Trusting the Body to Teach the Mind: A Case for Face-to-Face Education


classroom photos by Matt Brown
student photographs used with permission

I. The Body is Full of Trash

gears_headCan we use the body to transform the mind? I never thought so, because I believed what I learned in school: the mind is our vehicle for transport and enlightenment. If we give it enough fuel, it’ll take us where we want to go. In class, we were supposed to sit still, keep quiet, and absorb information. Who needs a body for that?

“Geometry,” said my math teacher as he gazed up and even beyond the ceiling, “draws the soul toward truth.”
“Why?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
“It’s from Plato,” he said. “Look it up.”

So I did. I went to my English teacher, who flipped through her underlined copies of The Republic and Phaedo. “Here, Plato says ‘truth is akin to proportion’—that means philosophers are seeking something pure…permanent…stable and unchanging. So is Mr. Math,” she smiled.geometry300

The notes in my journal from that discussion with Ms. English say, body is evil, full of trash, lust, fear…cause of war, terror and chaos. It was a pretty good summary of one of Socrates’ lines in Phaedo. Mind/soul lives forever; body sickens and dies, I wrote. This made sense to me, and was further confirmed after the first time I attended an open-casket funeral. Seeing a pasty, cosmetic version of someone I once loved was evidence enough: the body is merely storage space for the soul. Why bother with it? The mind is our true source of power.

Physical Education, therefore, is useless. Plato would not have agreed with this, but it’s something I believed even in junior high school, probably because I wasn’t particularly athletic. I’d pretend to be sick in order to avoid any game that involved a bat or ball or net, and I resented having to take PE classes that would bring down my grade point average. I was temporarily motivated by a massive crush on Mr. McMillan (who looked like Clint Eastwood in red shorts)—until he made us do pull-ups in front of everyone. I couldn’t even do one, and I didn’t understand why we were being given the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge without ever having trained for it. Occasionally, Mr. McMillan would make us run around the field in circles, which I didn’t mind, because then I could be left alone with the smell of the grass and the sound of my footsteps. Laps in class were preferable to any competitive sport, but also reinforced a body/mind divide. Movement clearly had nothing to do with the mind or intelligence of any kind.

When my parents saw that I enjoyed running, they signed me up for the Northridge Pacers, a local girls’ track team. More misery and fake illnesses on my part. I came in last for just about every race. My legs seemed elephantine compared to those of the sprightly, sinewy girls who sprinted right by me. I did win a third place ribbon once in a shot put contest, but it was no mark of progress: I could have dropped that heavy ball on my foot and won third place—there were only three of us competing that day! But my mom didn’t know that, so I let her congratulate me and then I buried the ribbon in the corner of my closet behind an explicit romance novel from my grandmother’s collection.

I was ashamed of that ribbon because I did not earn it, and I was jealous of those fast, young runners, so I dismissed their triumphs. Rats on a treadmill, that’s what they are. I don’t need extracurricular success. I want straight As from the real classes like math and history. Physical education doesn’t count; it’s not a serious class and does not constitute a true education.

Unfortunately, I was right. I did not receive a physical education in PE class. Nobody ever showed me how to hold a bat, throw a football, stretch before or after running laps, communicate with a team, focus my attention, regulate my breath, or protect my alignment to avoid injury. We were left to figure it out for ourselves while some guy with a whistle yelled at us from across the field. All of those guys gave us goals, but without any means to reach them, I just felt like a failure.

II. Bringing Life into the Dungeon

puzzle_handsIt wasn’t until my sister introduced me to yoga that I found an entirely different kind of reward system. Rather than starting with an external goal and striving for it, in yoga class, I learned to attend to the existing state of both my body and mind, and then unite them on the inside by utilizing breath and focus. There were no finish lines, scores, or ribbons, but there was still a powerful challenge: a demand from the practice itself to awaken more of me. Even just the effort to link body and mind created a synthesis that made me more available for all kinds of education, not only breathwork and backbends.

64843645 bodymind colorMost yoga poses are inspired by the creatures and conditions of our environment. My favorites are named for dogs, crows, camels, pigeons, trees, fireflies, and the half moon. We balance and twist and bend forward and back, go upside down, work hard and breathe and flow, then relax and absorb the stillness. I often walk into class feeling distracted, upset, or alone, but always leave feeling quiet, connected, and just more here.

key_heads300The more I practice, the more I understand the body to be a form and expression of consciousness, not merely a container for it—but everything I learned in school contradicts this notion. In the classroom, the mind is master of consciousness. Any course with an embodied element (music, arts, dance, PE) is seen as expendable and less rigorous than any course we view as essential, like math. We still believe in Plato’s legacy: the emotions are messy and unstable, but logic is clean and consistent. Reason will help us rise above the beasts as well as the wild passions inside our own bodies.

In yoga class, however, I learn discipline from my muscles and lungs, my limbs and organs, and not only from the supposedly civilizing influence of reason. Body and mind together are a site of focus, freedom, and heightened consciousness. Level of ability is irrelevant; we are all variously abled, disabled, and capable of change or contribution.

checklist_head300The disembodied nature of the academic environment makes this kind of integrated education challenging at best. Classrooms even contribute to the problem. Last year, for example, I was assigned a room with unusually low ceilings, no windows, buzzing florescent lights, grey walls, and no air circulation. The university did spend money on installing data projectors, media access, and sound systems, but the space is subhuman. There’s no sense of us as living, breathing creatures who might work well in a more relaxed, inviting environment. The room is designed to feed the mind and ignore the body.

I tried my best to transcend the space, which my students called “the dungeon.” I said to them, perhaps with a bit too much enthusiasm, “it’s up to us to bring the life into this room!” They were willing. I just wasn’t entirely sure how to do it. How can I help my students feel more alive, more available for learning, more embodied, and more here, even in this dim, colorless dungeon?

I started by asking everyone in my college writing course to select partners and engage in discussion about a particular topic. The same thing happened every time students turned toward each other to break off into pairs. There were always a few singles left without partners. I expected them to glance around the room, see who else was partnerless, and move. But instead, they’d all sit there and stare at the floor. I also thought the paired-up folks might invite a third party to join their discussion, but they all ignored their partnerless peers. Every time.

Students can be shy, nervous, or bored, and many are accustomed to waiting for instructions or respecting authority, but those are not the only reasons this sort of thing happens. When we don’t fully exist in the space, we feel less responsible for what happens there. I’m not talking about appropriate levels of restraint. I’m talking about the suppression of self that happens by habit when we walk into a classroom. We slouch down in our seats, take shallow breaths, put the body on pause, and become less present, which also means the mind is less alert.

In order to stimulate the mind, we need the brain; in order to access the brain, we need the body. Brain and body are chemically, structurally, functionally integrated systems, and I’m trying to fuel them with some simple pedagogical techniques. When one doesn’t work, I experiment with something else. In this case, when my next group of writers entered the dungeon, I asked them to roam around the room and take turns introducing themselves to each other. I gave them some topics for discussion, and while I was pleased to find the energy was elevated and conversations more sincere, I also noticed that students still had trouble with eye contact—and they offered such limp, lifeless handshakes—so the next time, I asked everyone to pay particular attention to their body language: posture, gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, negotiating space. Let your voice be an expression of yourself, I suggested, in this particular space, in this particular moment—and remember, you are also talking to someone about something, so please pay close attention to the person in front of you.

Almost all my students have been told by their high school teachers never to use “I” in their essays. They are asked to remove themselves from their prose so they’ll appear more objective, but I find they are only able to achieve appropriate distance after fleshing out their own opinions. I don’t want them to disappear in their writing or in the room. I’d rather they chat with each other and fill in some of these blanks: I think…I feel…I wonder…I’m confused by…I recognize…I realize…I resist…I value…I understand…. We can’t transcend the self until we inhabit it fully.
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III. A Different Kind of Attention

I recently tried to engage my writing classes with an interactive experiment designed to help them understand a short story. We were reading Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” and at least half the class had confessed in office hours that they just didn’t get it. At the end of the story, the narrator helps a blind man draw a cathedral. The exchange between the two men is spontaneous, meditative, intimate, and potentially transformative. The characters are there, together in the moment, and yet not bound by it. In the last scene, the narrator closes his eyes and simply says, “It’s really something.”

My students wanted to know: what’s the moral of the story? What does it mean? Rather than try to resolve the ambiguity, I decided to let them experience it. Everyone picked a partner and then they took turns. One person would close their eyes and place a hand on top of their partner’s hand as the characters did in the story, and then try to guess what the partner was drawing. I asked for complete silence during the exercise, and I had no idea what would happen.

I was utterly amazed. Once we broke silence, the class came alive. People started making profound connections with other assigned readings, offering specific comments about the story, and applying this experiment to other educational experiences, both inside and outside the classroom. It was a moment I’ll never forget. The kind teachers live for. I looked around the room as students talked and laughed and I saw light bulbs going on all over the place. Just like the men in the story, I was there in the room and yet far beyond it, in the sense that sometimes teachers get a glimpse of their students’ bright future.

Then I tried the same experiment in another class, but the whole thing bombed. The students seemed bored, they rolled their eyes when I asked them to draw something, and I heard a few grumbling comments about a stupid, confusing story. I’m not sure why the exercise worked so well in one class and not at all in another; there are undoubtedly many reasons. Regardless, I’m likely to try this one again, because when it works, it improves the classroom dynamic and gives people access to creative and experiential forms of interpretation. If the experiment fails, it still provides an opportunity to reexamine the assumptions and values we bring with us into the classroom. I did feel a bit better when a student from the second class came to office hours and confessed that he’d grown so accustomed to being on auto-pilot in school that he didn’t even realize he wasn’t truly participating until our exercise demanded more—and a different kind—of his attention.

In another composition class, we were reading several medical narratives, and in one text, a cancer patient wrote about a particularly cathartic, emotional moment in which she took a long, deep breath in through her nose and exhaled audibly through her mouth. Several students joked that she should go see a psychiatrist instead of an oncologist, so I asked everyone to close their eyes and try it. Sit up in your chair, put your feet on the ground, and take just one deliberate breath like hers. It simultaneously relaxed and energized the class, and for some, inspired a more compassionate view of the patient’s perspective. I did notice, however, that the most derision—of this text and the exercise—originated from the pre-meds in each class, regardless of their specific major. I’ve never seen so much eye-rolling and snorting. I could hear the subtext: you want us to close our eyes in class? And take a breath? Ok, crazy lady. Whatever. What a waste of time. Oh wait—does this count toward my grade?

It’s possible I noticed the pre-medical mockery more because I expected this group of students to be most amenable to this particular exercise. After all, they’ve studied physiology. They know that conscious breathwork can lower the heart rate, decrease blood pressure, calm the nervous system, and relax the muscles. These future physicians might someday need to help their patients breathe through labor and delivery, calm down during a panic attack, or use the breath to relax and avoid muscle tension during a medical procedure. Why should they be the most disparaging of my suggestion to take five seconds out of class for one deep breath?

IMG_1720I was frustrated that the pre-meds were the quickest to reject an activity before even trying it. Not all pre-meds, and not only them; they just represent an educational culture that continues to favor mind over body and consequently: theory over practice. Not all my pedagogical experiments are equally productive, but they do ask students to think about how we learn as much as what we learn, and to integrate what we see as core curriculum with some supposedly extracurricular behaviors.

There are many other exercises I use, but the most simple might be the most constructive: just asking students to stand up, say what they believe about the topic at hand, and then field questions from their peers. The live voice—for however students will choose to use it—is borne from the heat that comes from the skin, the energy from our eyes or intentions, the ways our bodies and minds register reactions from the audience. It’s an education that can’t be computerized.

IV. Practice Being Present: For the Pain and the Pleasure

College administrators have recently proposed that we transfer our courses to an online format, and some of my colleagues believe that online conversations are as productive—if not more so—than classroom discussions. Teachers who utilize chat rooms or other online forums often say these tools help them prevent one garrulous student from taking over the class. They also appreciate the convenience of logging on from home in their pajamas at any hour, and some say it’s easier to get more people—including the shy folks—to participate. I’ll concede the pajama factor, but my goal as a teacher is not to make things easy for my students. I support them by challenging them. It is indeed scary for some people to speak up in class discussion, but the more they do it, the more opportunity they have to confront their fear, work through it, and leave the classroom with a sense of their own internal power. If we make it easy on people and remove the challenge, we also take away their opportunity for growth. Students who never confront their discomfort will never get past it.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to practice what I preach. I’m accustomed to working with groups of 25 or less, and I’m most comfortable one-on-one helping a student in office hours. So when someone handed me a microphone in front of almost 500 strangers, my hands started to shake, my mouth went dry, and my mind went blank. I was prepared to deliver a welcome speech for some of our entering freshmen class, but I wasn’t prepared for the fear. The situation demanded an immediate integration of body and mind so that I could be of service to this group of people and stop worrying about my performance and my ego. I had to catch my breath, find some stability in my feet on the floor, and figure out how to use my voice to reach out to the audience. The more I practice, the more I am able to find steadiness in my chest, my belly, my breath, and accordingly my words. I still get nervous, but more from excitement than fear. Now I find it thrilling. I’m grateful for the opportunity to welcome new students to our campus, and I am much less intimidated by that microphone. It’s just a tool to help me link my words and intentions.

Lately I’ve noticed that when I cling to my prepared speech rather than paying attention to the specific audience in the immediate environment, I get stuck, and then I start to sweat. My most successful speeches are the most spontaneous (and a little more nerve-wracking, since I can’t prepare for who will show up or what they might say when I ask for questions), so now, instead of hiding behind a podium on stage, I walk through the aisles and engage with the audience. I look at their faces. Sometimes I still sweat, but I’ve made a practice of being present, and it helps.

IMG_1793The classroom is a place to practice being present, whether than means for moments of discomfort or moments of delight. The most successful students in my writing classes embrace this inclusive view of consciousness, which allows for alternating states of certainty and uncertainty, meaning and meaninglessness. They do not expect an easy, happy trajectory, and they do not try to avoid the uncomfortable, frustrating, or confusing parts of the writing process; rather, they understand that creative work benefits from moments of chaos and moments of clarity, and they remain willing to revisit both.

The students who struggle the most are the ones who avoid this active process and instead cling to the formula they learned in high school. When I challenge them to delete empty phrases about mankind since the beginning of time, they insist I give them a new, always-reliable college-level formula. It doesn’t exist, I tell them. You need to consider the scope and purpose of the assignment, the rhetorical situation, the audience, your goals and ideas…. In other words, they can’t avoid the demands of the moment and find an easier path elsewhere.

V. The Benefits of the Embodied Classroom

If you walk with me from my office to the parking lot, approximately two dozen texting zombies will bump into one of us. I’ve seen them walk into walls, trip up and down steps, and walk into oncoming traffic. The occasional collision of two texters is funny, but the widespread practice of unconsciousness is not.

It’s easy to blame technology for trance-like behavior, but texting and television are not the source of the problem. I’ve seen just as many zombie-like yogis or athletes as gamers and reality-show fanatics. The problem is our collective addiction to avoiding the immediate moment in our immediate environment, and technology just gives us an easy means of escape. As our world becomes more technological, we need a renewed commitment to small, interactive classes where we can practice being more present and accountable. Students will use technology in almost every other context and in most of their other classes, and while there are many new and exciting technological tools available to students and educators, I want my classroom to be one place we shut off all our devices and simply pay attention to each other.

student_IMG_1459We learn that our words and behaviors have consequences by looking into the eyes and faces of our teachers, parents, peers…even strangers. We “read” the messages there and respond appropriately. It’s a moral education, effective because it is equally cognitive and embodied. A sick feeling the stomach, for example, tells us when we’ve crossed a line. In this most fundamental form of experiential education, we absorb humanity from each other and the influence not only helps us distinguish between behaviors we should imitate or reject, it also helps us choose the right words. My students write much better essays when they select a specific audience for their work, and the more they engage with each other, the less I detect faulty logic, confusing syntax, and empty generalizations. When a student offers his or her peers a formulaic exaggeration about mankind since the beginning of time—or that many people in society have various opinions about certain subjects—they usually feel the audience disappear. I want them to feel this discomfort. It’s a more effective lesson than my nagging.

Online chat rooms are useful for connecting us in many ways, but never for this kind of learning. Emoticons are no replacement for tone, and not even video chat is a close enough approximation. Fully human faces are not filtered, streamed, pixelated, and time-delayed. Even if the future brings us better picture quality, no computer can reproduce in-person pitch, volume, posture, accents, the nuanced messages of our facial muscles, signals that indicate sincerity or deception, attitude and motivation, the heat and energy that come from a living being.

I am not suggesting we simply learn to trust our gut instincts. Some people’s instincts lead them to heroin or violence. When we speak about a natural, instinctive body as if it can be divorced from an interfering mind, we engage in the same dualism as when we try to educate the mind while ignoring the body. I am also not suggesting that a gym membership or yoga practice is the solution to all our problems, although the embodied brain does benefit from exercise. And finally, I am not suggesting that a conscious integration of body and mind requires the kind of kinesthetic intelligence defined by Professor Howard Gardner. He speaks of grace, coordination, rhythm, strength…all wonderful but unnecessary. In fact, some of my best teaching moments have been my most awkward. I once passed out in the middle of class after donating blood earlier in the day. Apparently I should have accepted the Red Cross’ offer of juice and cookies! I could feel the peripheral darkness crowding my vision, and I told my students I needed some fresh air. I stepped out into the hallway and went down.

IMG_1489That moment changed the entire remainder of the quarter for our class. The students saw me as human, vulnerable—normal—and so they became much more likely to ask for help. We all relaxed after that day. Embodied awareness usually contributes to a sense of community in the classroom because it reminds us we are the same on the inside, and that we are cyclical, seasonal creatures. We get sick or injured and recover or change. We grow older and we die. Our educational model, however, is based on a linear model of progress: we are expected to evolve—uninterrupted—toward enlightenment, virtue, perfection. Pain and struggle are seen as subsidiary forms of consciousness rather than part of the process, which makes it very difficult to ask for help or admit you don’t know the answer to a question. I’m hoping my students will practice asking. Practice responding. Practice being present for every part of the process.

VI. Seven Bright Stars

The best way for me to make a compelling case for the value of face-to-face learning is to introduce you to seven special students. All my students are special to me, but I selected these particular people because their contributions were so often recognized by their peers. In office hours, I heard again and again: Sarah’s presentation was amazing! I wish I could write like Naren…Soma’s story is so inspiring…. I, too, was impressed—and grateful. These seven students (Sarah, Naren, Soma, Kelsey, Stephen, Edwin, and Xavier) seemed to see the classroom as I do: a place for growth, discovery, experimentation, struggle, connection, transformation. Their contributions provide the best evidence for the benefits of the embodied classroom and remind me that while online courses might be useful for some groups, they are not the right choice for young adults seeking strength, confidence, and support.

We usually think of diversity in terms of race or religion. I think of diversity in terms of presence and posture, voice and attitude and influence. The following seven students represent a diverse range of these attributes, and I’ve selected one quality to help me characterize their contributions, made more meaningful because witnessed—in person—by the rest of us.

Sarah’s Courage

sarah

Sarah grew up in Taiwan, and confesses that because English is her second language, she always has the feeling she might not say the right thing. I have a confession of my own: I hardly noticed Sarah at the beginning of the quarter. She was shy, quiet, and polite, and after class, when students approached me for extra feedback on their work, Sarah would always take a step back so as not to appear rude. She would defer to everyone else and even give up her place in line. When I noticed she was always last and often received the least of my attention, I apologized to her, but also challenged her to be more assertive—with me and in class discussions. At first, she was uncomfortable. In my high school, she said, cutting into conversation is selfish and disrespectful.

As much as I want to respect our cultural differences, I also want Sarah to succeed here in the States, and I wanted her to know that I see her comments as contributions, not interruptions. I knew she was hoping for a higher grade, so I figured she might try to participate more in class, but I had no idea she would surpass all my expectations. Her progress culminated in a final presentation before her peers, the delivery of an OpEd on the importance of being assertive. She was the only one who did not stand behind the podium, and one of the few who didn’t use notes. She planted her feet firmly in front of us, and transformed from a shy girl into an animated, persuasive speaker. It was clear she had practiced and prepared. I asked her how she felt about her speech, and was even more impressed by her answer: I like to feel vulnerable in front of people, she said, because then you are in the crowd rather than hiding from them. It’s good to watch other people’s presentations, because then I can see their legs shaking. I can hear their voices stuttering, and that assures me I’m not the only nervous one. Then I don’t feel alone, but I know I am connected. We have to do it in person, because otherwise, you wouldn’t feel the pressure of looking people in the eye. Thank you, Sarah, for responding to that pressure with such incredible courage.

Naren’s Boldness

naren

My first impression of Naren was mixed. I could tell he was bright and opinionated, but because he was constantly whispering to the guy sitting next to him (his roommate, who is also bright and opinionated), he was a constant distraction. When I had to keep asking him to join the group and stop whispering, I became irritated. Then he came to my office for feedback on his work, but before I could get a word out, he launched into a lengthy defense of his paper. I interrupted him and asked if he wanted to hear my suggestions. He nodded. I don’t think so, I said, because so far, I get the impression that you are only here to convince me your essay needs no work. He held my gaze and said, well, I wouldn’t turn in work I wasn’t prepared to defend. It was a stand-off and we both knew it. You met your match, I told him, and winked. I’m going to challenge you to revise and improve everything you write. He smiled and laughed, and from then on, we communicated productively. He stopped whispering in class and became a strong participant in discussion. When I later asked him what he thought of that first conversation, he said, it had to happen face-to-face, because that’s how I could tell you were sincere and not just trying to get me to follow orders. He agreed with me that we could not have had such a successful battle in an email or online exchange.

Naren grew up in California, so when he studied in India for six years, he had a hard time adjusting. I used to get in trouble a lot, he said, because I was disruptive and mischievous, and always challenging my teachers…we were supposed to bow our heads and keep our voices low, and I didn’t want to do that. On some level, he has always understood that truly critical thinking requires rebelliousness. Now his fearlessness serves him well. We need people in the classroom who are willing to wrestle with ideas, with the status quo, and even with the teacher. Shy and bold people need each other. Bold people often become better listeners when asked to work one-on-one with someone. Shy people often find a more assertive side of themselves when paired with a peer who will demand more of them. Naren demanded more from all of us, and I’m grateful for his intellectual appetite, because it is not fueled purely by ambition. Naren has human progress and not only his own contributions in mind.

Soma’s Spirit

somaWhen Soma was two days old, her parents put her in a dress, wrapped her in a blanket, tucked in a bottle of milk and some money, and left her on the side of a road near a temple courtyard in a rural part of Northern India. Though she initially struggled to make sense of her origins, Soma now has nothing but gratitude for her parents, because their choice brought her to a new home with 72 siblings. She grew up with all her brothers and sisters in an orphanage founded by an Indian monk who had taken a vow of silence. Because Soma communicated with her new father without using words, she learned to pay attention to everything else. She brought this heightened level of attention to our classroom, and I noticed it immediately.

I asked Soma if she naturally feels like a member of the Bruin family here at UCLA because she’s accustomed to thinking of herself as part of a large group. Not quite, she said, that’s too limited for how I think of it. Because I have no nuclear family, I feel part of the human family. Society conditions us not to be open to strangers, but I grew up in a place where we open our arms when someone walks in the door. In class, when her peers would speak, Soma felt compelled to show up for them, to listen intently, to receive what they had to offer. Even her silence was active, never passive or distracted. It’s like getting a front seat to someone else’s life, she said. When you watch someone take a step forward, it’s important to support it. There’s only so much you can hide in person. The stress of facing the class compels us to contribute.

Soma’s personal history also compels her to serve; she is a Global Studies major and wants to learn nine languages so she can communicate across boundaries and give back to many communities. What does giving back mean to you? I asked her. Small and big things. I want to save someone’s life like mine was saved. I want to run a nonprofit that somehow addresses poverty and strife. But I also just want to help my roommate when she’s upset or help an old person across the street. Soma says she has a strong urge to give back because of the gifts she’s been given. I’ve never met someone so young who already has such a strong sense of shared humanity, and even more so: a healthy understanding of service. Soma does not pity people who struggle; her compassion is healthy, heart-centered, and generous.

Kelsey’s Humor

kelsey

If you are laughing, says Kelsey, then you are not stressed out. It’s a relief…it’s hard to describe…it’s like a break. She understands that laughter and lightness and play are significant contributions. In class, Kelsey seemed to have pure trust in the moment. Her comments were spontaneous, fresh, and funny, and she made me laugh out loud. Her humor is smart, not merely silly, and her candor put the rest of the class at ease, perhaps because as she suggested, it’s like a break. When we are having fun, we are less likely to force a performance, so the academic environment becomes less intimidating. I’m pretty sure I became less intimidating to some students after they saw me respond to Kelsey’s jokes by cracking up. When I asked her how she might help students who become anxious in the classroom, she said, they need to make it their home. Kelsey was at home in the room, perhaps because she understands how to connect with people in such a relaxed, informal way. The classroom is also a social setting, she said.

When I invited students to experiment with tone on a particular assignment, Kelsey was the only one to use humor, and she did it brilliantly. It’s much harder to write humor than just about any other genre, but Kelsey made it seem effortless. Her voice was so alive on the page. Her paper was a “break” for me; it stood out from the rest of the stack and was sharp, original, and memorable.

Kelsey is spontaneous, but not impulsive. She’s not a class clown. Those people tend to want attention and avoid work. Kelsey understood how to incorporate humor and fun into her working process. She knew when her comments would be welcome contributions and when they might be distractions, and she maintained a sense of respect for the rest of us in the room. Her sense of humor is healthy, imaginative, innovative, witty, and creative—and an important reminder that we are free to transform the classroom into a more spirited space.

Stephen’s Generosity

stephen

By the time most students get to college, they’ve grown accustomed to seeing the classroom as a space where the teacher sets the rules, so they walk in on the first day expecting to feel restricted. Stephen is one of the few people I’ve seen walk into the classroom with an assumption of freedom. He inhabited the space differently than his peers; he sat on the tables, moved around the room, and never fixed his body in one habitual place. Accordingly, he never limited his mind to one habitual pattern. He’d ask spontaneous questions and was equally friendly and engaging with everyone. No matter who was left without a partner when we’d pair off, Stephen would invite that person to join his group. He was aware of the entire environment and not only concerned with himself. When our class went to the library, he noticed that one of the girls didn’t have access to a computer screen, so he called her over and said, Here, you can have this one; I can use my laptop. A simple gesture, but powerful, particularly because he always initiated such offers. He understands that we all create the classroom dynamic, and he never waited for me to tell him how to do it.

Stephen volunteered for several years with mentally disabled kids between the ages of 9-13, and says it helped him understand a wider range of social abilities and disabilities. You learn to respond to the needs of the person in front of you, he said. In a later discussion, I found out he had broken his collarbone in an accident, and while this injury could have turned into a sad story about how he couldn’t wrestle or play football anymore, Stephen turned his narrative into something constructive. Everything in life leads you somewhere, he said, I couldn’t play, but I did become an Assistant Coach, so I could use my skills to support other people.

I think most students underestimate their potential impact. Stephen understood right from the start that one generous person can elevate and expand any group experience. He was ready to leave high school behind and jump right into the college classroom, and he invited his peers to join his journey. He even invites people to his dorm room on a regular basis to share a cup of tea, thereby making strangers into friends.

Edwin’s Enthusiasm

EdwinI’ve been teaching for over twenty years and have never met anyone with more enthusiasm for education than Edwin. He shows up ready to work, ready to learn, and ready to connect. His favorite word is “exciting” and he’ll find a way to work it into just about any conversation. I’d tease Edwin because I wasn’t convinced that all our assigned reading was equally exciting, but I was thrilled that his attitude was so consistently positive. He soaks up information, integrates it, wrestles with it, shares it, and comes back for more. He is never bored, because he never takes his education for granted. I had to know why.

Edwin’s family immigrated to the US as religious refugees from Iran. His parents experienced both persecution and prejudice, and Edwin never forgets what they endured so that he could have a better life. When he went back to visit his other relatives, the police were rounding up women on the streets and his mother was among them. She was later released, but Edwin says he will not forget the fear. Why would I ever complain about my life now? Here, we stress about test scores and paper deadlines. There, I would have to worry about what to wear in public, whether my religion will get me in trouble, pollution, lack of opportunity. I appreciate everything about my parents. They sacrificed so much so that I could succeed.

Edwin is one of those wonderful people who smiles easily and wants to improve life for others, not only for himself. What would you say, I asked him, to a student who is bored by school and is not thinking beyond his or her own desires?

He laughed: you mean what would I say to myself? His first impulse was not to judge or set himself apart. In a sense, the world does revolve around each of us. Every person is a whole universe. We all think of our own desires…I guess the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know, and that creates endless possibility, which brings me back to the right attitude. I do think our environment has a great impact on what we are able to achieve. For example, I’m getting ready to take my Dental Admissions Test, and I’ve been doing practice exams alone at home. But when I am in the room with others taking the test, my brain gets more blood because I know it’s the real thing, and that puts me in the zone…we need the boost of other people to challenge us.

Edwin is currently reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (over the summer, I might add…and not as an assignment). Because he is so inspired by the book, I asked him to select one quote that meant the most to him personally, and he sent me this:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” –Viktor Frankl

Xavier’s Heart

xavier

There’s no other way to say it: this guy has heart. He is a true team player—as an Offensive Guard for our football team, and also as a participant in his English Composition course. It’s impossible not to notice his physical presence (he’s at least a foot taller than me), but that’s not what caught my attention on the first day of class. Right from the start, Xavier was the first (and the loudest) to applaud his peers’ contributions. He even sees it as his responsibility to encourage other people. If I’m going to be great, I’ve got to have people around me who feel the same way, he says.

Xavier grew up in Utah in a Mormon, Republican home. I’m a native Angelino with a Jewish, Democratic background. Those differences are important in a diverse educational environment, and yet they became almost irrelevant because Xavier and I saw eye-to-eye when it came to human potential and hard work. He tells me that every year, his family gets together to write down—and even laminate—a list of personal goals. They each post their own list where they’ll see it every day to help them focus on the path and not only the prize at the end. Xavier helped his classmates do the same. He applauded their efforts throughout the quarter without any knowledge of their grades or scores. I don’t care how many “likes” we get on facebook; there’s no substitute for what happens in the heart when we feel someone’s immediate support.

When it was Xavier’s turn to present his research to the class at the end of the quarter, he showed up in a suit and tie to tell us what he had learned about entrepreneurship. It was not a superficial gesture. He was stepping into a new sense of self, and accordingly, we all saw him that way: as a young professional on his way…not only wishing and dreaming but actually working toward his future.

VII. Come Alive in Class

bodymind_guy300We need to feel the discomfort of debating someone face-to-face as much as we need the warm feeling of witness that an intimate writing workshop can offer. I’m hoping my students will remember that their presence is what makes this possible. Every person in the classroom contributes to what happens in that room—and has the power to change it, to improve it. I’m hoping the students featured here will remind the rest of us to bring more of ourselves—the best of ourselves—into the room. I’m also hoping this article might lead to some good conversations between teachers and students. My goal was to integrate philosophical, pedagogical, and personal material rather than separate them as academics often do. If what I’m saying resonates with you, I invite you to post comments or contact me. Maybe you can suggest more ways to integrate body and mind in the learning process. Maybe you’d like to share a story about a student or teacher who inspired you to come alive in class.

The body is seen as the province of athletes, and perhaps musicians or artists—not thinkers. But the embodied classroom might help animate and inspire students in all fields. There are many reasons why my pulse quickens every time I walk into a classroom. My body and mind are working together and sending me signals: something special might happen here.

 

 

 

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