You may have heard about colleagues using contemplative techniques in their teaching, but wondered what exactly happens. Lena Fletcher, Chief Undergraduate Advisor and Senior Lecturer in Environmental Conservation, and co-leader of the CTL’s Contemplative Pedagogy Group, explains how she uses short meditations in her large classes to deepen engagement with challenging course concepts.
What motivates you to use contemplative approaches in your teaching?
Contemplative practices have the potential to deepen student’s emotional and intellectual engagement with difficult subjects, like environmental racism and injustice. I have seen students transformed by being offered the opportunity to sit quietly and be still, while I guide them in meditation at the start of each class. I invite the students to sit quietly, with their eyes closed, as they feel comfortable, and I turn the lights off. I invite them to pay attention to their senses. For 2-3 minutes I guide my students to bring their attention to the present moment, their breath, body, and mind. Sometimes we explore compassion or loving kindness meditations, to develop more empathy and care for other beings in the world. When students are challenged to consider existential threats like climate change with their heart, as well as their mind, it changes their relationship to the subject. By allowing students to explore and engage with their emotional experiences around environmental degradation, ecological loss, and injustice they begin to bring their whole selves to their learning. It is not hyperbole to say that contemplative teaching practices can fundamentally change a student’s way of engaging with their world.
What kind of classes do you teach, and how do you teach them?
I teach two 100-level general education classes, Environment and Society (81 students) and Sustainable Living: Solutions for the 21st Century (50-100 students). I teach two sections of each, in the fall and spring. These classes incorporate contemplative pedagogy, teamwork, real world and project-based learning, with a student-centered approach. Students work in teams on projects focused on environmental injustice, conservation, and sustainable solutions.
What has been the impact of this strategy on student learning?
Toward the end of each semester, I conduct a survey of my students’ perspectives on our class. I ask about their experiences with the meditation each class, if it was valuable and why. Overall, students are notably grateful for the meditation. Consistently over 90% find the meditation in class valuable. I have been told informally by past students that they found their passion for helping the world in my class and that it changed the direction of their lives. I was just given a thank you letter in which a current student wrote, “Thank you for being human. Thank you for leading us in meditation at the beginning of class. It gave me the reset I needed, even when I did not want to put away electronics and take a breath. I needed it and I am always moved when you lead meditation… In this class I feel supported, cared for, and seen.”
What considerations or tips do you have for other faculty interested in contemplative teaching?
If you are interested in contemplative teaching, it is great to also be exploring contemplative practices personally. I recommend that anyone interested in looking into these teaching practices come to the Contemplative Pedagogy Working Group meetings! I encourage folks to know that there is a world of other faculty working with contemplative practices to deepen their teaching, and most of us love to talk about it. You can always reach out to the Center for Teaching and Learning for guidance and support!