Listening Between the Lines: How Understanding Student Emotions Promotes Their Success

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin toddlers, Dylan and Escher.



Last week, my Humanities 101 students were presenting drawings and reflections about The Epic of Gilgamesh. During presentations, students began communicating with their group members instead of paying attention to the presenter at the front of the classroom. Sound familiar?

In the past I used to get frustrated about this behavior. I gave them plenty of time in their groups to prepare! I’d think. This is disrespectful.  When this happened, I would pause the speaker and urge students to focus. I would implore them to give their classmates the attention they would like to be given. However, it finally struck me that my students’ behavior was both emotionally motivated and completely normal. Students were feeling anxious about their presentations. They wanted to do well, and something had occurred to them, maybe during someone else’s presentation, that might even help make their work stronger if they could only reconnect with each other. They weren’t being given what they needed, so they took matters into their own hands.

For the first time, I decided to handle the situation differently. “It sounds like everyone needs a bit more time to check in with each other,” I said. “This is great. Right after this presentation, we are going to take a five-minute pause so everyone who needs to check in with their group members can do so. Those who have already presented can take a moment of rest. For now, your attention should be placed at the front of the classroom.” Surprisingly, this worked. Attention returned to the presenter and people took their five-minute check-ins between presentations very seriously. The rest of the presentations turned out to be very strong. This was an instance where instead of judging my students’ behavior, I decided to read it. What did they need? How could I help? 

Sometimes a strategy for deeper awareness of student emotion emerges on its own, as in the example above. However, over the years, I have implemented two additional strategies to gain a clear understanding of what students need--especially emotionally--and how I might help. The first strategy is to do quick mindfulness exercises at the start of each class. An example of is what I like to call a “contextual meditation.” I create a meditation for students so that they can center and connect with what is going on for them that day. Since I teach Humanities, I can also incorporate details from our studies. As you breathe in, think of what you are grateful for. Has the bull of heaven destroyed any metaphorical crops in your life? Breathe out that chaos. Mindfulness, or awareness, activities can be playful, like this one, or more serious. They can be as simple as asking students to count to ten and feel their feet planted on the floor. To learn more about some mindfulness practices that my colleague Kate Sanchez and I like to complete with our students, click here: 

After a mindfulness activity, I ask any willing students to speak about what they learned about where they are emotionally. It gives me insights about whether it might benefit us to have more physical movement in class, to do more mindfulness work or whether students are indeed focused, centered, and ready to move forward with course content in a more traditional way. Student reflections about how they are doing also allow me to read between the lines of my own behavior and consider what I might need emotionally to be the best professor I can be. If I am doing my job well, students learn more, and if they are engaging with their own feelings, they are more likely to connect to what they need as learners. Additionally, as a result of this directed work on emotions, students often feel safer reaching out for help with assignments or reaching out for help in other areas of their life that need attention.

 Another strategy that I have learned that helps me understand student emotions is finding ways to make course content about emotional engagement itself. In Humanities 101 we use the lens of human emotion to read our texts. For example, students are thinking about their anger right along with considering anger in the ancient Egyptian story, “The Contendings of Horace and Seth.”  Classroom activities also involve identifying emotions. For example, students recently brainstormed emotion words; each person shared what they were feeling in that very moment if they felt comfortable doing so. We now use our emotion list when reading texts in class to remind us of the emotions that might have been present for those in ancient civilizations. This particular activity was intense. The students in front of me were full of sadness, anxiety, and stress as well as joy, elation, awareness of the bittersweet, and so much more. I wasn’t going to get to know what brought anyone to feel as they did, but it was a deep reminder of how much we carry our whole lives, experiences and emotions with us. It made me much more empathetic to the fellow human beings in front of me. It made students more empathetic to each other—a form of connection that translates well to group work and helping each other. After this activity, a student reported that she spent the rest of the day with the person who had been sitting next to her; they got coffee, worked on assignments and talked more about their anxiety.

These days, I listen for emotion even when it’s not being shared and, when possible, I open space for sharing feelings. My students get better grades than they used to when I first started teaching, which I attribute in part to some of this work. However, the real success, in my opinion, is helping students develop comfort with what they are experiencing inside themselves. Emotional literacy is a translatable skill as well as a survival skill, making classrooms beautiful places to share and learn from our humanity.