NORMAL — A simple three-minute sand timer can be a powerful tool in helping students become “mindful” and ready to learn, the keynote speaker told participants at Illinois State University's annual Teaching and Learning Symposium on Wednesday, organized by its Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology.
Michelle Chatman, assistant professor in the crime, justice and security studies program at the University of the District of Columbia, said the timer is just one practice she uses as part of a contemplative approach to teaching that can give students a greater sense of belonging and make them more successful.
Chatman said she would hand out the hour glass-like timers to students and start her class with students sitting still for 3 minutes just listening to their own breathing.
Being quiet and still for even that relatively short amount of time can make people uncomfortable in today's fast-paced world. But Chatman said that is part of the point of mindfulness.
“It teaches us to deal with discomfort,” she said. “Folks just weren't taking time to breathe.”
But contemplative teaching, or “pedagogy,” is more than listening to your own breathing, said Chatman. It's also acknowledging one another, understanding how students learn and what conditions support learning, she said.
“Mindfulness looks different to different communities,” said Chatman. “It's not always about sitting on a mat. Sometimes it's about sitting on the porch like my grandma used to do.”
Chatman's comments came not only during her keynote address, but also at an informal “continuing the conversation” forum after the lunch address at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in uptown Normal.
She noted there is “a lot of research in neuroscience about the value of mindfulness” in relieving stress and improving wellness.
That has been the experience of ISU professor Ann Beck, chair of the department of communications sciences and disorders.
Beck, who is also a registered yoga instructor, has been using mindfulness exercises and offering yoga sessions to students for several years.
“I found our students are really stressed. I had to do something about it,” she said.
“There is a lot in the way of mindfulness that can be applicable to our students professionally as well as personally,” said Beck.
She pointed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, who defines mindfulness as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
That is what clinicians and counselors need to do, said Beck, explaining, “I had a dual purpose in what I was doing. I wanted to help students manage their own stress but also be good clinicians.”
When Beck started using mindfulness in her teaching, it was a relatively new approach in her field, she said. But now, said Beck, “our society as a whole is embracing it more. Athletes use it. CEOs use it.”
Several hundred faculty and others from ISU attended the daylong symposium that included more than 30 presentations offered in five different rooms on topics, ranging from “Active Engaging in Online Courses” to “Use of Texting in the Classroom to Engage Students in a Traditional Lecture.”