Group Four Recap: Embodiment in the Classroom

Week One:


In the very first moments of our first session, I felt a shift in energy as soon as people started coming into the room. It was lower, calmer than normal – partly due to the fact that we were asking people to enter and explore the space in silence, but I think folks brought a lot of the gravitas with them, and what we did was usher it out. They brought higher energy, too – I felt a palpable willingness of each body in the room to fully participate in some unanticipatable activities. From our first, improvised activity (which Ryan led) to our last, that engaged sense permeated the room.

From that moment of entering in silence, here is how we began, each reading a sentence we had written collaboratively:

Hilarie: The United States higher education system has been nearly mono-focused on the intellectual development of individuals without considering the role the human body plays in the classroom.

Richard: At present, there is a movement afoot to shift the pedagogical paradigm to address this imbalance.

Ryan: Today we will explore possible solutions together, including modalities such as improvisation, play, contemplative pedagogy, yoga, embodied writing, and movement.

Hilarie again:
My sections focused on yoga (through both breathing and movement) and embodiment as a theoretical and pedagogical concept. I’m a yoga teacher, trained to teach vigorous vinyasa flow, but for this section, I slowed it down. I led the class through a calming breathing exercise called Sitkari Pranayama:

Open the mouth slightly with your tongue just behind the teeth. Inhale slowly through the space between the upper and lower teeth, letting the air wash over your tongue as you raise your chin toward the ceiling. At the end of the inhalation, close the mouth and exhale through the nostrils as you slowly lower your chin back to neutral. Repeat for 5 breaths.

Later, I led a section of Sondra Perl’s “Guidelines for Composing,” which opened out into a more general discussion of embodiment and what working definitions we might use. I closed by offering the thoughts of two “embodiment gurus,” as I think of them: Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön and sociology and women’s studies professor Melanie Klein. We finished my section with a session of “Yoga without Moving,” an activity in which I play with lecture, movement, and breathing to broaden the definition many people hold of yoga as moving poses.


Our group wrestled with the title for a session until we settled upon “Embodiment and the Classroom: A Somatic, Improvised, and Contemplative Approach.” This generally and broadly covers the bases of how we approached our session, and each of us incorporated elements of each approach into our respective segments. There are two quotes that served as my inspiration for this session:

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”–Confucius.

“The body says what words cannot.”–Martha Graham

The major focal points of my segments were the importance of non-verbal communication and play. The first exercise that I asked the class to do incorporated both of these elements. I asked the class to silently put themselves in groups of 4 of 5 and form a family portrait. The results were great fun to watch. This is a great icebreaker and team builder in addition to introducing some movement into the classroom. This activity encourages a playful approach.

ryan1             ryan2

Continuing with the sense of play and trust that we established in the improv exercise, the next activity we did was a Think-Pair-Share combined with a version of Speed Dating. Participants had 60 seconds to answer the question, “What is one way that you have either thought about or incorporated the body into your pedagogy? If you haven’t done either, that’s great–please say so! What role does the body play in your classroom?” This was followed by 90 seconds sharing their answer with the person seated across from them (See the picture below for an idea of how we set up the room for this). After this round, everyone stood and moved two chairs to their left and repeated the process. We did this twice, before ending with a lightning round where everyone shared their answer with the group in one or two sentences.


It was truly wonderful to hear how every single person had not only thought about but incorporated the body into their pedagogy in unique ways. The goal of this exercise is to incorporate several things: a game, movement, student engagement with each other and the material, and foster a structure of equality. Controlled Chaos can be a great stimulant for learning. (caveat: for some, but nothing is one – size fits all).

The last activity that I led the class through was a version of Harvard Business School social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s power poses. You can see her inspiring TED talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” here. If you haven’t seen it, stop everything and watch it. I guarantee it has the potential to change your life. I consider her research a gift that I want to share with as many people as possible. To briefly summarize Cuddy’s research, assuming an expansive “power” pose (think Wonder Woman or Superman) for a minute leads to profound changes in your body’s chemistry: a spike in testosterone and a marked decrease in the stress hormone, cortisol. In her TED talk, Cuddy tells the audience, “Our bodies change our minds. Our minds change our behavior. Our behavior changes our outcomes.” Powerful stuff!

The reading that I assigned for this session was on how gesture works to change our minds by noted developmental psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow. Here is a short summary of her work. Additionally, the Powerpoint Hilarie and I created is here.


I began with a meditative exercise for the cultivation of an after-image, a necessary step in the formation and development of what contemplative pedagogy calls an “organ of perception,” Using picture perception and discussion tests (PPDTs) as a framework, class participants were given a timed task (five seconds), during which they were to analyze a picture and try to remember as many details as possible. They were then given 30 seconds to write two or three sentences that described the “story” of the picture. Following that, I then gave them ten seconds to write only two words that described how they felt during the task.


The PPDT task was followed by a meditative exercise that was designed to take everyone through the processes of focused attention, open attention, and development of an after-image. Meditation bells were used as the means for developing these aspects of focus. Once the meditation was complete, participants were invited to open their eyes and carefully examine an image with different shapes of differing shapes. I instructed them to carefully note the shade differences and similarities for about one minute. I then invited them to close their eyes once again and try to remember the shade differences in their mind’s eye.


Finally, I once again invited them to open their eyes for another PPDT, this time with a different picture:


As with the first image exercise, they had five seconds to view the picture, 30 seconds to write two or three sentences that described the story of the picture, and then ten seconds to write two words that described how they felt during the exercise.

We collected the cards that had the two words about how they felt during the exercise (#1 card was for the PPDT before the meditation and #2 card was for the PPDT after the meditation). I then read aloud the words describing people’s feelings pre- and post-meditation. This was clearly anecdotal and not meant as a scientific survey. Interestingly, a majority of the class participants used words like “rushed,” “anxious,” and “unfocused” on card #1; and words like “calm,” “focused,” “peaceful,” and “relaxed” on card #2.

Following this, I facilitated a brief Think-Pair-Share exercise in which I gave the class two instructions:

  1.     Write one word that describes how you felt about this exercise.
  2.     Would you be interested in including an exercise of this type in one of your classes? Why or why not?

Pairs discussed their answers and then briefly shared with the rest of the class. As expected, everyone was not immediately sold on the value of meditation as a class exercise, but a majority used words like “illuminating,” “enlightening,” and thought that they would be interested to try some version of meditation with their classes.

My session ended with a brief Powerpoint presentation called “The Virtue of Contemplation,” which outlined the major tenets of contemplative pedagogy.


Week Two:

The task for Futures students was to incorporate an activity or concept from week one’s class (and/or the reading) into your pedagogy this week.

The readings and viewings for this week’s discussion were:

When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy” by Ira Shor

Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” by Stephen Brookfield

Please watch one or the other of these videos:

TED Talk  If you haven’t seen this, start here. (21 min.)

Harvard Talk This is a video of a talk Cuddy gave to a group of female educators at Harvard which is longer than the TED Talk and covers a couple of topics not in the TED talk. (58 min.)

Optional Further Reading/Viewing:

Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement by Alison Wood Brooks

How Gesture Works to Change Our Minds by Susan Goldin-Meadow

Video: Susan Goldin-Meadow at TedX

This session was structured in three parts: a reflection on how Futures students incorporated the elements from week one’s session into their classes, a discussion of the assigned readings prompted by three questions we designed, and, finally, we reconvened the groups we made on the first day of the course and asked everyone to make connections between our unit on Embodiment and their respective units.

Again, here is how we began, each taking a turn:

Hil: Last week we focused on embodiment as breath, awareness, and coordinated movement shifts this week into awareness of space and the way a person and a group occupy that space (the space of the classroom).

Ryan: Last week we experimented with a few different modalities of non-verbal communication. This week’s videos continue this emphasis with the hope of bringing continuing awareness to our body’s potential to affect changes in our brains.

Richard: Last week’s module focused on the development of an ‘organ of perception’ using a focused attention guided meditation. This week’s discussion considers scientific aspects of neurobiology and meditative practice, the growing movement of contemplative pedagogy, and a more general sense of becoming a reflective (contemplative) and responsive educator.

We began with a structured discussion on exercises and methodologies that our colleagues might have used in their undergraduate classrooms. If they were not teaching a class, we invited them to formulate some thoughts on what they might be interested in doing if they were. Part of their homework assignment (between weeks 1 and 2) was to briefly blog (one paragraph) about what they did with their classes or what they would envision doing.

This initial discussion then moved into a reflection on embodiment using the assigned readings for this week, with a nod to the readings of the first week. We encouraged our colleagues, in small groups, to thoughtfully analyze one, two, or all three elements of our presentation on embodiment:

  1. Somatic: When Students Have Power: Negotiating Critical Pedagogy (Ira Shor)
  2. Improvisatory: Amy Cuddy TED talk
  3. Contemplative: On Becoming A Reflective Teacher (Stephen Brookfield) and neurobiology

Our final segment involved an attempt to tie together the semester’s modules under the banner of embodiment:

  1. Assessment and Embodiment
  2. Student-Centered Pedagogy and Embodiment
  3. Professors and Persistence and Embodiment
  4. Mapping The Future of Higher Education and Embodiment

We asked our colleagues to return to their original groups from these projects (with Katina and Bill forming a Futures group!) and reflect on the connections between their module and the embodiment information we provided. We then had them move around the room to interpret each others’ comments.

The energy in the room was warm and playful, synergistically with the first session. As a group, we were very impressed by and grateful for our colleagues’ introspection and expansiveness, often simultaneously practiced. Our second session was, we all felt, a wonderful way to end a powerful and wonderful semester. We hope that these kinds of collaborations will continue!



The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309