Chalk Talk: Being with what is: Mindfulness in the classroom

  • erin feldman Courtesy photo

For the Gazette
Published: 1/22/2020 8:37:28 AM

In this moment, you are reading words: how does it feel to notice the page, or screen, they’re on? What is it like to notice that your eyes are transmitting squiggles, and the spaces between them, to your brain? What it is inside you translating these squiggles into meaning? In this exact moment you are alive in your body, and when you focus on what it feels like to be alive in your body: you are practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a system based on Zen, Vipassana and various Buddhist traditions. It is being pumped everywhere from Google to the zoo, and, increasingly, in the classroom. John  Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally... and then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”

In the classroom, attention and memory are among the chief qualities teachers expect from our students. From the first days of elementary school, up through the last final exam of senior year, educators expect students to pay attention to the lessons, and remember them so that knowledge and skills can build and develop. Years into teaching it occurred to me that expecting kids to pay attention and remember what they’d learned was not increasing their capacity to do so — it was increasing my frustration with them. I knew from my own mindfulness practice what kind of difference frequent, short practices could make. But I was curious about how my students would feel.

I conducted a formal, eight-week mindfulness unit two years running (using exercises from Daniel Rechtschaffen) that included anonymous student surveys before, in the middle of, and at the end of the experiment. Many students spoke of being aware of a wandering mind during the mindfulness lessons, and also described ways to bring that wandering mind back to attention. This is important because it demonstrates that the mindfulness exercises not only helped students identify their troubles in focusing, but that it also provided them with skills and strategies to address those troubles. One student commented on her remedy, “…Although I still occasionally zone out in school, I observe these thoughts more and I am able to let them ‘float’ away more easily.” Other students commented on their learned abilities to “develop more control over myself and my focus… with the body scans and breathing exercises,” “observe and push away distractions and move forward with an intent focus,” and “return to the ‘center’ of my mind... and thoroughly assess what is going on in my life.”

When asked “What was your most interesting discovery about yourself while we were doing mindfulness?” students reported on the emotions that surfaced. One student wrote, “My eyes would water a lot especially when we were told to think about what makes us happy.” Another student remarked, “I didn’t realize I could have the power or strength in myself to control my mind in the ways that the teacher would ask us to.”

Via a collection of simple-to-learn practices, mindfulness encourages a mental state where we remember to be consciously aware of our body, our surroundings and our thinking. Once again, observe yourself translating these squiggles into meaning. If the present moment finds you peacefully reading this article in the Gazette, you might be agreeable to sharpening your awareness of right now. However, when the present moment finds you cold, hungry or hurting, it’s more likely you will experience aversion to plugging in. Our messy lives full of peace and suffering, numbness, joy, isolation and excitement are the real lives we live.

The purpose of practicing mindfulness is not to make that messy life compliant, cease convoluted thoughts, and the influence those thoughts have on us. Instead, I, my students and you can interpret moments of pain and pleasure as an invitation to be curious about opposing viewpoints, to keep ahold of our dreams in a society bent on monetizing them, to treat our passions as the fuel that changes the world. The purpose of practicing mindfulness is to come into presence, to become consciously alive.

Since the late 1900s, erin feldman (who uses lower case for both first and last names) has been working as a writer and poet, a classroom and outdoor educator, writing instructor, and yoga teacher. She is co-founder of Center Content, a boutique marketing and content creation, and is a proud teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.

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