Reflecting on Emotional Responses to Evocative Films Using Embodied Mindfulness By Elizabeth Hope Dorman

In an effort to help my education students, who are preparing to become teachers in P-12 settings, develop social-emotional competence, I have recently begun integrating The Five Dimensions of Engaged Teaching (Weaver & Wilding, 2013) into my courses. The dimensions include:

  • Cultivating and open heart;
  • Engaging the self-observer;
  • Being present;
  • Establishing respectful boundaries;
  • and developing emotional capacity.  

In my course on Instructional Equality, I am discovering that these dimensions are helping students work with the emotions that arise in this course on anti-oppression and culturally responsive pedagogy, especially in relation to content about privilege, race, and racism. In my experience, when my students—who are potential teachers as well as practicing educators—can access and process the emotions involved in learning about privilege, race, and racism, it is much for likely for them to be willing to analyze and change attitudes and behaviors to create a more equitable learning environment for their own P-12 students. 

Thus far, I have integrated contemplative practices such as the Five Dimensions of Engaged Teaching into two different semesters of teaching this course. In each term, my classes were small: ten students in the first term and eleven in the second. The small class size and my intentional and ongoing efforts to building a sense of community and care in our class helped students develop trust with me and with one another, a crucial component for having “courageous conversations about race” (Singleton & Linton, xxxx). The demographics have been quite diverse, as illustrated in the following table showing the percentage of students who self-identify with the racial groups listed: 

Racial Makeup of Class Semester 1 (percentage)

Racial Makeup of Class Semester 2 (percentage)

The following contemplative practice could be used with any content, but here I focus on how I use it when I show Lee Mun Wah’s The Color of Fear, Part 1, a powerful film about the effects of racism in the lives of eight North American men of various ethnic and racial backgrounds (White, African American, Hispanic/Latino, Japanese American, Chinese American). The men come together for a weekend of honest discussions, facilitated by Mun Wah, deliberately focused on discussing race, racism, and privilege. It is important to note that I don’t show this film until about two-thirds of the way into the semester, as it is very evocative, and I find that students are most receptive to its intensity and the emotions it evokes after we have developed strong trust and wrestled with prior content on privilege, race, and racism.

Before we view the film, I lead a short centering exercise, inviting students to become present by taking a few deep breaths, settling into the classroom space and their seat, and letting their mind and body transition to our class. Then, I invite them to engage the self-observer, noticing how their bodies feel in their chair or on the floor, whether there are any areas of physical tightness, and paying attention to any anticipatory thoughts about the upcoming film.

I encourage them to cultivate an open heart as they watch the film, even when they may feel defensive, confused, angry, and so on. Then I pass out large index cards to each student and ask them not to write their names on it. I invite them to continue to be present and engage the self-observer throughout the film, attempting to capture in writing on the index card aspects of their self-awareness of emotions and embodied responses as they watch the film. I prompt them to pay particular attention to bodily sensations such as tightness in their chest, stomach, or neck that might reflect an emotional response. I encourage them to engage in direct observation as much as they can (rather than interpretation or analysis of their embodied reactions). (It is very common for students to experience the whole gamut of emotional reactions during this film, including crying, anger, wanting to yell out, feeling hopeless and hopeful, and so on.)

After we watch the 90-minute film, I invite students to pair themselves up into dyads with a classmate with whom they feel comfortable and safe. In this first step of processing, I invite students to share with one another anything that they wrote down on their index card, focusing closely on the actual embodied responses. Students are also given the option to reflect on their own, without a dialogue partner, if they so choose, but none has ever selected to do that. Students report finding it helpful to have the concrete anchor of their index card responses to begin the potentially raw, charged discussions.

Processing students’ reactions to this film requires time, and I have found that it works best when the processing is approached in layers, like unpeeling an onion. Normally we do some overall processing on the day we watch the film, then students write a response for the next class period, and then we continue the discussions in that class.

Before we view the film, I lead a short centering exercise, inviting students to become present by taking a few deep breaths, settling into the classroom space and their seat, and letting their mind and body transition to our class. Then, I invite them to engage the self-observer, noticing how their bodies feel in their chair or on the floor, whether there are any areas of physical tightness, and paying attention to any anticipatory thoughts about the upcoming film.

I encourage them to cultivate an open heart as they watch the film, even when they may feel defensive, confused, angry, and so on. Then I pass out large index cards to each student and ask them not to write their names on it. I invite them to continue to be present and engage the self-observer throughout the film, attempting to capture in writing on the index card aspects of their self-awareness of emotions and embodied responses as they watch the film. I prompt them to pay particular attention to bodily sensations such as tightness in their chest, stomach, or neck that might reflect an emotional response. I encourage them to engage in direct observation as much as they can (rather than interpretation or analysis of their embodied reactions). (It is very common for students to experience the whole gamut of emotional reactions during this film, including crying, anger, wanting to yell out, feeling hopeless and hopeful, and so on.)

After we watch the 90-minute film, I invite students to pair themselves up into dyads with a classmate with whom they feel comfortable and safe. In this first step of processing, I invite students to share with one another anything that they wrote down on their index card, focusing closely on the actual embodied responses. Students are also given the option to reflect on their own, without a dialogue partner, if they so choose, but none has ever selected to do that. Students report finding it helpful to have the concrete anchor of their index card responses to begin the potentially raw, charged discussions.

Processing students’ reactions to this film requires time, and I have found that it works best when the processing is approached in layers, like unpeeling an onion. Normally we do some overall processing on the day we watch the film, then students write a response for the next class period, and then we continue the discussions in that class.


Bio:

Dr. Elizabeth Hope (Beth) Dorman is Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Fort Lewis College, a public liberal arts college in Durango, Colorado, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate students. She is interested in the effects of mindfulness and contemplative practices and pedagogies on teacher development of social-emotional competence, particularly in diverse contexts and courses that address multicultural perspectives and equity issues.  Learn more about her work here.