Noticing - an exercise

In some previous Posts I have advanced the idea that full engagement is, if not necessary, then at least strongly supportive of transformational learning.  I have also suggested that the body has an important role to play in advancing such learning.  

In the most recent Posts I have discussed something of the complex and key role that the body plays in the life of we humans.  (By focusing on becoming conscious of the role of what we think of as bodily functions I am not pointing to ‘getting in shape’ although this is part of it.  Of more importance is tuning into the complex role of the body in holding feelings and in messaging the brain.)  

The fact is that most of us only notice our bodies only when something goes wrong - a sore back, a twisted ankle or a tooth ache.  Thus, we are aware of our bodies at only one level. So, the question is “How do we go about becoming more aware of our bodies at a more subtle level and how can we use that awareness in the interests of living fuller, healthier lives?”.

This is the second of a series of Posts on exercises designed, in the first instance, to increase our awareness of what the body has to tell us.  As such it focuses on developing our ability to ‘notice’ our bodies at an increasing more profound level.  Sounds easy? - It is not!

Noticing is nothing more than cultivating basic awareness.  We are not trying to do anything about what we notice / become aware of.  We just want to learn to notice more of what is potentially available to us.  And therein lies the problem.  Most of us do not know how to pay deep attention to seemingly simple things.  So we wind up missing everything.

There are many variations of this exercise but I am giving the one that I find works best for me.  A couple of things to start.  First, get comfortable.  This may entail using the washroom, having a shower, doing some stretching, doing a breathing exercise, having something light to eat or putting on more comfortable clothes.  The test of this part of readiness is being able to say that there is nothing physically in the way of my focusing for fifteen minutes or so.

Second, relax the mind.  Resolve to put aside your ‘to do’ list until the end of the exercise, or, if that is not possible, make that phone call you need to make and then do the exercise.  One way that helps some people is to write down a list of all they have to do after the exercise, fold the piece of paper and tell it that you will get to it as soon as you are finished the exercise. 

To begin the exercise itself,  find a position that will be comfortable for you - it could be sitting in a chair, lying on the floor or lying on a bed.  Beds can be the hardest as you may fall asleep.  If you do its not a bad way to fall asleep.

Take a few full breaths and with each one sink a little further into the chair, floor or bed that is supporting you.  Then here comes the hard part.  Just become aware of your body as a whole and then wait to see what comes up.  

Nothing may come up for a while and that it fine.  It means that your body does not quite know what to tell you because you have not asked it that question before.  If this happens just wait.  It may take a few tries but you will get there.  How long you do this depends on you but ten to fifteen minutes is a good starting place.

Remember that you are just noticing.  ’I can feel a pain in the back of my neck.’  Good, just notice it and move back to just noticing your body.  Do not focus on the pain.  Its easy to get carried away wondering why you have that pain or recalling why it is there and then thinking about that.  

What you are doing is just making a list, taking stock of what is going on - nothing more. You will notice that each time you do it some things may stay the same, other things you may revisit at a deeper level while still others will be new.

Over time you can expect to get a number of things from this exercise.  First, an increased sense of who you are from the perspective of your body.  In doing so you may come to feel more at home with your body.  Second, you will notice a shift of awareness from your mind to your body / mind.  You may well see yourself as more than you thought you were. Finally, you are setting the stage for working with what you are noticing to help resolve issues in your life.   



Becoming present

For some students the pressures of university life, coupled with challenges of both family and work life can produce, over time, a bodily reaction of disengagement. In speaking with such students I get the sense that they are just not fully present - or perhaps better said, they are not fully open to the potential of the moment.  It is important, as a teacher, to be able to help the student through this as it adversely affects their ability to be the best student that they can.  

The difficulty is that you can’t just say ‘wake up’, ‘focus’, ‘concentrate’ or other analogous expressions.  Saying them does not seem to help.  In fact, saying them may make the situation worse as the student already knows there is a problem and hearing you say these things just makes them feel more inadequate.  What they need is not help on ‘what to do’ but on ‘how to do it’.  Here is one exercise I recently learned  that may help.

The first step is to understand that the current state of ‘presence’ of the student is not so much due to what is going on in the present for them as it is to what has accumulated from the past but not been processed out of the person’s system.  If what is going on for them right now has only just started happening they would probably be all right.   The problem is one of accumulation of stressors over time.

Where does this accumulation take place.  The most complete answer seems to be everywhere.  A more useful answer is that it accumulates in areas of the body that are responsible for being fully present in the moment.  As I understand it these largely reside from the neck up.  Here is an exercise that can help to reinvigorate these areas.

Begin by sitting on a comfortable chair in a quiet space where you will not be disturbed for five or ten minutes.  Take a minute to get settled with your feet on the floor and your arms resting on your side.  Become aware of your body by first paying attention to your feet and then moving gradually up your body until you finish by focusing on your head. The purpose of doing this is not to change anything - although your posture may shift while doing this.  It is simply a brief exercise in awareness building.

Keeping your eyes open, move your head slowly from side to side without straining the muscles. Just go until you meet a comfortable degree of resistance.  (The number of repetitions for all the movements in this exercise are for you to decide.  I generally do three except for the second last one.).  Now move your head up and down with the same caveats.  Then, keeping you head straight, let your jaw fall slowly until you feel it well stretched.  Your mouth will open and the cavity will look like the outline of an egg.

Now, look straight ahead into the far distance and then to the tip of your nose. Following this, listen for far off sounds and then for sounds very near you.  Then scrunch up the muscles in your face and then let them go.  Now draw your attention to your throat and swallow deliberately only once and then cough a couple of times focusing on the throat area. Finally, exercise your jaw and related muscles by making a number of different sounds out loud.  I use me me, ma ma, mo mo, repeated several times.

When you have done the exercise just sit still for a few minutes and notice your sense of presence in your environment.  This is an important part of the exercise and don’t short change yourself by rushing away too quickly.  Why?  Because the first part of the exercise is about releasing but the second part is about building awareness and awareness is curative.

When I do this myself and when I have taken students through this a typical comment is that things seem brighter, more alive.  Try it two or three times a day and see if it works for you.  Let me know what you experienced if you wish.

What I want to do in some of the following Posts is to develop a series of exercises that will help students to bring themselves more fully and in a positive way into what they are doing at university.

The art of powerful routines

Teachers who are concerned with improving the performance of their students know that a significant driver of improved performance is developing and sticking to a routine.  The exact routine can vary but key elements are: attending class, focusing while in class, reviewing after class, understanding what is wanted in assignments and handing assignments in on time.  None of this says anything about academic ability.  Why? Because doing these things is about getting most students at least up to an acceptable level of performance.  Other things can happen after that.

On the surface this sounds easy.  Pulling yourself together, getting to bed on time, taking good notes, not getting drunk too often, starting  your assignments is advice that is always dished out.  The trouble is that we know it does not work most of the time and for most students.  So the question we need to ask ourselves is “Why does telling students to get a better routine not work?”.

I think that the answer lies in the underlying motivation in our memory systems.  Deciding to stop drinking after a particularly bad morning after or resolving to study more after a particularly bad report card typically lasts only a short time.  The resolve weakens day by day.  Why is this?  One answer, given by people to study various parts of our memory, like Peter Levine, say that the problem lies in the fact that they rely on that part of our memory that focuses on self control - or declarative/ volitional memory.  Thus, when we commit to change, the part of ‘we’ that commits is the declarative/ volitional memory.

The trouble is that this part of our memory is generally not in it for the long haul.  We could call it the New Years Resolution part of our memory.  Its a strong starter but a poor finisher.  What is needed is a part of our memory that goes deeper into who the best us really wants to be.

This other part of our memory has a name - the emotional-experiential memory.  It resides in the oldest parts of our brains - where images have long shelf lives.  And these are based not on logic but experiences and their associated feelings.  The idea is that because a powerful and enduring emotion is attached to the desired outcome the chance of reaching it are considerably enhanced.

Think of a deep positive memory you have that motivates you.  For me it of my Uncle Gene who started with nothing and build a large commercial art company that did work for major corporations.  This is an image that has been powerful for me for most of my life.

Accessing the emotional-experiential memory means accessing powerful images that provide long-term motivation and encourage perseverance  and following powerful routines.  The trick is to find these in our lives or, if we do not have them, to bring them into our lives.  Heroes, movie stars, activists, stories about people who made it through very difficult circumstances can all be the basis for establishing deep motivation in our lives. 

Asking ourselves the question “Who do we most admire?” or “How could I find out people who I could admire?” is a good start.  Finding out about these people, putting pictures of them on you walls and doing anything else to connect yourself to them helps to establish emotional-experential memory.  

Anchoring our ambitions in the support of these memories seems to have a much bigger impact on our long term performance than those associated with short term resolutions no matter how well intentioned.

A step towards autonomy in learning

In an earlier Post I wrote about the six dimensions of engagement.  Autonomy in learning was one of them.  The overall idea is straightforward but there may be insights in exploring specific actions that can be taken to bring this concept to life.

When a teacher asks a student to do something it sets up a certain dynamic - a power relationship.  This way of teaching has its place but is it the only way of teaching that has a place?  In the type of relationship that this interaction sets up the student is somehow less than the teacher and dependent on him or her.

On the other hand, when the student comes up with an idea for a project or an essay and with ideas about how to go about doing it, a different dynamic is created.  It is more equal, not necessarily in terms of knowledge but rather in terms on the way in which dialogue takes place.  I think that that type of interaction also has a legitimate place in learning and can lead to a more powerful relationship and a better learning experience.

And it can do something much more.  The fact that the student feels able to tell the teacher what he or she needs does something important for the student.  I would describe it as liberating stuff that has gotten stuck within the student.  The new relationship then takes on an aspect of removing blockages the student experiences - either knowingly or unknowingly.  The student may experience a somewhat different perspective on the world and may be more willing to look more confidently out into the world and at the same time into themselves.

Body / Mind - monologue or dialogue

In this Post I want to explore an aspect of the work of Peter Levine that he writes about in ‘In An Unspoken Voice’.  Its not meant to say anything particularly new.  Rather, it’s to help me get my head around both what he is saying and why that is important to me and to how we educate our students.

From the work of Candice Pert and others I knew that the body is a more important player that I once thought.  My earlier view was that the mind was the centre and our directing force.  It turns out that I was a prisoner of Descartes’s ‘Cogito ergo sum’ - I think therefore I am.  

The old idea is captured in a humorous way in a Jules Feiffer cartoon where one character quipped that our bodies came about solely to transport our heads from place to place. Later, Sir Ken Robinson, in a memorable TED Talk on education, provided a twist to this when he said that the purpose of our bodies was to ‘transport our heads to meetings’.

Levine arrived at his insight as a result of studying the works of a number of Nobel Laureates who wrote in the fields of biology and physiology.  The ground of what he is saying is captured in the following quote.  

"Turning earlier theories on their heads, we are now aware that, rather than being the hierarchical, top-dog, commander in chief, our thoughts are a complex elaboration of what we do and what we feel."

Taking a minute to digest that, what is being said is that one role of the mind is to give voice to the things we do in the world and what we feel about what is happening to us and in us.  An interesting idea but what are the implications for how our body works with our mind?

This brings us to the Vagus Nerve.  It is the second largest nerve in the body and connects the brain and most of our internal organs.  What is important here is the nature of the connection.  90% of it is sensory.  What that means is that 10% of the nerve is concerned with relaying instructions from the brain to the organs - but the other 90% is concerned with sending information to the brain.  Thus, the Vagus Nerve is primarily a way of talking to the brain - and talking a lot to the brain considering the size of the nerve.  All this is meant to support the idea that the brain is a complex elaboration  of what we do and feel.

So, why is this important?  At its most basic it says that causation runs in significant part from the body to the brain.  Thus, what we do and feel with our bodies impacts our thought processes.  

It also seems to imply that if we want to make change and deal with personal issues we need to involve our bodies - how they feel and what they do.  But we also need to focus on developing a healthy dialogue between body and mind - not a monologue from the mind to the body. 

From a teaching perspective we need to involve ‘doing’ and ‘feeling’ and learn to foster a dialogue between the students’ minds and bodies.

The power of gratitude

I wonder how many of us ask ourselves the question ‘What do I have to be grateful for in my life right now?’?

It is a worthwhile exercise to sit quietly, ask this question and then wait for the answers to bubble up.  When I have done it, I have been surprised at some of the things that have come up, especially after the ones I would expect to surface have already appeared.  I have also found it surprising that, depending on the day, different things come up.  Right now there is a shaft of light on a wall in my office at home that has created a beautiful shade of pale yellow.  I am grateful for this.

By doing this exercise each day, over time I have found countless sources of gratitude and this has put a new perspective on my life.  But there is something else about this that I want to begin to explore in this Post.  It is the power of that gratitude.  

I first started noticing that by recalling things I am grateful for my outlook moved from a focus on self to a focus on other - on to the sources of my gratitude.  I then started to notice the energy around this feeling of gratitude.  It started out to be fairly weak but over time has become more vivid.  Right now it is approaching a state where it can positively impact my overall energy - both in amount and in quality.

In my last post I noted the view of a Buddhist monk that freshness emanates from its source and affects others.  Could it also be that these qualities of freshness and gratitude not only affect others but also transform our energy and its associated qualities?  If we think of ourselves through the lens of wholeness this may well be so.

Something Fresh

Of late I have been coming across or recalling a lot of stuff that related to the idea of ‘freshness’.  I would like to mention some of these and then try to understand how to begin to get to this place.    

One thought comes from a Japanese poet and wanderer Matsuo Bashō, among whose writing is ‘The Knapsack Notebook’.   Reflecting on the way people approach journal writing while travelling he says:

"How easy it is to observe that a morning began with rain only to become sunny in the afternoon; that a pine tree stood at a particular place, or to note the name of a river bend. This is what people write in their journals. Nothing is worth noting that is not seen with fresh eyes."

Marcel Proust, like Basho, had his own take on viewing landscapes. He said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in seeing them through fresh eyes”.

One of my favourite authors is P.G. Wodehouse, a master of humorous prose.  Douglas Adams was a fan of his and you can see the influences of P.G. Wodehouse’s style in his works.  There is something incredibly fresh in the way he writes and the lenses though which he sees the world.  One of his books is titled ‘Something Fresh’ - the title of this post.

But freshness does not have to be humorous.  It can also take us on a journey that is captivating and bypasses the discursive mind. Music, at its best, does this. One song that epitomizes this for me is by Antonio Carlos Jobim and is titled ‘Aguas De Marco’.  The way it is sung can be captivating but so are the words.  Here is the English translation of the last few lines of the song.

"and the river bank talks of the waters of march, it’s the promise of life, it’s the joy in your heart”

When I lived in Mexico I often went out just after surprise and just before sunset to take pictures.  Why?  Because the light was long at those times and brought out the vivid colours.  At noon the colours were all bleached out.  It was the time for a siesta.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh was asked about helping other people. He said the first thing to do is to ‘be’.  Being comes before doing.  He said:

"So first you have to focus on the practice of being.  Being fresh …. The tree does not do any anything, but the tree is fresh and alive.  When you are like that tree, sending out waves of freshness, you help to calm down the suffering of the other person."

So what are these people talking about?  Basho is talking about the problem of not being fully present.  For Proust the journey is not about seeking something new outside of yourself.  It is about awakening a sense of freshness within yourself.

P.G. Wodehouse uses his ability to carry the reader along with him and then, totally unexpectedly, present him or her with something new or to express what is happening in a very different way.  The reader is left with no option but to burst into laughter.  His freshness lies in his ability to create situations that wake us instantly to the truly funny aspects of life.

Through his lines “and the river bank talks of the waters of march, it’s the promise of life, it’s the joy in your heart”, Antonio Carlos Jobim awakens us to the incredible freshness of nature at the end of winter. 

The long light at each end of the day is an invitation to see the freshness in all that is.

Thich Nhat Hanh has pointed to our freshness as the biggest gift that we can give others.  For him freshness is a state of being and a powerful one at that - It isn’t just being fresh - its exuding freshness.

In re-reading what I have written a question came to mind. If I were given a camera and was asked to take photographs of things that spoke to me of freshness, what photos would I take?  Which would you take?  My first thought is that it would take time to get into the right mind set. How could that be done? Perhaps just walking around with a camera. Perhaps putting on some ‘fresh’ music on my iPhone. Perhaps not walking at all but just going somewhere and sitting until things become fresh.  Perhaps all of the above.

I will try tomorrow.

Laughter Yoga

This is an odd Post.  Its origin lies in a realization I had a while ago that much of my adult life has been like a bell curve.  At one end is laughing and the other is crying.  I seldom do these things and thus live in the middle of the curve where things are comfortable but not much exciting happens.  This is an exploration of the laughter tail of the curve.

Last year a student asked me to teach a workshop on Laughter Yoga.  It was the result of one she had taken that made her realize the benefits of laughter to university students.  I am thinking about doing this next year.  In preparation for that I am setting out a summary of what I know about how it works and the benefits it can provide.  I am doing this for me but also for readers who might get from it a spark to redirect their attitude to what they are doing.

The research

One of the early modern discussions of the role of laughter comes from a 1976 article by Norman Cousins in the New England Journal of Medicine.  It subsequently made its way into a book titled the ‘Anatomy of an Illness’.  It told the story of how he laughed himself back to health from a serious illness. The whole story is also available on the Net. 

Along with other research this stimulated Dr. Madan Kataria a physician from Mumbai, India.  It began with his thought that laughter could be used to help his patients.  He started using humour with his patients and later went to a public park and recruited people to laugh with him, at first based on jokes and then later just laughing for no reason.  There are now thousands of laughter yoga clubs in over 65 countries.  This movement has grown because of the demonstrated benefits it provides to those who do it.

The benefits of laughing have been the subject of considerable research.  They fall into three areas – physical, mental and social.  Below I list what I take to be the main benefits ascribed to laughter yoga.

·    Relieving tension and stress, relaxing the muscles and generally providing a sense of physical and emotional release. It does this by reducing the level of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), dopamine and growth hormones

·    Strengthening the cardiovascular system (According to Dr. Michael Fry of Stanford University, laughing 100 times gives you the same exercise as riding a stationary bicycle for 15 minutes or using a rowing machine for 10 minutes.).  Thus, laughter is a great inner workout.

·    Boosting the immune system because it decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease. Laughing increases the number of antibody-producing cells and enhances the effectiveness of T cells.

·    Laughter makes you feel better because it triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Increasing them promotes an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.

·    Laughter protects the heart because it improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow.  This can help protect against a heart attack or other cardiovascular problems.

·    At the social level laughter strengthens relationships, promotes teamwork and helps to diffuse conflict.

Here are a few examples of this research.

Dr. William F. Fry of Stanford University found that laughter stimulates the production of the alertness hormones catecholamines. These hormones in turn cause the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins foster a sense of relaxation and well-being and dull the perception of pain.

Dr. Michael Miller has found that laughter dilates our blood vessels.  Then this happens blood flow increases and this strengthens and prevents disease in the cardiovascular system.

Here is a quote from the book ‘Laugh For No Reason’.

‘Dr. Lee Berk, PhD at Loma Linda University Medical Centre, and his team of researchers found that laughter reduces the level of stress hormones and results in improved immunity.  He documented that laughter increases the level of immunoglobulin IgA, a special immune protein that protect us from respiratory tract infections, and that laughter increases the number of NK Cells (Natural Killer cells), a type of white cell that plays an important role in protecting us from tumors.

So, what is the question?

If laughter is so good for us why don’t we laugh more.  I can’t find out where the research was done to back this up but it’s said that kids laugh about 300 times a day but the typical adult laughs only 10 to 12 times a day.  So, perhaps a better question would be why do we stop laughing as we get older – or, why have we forgotten how to laugh – and, has this always been so?

This phenomena is perhaps more recent than we think.  I understand that a study by the German Psychologist Dr. Michael Titze showed that people used to laugh an average of 18 minutes a day in the 1950’s. Today, that’s down to 4 - 6 minutes a day.

People writing about this question of why we laugh less seem to fall back on the usual suspects: stress and busyness.  It is true that we feel that we are under more stress than ever before and that we think that we are more busy than previous generations.   I don’t buy this.  Life for many people in earlier ages was much more stressful than ours is and our work week is often less than for our grandparents who worked a six day week and had less holidays.

It is also often stated that our problem is the long-term nature of our stress and that our ancestors faced stresses that were short term.  But we must ask ourselves to what degree are our stresses really long term and have we such little control over our lives that we are always under stress.  To offer an extreme opinion (for discussion purposes only) we think it is fashionable to be under long-term stress.  I know many people who by any objective criteria are under a lot of stress yet because they do not see it this way they are not.  I also know people who by any objective criteria are under no stress at all yet because they do not see it this way they are.

Perhaps the answer has less to do with the fact of stress or busyness than in our reaction to it.  Many years ago a friend told me a story of getting a flat tire on a country road in Alberta.  As the passengers got out of the car to inspect the tire she said to the group that they had two choices – they could get angry or they could laugh about it.  Following from this story our lack of laughter is not a matter of outside circumstances - it is a matter of personal and societal choice.

What if we chose laughter more often, would we even know how to do this?  I am not sure I do but I am in the process of learning.  Or, should I say relearning.  As a child I, and most other children, laughed a lot - what happened?  I am in the process of figuring this out. 

Right now I think its about conformity and the idea that if its important it must be serious.  Of course Oscar Wilde knew better when he said ‘Life is much to important to be take seriously.’.  But we have a ways to go to catch up with him. 

 When you think about it we do not need a reason to laugh.  We don’t need jokes or plays or events.  If we are to get to a place of laughter it must be a place of laughing for no reason.  Why not?  Why should be need a reason to laugh?  Perhaps we should need a reason not to laugh?

Right and wrong answers

In some disciplines there are right and wrong answers.  Mathematics, the sciences and areas that deal with known facts come to mind as do answers to questions like ‘While driving what do you do when you come to a red light?’.

But there are other areas of learning where things are not so clear cut - where value judgments are involved or there are not enough known facts.  In such areas can we say that there are neither right nor wrong answers?  I have found it helpful to tell students that there are no wrong answers - largely to help remove the fear of speaking to the class - and this has generally worked well.

There is, however, a key condition upon which saying there are no wrong answers rests. It is this.  A student who is thinking through a question or issue with integrity and diligence cannot give a wrong answer.  Why?   Because he or she is making their best effort to come to grips with a difficult issue about which there are many opinions. Where they are in their process of discovery is where they are - and is simply a place on their journey towards something truer.  In a sense the question of right or wrong is not the right one.  The real question is “Is the student on a genuine journey of discovery?’.  

Where their does not work and where classroom discussion gets derailed is where students realize that there is only opinion and simply choose one without giving it any thought.  In this case their answer is wrong.  But even here saying the answer is wrong might not be the best way to engage the student.  While some students are simply not ready for the discussion, many students can be brought into making a sincere effort by spending some time responding to their answer with further questions designed to make them go deeper.

When I think about issues related to making judgments of right or wrong I am guided by the dialogue between the King and the White Rabbit during The Trial.  It goes like this.

'Herald, read the accusation!' said the King.

On this the White Rabbit blew three blasts on the trumpet, and then unrolled the parchment scroll, and read as follows:—

    'The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts,
          All on a summer day:
      The Knave of Hearts, he stole those tarts,
          And took them quite away!'

'Consider your verdict,' the King said to the jury.

'Not yet, not yet!' the Rabbit hastily interrupted. 'There's a great deal to come before that'

The Process of ‘Mattering’

A few years ago I was asking students at the end of the academic year why they came to class.  One answer struck me as particularly insightful.  It was that the student came because she felt ‘wanted, needed and knew that what she said mattered’.  I have often mused about what she said but something happened during a discussion with a student earlier today that took it to a deeper level for me.

At the end of one of my courses I meet for one hour with each student.  They present their capstone portfolios and then we talk about what they took from the course.  In one of those discussions a student referred to ‘the process of mattering’.  I think that, at the most general level, she was alluding to an increased sense of belonging that students felt in the class over time.  But I sensed that there was more to it than that. So in this Post I want to explore ‘the process of mattering’ a little more.  In particular, I want to explore the related questions ‘If ‘mattering’ is a process, then what are the elements of that process?; and,  What is it that happens in class that gives a student an increased sense that they matter?”. 

I wish that I had got to this place before the course ended as I would have liked to have posed this question to my students as a group.  However, I am in the process of speaking with my TA’s about this as well as to a few students.  Here are some thoughts that have come up so far.

In the first place it is, as stated, a process.  ’Mattering’ does not happen in an instant and for some its a longer journey than for others.  One idea associated with Indigenous ways of thinking and speaking is that of gradually closing in on the point. Its not a straight line, like in anglo-saxon logic.  It is more like teasing out or further exploring a point. Thus, being comfortable with going through a process, while not really knowing what will happen is a necessary mind set that has to be taught right from the beginning.  But taught is the wrong word - a better word is experienced.  

It’s also about what is actually done in class – behaviours of the teacher that students come to model.  There is no point in speaking about concepts like safety, respect, non-judgment, engagement and empowered community. Somehow using these words tells students that the opposite is what is really happening.  There is, however, every point in demonstrating safety, respect, non-judgment, engagement and empowered community. As a few students have put it, its like we do certain things repeatedly and only then do we realize what we are doing and why it is working.

Students are welcome just as they are.  It’s a ‘come as you are party’.  This can sound simplistic and a bit of a cop out.  In fact, it is very demanding of students. As long as students are only expected to play a role or adopt the pose of a committed student, that can be faked.  It is hard to fake being who you are. And it’s even harder to find out who you are so you can be that in class.

Creating a classroom environment of exploration as opposed to one of right and wrong encourages a sense of ‘Mattering’.  This does not mean that right and wrong do not have a place.  But it does mean that striving to be right creates rigidity and can give rise to a mind set of extrinsic motivation and pit student against student.  It can also lead thoughtful students to withdraw from the environment of the class.  The idea of exploration has a fluidity to it and gives people permission to make mistakes.  It also creates the excitement that can be associated with facing the unknown. 

Its about dialogue - not monologue or argument.  Dialogue is about sharing thoughts, withholding judgment and striving to understand the points of view of others in order to come to a greater whole.  It’s about harmony as opposed to winning and losing. One student expressed the proactive nature of true dialogue when he said ‘everyone’s opinions were reached out for’.  ’Everyone’s opinions were reached out for’ is a whole lot different from ‘everyone’s opinions were considered’.  You can just feel the difference in the class dynamics by saying each of these to yourself a few times. 

An atmosphere of dialogue can be fostered by reflective small group discussions where the class regularly breaks up into groups of say three with each person reading a reflection on the class and having those serving as a basis for discussion.  It creates an environment of intimacy, relevance, belonging and sharing.

Sitting in a conversational circle is also a positive force in furthering the process of ‘Mattering’. In a circle everyone sees the eyes and body language of all others and can look at them when they are speaking. When people are looking at you when you speak and when their body language shows they are taking in what you say you know you matter.  In such an environment students cease to be numbers and become bodies, faces, names and personalities - real people you can relate to and share ideas with.  As one student commented ‘some ideas crossed the room that I think wouldn’t have in a traditional classroom’.  One other common comment by students was that you noticed when people were absent, worried about them and wondered why there were not there.

Students also know that they matter when their opinion sparks the professor or another student to say something or when someone acknowledges what they have said or when someone takes the idea and builds upon it. Students also get the sense that they matter when they start contemplating and giving deeper answers to questions. Related to this is a student idea that the process of mattering is not focused on knowing but rather on the process of getting to know.  Knowing as a process rather than a state frees up dialogue and engagement.

Another group of student comments centre around the professor - not putting him or herself on a pedestal.  When I can I teach in a circle and sometimes I stand up and go into the centre of the circle and other times I just sit as one of the circle.  I never though much about this until a student brought it up in his oral today.  He said that students knew that they mattered when I joined them by sitting down with them as just another member of the circle.  Hearing that was big for me.  

A final comment related to the importance of the professor getting to all students who had questions or observations. Students said that when they saw that the professor did not take the time to  get to all students it spoke volumes to them about where they stood  with him or her.

So, what is here so far are two ideas.  First, it takes time for students to feel that they matter.  Second, as a teacher you can’t fake it.  Third, there are many tools and techniques that can be used by the teacher to gradually build a sense of ‘Mattering’.

What I would like to do with this next term is to get a group of teachers and students together to discuss and build on what has been explored here.

My name is Lorne Ellingson. I am a life coach and teach in the Department of Indigenous Studies at Trent University. My long-term interest in transformational learning experiences stems from my interactions with many clients and students who I have watched make significant changes in their lives through the process of reflecting on themselves and their environments.

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