Mindfulness in Context: English Language Arts

Posted on January 29, 2017

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Sometimes people don’t understand what mindfulness practices are and how they enhance student experience and performance. Sometimes I am asked:

How do Mindfulness practices relate to the English Language Arts Grade 9 curriculum?

I am happy to provide an answer. I welcome the opportunity to show inquirers what concepts are taught, what the learning goals are, what practices are implemented, and how the practices relate to the ELA Curriculum. The practices we use most often in class come from Dr. Dzung Vo’s excellent, soothing guided meditations, found here. Just the other day in class, as I started the recording, a student exclaimed, “I love you, Dr. Vo!” This doctor we’ve never met has become a valuable member of our learning community.

I share the student’s gratitude and enthusiasm for this doctor, “a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at British Columbia Children’s Hospital, and clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine, Vancouver, Canada. His medical practice, teaching, and research emphasize promoting resilience in young people to help them thrive in the face of stress and adversity,” who has so generously posted the recorded meditations as well as several other helpful tools for self care on his website–FOR FREE! I have purchased and do recommend his book, The Mindful Teen, if only to repay him for his generosity.

In answer to the question about the relationship between ELA and mindfulness, I took a tour of my daily lesson plans for first trimester, which also happens to be the first trimester I’m using our district’s great new ELA curriculum, and I reflected on the connections between units of study, school policies on student conduct, and school initiatives on social-emotional learning. I found that:

In Unit 1: Writing Workshop Narrative, the main objective is to become a caring community of writers who feel safe to share their ideas and encouraged in their learning. Mindful listening is a focus for conferencing skills; empathy must be practiced in the learning community. The Lovingkindness Meditation helps students to practice compassion for themselves, loved ones, acquaintances, people with whom there may be conflict, and all beings, strengthening the “empathy muscles.”

In Unit 2: Independent Reading, the main objectives are for readers to gain in fluency, stamina, and to broaden and deepen their reading identity by reading 30 minutes per night, every night, all year. For academic work, mindfulness refreshes the pre-frontal cortex enabling readers to be fully present and aware while reading and to increase comprehension and retention. Empathy is an important part of reading, as readers identify with characters in literature. Mindfulness practices help readers to be able to “walk in the shoes” of the characters they meet in the stories they read.

In Unit 3: Literary Study, Fiction and Memoir, the main objective is for readers to be able to understand and empathize with authors, characters, and other readers of fiction and memoir. Being able to consider the time, place, and circumstances of the author and the work requires abstract reasoning. Literary analysis is a higher order thinking skill which requires the pre-frontal cortex to be functioning well. Empathy is an important part of character study and discussion of sensitive subjects that appear in literature. Mindfulness practices increase students’ ability to reason and to experience empathy for others, in literature and in the classroom community.

In Unit 4: Literary Essay, learners must learn the conventions, forms, diction, tone, and register of literary analysis. Mindfulness is useful in refreshing the pre-frontal cortex to enable readers to be fully present and aware while composing a logical argument that uses examples from a text in chronological order. Literary analysis is a higher-order thinking skill which requires the pre-frontal cortex to be functioning well. Empathy is an important part of  writing with sensitivity about the sometimes-difficul subjects that appear in literature.

As an IB World School, we use the IB Learner Profile to help us cultivate the character traits that are conducive to creating the optimal learning environment for students. The Learner Profile traits are Thinker, Balanced, Reflective, Inquirers, Caring, Knowledgeable, Risk-Takers, Open-Minded, and Principled. Mindfulness is especially helpful in helping students cultivate thinking, balance, reflectiveness, caring, open-mindedness, and being principled.

As a school that serves many children who are survivors of trauma, all AHS faculty have been asked to implement practices that are helpful for these students. Mindfulness is the easiest, most-versatile, and most cost-effective treatment–since it’s FREE– for reducing both short- and long-term effects of trauma, which is why the U.S. Military uses it to prepare troops to deploy and in the treatment of PTSD and other trauma-related symptoms.

As an institution that has embraced the Positive Behavior Intervention System to create a more peaceful, positive culture of learning, Mindfulness can play a role in helping students learn to STOP and THINK before making decisions, especially in the often high-stress situations of high school. Mindfulness helps students cultivate self-awareness and self-control, which are crucial elements of a positive learning environment. One short practice that helps in decision-making is summarized in the acronym, SOBER, which stands for Stop, Observe (body, emotions, thoughts), Breathe, Expand (awareness of self and environment/circumstances), and Respond (in a reasonable manner). This short procedure allows us to enact a procedure to try to reason our way through potentially high-stress situations.

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July 2016: Reunion w/ Former Students: we had lunch and do a mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is used in schools, hospitals, the NBA, the NFL, Police Academies, prisons,  the United States Military, and on USA Olympic teams. There are decades of research into the effectiveness of these practices in helping people deal with everything from daily stresses  and attention issues to PTSD. The core practice is simply focused deep breathing. It seems unbelievable that something so simple can be so powerful, but I see it creating natural wonders every day. It’s hard to overestimate how helpful it can be.

In this TED Talk, one educator claims that we could consider it a form of child abuse to deprive children of the simplest, most effective methods for them to gain self-control–the #1 ingredient in their success. From the TED website: “AnneMarie Rossi is the founder and director of Be Mindful, a non-profit association of mindfulness instructors dedicated to making the practice accessible to all. They currently teach in Denver Public Schools, St. Vrain Public Schools, Urban Peak Youth Homeless Center, and through the Red Cross.”

Like Ms. Rossi, I am convinced of the usefulness of the practices for myself and my students, and I will continue to use them and document the results of doing so in my classroom. I will be attending my third workshop on Mindfulness at Oakland University on 2/25/17.

Here are some videos about other schools that do it and a scientific explanation of how the brain works.

Meditation Helps Lower Truancy and Suspensions (school)

Low-income students combat stress with mindfulness (school)

Mindfulness and Neural Integration: Daniel Siegel, MD at TEDxStudioCityED (science)

Some people have expressed an interest in attending the next workshop with me, but the OU dates don’t work for them. I am beginning to consider offering workshops for small groups of 3-10 people who might want to begin using mindfulness practices in their lives, families, organizations, or classrooms. If there’s enough interest, I would be happy to do it. If you’re reading this, and you’d like me to do a workshop for you, let me know.

Until next time, reader:

“May you be happy; may you be well; may you be free from suffering; may you be at peace.” –The Lovingkindness Meditation

 

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