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.
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