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Reflective Practice

Why Wellness Work Belongs In the Classroom

A group of blank tiles against a purple background lie underneath eight marked tiles that spell out the word "wellness."

Why might we practice wellness in the classroom?

By Chy Sprauve

Wellness practices are becoming more commonplace in academic settings. In some U.S. primary schools, meditation is being built into the curriculum, while college professors like Christi Wenger are practicing yoga with students as part of “contemplative pedagogy.” In mainstream U.S. culture, the process of wellness is sometimes celebrated but is often devoid of political context (Wenger’s yogic pedagogical practice being one of the few exceptions) and usually associated with improving one’s productivity. Many of the burgeoning wellness programs employed in educational contexts use care practices to encourage “productivity” among students. Wellness practices, then, simply become a means to an end.

So often, wellness practices are figured as an “escape” from the realities of life, but the work of wellness simply cannot operate in this way for many. Black queer writer, activist, and educator Audre Lorde once said that caring for herself was “self-preservation,” not “self-indulgence,” and, because of this, was an act of “political warfare.” Lorde frames wellness not as a luxury, but as a human right. Wellness has a place in the classroom, particularly in classrooms where the majority of students are black and brown, because access to care is something that has been historically denied black students in the classroom (and in all other integrated social spaces, to various degrees).

Garrett Albert Duncan, Associate Professor of Education at Washington University in St. Louis, in his article “Urban Pedagogies and the Ceiling of Adolescents of Color” argues that “urban pedagogies”— teaching practices/spaces serving majority black student populations — often act as funnels for students of color in the U.S. into the prison-industrial system, while Washington Post national education reporter Moriah Balingit asserts that “Black students [face] greater rates of suspension, expulsion and arrest than their white classmates.”[1]

If school for black and brown students functions as a correctional or carceral space, the odds that these students experience scholastic achievement are significantly reduced. Even if the above statistics do not directly impact all students’ experiences in the classroom, the long, fraught history of education activism pertaining to black people in the U.S. does. For example, access to literacy has historically been limited for black students. The state has used black people’s lack of access to education to bar them from fully participating in the exercise of their citizenship (think literacy tests at the voting polls). When black people did gain access to schools, they were “separate but [un]equal.”[2] And then they (seemingly) weren’t. But still were. And, most importantly, still are. (New York, in fact, has one of the most “unequal” school systems in the country.)[3]

Finally, things like the lack of access to whole, healthy foods due to food deserts—usually located in majority-black areas, and environmental pollutants, which disproportionately affect black and brown residential areas[4] and can contribute to negative health consequences like asthma[5] —can have a compound effect on students of color and their ability to focus, perform, and even physically show up.

Given these stakes for transforming our classrooms, how can we not implement practices of wellness in the classroom?  I see wellness work as a steadying force (in the face of the precariousness of moving through the world as a black person who is read as female), so one of the things I do is create rituals with my students. I arrange the desks in a circle every class, so that students can look at one another when they speak. I have my students write reflection essays (short observations students write on index cards) at the close of each class, so that I understand what they learned and what they struggled with. I try to address the often monotonous atmosphere of the classroom by playing music (playlists often curated by students) during reading sessions, bringing food to the classroom for students, and using affirmation cards[6] to initiate student-led conversations.

Establishing rituals with students can help to foster trust, which is essential, especially in a course where I am asking them to write (I teach Composition II). Writing in particular is a personal, emotive act that can leave one feeling exposed and vulnerable. I am asking students to dig into themselves when I assign a writing task. Because of the labor writing often requires, I believe that I must honor the space they take up by being care-ful. Or, by being full of care.

In this vein, I aim to practice wellness work in the classroom by engaging them in the evaluative process while still acknowledging my inherent privilege in the classroom as an instructor. I am not entirely sure how that looks yet. It may look like me writing notes on their paper and then asking them how the comments “land” to them. “What am I not seeing?” I might ask.[7] Being transparent about my approach to grading is a kind of vulnerability practice, but it, in my mind, is less risky than the kind of opening up regularly asked of students in a composition course.

However, when being evaluated by other professors who I assume will not “get” my pedagogical approach, I find myself trying to perform a kind of professionalism I usually actively challenge;[8] music-playing and affirmations cards are saved for another day. But if wellness is not a luxury, then the care practices I employ should not be optional. There are also institutional imperatives, however, spoken and unspoken, which tell us that care does not have a place in classrooms. Even the wellness strategies employed in educational spaces do not necessarily involve care—they typically work as a means to generate productivity, as discussed I mentioned earlier. I am not interested in productivity, a position at odds with the interests of many, if not most, money-making institutions. I am, instead, interested in a classroom where black and brown students can begin to create in a space that never could hold them—never could see them.

Chy Sprauve is a doctoral student in English and Composition Rhetoric and an adjunct instructor at Medgar Evers College.

Notes

[1] I theorize that often times the classroom does not make space for black students who are deemed “unruly” or “disruptive” to express themselves–instead, these students are penalized for not performing the kind of compliance that students are often expected to perform in the classroom. (Moriah Balingit, “Racial Disparities in School Discipline are Growing, Federal Data Show,” The Washington Post, April 24, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/racial-disparities-in-school-discipline-are-growing-federal-data-shows/2018/04/24/67b5d2b8-47e4-11e8-827e-190efaf1f1ee_story.html)

[2] This is a reference to the court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, which found that blacks and whites could be segregated as long as the facilities were “separate but equal.”

[3] Eliza Shapiro. “Segregation Has Been the Story of New York City’s Schools for 50 Years,” The New York Times, March 26, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/26/nyregion/school-segregation-new-york.html.

[4] The EPA found that people of color are more likely to live near pollutants. (Van R. Newkirk II. “Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism is Real,” CityLab, February 28, 2018, https://www.citylab.com/environment/2018/02/the-trump-administration-finds-that-environmental-racism-is-real/554501/)

[5] “Black Children Six Times More Likely to Die of Asthma,” American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, March 4, 2017, https://www.aaaai.org/about-aaaai/newsroom/news-releases/black-children-asthma.

[6] Some affirmation card topics include procrastination, having faith, working with other people, etc. Affirmation cards are often read as a self-help tool—a tool perhaps seen as outside of a composition instructor’s purview.

[7] Kara Wittman, Director of College Writing and Assistant Professor of English at Pomona College, in her article “Literacy Narratives in the Margins” thinks through how to practice essay commentary in a more mindful way as an instructor.

[8] Some of the hesitancy to do wellness work consistently in the classroom comes from my being an adjunct lecturer and feeling less freedom to structure my classes in certain ways.

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