The tumultuous events of 2020 highlighted our differences. This year, the key to our collective healing might be the one thing we all have in common: our bodies.
“Everyone is specific, but everyone has a body,” says Aysha Upchurch, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Upchurch’s research on embodied learning revolves around the idea that the mind and the body are one — an idea that flies in the face of classic academic thinking (just google “Cartesian split”). Of the mind-body divide, Upchurch explains, “we know this a lie, but still, we focus on cognitive processes as if cognition happens outside of this body…. For too long we have normalized disembodiment.”
This “normalized disembodiment” is particularly evident in schools, where students spend hours seated with their knees and feet tucked beneath their desks, eyes tracking their teachers. In the past 15 months, disembodied learning took on a whole new dimension, with students and educators swapping classrooms for Chromebooks, in-person connections for asynchronous lectures.
For many educators, this summer — the first since the pandemic without substantial health-related restrictions — offers an opportunity to unplug and to heal. Done right, that healing can and will recenter the body. Here’s how.
1. Be “away.”
The demands on educators over the past year have been overwhelming — or, as Upchurch puts it, “I-N-T-E-N-S-E.” To recuperate, Upchurch encourages every educator to take a well-deserved break. “Invite yourself to put an away message on your email, whether you’re away or not, to signal to folks that you need to reclaim moving around — that you need to abandon the transactional relationship of being at a desk,” says Upchurch.
To those who feel obligated to be “productive” over the summer, Upchurch offers a reminder that productivity is subjective: it may look different from person to person.
“Rest is productive,” says Upchurch, offering a personal example. “I knew I needed a break [at the end of the semester]. I didn’t realize how much I was pushing and doing, and how much it was taking to sustain. The most productive thing I could do with fealty to what I’d been through was rest.”
2. Show gratitude to your body.
Your body may be aching from too many hours at a desk, or it may be a bit softer than it was before the pandemic. Regardless, says Upchurch, you should show it some love.
“For those of us who have made it, who have literally survived, our bodies did what our brain needed,” she says. “If your body secured some extra support — some call it the COVID 15 — recognize that maybe your body needed that support to handle everything it was faced with.”
Upchurch suggests a simple, habitual practice that she uses in her own life to show your body gratitude. “The first thing I do every morning is take a smiling breath, and say thank you. I need that to trigger gratitude. Even if I wake up with some physical pain, I’m still going to be thankful that this body, this brain, my whole integrated body, for better or for worse, did what it did and kept me here.”
3. Have grace.
With distancing and masking restrictions lifting, people are exhibiting varied comfort levels around social gathering. The best response to social discomfort, says Upchurch, is grace.
“As we saw from all the demonstrations and marches to protest the sanctioned killing of Black bodies by police systems, gathering is an act of embodied protest. Marching is an embodied demonstration. Dancing is a necessary part of releasing and communicating. As we recover, I want to encourage people to remember that there are ways that certain communities lean into each other — literally. Don’t be so quick to judge if you see a group of people gathering …. A community’s hugging and high-fiving is them recovering and recuperating together, because that is what their bodies and collective identities know how to do.”
In the face of this anxiety and confusion, she adds a gentle reminder: “Social well-being is also public health.”
4. Play — just play.
To counteract the disembodiment of traditional teaching and learning practices, Upchurch advises embodiment in the form of play — simple play.
“Literally, get up and play,” she encourages. “Twirl, skip, jump, swing, roll, nap, dance, run, whatever — do it. We educators need singing, dancing, playing, and then rest.”
To play properly, educators should carefully study play’s experts. “Look at little kids playing, and then play with them. Afterwards, invite yourself to bring that movement, that presence, back into your own bodily practice.”
5. Remember these lessons.
Playing is well and good, but what does this have to do with school in the fall?
According to Upchurch, everything. “Play and rigor are not enemies,” she says, stressing that play time can also be educational, rather than just a break. When our minds and bodies are engaged in play, she says, we are learning in a way that might be more authentic for the learner.
For educators, this means that a summer of play can serve as a valuable a professional development experience, one that will teach crucial lessons on embodied learning. These lessons can be applied directly in classrooms, schools, and districts in the fall.
“Once we can navigate past the pandemic safety measures, why rush to put the classroom back into the space it was in?” asks Upchurch, pointing to the changes already taking place in classrooms as they roll back pandemic restrictions and rethink their physical spaces. “Why not use this opportunity to recenter the body and play?”