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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Service in action: ESRC

Action

Action is the one component of the IB Primary Years Program that is expressly difficult to implement and document. When I started at KIST, there was an opening as the Elementary Student Representative Council facilitator. Although I was reluctant to take on extra roles in my first year at a new school, my background in service learning motivated me to volunteer.

Since then, I have slowly transformed the culture of the ESRC into an authentic service learning experience.

Service design

One of the initial changes was to change members every quarter. This was done in order to provide opportunities for four times as many students per year to participate. I view each quarter as an iteration of the design thinking process, or more specifically, service design.

Service design process

1 Communicate with peers
2 Seek & identify service goal
3 Make action plan
4 Assign duties
5 Implement plan
6 Reflect on outcomes

The process begins by raising questions and surveying the elementary student population about their views on how the school might be improved. ESRC members speak with their own classes, and older representatives visit younger classes. Their suggestions and concerns are discussed in a subsequent meeting to identify a service goal.

In addition to speaking with their classes, each iteration of the ESRC conducts at least one meeting with the Elementary School Principal. The format and purpose of these meetings will continue to evolve, but their efficacy in promoting confidence and sense of purpose is invaluable.

Details of all meeting notes are kept in an Excel workbook with a new sheet added every quarter.

Responsible Communicators

In the article Community Service Ideas for Youth: Why Giving Back Matters by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, the focus for elementary students is on learning to be responsible. However, the ESRC at KIST is voluntary and the expectation of responsibility is made clear to prospective members before they join. Our focus is on growing as Communicators.

Members use a private email group to communicate with each other and a public (within the school) group to stay in touch online. I found that the emphasis on communication whether through meetings, speaking to large groups, and creating posters and other visual media, shifts the students’ attention from ‘learning to be responsible’ to needing to be responsible to take and illicit Action.

Our successes have included helping a Grade 2 student to persuade the school administration to install a Friendship Bench and sponsoring a Pink Shirt Day.

Future plans

Perhaps as our routines become established, I would consider developing a portfolio and badging system like the one described in Adam Hill’s post, Action and Service Volunteers.

Student Survey analysis 2016

This year, my Student Survey results held few surprises (link to view last year’s Student survey analysis). Items directly related to me, such as ‘My teacher cares about me’, were positive. Generally, 70-80% of students answered ‘usually’ with very few, most often only one student, answering ‘no’.

Listening to students

One surprise was the response to the statement, ‘My teacher listens to me.’, to which 48% of my students think I only ‘sometimes’ listen to them. Slightly baffled, I reflected on my practice and identified a few of my behaviors that could lead to this result.

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First, as a rule, I ignore students when they suddenly shout across the classroom, begin asking a question without saying ‘excuse me’ or otherwise catching my attention, and especially interrupt other students. I can easily understand how a child could perceive that I am not listening to them because in some cases, I intentionally don’t listen in order to cultivate a culture in the classroom of politeness.

Of students who responded ‘sometimes’ or ‘no’, their overall average response was only 69% positive, meaning that those who responded negatively to this item were also negative to most of the other items. Of those who don’t feel that I ‘usually’ listen to them, 69% also don’t feel free to ask and answer questions, a tenuous correlation.

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As a simple action plan, I would follow the steps below.

1 Observe if and when I don’t listen to students.
2 Make more explicit that I sometimes ignore students speaking to me if they are acting disrespectfully or impolitely.
3 Reinforce our classroom essential agreement – which was composed, synthesized, and signed by all of the students – about being Open-minded Communicators.

We are Open-Minded Communicators.

We have a right to share our opinions and feelings.

We have a responsibility to show respect by listening and practicing empathy.

I would also note that of all of the classes I have taught in nine years, this is by far the most needy. During any written assessment, there is a constant queue at my desk and barrages of hands in the air asking for help. My email box is also consistently populated by emails from students asking to send PDFs of lost homework and other requests for favors which I politely decline. It is possible that their concept of the role of a teacher is significantly different than mine.

Choice and agency

A difference in expectations might illuminate another perplexing survey item result to the statement, ‘My teacher allows me to demonstrate my understanding in various ways.’

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For their first unit Summative Assessment Task, students had the instruction to ‘Present your research findings in an appropriate medium of your choice (written report, video, poster, dance, cooking, etc).’

Almost everyone in the class chose to do an oral presentation with a poster or PowerPoint for visual support. The remaining two students submitted written reports. Although this may only be a case of carefully reading and following instructions, I feel justified in being somewhat annoyed.

Respect and classroom behavior

I was shocked to discover their responses to the statement, ‘Students are respectful to each other in my class.’

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Only two students think that their peers ‘usually’ treat each other with respect, and almost a quarter feel that their class is always disrespectful. The same holds true for their perceptions of classroom behavior.

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When I asked if anyone wanted to learn in a class like the one shown above, no one responded.

I have discussed these results with my grade level team, administration, and the precious grade teachers. All assured me that the students’ feelings about their community are absolutely about complex social dynamics. In brief, this class has too many ‘alphas’ and not enough empathy. This is a case study to test my ability to cultivate social and emotional intelligence. And a fair and timely challenge it is.

A future post will detail the reflection and data informed action plan I have set into motion to help this learning community to become more Caring.

I would certainly appreciate anecdotes and suggestions that might more brightly illuminate a path forward.

Making action visible in the PYP

Of the facets of the IB Primary Years Program, my Grade 5/6 class emphasizes Action by focusing on three elements from our school’s Mission Statement & Philosophy: ‘inspired’, ‘independent’, and ‘contribute to world peace’.

With this in mind, in the first week of school we discussed and agreed to a class identity: Uniters.

Rather than addressing my class as ‘Grade 5/6’ or ‘children’ or ‘hey you’, I say ‘Uniters’. Aesthetically, it’s a bit like being a team of superheroes. Compared to being called a number or being identified by one’s category, who wouldn’t prefer being called ‘Uniter’, ‘Peacemaker’, or ‘Humanitarian’?

The theme of ‘unity’ provides a rich context for inspiring, evoking, sharing, discussing, and reflecting on action. An emphasis on action will be particularly important in the spring when this class prepares their PYP Exhibition, a self-directed inquiry project with the ambitious goals of authentic action, community service, and engagement with globally significant issue.

Organizing

Along the LX Design line of inquiry, I realized that we need an interactive tool to document and share our ‘action’ in its various forms. At first I considered digital tools, but none seemed to provide the immediacy and high visibility required. Thinking of my wife, Yuka‘s ‘inspiration board’ at home, I wondered if a bulletin board would be best.

The following tweet from Craig Dwyer and the informative Action in the PYP document to which it links helped to stimulate my thinking further.

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The primary goal being to move students’ awareness from thinking about action to planning and doing, our classroom dry erase whiteboard would be ideal. It’s an easily accessible space, simple to edit, conspicuously located near the front door, and doesn’t get much use other than reminders and doodles otherwise. However, we also needed the capability of categorizing our actions and seeing them develop through different stages, sharing and discussing.


Although it would take a substantial amount of work, I set out to make a laminated paper graphic organizer. It was a bit of a tedious process, but therapeutic, and an opportunity to model independently and carefully completing a project for my students.


My first iteration had a fatal flaw in that the categories (thought, emotion, planning, conversation, making, reflection) did not properly evoke action. An ‘action’ chart should be made of verbs.

After disposing of two thirds of it, and having the presence of mind to ask a passing student to take a ‘working in progress’ photograph, I created a second draft with categories in the more satisfying ‘-ing’ form.


When various forms of action occur to us, we write them in the appropriate boxes. Weekly, we visit the chart and discuss its contents. Often, students have taken action to pursue their inquiries. In those cases, they generally move down the chart from ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling’ to ‘planning’ or ‘making’. Sometimes, they need help to continue their inquiries which comes in the form of advice, assistance, or even just a friendly reminder. There have even been a few cases of students being inspired to take up other their peers’ lines of inquiry.

It has also been useful for me as an organizer for action within our guided and structured inquiries. It has been effective to model the process of taking considered action and integrating our class inquiries with students’ independent inquiries.

Sharing

A new application of the chart is to share on social media via our class Twitter account:
I look forward to exploring this more, perhaps by tweeting to other classes directly or joining in existing ‘chats’.

Reflecting

In retrospect, I wish I had included ‘researching’ and ‘playing’ as categories.

It is also critical to revisit the chart regularly, as it is too easy to fill it with a few questions and forget about it.

Perhaps a more dynamic design is in order. Considering the meager utility the remainder of the white board gets, I’m considering making a new organizer that fills the entire board, includes additional categories, and has more visual appeal. Any suggestions are welcome!

How do you document and engage with the process of taking action?

LX Design

Two intersecting areas of study which have captivated my interest this year, Design Thinking and Project Management, have significant promise as I consider how to apply new principles to planning a year of learning in my Grade 5/6 classroom.

The two disciplines are strongly intertwined and have profound implications when applied to designing learning experiences. This post seeks to define LX Design as an approach to classroom planning and as a framework for ongoing iteration and reflection.


Design Thinking


Completing the Macromedia University Design Thinking MOOC introduced me to the discipline of User Experience Design, or UX Design. When thinking in terms of user experience, a designer considers all human elements and possibilities related to a product or service, not only the material and economic.

For example, when designing a machine to make coffee, one must consider not only the cost and suitability of the materials used, but also the likely moods of users, often early in the morning, while using the coffee machine.

A common theme in Design Thinking is to understand people’s emotional, social, psychological, and spiritual needs when designing products, services, and experiences. In the case of education, we design learning experiences, hence the term ‘LX Design’.

Meanings of use


Klaus Krippendorff’s lecture, The Key Concepts of The Semantic Turn, and in particular his explanations of ‘meanings of use’, challenged and transformed my thinking about learning. I recreated the graphic below to represent what I consider an essential model for educators. It is the foundation for my approach to LX Design.

To summarize, when a person encounters a thing, whether it’s a product or an idea, they must first recognize it and the opportunities it presents. Next, the thing can be explored, or used to try to accomplish a task. When a person becomes engaged with the thing, they might find it so useful as to become reliant upon it, using it naturally on a regular basis.

A great physical example is shoes. If you had never seen shoes before, you may or may not recognize how their shape resembles feet. If you did, you might try wearing them, even adjusting the laces for a comfortable fit, and walk. Before long, you would find yourself always wearing them for their comfort and safety until you can hardly imagine living without them.

Design Thinking in the classroom

The same model applies to knowledge, concepts, and learning tools.

In fifteen years as a professional educator, I have observed that everyone wants to learn what they can use. I suppose that is the reason the why Professor Krippendorf’s model resonated so strongly with me.


In my inquiry based classroom, I have been moving away from the ‘what students should know and be able to do’ model. Instead, I seek to design learning experiences that empower rich opportunities to construct understanding.


Following the design process described in the IDEO Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit, the first stage, Discovery, consists of two primary elements. First, the learning artifacts, and in particular the formative reflections, of previous year students. Second, data gathered in about my current class from their portfolios, assessment files, and personal experiences. This corresponds to ‘Recognition of opportunities’ in the Krippendorf model.

The next stages in the design process, Interpretation and Ideation, represent ‘purposeful Exploration’ in the Krippendorff model, and the bulk of the learning experience design in the first weeks of the school year. As the students and I collaboratively make sense of our current understandings, hypothesize approaches to learning that will lead to constructing deeper and more relevant meaning, and pursue those inquiries through Experimentation, our ‘Reliance’ on that learning provides the foundation and raw material for the Evolution of our thinking, according to the IDEO process.

That evolution begins with ‘disruption’ in the Krippendorff model, which in terms of learning I consider synonymous with cognitive dissonance. As our understandings evolve, ideally, we engage in an infinite learning loop, constantly reflecting and reevaluating, utilizing various models of inquiry or design to guide and share our learning.

As this project unfolds, an overriding goal is that the students begin to harness the processes of Design Thinking. In this way, the entire class can become a cooperative and collaborative LX Design Team engaged in constructing their own independent yet connected lines of inquiry.

The LX Design community


There are several excellent educators and organizations sharing their ideas on Design Thinking in education. I recommend exploring Jackie Gerstein’s The Educator as a Design Thinker for its enlightening graphic and wealth of well organized information and links to essential resources.

Maureen Devlin has explored learning design on her blog, including the provocative post, Learning Design: Center Stage in which she asks the essential question, ‘How can I synthesize materials, tools, strategies, standards, and students’ needs and interests to serve students well?’

Ewan McIntosh’s article, Design Thinking: Tools to help make thinking visible, provides an invaluable model for design thinking in action in the classroom.

I also recommend exploring IDEO Desing Thinking for Educators, the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, and Learning Designer, an exciting website for unit planning, sharing, and collaboration.

Project Management


While a design team utilizes design thinking principles to achieve common and generally clear goals, my classroom is not necessarily so collaborative nor certainly so linear. The highly personalized nature of inquiry learning requires a chaotic environment with learning streaming in different directions and intersecting in unpredictable ways.

Project Management, while primarily business-oriented, can contribute much needed principles to classroom learning experience design.

I have begun by considering this school year as a project ten months in duration, with the primary goals of students demonstrating academic mastery, practicing 21st century fluencies, and engaging in meaningful and significant community action. The pursuit of these goals will be on display during our Exhibition.

Reflecting on last year’s Exhibition, I utilized MindMup to organize essential tools and skills necessary for success in the document PYP Exhibition. By visualizing in this way, I was able to identify which elements would be best to introduce early in the school year and how the different elements could compliment each other.

For example, the one element which I found to be most foundational for success is Expository Writing. For that reason, in the first weeks of school, we have emphasized heavily the writing process and tools for gathering and organizing research data. As students engage with other tools and practice other literacies in their inquiries, this writing practice will continue to develop to become an increasingly reliable communication tool.


Another aspect of Project Management is sharing information. Using project management principles to identify stakeholders and establishing processes for increasing transparency can be a highly effective utilization of technology.

Another of Maureen Devlin’s posts, Transition to Transparency, is an insightful reflection on how and why ‘keeping communication fluid and transparent really helps to support a dynamic learning community’An indispensable tool in this process is A Useful Framework For Transparency In Education, a graphic model around which I am attempting to design a robust online system for collaborative document and data sharing. In a world connected by digital technologies, connectivist tools are essential to learning.

Ongoing inquiry


What I find most compelling about this endeavor is how perfectly it mirrors the inquiry learning process I wish to foster in my students. I am utilizing design principles to learn how to effectively facilitate their learning of design principles to facilitate their own learning!

Indeed it is easy to see how our processes may quickly become inseparable and indistinguishable.

This is a long term project I look forward to pursuing using the label LX Design and would certainly welcome collaborators!


Service learning in elementary school

The New York Times Magazine cover story, Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?, explores the work of Adam Grant, whose ‘studies have been highlighted in bestselling books such as Quiet by Susan Cain, Drive and To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink, Thrive by Arianna Huffington, and David and Goliath by Gladwell’.

In that article, the case is convincingly made that altruism is not only beneficial to the beneficiary, but also to the benefactor.


A little kindness goes a long way by Ed Yourdon CC BY NC SA 


This apparent contradiction is supported by research findings not only in neuroscience, as in the article, Altruism, egoism: Brain exercises cognitive analysis, but also by commonly accepted wisdom contained in the world’s ancient and respected religious and spiritual disciplines as explored in Carolyn Gregoire‘s post, What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Compassion.


Mindfulness and empathy help to make connections in the brain which manifest as action.


Caring for others makes us smarter.

So why isn’t service learning an essential characteristic of every school? Why isn’t it designed into the curriculum and culture of schools?


In the Harvard EdCast, Making Global Local, Jeff Shea (2015 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year) describes his innovate Global Leadership class and comments that we should ‘plant the seeds early’ for global education and service learning, so it only makes sense for elementary schools to introduce and practice service learning.

There are endless possibilities for doing so, and even what appears to be a simple act of service can provide tremendous authentic context and purpose for learning.


My experiences


My first classroom teaching experience was in a service project based learning charter elementary school in Los Angeles, California, founded by Full-Circle Learning and six educators including myself.


Our mission was to design learning experiences around ‘habits of heart’ and global collaboration. 


When someone asked my students what they are learning, they would say they are learning about ‘children who can’t go to school’, ’empathy’, ‘altruism’, or ‘how to be a humanitarian’.


In a sense, we were more than a community of learning.


We were a community of learning to serve.

Culture of service


There are a number of strategies I would recommend that any elementary school could quickly adopt to cultivate a culture of service.

Meaningful class names

Stop calling classes by their grade level, and assign them special names. I taught a Grade 4/5 combination class called ‘The Humanitarians’ and a Grade 2 class called ‘The Peacemakers’. The names for classes could be drawn from the school’s curriculum, mission statement, service learning goals, or learner profile.

Empathy based conflict resolution

Every school has a conflict resolution policy which all stakeholders agree to follow. Usually, these policies are based on compromise or tolerance. However, the most effective conflict resolution is based on empathy. The conflict resolution process should contain an explicit ’empathy step’ which encourages each party to resolve the conflict in service to the other.

Attitude and action orientation

In a service learning environment, the foundation of every unit is the driving question, ‘how can we help?’ Often, units are provoked by emotional appeals around global issues concerning human rights, environmental stewardship, injustice, or inequity.

In the post, Inquiry should be action-oriented., I described a collaboration with our partner grade 2 class in Lesotho around the ‘habit of heart’ of appreciation. The provocation for the unit took the form of students sharing stories of their experiences of children mistreating or acting disrespectfully toward their parents or teachers.

It was a very rich discussion about a situation that existed at both schools. The driving question of ‘how can we help’ led to an inquiry into the attitude of appreciation, writing personal letters to help our African partners to learn appreciation together, among other connected activities.

Our project, planned cooperatively as a class, was to weave ‘appreciation bracelets’ for our learning partners to give to their parents to express appreciation.

Learning partners in Lesotho receive ‘appreciation bracelets’ by Bart Miller CC BY SA


I also recommend reading Sam Sherratt’s post, Creating the conditions for action, and practicing the Putting Action on the Agenda guidelines from International School Ho Chi Minh City.


Embedded technology


The potential for technology to redefine service learning, whether by digital media creation or social media, is virtually unlimited.

In terms of social media, at any given time there are easy to find campaigns underway which students can learn from and contribute to. Here’s a short list of some recent examples:

One approach to bringing social media into the classroom is to start a class twitter account. I’ve collected hundreds on this list, ‘classrooms atwitter‘.

To get my students tweeting, I created little ‘tweet’ cards with 140 character grids. The students compose their tweets, then drop them off at my desk to be added to our feed.

photo by Bart Miller CC BY SA


It’s a medium I look forward to utilizing much more aggressively as I integrate service and social advocacy more into our units of inquiry.

Empowerment is the goal


Ultimately, service learning is about empowering students to understand that they can help to solve the world’s problems.

By practicing inquiry which is rooted in empathy and oriented toward action, students learn to realize their potential as change agents in the world.

Constructing The Learner Profile

One of the most positive and sincere refrains one hears in education is to teach ‘the whole child’. Most of the time, however, what that means isn’t clear. Common sense dictates that we should care about students’ emotional and social growth as much as academic. Inquiries into learning modalities or multiple intelligences seem to shed light onto planning more inclusive learning opportunities. As a slogan, ‘teach the whole child’ is perfectly fine.
The IB Learner Profile takes a much needed step toward articulating more specifically what the attributes of a ‘whole child’, or indeed any person, are.
My approach to reflecting on and documenting development of the Learner Profile in my classroom is very simple. The attributes are posted at the edges of a large blank display. As students demonstrate an attribute, they or I suggest to attach an artifact of the event on the display. When someone ‘nominates’ an artifact, it’s an ideal opportunity for reflective discussion and celebration of our achievements!
Thus far, we determined that exchanging origami Peace Cranes with students in Hawaii showed that we are caring, so we stuck some cranes on the board.
Our origami Peace Cranes show that we are caring.

Symbolically, I love having a visual representation in the classroom of our growth, not only as learners, but as people.

Our learner profile will fill up as the year progresses.
Visualizing our thinking and learning is a fun and remarkably useful endeavor, particularly in elementary school. In what ways are your students showing what they have learned and how they have grown?