Bringing Movement & Contemplation Into the Classroom

Written by
Karen Costa

Apr 4, 2018

Apr 4, 2018 • by Karen Costa

Stephanie Briggs likes to move, and when she does, it's often to pave her own way. Briggs' higher education journey began at Howard University DC; she was one of the first members of her family to attend college. Once there, she felt the call of New York City, where she could pursue her dreams of working in the theater. As more work opportunities presented themselves, she left NYU before graduating, and for the next 15 years, had her own business working in public relations for dance companies and exercises studios. She calls this her “15‐year sabbatical.” Eventually, Briggs returned to The New School NY to finish her degree.

“I enter into the classroom with that knowledge of working in the world,” she says. In addition to the professional skills she picked up on her journey, including working for public radio and writing for trade publications, Briggs also embarked on what she refers to as a contemplative path, or the process of learning to be still where we are. “I did it to keep sane,” she says, “and to get through the insanity of being an adult.”

A Passion for Education and Movement

Today, as an assistant professor of English at the Community College of Baltimore County MD, Briggs combines her education, work experience and passion for movement and performance with an ever‐deepening knowledge of contemplative practices. Five years into working as a college professor, she began to ask “Who am I?” While she'd started her teaching using a template provided by one of her mentors, Briggs felt a call to become more unconventional and experimental. After studying with various teachers from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, Briggs got moving. So did her students.

“I started using movement in my English classes,” she says. “I was having the students walk around the classroom while they told stories. They were improvising movements and vocalizing.” Briggs started taking her students out of the traditional classroom setting and into the campus's dance studio so that they would have more space and freedom. “I wanted them to move while they read. I put obstacles in the room for them to navigate while walking and reading. When we returned to our regular classroom, they were so much more willing to voice their work.”

Like her students, Briggs has sometimes encountered obstacles as she explores creative teaching methods. She admits that the lack of recognition for the work she's doing can get lonely. “Anyone who wants to do this work,” she says, “needs to understand that it's often a solo path. Contemplative work is misunderstood.”

Building Contemplative Communities

But Briggs is fighting to make that path a little less lonely for those who follow her. She founded the organization Be.Still.Move to increase the use of contemplative practices in higher education. Briggs offers workshops and trainings to institutions interested in “the creation of compassionate contemplative communities.” Her focus is shifting a bit, from students to faculty and staff. She's recently been working on helping faculty from various institutions to develop contemplative communities with students of color. “My focus is on helping faculty to start with themselves, to engage in their own practice. Until you can commit to your own work, you can't do it in the classroom.” She points them toward “the contemplative tree,” a resource provided by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society that displays all the options practitioners have to begin contemplative work. It includes things like vigils and marches, yoga, meditation and volunteering. “It's about helping them to learn that there doesn't always have to be an immediate response,” she says. “If a student comes to you and he or she is upset, just take a breath. That can shift everything.”

Focusing on Empathy

When pressed to define her most significant success, Briggs recalls her recent English composition courses, where for the past year, she and her students have focused on the topic “Developing Empathy as a High‐Impact Practice: How Radical Is That?” Students in the course engage in conversations about topics such as anthem protests during NFL games. As they become more comfortable with the notion of empathy, Briggs says, “They could listen to and understand one another without trying to change the other person. Empathy is not agreement. It's about being present.” The course ends with a research paper on marginalized communities where students learn to examine their own personal biases. Briggs calls the class “a wonderful experiment.”

While the question of how she has fun in her spare time at first elicits a chuckle, Briggs does practice what she preaches and makes time for self‐care, contemplation and creativity. “I spend a lot of time in museums. I like the solitude of that,” she says. She's also known to take long walks with her camera, engaging in what she calls contemplative photography. She hopes to have a medium to share that work soon.

For Briggs, the future is focused on growing Be.Still.Move. “I want to help people manage this place that we live [in]. It's challenging and using up our energy; it can make us ill. We need to pay attention,” she says. Though the work can be lonely, Briggs isn't turning back. “This work is the thing that I fight because I want to. It gives me pleasure to fight it,” she says.