Stories from the Field, Part X: But what is it? Defining Emotion.

Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness impacts the students I work with (and in return, how they impact me), in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a STEM high school in Portland, Maine:

Anger, fear, joy, disgust, and sadness from  Inside out

Anger, fear, joy, disgust, and sadness from Inside out

I like Pixar's Inside Out as much as the next person.  If I'm being honest, I probably like it way more than the next person. I use these characters to think about my emotions as harmless little muppets who I can comfort and soothe. I think the whole film gives us great insight into our mind. However, watching the movie just offers us a way of symbolizing, and even working with, them. It does not really give us a clear picture of what emotions actually are. 

The challenge of defining "emotion" 

So take a minute to grab a pencil and paper. Write down the word "emotion."  Then, write the definition.

How'd it go?  We might we know emotions so well, but when it comes to defining them, things get muddy quickly. 

Here's how the conversation with my high schoolers went on the first day we tackled this topic. 

Me: Okay, so tell me what you wrote down as the definition of emotion.

Student: A feeling.

Me: Can you explain what you mean by feeling?

Student: Um...emotion?

Defining an "emotion" is incredibly challenging. It is not just hard for us laypeople, but even scientists are still hotly debating the issue. At article in The Atlantic titled, "Hard Feelings: Science's Struggle to Define Emotions" explores this difficulty. Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience and director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU, stated, "'It's been said that there are as many theories of emotions are there are emotion theorists.'" The field is still evolving, and what we believed to be true in the 1950s when scientists first turned their attention to emotions has been challenged repeatedly. 

Carroll Izard compiled surveys from 34 emotional researchers and created this description: 

Emotion consists of neural circuits (that are at least partially dedicated), response systems, and a feeling state/process that motivates and organizes cognition and action. Emotion also provides information to the person experiencing it, and may include antecedent cognitive appraisals and ongoing cognition including an interpretation of its feeling state, expressions or social-communicative signals, and may motivate approach or avoidant behavior, exercise control/regulation of responses, and be social or relational in nature.

Our response as a class: Huh?

Emotions....Physical sensations

Image from  PNAS study

Image from PNAS study

I asked the class to come up with our own personal, intelligible definition. We started by trying to understand the physiological component through a Mindful Schools exercise I have dubbed the "emotional vaccine." I spoke an emotion at a time and asked them to notice what sensations arose in their bodies. After three emotions, we would open our eyes and share out. While there was some consistency for what students reported out about their experiences— a swelling of the chest for "pride" or sinking in for "sadness"— there was also some diversity. For example, some students reported feeling anxiety in their heads and others in their bellies. We followed this by reading a study published in PNAS called "Bodily maps of emotions" that showed cross-cultural consistencies in body sensations in response to specific emotions. Then, we read the afore mentioned Atlantic article, which began with Paul Ekman's study demonstrating the universal correspondence of facial expressions to particular emotions.

Whether or not body sensations were universal still seemed up for debate from our experience, but we decided there is definitely a physiological component. 


Emotions....caused by chemical release in the brain

So it has something to do with physical sensations, but what else? This short video helped us understand where they might originate in the body:  

From it, we learned, "emotions are the effect of...chemical messages traveling from our brain to our body." By adding the two together, and doing a little word smithing, my students came to consensus on this definition:

Emotion: (n) An instinctual reaction to a circumstance that is caused by chemicals released in the brain creating bodily sensations.

"It's so sterile to describe something so...you know?" one student remarked. 

"I do know," I replied like the English teacher I once was, "that's what poetry is for."

Poetry and Pixar.

Stories from the Field, Part VII, New Kid on the Block

Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness is impacting the students I am working with, in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from an alternative learning program just outside of Portland, Maine:

After leading a "Smartifier" for the REAL School in December, I came back this month to start working with the students. There is always an adjustment period when you walk into a new room, and I was definitely feeling some new kid feelings. The first day I was in recruitment mode and tried to convince the crowds in 10 minutes or less that it's worth trying this weird thing (the teachers for one of the classrooms ended up volunteering the whole class, so I sold it well enough to hook the staff, anyway). The other group of four or five students literally ran away from me as I approached (the gym is a challenging space to recruit). One refused because I disrespected him when I asked them to sit by not saying please.  I only got to speak to one or two students who stuck around.  

On Day 2, I offended one of the more vocal students by calling him by the wrong name, and the name of his apparent nemesis (big oops). Even though he was disruptive, when I pulled him afterwards to check in, I made sure to make it about my error and asking him for his participation. Downstairs students were in and out of the room as allied staff members coaxed them into trying it out. 

After another week of small blunders, I found myself also making some headway. I started to notice barely perceptible signs of acceptance. Today, when I asked Sam to help me set up the projector screen, though the first request was met with denial, the second was with acquiescence. When we went through the body scan, every student but one had technology away, and not a single student spoke during that time. They even voluntarily read parts of the Portia Nelson poem we use called "Autobiography in Five Short Chapters." The downstairs group, which comes on a voluntary basis, has started to solidify with some regulars who are genuinely interested and curious about the practice. They readily offer their discomforts and comfort as we have gone through sound and breath as anchor. In both groups, the mood of the room perceptibly shifted after sitting together. In that way, we build trust.

Stories from the Field, Part V: When student first becomes teacher.

Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness is impacting the students I am working with, in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a large high school resource room in Portland, Maine:

Passing the vibratone

Passing the vibratone

On Tuesday, we came back from break, and I immediately hit the students with script writing.  The capstone project for our 8 weeks together was going to be delivering mindfulness curriculum to students in nearby elementary and middle schools.  After reviewing all the lessons and content we covered, I gave them highly structured script templates to fill in introductions, the definition of mindfulness, an interesting hook, a practice section, debrief questions, and a conclusion. I thought they were ready to go.

The response?  Stonewalling. Students looked straight ahead, looked down at their desks, looked out the window. My questions about their response were met with resounding silence.  I went and sat with one group, as the classroom teacher sat with the other, and we both pushed desperately for what they knew and wanted to add. By the end of an 80 minute period, we had some half written notes to show.  

The classroom teacher and I were, at first, panicked. Why don't they want to do this? Do they really dislike it so much? Should we just roll it back to being voluntary and send only students who step forward to do it?  But we knew there were some students who would opt out who would be successful, if they just carried it through, so we didn't want to deter them.

Throughout the time working with students that day, I also had gathered some insight. When speaking with an eleventh grader, Cassie, about how I was surprised it was so hard to do, she shared: it was one thing to learn, but another to teach. She said she didn't really feel like she fully understood it yet, and that's why it was so hard for them to come up with ideas. 

They weren't being defiant or sullen, they just really didn't feel ready. And that's fair. I went through hundreds of hours of training in order to feel confident generating and delivering this material, and here I was asking them to come up with something on the spot.  I realized the whole point was that we wanted them to share the experience, not necessarily create it, so I ended up taking what they had come up with and putting in the strong curriculum I have access to (and draw upon regularly, I must add). 

When I went in today with scripts in hand, the students were happy to read through them with me and practice. A few even got excited about putting what was there into their own words, and we worked to make them true to their voices. It wasn't that they didn't want to do it, it's just that they needed support to make it happen. 

My students are always my teachers, and as I formally pass the reigns on to them, I want them to be successful in that endeavor. This time, it meant listening to them to hear the root cause of their behavior and responding to that. It meant being mindful of where they were in their learning, and meeting them there, to help them step into their new roles as teachers of mindfulness.

Stories from the Field, Part V: But is it working?

Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness is impacting the students I am working with, in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a large high school resource room in Portland, Maine:

I met with a teacher after school today to talk about scheduling and how we will transition our high school students from learning about mindfulness to teaching it to others. When I walked in she said to me, "I just can't tell how much buy in we have. I think some of them like it but are pretending not to." 

This is always a thought that always arises when I am teaching. "Is it working?"  When I was teaching middle school English, I was obsessed with this question. I worked overtime on lesson plans, collected meticulous data in the form of exit tickets, quizzes, and verbal responses, and created new lesson plans based on that information. In that role, I needed to know if my students were learning exactly what I needed them to learn. I believed it was my failure when they didn't understand the material. 

Through my own personal work with mindfulness, I came to see this belief as self-defeating and erroneous. Even more, it took the agency away from my students to suggest that I was solely responsible for making sure they learned.  Tracking student mastery of standards was right on, but to maintain my sanity, I needed to be able to do that without attaching my emotional wellbeing to their achievement. 

I cannot force students to value or appreciate anything; no matter how much I believe in the power of mindfulness, I cannot make students to see it.  I can offer metaphors, personal anecdotes, research, neuroscience, and above all else, experiences, to demonstrate what it can mean to pay attention to our lives.  To give them experiences that perhaps will show them the value. To need them to take something in particular away is to create my own suffering.

We also can never be certain how work that is so internal truly lands. I have heard countless anecdotes, from my peers teaching mindfulness, about the most disengaged-looking student making insightful comments about mindfulness only at the very end of the course. For my own middle schoolers last year, I wouldn't have known it was "working" until the end of the year when they reported using it during times of stress with family, on sleepless nights, to help focus in class, and to help calm themselves down. This was despite some of them occasionally dropping fart noises into our formal practice. 

Finally, perhaps "working" takes many different forms, some visible, and some less visible. Perhaps "working" takes a longer term than we have the opportunity to see. If we expect all kids to immediately take to mindfulness, to be calm and quiet during practice, to engage without question, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. Even more, we are misunderstanding what it means to be mindful. We need to be open to the possibility that "working" may take many different forms, and may take longer than the time we have to see it grow to fruition. 

As luck would have it, one of our students stopped by as we were wrapping up our meeting. "Brandon,*" I asked, "Be honest. Are you doing any mindfulness outside of the classroom?"  Brandon was a quiet gentle kid who often sat in the corner and needed reminders about removing his headphones. "Yeah, I do." he replied, and told us about how he had insomnia, and he focused on his breathing or sound when he couldn't sleep. He talked about how he had been a "bad kid" in middle school with anger issues, and he thought this stuff could have helped to him. He was interested in our project to bring it to younger kids.  

My job is to offer the tools, and then trust that students will take what they need. It is to know that it may not look like it's working, but sometimes we plant a seed that grows differently for each student. My job is to give them the space to explore their own lives, in all its variations and permutations.

*The student's name has been changed for privacy.


Stories from the Field, Part III: Heartfulness? The Cheesiest.


Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness is impacting the students I am working with, in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a large high school resource room in Portland, Maine:

Today was our first heartfulness activity. After a quick check in and settling with the bell, we talked about how happiness research suggests (a) happiness is contagious and (b) there are things we can do to make ourselves happier. Before we began our practice, I front loaded  that it might feel awkward or cheesy, but to just try it out and see how it felt. I invited them to imagine one person they cared about to send kind wishes:

I wish for you to be happy...I wish for you to be healthy...I wish for you to be peaceful...

I then invited them to personalize and wish any thoughts they had that might be specific to that person. Finally, they let go of the image and opened their eyes with the bell. Students shared their experiences:

 "I thought of my grandma..."

 "It made me smile..."      

"It made my heart ache..."    

"I thought of my niece..."     

"It made me feel relaxed..."

"To be honest, the phrases were too cheesy and I couldn't really get into it..."

"Yeah, it felt hard to think about imagining myself saying those things to someone..."

I thanked the students for sharing and admitted that the cheese factor is particularly high with the heartfulness activities. We can modify the language if it feels more true to us, but it's interesting that we are so uncomfortable sharing kind wishes. It is interesting that it is so unnatural. 

Part of my job as a Mindfulness Educator is to norm all possible responses students might have to a given activity. I cannot tell them how it will impact them or even how it should. I can speak from my own experience, from the research, and then create a space for them to have whatever experience they are going to have. It is truly all welcome. 

But really, who doesn't love a little extra cheese?




The Unspoken Prep

When teaching middle school English, I had six preps for the week: 8th grade English, expedition (interdisciplinary) block, crew, writing intensive, and reading lab. The sixth prep was for myself. I had to prepare to be my best self in the classroom each day. Some teachers have equanimity easily accessible; some of us are, shall we say, a little rougher around the edges. I needed to do the extra work to scan my body, breathe deeply, and maintain perspective.  

Mindfulness: A Tool for Social Justice

Mindfulness does not, and is not intended, to numb children and make them passive. Students can learn to fully experience their emotions, empathize with the experience with others, and respond mindfully. Mindfulness can be an important tool in social justice curriculum by reinforcing compassionate and intentional action in our students.

Addressing the emotional toll of teaching

Teaching is hard. The demands can feel insurmountable, and because of this, we see teachers leaving the classroom, and avoiding the profession all together, at alarmingly high rates. While we are waiting for structural changes from the political world, on the ground we can give teachers tools to fortify their internal worlds. By teaching them how to develop their own inner strength, they can cultivate a resilience to withstand the professional pressures.  

Aliza and the Mind Jar

For a tiny window into what mindfulness looks like in a school that has incorporated mindfulness as a regular practice for students, watch this video Aliza and the Mind Jar from Girls Prep Bronx Elementary, featuring my Mindful Schools cohort member, Kelli Love. 

"It's like having a safe haven in your pocket...the techniques help the girls concentrate on their work...[and relax] before bedtime."  — Girls Prep Bronx Parent


What the internet is doing to our brains

While it is impossible to ignore the irony of learning about the negative impact the internet has on our brains from the internet, this short video gives great insight into how our technology-driven world can impede learning.  

Just don't simultaneously watch cat videos and sort through your email while checking it out, okay?