Promoting Kindness, Community, and an Exploration of Imperfection to Enhance Learning

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Promoting Kindness, Community, and an Exploration of Imperfection to Enhance Learning

Faculty: Register by July 1, 2022 for the second annual Contemplative Institute for Teaching & Learning: Exploring Our Edges, August 8-12, 2022, at the Serenity Ridge Retreat Center in Shipman, Virginia. The event will be co-facilitated by Karolyn Kinane of the Contemplative Sciences Center and Dorothe Bach, of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

Associate Professor of Chinese Zhao Ran knows that when her students speak Chinese in front of other students it accelerates their learning. But Zhao says her students often avoid it because it feels risky. She says they have a fear of making mistakes which they equate with failure or imperfection. 

In 2021 Zhao joined the inaugural Contemplative Institute for Teaching and Learning to help students overcome obstacles like these and to create an atmosphere where students could practice authenticity and self-acceptance.

After attending the institute, Zhao created a low-stakes way for students in her Advanced Chinese class to share their work. She set up an online platform where they were encouraged to practice language skills informally and wouldn’t be graded or penalized for mistakes. 

Students responded positively. “This allowed me to notice the stress I sometimes feel when using new concepts for the first time and consciously reduce that stress by reminding myself I won't be penalized for taking risks,” wrote one student in the end-of-semester evaluation.

Zhao says she was inspired to create a new class as a direct result of attending the institute. The affirmation from student evaluations bolstered her confidence. The class “Unlocking the Treasure Box of Chinese Calligraphy,” debuted in spring 2022. 

“Practicing calligraphy is a form of meditation that can help students feel at peace with themselves,” she says. “They can use the practice time as a time of peace and nourishment while learning about art, aesthetics, and cultural contexts.”

According to Zhao the practice helped students with self-acceptance. “There are so many opportunities for students to reflect on how they act as a human, in particular I’m seeing how they draw lessons from the practice that help them be more accepting of their own imperfections, Zhao says. 

“Although there is a model to copy from, the teaching of calligraphy is: if you mess up a stroke, the most important advice is not to go back and try to fix it; just let it go.”

Zhao says students find this to be challenging. “They report struggling to let it be, to move on to the next one,” Zhao says. “But they are getting better at it over the semester. Students often cite a quote from traditional calligraphy practice: ‘Each stroke has its own life once you write it down. Don’t destroy it by trying to make it prettier.’”

Studying the art of calligraphy in this way has also helped students reflect on broader themes such as examining the culture in which they live. “After a recent lecture,” says Jolinna Li (class of 2024), “I have been thinking about ‘white space’ [in calligraphy] and its purpose a lot. The example goes that the clay is the cup, but it is the empty space that holds the water. While what is there serves as utility, what is not there serves as the actual use,” she says. 

In addition to formal instruction and discussions about Chinese culture, Zhao provid an hour-long period devoted to quiet practice time.

“I think in our modern culture of maximizing productivity and squeezing profits out of every interest, says Jolinna, “we have neglected rest and breaks, which is when life happens with just as much vivacity. Maybe periods of perceived inaction are actually where the most is happening– it is when we can actually process and digest the rush of everyday life. 

Another big part of  the Contemplative Institute is values-alignment, says Kinane. “Faculty feel increased dissonance and stress when their teaching is out of alignment with their values. Being clear about our greatest hopes for students and society can help us show up as more integrated people and reduce moral injury and dissonance,” she says.

For Zhao, that value is kindness. Zhao encouraged students to practice kindness with themselves and one another, as well as a sense of community, and modeled that in the classroom. 

“The importance of how a professor shows up, how they treat and connect with students, can’t be overestimated,” Kinane says. “The Institute asks us to really examine how we enter a room, how we talk to students, and challenges us to practice contemplative pedagogy as a way of living our values in the world.” 

One student commented on this in their evaluation. “Her care allowed me to take better care of myself and others,” the student noted. “She cared about us not only as students, but us as people which allowed us to successfully navigate the stressors that this semester brought.”

Some students credited Zhao’s approach for their ability to learn. “Prof. Zhao's empathetic and compassionate personality was the most significant reason [I learned language skills], and I will remember forever how my experience as one of her students taught me that this world still has good in it.” A different student noted, “I see major changes this year as I write because I recall what I actually learned in class.”

Zhao also wanted to create a sense of community in her classroom. 

“We meet once a week for 150 minutes,” says Zhao, “so students are becoming friends and getting close. Everyone’s work and reflections are all shared on  Padlet [the online posting tool]. In class we do a lot of sharing as well so they know this is something we are working together through as a community.”

In anonymous reports, Zhao says students explained how such activities built their own self awareness and linked them to a strong sense of community and belonging, which boosted language-learning objectives. 

“Those moments of joy, connection, and learning together are real and heartwarming,” Zhao says. “As a teacher I feel honored to be able to witness this kind of learning, especially for students with no background in Chinese! I heard from a Computer Science major that the class was the smallest class he has ever taken. He conveyed how very special and necessary this course has been. I have seen him making friends and becoming a beloved member of this community.”


Comments from student evaluations of the class included the following:

“Class activities that involved students sharing their past experiences really helped me get to know one another and become more self aware.” 

“Having the opportunity to talk with […] other members of the UVA student language learning community made me feel more confident than ever speaking Chinese. Interacting with my other students virtually and in-class and outside class allowed me to become a greater part of the larger UVA Chinese community.” 

“Such experiences of belonging “are priceless,” Kinane says. 

According to Zhao, the institute “The Institute helped me realize and confirm the value and importance of providing rigorous academic courses that contribute to student flourishing. The framework of contemplative pedagogy plus the community in the institute ensured that I could integrate academic learning objectives into course design in a way that nourishes rather than depletes students.”


Pictured: Cate Bailey Hill (Class of 2024) with Chinese calligraphy. Translation: Safe and Sound in All Seasons

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Forthcoming Articles

“Reflection and Transformation,” Indu Ohri Department of English, UVA / College of General Studies - Humanities, Boston University