Education Professor Brings Mindfulness into the Classroom

infinity symbolOne of Kathryn Byrnes’ spring courses, Mindfulness in Education, tends to provoke curiosity in those who come across it in the Bowdoin catalog or who hear about it from students in the class.

“Students talk about it and others wonder, ‘What are you really doing’? ‘What’s going on?’” Visiting Assistant Professor of Education Byrnes said, smiling. To satisfy those questioning minds, Byrnes encourages her students to invite a friend, teammate, professor or coach to sit in one class midway through the semester.

On one such day recently, Byrnes opened the class’s lab component — when students practice mindfulness twice a week before they launch into the 90-minute classroom analysis and discussion section — with a ringing tap to a metal bowl. She asked the group to sit in silence for a few minutes, then led them on a short guided meditation to help them concentrate on their breathing. “When we focus on our breath, we realize how busy our mind is all the time,” she said.

After this exercise, Byrnes asked the class to follow their thoughts flitting through their minds. “Thoughts come and go just like the breath does,” she said. She then pushed forward two cartons of eggs and instructed students to balance an egg on the shiny floor of the Buck Center’s yoga room, all the while staying aware of their responses as they attempted this delicate and frustrating task.

The 30-minute lab of Byrnes’ biweekly class teaches students how to meditate, do yoga and practice mindfulness, by experiencing first-hand multiple techniques for embodying and employing mindfulness. In the syllabus, Byrnes writes, “The class sessions will involve third-person philosophical and scientific seminar-style dialogue on course readings, videos or audios complemented by critical first-person experiences with mindfulness practices such as yoga, meditation, art and qigong. By engaging directly with the references and techniques without prior commitment to their authenticity or efficacy, students will be able to appraise the value for their own lives and learning.”

Byrnes wrote her PhD thesis at the University of Colorado at Boulder on contemplative teaching. She said that more educators are becoming aware of the benefits of bringing mindfulness into schools, and that more science is backing them up. “A third of the articles I’m using in the class are from 2012,” she said. “Mindfulness research [in neuroscience, psychology and education] is booming right now.” Students and teachers trained in mindfulness techniques have been shown to improve their skills in attention, self-awareness, self-regulation and caring for others, according to scholars such as Patricia Jennings, Linda Lantieri and Robert Roeser.

And the movement is growing at Bowdoin. Byrnes said that the first time she taught the course in 2011, 13 students enrolled. The next year, 17 students took her class, and this year she has 25 students. Many of Byrnes’ students are currently working in elementary-, middle- and high-school classrooms, or they aspire to teach children after they graduate.

Students in Mindfulness in Education not only practice in class labs, but also develop a 21-day mindfulness practice and a weekly mindfulness practice. The weekly practice occurs in one of Bowdoin’s weekly yoga, tai chi or meditation classes, and the solo practice is designed by them and ranges from drawing to meditation, yoga and mindful eating.

The students facilitate a 90-minute class session in small groups about one of several mindfulness-education models, such as those used in Waldorf, Montessori or Friends schools. This project requires students to make site visits to local schools and interview teachers and students. In a final project students share what they have learned and grappled with during the semester with a larger audience. This year they will be implementing a “Mindfulness Matters” poster campaign, designing a Tumblr site, creating a “peace corner” and a mural for campus.

Byrnes said that some Bowdoin students are skeptical at first, asking her for scientific research on the beneficial effects, or even possible downsides, of mindfulness. They also wonder whether mindfulness, as a spiritual or religious tradition, really belongs in schools. In the end, many of them are won over as much by their own experiences with the practices as with the research presented in readings, videos and podcasts, Byrnes said.

“It gives students a new perspective on the field of education,” she said, ”and it really impacts their life, outside of the classroom. It is a nice side benefit of studying mindfulness and doing these practices.”

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