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Start Where You Are: Contemplative Practices for Teaching and Learning

Contemplative practices in library instruction were the focus of “Start Where You Are”, a breakout session led by Prof. Jean Amaral of the Borough of Manhattan Community College Library. This session featured extensive discussions about these practices, including their goals, potential pitfalls, and possible methods of incorporating these practices into instruction sessions.

Some particular areas of discussion included:

  • How can we incorporate these practices at the reference desk as well as in the classroom?
  • Could free writing as a class exercise be an effective tool in library instruction?
  • How do we evaluate contemplative instructional practices?
  • Can database demonstrations be eliminated altogether?
  • How can we bring back the idea of the library as a contemplative space?
  • Should the use of questions in the classroom be reevaluated in the context of contemplative practices?
  • No Child Left Behind’s negative effect on student engagement
  • How might contemplative teaching practices promote excitement?

Session attendees also made suggestions for practical applications, such as the following:

  • Asking for a moment of quiet before class: “You are here as scholars, and as scholars to think deeply. We need to slow down, clear our minds, and be present. So we’re going to take one minute to do just that by sitting silently. If you like you can pay attention to your breath, feeling the breath going in and going out, the chest rising and falling.”
  • Using the “dead time” before instruction begins (when students are wandering in) as an opportunity to ask them to free write.
  • Asking questions before class begins to promote a contemplative environment, such as “What’s one word or phrase that describes how you’re feeling about this assignment [or having to do research]?”
  • Asking questions after classes to encourage reflection, such as “How has today’s session changed how you think about research or libraries?” and/or “What is one aspect of your research/assignment that you think is going to be a problem or challenging for you?”

The breakout session wasn’t simply a discussion, however. Prof. Amaral incorporated a number of contemplative practices and tools into the session itself. A few tools and exercises used in the session are listed below:

  • A poem, “Fire“, by Judy Sorum Brown, which highlights a fire’s need for breathing room in order to ignite a spark;
  • Visual cues were also provided, including The Tree of Contemplative Practices
  • Free writing time for librarians at the session gave attendees a chance to contemplate possible methods, concerns, and reflections on these practices in the library classroom
  • A meditative exercise called “Just Like Me” in which participants maintained eye contact with a partner while silently repeating phrases about them with the goal of establishing a compassionate connection. More information about the “Just Like Me” exercise can be found here. The text of the exercise can be downloaded here (in Word format)

Sources for further information on this topic:

Thanks to Prof. Amaral for a lively, informative and challenging session!