Holistic education group looks to sustain the 'light and passion' of teaching

Chris Uhl, a biology professor in Penn State's Eberly College of Science, with the stick he frequently uses to hold discussions in the "council" style. Whoever has the stick gets to speak while others listen without interrupting. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It doesn’t look like much, but this stick has powers.

Long from its days as a vital branch on a mighty tree, it’s weathered and stripped of most of its bark. But it still has the ability to bring life to a room, especially when that room is full of educators, willing to bare their souls for a better understanding of what it means to teach as well as what it means to be human.

In late January, that stick was passed around the Holistic Education Faculty Circle, empowering each attendee with the opportunity to speak uninterrupted in the “council” discussion style. That morning, a fresh snowfall gave a bright glow to campus, and there was quite a lot of illumination inside a meeting space in Penn State's Pasquerilla Spiritual Center.

Part support group, part meditation circle, part coffee talk, the gathering is the culmination of a few years of work to create something that acknowledges students as whole beings, shaped by so much more than just what happens in the classroom.

“It’s more than studying four years in a place and becoming competent in a certain area of study,” said biology professor Chris Uhl. “More than becoming skilled in a cognitive pursuit. As one of my colleagues (author and activist) Joanna Macy says — ‘We’re not just brains on a stick.’ And so, how can we cultivate all the things, all the potentialities that we’re born with as human beings — our potential, our capacity for imagination, for play, our emotional development, our capacity to really feel deeply, to express emotions and matters of the spirit?”

The mission of the group is still evolving, but a likely goal will be the creation of an holistic education minor that would be open to all students and/or circles for students that could be “incubators for birthing new ways of being,” Uhl said.

“The pervasiveness of this story that ‘I’m not enough,’ it’s just so deep,” he said. “It comes from the culture. It comes from ‘To be enough, I have to be better than …’ It’s not enough to just be.”

For now, members of the group are trusting the process, embracing the idea that to awaken the deepest understanding in their students they must be their best selves first.

“For so many of us, the light and passion that brought us to teaching and to creating a better world gets buried in busyness and obligation,” said Gaby Winqvist, instructor in the Kinesiology Physical Activity Program. “These circles are a way for us to connect, recognizing that our lights burn brighter in community, on the path of contributing to the inspiration and wholeness of our students and the entire Penn State community.”

January’s circle opened with a guided meditation before the stick made its way through three rounds of sharing. Participants reflected on gratitude, challenges and callings. Tears, hugs and words of encouragement were not uncommon throughout the 90-minute session.

“It is a gift to be part of a caring community at Penn State that is exploring a radically authentic way of being in this world,” said Kami Dvorakova, a doctoral fellow in compassion and caring. “Looking around, I see that all of us are craving meaningful and deep connections and interactions. In these circles, we take away the veils of our differences with the purpose to discover the common core values that we all share: love, compassion and connection. It is a unique opportunity to be able to bring these qualities into our professional work and academic communities.” 

Although much of what’s done in the circle is abstract, several in the group are conducting research on the effectiveness of practices like reflection and meditation, particularly among teachers and students. Dvorakova and others in the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center recently published an article on how mindfulness practices can increase first-year students’ life satisfaction, and decrease depression and anxiety. Her work is made possible by an endowment from Edna Bennett Pierce, which is a part of a larger gift to the College of Health and Human Development by Pierce, Mark Greenberg and Christa Turksma.

For Uhl, it’s freeing to participate in gatherings that aren’t agenda driven — there are no chairpersons, no tasks to be carried out before the next session. At its core, it’s about “giving permission to be yourself.”

“It could be as simple as that,” Uhl said, “as powerful as that.”

To be added to the group’s email list, send a message to Siri Newman at

In discussions, an object can empower a participant, signaling to them and others that it's time to "truth speak," said biology professor Chris Uhl.   Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated March 16, 2017