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.

Data evolution & revolution

The past

Data has been an undercurrent in my teaching since my first classroom in 2007. Of course, in that year, I struggled to gather data and there was virtually no chance of utilizing much of it to inform and enrich instructional planning. For good or ill, data is not essential to the survival of a first year teacher.

Each year after, I slowly improved, including a variety of experiments like the one shared in the post Student Empowerment | COETAIL final project. I tried different forms, organizers, notebooks, etc, until finally unveiling an integrated digital system last year. I shared it as a presenter at the GAFE Summit 2016 in Kobe, Japan, and used it for the school year to publish students’ ongoing assessment data, and other key information such as website usernames and passwords, directly to them as web pages. After celebrating and discussing the system, I felt that it was terribly unsatisfying.

The present

Inspiration came in the form of media such as Jack Norris’ keynote presentation from Strata + Hadoop World in San Francisco, Let’s Get Real: Acting on Data in Real Time, embedded below.

The concept of ‘data agility’ through converged data and processing appealed to me because what I sought a tool which would organize all assessment data in a way that could be searched, shared, and analyzed. Over the years I had been introduced to many ‘tracking systems’, only to discover that they were utterly unmanageable at scale. Ticking boxes on scope and sequence documents or highlighting learning objectives almost arbitrarily seemed like a show at best. In fact, a colleague who shared such a system with me admitted that at the end of a term, due to a lack of hard data, he would simply choose outcomes to highlight on every student’s document regardless of their actual progress or learning. To quote Mr Norris, I wanted my data to ‘get real’.

While designing my own system, I became somewhat of an amateur data scientist. The implications of the article Putting the science back in data science got me thinking about the flow from data entry to visualization and publishing. A quote from the post Can Small Data Improve K-12 Education? helped to clarify the objective for the project.

‘Small data observes the details or small clues that uncover large trends. The idea is that by honing in on the elements that make up relationships and narratives in schools, education can be enriched.’ The Edvocate

What I wanted to do was bring transparency to the relationships between myself, students, parents, and administrators. Further readings within the big data and data science trends like Data Quality Should Be Everyone’s Job  by Thomas C Redman directed my attention toward the purpose for the data. Before data is collected, it should already have a purpose, and that purpose dictates the design of the collection, publishing, and analysis tools.

 

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Copious data entry (lots of dragging)
The next piece of the design puzzle was my school’s Assessment Handbook. In it were the categories, criteria, and descriptors on top of which my system would function.

 

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Student data visualization via Google Sheets
Utilizing a system of Google Sheets, data is entered and student progress viewed in potentially real time, depending on the efficiency of my data entry. As we began using the system I shared a video, Tour of your data book, embedded below, which illustrates the details of the user experience much better than I can describe in words.

The future

This system has been remarkably effective and unlike last year, I only plan to make minor tweaks, especially to the user interface. Feedback from students and parents revealed, as I expected, that there are too many graphs and that it’s difficult to know which are more or less important.

Another feature I plan to add is a Google Form which mirrors the data entry document which would allow teaching assistants, specialists, and even parents or students themselves to contribute data to the system.

If articles like The Three Ways Teachers Use Data—and What Technology Needs to Do Better by Karen Johnson and 7 Steps to Becoming a Data-Driven School by Eric Crites are any indication of the direction that data utilization is heading in education, I’m glad to be along for the ride.

Division models

One of the best ways I’ve found for infusing inquiry into my approach to teaching mathematics is to introduce new topics and concepts with a challenge. Recently, we explored Division by asking volunteers to share on the whiteboard techniques for visually modelling the division expression 21÷3.

Taking the time to do this has many benefits, including:

  • providing an opportunity to build confidence through peer to peer teaching
  • introducing, highlighting, and discussing a variety of accessible strategies
  • developing mental models which can be referred to as learning continues
  • initially assess general understanding of the concept in a zero pressure setting
  • review learning that may need to be refreshed before engaging more deeply.

Independent Inquiry: Book Tower

In its fifth year of iteration, Independent Inquiry continues to be a project that defies traditional logic and rewards all involved with inspiration and enjoyment of learning.

This afternoon, three students had arranged to stay after school with a simple inquiry goal: To build a tower out of books in our classroom library.

This was a follow up to a previous project of using books to make a giant domino chain.

Today was special because they utterly failed. Eventually, they did manage to build something, but not without overcoming a dozen obstacles along the way.

They were frustrated by the different sizes and stiffness of the books as building materials.

Working on different sides of the tower, after it collapsed, they lamented that they hadn’t been communicating or comparing each others’ techniques to ensure stability. The constant flow of analysis and synthesis that followed astounded me and distracted me from the after school program recommendations I was trying to complete before leaving for the evening.

When all of the classroom books were used, and the tower was significantly smaller than they had expected, an ethical debate ensued in which they determined that other students wouldn’t mind borrowing their books as long as they were properly returned.

I chuckled silently throughout the project and marveled at the vast breadth and depth of learning they achieved with only an idea, a pile of books, and each other.

‘I forgot my pencil.’

A child in my class forgot their pencil. I was informed of this only because of the nature of the solution to the problem: Fashion a makeshift fountain pen out of a disposable chopstick, tissue paper, and marker ink.

A written math assessment was perfectly legibly completed with this implement.

I’m sure many teachers would have simply demanded that it be cleaned up and provide the child with a pencil. It’s clearly a giant mess hanging from a wobbly precipice and not a remarkably responsible way to accept one’s mistake.

However, my respect for creativity, ingenuity, and other Maker values endowed me with the patience to request clean up after the quiz was finished. I think that the leeway the student was allowed not only helped them to feel empowered, but also encouraged voluntary cooperation with more orthodox classroom procedures.

Cue the conductor.

When the conductor enters the stage, there is rousing applause.

As a teacher, I have never been afforded such an honor. The closest I’ve come is to walk into a room full of students who suddenly cease talking upon noticing me or engage in a rousing chorus of disparate requests.

Yet, I am a conductor. I am a conductor of ideas in a symphony.

The word symphony has two meanings. The first is the orchestra.

There is the ‘classical’ instrumentation: violins, violas, cellos, woodwinds in pairs, horns, timpani, but even within the classical era, it changed. In fact, the purpose of the symphony orchestra was to be able to create any sound. Over the centuries, dozens of instruments have been added as permanent members, some just for special effects, some to fulfill some kind of creative, if not sometimes bizarre, vision. It’s just like a classroom.

My classroom is my orchestra, prepared to suit the creative, if not sometimes bizarre, learning needs of anyone who happens by. The traditional classroom had chairs, like mine, and books as well. But mine has an interactive whiteboard and wikipedia.

The other definition of symphony refers to the form. Again, there is a traditional form. Not to be too specific, there are movements in related key centers. Each movement follows a dance form, tempo, and rhythm. If you’re curious, listen to as much Haydn as possible, and notice the similarities between his symphonies because he’s the source from which scholars derived the notion of the classical symphonic form.

Although not known for my frilly neckwear, I do kind of look like Maestro Haydn.

Thankfully, composers have ravaged the classical symphonic form mercilessly. From Sibelius’ Symphony No.7 in one movement to Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony in ten, and beyond, the form has always been at the command of creativity and the musical expression of the times. The analogy can be applied to learning. What children learn now may only slightly resemble what they might have learned in the eighteenth century, because it is the purpose of the classroom to prepare students for life in their time.

The creativity of each student individually and in collaboration with each other determines the form, ensemble, and ultimately, the performance. Every child is unique. Every path to understanding is unique. Every idea is unique.

The students are the orchestra. I am their conductor. Our ideas are our symphony.