A Brief Moment

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

I have been asked to present my research to a group of undergraduates – to “teach” them in a way that is interactive and experiential in a rather short period of time. My research and data collection relied heavily on the community we built together. The question in the forefront of my mind is how do you introduce contemplative practices and have students experience those practices when you have never interacted with them before? To rely on relationships, classroom setup, and “easing into it” is a luxury and privilege I have enjoyed. To teach this to a group of students with whom I have had no previous contact has given me an opportunity to examine contemplative practices in a different manner.

My solution? As I learned a long time ago it best to start with what they know. Some practices seem more familiar (such as writing) and some seem a bit “out there” to a group of college students (like meditating in class). I need to be able to frame this in a manner that shifts this away from a typical academic writing assignment and into a contemplative practice. I receive this question often – what makes it contemplative and not just, in this case, writing? It’s an important question I think – even if it comes with what I sometimes hear as cynicism.

Mary Rose O’Reilly (1998), in Radical Presence: Teaching as a Contemplative Practice, says that contemplative practice is about creating a space for learning and for developing an inner life by your very attention to the moment. It invites the student inside the subject manner itself. Barbezat & Bush (2014) remind us that contemplative practices also help us “see clearly one’s own mind” and therefore creates a “natural desire to see how others experience reality” (p. 18). Finally Palmer & Zajonc (2010) state that contemplative practices, when also acknowledging interconnectedness, allow us to see and experience various worldviews. Global education emphasizes this as well as its discusses the interconnectedness of the world’s peoples, especially when combined with cross-cultural experiences and the viewing multiple perspectives, to help expand our perspective consciousness (Merryfield, 1998).

Combining literature and some of the findings from my own study we see the importance of written self-reflection as an entry point into contemplative practices. I will begin my presentation with a brief introduction into contemplative practices – definitions and some foundational pieces of information – but then move into having the students write a short biography. It is offering the students the opportunity to look inward, coupled with the silence that I feel makes this contemplative practice and not just writing. Based on the findings in my study I know that for the participants ten minutes of writing in silence in an academic can feel like a long time. So I will prepare the undergraduates for this – frame it in a way that lets them know – slow down, take a moment to reflect, then write. Beginning writing about self accomplishes two things: 1) it is a place of comfort for the students and 2) it shifts writing away from being analytical encouraging one’s own internal process.

From here we will share our bios and get to know one another. I will begin with my own. I don’t think it would be fair to ask a student to share their story and not share my own. Since this group of undergraduates is training to become teachers, we will then discuss how “who we are” impacts how we teach and view the world. Additionally, if I am going to teach students different from myself – how can I invite different worldviews into the space and move beyond just “who I am” showing up in the classroom? Palmer (1993) reminds us, “When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my unexamined life—and when I cannot see them clearly I cannot teach them well.”

This is where we will shift into our discussion of interconnectedness and make the connection Palmer & Zajonc (2010) and Barbezat & Bush (2014) discuss. Based on the data from my own study, the participants became more likely to open space for and honor difference when 1) they clearly could see their own worldview and how this impacted their teaching and 2) they could understand their interconnectedness with their students – which increased their sense of responsibility toward them. Two quotes from the data that really stand out to me and will help frame our discussion are:

I originally said that I thought interconnectedness was this (interlacing fingers) but now I don’t think so cause interconnectedness can’t just do this (pulling fingers apart). It’s not that simple – if you wanted to disconnect something you’d have to go through like a million strings to try and get one out and then it would all knot up anyway. I mean – we might think it’s possible – but is it really? I don’t think we can actually disconnect. Which makes me look at some things with my students differently.

This shift, for me, was exciting and was discussed by multiple participants within the study. Not only had this participant acknowledged interconnectedness as more complex than she first thought, but she was able to begin to apply that to her classroom. The process, while not an easy one, is important to teaching and learning – even when we examine the violence that can sometimes enter our school buildings and our students’ lives.

I think that’s one thing that a lot of us struggled with and are probably, at least for myself, am now able to push past that and understand what it means. Looking at people that we thought were wrong or did something terrible and things like that. Seeing them as a person and realizing something had to make them tick to do that. When you stop “othering” them you can see something happened to this person. I just had a kid at school start a fight and I was able to remember about being connected and empathy and realized he didn’t necessarily just do that because he wanted to pick a fight but that maybe there was a deeper lying reason for that and I at least needed to slow down and ask him about it.

I often see teachers, who are quick to condemn – especially when it comes to violent situations. There are many reasons for this I think. Sometimes it is safety. Sometimes there are just so many competing demands of the district, standards, or 30 students. This participant, however, was able to remember to slow down and see this young man as a person who, at the very least, deserved to be heard. Even this momentary slowing down in a busy day represents a contemplative practice in itself. A small moment in time where she recognized another’s pain and humanity. We will also discuss this – tying it back to our own worldviews regarding violence and punishment. Then we will close up our time together.

Will every student be impacted in the ways in which the participants I discussed above were impacted? Most certainly not. But there are wonderful stories to share with the group of undergraduates that I will have but a brief moment to work with. And, maybe that moment is all some of them will need to shift something – ever so slightly.