Introducing Contemplative Practices in Class

[CollegeContemplative is featuring Guest Bloggers from October 2013-February 2014. Welcome, Tami Augustine (Taug4)!]

Oh I have been away from this for too long. The end of the semester, a winter break full of data analysis, and getting ready for the next semester – it pulled me far out of balance. The very thing I stood in front of my students and reminded them not to do. Amazing how the words I share with others I often need to listen to myself.

On the website for The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society they state the following, “We envision higher education as an opportunity to cultivate deep personal and social awareness: an exploration of meaning, purpose and values in service to our common human future.” While many subject areas can align to fit the description here – in teacher education a most logical content area in which to begin is the social studies. I spent the break analyzing data from my research that included contemplative practices in a social studies methods course for teacher candidates who will become licensed middle school educators. The analysis is not complete, but some themes and patterns are clear. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. I would first like to include what practices were included in the course and the overall introduction to the process. For many people, these are not new experiences and nothing here represents what has not been done in classrooms in many Universities. For me, however, this initial introduction was important. While I have utilized – maybe dabbled is a better word…while I have dabbled with integrating contemplative practices in my classes previously this was the first time I was naming it, studying it, embracing it.

I have already discussed my classroom setup, which I see part of contemplative practice – being present, mindful, and intentional in how we create space and come into a space. The next step was to introduce contemplative practices to the students. The overall premise of my utilizing these practices – and the larger spiritual pedagogical approach to my teaching – is to speak back to the mechanistic learning framework that dominates education in the “age of standardization.” Therefore, the work of Mary Rose O’Reilley in Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice presents, to me, a perfect way to introduce the practices in general. O’Reilley discusses the difficulty in bringing silence specifically into the classroom and emphasizes the importance of explaining what you will be doing, as this work is “redefining the classroom order.” O’Reilley (1998) provides a wonderful section from her syllabus that includes a line that I think demonstrates how much the “age of standardization” has impacted the classroom experience and instruction, “This is not McSchool; there are no golden arches out front” (p. 7). She also gently reminds students to be patient and to honor their own voices. This book was written 15 years ago and that line is as true today as it was then, if not more so. Being inspired by O’Reilley I introduced contemplative practices as such:

Now that we have grown accustomed to our classroom space, some new classroom practices, and each other we are going to slow down by including quiet time during class. This time will help us become present with one another to be ready for learning and will also allow us to reflect on the day’s materials, strategies, and discussion. Silence can help us synthesize our thoughts or assist us in finding or working through answers to questions that linger. Please be patience and thoughtful through this process. I find the silence, and proceeding in this intentional manner, enhances the learning environment and allows us to find deeper and more complex understandings.

I then introduced what contemplative practices are, a bit of background, and what our contemplative practices would entail: meditation, dialogue, deep listening, in-class writing, and online writing. I do want to say that I have wonderfully open-minded students who trusted me and sometimes I think just played along wanting to see what would happen. I am incredibly grateful to them. What stood out the most to the students was the meditation. This practice was unknown to almost all of them and I could sense their discomfort. As I stated, however, they graciously continued to play along. They seemed to understand and equate meditation with contemplative practice, but the others items they questioned – what makes these contemplative and not what we just normally do in class? It was a valid question, which I did not answer. Eventually, however, they answered it for themselves. As I continue to work through the analysis, I will share what they found for themselves and their experiences around these practices.