Monthly Archives: December 2014

Being Where We Are: Physical Place, Non-Mediated Learning, Slowness, and Reflection in the Classroom



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These days, people are never where they seem to be.

Sure, their bodies are somewhere – in the classroom, on the bus, at the kitchen table – but more often than not their minds are off in Internet Land chuckling over Instagrams or Snapchats or Tweets, frowning at the headlines, or tapping away on a phone/iPad/computer/tablet keyboard in order to buy clothes, make plans, or use punctuation to communicate their emotional responses.


It’s no secret that that our cultural relationship to media, information, and technology has changed quickly. Our world has never been more full of information – or more full of mediated experiences. We can hear speeches, watch performances, take and teach classes, and talk with friends and family in far remote places, thanks to the ever-growing miracles of the Internet and its search engines. Yet, despite the fact that these technologically mediated experiences are not at all the same as face to face, unmediated experiences, most of us enjoy an unexamined expectation of their existence, much the way we simply expect that water will come out of the faucet.

Perhaps this is why mindfulness has found such a foothold in contemporary conversations about education: we’re trying to figure out what to do about the way our (and our students’) attention is so scattered. We’re all well-rehearsed in the reasons why this is happening – because of the Internet, cell phones, social media, fantasy sports, online learning, and on and on and on. There seem to be endless reasons why we’re distracted, and our growing academic interest in mindfulness is evidence that we’re trying to find our way back to the ability to experience a quiet mind and in a quiet body that exists in one physical place at a time. What we’re trying to do is locate ourselves and our thoughts in a world that engenders increasingly fluid boundaries between the self in time and space.

And our students desperately need our help with this. Their experiences with technology, the Internet, social media, and information have generally been relatively instantaneous, completely mediated, and nearly always forward moving. The forward momentum of the Internet particularly impacts the classroom. We navigate sites, follow links, and find ourselves in a perpetual choose-your-own-adventure of new content. Of course it is possible to go backwards in a browser, but isn’t that just something we do when we’ve made a mistake? Instead we coast along on a veritable river of information that seems to continually keep us moving to new and better places.




But This Is Taking FOREVER

What happens then, when students are confronted with a learning task that is complicated and requires slower thinking? What happens when we ask them to write a 6-8 page research paper that will certainly require them to be able to brainstorm, plan, research, select sources, draft, reflect, find more research, draft, reflect, and revise? Well, if you’ve taught First-Year Writing students recently, you’ll know that what actually happens is some form of confusion or disbelief about what is actually being required. They appear at my office door befuddled. They tell me that their papers are terrible, their ideas are terrible, and that the library database “has nothing AT ALL on their topic.” As we talk I learn that they are stuck because they thought that they would be able to find some research and then write an awesome paper. Just like that, in an afternoon.

There are some popular narratives out there right now about students not being able to research or think or write “like they used to” but what I see is that they can do all of this at least as well as students could 15 years ago. The difference is that now their expectations are getting in their way. They are so used to being pulled along by the “river” of the Internet that they aren’t sure what to do when they are expected to lead the process. For beginning writers, writing doesn’t move them along – they have to actively choose to make it happen and then choose again and again for it to keep going. It requires patience, reflection, and the ability to loop backwards, perusing thoughts and ideas, considering how idea A might work with research artifact B, etc. Most importantly, it is slow – often uncomfortably so – and that confuses them. If it’s slow, it must be wrong. Right?

I want to be clear here, that I’m not making fun of our students. Even I sometimes confront this is my own research and writing. Of course I would like my writing process to be as quick and seamless as Google’s search engine! The difference is that when I confront something difficult I can simply observe that it is difficult, and then try a new strategy. But often our students think that if it’s is difficult then something must be wrong: either they are stupid or we are. Neither of these is a useful mindset for learning.

We need to help students confront their own thinking and ideas. We need to help them develop scholarly patience, attention literacy, and delayed judgment about others’ ideas and their own. In order to do this, we need to create classrooms and curricula that engage with physical place and encourage non-mediated learning and reflection. Here are some strategies.




Think about your use of technology in the curriculum.

  • Choose your in-class technology carefully. Is it vital that you show the video clip or website in class? Perhaps you could assign the work to be initially viewed at home so that the students could reflect on their viewing once they arrive in class. This allows the classroom to remain an unmediated atmosphere – just people talking with people in the same room at the same time.
  • Slow everything down with repetition. Don’t be afraid to show the same clip or view the same image many times. If we want students to see that layers of understanding unfold with each successive interaction, then we have to structure that experience for them. Perhaps you could show a short clip three times. The first time students are directed to just watch and react (do they like it or not?). The second time, they ought to make comprehension-based notes about what is happening. The third time, they should analyze the clip as text (why is this clip important? how does it relate to the current learning unit?).
  • Always ask students to reflect on their interactions with technology. Even if you just ask them what they did, where they went, or what they saw you will be helping them develop a literacy of their own behaviors.



Think about the topics you assign students.

  • Find unmediated topics. The beautiful thing about a writing class is that students can write about almost any topic. Assign topics that take students into exploring unmediated experiences. When have they felt the most alive/scared/exuberant/defeated? How did their bodies feel? How did their minds feel? Where were they in that moment? What had happened? Begin prompts with the body and move out into the larger scene.
  • Food, place, and family. Food, place, and family are all excellent topics that require students to engage in questions that implicitly involve embodied feelings. If we want redefine research for students as something personal, then we need to give them personal entries into it. A research paper about the history of chocolate milkshakes, the state park where your family camps, or your grandmother’s childhood home in Italy, are all evocative entries into research – for the writer and the reader.
  • Assign low-stakes writing. Journaling and in-class writing are good examples of low-stakes writing, or writing the students do in order to get thinking into words without worrying about how it might influence their grades. Nature journals or other journaling assignments should ask students to make observations about the physical place in which they write coupled with reflections about what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling. These assignments blend observations of interior and exterior landscape and help students feel unified and grounded.


Assign reflective and critically reflective writing.

  • First, assign reflective work! When students engage in reflective work, they practice pausing, lopping backward, and becoming familiar with their own thinking and behaviors. Reflective work can be low-stakes and written quickly in class or prepared more thoughtfully outside of class.
  • Reflection versus critical reflection. In the broadest sense reflection is the process of capturing meandering thoughts while critical reflection is more pointed and written for an audience beyond the writer. While both kinds of reflection improve mindfulness, critical reflection is more likely to create a series of “historical” artifacts documenting the writing process for the student to view later.
  • Integrate reflection throughout the semester. Ask students to reflect mid-way through the processes of drafting, research, and writing. If you wait until they finish an essay they learn that reflection is simply a concluding activity. If they reflect mid-process they become aware of their ability to assess and revise their writing more than once. Also, reflection is a habit of mind and habits only come to us through repeated activity.
  • Design very specific reflective prompts. When in doubt, err on the side of more structure. Questions like “what did you think about the writing assignment” seem like they would open the door to many responses; actually they allow students to answer without critically examining their writing or research decisions. Instead, design prompts that require students to critically consider their work. For example, “Describe one writing choice you made in this essay. What was the impact of your decision?”


Think about how you can model these mindsets and behaviors.

  • Be present. It would sound too easy if we didn’t all know how hard this is, but being 100% present in the classroom creates the initial energy and focus for everyone. If you are scattered, it’s hard for anyone else to feel settled and ready to learn.
  • Go slowly. We all feel rushed to get through our curriculum in the allotted timeframe, but if we want students to slow down, then we have to remember to leave time for them (and us!) to reflect, think, and respond. When you pause to ask for questions, actually pause and wait for questions.
  • Be transparent about your purpose and think aloud for students. Perpetuating the idea that a curriculum or specific writing assignments just arose and existed out of nowhere isn’t helpful. Talk to your students about the origins of the work you assign and share alternate paths you might have taken. We need to show students that writing and teaching are both slow, thoughtful endeavors.


Finally, talk openly about the ideas of difficulty and slowness in the classroom. Explain to students that writing is a complex set of behaviors that requires critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and reflection. Explain to them that even though they can find information at the drop of a hat, it isn’t very easy to just “answer” an authentic and complicated research question. Writing can be messy, chaotic, and difficult, but we can create classrooms and assignments that help students slow down, become familiar with their thinking, and maybe (just maybe) be where they are.

-Amy Ratto Parks


Sunday Meditation: Millennials and Mindfulness

There is plenty of talk these days about what it means to teach millennials. This generation, generally identified as those born somewhere between 1980 and 2000, is much maligned for being the “Me Me Me Generation” (as Time Magazine called them in its May 2013 cover story). The general belief is that they are overly attached to technology (as Sherry Turkle argues) and are losing their ability to think deeply and empathize with others (as Nicolas Carr claims). They want instant gratification and lots of praise, whether merited or not. They pose for selfies – everywhere – and post them – everywhere. It is easy to feel, especially when visiting the social media world, that we are surrounded by self-absorbed millennials with zero audience awareness.



When we consider who Millenials really are and admit that many of the old teaching strategies no longer work so well for this tech-obsessed generation, it turns out they challenge educators to think differently – and more creatively – about what happens in the classroom. In order to reach them, educators need to become more intentional about the goals of education as well as the specific steps required to achieve those goals. And if our main goal is to respond to the specific needs of our students and to truly connect with this complicated generation, one of the simplest and most successful tools we have at our disposal is mindfulness.

In many ways, the Millenials appear to be disengaged with the world around them, valuing their individual needs over those of any group they may belong to. They seem to feel little compulsion to conform to long-held social traditions. According to the Pew Research Center, they are marrying later in life than any previous generation and are more saddled with financial debts, thanks in large part to the cost of higher education. They are less likely to identify with a religious or political set of beliefs, choosing the “independent” label instead. They are less trusting of authority figures, perhaps because they have witnessed several large-scale system failures, such as the Great Recession, and an abundance of corruption and duplicity from politicians and business leaders.


But there is plenty of evidence, empirical and anecdotal, to suggest that Millenials in fact hunger to connect with others, so long as that connection reinforces values they feel comfortable endorsing. In the business sector, as Bob Bergman explains, “The foundations of engagement for this group of new [college] graduates include a strong sense of teamwork and inclusion, having clear and exciting career opportunities that include continuous growth and learning components, and a belief that they work for an ethical organisation.” While Millenials may not join groups for collective action the way the boomers did, they still want to make a difference as individuals. They want to be part of something they believe in.

As one example of this kind of energy in the creative sphere, consider the internet poet Steve Roggenbuck. His video selfies are a fascinating new form of art that blends the narcissistic perspective attributed to this generation with an intense audio/visual poetry that is generous and purposeful. Explaining why he considers himself a poet, Roggenbuck declares “A blog can change somebody’s life and a poem can change somebody’s life. And the point for me isn’t whether it’s a blog or a poem. The point for me is changing somebody’s life.” Pick up that phone or hop on the internet, he insists to his viewers, and use it to connect with someone by reminding them of the beauty in the world.

Roggenbuck reminds me why it’s great to teach students of this generation. They are, when reached in the right way, highly motivated learners who want to be part of the solution to any one of the many problems they see in the world around them. They have so much energy, if only they knew what to do with it. And here’s where mindfulness comes in.

Incorporating mindfulness into the classroom is one way to help students of all ages, but especially Millenials, understand that education can facilitate that goal of connecting with others in a meaningful way. Many other educators working with mindfulness emphasize social justice in their courses or offer a service learning component. As Christy Wenger explains in her April 2014 post, she encourages mindfulness by having students walk around campus and hand out notes of mindfulness to the people they encounter. Such activities encourage students to slow down, pay attention, and interact with those around them.

Mindfulness in the classroom becomes a tool that empowers students to take initiative and responsibility for themselves, academically and personally.  Those two aspects of one’s life are deeply interconnected, and we benefit when we acknowledge that connection and approach education from a holistic perspective.  This does not mean being a student’s best friend.  It means teaching them what objective compassion might look like, compassionate authority, power that lifts up rather than oppresses. To connect with the skeptical Millenial student, it is worthwhile for teachers to take the extra steps of intentionally establishing their credibility, explaining their methodology, and making transparent the goals of the class. In this way, Millenials benefit from an androgogical approach informed by the principles of transformative learning theory, which acknowledges the challenges inherent when learners create expanded systems of meaning. This approach intersects well with the mindful classroom, where teacher and students consciously engage with each other and the shared goals of education, developing a respectful ongoing relationship that begins by simply being present with each other.


I’ll provide an example of what mindfulness did for one of my students. In October, I had one of the moments that we teachers put in the “win” column, that reminds us why we do this work.  It occurred in an advanced composition course in which readings are focused on a theme of the mind-body connection, with sources ranging from Thich Nhat Hahn to Malcolm Gladwell. We begin every class with three minutes of meditation, which I explain is a practice of being in the present moment, paying attention to the breath, and trying not to engage with one’s thoughts. On one day, we completed a mindful eating activity; on another day, students were instructed to walk mindfully outdoors for 10 minutes, then to write about it in a Blackboard discussion forum. Otherwise, the class ran more or less like a typical composition class. We read essays and talked about them; we covered the mechanics of good writing; we wrestled with the challenges of citing in MLA format.



About a month into this semester, Denise (not her real name) had distinguished herself as one of those students who was probably not going to make it to December. She missed most of the classes in the first three weeks. When she talked to me about it, she explained that she was dealing with depression and anxiety (mental health issues that seem increasingly common to my students), and that it was so severe she often felt unable to come to class.  She had begun counseling and was committed to staying in the class, but she was clearly wrestling with some demons.  I did what I typically do in this situation: tried to make her feel comfortable without giving her too much attention that would intensify her anxiety.  After that conversation, she attended class regularly, but with minimal participation.  She was inconsistent with the assignments she turned in.  She scheduled appointments with me, then failed to show.  To be honest, I had largely written her off.

In October, Denise came up to me after class with genuine excitement on her face, eager to tell me how she had explained mindfulness to fellow students in her psychology class. I was stunned.  Not only was she speaking to me, making eye contact, and demonstrating she had gotten something out of the course; but her entire face and body seemed energized. She was a different person.  As she explained, she had been in her psychology lab and the topic of mindfulness had come up.  The graduate student instructor was unable to give a full explanation of the concept, so Denise chimed in, using what she had learned in our class.  She defined the concept of being in the present moment and paying attention, as we have read about it from authors including Thich Nhat Hahn, Jack Kornfield, and Jon Kabat-Zinn.  She then illustrated with examples drawn from a few class activities: the mindful walking activity described above and mindful eating.  In September, I brought in strawberries and chocolate for students to eat, employing the basic idea of eating slowly, tasting the “cloud in the teacup” (as Hahn suggests), aiming for 30 chews before swallowing, and paying attention to all one’s senses.  Students wrote about what they noticed, then we had a short large-group discussion in which they shared their observations. One of the common points was that the students noted for the first time the range of textures in a strawberry, coming especially from the seeds.  This was the example that Denise shared with her psychology class to illustrate the concept of mindfulness.


 Source: David Lenker (Flickr)

 I was astounded at how clearly she had communicated to me (and, it appears, to her psychology classmates) a concept by defining it and giving illustrative examples — exactly the kind of compositional techniques we were learning about in class.  I saw Denise from a new perspective and was impressed at her command of the topic, as well as the dramatic change in personality.

Walking away from that conversation, I felt validated as a teacher.  Something I had instructed had taken hold in this young woman, to such an extent that she was able to instruct others with clarity and enthusiasm.  According to her, her classmates were intrigued and wanted to know more about mindfulness, since they need help with stress management. Denise had made a difference by applying course material to her life outside of this particular classroom.

I have to admit that by September, I had already decided who Denise would be in my class – a problem at worst, a non-entity at best. But she surprised me. One of the benefits of running a mindful classroom is that it eases stress for everyone, the teacher included. I often find that those initial three minutes help me calm my mind and see my students for who they are, rather than who I expect them to be. It turns out this is inordinately helpful, since we have all become disappointed and befuddled when students don’t interact with the lesson plan in the way we anticipated. Interacting with human beings is inherently unpredictable. But as the example of Denise demonstrates, they often give us more – not less – than we imagined they could. Taking a little extra time to be mindful with those moments of human interaction helps us to let go of expectations a little faster, to slow down the frustrated response, and to engage with the situation that actually exists. Mindfulness helped me be present with Denise, and it helped her be present and engaged with others when the opportunity presented itself.


We know that this generation faces a hard road ahead. Many of the jobs they will ultimately hold haven’t been created yet. In fact, they will need to be mentally flexible enough to create some of those jobs. In that reality, it is easy to get bitter, to disconnect from a world in which the odds seemed stacked against one. The mindful approach provides an alternative: to accept that everything changes, and to embrace this truth. For Millenials looking to make a meaningful contribution to society, this constant change presents opportunities for social connection and civic engagement in delightfully unpredictable ways.

I have incorporated mindfulness into a handful of classes over the past two years, and what strikes me most is how it seems to enhance students’ collateral learning—not just their strictly academic education. In some cases, this means they grasp how to transfer their classroom skills (e.g., argumentation, logical organization, audience awareness) to new situations, such as another class or something in pop culture. But more often, this means they become more mindful citizens, engaging with the challenges and people they encounter. If our Millenials can leave a classroom with that transformation in thinking, we have succeeded at one of the primary goals of higher education.

For other educators reading this post, I am curious what you see from Millenials in your classroom. What challenges and opportunities do they present to you, and what strategies have you devised for connecting with this generation? Share your stories with us.

-Michelle Veenstra

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