Calm Down & Learn Better: Mindfulness Practices in the ELA classroom

Posted on October 8, 2016


You’re thinking about incorporating mindfulness in your classes, and you’re wondering where to start. After a year of using mindfulness practices in my high school English classes, I can offer a few tips.

1.First of all, if you don’t already practice mindfulness DAILY, start now. Practice every day; use different meditations (sitting, walking, eating, moving) and try out meditations from a variety of teachers and styles. Check out the meditations in books, on YouTube, and on phone apps. Find what works best for you. Make mindfulness a part of your routine. It is of utmost importance that you have your own practice, for two reasons:

A. It will help you physically, emotionally, and physically. You will calm down and think better.

B. You will be an authentic teacher who has first-hand experience with the practices, which will give you credibility with students. Teachers must be writers and readers in Writing and Reading Workshop; likewise, we must be practitioners of mindfulness techniques in our own lives for our own purposes–so we know what we’re talking about.

I discovered meditation in my twenties, after a divorce, when I was seeking help in dealing with the overwhelming stress of being a single parent in poverty. I was introduced to meditation through reading the Beat writers of the 1950s. Reading Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac somehow brought me to Alan Watts, my first meditation teacher. His books, This Is It  and Meditation were lights shining in the darkness for me, the first of many books I would read about meditation and other Buddhist teachings as I began my practice.

Throughout my twenties, I used meditation to cope with stress, but when I was 28, I came to rely on meditation to deal with the massive physical pain and mental confusion I faced as a result of injuries to my spine and brain from a car crash. The accident happened two weeks before I was scheduled to student teach, and when my doctors told me that I might not be able to teach–ever–I suffered from severe depression and a consuming rage toward the man who had caused the accident and “ruined my life.”

Fortunately for me, a few months before the accident, Vietnamese peace teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, released his book, Peace Is Every Step, and the short, simple, and sincere essays accompanied by various meditations gave me great comfort and helped me endure the suffering I had to face. Meditations like “Bells of Mindfulness” and “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” helped me reclaim my body, my brain, and my career goals.

It is important to be able to tell students how and why we do different meditations for a variety of situations, so they can think about which ones can help them–and when they might need them.

2. Create a strong “caring circle of friends” with the students in your classroom. In order for students to feel safe enough to relax and close their eyes for meditation, they have to have confidence in the teacher and other students; they have to feel at home and safe. I start every school year with a “classroom quote” that talks about a place where everyone feels welcomed, safe, and affirmed. I tell my students that this is the kind of classroom I want us to create together, so that everyone can thrive.

One big obstacle to creating a safe space is sarcasm. It may feel “cheesy” to be sincere, warm, and compassionate, especially with teens, but these are the qualities that allow others to feel safe. If you’re ordinarily sarcastic with students, work to curb that urge and learn new ways to communicate that convey empathy. Learn to help students do so as well. If we want students to show empathy and compassion for one another, we must model these qualities in our interactions with students.

Lovingkindness meditation, #10 on Dr. Vo’s Guided Meditations for Teens, is a great practice to cultivate empathy and compassion for oneself and for others.

Likewise, this gorgeous video, Just Breathe, by Julie Bayer Salzman and Josh Salzman, illustrates beautifully how mindfulness can help us deal with difficult emotions–through the testimonies of elementary-aged children. Seeing these kids speak with such honesty and vulnerability might help build credibility–because they are KIDS.

3. Do research to find out the basic information on the brain and how mindfulness affects the brain. Be able to explain what effects on the brain are relevant to learning and to your students, parents, and administrators. Be ready to explain how and why these are secular practices and do not contradict religious teachings. Familiarize yourself with the way that mindfulness is being used in schools, hospitals, clinics, professional sports, the military, and police training.

Do enough reading and writing so that you know where you stand if you are asked why you are using the practices in your classes.dscn0002

4. Be open to learning from failure. Not every practice works for every person or group. As you try the practices, not what works and what doesn’t, what went well, and what flopped. Try different things.

5. Find out how students feel before and after practices through brief (2-5 minute) writes; survey students; ask for reflections after a few practices, to see what’s working, what’s more/less popular with your students. Give it TIME. Don’t let a vocal few badger you into stopping.

I started second trimester with the idea that I would have two practices per week in my classes, but soon, students began to ask for it nearly every day. Since I want to encourage students to know when they need to practice and to use mindfulness to deal with a variety of situations, I always say YES, when a student comes into the room and asks, “Can we do mindfulness today?”

I say, “Yes, because we’re a caring circle of friends, and this is one way we can care for ourselves and others.”

If and when you do begin to incorporate mindfulness practices in your classroom, I’d love to hear about it. Email me @ and tell me how it’s going for you.

May you and your students be happy, be well, be free from suffering, be at peace.