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.

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.

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.

Student survey analysis

At KIST, we conduct an annual student survey to assess classroom climate. Students complete the survey electronically and anonymously by evaluating statements about me and the class as ‘usually’, ‘sometimes’, or ‘no’. The resulting data is later shared with teachers. It’s an informative method of receiving feedback which can be used to refine approaches teaching.

Positives

Overall, my survey results were very positive. To statements which I would consider critical, like ‘My teacher cares about me.’ and ‘My teacher shows respect to all students.’

   

One question which I find very useful for evaluating my differentiation strategies is ‘I am able to do the work given to me.’


An 81% ‘usually’ and 0% ‘no’ outcome shows that my ongoing formative assessment cycle assures that every student is both challenged and capable of success.

One surprise was an unexpectedly positive response to ‘My teacher allows me to demonstrate my understanding in various ways.’

 

Through the first half of the school year, providing multiple pathways to understanding and accepting diverse assessment artifacts have been areas I feel I have neglected. However, my students seem to think otherwise, so perhaps what I have been doing has been satisfying for them.


Negatives

The first disturbing result in the student survey was to the statement ‘Students are respectful to each other in my class.’


The majority of students responded ‘sometimes’, indicating that I could be doing more to foster respect in my class. Fortunately, they don’t seem to think that I lack respect.

  
My biggest disappointment is the only 62% ‘usually’ response for ‘My teacher teaches about and demonstrates the Learner Profile attributes.’


 Planning and executing IB Primary Years Program units of inquiry has been my greatest frustration this year as I adapt to a new teaching environment. In the past, I have been very careful to explicitly teach the elements of the PYP embedded within units of inquiry. Thus far in this school year, such careful planning and execution simply hasn’t happened.

Fortunately, my class is in the formative stages of a new unit so it’s a perfect time to bring IB Learner Profile attributes back to the front. To get started, I’ll access another data source, our Learner Profile reflections, by looking at the analytics.

This data visualization reveals that at this time, according to their self assessments, Caring is my students’ least developed Learner Profile attribute. This evidence also supports their feeling that they are not respectful to each other in class.

By making Caring a focal point in our next unit of inquiry, these issues may be addressed.

Interesting

The statement ‘I feel free to ask and answer questions.’ is the most perplexing to me.

Contrasting that with a more favorable response to ‘My teacher gives me help when I need it.’ suggest some confusion.

In general, school has traditionally been a place where teachers have answers to students’ questions. While that is a culture that I reject, it doesn’t mean my students have not grow up with that mindset.

As in Ted Meyer’s TED talk, Math class needs a makeover, I aim to promote ingenuity and inquiry by being ‘less helpful’. Students constantly ask me questions that could researched in a book, on the Internet, or by asking their peers. For example, I almost never answer spelling questions for students.

I also avoid the traditional hand raising routine that most classrooms follow, preferring to call for responses randomly or in an open forum setting.

So it’s little surprise that many only ‘sometimes’ feel free to ask questions since they are likely still processing the cognitive dissonance of a new culture of ‘less helpful’ classroom participation.

Conclusion

This is an interesting exercise, although doing it any more than once per year would be too much. I can also see how it might be difficult to compare results year to year, as the perspectives of different classes can vary so widely.

I am happy to take away some actionable data and look forward to seeing what results it might lead to.