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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A photo of a full bowl of water, with one drop going into it.

Day after day, I entered my psycho-physical education classroom at New Roads Middle School, primed and prepared to facilitate an inspiring lesson full of mindful practices. And day after day, I felt subtle disappointment as students stumbled in rowdy from recess and fumbled their way through the necessary task of moving the eight full-size tables and 25 chairs aside to make space for our work. A chore that could take well under five minutes was eating up our class time and starting our class period with a raucous energy.

I tried assigning students to particular desks as they walked through the door. This helped establish greater participation, but the noise level was still an issue. I tried whispering to students as they entered the room to set a quiet tone. The noise level receded, but the chaos and clatter of tables and chairs banging into each other was still an obstacle to the peaceful experience I intended to create for our class.

I even tried arriving very early and moving the furniture myself, at which point I realized I was over-handling the situation. I was taking full responsibility, rather than trusting my students with their fair share. In short, I wasn't applying my pedagogy to transition time. Instead, I was trying to completely manage the transition so that we could get to the lesson sooner.

As good ideas often do, this one landed like a ton of bricks -- it's the journey, not the destination.

Calming the Waters

That night I spent my lesson planning time in contemplation on my cushion, rather than at my computer. "How can I integrate the necessary classroom housekeeping into the content of our curriculum?" I listened. I waited. Aha!

The next morning, I rounded up eight colorful plastic bowls from my kitchen and packed them along with a large jar of water. Upon arrival at my classroom, I placed a half-full bowl of water on each table. I placed the portable whiteboard near the entrance of the room so that as every student walked in, he or she would read this message:

KEEP THE FLOOR DRY, PLEASE.

Then I stood at the back of the room and observed as each student's mind stopped for a brief moment. Novelty led to curiosity, and as they carried on with the regular task of moving desks, the mundane was transformed into a simple exercise of mindful movement and peer cooperation.

The tables seemed to float on thin air. Not a single bang or drop. Voices were hushed as eyes focused on the colorful bowls of water that were ready to splash if not well attended.

After my students quietly and mindfully prepared the room, without spilling a drop of water, I congratulated them and asked them to reflect on how the classroom felt different on that day compared with the usual way we conducted the furniture task. I wrote their responses on the board. In their own words:

  • More calm
  • Peaceful
  • Organized
  • Less crazy
  • Together
  • Focused
  • Balancing
  • Not a drag

I was pleased at how attuned my students were to the emotional difference associated with this minor change in protocol.

The next day, students entered the room and inevitably asked, "Where are the bowls?" "Go and see," I replied. On each table was a piece of paper on which I'd written their very words from the previous day describing the positive difference they felt when applying mindfulness to an ordinary task. Students were pleased to see their own words instructing the activity.

Again, our time together began with a sense of ease.

The following day, I put nothing on the tables. When students inquired, I asked them to visualize a sleeping baby jaguar in the center of each table. I watched students hold each other accountable for being very quiet indeed, both vocally and physically. For several class periods to follow, students were eager to offer suggestions for what would be imagined on the desks while moving them -- a marble, a bucket of acid, a tower of cupcakes.

A Habit of Mindfulness

Before this theme began to wear thin, I changed course by asking students to sit on top of the tables, usually a prohibited action. We talked in depth about the choices we always have in how we do things, even when we do not especially want to do them (like homework). I explained that my ideal wish would be for our school to afford a specialized room for our mindful practice, one with heated wooden floors, always-clean cushions, and lots of empty space. I asked students to imagine what their ideal room might look and feel like. They shared truly fantastic visions of rooms surrounded by waterfalls, equipped with fiber-optic lighting and aromatherapy misters. I asked them to name the qualities each of their ideal visions encompassed. Then I encouraged students to embody those qualities while we put the tables aside that day.

From that day forward, preparing the room mindfully became a part of our class culture. And on days when our mindfulness was distracted, I simply observed and did not give in to the impulse to manage. I allowed students to feel the difference, and therefore their behavior was self-limited by natural consequences. This experience of mindfulness, sparked by a genuine desire for coherence, set the stage for our learning through sitting mindfulness practice, mindful movement, and conscious breathing.

In my work with teachers, I encourage honest, fearless contemplation on what is and is not working in the classroom. This simple exercise can help you discover the mundane moments and tasks in your own classroom that are just waiting for your creativity to transform them into mindful learning opportunities.

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Abby Wills's picture

It IS hard, Jennifer! Yet, in that challenge, we dig into our creativity and it can sometimes unleash into our work in such helpful ways. I think this type of spontaneous creative problem solving needs to be woven into every aspect of teacher training and development. Thank you for the encouragement!

(1)
Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

I love mindfulness. It brings to mind "reflection; consideration of longer-term ideas; and a general slowing down from the much more immediate idea of working hard, time limits, and all of the frustration and anxieties students are filled with each day. I feel mindfulness, reflection are so much better and very much overlooked by our schools that believe we must continually work harder, faster, make the grade, and yes, they don't know the other part hate school because it does not offer a true gratifying, learning experience.

Jayro's picture
Jayro
Mindfulness-based teacher and student education facilitator

This is brilliant Abby, thank you for this wonderful case study. Mindfulness is so powerful and such a great resource to teach kids at a young age. Planting the seeds for a bright, peaceful future!

(1)
Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

This is great. We are teaching visualization skills. We are teaching reflection skills -this is an area that needs to be taught more than ever. We need to see time to reflect as much more important than speed. This is where we create the more vital skill of all, "think time" or time to consider academics, learning, life, and choices in a better/slower/more constructive way. Durn, I haven't seen this post in so long I forgot I already responded on 03/24/2015.

(1)
Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Haha, Ann, that says something about the post :)...plus, you shared a new thought...and that's always a nice. Enjoy the rest of your day!

(1)
Monique's picture
Monique
Educator

I love the way you are modeling your process for all of us. This example is such a wonderful reminder of how all of us as parents, consultants, administrators, etc. can apply mindfulness practices to our challenging work and family situations. Thank you for sharing, Abby!

The Social and Emotional Brain's picture

Thank you for sharing this. I myself practice mindfulness regularly. I have noticed that for some, it is not a well received concept, likely due to it's Buddhist origins. The beauty of this lesson, is that it can be done without it's reference.

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

I think here we can hopefully see the difference between the relaxation and meditation practices of the East and the need to extend reflection time and thought in a more practical way. The idea of relaxation and meditation used by many does not really provide any long lasting benefits. Perhaps the use of meditation in the east was to somehow attract some higher power or energy toward the mind. Relaxation does not work as a person is only temporarily turning off the faucet to those many layers of mental work or average stress. For that time they feel good. Then when we attempt a new mental work, we turn the faucet back on and so all of those layers of mental work are refilled with no real benefit.
We do need to teach students how they can use more activities to gain more thought time or reflection time. We need to help students take an activity and mentally examine its parts with more slowly and thoroughly. We need to build reflection time or time to consider possible outcomes to an action mentally if different things occur. Such activities will enable students to grasp and the skill of thinking more deeply and longer to make better decisions. I feel our society is suffering from an inability to have the peace to think more long-term and to consider with more reflection better ideas that require more time and deeper thought.
My learning theory seeks to help students in every environment but especially in lower socioeconomic environments approximate the same stability existing in more secure, middle to upper class environments where those students are doing much better. I have lived in both and have clearly seen the huge differences in learning that occurs.
-We need to remove the false notion that stress only occurs during some immediate need, problem, or work. We need to see our average stress as many layers of mental work from many maintained, past, present, future - experiences, problems, fears, anxieties, yes needs, values of self/others/society: anything that may create maintained layers of mental work over time. These layers are maintained by the mind and take up real mental energy. This way we can then see how all of us have been acclimated, depending upon our own, individual environments over time to have so many layers of mental work that make thinking, learning, motivation (mental reward for mental work expended) and "with each raised layer, cuts our reflection time or think time, making it all more difficult. When we can see average stress as an accumulation of many layers that are maintained then we can see how our individual environments and weights we have learned to use in our life can really make a learning difference that accumulates in benefits or "harm" over time.
While we cannot simply relax to lower our average stress of "many layers", we can all slowly begin to understand the elements in our life, past, present, future and slowly begin to understand issues that come to mind; resolve that mental work - and begin understanding how some "faulty weight or values created that layer of unresolved mental work. Then we can create new weight or value that will not only resolve that layer but also remove other layers that involved the same prior faulty weight or value. We need to see how by slowly and more permanently reducing layers of -non-essential layers of mental work we can begin to more permanently reduce our total average of layers of average stress to become a newer and better person each day.
We need to also understand how speed is the enemy of reading, writing, motivation to learn, and our mental/emotional health. Speed may create some immediate goal faster, but hurts long-term accumulation of reading, writing, thought skills and enjoyment of academics in general, namely homework. As we approach a newer mental work that exceeds our immediate knowledge and experience, we create exponentially greater mental friction and intensify our already present layers of mental work. This mentally strangles students from lower socioeconomic environments more quickly as our layers of average stress (more high in lower socioeconomic environments more naturally flow, harmfully into improper pace and intensity in approaching newer mental work.
We need to teach our students to slow down when approaching newer mental work even to the point of simply reflecting upon the information. As we gain knowledge and experience, our mental frames for that new knowledge will begin to grow and form "more connections" to add more quickly knowledge regarding that newer mental work creating more speed and with equal enjoyment of learning more complex information regarding that material. This are the keys to intrinsic reward and longer term thinking, reflection time, and long-term love for academics. We need to begin more permanently reduce layers of average stress for ourselves and help our students slowly learn this skill. We also need to teach at all ages through modeling and later through teaching and teaching the skill of both more permanently reducing layers of mental work and also the vital skill or dynamics of approaching newer mental work more slowly at first.
Our current genetic models are teaching permanence in ability to our students. Our teachers sit in the front of the class, teach the material and then simply test out the students. Those students with more knowledge, support from home, and a more stable lower stressed environment often will do well while those students from the lower socioeconomic environments will tend to do poorly. This is what is maintaining the status quo in education. We are not helping our students improve in thinking, learning, and motivation. Worse, the very genetics models we are teaching are creating feelings of hopelessness for many students including high achievers. This is creating many harmful escapes such dropouts, drug/alcohol abuse, and suicide, some with violence. We have an obligation to help remove these feelings of hopelessness by providing tools to continually improve students' lives. I am grateful for any work in providing longer term thinking, reflection and longer-vision for students.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Beautiful. I really believe that our kids won't learn to pay attention to environment and surroundings and noise and peace unless we make it a point to teach them how. And then we teach them how to take some control over those ares in their own lives... Wonderful.

ProjectBasedIzzy's picture
ProjectBasedIzzy
Constructionist in Practice

Thank you for sharing this! It's very difficult to calm a mind that seems to be running at a pace faster than life. I would like to use this same strategy in my classroom. I think it's a great beginning of the year exercise to form cooperative groups and promote community within the classroom.

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