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Mindful Classes: Learning One Breath at a Time
By Julia Serrano 03-Jan-20
Every year, teachers at the Uruguayan American School (UAS) set goals to identify the areas of focus that will guide and enhance our instruction for the year. This year, one of my goals was to promote mindfulness activities in our community. I embarked on this journey thinking that mindfulness was just breathing, meditation, and anti-stress practice, but in the process of becoming familiar with the movement I ended up redefining my approach to teaching. After reading various articles, following guided meditations, and attending mindfulness events and workshops, I began to notice changes. I was feeling more relaxed, more cheerful, and less afflicted by the actions of others. A more positive attitude and the benefits from that experience were just what I wanted my students to include in their busy, ever-changing world. Nonetheless, I felt apprehensive about pre-adolescents and teens taking to meditating or talking about the benefits of being present in the moment. How will my students take to the practice of mindfulness? This year I taught Grade 8 students, who arrived exhausted and restive at the end of the day. Getting them to let go of the events that had just taken place in the hallways or to put aside worries and plans about activities in my class and others was challenging. Surprisingly, the process of incorporating mindful practices in our English class developed smoothly. At first, I began with repeated reminders to get ready for the class during the five minutes before the bell rang. Once most of the students were able to complete that task, I began to fill in the waiting time with other stimuli: music and a mindful attendance question designed to help students maintain their focus on being mindful, present in the moment, and connected with the objective of the class. In time, discussions of how we can better process what we see in our world today and focus on one thing at a time gave birth to our mantra: This moment... what is important now? In search of additional resources and knowledge on the topic, I stumbled upon another discovery: The Calm Schools Initiative, offered by calm.com, which provides “mindfulness tools and resources to teach students this important skill.” Through this site, we began our journey towards short, guided meditations at the start of class. We used the various images and sounds available through calm.com to create sensory experiences in our classroom. Grade 8 students discovered that working in a virtual storm with the lights turned out and listening to the rolling thunder actually improved their focus and helped them relax. Other times they preferred to work in a colder environment with the sounds and scenes of a snowstorm, or in a toasty classroom, before a virtual crackling fire. One student noted, “The calm.com app really helps me calm down and think through things like what to write about and how to explain myself. It creates an atmosphere I like and I enjoy working in. That’s how mindfulness helps me in the classroom.” Soon these mindfulness practices became an important part of our routines, and students rushed to class to request meditations or sensory experiences to help them relax and recharge before class. With my Grade 6 students, mindfulness similarly began with the process of getting ready for class. First, we established the routine of preparing one’s materials, writing down the date and goals for the class. Then, during the first five minutes of class, I introduced the idea of discussing a question or quote and connecting it to ourselves, a text, or the world. Later, we moved from discussing our thoughts to writing them down, eventually integrating the practice of mindful coloring. Students chose a drawing and had five minutes of mindful attendance to color while they learned about the benefits of mindfulness, listened to a review of the previous class, or were given an introduction to one of our class objectives. Once a drawing was completed, students practiced mindfully cutting out the picture so that it could be displayed on our “Join the Mindfulness Movement” door decoration project, which illustrated the benefits of practicing mindfulness and the various ways one can incorporate the practice into a busy daily life. Eventually, Grade 6 students were ready to listen to guided meditations and podcasts during these five minutes of mindful coloring, which also fostered mindful listening skills. With the addition of “brain breaks,” mindfulness extended to test-taking practices to help us learn to pay attention to the need to rest. I marked our clock at every fifteen-minute interval and chose the best time to pause. For two minutes we engaged in alternative practices designed to give our brains a break. During these times, at least once during the 90-minute block, we flipped pencils, played hand-clapping games, learned new dance moves, or teased our brains with right-left brain challenges. These mindful stops provided a reset in our practices and gave students a chance to relax, recharge, and refocus on the activities at hand, which in turn yielded more productive use of classroom time and an overall improvement in the quality of assignments. In the end, mindfulness in both classes showed similar results: students were more relaxed, focused, and committed to completing their work more carefully. Students and teachers both seemed happier, more receptive, and less stressed about academic demands. When asked “How does mindfulness help you in class?” one Grade 6 student responded, “Mindfulness helps me in class because I get more concentrated and I am more efficient. It helps me to get calm and focused more on what’s important (and it keeps my brain active). While drawing or coloring my brain gets in a state of calm and peace.” As for me, mindfulness has given me an opportunity to notice the small moments: a blank stare, a puzzled look, a worried smile—all so obvious, yet unnoticeable moments if one is not mindfully present. Mindfulness has changed my teaching perspective, reminding me that I can only truly control now, what happens in a given moment. Almost a year ago I approached mindfulness hesitantly. Today I am grateful I chose it as a goal. I am convinced that mindfulness is a great vehicle for building healthy habits, self-regulation, resilience, and tolerance. Joining the mindfulness movement has rekindled my love for teaching, allowing me to be more present with my students in this beautiful process we call learning. Julia Serrano is a Middle School English Teacher at Uruguayan American School.
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