Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Bit of Mindfulness in the Classroom

by Kamilah Cummings

As adults in a range of industries find themselves increasingly overextended with mounting professional and personal responsibilities, the concept of work-life balance has garnered renewed interest.  For many, achieving equilibrium between work and life has become a seemingly impossible task. One often needs to look no further than the man in the mirror to find an example of this reality. However, work-life imbalance brings with it an increase in stress (Mayo Clinic Staff) along with a host of related physical maladies. Awareness of this harrowing fact led me to explore managing the stress of work-life imbalance in my own life. One way that I began to do this was to incorporate simple mindfulness practices into my daily routine. As a result of my positive experiences, I decided to incorporate one of my mindfulness practices into my classes. 

Despite increased awareness through books, workshops, and even iPad apps, mindfulness is not a new concept. It is an ancient one that can be found in many Eastern spiritual and religious traditions from martial arts and yoga to Buddhism (Harris 21). Although many think of meditation when they hear the term mindfulness, meditation is just one of many ways to practice mindfulness. “Mindfulness’ can be defined in a variety of different ways, but they all basically come down to this: paying attention with flexibility, openness, and curiosity” (Harris 21). In short, mindfulness is simply being aware in the present moment and paying attention to one’s feelings. 

Researchers who have studied mindfulness and mental health professionals who incorporate it into a variety of therapies have learned that mindfulness can alleviate stress and anxiety by allowing those who practice it to view their experiences from different perspectives and gain deeper understanding about themselves. As author and psychotherapist Russ Harris states, “We can use mindfulness to . . . improve our self-knowledge – to learn more about how we feel, think and react. Considering that we require our students to do a great deal of reflection in our courses, I thought that my classes would be a perfect place to introduce students to mindfulness through the inclusion of an assignment that allowed them to write about their feelings in the present moment.

As adult learners, I know that my students have to add academic life to the work-life balancing act. Because my students usually take my classes in their first three terms, they are often still managing the stress of returning to school. Add to that that they are enrolled in a writing course, and the anxiety rating skyrockets for many of them.  Therefore, given my own positive experience with managing stress and anxiety with a daily mindfulness writing activity, I thought I would create a simple weekly journal assignment for my students to share the practice with them. My hope was that they would find it equally beneficial. 

I replaced the normal writing journal prompts that I used to use with what I call a “Right Now” journal. The assignment gives a brief explanation of the use of writing as a mindful practice and then requires the student to write a journal entry that begins with the prompt, “Right now I . . .” . I allow students 10 minutes to write while I play calming instrumental music – usually Reiki, meditation, or Santana. I also invite students to start the assignment by taking a couple of deep breaths if they want. I give the same assignment every week. 

At first, I was unsure how students would receive the assignment, so I only used it in a small face-to-face class. I was surprised by how quickly the students took to the assignment (and the music). Students wrote about everything from anxiety related to the class and assignments to residual feelings from disagreements with family and friends, the day at work,  and the commute to class. I usually engaged in the practice along with them. I always gave the option to share their entries afterward. Sometimes we all shared; sometimes we didn’t. Either way, it was rewarding to see students using the assignment to navigate present feelings about their experiences. As the term progressed, they shared how they used the assignment outside of class at home and at work during stressful situations. They also stated that starting the evening with the mindfulness assignment helped them to de-stress and focus more on the class. 

In addition to the benefit of giving students practice writing in general, another benefit to the “Right Now” journal assignment for me was that it afforded an opportunity to connect with my students on a different level and to learn more about them. Because I try to take a holistic approach to teaching, I found the level of community building that occurred in the class as a result of this assignment allowed me to better understand, teach, and encourage my students. 

As I previously stated, I wasn’t sure how the introduction of mindfulness via the “Right Now” assignment would be received by my students, but I am happy that I chose to use it. I am currently using it in another course, and the students in that course have reacted to it the same way my previous students did. When the course ended last term, students said they planned to continue to use the assignment in their lives. For me, that has been the greatest benefit of incorporating this assignment in my classes. Learning should be both transformative and transferrable, and my students’ responses to this simple addition of mindfulness to my classes reflect this to me.

Works Cited

Christopher Germer, Ph.D. "What is Mindfulness?" Insight (2004): 24-29.
Harris, Russ. "Mindfulness without Meditation ." Healthcare, Counselling and Psychotherapy Journal (2009): 21-24.
Mayo Clinic Staff. Work-life balance: Tips to reclaim control. 12 July 2012. 30 April 2015 <http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/work-life-balance/art-20048134>.

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