Real-Life Examples, Meditation Make For Unique Learning Environment in HDFS 129
As you anxiously move the course HDFS 129: Introduction to Human Development and Family Studies from your enrollment shopping cart to your schedule at exactly midnight on your assigned scheduling date, you might not be expecting much more than an introductory-level class. But soon, you’ll come to realize that it’s a class that might actually be worth going to.
From leading meditations before lectures to passing microphones around the classroom, HDFS professor Molly Countermine finds ways to make her often large classes personal, fun, and engaging.
Countermine is an associate teaching professor within the College of Human Development and Family Studies here at Penn State. After class, she can be found on Phrydays at the Phyrst in downtown State College performing with her band Ted & the Hi-Fi’s.
On top of these personas, she is also the mother of three children — her first-hand experiences watching her children develop usually accompany her lectures. Since HDFS 129 is focused on child development and family life, students feel that being able to listen to Countermine’s personal experiences help them connect with her as a professor and immerse themselves in the material.
When she first began teaching 23 years ago, Countermine was working as an adjunct professor at Penn State and a speech pathologist for Strawberry Fields, a mental health foundation located in State College. At Strawberry Fields, Countermine worked with young children up to three years old and gave them speech therapy sessions in their homes.
The first class that Countermine taught was an infant development course. This was when she began to incorporate anonymous personal examples of the children that she worked with at Strawberry Fields to help her students understand concepts such as temperament, attachment, development, and parenting.
“At the end of the semester, when I got my SRTEs back, the students said over and over again how much they loved the “real-life” examples I used, and how it made the class more interesting, useful, and helped them remember the information,” Countermine said.
Later, after she started her own family and had children, she began to use them as examples, too. When she taught about family relationships, marriage, and divorce, she would use personal examples from her own life to allow her students to effectively understand the concepts.
“It has always been, and continues to be, something my students say is the best part of my teaching,” Countermine said.
“Being able to listen to Professor Countermine’s first-hand experiences with child development in her family was something that really helped me understand different concepts in HDFS 129,” former student Kierstin Charlier said. “By the end of the course, I honestly felt like I knew her family on a personal level.”
In a lecture hall as large as 100 Thomas, Countermine still manages to form connections with her students and make a big class feel small. She offers the opportunity for students to share personal stories related to the lesson by passing around a microphone, which allows a lecture-based class to feel almost like a conversation.
“Obviously not everyone can participate in each discussion, but students listen and nod and support and clap and cheer for each other,” Countermine said. “It blows me away.”
Countermine begins each class with a meditation — she refers to these as “arrival practices.” She introduced arrival practices to her classes in the fall of 2019. After observing a class taught in the fall of 2018 by a colleague and friend, Rob Roeser, called “The Art and Science of Human Flourishing,” where Roeser and his co-teacher Gaby Winqvist did an arrival practice to introduce mindfulness and meditation to the class, Countermine knew that she wanted to incorporate this into her own teaching.
She got the opportunity to teach this same class to a LEAP group during the summer of 2019, and this was when she first started practicing these meditations.
“As the teacher, I got the benefit of hearing the students’ feedback, and they just loved the arrival practices, too,” Countermine said. “So I decided to start implementing them in my other classes, and everyone seems to be benefitting from them.”
She understands how stressful life can get sometimes, especially as a college student working towards a degree. This time to breathe, relax, and let go of stress is unquestionably appreciated by her students.
“It’s really amazing what deep breathing, focusing on the here and now, and being still and quiet together can do for a group of people together,” Countermine said. “Even 600 people!”
“Arrival practices were something that I looked forward to every day of class,” former student Charlier said. “Sometimes it’s hard to decompress without a reminder from someone else.”
Countermine’s expertise, wit, and true passion for what she teaches is what distinguishes her classes from others. While being an introductory course, HDFS 129 not only provides students with profound insight into child development and the role of family structure that they can apply to their own lives, but also an opportunity to be vulnerable with each other.
“We leave the room feeling more connected to ourselves and each other because we don’t feel alone…we know that others have shared our pain, our fears, our hopes, and our dreams,” Countermine said.
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