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The is the first of our “Sunday Meditations.” This is a new kind of blog post that will go live the last Sunday of every month (though, we’ll have other updates and announcements as needed throughout each month). “Sunday Meditations” will be written by board members, AEPL collaborators and AEPL members. Please contact the blog editor, Christy Wenger, at email@example.com if you are interested in guest blogging! We invite both theoretical discussions as well as practical and/or pedagogical explorations on topics of interest to our members. Please check out the “guest blogging” tab above for more information.
I’ve just wrapped up my spring semester—well, the teaching part anyway—and, with it, the third advanced composition class I’ve taught as “The Zen of Writing: Mindfulness and the Writing Life.” This is a very special course to me, since it has allowed me to expand on a research question I first started to explore in my first-year composition courses: how might contemplative pedagogy and methods be brought into the fold of writing studies?
For at least five years now, I have used contemplative practice like yoga, meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction in my writing classes to support my students’ learning. Professor at Amherst University and Director of the Mind and Life Institute, Arthur Zajonc, notes that contemplative pedagogies offer teachers “a wide range of educational methods that support the development of student attention, emotional balance, empathetic connection, compassion, and altruistic behavior, while also providing new pedagogical techniques that support creativity and the learning of course content” (83).
While I tend to primarily focus on the practical applications of these practices in my first-year writing courses, such as using yoga as a writing ritual to help promote focus, in my “Zen of Writing” classes, I’ve asked students to both apply mindfulness through such practices and to study it. This semester, that meant reading a wide array of texts including Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step, John Kabat Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are, and some recent neuroscience studies on the advantages of mindfulness for brain development/ flexibility and neural integration. We also looked at Ellen Langer’s body of work, which explores the power of mindful learning. If any of my blog readers are interested in a reading list from the class, please contact me!
As this class ends once more, I’m still thinking about how it gets students to participate in our campus community in meaningful ways that organically grow from the course mission and goals. As I think about the next academic year, I feel inspired to use the structure of this class to help me promote such campus engagement in other courses. I’m still working on that!
In the “Zen of Writing,” I ask students to “try on” mindfulness through contemplative practice. Most semesters, I have a small handful of students who find themselves unmoved by the contemplative practices we’ve done together as a class throughout the semester (like our 10 minute meditations and sequenced yoga practices) and those I’ve asked them to do for “homework” outside of class time, but the majority of my students end the semester finding value in attending to their breath and their bodies in new ways.
One of the “homework” requirements I use to support my students in their contemplative practice outside of class time is what I call “mindful community events.” I ask students to participate in at least three (but hopefully more!) events on/around campus that allow them to practice mindfulness. I’m lucky enough to have “Meditation Mondays” offered on my campus, a weekly event that introduces students to a multitude of meditations from breathing exercises to labyrinth walking. Like most campuses today, we offer yoga and tai chi at our Wellness Center; unlike some, we also have two yoga studios downtown, which offer free or low cost events like crystal bowl concerts.
Every semester I’ve taught my “Zen of Writing” class, I’ve additionally asked students to give back to the community they’ve tapped into all semester by holding a mindfulness event of their own. I ask them to be responsible for the idea and the implementation—I am there to support their efforts and help the execution.
In previous years, students have chosen to hold a flashmob meditation and a free community yoga event. This year, my students agreed on a “pay it forward” idea. Theirs was a multi-pronged effort aimed at spreading mindfulness and kindness on campus and within the local community. Working in groups, they created a slew of flyers to post around campus with such sayings as “Stop and Smell the Daffodils. Spring is Here!” and “Just Breathe.” They also wrote messages of mindfulness on the sidewalks and classroom chalkboards. A sub-group of students set up a coloring station in the lobby of a popular classroom building for stressed-out students to take a minute and doodle out their tensions and anxieties.
But, what seemed to move my students the most was their distribution of notes of mindfulness and candy that they handed out to anyone they ran into over the course of one April day near the end of the semester. I provided the candy and the memo paper, but my students spent the time composing careful notes to distribute. They walked all over campus, into the classroom buildings and staff offices and the library. Some even ventured downtown.
When reporting back about the experience of handing out their mindfulness gifts, my students seemed to glow with an energy inspired by their selfless and compassionate acts; so many had stories to share about the friendly smiles they received, in turn, and the many conversations that their notes and candies inspired. Many told me that when they ran out of notes and candy, they delivered smiles and small verbal affirmations to passerby.
On the same day that my “Zen of Writing” students “paid it forward” with mindfulness, I conferenced with another student in my rhetoric seminar. She had been the recipient of candy and a note and carefully pulled it from her bag to show me during our conference. This student had been going though a particularly rough time because of the failing health of her father. Teary eyed, she admitted to me that she kept the note safe even after she enjoyed the candy because it meant so much to her. She was touched.
And, so was I. The compassionate energy of my “Zen of Writing” students came back to me full circle in this moment. I knew then that in spite of the moments where I felt I could have done more and dug deeper in class with my “Zen” students, I had also spurred them to make a difference in their community.
That makes all the difference in my teaching.
Check back the last Sunday of May for another post!
Zajonc, Arthur. “Contemplative Pedagogy: A Quiet Revolution in Higher Education.” Contemplative Teaching and Learning: New Directions for Community Colleges. Ed. Keith Kroll. No. 151. (Fall 2010). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.