I’ve been involved with alternative education for much of the past decade, having taught in an alternative school for seven years, and am now digging deeper into learning and learning styles through Antioch West in Seattle. I’ve picked up many useful approaches along the way, but it wasn’t until I studied with Beverly Galyean at the Brain/Mind Institute in Los Angeles that I found a framework in which these approaches could be used appropriately for helping students. That framework is called Confluent Education.
"Confluent" refers to the process of holistic learning, involving body, mind, emotion and spirit. In educational settings the term is used to describe methods for teaching traditional subjects such as math, science, social studies, reading, language arts, physical education and fine arts by applying effective, introspective, intuitive, body/mind, movement, and kinesthetic types of activities to the lessons being taught. In this process the students learn multi-dimensionally about themselves and others at the same time they are learning the traditional subject matter.
How does all this work in practice? Let me illustrate by describing the use of confluent techniques in a traditional classroom session:
The students are all sitting in the classroom, waiting for today’s class to begin. One student is telling another that he may go home sick after this class. He should have stayed home all day but he really didn’t want to miss this class. On other days when he felt like he wasn’t going to make it, he says this class revitalized him. The teacher is visiting with some students on the side of the room. She excuses herself from the conversation and asks everyone to get ready to start. The students sit down while the teacher moves to the front of the room.
She begins the class by explaining that they have only 5 minutes for clearing time today because they have to cover another concept before the next evaluation time. One girl raises her hand and says her birthday is in two days. Another tells how she had argued with her father last night. Someone else has a headache today. A boy says he is going to fly to Arizona to visit his cousins during vacation. The boy who was talking about feeling sick before class says that his parents might be getting a divorce and he feels like it is his fault somehow. Other students comment briefly, many of whom had similar feelings. The teacher asks if he wants to talk about it anymore with the class. He says no, and she encourages him to bring it up again in future clearing times if he wants to. Then she closes the clearing time by asking everyone to lean back in their seats, close their eyes, and relax. She continues, saying, "With your eyes closed tell your story in your head. We will take a minute or two to do this, and then mentally project it out into the room for everyone to share." She pauses for about a minute and a half; then tells them to finish up their stories, shake their hands and feet a little, open their eyes and come back to the classroom ready for today’s lessons.
This clearing time is directly valuable for the students and it also enables the rest of the period to be more effective. The emotional turmoil from events outside the classroom interferes with the student’s ability to concentrate. The clearing takes place by recognizing that emotions are significant, they are important to each individual, and they can be talked about. They can be faced and dealt with, or they can be acknowledged and temporarily set aside in order to go on to something else. The teacher is not expected to psychoanalyze the students, just acknowledge their feelings without criticism or judgment. Perhaps most important, the students learn that they are not alone – other people have the same fears and joys.
The teacher then tells the class that they are going to start a creative writing unit. The unit will deal with making expressive word choices, communicating ideas, feelings, attitudes, and putting their thoughts together in new and intriguing ways. The teacher explains how creative writing increases their power to communicate with other people effectively. She illustrates how a dramatic story can be used to put across an idea more powerfully than factual argument by describing the impact of the movie THE DAY AFTER. She even talks about how information in the story format engages the right brain as well as the left brain.
Then she asks them to imagine situations where they might need creative writing skills. Afterwards the students share ideas about how the skills would be useful in specific management jobs, leadership roles, and in parenting. The teacher then points out how they have been successfully creative in previous activities, and how they have been successful in previous writing assignments. She leaves no doubt in their minds that they have the ability to combine their creativeness with their writing skills.
The teacher let the class know exactly what the learning goal was so that students could measure their progress, and then she gave them various reasons for learning the new skill. She used several different methods to do this – direct statements, examples, and imaginative role-play – so that the many different learning styles of the students would be spoken to.
Her next goal was to have the students believe they could be successful so they would approach the exercise with a sense of anticipation and trusting exploration.
The teacher tells the students that she wants to take a minute to make sure they are centered before they do a writing exercise. She chooses one of the centering exercises with which they are already familiar. On the count of three, she has them take a deep breath with their eyes closed, hold it, then exhale with a slight sigh. She pauses, then says, "Imagine you are breathing in the freshness of a cool ocean or lake – and as you breathe out you are getting rid of all the tiredness, tension, and distraction you might be feeling at this time. One, two, three, breathe in the freshness, hold it, breathe out the tiredness, tension or distraction." She has them do this again, and then wiggle their feet and toes, fingers and arms as they open their eyes. She tells them they can stretch their whole body if they need to at this time. She tells them that the feeling of gentle relaxation flowing through their bodies makes them ready for the writing exercise.
She then tells them she is going to show them a picture of a rose. After they have had a minute to look at the rose, they will be asked to write a poem which doesn’t have to rhyme, a description, or a story about the rose. They are told that they will have three minutes to do the writing. She asks them to do the best they can but not to worry if they find this first exercise difficult. She encourages them to use words that seem particularly descriptive to them even if they are not words they would normally use. She points out that they won’t be stretching their capabilities if they do not try new ways of writing. After dimming the lights, she projects a colored slide of a beautiful rose on the screen in front of the room for one minute, then has the students write for three minutes.
After they are finished, she asks them how they feel about their creative writing effort. Some students comment on how difficult it was to come up with ideas. She asks them to raise their hands in response to different questions. Most of the class raises their hands when she asks if they had trouble finding enough to say to fill up the three minute time period. Just a couple students raise their hands when she asks who would like to share their writing.
"Next,"she says, "we will do a guided imagery. " She tells them they will be visiting a rose garden. She asks them to think back – do they have a favorite kind of rose, a favorite colored rose, have they ever given or received a rose? Then she dims the lights again, turns on some soft music and asks them to close their eyes, taking a slow deep breath on the count of three. They continue with the breathing as in the centering exercise. Then she says, "Find a wonderful road and place yourself on this road … The day is beautiful and there is much sun… Enjoy the beauty of the day… Continue walking down your road until you find a rose garden… There are hundreds of roses in this garden… Look around until you find one special rose… You will know this rose because it will stand out among the others… Examine your rose… Look at it carefully… Notice the color… the texture… Feel the stem, the delicate petals… the thorns… Smell your rose… Take a deep breath and allow the scent to fill your lungs… to fill every cell in your body… Silently, within your own mind, tell your rose how beautiful it is… Now give your rose a voice and let it say something nice to you… Thank your rose for being there for you and prepare yourself to return to us here in the room… fully alert… refreshed… and ready to work with the imagery… On the count of three open your eyes… wiggle your feet and toes… and stretch your arms, hands and fingers. " (Galyean, Mindsight, 1983)
After she turns the lights back up, the teacher tells the students to again write for three minutes about a rose. When they finish, she again asks how many had troubles finding enough to say in three minutes. Not one student raises his/her hand. This time more than half the class would like to share their writing. They discuss the creative use of words in the writings that are shared – the emotional impact of some words, the clear images created by particular phrases, the overall tone of the writing. The teacher stresses the success they have experienced in creative writing, and the improvement between their first writing attempt and the second. As the period comes to an end she asks them to picture themselves as powerful writers, and to notice details, clear descriptions, and words that capture their imagination.
Guided imagery is used frequently in the confluent classroom because:
- it allows each student to explore the topic in their own way;
- it provides the limbic system in the brain with positive associations to learning;
- imagery is an effective way of involving all of the student’s senses in the learning
- it validates their feelings as a source of personal meaning;
- it increases their self-awareness;
- it integrates their inner senses with learning.
Confluent education techniques encourage a classroom atmosphere that students find both safe and empowering. One study with students in a public school who used imagery three or more times a week showed 25% fewer instances of disruptive behavior than students in other classes. Students also score significantly higher on reading, writing, and oral communications skills.
Teaching to the whole person not only works; it works better.