Elementary mindfulness

There has been so much hype about mindfulness that it is easy to be skeptical about its efficacy in the classroom. However, my father, a biologist with a background in neurophysiology research, practiced Zen meditation for reasons not remotely related to the transcendental or supernatural. He did it because meditation is good for the brain.

He shared the practice with me as a teenager after observing that nervousness was preventing me from achieving my best performance as a pitcher in little league baseball.

His perspective is reflected in Carolyn Gregoire’s article, What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Compassion, which explores the synergy of meditation, compassion, and understanding.

In teaching

Early in my career, I discovered that if I asked my second grade class to pause at the door to our classroom after recess for a deep breath, coaching them to expand their abdomen for the inhalation and exhale as slowly as possible, their engagement and ability to focus was uncannily enhanced.

Last year, I encouraged my fourth graders to practice mindfulness for a few minutes after eating their lunch. They were a generally calm and thoughtful cohort and the practice seemed to benefit their focus and general mood of the classroom.

A challenge

This year, I prepared for a class that already had a reputation for high energy, acting impulsively, and lacking attention skills. The plan was to practice mindfulness as a class for five minutes immediately after returning from morning recess. In the first week of school, we meditated for one minute. Then, for two minutes. I coached the students in various techniques such as breathing, counting exercises, and visualization. It also seemed to help convince them of the importance of meditation to describe how athletes, artists, and other professionals use mindfulness to improve their performance.

I was thrilled to receive an email from a grateful parent, who happens to be a physician, thanking me for introducing mindfulness to her child.

‘I think it is so important that children observe their feeling and that they themselves lead an answer for their next move from themselves and being mindful really helps them to do this.

I just want to thank you for thinking about the students’ future and offering this kind of tool that can really help them throughout their lives.’

The letter concluded by stating that they were happy to be in my class because I ‘can bring out the positive behavior and create special learning environment for everyone.’

Simple Habit

Finally, when we could consistently sit silently for five minutes, we began using Simple Habit recordings to guide and practice. I should point out that the rules for our meditations are not strict. The students are not required to close their eyes, nor do I question them about their level of participation. As long as they sit silently, including reading a book, it is fine.

It’s difficult to assess any effect our meditation is having, although for certain it helps to instill a sense of calm in the classroom after morning recess. It is also a discreet opportunity to practice being Reflective. For that alone, it is worth continuing. But considering the possible benefits meditation can have for individuals, this could be a simple initiative with profound and lasting impact.

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World Cultures Day

At KIST we celebrate International Mother Language Day with an annual ‘World Cultures Day’ event which includes a traditional costume parade and PTA bake sale featuring delicious treats from around the world.This year, I challenged the Elementary Student Representative Council to host a ‘Mother language recordings’ booth. We wanted to provide an opportunity for students and parents to record brief video messages about peace in their mother languages.

Photo by Bart Miller via Instagram

The students made a poster and I created a form for participants to write their messages along with English translations. We collaborated with the Media Club to record the videos. In an hour, we recorded around twenty videos by community members in languages including Japanese, Russian, Turkish, English, Bengali, and three different languages from India: Tamil, Odiya, and Hindi.

We are currently in the process of deciding how to publish and share the videos, although I did make a point of obtaining permission from the adult participants to share their recordings on the school website.

The greatest takeaway for me was the encouragement we received to widen the scope of this project next year with more promotion and a larger window of time to record messages.

A few days later, the tweet above from IB World Magazine caused me to reflect on how International Mother Language Day is an essential opportunity for internationally minded people and organizations to celebrate and preserve language diversity. Hopefully, we will expand the ‘Mother language recordings’ project next year.

Edcamp Tokyo 2017

The experiences of organizing and participating in Edcamp Tokyo in 2014 and 2015 have been so inspirational, I wish to share them with all of my colleagues and teacher friends. The best way to do that is to organize an event.

Last Fall, I approached my administrators about empowering teachers within the elementary school to self organize one of our own professional development days. Strictly speaking, the event was not Edcamp, because it was a limited to our own staff. However, we followed the Edcamp model and the results were fantastic.

‘Creative Connections’ group at Edcamp @ KIST via Instagram

The only logical step was to offer to host the next Edcamp Tokyo here at my school. The process began as usual with assembling an organizing team, surveying the local community for optimal dates.

One change we made was to move the organizing team away from seemingly endless email threads to Slack. Slack is a slightly ironic update to the ‘chat room’ circa 1994. However, for facilitating communication and collaboration in a team, it is far superior to email and has the potential in my opinion to supplant social network ‘communities’ as a space to organize around events, ideas, and movements.

Community involvement

Industriousness is one of the hallmarks of Edcamp, so I utilized Twitter’s polling function to gather votes for this year’s theme. The initial ideas were gathered from the organizing team and then put to a vote.

The winner was ‘Make learning personal’. As an organizer, it is also heartwarming and exciting when the #EdcampTokyo hashtag begins to warm up on social media.

Astounded that I hadn’t made it sooner, I created an @EdcampTokyo Twitter handle, which can also be integrated with Slack to stimulate interaction and ‘buzz’. This will be useful in the future, as the login details can be easily shared with other organizers and hosts.

Given the current global political and social climate, it was also heartening to read an announcement of a new anti-harassment policy from the Edcamp Foundation.

The day arrives

Hosting and Edcamp has plenty of joys and the greatest among them is meeting curious and passionate people. Our event attracted approximately fifty participants from thirty different schools and other organizations.

Browsing and voting for sessions at #edcamptokyo! #edu

A post shared by Bart Miller (@bartlmiller) on Apr 7, 2017 at 5:42pm PDT

Student panel

One fantastic idea this year was to include a session with a panel of KIST students to provide perspective on issues from bullying to technology in and out of the classroom.

What most surprised me about the students’ perspective was how unenthusiastic they were about technology, as though only Generation X and older people are excited by carrying a supercomputer in our pockets.

Critical thinking

I was happy, in between relaying messages and ushering late arriving guests, to stumble into a Critical Thinking session which I would characterize has having a theme of ‘making the complex simple, but not simplistic’.

The most stimulating feature of Edcamp is diversity of perspectives. When many points of view focus on a conceptual topic like critical thinking, the conversation is certain to be enlightening.

Viral On Twitter

It’s a fact that Edcamp itself was born on Twitter, as was Edcamp Tokyo. Consequently or coincidentally, it’s also our favorite social network and the #EdcampTokyo hashtag hosted a fair amount of chatter around this event.

This kind of backchannel interaction is fun and provides another channel by which people, including those not necessarily in attendance, can participate.

Looking ahead

Hosting or organizing professional development is usually a different experience than participating in it. Fortunately, this year I had such a helpful organizing team and KIST hospitality team that I was able to engage in discussions without being overly busy with logistics and problem solving.

In the future, I would like to see Edcamp Tokyo grow into a community which includes more local Japanese educators as well as more enthusiasm from the international schools.

In terms of the organization, I would like to see our function transform into an advisory role empowering teachers to organize and host their own Edcamp Tokyo events with the support of our expertise and promotional tools.