Sara K. Schneider's Skin in the Game

Reflections on body, culture, and spiritual practice

Who’s the Who of the Body? Adventures in Bodily Misrecognition

You’re in a conference room, wondering why all these seemingly intelligent people around the table can’t seem to remember what this “follow-up” meeting is a follow-up to. You all remember there was a “launch” meeting two weeks ago, but from among the nine (occasionally prodigious) brains around the table, there doesn’t seem to be a whole one to be assembled from all the pieces that has a hope of reconstructing what decisions you all made.

And then there’s that young fellow you’re pretty sure is the lover of the long-lived VP sitting two seats down. The innocent keeps offering ideas that sound suspiciously like his man-friend’s. Why are they beaming at each other as each thinks he’s thinking his own thoughts?

Many of the world’s mystical traditions tell us that the apparent separateness of bodies covers over a deeper reality: that there is a seamless continuity between you and all those who are apparent “others”: Not only is your neighbor as yourself, your neighbor is yourself. So is everybody (and — guess what? — everything) else.

Aside from our religious or spiritual perspectives, in our everyday rounds we live out what could be considered a very rough but down-to-earth, social counterpart of the idea that bodies do not house distinct selves. Identity can be intersubjective. We think the thoughts others have shared with us as if they were our own, as in the rapid volleying of the same idea between the lovers at the conference table. We carry forward our parents’ judgments while not recognizing their source (probably far before even them). We catch the mood of the testy traveler verbally assaulting the airline employee at the ticket counter.

That intersubjectivity can extend from the phenomenon of more than one person thinking the same thoughts or experiencing each other’s moods to the sharing of identity through physical likeness — think of identical twins’ potential for experiencing themselves as a collective being, perhaps in response to other people’s confusion of one twin for the other.

I find that I think of the sharing of selves across bodies in connection with the frequency with which I am taken to be someone else in public places. Here’s what happens:

I’ve made a special trip to a suburban mall, and am striding swiftly toward the “anchor” store that carries the cosmetics brand I’m seeking. Echo! I hear a woman call out from where she is sitting. I keep walking: that’s not me anyway. Echo! she exclaims again, her voice edging toward me this time with lightning bolt edges. Why the urgency? I wonder. And, people name their children that?

The woman’s no longer sitting, she too is striding, with energy and toward me, a smile tinged with anxiety on her face. Though she’s not holding her arms open to me, she walks in an open-hearted way.

She thinks I’m Echo. Hesitantly, I think I should be kind: this woman will be disappointed, her tender heart tumbled a bit, when it turns out I am not her long-lost friend (relative?). It’s only as we get within about eight feet from each other, that her expression of joy, as at a surprise reunion, turns. Yet it’s not disappointment I’m reading on her face, but apparent confusion. I’m not her younger sister’s best friend from home; there’s something about me that clues her in. Yet, because I remind her so much of  Echo, in a sense I’m also not not her.

The woman stays glued to me after asking me my name. The woman, who without apparent embarrassment introduces herself to me as Pamela, seems fond of me — like longtime fond. Why does she hang on, as if she’s hoping that through gentle persistence I will be Echo after all? We chat a bit. She tells me about her sister’s friend and how long it’s been since she’s seen her, about the time Teresa and Echo carried the regional debate team. She wants to hang on. Soon it seems she’s talking to me as if I were Echo.

And what’s happening to me? From the very point at which I recognize that she has mistaken me for someone else, I have been somewhat willing to play the part, to give the woman the experience of recognition and reunion. In some sense, if I look that much like her, aren‘t I Echo (whoever she is)? At a certain point, I’m not just humoring Pamela: I’m entertaining the idea that, on some plane, in some respect, I am Echo.

Obama opposite his Indonesian lookalike Ilham Anas in Reuters photo

Over and over again this happens: something like the same self appearing in different bodies. The Indonesian Obama lookalike is a local celebrity peppered with questions about American politics. Your new girlfriend looks an awful lot like your last one, and for some reason you think you’ve already told her the things you only told the beforehand woman. The teacher at your kids’ school routinely punishes both of the twins when it’s only Natalia who goads the other girls at recess. An auditorium full of (probably) heterosexual men raise their hands, indicating they believe Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are gay because they played cowboys in love in Brokeback Mountain (and they still look rather a lot like themselves).

The Hindu dictum Thou Art That has been interpreted to mean that the self we take ourselves to be is none other than the universal self present in all. Personality can be taken on and shed at will; indeed, it has always been only a put-on. Thou Art That suggests that the fact of having different bodies or shells should not be taken to represent genuinely distinct selves. Add to that the phenomenon of mistaken identity, and, in a sense, neither the self nor the body can be said truly to “belong” to any one. They are both slippery surfaces — which is why, in literature, meeting one’s doppelgänger, or physical double, is tantamount to coming face to face with one’s own death — the death, that is, of one’s ego. Save a lot of money on your Halloween costume and check the mirror; a character is ready for the playing, no special accoutrements needed.

Sarah Snazell, artist
“Doppelgaenger” oil painting by Sarah Snazell.

October 13, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S. | Leave a comment

Physical Education

Moving to learn is not just for kindergartners: it’s for everyone who has a body.

While young students regularly play with “manipulables”– props that help them “get” concepts in math and literacy, older ones can deepen their understanding of cell mitosis or the concept of checks and balances in American government. They can gain the feeling of an historical period or culture, or acquire, through their bodies, deep understanding of otherwise abstract artistic and mathematical principles such as contrast and symmetry. The potential for learning through active strategies is both wide and deep.

Adults, too, can be powerfully affected by moving to learn. Paradoxically, it may be those adults who are not confident movers for whom learning through the body can be the most affecting, in part, learning psychologist Dawna Markova argues, because bodily activity activates the deepest, most unconscious modes of understanding for them.

As teachers become willing to wrestle with the extra work of making activity centers, the vulnerability-enhancing playing of experiential simulations, or the practicing of yoga with their students to enhance their social-emotional learning, they re-experience what their students do — the awkwardness, uncertainty, and jagged learning curve of trying to acquire an understanding for the first time. They not only provide but have powerful learning experiences.

Using their own bodies in their professional roles, teachers help students build both passion for the learning they face together and trust for where the teacher is trying to take them; it also inspires them to higher levels of achievement.

What follows are suggestions for integrating movement into the general education classroom experience. Teachers don’t need to be either “perfect” or “graceful” to do this. All they need is a willingness to try alongside their students. A grand leap from “just read about it” or “just talk about it,” it’s literally a “just do it”!

Trying Out Putting Learning on Its Feet

1. Build trust.

As you participate with your students and learn more about movement that you can use in your classroom, be mindful of any attempt to exploit the study of mind-body disciplines such as yoga, tai chi, and other martial arts for the purposes of classroom management or control. This can be a swift way to destroy the trust you have worked long to cultivate with your students! While it is true these practices can instill significant learning and health benefits for the students, including the ability to self-soothe, to direct attention, or to contribute to a caring classroom environment, students can readily sense the difference between adults who bring them these methods in order to control their behavior and those who treat their bodies respectfully, as students’ own.

A speech therapist in one of my workshops was flabbergasted by the improvement in rapport between her and one of her students, a boy with ADHD and receptive and expressive language delays. Together they did simple yoga balances — such as the popular Tree pose — and practiced conscious breathing. Afterward, she reflected, “Seeing his teacher trying to balance, and teaching him how to fall using muscle control created a different type of relationship between us. We had sorely needed something positive. It was powerful.”

2. Even though this work is highly motivating, set realistic expectations.

Nowadays, children may be as divorced from their bodies as once only adults were! A teacher of fourth and fifth graders was able to get her students to develop an impressively wide array of synonyms for the words calming, energizing, and focusing — the types of yoga poses they would practice together to enhance learning readiness. However, once they got up on their feet and began practicing, she reported back, students had difficulty accessing actual body sensations and putting names to them.

Students who don’t even realize they’re flying off the handle can’t instantly calm themselves: they need first to become aware of their anger, frustration, fear, sadness, or other negative emotion. Learning to articulate their feeling and bodily states will precede students’ ability and willingness to explore alternative expressions.

3. Recognize opportunities for making a concept real to a student physically.

The body is available to help with many different types of learning, which is why I like to refer to kinesthetic intelligences, in the plural. In some learning tasks, simple bodily repetition of a motion solidifies the learning “in the body,” as when learning to use scissors. In others, pairing a motion with a musical or verbal cue can help to embed learning in memory: think of the scene in the film Akeelah and the Bee in which the main character spells “effervescent” perfectly as she beats time jumping rope. Kinesthetic learning also pairs beautifully with intrapersonal, interpersonal, and spatial tasks, such as discovering one’s relationship to a poem by moving as it is recited, learning to tell time by becoming a “body clock,” or participating in social simulation games — all examples of successful lessons implemented by teachers I have worked with.

4. Don’t confuse learning through movement with performing through movement. Rehearse, don’t perform.

Much of the literature on multiple intelligences has answered to teachers’ anxiety about how to assess learning activities that are not paper and pencil-based. It’s thus easy to confuse kinesthetic learning with kinesthetic assessment, the sometimes-inauthentic performances of learning that have so often been inelegantly used to determine what children understood from a unit.

Preparing for a performance is quite a different task than putting learning on its feet. For most students and most body-based learning activities, the true learning that is available resides in the experience of figuring something out using the body, in the “rehearsal.” When a student experiments, on his feet, in order to discover the meaning of a Langston Hughes poem, he is simultaneously thinking critically in ways that affect his movement and moving in ways that develop his thinking. Similarly, acting out where on the ill-fated Titanic the poorer people and the wealthier would have been housed offers students more potential for insight and for meaningful connections about social class in its historical perspective than does the performance of the eventual scene for the class. Consider giving more weight to students’ approach to rehearsal than to their performances.

5. Keep students’ (and teachers’) bodily experience their own.

Be careful that, as you bring students’ bodies into play in the classroom, you let decisions about how they use their bodies reside with them. As a Chicago-area third-grade teacher said, students “are capable of making appropriate decisions about what their bodies need.” Give students freedom not to participate, for whatever reason, so long as they are not distracting the others. More often than not, given the opportunity to watch first, and see a teacher who’s “in there,” moving along with her students, students will come and participate, once they’re ready.

Remember that the teacher’s willingness to model, her respect for students’ bodily experience, and her exercising of her imagination about ways to use physical activity to reach learners are all much more vital to students’ learning experience than her expertise as a mover. Put on your own “thinking feet” and, with your students, take them for a walk.

What have you learned through doing, trying, practicing– whether in a class or “on the street,” either recently or long ago?

And if you’re looking for further ideas about how to put learning and thinking on their feet, see some school-ready resources in the post below.

October 13, 2010 Posted by | Resources & How-To | 1 Comment

School-Ready Resources for Kinesthetic, or Body-Based, Learning

Armstrong, T. (2000). Multiple intelligences in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Bryner, Andy, and Dawna Markova. 1996. An unused intelligence: A handbook for implementing the five disciplines of learning organizations. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press.

Campbell, L., Campbell, B., & Dickinson, D. (2004). Teaching and learning through multiple intelligences. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Campbell, M., Leibowitz, M., Mednick, A., & Rugen, L. (1998). Guide for planning a learning expedition. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt.

Fontana, D., & Slack, I. (1997). Teaching meditation to children: Simple steps to relaxation and well-being. London: Thorsons.

Gilbert, A. G. & Smith, H. P. (1992). Creative dance for all ages: A conceptual approach. American Alliance for Health and Physical Education.

Griss, S. (1998). Minds in motion: A kinesthetic approach to teaching elementary curriculum. Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Jensen, E. (2000). Learning with the body in mind: The scientific basis for energizers, movement, play, games, and physical education. San Diego: The Brain Store.

Komitor, J. B., & Adamson, E. 2000. The complete idiot’s guide to yoga with kids. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books.

Rotz, R., & Wright, S.D. 2005. Fidget to focus: Outwit your boredom: Sensory strategies for living with ADD. New York: iUniverse.

Schewe, M. L. (2002). “Teaching foreign language literature: Tapping the students’ bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.” In G.
Bräuer, (Ed). Body and language: Intercultural learning through drama (pp. 73-93). Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing.

Spolin, V. (1986). Theater games for the classroom. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Walling, D. R. (2006). Teaching writing to visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Wenig, M. (2003). Yogakids: Educating the whole child through yoga. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

Wilhelm, J. R. (2002). Action strategies for deepening comprehension: Role plays, text-structure tableaux, talking statues, and other enactment techniques that engage students with text. Jefferson City, MO: Scholastic Professional Books.

Wormeli, R. (2005). Summarization in any subject: 50 techniques to improve student learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

October 13, 2010 Posted by | Resources & How-To | Leave a comment

Practice on “Having an Offline” While Online

Have something to eat while working at your computer. This may be nothing new for you.(I certainly can’t pretend I don’t do this. That delicious coffee- house Hot Peppermint Mocha three computers ago? Well, it had a solidifying effect under the keys of that laptop. An expensive wintertime treat!)

Variation: Have a meal over Skype with a distant relative or friend. What can you tell about how the food tastes to them?

October 13, 2010 Posted by | Body Culture in the U.S., Insight Practices | 1 Comment