3 Teaching Exercises for Mindfulness in the Classroom
Mindfulness can be an off-putting concept for some instructors, but it offers an opportunity to truly connect with students as they access knowledge and express their ideas, argues Irina Popescu.
February 2, 2022
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My students are in crisis—actual crisis. They are severely anxious, depressed and distressed. They have told me as much over countless office hours, lunches and phone conversations.
I sound like a broken record, but I am not a mental health counselor. I often wish I could go back in time and become one, but that’s not in the cards for me. Yet, especially in my small liberal arts campus, students turn to faculty for emotional support quite often. In this pandemic world, we all want to feel heard and cared for, and that desire has made me reassess what is important for my teaching practice.
I honestly believe that we all need to start doing higher education differently at the current moment and create lasting changes—not just temporary ones. For me, those changes have been tied to one main component that I’ve added to my teaching practice: mindfulness inside the classroom.
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Mindfulness can often be an off-putting concept and practice for some educators. Many faculty members across various campuses have told me that mindfulness is not something they can use in their classes because it feels hokey and inauthentic—and like it has nothing to do with their course materials. The fear that students will express resistance to mindfulness is something I have often heard, as well.
What I want to say in response to all that resistance is something that Beth Berila articulated in her wonderful book Integrating Mindfulness Into Anti-Oppression Pedagogy: “Students need to have space to process their emotions, and they need to be taught to do so in productive and compassionate ways.” Mindfulness practices allow students to feel heard, welcomed, included and cared for within the classroom space. This feeling of inclusivity is not always as readily available and accessible to all students, especially now. Mindfulness also offers you, as an educator, the opportunity to take a step back from your role and truly connect with your students as they access knowledge and express their distinct ideas and interpretations.
For the past two years, I’ve worked with many current and former students who are struggling to define their own journey within higher education, both as learners and knowledge producers. Based on those conversations, I’ve decided to make mindfulness a weekly focus for all my courses at least once a week, for five to 10 minutes, usually at the beginning of the class. I have incorporated many tactics of mindfulness into my teaching, and here I outline a few that I hope will be useful to anyone who wants to give students a moment to take a pause and take a breath.
Meditative Body Scan
One way to facilitate an awareness of mind and body within the classroom right away is simply to engage students in a three-minute breathing meditation and body scan at the beginning of a class session. In short, I invite students to close their eyes and focus on their breathing, trying to slow it down a bit. I then ask them to scan their bodies, from the top of their heads all the way to their toes, while breathing deeply in and out. I tell them to name any sensations they’re feeling but not to judge those sensations as they continue to breathe and scan downward. Finally, I have them open their eyes and write down what they’ve been feeling.
This kind of naming body scan helps students come into the classroom space, to feel their minds and bodies move from outside to inside the classroom. Often, I will have students talk to someone else in the class for one minute—not specifically about their mediation but about anything that comes to mind. Still, more often than not, they discuss the meditation. This functions as a kind of icebreaker and allows students to engage with one another within the classroom in a less academically structured way.
This whole exercise takes no more than five minutes and, in my experience, has greatly increased student participation for the remainder of the class. In several exit tickets and midsemester reviews, students, almost unanimously, reflected on how important these mindful activities have been for their mental well-being, “ability to feel present and heard,” and “desire to participate and engage with classmates and course materials.”
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An effective way to transition between the meditative body scan to the course materials is to have students engage in conceptual puzzles that I design based on the readings for that particular day. I present students with a quote, image or video near the beginning of class—usually after our meditative moment—and set a two- to three-minute timer while students journal about it. They can draw, write a list of words, create a poem or simply respond in sentences. I will often incorporate another meditative pause after I stop the timer when students close their eyes and let their ideas settle around them.
Sometimes the brain teaser questions also deal with emotional responses to a text or image, which allows students to connect their own affective registers to course materials. When we come back together as class, I have students engage in a five-minute, student-led discussion in which they share their responses to their brain teasers.
Those discussions are some of the best we have in the class. I am silent, a mere listener, as students engage with one another. The focus on what each of their peers has to say really impacts and enhances active listening practices in the classroom. Although I teach humanities courses, such an activity would certainly transfer to any discipline—especially math, for instance, within a problem-set brain teaser.
An example of a brain teaser for my feminist theory course this semester was as follows:
BRAIN TEASER: Mindful Moments with Audre Lorde
Choose a path:
- “Survival is not an academic skill,” or
- “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Directions: Spend a moment or so picking the quote that most stands out to you here. Ponder why it stands out to you. How does the quote make you feel? Really try to memorize this quote before closing your eyes. Close your eyes. Visualize the quote you selected. What is it saying? What images appear in your mind? How can you apply it to your own life experiences? Gently open your eyes as the music starts. Spend two minutes discussing your visualizations with a partner.
Often these brain teasers deal with issues and constructions of race, ethnicity and gender in the Americas, as those are the types of courses I teach. That means that I often create brain teasers to allow students to engage with difficult and often discomforting topics—first on their own terms and then within the larger group.
This particular activity works well at the beginning of a semester as a kind of icebreaker, yet it can also work during a class in which you feel that students need to take some time to come together and get to know one another. It allows students to tell stories about themselves using objects you have preselected, and you can do it not only inside but outside the classroom if you are meeting that way. I have done this activity in my smaller discussion-based courses, which tend to have about 16 students. It encourages storytelling, sharing and active listening. Here is the script that I give students:
Directions: There are several objects around the trees near our table. Walk around and set your eyes on one object that speaks to you, one object that you naturally gravitate toward for whatever reason. Do not question it—just let your body and mind decide. Touch the object, smell it, look at it, explore it with your senses. Go for a walk with your object and reflect on the following questions in your walking meditation: Why this object? What does this object reveal about who you are?
When we come back together after a few moments of self-reflection, I invite students to share the object they chose and, if comfortable, the reasoning for their choice. They then talk for one minute before passing the microphone to the next speaker.
A Collective Deep Breath
Again, mental health issues are off the charts on our campuses and drastically impact the way our students learn, communicate and feel heard. As educators, we all need to take a major collective deep breath and pause for a minute to consider what is really important and how to best create an environment that helps rather than hinders. I’ve found that the incorporation of mindful activities, even for just five minutes once a week, greatly impacts students’ well-being inside and outside the classroom.
Irina Popescu is a visiting professor of Latin American studies at Bowdoin College. She teaches courses on human rights in the Americas. She has written pieces on anti-oppression pedagogy in Inside Higher Ed and other publications.