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It’s mid-morning in an Academy Hall classroom, and 16 freshmen sit quietly at their desks in front of blue books and white instruction sheets. They look like any group about to take a final exam—except that it’s the beginning of the spring term, their eyes are closed, and their writing teacher is providing a unique set of guidelines.
“Sit in a position you can maintain for a while,” intones the teacher, as soft music plays in the background. “Breathe in very deeply all the air you can fit, and breathe out very, very slowly. Let’s take all our cares and responsibilities, including that paper in front of you and anything else that weighs heavily on our hearts, and leave them outside.”
Welcome to Expository Writing as taught at Nichols by English Professor Wayne-Daniel Berard. For almost 20 years he has started his classes with a similar meditation period, designed to free up students’ minds and get them eventually to focus on the writing topics at hand. It doesn’t take long on this Monday for Berard to make a connection to writing.
“Writing is as easy as breathing,” he continues. “We take what’s outside and bring it inside. We call that ‘experience.’ The experiences become part of us and we breathe them back onto the paper.” Over the next 10 minutes, he draws his students’ attention to sensations and feelings literally from their head to their toes, all in preparation for the writing they will be doing over the next 45 minutes.
Berard says that the awareness he reinforces through meditation matches up well with the writing that students will do throughout their time at Nichols. “What I’m really doing is helping them organize their essays,” he explains, beginning with a central idea that comes from the head and working down to the details and concrete examples embodied in the hands and feet. He adds that passing out blue books is no accident: his students are going to have to write in them for the rest of their academic careers.
Today those students open their eyes to a sheet containing five broad topics, including “An Idea I Need to Let Go Of,” “An Idea I Want to Embrace,” and “I Was So Sure…” Expository Writing, one of the two writing courses required during freshman year, encourages personal writing. The second course focuses more on the creation of term papers.
About every two weeks before handing out new assignments, Berard leads his Expository Writing classes through the 15-minute mediation. On other days, students meditate for about five minutes at the start of class.
If this all sounds a little New Age, Berard points out that the writing that emerges from his students is often first-rate. “They write wonderful essays and they get good grades,” he says. “I’m just amazed at how good their writing is and how capable these kids are. One of my students said, ‘Until now, I never understood what the word empowerment meant, although I had heard the word all the time.’
“And these are students whom I asked on Day One of class, ‘Who enjoyed writing in high school?’ and no hands went up.”
Less than a month into the current semester, Berard’s unconventional approach is resonating for freshman Celina Huertas. “The big thing is that it relieves stress and helps me clear my mind and focus,” she says. “I’m writing what I want to write instead of what I have to write.”
Three years ago, Berard and three former Expository Writing students authored a paper about this approach for the scholarly journal Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, published by the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where they also presented their work at a conference.
In the article, current Nichols senior Alexandria Hallam wrote of her breakthrough experience at meditating and writing: “To my surprise I had written an amazing paper. I was proud of my work. Being relaxed with academic work was something I had never been taught before, and for the first time I enjoyed school.”