skills. Likewise, students arrive in the classroom with varying levels of motivation, perspective and attentiveness to research. It is part of our responsibility to give students tools to help them navigate their frustrations and preconceptions about research. Helping students to manage distractions and clear their mind clutter can prepare them to be more receptive learners. Librarians who practice mindfulness can engage in deeper listening, compassion, and greater attentiveness with their students.
Incorporating mindfulness practices into our pedagogies can create an engaged learning environment in which both teacher and student are more focused and attentive to each other. Mindfulness in teaching, or contemplative pedagogy, has been a growing instruction model over the past fifteen years. Following on the theories and methodologies of established constituents along with their own finely tuned practices, presenters will identify for attendees how the use of meditation and other mindful techniques can foster a more productive learning experience. Presenters will share how their years of experience with yoga, meditation, and mindfulness influence their teaching, and they will demonstrate simple techniques that attendees can incorporate into their own pedagogy to help students manage their research with greater awareness, patience, and focus. Presenters will discuss current research on the benefits of mindfulness practices and the use of these practices in higher education.
Participants will be able to implement mindfulness practices in the classroom in order to create a more engaged learning environment

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