Blog Post

Creating learning environments where all students feel understood and valued

Multicultural adult learners

Participants: Dree-el, Yaneth, Nathalie, Offer

In order to inform culturally responsive and sustaining practices in the classroom, educators benefit from understanding the myriad ways in which their students experience the world. In this manner, they can better serve their students and ensure an equitable, responsive education for all.  To understand culture and its intersection with learning we felt that it was important to start by connecting with our own culture. Because looking at the self can bring up vulnerabilities, it is important to create a safe and inviting space; this can be achieved via mindfulness. 

This class presentation was broken into three parts: mindfulness practice, a memory based share-out on a cultural artifact (in this case, food and its relation to one’s identity), and finally with three self-reflections/writing prompts that connect that culture to values and practices, or conflict, incoherence and personal experience.  

The first presenter began with an invitation to connect with our inner child and to allow for our silly,curious, or playful self to immerge.  This breathing exercise connects the mind and body and allows us to connect with the here and now and to begin to let go of concerns and agendas.  

The following instructions were given: 

Close your eyes and place your hands on your abdomen.  As you inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouthfeel the breath inflating and deflating your lungs and your stomach rising and falling… similar to a balloon that you are blowing up and then emptying.  As you inhale, imagine inhaling love, feel it fill your lungs and expand throughout your body, and as you exhale release stress with your breathInhale peace, release worry, now inhale and exhale whatever emotion you choose. 

As the class was breathing, the presenter counted down each step, cycling through several rounds of focused breathing to calm the mind.  After allowing the breath to return to its own rhythm, the class was directed to release remaining tension by participating in muscle relaxation which is done by tightening and releasing muscles from our face to our toes. To help attain this, the guidance was to imagine the body as spaghetti that softens from raw to cooked, rigid to supple.  Next, a body scan meditation guided the class to visualize and connect with the body.   

The last part of the mindfulness exercise invited us to imagine ourselves as a tree either from our childhood, or a tree that we see often or that we one day want to visitSee your core as your trunk, growing up from the ground, supporting your whole being.  Your legs become the roots anchoring the trunk, grounding it, nourishing it from the soil.  In your mind, see your arms as branches, reaching into the sky, extending you the tree up and out. See all the features of your tree, how it reaches up or out, the smaller branches, and bends, the colors and smells, the animals it houses, the breeze that it feels.  Bring your attention from your roots feeling the energy moving up to your trunk, your branches, your leaves take a big deep breath and when you are ready slowly open our eyes. 

The first session ended with a share out.  One classmate searched for a tree and recalled a childhood tree, one they climbed when young, memorial because they didn’t consider themselves a climber.  Another classmate saw the sheltering trees on the edges of a clearing, tall redwoods they recalled from a camping trip.  Strong and protective.  A third classmate shared the image a pine in snow and tall and striking against the cold white.  Each tree was personal while being iconic, its attributes resonating through the visualization: nurturing, sheltering, persevering. 

The second part of the presentation was an extension of an earlier group activity.  Before the class, classmates were asked to contribute a recipe (from ingredients to preparation) and a food related memory.  This cultural artifact was aggregated in a shared Google doc.  Several themes emerged from this collection, as the second presenter, shared.  Grandmothers were most prominent; either as the teachers, as a keeper of familial histories (the roots in the family tree)and as living connecters to origins/lands/cultures.   

Another interesting subtheme was the art of cooking versus the science.  Measurements were personal, eyeballed and adjusted.  Ingredients reflected what was available, sacred, medicinal, cultural.  Some classmates connected cooking with adventure and education, sourcing ingredients from different enclaves in the city, from Coney Island to the Bronx.  Prompting exploration in markets, or even in new restaurants.  Several class members confessed to not cooking either because of economic privilege or inexperience. 

  1. The third and final session returned to the self-reflective stance, tying these experiences and identities to values and practices in the classroom.  The class was instructed to respond to three prompts: Think about the culture you grew up in – the entire messy stew of it – how did teaching things work in this culture?  How did you learn things?  How did school fit into teaching and learning? 

  2. What parts of this culture do you want to maintain?  What parts of this culture do you think should be laid to rest?   

  3. Describe the culture you want to dominate in your classroom?  What are its values?  What are its practices? 

In conclusion, students are more likely to engage in an educational environment where they are felt, understood, and heard -- where learning is applicable to their daily lives, successes, and struggles. It is essential for educators and stakeholders to understand the cultural and social implications, such that they understand the whole life needs of their students, and work to create learning environments where all students feel understood and valued—where all students want to engage in learning. 

All reading is only suggested:

 

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7 comments

Thank you for memorializing this class in your post. Inviting students and instructors to redirect their attention back to their bodies, to their practices of home and community (via cooking), and reflect about how these practices can help us rethink our educational environments was so powerful!

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Given the current situation we are in, with regards to
distance learning, I appreciated the structure and substance of this
presentation! The focus was more on our experiential knowledge by way of
sharing food recipes and memories that speak on our cultures. It also allowed
more personal reflection on how we best approach learning experiences, starting
with the mental/breathing exercise to the closing discussion of how we can transform
our environments for more engaged learning and teaching. Thank you to this
group for your presentation!

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This class was such a welcome intervention into the often inflexible academic space. Focussing on mindfulness and embodiment in an academic space was such a pleasure but it was also an important reminder that the body, too, can be a site of knowledge, not the just the mind. Academia tries so hard to separate the two - this idea that the mind is independent of the body and it is the mind alone that is the driving force of intellectual work. Connecting to the body can also bring out new connections in your work, theories, and ideas. Thank you so much for that reminder. I think, during the pandemic, it's so important to keep this in mind.
 

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I love the self-reflection prompts in the last exercise! I am thinking of asking my students some of these questions at the beginning of the semester as a way of getting to know them and as a means of way of collaboratively setting our class expectations.

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I often think of the word "confected" in a classroom setting - "to put together by combining materials." We bring so many different conributions and resources (bell hooks) "to the table" in the same way a baker mixes discreet ingredients activated by unique physical and chemical properties during the baking process to produce a cake, or whatever. Great class, great post! 

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This was the class I so deeply needed in the midst of this semester, so thank you for teaching it in the most intentional and thoughtful way. As Nik mentioned in their comment (echoing Black, indigenous, feminist, and decolonial pedagogies), the mind and body are often seen as discrete in academic spaces, and this feels heightened in the online classroom. You completely rejected this notion and taught a beautiful engaging community-driven class that brought our whole selves into the space. 

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Thank you for bringing mindful practice into the classroom and letting us connect with our cultural values. It was an inspiring experience that enriched my understanding of the self and the community. It contrasts against the traditional notion of lectures and showed that it is possible to combine both mindfulness and content.

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