Mindfulness in the Middle School Classroom

At the beginning of my first year of teaching, I hung a sign on the wall of my bilingual third-grade classroom that said, “En este salón, todos son maestros y todos son estudiantes.” In this room, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student. Without realizing it, I was voicing the philosophy behind the learner-centered environment with learners engaged as teachers and teachers as learners.

Because my students were bilingual (though one spoke only English and several others only spoke Spanish) and bi-cultural (mostly Mexican/American), I needed to facilitate acceptance of diversity among the students. As a devoted yoga practitioner and instructor, I also knew that I wanted to incorporate yoga and meditation in my classroom from day one.

I wonder how beneficial practicing mindfulness would be to students and teachers in this rapidly changing, 21st century, learning-centered educational environment.

Mindfulness and multiculturalism go hand in hand. The two keys to multiculturalism are openness to new information and the legitimacy of different points of view. With a multicultural mindset, there is an awareness that equality does not mean sameness and different does not mean deviant.

As mindful, multicultural learners of all ages, we must pay attention to details, both externally in our environment and internally in how we process our experiences. Mindfulness is based on the present and the continuous creation of new ways of thinking about oneself, others and situations. It is simply focusing on what is happening in the present moment instead of constantly being drawn into the past or future by the habits of the mind.

But mindfulness is not all kittens and rainbows. Being open and experiencing the present moment fully puts us in an uncertain position. Mindfulness is a conditional view of the world (i.e. this could be the way it is) versus mindlessness, which is an absolute and unconditional way of viewing the world (i.e. this is THE way it is).  It’s much more comfortable and habitual to rely on generalities, stereotypes and assumptions. To place blame. To oversimplify or unnecessarily complicate things. It’s easy to become mindless. Also known as Fundamentalism, mindlessness is based on the past and is defined by a rigid reliance on old ways of thinking.

By giving information in a mindless way, such as rote memorization of facts, educators encourage the mindless use of said information. (Thornton and McEntee, 251-257) As any good teacher knows, “Conventional assessments … do not meet the cognitive demands of the world today. Active and engaged citizens must be creatively flexible, responding to rapid changes in the environment, able to think critically about what they are told in the media” (Sternberg, 20-26). As in, not multiple choice, standardized tests. But instead of waiting for laws to change and the nature of assessment to evolve, we can begin the process of teaching mindfulness today.

By modeling, practicing, discussing and persisting at mindfulness, students and teachers will be more calm, clear, inspired and insightful thinkers and learners. Mindfulness comes naturally to many young children but, sadly, is an oft-forgotten skill for many teens and adults. Happily, with practice and discipline, mindfulness will become second nature.

Practicing mindfulness facilitates the ability of being aware of being aware. Breathing deeply and slowly naturally calms us, connects us, moves energy around our physical bodies. The simplest mindfulness practice is just listening to the breath. Of course, you will get distracted by thoughts, sometimes an endless parade of thoughts, all about the past or the future. Mindfulness is simply, deliberately paying attention to the act of paying attention. Metacognition.

So far in my teaching career, I have been blessed to work with principals and students who have encouraged me to teach yoga and mindfulness in the classroom. My third grade students and I would sit on the carpet first thing every morning and practice a few yoga stretches and then sit silently (some more silently than others) in meditation. We started with 30 seconds and worked up to three minutes. And that was at a public school in Texas!

Here in Guatemala, I teach a writing course to ninth grade students. Early this year, I introduced meditation during a lesson on writing haiku. It was supposed to be a one-time thing, but so many of them asked if we could practice every week that I, of course, agreed. Now I teach them a mindfulness technique at the beginning of each writing workshop. Some days are better than others, and some kids are more into it than others. But seeing them progress in meditation, concentration and creativity is my most gratifying experience as a teacher.

Vietnamese Buddhist monk and meditation master, Thich Nhat Hanh, says that simply turning our attention inwards, and concentrating fully on the ‘in’ and ‘out’ breath cultivates calmness in the mind and body. According to him, seven minutes a day is enough. This simple method will help people make their choices with conviction and clarity of mind, and to adopt a more positive and creative attitude towards them. Now, seven minutes can seem like a long time at first, but starting with just one or two minutes gradually adding a minute each week aids students’ mental endurance and attention span.

Teaching mindfulness does not mean teaching Buddhism. Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, says, “mindfulness is, at the same time, wisdom. It is the readiness of mind that is wisdom. But we should not become attached to some particular wisdom, such as that which was taught by the Buddha. Wisdom is not something to learn. Wisdom is something which will come out of your mindfulness. So the point is to be ready for observing things, and to be ready for thinking.” This directly answers the issue raised by Robert J. Sternberg in his article on assessing what matters: “Wisdom is the most important and yet most neglected aspect of education today.”

My students are currently in the process of writing persuasive essays based on their “ten-day challenge” projects in which they chose a habit to start or stop doing for ten days in a row. Many vowed to quit using Facebook, quit eating junk food, or start reading for an hour a day.

Several chose to practice mindfulness (in the form of sitting meditation) daily. I am truly touched by the sentiments these young teenagers are expressing in their essays. Here are a few examples (unedited):
●    Peace is something that we all wish for, unfortunately our country Guatemala is very dangerous and it is hard to feel like we live in peace. But when you meditate you feel like it is actually possible, you feel good and you live peacefully from your inside.
●    If you think that meditating only takes your time away and you think you have better things to do, well you should really try because probably most of you are stressed out and need time for your own.
●    The effect this procedure had on me were exceptional; I had a more relaxing day, my daily worries were not bothering me as they always did they were still there but they had a least stressful effect on me that normally gets me very tired and overwhelmed.
●    How many decisions do we make daily? How many problems do we encounter daily? That’s why it’s so healthy to process things at the end of the day. Just take a few moments pondering about your day and it won’t only bring you a smile about the happy moments but it will remind you of the hard ones and how well you managed them, making you be proud of yourself. A person that is proud of themselves and has the ability to analyze his life not only from a different perspective but with a healthy perspective and open mind is a person that is emotionally healthy.

How can we create and support learning environments that trust studenetes to use their time well and to learn the consequences for themselves of not doing so?

We as teachers must model mindfulness. We must help our students understand the value of mindfulness and the consequences of mindlessness. Mindlessness is a learned behavior. Mindfulness is a daily practice, moment to moment.

Bibliography

Cavill, Maureen. “Mindfulness, Nothing Special.” Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis. 21.1 (2010): 37-40.

“Effective Teaching Strategies for Middle School Learners in Multicultural, Multilingual Classrooms.” Middle School Journal. 39.2 (2007): 12-18

Ritchhart, Ron, and David N. Perkins. “Life in the Mindful Classroom: Nurturing the Disposition of Mindfulness.” Journal of Social Issues. 56.1 (2000): 27-47.

Sternberg, Robert J. “Assessing What Matters.” Educational Leadership. 65.4 (2008): 20-26.

Thornton, Leslie J., and Mary Elizabeth McEntee. “Learner-centered Schools as a Mindset, and the Connection with Mindfulness and Multiculturalism.” Theory Into Practice. (2001): 251-257.

2 thoughts on “Mindfulness in the Middle School Classroom

  1. Pingback: Mind your own mind. | elephant journal

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