I can’t report that I meditate daily or even weekly, but there were times in my life, difficult times, when meditation was a daily aid. I learned skills and habits that still help me today. I am, in other words, well aware of both the power and the long-lasting nature of discoveries and habits gained through a meditative practice. It is my suspicion that the rewards of meditation in the classroom might show up later, and might last well into the future.
The experience is new to the students and they have to get used to it. (Some students may never take to it, but most do.) Its benefits are highly individualized. Some may find it of benefit in order to achieve the proper state of mind to write; others may find it a well to reach into for new ideas or new links between ideas; still others may expand its usefulness to other areas of life as well.
One thing is for sure — the typical methods of measuring effectiveness do not apply to meditation. The ultimate academic goal in a writing class is better essays, stories, or articles, and so many factors go into that accomplishment that it would be impossible to tease out the gains achieved only through meditation.
The nineteen students in my class provided reactions which help in the assessment. On a general class survey, I asked them to evaluate each class activity this semester according to three criteria: 1) Did it stimulate you to think deeper, 2) Did you enjoy it, and 3) Was it useful in writing your essay. The highest number was 8, and lowest 1.
They rated meditation 4.5 for stimulation, 6.9 for enjoyment, and 4.5 for usefulness. Only individual conferences rated as high for enjoyment (6.9), followed by reading poetry (5.6)*. There is a divergence between the students who benefited from it the most and those who benefited least, but even those who gave low numbers for stimulation and usefulness rated it higher for enjoyment.
What this leaves me wondering is, “What is the value of enjoyment in the classroom?” Does having a calm class which finds itself in a much better mood after meditation produce better essays? Discounting the disgruntled student whose numbers were 1, 2, 1, the class enjoys this exercise more than it enjoys any other activity. In the comments section of the survey, they wrote, “not important, but fun,” “helps me relax,” “eases the stress,” “helps me think about the essay,” “helps me relax and open my mind,” “helps us clear our heads,” “helps connect everything together,” and quite a few remarked that it didn’t help so much in writing the essays, though they looked forward to it, it relaxed them, and it was fun.
In my experience, the meditation binds the class together and gives them a more positive attitude as they work together on writing essays and doing other exercises. Since many students have reported that they now set aside meditative moments as they tackle their homework in this and other classes, it must aid them in some way. This extra element of control over their stress and perhaps their confusion contributes something important to not only their academic, but also their personal lives. This must be evaluated on a scale which resides somewhere outside the Statistics books. My husband is an economist and statistician, and he is helping me make sense out of my first stab at evaluating meditation, but the proper questions to ask, and the proper factors to take into consideration are still under development.
For your further information, below are the averages for each category.
* For meditation: stimulation, 4.48; enjoyment 6.9; usefulness, 5.2
Individual conferences: 6.3, 6.5, 6.9 Overall: 5.5
Reading stories/books: 4.8, 4.4, 6.0 Overall: 5.0
Reading poems/songs: 5.5, 5.6, 5.9 Overall: 5.6
Grammar explanations/exercises: 3.9, 3.0, 4.4 Overall: 3.7
Peer review (traditional): 4.4, 4.0, 4.6 Overall: 4.3
Modeling writing an essay in class: 6.2, 4.5, 5.8 Overall: 5.5
This meditation took place between the clarification in class of the goal for the next essay, and each student’s attempt to narrow his or her focus.
The lights went out, the door was closed, the students set themselves up by adjusting their posture and taking a few breaths. I asked them to turn their attention to their next essay, then breathed on it for a minute or two.
“Ideas are running through your head, right? That is the Monkey Brain, always teasing you, taunting you, distracting you with thoughts unrelated to your focus.” Pause for a minute. ”Don’t fight these ideas. Let them enter your head and march out the other side. Instead of grasping them, let them move. Watch them.”
We breathed on that for a few minutes.
“Many of your are having negative thoughts about this essay — ‘I don’t know what to do,’ ‘I’ve always been terrible at writing,’ ‘I got a C in my high school writing class,’ ‘my teacher told me that writing was not my strong suit,’ ‘This is hard.’ Watch those thoughts march through your head and out the other side, too. They play no role in this task.”
We breathed on that for a few minutes.
“Now you are ready to think.”
We took at least five minutes to reflect silently, then turned on the lights, opened the door, and began to discuss the focus of the upcoming essay.
My next post will be about evaluating the efficacy of meditation in the writing classroom.
My students hate peer review, at least the way it is traditionally presented. I don’t like it either. Students are not skilled enough to analyze each other’s papers well, even when the peer review is tightly targeted.
My students love individual conferences.
I combined them into one activity which would be suitable for a class of 20 or less.
1. Students are divided into groups of three or four. If it is appropriate, they are grouped by area of interest or similarity of subject.
2. The students email each other their essays and, using Track Changes, each student comments on the essays of the two or three other members of their group. I do the same for each student.
3. Instead of class, the students attend conferences with the professor. These should be long enough to have a good discussion, say, 20-30 minutes, so more than one class period is needed to accommodate this exercise.
4. The conference begins with each student giving comments on each other student’s essay. It usually becomes apparent where the weak points are; often the students’ comments are similar to mine, which also strengthens their trust in me as a judge of their essays, and thrills me as well. NOTE: It is usually not necessary to even mention this, because students generally don’t want to hurt each other, but if a criticism is too harsh, the commenter should be reminded to say something positive about the piece.
5. The rest of the conference is spent discussing how to improve the essay, what sources would be useful, and, if there is time, doing some pointed revision.
This exercise proved very popular. It substitutes class time (quantity) for focused attention (quality), and resulted in a higher comfort level for the students, and better essays. It is difficult to judge the efficacy of class activities, but this one immediately yielded better work.
Rutgers just fired its basketball coach for some pretty offensive bullying, including sexual slurs. Rutgers buried one of its freshmen last year because his roommate was spying on him during an encounter with another man. These were examples of disregard for the welfare of the students. I am not surprised.
I interviewed twice at Rutgers for a position teaching freshman writing (my favorite course). Both times, the interviewer told me how dumb and disinterested the students were. The interviews were conducted in pairs, and the other person seemed as taken aback by the bitterness of the interviewer as I was. Let’s see if I can remember the interviewer’s words more or less exactly: “The students here are some of the best in the state, and they’ve never read a book, don’t do the work assigned, aren’t interested in class, and couldn’t tell a subject from a verb. What would you think of teaching this sort of student body?”
I answered, “I’d think that they needed me badly.”
I wasn’t hired either time.
The atmosphere were polluted with disdain and dismissal of the students, and I am glad that they didn’t hire me.
Naming things is an important concept in linguistics. People have cute, or crazy, or insulting names for people and things in their lives, and that is an area for productive study. Grandmother names are my present fixation — I am called Granna. I remember the struggle after 9/11 to find a name for the event that had just happened. In the end, we gave up and just use the date of a unique event which falls outside of our comprehension.
In the classroom context, knowing students’ names establishes intimacy and dignity, lessening the distance between teacher and student. I have 20 students this semester, and it took me about two weeks to get everyone’s name right. Last semester I had 60 and that also took about two weeks, even if some of them were Chinese and their names were just sounds to me.
Michael Sandel, the teacher of the legendary Justice course at Harvard, author of a book by the same name, has around a thousand students in this classes. He has an assistant pass the microphone to individuals, and before beginning the question-and-answer, he asks the student’s name, then continues, using the student’s first name. Though this is not true closeness, the moment of naming brings immediacy to the discourse.
Placards or name cards can be placed in front of the student so that a teacher can access the name without memorizing it. If you have access to photographs of the students, that helps. Memorization is made more difficult if the students switch seats or the seats are configured differently from class to class. This mixing up of seating avoids the formation of cliques, but makes it more difficult to memorize names.
Students sometimes work in groups, and if they are to make a report or otherwise present themselves as a unit to the rest of the class, it is amusing and bonding to have them choose a name for their group.
I get to know all of my students’ names (they inform me that this is rare, which shocks and upsets me), but when I run into them on campus the next semester or year I have forgotten them. I remember their faces and their papers, but not their names. Perhaps a psychologist or an expert on brain function and memory can explain that one!
EXERCISES: Not exactly exercises, but a listing of aids:
Give yourself a couple of weeks to memorize names
Have students name their groups
In large classes either have the students announce their name or have a name tag or placard.
Use photographs to help memorize names
This post is part of an ongoing series on Contemplative Pedagogy which often focuses as much on the absence of language as on its form.
In his book Meditation in Action, Chögyam Trungpa writes: “…one usually finds that books, teachings, lectures, and so on are more concerned with proving that they are right than with showing how it is to be done.” He laments the increasingly fast pace of the modern world, “The world is moving so fast, there is no time to prove, but whatever we learn, we must bring it and cook it and eat it immediately.”
I once asked an astrophysicist friend, “Do you ever think about what will happen once we get to Mars? For instance, what will their religion be with no Bethlehem?”
He laughed, “No. We never think about those things. They tell us ‘I want this to go there’ and we make it go there.” This is an example of “eating it immediately,” doing something “right,” but with no thought about the meaning or consequences of what is being done.
Trungpa continues, “If we go somewhere on foot, we know the way perfectly, whereas if we go by … car or aeroplane we are hardly there at all, it becomes merely a dream.”
Isn’t getting a B.A., an M.A., or a Ph.D. dream-like? We tumble over ourselves writing so that our advisors will find what we offer them to be “right,” stuffing sprawling ideas into a tidy little box ready to be signed, sealed, and delivered. And that’s that. So little of what we write in our dissertations proves to be useful later on.
We are dealing with a warming, overpopulated planet where more and more powerful arms are being disseminated throughout the citizenry, where wars are popping up continually in places we have never heard of, religious wars which appear not to affect us but are in fact, very dangerous to us. We should be thinking more deeply than ever because the consequences of our decisions could be fatal. Yet our education system fails to nurture deep thought, and cannot absorb the sometimes controversial or revolutionary results of sustained deep thought.
That is why it is important to slow down the process. Read fewer books, but better. Write from the heart. Expand the range of sources. Listen to each other.
This post is part of an ongoing series on contemplative practices in the writing classroom. It is about the absence of language as much as language itself.
Following a challenging autumn, during which we had a terrible hurricane, a contentious election, and the shootings at Newtown in which little children were mowed down with an automatic rifle, we needed some solace. The essays this semester have been about our support systems, beginning with community, then family, then job. The family essay was the hardest to write because it was the closest to home. The students confused telling the reader that their family was superior to all others, their father was superman, etc. with giving the reader something to work with. Knowing somebody else has “the best mother in the world” is either a challenge to a person who thinks SHE has the best mother in the world, or a sadness to people who do not have the best mother in the world. The writer must dig deeper. I tried to help them do this with the guided meditation below.
Stipulated, of course, that this is all an experiment. I have no idea whether such a meditation can improve a student’s thinking processes and thus his writing. The present parameters for testing the results of such a meditation are inadequate and thus the exercise would be dismissed for academic publication; but shouldn’t we continue to experiment anyway? Shouldn’t we be looking for different criteria?
Exercise: The students sat comfortably in their seats, the lights off. We breathed for a while. After each phase of the guided meditation there should be a period of silence lasting about a minute.
Imagine yourself driving along, and seeing a lake which invites you to stop. You park and take a path leading to the lake. Did you lock your car? Take your purse? Is the roadway deserted or busy? What do you see around the path? How far do you see into the distance? What season is it? Go slowly. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Do you touch anything?
Arriving at the lake, take time to observe its surface — the birds, small fish, plants, ripples made by the wind, rocks sticking out of the water.
You will now descend a couple of yards below the surface of the lake. What do you see there? Does the light from above filter this far down? Lurk for a while.
The lake is deep, and now it is time to go to the bottom where the big fish swim. What do you see there? Are the big fish benign or threatening? Do they approach you? Is it dark? Do you see plants? Is there anything lying on the bottom of the lake?
Now it is time to rise slowly up through the layers to the surface, time to walk back to your car. Do you feel differently from when you were last at your car? Physically? Mentally? Emotionally? Spiritually?
After a final minute or so of quiet, I reminded them that their own family story was like the top layer of the lake. It was now their assignment, in the next draft, to go deeper and find some deeper principles which could be shared with the reader.
This post is one of a series on contemplative pedagogy, where the subject is as much the absence of language as language itself.
In an essay writing class, a fictionalizing imagination is not necessary, but students must think of everyday events and reactions in new ways, and must link these events and reactions to larger ideas. The imagination must be unleashed to do that. This exercise may aid in the process.
EXERCISE: We sat in our customary circle, feet on the floor, lights off, following the breath in its courses. This takes a minute, two minutes.
I asked them to imagine themselves getting out of their chairs and going to the door. This thought rested about a minute. They might, in their imagination, be putting down their purse, or meeting up with another person, or waiting a little while before getting up.
Once at the door, they were instructed to choose a place on the campus which they would walk to, always in their imagination. And then to walk there. Another minute.
What do they do once they get there? What do they see? What is the weather like? What season is it? Are they alone? What are they carrying or wearing? Do they stand still, turn around, walk around? This should take a minute or two.
They were then instructed to return to the classroom and sit down, always in their imagination.
Lastly, they were asked to think about their little journey. Do they feel different upon their return? Is the sun still warming their hair? Have they seen something beautiful? Something awful? How does sitting feel different from walking?
The lights went back on, and I asked for reflections. ”We should do this every class,” said the burly construction worker. The rest of the class agreed that it was a very pleasant experience and they would like to do it again.
I cannot say what was accomplished by this exercise. The first step in a meditation practice is likely a small one. All I can say is that they fell deeply into the exercise, enjoyed it, and wanted to do it again. Perhaps they will feel more confidently about the workings of their own imaginations. They bonded as a class just by sharing in the experience.
This is one of an ongoing series of posts on contemplative pedagogy. It focuses on lack of language rather than on language itself.
One of the bugabears of essay writing is making too many assumptions, from “everybody” thinks this, to “My father never uses swearwords.” One of the challenges of the writing teacher is to lure students into a new context so that they can look at issues and experiences with fresh eyes. Their customary patterns must be disrupted and perhaps turned inside out. That will not dislodge the truths inside them, but should strengthen them.
Exercise: Since contemplative practices are, among other things, aimed at disrupting the sense of time, I chose a time exercise as the beginning of our class contemplative practice.
“Raise your hand when you think a minute it up.”
The students looked around shiftily, watching how others were reacting.
No hands went up. Good.
Still no hands up. Good.
Then I looked at my watch (I was, after all, the timekeeper), and followed the second hand to one minute, then looked up, and hands shot up.
I asked what method they had used to determine when we had reached a minute, and it turned out that all the students were watching for my reaction, not concentrating on time. They could tell by my body language and facial reaction that I was following the second hand.
We had a laugh over that.
So that exercise was a failure.
Later in the semester I’ll try again, and will be more sly. I will turn off the lights and ask them to close their eyes. I will place my cell phone on the desk and will spend the whole minute looking at it, rather than checking the class from time to time.
My class has asked (by vote of 19-1) for regular meditation exercises. We do them once a week. I will document those in subsequent posts, but yesterday we did a variation — a concentration exercise. A case could be made that because of multi-tasking and the constant electronic intrusion into their lives, students rarely concentrate on a single activity. I wanted to test their frequent assertions that they can do two things at once; listen to music or television while studying, text while having a conversation, check the baseball score on their iPad while taking in the class discussion, and so on.
EXERCISE: Our class is in a room with no windows, and I wanted the students to be in a place where visual or audio intrusions would be frequent, so we went into the hallway outside our classroom and they lined up at the windows, looking onto the Student Center Plaza, which was frequently criss-crossed by pedestrians. Another teacher and one of her students were discussing an assignment at the end of the hallway, clearly audible. After they had lined up, I advised my class that they should remind themselves that the noise and activity around them was other people going about other lives and had nothing to do with them.
They were instructed to pick an unmoving object and concentrate on it for two minutes. I would announce the beginning and the end of the period.
During the exercise two people looked away, but most remained unmoving and silent.
After it was over, the consensus was that 1) it was most difficult to ignore the audio intrusion of the teacher-student conversation, and 2) the two minutes did not seem a long time.
This exercise may have suggested (I don’t know, what do you think?) that students these days can indeed multitask, or at least can tune out visual and audio intrusions quite well. I consider this bad news, as it means that they can tune me out in class with ease if left with access to electronic devices, though the students agree unanimously that computers/iPads/iPhones should be put aside in class. I remember well the first time I tried to concentrate like this, on a hillside outside Jerusalem in 1966. It was impossible to concentrate on a single object for even a minute. Perhaps constant practice has wired modern students’ brains differently. It will be up to somebody else to figure this out, but I was surprised by the ease with which my students accomplished this exercise.