Spotlight on the Somatic

By Karen Effa (Educator, MEd in IE; IE mentor)

One of the benefits of being on sabbatical is a mind freed from the swirl of tomorrow’s lesson plans, providing the quiet needed to contemplate the how and why of shifts that took place in students’ psyches during certain classes. Today, I would like to share a profound experience from the end of last year, in the hope that it will encourage you to look for ways to incorporate Imaginative Education’s, the oft neglected, somatic (or body-based) kind of understanding  in your lessons.

The end of June was just around the corner, and once again, I was racing the clock to have students complete meaningful summative assessments and wrap up term projects. I decided to combine the conclusion of our unit on social skills, specifically nonverbal communication, and multiple other assessments by bringing my dog into the classroom. I was confident that the presence of my chocolate and cream, long-haired dachshund would calm their test jitters and serve as an excellent illustration of the power of body language.

Boston’s presence in the classroom was a surprise, and its novelty won me the students’ undivided attention. Placing him on a table, in the middle of the room, I introduced the students to him and asked them to observe his stance.

“What do you see?”

“What could it mean?”

“Why might he be feeling this way?”

At first, the comments revolved around the outward characteristics – long ears, brown fur, short legs.

“What else?” I prompted. Slowly, it came.

“Big eyes, with white showing.”

“Tail tucked between his back legs.”

“He’s shaking!”

“What is he communicating through his body?”

“He’s nervous. Scared. Anxious.”


For the students to answer these questions, they needed to see the situation from Boston’s perspective, but to do this they needed to reflect on when their own bodies go stiff and shake. What made them feel nervous, overwhelmed, threatened, and anxious? This then needed to be applied back to the dog. This might sound very simple, but in actuality, it requires several cognitive leaps which necessitates a certain maturity.

After more discussion, we guessed that dog pack hierarchy and their norms was making Boston very unsure. “Was this new pack friendly?” “Would they accept him?” “Where would he fit it?” It was a bit mind-warping for the students to juggle their comfort in our safe and friendly classroom with Boston’s obvious distress. His perception was causing him anxiety that was obviously unwarranted from their experience. Now, how could we answer his questions?

I had all the students sit in a circle on the floor with a dog treat in their closed hand. One after the other, they called him over. At first, it was only his insatiable desire for the treats he could smell which had him overcome his reluctance and uncertainty. But as hand after hand uncurled to reveal something yummy, his confidence returned, the tail wagged, and his step bounced. His moist nose, tentatively trusting, nuzzled hands, to discover trustworthiness and kindness all around him.

The students were spellbound. They had observed and experienced several profound aspects about body language and anxiety, which in a mysterious way, changed their perspective and response to their own anxiety. The rest of the day, the students moved through their test taking in a much more relaxed manner. They delighted in continuing to affirm Boston.

The success of this day was steeped in the somatic kind of understanding. It incorporated the cognitive tools of the senses, emotions, and gesture . At a level beyond what most students could express in words, they understood the importance of paying attention to their own and others body language, as it was loudly communicating internal perceptions. Also, observing that some anxiety is unfounded seemed to loosen their personal stress about test taking.

I am convinced that if I could find authentic ways of tying more of my lessons to this primordial way of making sense of our world, my students would experience a deeper engagement and understanding of the material.

“Educating for personal knowing requires an approach to learning that is based in direct sensory experience” (Erickson, 1985).

Reference List

Erikson, J. M. (1985). Vital senses: Sources of lifelong learning. Journal of Education, 167(3), 85-96.

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