Overview of mindfulness in the classroom
Many educators at the tertiary level have recently been incorporating mindfulness techniques into their practice to create a non-threatening classroom environment. In her article, “Mindful Well-being and Learning,” Holly N. Curry summarizes the benefits of mindfulness in the college classroom:
- it improves attention span;
- helps manage stress and emotion;
- improves resilience and ability to self-regulate;
- encourages self-reflection;
- decreases depression and anxiety;
- improves communication skills; and,
- increases empathy toward others.1
This practice has been useful in my English for Academic Purposes (EAP) classes at the United States Air Force Academy, a US service academy that offers an undergraduate degree, where cadets are under immense stress to perform academically and endure vigorous physical and military training. Beginning class with a five-minute mindfulness exercise creates a relaxed classroom atmosphere for international cadets who have additional stressors of adapting to US culture as well as a new military culture.
Recently, I adapted this practice to help students develop cognitive empathy towards the characters in their two required books. My goal for the semester was to help foster affective empathy to enhance their deep reading skills. In their article, “The Relationship between Empathy and Reading Fiction: Separate Roles for Cognitive and Affective Components,” J. Stansfield and L. Bunce demonstrate how fiction can assist students in developing empathy, which in turn will lead to “helping” behavior. They quote neurologist, R.J.R Blair who defines empathy in two ways: “Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand the world from another person’s point of view and to infer beliefs and intentions, whereas affective empathy refers to the capacity to share another’s feelings and emotions.”2
Using mindfulness in an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) classroom
The theme in my EAP course is: War, Occupation, Culture, and Migration. My students range in age from 17 to 29 and come from a diverse number of nations. One of the required books is the novel Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a novel that explores occupation and migration. I have also included a second book, which is in the public domain, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, which examines marriage customs.
Creating a guided imagery exercise
- Choose a brief, but significant passage from the book your class is reading.
- Have the students read this for homework or in class.
- Sitting in a relaxed comfortable position, students listen to the guided imagery exercise that you have created based on the passage. You can record this on your phone or have someone else record it so the students can hear a different speaker. You may also play some background music while recording to set the mood. If you cannot record, then you can read your guided imagery exercise aloud or have a colleague come into the class to read it.
- When the task is completed, students slowly open their eyes and share how they felt during the exercise. Students may require prompts to fully discuss how they empathized with the characters.
- The listening should be five minutes or less and the discussion can be from 10 to 15 minutes depending on the time constraints of the class. If time is short, an extended follow-up could be in the form of a journal entry or short writing assignment based on the passage. This can be done with the entire class, in pairs, or in small groups depending on the comfort level of the class.
Guided imagery for perspective taking 1
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
In this passage, Saeed’s father urges his son and fiancée Nadia to flee the country without him. His father does not want to leave the city of his birth where he has experienced a lifetime of memories.
Saeed’s father told his son he loved him and said that Saeed must not disobey him in this, that he had not believed in commanding his son but in this moment was doing so, that only death awaited Saeed and Nadia in this city, and that one day when things were better Saeed would come back to him, and both men knew as this was said that it would not happen, that Saeed would not be able to return while his father still lived, and indeed as it transpired Saeed would not, after this night that was just beginning, spend another night with his father again.3
Close your eyes and imagine your own circumstances through this guided imagery exercise. Hopefully this will give you some insight into what Saeed and Nadia are feeling as they are getting ready to leave the only home they have known all of their lives.
If at any time, you feel uncomfortable or upset by your images, please open your eyes and stop following the exercise. You may also leave the room.
Get into a comfortable relaxed position with your palms face down on your lap and your feet flat on the floor. Take three deep breaths.
Imagine where you grew up…your family, relatives, neighbors, neighborhood, and school. What are some of your favorite memories of your family, their traditions, the food, holidays, and special occasions?
What does your house or flat look like? Are there photos or sentimental objects in the rooms? Take a walk through and look. What do you see?
Now imagine that your country is occupied by militants and war has erupted. Life is no longer safe. You have no future. You ask your family members to flee the country with you, but they don’t want to leave their home, their memories. They tell you and your fiancée to go with their blessing, but you are torn. You leave knowing that the odds are that you can never return and you will never see your family again. As you “Exit West,” you do not know your destination only that it will be “West” of your country.
You have a small backpack. What do you take with you? How do you feel?
Guided imagery for perspective taking 2
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
In this passage Ethan is speaking with Mattie, his wife Zeena’s cousin, in the kitchen after they have had dinner together. Zeena has gone to see a doctor in another town and must stay the night, so they have this time alone together.
To ease his constraint he said: “I suppose they’ll be setting a date before long.”
“Yes, I shouldn’t wonder if they got married some time along in the summer.” She pronounced the word ‘married’ as if her voice caressed it. It seemed a rustling covert leading to enchanted glades. A pang shot through Ethan, and he said, twisting away from her in his chair: “It’ll be your turn next, I wouldn’t wonder.”
She laughed a little uncertainly. “Why do you keep on saying that?”
He echoed her laugh. “I guess I do it to get used to the idea.” 4
Close your eyes and imagine someone in your culture being married to someone they no longer love in a similar situation to Ethan Frome.
Again, get into a comfortable relaxed position with your palms face down on your lap and your feet flat on the floor. Take three deep breaths.
What are the expectations in your culture? Is marriage for life? Is it a religious obligation to remain married? Is divorce a possibility?
Imagine being in a loveless marriage. Picture someone you know or yourself. How do you feel? How do you think they feel?
Both mindfulness and guided imagery can be adapted for most classrooms. These particular books are best suited for high school and college aged students. By providing our students with the opportunity to develop their deep reading skills and both their cognitive and affective empathy, we contribute to their lifelong learning.
Constance A. Leonard teaches English for Academic Purposes, Reading Enhancement, and Learning Strategies for international cadets at the United States Air Force Academy. She has taught and trained teachers in Yemen as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, in Cambodia as an English Language Specialist for the U.S. Department of State, in the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Greece, and Egypt.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
1. Currie, Holly N. “Mindful Well-Being and Learning.” Journal of Chemical Education 97, no. 9 (2020), 2394.
2. Stansfield, J. and Bunce, L. “The Relationship between Empathy and Reading Fiction: Separate Roles for Cognitive and Affective Components.” Journal of European Psychology Students, 5(3), 9-18, DOI: http://dx.doi. org/10.5334/jeps.ca hip, 2014, 9.
3. Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017, 97.
4. Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911. Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4517/4517-h/4517-h.htm
Blair, R. J. R. “Responding to the emotions of others: Dissociating forms of empathy through the typical and psychiatric populations.” Consciousness and Cognition 14(4): 698–718, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2005.06.004 , 2005.
Currie, Holly N. “Mindful Well-Being and Learning.” Journal of Chemical Education 97, no. 9 (2020): 2393-2396.
Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017.
Johnson, D et al. “Potentiating Empathic Growth: Generating Imagery While Reading Fiction Increases Empathy and Prosocial Behavior.” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Vol. 7, No 3, 306-312, 2013.
Rhoder, Carol. “Mindful Reading: Strategy Training that Facilitates Transfer.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Vol. 45, No. 6 (Mar., 2002), pp. 498-512, International Literacy Association and Wiley Stable: http://www.jstor.com/stable/40014738.
Stansfield, J. and Bunce, L. “The Relationship between Empathy and Reading Fiction: Separate Roles for Cognitive and Affective Components.” Journal of European Psychology Students, 5(3), 9-18, DOI: http://dx.doi. org/10.5334/jeps.ca hip, 2014.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911. Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4517/4517-h/4517-h.htm