Kaepernick Conversations and Embodied Learning

By Dena Samuels

The other day, I decided to scrap my planned curriculum for my Social Justice Studies class and discuss San Francisco 49’ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the playing of the national anthem. I was inspired to do this by my colleague, Dr. Stephany Rose, an African American professor who also teaches Social Justice Studies. She had said that because of her race, her students had immediately asked her opinion on the subject before she had even heard about the situation. She was expected to not only know about it even though she doesn’t follow sports, but also have thought about it and been able to convey a response simply because of her skin color. I noticed my students had not asked me the same question.

As a white woman, I was not expected to know about it much less have a well-thought out response at the ready.

Thus, I felt it was my responsibility to take it on and bring it into my class. I showed a video clip of Kaeparnick in his own words where he articulates his reasons for taking a stand by sitting. I asked students to reflect on their own feelings and to discuss in pairs their responses to Kaepernick’s civil disobedience. A lively discussion ensued.

What I notice in these kinds of discussions is that despite the deep emotions students feel around issues such as this, they believe that in a school setting, they are supposed to leave their bodies and emotions at the door and bring in only their intellect. It is what those of us who were educated in the U.S. have been taught we’re supposed to do in a school setting.

When we take the approach, however, of leaving our emotional and physical responses out of the conversation, we become disembodied humans, cut off at the head. Research has shown that this can have deleterious effects on our health and wellbeing. We stuff our emotions and the way those emotions manifest in our bodies, and this can cause a myriad of physical and psychological disorders. Further, when we’re only using our mental capacities to understand a situation, we are missing out on so many other ways of knowing that could help us not only to understand situations more comprehensively, but also help us find much more robust solutions.

What if, instead, we found ways to bring our whole selves into our learning processes? What might it open up not only in our teaching, but also in our students’ learning?

Here are a few suggestions for how to take the conversation deeper:

  1. In order to go to these deeper places, it is important to establish Community Guidelines for Interaction, which allows students to create an effective, trusting, respectful learning community in which they are more likely to engage.
  2. As an educator, it’s important that we do our own work around processing emotions so that we are prepared to handle a myriad of emotions when they arise in the classroom.
  3. When we invite students to bring their whole selves into the room, we can ask them to pay attention to the emotions that arise. We can ask them to consider not only their intellectual, logical response to the situation, but also the emotions that are coming up about the situation.
  4. Sometimes simply articulating our emotions is enough to decompress or de-escalate them. Students can do so in pairs, or perhaps as a free-write or journaling assignment to give them the opportunity to sort through their feelings, and then choose whether or not they want to share with a partner or their classmates in group discussion.
  5. Going deeper, we can ask them where in their bodies they feel those emotions. In U.S. society, we are not often, if ever, invited to do this, so it might take some practice. Often when we focus on that part of our bodies, the strength of the emotion can dissipate in a healthy way.
  6. If students are given the opportunity to understand the benefits of and practice embodied learning, they will have an incredible toolbox from which to draw when emotions come up in other areas of their lives. Of course, it’s important to have practiced these techniques as educators first before bringing them into the classroom. And we can always reach out for support from our peers and school services if needed.

Encouraging the emotional conversation to occur in the classroom the other day allowed different voices to be heard. Some supported Kaepernick’s actions; others were challenged by them. It was not a debate but a supportive environment to express logical, thoughtful, and yes, emotional responses to a relevant topic. Allowing these conversations to flourish calls students, all of them, into the room to learn from each other and grow.

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