Breathing into Back-to-School

Many teachers anticipate the return of students in August with some trepidation. We worry about how to handle the kids who push our buttons, and how to reach those who don’t participate. I can’t think of a better time to look at our minds, which is what we did at the Mindful Educator Resilience Retreat I hosted in August.

Practicing mindfulness outside the classroom, when things are relatively calm, helps us strengthen our ability to model self-regulation on the spot for our students in class.

Learning how our minds work is key to unraveling stress, so we began with an experiment. Imagining our minds as blank screens, we took a few minutes to look at the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that make an appearance on that screen and later disappear. The results were revealing. Regrets about the past and worries about the future can dominate our thinking. Disturbing emotions such as anger and sadness can haunt us. But if we can become aware of the passing nature of everything that plays on our own personal screens and cultivate healthy thoughts, we can relieve a great deal of tension in our daily lives.

Like us, our students also suffer from the bully between their ears. When compounded by trauma, these students can seem virtually impossible to reach. To provide some context on trauma and increase our compassion, I shared part of a talk by Dr. Sam Himmelstein, a psychologist who works with adolescents in juvenile hall. He shared the example of trauma victims seeing a coiled garden hose as a rattlesnake to demonstrate their hyper-vigilance. As teachers, we may feel certain we are perfectly innocuous, but our students may see us differently. He went on to explain that traumatic adaptations in the classroom can range anywhere from disassociation to aggression, to even being crowned the class clown.

Afterwards, I asked the group to write about a time when they were triggered in class, and reflect on whether pausing to look at their minds could have helped. When one of the participants shared about a student’s inappropriate sexual comment, another asked, “Did you respond or did you react?” This insightful question was met with an honest answer — “I reacted.” Just like our students, when we are triggered, our brains automatically shift into the fight, flight, freeze response. We rely on habit and instinct. To change the pattern, I suggested something I’ve done, which is to walk to the back of the classroom, put ours backs against the wall and take three breaths. It sounds simple, but as we all know, learning to pause and take a few breaths is anything but easy when triggered. Practicing mindfulness outside the classroom, when things are relatively calm, helps us strengthen our ability to model self-regulation on the spot for our students in class.

In the afternoon I shared a writing exercise based on the poem “So Much Happiness” by Naomi Shihab Nye. In it she writes about choosing an optimistic outlook despite challenges — “Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house / and now live over a quarry of noise and dust / cannot make you unhappy.” The participants filled in their own blanks with joyful memories and current challenges. One teacher wrote, “Even the fact that you once travelled the world and now don’t even own a car cannot make you unhappy.” She shared that the writing exercise filled her with self-compassion and gratitude. I have found it to be very effective in helping me to learn about students’ lives outside of school and grow my empathy.

To stop and look at our wild minds is to be brave. My hope is that the teachers who attended the retreat will take time to practice together and support each other emotionally. Only in this way can they find the strength to model vulnerability and responsiveness with their students and encourage them to do the same.

Thich Nhat Hahn’s Breathing Practice

 

Today I guided students through a mindfulness practice including the four phrases used by Thich Nhat Hahn in his Breathing Practice.

The phrases In/Out, Deep/Slow, Calm/Ease, and Smile/Release help students to anchor themselves on their breath and highlight the progressive building of concentration and bliss that results from the practice.

Afterwards, I quizzed students on whether they could remember the second word in each pair. After doing a jig-saw reading, in which small groups were given a short commentary on each set of words to read, I asked them to create a poster for their group’s phrase.

One student chose to illustrate breathing in and out with a hamburger from In and Out Burger. When I questioned her choice, she reassured me that the burger did, in fact, breathe.

These phrases are so helpful to remember whenever one has a few moments to practice, particularly in times of stress.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s breathing exercises

 

Save

Teacher Self-Care

Teaching is a stressful job.

We lost half of the eighth-grade teachers at my last school year. I spent the year walking the track at lunch to re-calibrate my own nervous system. I decided I needed to do something.

The best way I know how to create community is through practicing mindfulness, so I’ve created a space for colleagues to sit together two mornings a week before school starts.

Being mindful of our own needs for self-care as educators is a top priority for me this year. A new administrator at our site admitted that as a teacher, self-care typically landed at the bottom of her list, beneath lesson planning and grading and parent conferences and on and on. I told her nothing gets in the way of teacher self-care.

In that spirit another source of community I’m tapping into this year is the Mindful Educator yearlong program offered by Mindful Schools. The program requires participants to dedicate at least twenty minutes a day to formally practice mindfulness. I am adding to those minutes by taking mindful breaths throughout the day with my students. Instead of setting aside one day a week  for our practice, such as “Mindful Mondays,” I’m attempting to embody the practice in the classroom moment to moment.

The program requires participants to dedicate at least twenty minutes a day to formally practice mindfulness.

Growth Mindset

It’s been exciting to see the direct connections between the thoughts in our heads and the feelings in our hearts.

Students took the mindset quiz created by Carol Dweck, Stanford University Professor of Psychology and author of the book Mindset to determine their beliefs about intelligence. Did they focus on learning from mistakes and welcoming challenges, hallmarks of a growth mindset, or were they trapped in the fixed mindset dichotomy of being either smart or dumb?

I shared with students the example of how I decided that I would acknowledge my negative self-talk around technology. Instead of shying away from it, I see every day as an opportunity to learn and improve my presentation skills, particularly with Google Slides. When I had failed to input a student’s grades in the new grading program, I said to him, “Don’t get mad at me. I’m still learning, and I will improve.” I wasn’t scared like I used to be about messing up and losing students’ papers. I was showing him my vulnerability and my growth mindset. Then he said, “Me too, Ms. Bean.” He had been sent out of my classroom for an inappropriate sexual comment about “swallowing.”

We can use problem-solving strategies such as:

  • asking the teacher for help or to slow down or repeat what she or he said,
  • showing up for tutoring,
  • seeking out friends with growth mindsets,
  • watching videos on YouTube

There are so many ways to grow our brain and our self-esteem and self-confidence. Being aware of the negative self-talk, the put-downs, the bully in our heads, is the critical first step to making a change.

Resources:

Carol Dweck’s Ted Talk “The power of believing that you can improve”

Class Dojo Big Ideas for the Classroom Growth Mindset Episode 1

Khan Academy: Growth Mindset

Student Quotes on Mindfulness Poetry

Students reflections on mindfulness and poetry writing curriculum

At the end of the school year, students and I create an anthology of their poems and artwork. I’ve shared below some of their written comments about the project.

Question: What is the best thing you have learned about mindfulness this year?

“I have learned to calm myself down when there is a problem. I use mindfulness at home when my brother annoys me. It helps me by not hurting anyone.”

“Mindful breathing helps me think and gets me focused.”

“The best thing I have learned about mindfulness is that it could calm you down and make you feel relaxed at anytime.”

“You can practice self-constraint and relieve yourself from all the negative things in your life.”

Mindful practice outside of our class:

“I practice mindfulness at home when I’m feeling pressured.”

“I practice mindfulness at nighttime to go to sleep.”

“I practice using mindfulness during lunch. It helps me get rid of anger and hate.” 

What did you learn about writing poems?

I learned that writing poems is not just art. It’s also a tool that comes from your “heart.”

“It is important to make the poem interesting so the reader will want to read it.”

“I learned that writing poems is fun!”

“I like my “Quietness” poem because it reminds me to stay quiet.”

“By writing poems, I’ve learned to be calm and patient, especially when I get mad about something dumb.”

How do you feel about having your poems published in a book?

“Excited because as students we express what we feel and to let people see is awesome.”

The 12- and 13-year-old authors’ book of published poems.

“I feel good because other kids can use that for madness and other things.”

“I feel scared and nervous because you never know if people will like it or not.”

“It feels good because I can write more poems”

Do you have any suggestions?

“Can we have more mindful instruments?”

 

MORE about the Poetry Project:

 

Why I teach poetry and mindfulness to my students

During a week-long meditation retreat I participated in a few years ago in the Santa Cruz Mountains the leader recited a poem at the beginning of each meditation session and then repeated it at the end. In the stillness of the forest, the poems dropped deeply in our psyches and bathed us with messages of self-acceptance, confidence, and resilience. As an English teacher introducing mindfulness to my students, I immediately felt the desire to share such a pure experience of poetry with my students, and use it as a jumping off place for their own creative writing.

Mindfulness, cultivating present moment awareness, is gaining traction in schools across the country. By promoting self-awareness and empathy, it helps improve students’ focus and impulse control, reduces their stress levels, and minimizes bullying and behavioral issues. Adding poetry to the mix encourages and reinforces students’ mindfulness, as well as sparks their imagination. Indeed, poetry demands this presence of mind. The American poet Muriel Rukeyser commented that a poem should “invite you to bring your whole life to that moment…”

 Integrating poetry into mindfulness practice also fosters students’ academic development. One of the Common Core Literacy Standards requires students to be able to describe characters’ traits, motivations, or feelings. By reading evocative poems and using them as models for their own creative writing, students will increase their ability to understand the nuances of not only the poets’ emotional lives, but also their own. This skill prepares them to successfully communicate and collaborate with peers on projects, which is included in the Writing Standards. Persevering in comprehending complex texts, such as rich poetry, is a rewarding endeavor, building stamina. Adding the creative challenge of writing their own poems allows students to understand the poems on a deeper level as well as experience the joy of self-expression.

Touching into their hearts through mindfulness practice and then writing and sharing from their own core allows kids to feel seen and honored—that their emotional lives are valid and welcome at school. As a result they become more self-confident and motivated to engage in cognitive and interpersonal tasks. They also learn to respect differing opinions as they begin to feel more at home with themselves and the school environment.