Prepping the Mind for Learning
When I was a teenager it took me three tries to get my driver’s license. My first attempt involved a left turn on a red light and my great-aunt’s Oldsmobile careening through an intersection as the test administrator shouted “Jesus Christ!” in the passenger seat. Contrary to what the reader may think after reading these two accounts, the days of my driving tests were not the first times I had ever been behind the wheel of a vehicle. I had practiced this route every day for six months, my father coaching me on every turn, speed limit, and stop sign. So why, when the test administrator told me to back up, did I panic, hit the gas, and crash into the curb on the opposite side of the street?
Performance anxiety is a real experience, and one that I now blame for my catastrophic failure when I was sixteen. It happens to so many of us when we least expect it or want it --sweaty palms, gurgling stomachs, the sudden void in our minds where, just moments before, we had stored pages and pages of valuable information. When I became a teacher and realized that I would be responsible for 130 eleven and twelve year-olds’ performance on a much talked-about state test, that same feeling of dread overwhelmed me. A slew of disastrous thoughts raced through my mind: What if my students fail? What if I fail again, except this time, 130 times? What will my colleagues think of me? What will the administration think of me? Parents? Students? I of myself?
For the first three years of my teaching career, such thoughts would play like a radio station from September to March. And I wasn’t alone. At the mention of the word “state test,” the classroom would become a cacophonous symphony of groans. Some of these sounds reflected the tedium of a three-hour test to a sixth grader, but many of these reactions indicated the stress students felt when they were to read multiple selections, answer questions, and write several well-developed paragraphs in one sitting, on which they would receive a score between 200 and 280.
In an effort to change my response to the surmounting pressures that culminate for both myself and my students this month, I decided to take a different approach this year. Instead of regarding the month of March as “MCAS Month,” I decided to title this month “Mindful March.” Despite the rhetoric surrounding the topic of the standardization of education, performances of one kind or another are a part of life. Whether it’s a driving test, relay race at a championship swim meet, or college final, learning how to cope with performance anxiety is a valuable skill.
With this in mind, I have started each class this month with a five-minute guided meditation. Incorporating technology into our practice, students have used YouTube videos and mobile apps to help aid them in becoming more mindful in their daily lives. We’ve read articles on the benefits of mindfulness to our well-being and completed graphic organizers that outline healthy and unhealthy ways of coping with stress. With each assignment and discussion, we normalize the very experience that often causes us to withdraw, to believe -- especially during adolescence -- that we are the only people who feel this way, that for some reason, and despite the neurophysiological explanations we now have, we are strange, defective, or weak.
Instead of spending the last three weeks focused on the “drill and kill” that I used to do at this time of year, I decided to use the upcoming state test as an opportunity to confront a fact of life - that there are times they we will be tested in life, and that preparing for these opportunities is not just about learning the elements of genre or the quadratic equation. It’s about learning how to focus on your breath, calm your body and mind, and tune into a different radio station than the one our minds tend to automatically play.
It took me five years of teaching to realize that calming the body and mind was an important step in prepping the mind for learning. Such a method falls under the category of SEL, or social and emotional learning, a practice that has been found to improve academic scores by between 11 and 17 percent. With this finding, it would seem that, since students are often measured by academic scores, incorporating SEL into our teaching makes a lot of sense. Fortunately, several educators across the country --and the globe-- are seeing the benefits that “prepping the mind” can have for our students. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet with several educators who are helping students with not only performance anxiety, but other important skills of SEL as well: recognizing disastrous thoughts, labeling emotions, and overcoming obstacles, including many others (see photograph in link below*).
As I’ve watched many of my students sit in stillness with this new approach, I can’t help but wonder how my driving test would have ended very differently had I learned such skills in a classroom.
Photo Link: http://www.sel4mass.org/documents-for-sel-conference-for-sam/
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.