Mindfulness – A Part of Everyday Learning

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

 I. What Was Missing

For the past two years our school has made a concerted effort to address the needs of our unique student population through the Mind, Body, Spirit initiative. The purpose of this initiative is to focus our attention on addressing the idiosyncratic needs of our students, all of whom join us as a result of crisis that has not allowed them to be successful in a traditional educational setting. At the heart of this initiative is the need to acknowledge the contextual constraints we face but cannot control – limited resources, parental involvement, attendance, etc – but not allow these constraints to inhibit our pursuit of educating the whole child.

It is through the lens of this initiative that I began to search for ways to bring mindfulness into my practice. Research shows that there is a correlation between mindfulness and student well-being, as it leads to a reduction of stress and increases happiness (Weinstein and Ryan, 2009). We have successfully introduced mindfulness into our school culture, with opportunities to practice meditation in some elective classes and our district’s Director of Curriculum leading a weekly yoga class for students. However these opportunities are viewed by students as isolated in nature, and often divorced from the context of learning. My pursuit was to bring mindfulness into my classroom not as an outside activity to be viewed as separate from learning, but rather as a tool to be utilized to sharpen the mental axe before attempting to chop down the metaphorical tree.

II. What I Tried

The epiphany came during a conversation with my colleagues in the MSU Wipro STEM & Leadership Teaching Fellowship, in which I am lucky enough to be an instructor. We were discussing assessment, and its various modes, mediums, and uses, when I commented that given the student population at my school, what was truly lacking was formative assessments of my student’s emotional state. While I don’t remember the entirety of the conversation, I do remember that at this point Dr. Akesha Horton pushed me about why that couldn’t take place in my class. Just as with content specific formative assessments, the goal was immediate data collection to inform instruction. As we unpacked this idea, we decided that the ideal strategy for introducing a mindfulness assessment was to design a simplistic, student-centered self assessment implemented at the beginning of class to maximize its effectiveness. With these considerations in mind, we targeted the “Do Now” as the vehicle for implementation.

I begin each of my classes with a “Do Now”, which can also be referred to as a “Hook” or “Bell Ringer”. I was introduced to the “Do Now” as a part of my teacher preparation courses in college, and again in various Professional Development experiences, but struggled to identify how the strategy fit in my classroom. I am not entirely sure why I had an aversion to the strategy, but part of me feels that it was how it was framed. The “Do Now” was billed as a tool for classroom management. A way to get students under control and compliant, immediately. This always felt at odds with the relationship I wanted and the classroom I strive to create.

However, my perspective has changed as my practice has evolved. I began to fully appreciate the impact that activation of prior knowledge has on student’s ability to engage in new learning (Lin, Lin & Huang, 2011). I also realized that I had underestimated the importance of routine for my students. For our students, the presence of a routine can be predictable, stabilizing, and comforting, often because much of their lives is not. The “Do Now” began simply as a starter question for the day’s lesson. Eventually it transformed into a “Do Now” handout where students logged each day’s lesson objective and prior knowledge “Do Now” question for the week. (example linked here) While the activation of prior knowledge and appealing aspects of routine, predictability and focus were present, I couldn’t help but feel that the “Do Now” lacked something. I just wasn’t sure what.

The “what” ended up being the inclusion of mindfulness into our starter. The first inclusion of mindfulness that Dr. Horton and I brainstormed for the “Do Now” was an emotional self assessment. Each day as students are beginning class they assess their emotional status on a scale of 1-10, using a simple question, “How are you feeling?”. We utilize a numeric scale to reduce the amount of instructional time lost to the activity, as well as increase student likelihood of participation. I have come to realize an unintended benefit of the 1-10 scale is the immediacy in which I can use a student’s emotional self assessment to inform my instructional decisions.

Each day, as students are working on their prior knowledge “Do Now” question, I walk around the classroom and take stock of their rating. The key is that this activity is low stakes, as students are assured no judgement or penalty for their honest response. In fact, it is never even communicated that the activity itself is mandatory. I have found this immediate and honest communication about their emotional status greatly influences my ability to meet each student’s needs. Opportunities for mindfulness leads to improvements in a person’s ability to regulate their behavior (Keng, Smoski & Robins, 2011). If a student is at one of the extremes of the scale, or I notice a pattern in the student’s ratings for that week, I can take a moment to find out why. This has led to connections and conversations that I never would have had with my students if it wasn’t for this opportunity.

In addition to these connections, my classroom instruction is immediately influenced by the information I have received from these self assessments. As articulated by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, students cannot learn if their most basic needs are not being met (Maslow, 1943). Given the issues that many of our students face outside of the classroom, my ability to immediately identify a student in emotional crisis is invaluable. I can redesign a lesson, differentiate an activity, or simply counsel with a student to scaffold their experience. This is all informed by their self assessment. It’s affect on my classroom has been noticeable. It has allowed me to avoid potential “blow up” moments with students who are dealing with something much larger than my day’s lesson, and address the areas within my control that allow students to focus solely on their learning.

III. What’s Next

Given the overwhelmingly positive effects of the emotional self assessment, I am motivated to increase the opportunities my students have for authentic mindfulness practices. During a recent conversation with a friend regarding mindfulness, he suggested I start using the Five Minute Journal. This journal allows the user to practice mindfulness each morning and night by framing the exercise with a simplified process and specific questions. Through the incorporation of daily goal setting, gratitude and affirmation, each day starts with a dose of positive thinking. The evening portion of the journal includes self reflection on the positives of the day, as well as the opportunity to identify areas of potential improvement. The key to it all is that it is chunked down into manageable tasks, and framed as casual conversation. After about a week of using the Five Minute Journal myself, I have begun to implement these ideas with my students.

The “Do Now” in it’s current form includes the strategies I mentioned above, as well as some of these new principles from the Five Minute Journal. Students start with the emotional self assessment question “How are you feeling?” opener, but now before they move to the daily objective and prior knowledge “Do now” question, they identify a weekly goal, gratitude, or affirmation. (Click here for a closer look at the Five Minute Journal strategies I use each day and my rationale) While the inclusion of these new strategies has required additional time and modeling, the trade off has been worthwhile.

The daily routine in which my classes begin has evolved, but like all of my pedagogical decisions, I continue to tinker and identify ways to improve the implementation of these practices. The beautiful part is that I am not alone in the pursuit of constant improvement. I initially wanted students to create a daily goal, but after a week of this a student pointed out that this felt redundant, and that without time to reflect they were just writing the same goal day after day. Educators often speak of the need to do things with students and not to them. It was a profound moment, where I was having a conversation about efficient ways to practice mindfulness in class with my student.

While not all students take these moments for reflection as seriously as others, I have noticed that for the vast majority of my students the time is well used. In fact, for some of my students they take longer and put more thought into these activities than they do the answer to their prior knowledge “Do Now” question. This isn’t a bad thing. No, this a great thing. For the vast majority of my students, this is the first time they have been given the space, no matter how small, to reflect on themselves.

As with everything in my classroom, the implementation of mindfulness is not perfect, nor is it done (Here is it’s current state as of this writing). I am constantly in a state of revision as I reflect on my strategies and their affect on my students. As I move forward, I plan on focusing on how to measure the success of these mindfulness practices, as well as improve their ubiquity in the learning process. As of now I am excited about it’s inclusion in my classroom, and what it can do for the emotional well-being of my students.

 

 

For more on mindfulness, here are a couple great starting points:

 

 

Resources:

Keng, S. L., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical psychology review, 31(6), 1041-1056.

Lin, Y., Lin, Y., & Huang, Y. (2011). Development of a diagnostic system using a testing-based approach for strengthening student prior knowledge. Computers & Education, 57(2), 1557-1570. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.03.004

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.

Weinstein, N., Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). A multi-method examination of the effects of mindfulness on stress attribution, coping, and emotional well-being. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(3), 374-385.

Improvising From Home

Unfortunately, I found myself sidelined these past two days with an unforeseen back spasm that has left me couch bound, and unable to lead my classroom’s learning directly. Due to this, the execution of my carefully crafted week of educational experiences was left up to my ability to clearly explain the intent, processes, and reasoning of the lesson. It is no secret that a teachers ability to effectively communicate the expectations of a lesson is essential for understanding. The best lessons are dead on arrival if they are presented to students in a haphazard or confusing manner. Ultimately, mediocre lessons effectively explained often have a greater impact on student learning than their superior, but less clear, counterparts. Student confusion and misunderstanding of a lesson’s processes, goals and rationale can lead to lost time, misplaced effort and missed opportunities.

This morning I received this email from a student.

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We all know that it wasn’t the subs fault, but some breakdown between my written instructions and my students understanding. So I tried this…

Tool used: Screencastify

Not ten minutes after sending that video to the student, here was his reply.

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When I am gone, I immediately worry about those students who may find my written explanation confusing or unclear. Even the best attempts of a substitute teacher to convey the ethos of a lesson I created, cannot compare to my in person delivery of the directions. This is because “effective teaching must be improvisational” (Sawyer, 2004). The directions I write in an email to a substitute are frozen in time and lack the flexibility needed to bend and twist around the needs of my students. Luckily for my students, their questions do not need to end with another attempt at rereading of my directions. While I have known about screencasts for some time, I have always viewed them as one of these premeditated tools. I felt that the screencast needed to be something that I sat down and mapped out. I was concerned that all screencasts needed to be motion pictures, with a story board, editing and some grand final message delivered to the audience. However, today I realized the potential of the improvised screencast. The ability to improvise, clarify my flawed instructions and hopefully improve that student’s educational experience for the day.

 

 

Sawyer, R. K. (2004). Creative teaching: Collaborative discussion as disciplined improvisation. Educational researcher, 33(2), 12-20.

Voting Against Your Own Self Interest and Student Behavior

Back in December, The Atlantic published an article by Andrew McGill titled “Why People Vote for Counterproductive Policies“, which was an in-depth look at voting trends, specifically those who are perceived to vote against their own interest.

The Atlantic piece concluded that when it comes to understanding the immediate cause and effect of a vote, humans are fairly solid with their understanding. However, when it comes to understanding the long-term consequences of that vote, they begin to struggle. McGill explains that a new paper, co-authored by University of California, Berkley economist Ernesto Dal Bo,  finds that people are willing to ignore greater long-term gains in exchange for the possibility of short-term benefits.

In a study released earlier this month, researchers tested this bias by having college undergraduates play a few rounds of the prisoner’s dilemma. The original version of the two-player game rewards both participants if they agree to share a prize, but gives one player the full bounty if he or she betrays the other. However, if both players betray each other, they get nothing.

The researchers offered students a variant: same rules, but taxes took a bite out of any payout, and betrayers had to pay a bit more. Even though everyone made less money, the new penalty for betrayal encouraged cooperation, meaning fewer players ended up with nothing, and everyone got richer in the long run.

But when offered a choice between the games, most participants stuck with the original setup, turned off by the reduced payouts.

What makes these findings interesting to educators (besides those of us in the Economics and Government fields already drawn to the topic) is the insight into our students behaviors, or lack thereof. A constant area of concern in all schools is student apathy. However, this reaches crisis level when concerning high risk student populations. Students who struggle academically and come from unstable home environments find themselves at the extreme end of the school apathy spectrum, more often than their peers. The reason for this may be, as McGill states, “It’s already hard for humans to connect the dots.” An apathetic student isn’t viewing their future maliciously and knowingly acting against their own self interests. Instead, their actions are a result of their inability to connect their present apathetic attitude to future negative consequences.

Similar to the voting age members of society, many students have a difficult time seeing the long-term effects of their immediate decisions. This is especially true for those students who face much larger distractions, like the lack of basic needs being met at home, or inconsistent messages about the value of education. Without the ability to focus solely on school and understand the inherent value of that educational experience, it is easy to see why students would begin to treat school as the lesser of two choices, favoring any and all alternatives that may provide a more immediate positive.

The key to overcoming this challenge is to help students organically discover the long-term benefits of their effort. Dal Bo explains in the article that once he began to show his data to game participants, they began to change their behavior in favor of the choice with a more beneficial long-term outcome. Students often do not have this luxury, especially if they are not consistently shown the value of education at home. Teachers can counteract this in two ways: by making the short-term lessons and activities engaging through connections to the students real world, and by clearly articulating the real life benefits of education on a students life. Just like the subjects of the Dal Bo paper, students can be well versed in the short-term cause and effect of their decisions, but this does not necessarily translate to a more macro view of those consequences. It is up to the educators in their life to expand their knowledge past this “standard” and facilitate their development of the ability to “connect the dots”.

 

Learning from “Photography Mapped”

Photography has long been an area of intrigue for me. While I have taken thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of pictures in the last few years working as an instructor for MSUrbanSTEM, I still feel absolutely lost with my camera set on anything by “Automatic”. With this background shared, it is easy to see why I was drawn to the Wired headline “Learn How To Use a DSLR Camera, With This Nifty Web Tool”.

The article provided a brief description and link to a tremendous tool that was built by Simon Roberts, a London based designer, animator and amateur photographer. Within seconds of visiting his website Photography Mapped , Roberts background in design and animation is apparent.  The site is designed to have a gorgeous minimalist feel, which accents the power and beauty of his animations.

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Simon Roberts

To explain the physics and settings of a DSLR camera, Roberts utilizes a still image, as well as interactive graphics. A visitor is offered the immediate choice between viewing the poster style still graphic or immediately diving into the interactive GIF.

The still graphic provides a beautiful overview of the camera’s settings, allowing the viewer to zoom in and explore the details of photography.

Inside the interactive  graphic one can adjust settings for light, aperture, shutter, sensor and exposure,  all while seeing the results of their manipulations play out on a photograph of a helicopter.

I spent a great deal of time marveling at the site, playing with the interactive graphic and reading the still image. What occurred to me was that while I was exploring information that had probably been explained to me countless times by either well meaning photography friends, tech blogs or YouTube videos, this time I was actually understanding it. A large part of this may have been my level enjoyment, but it felt bigger than that. As Margaret Rhodes so clearly explained in the Wired article, “Reading about photography felt counter-intuitive, because it’s an inherently visual process. Online tutorials can help, but watching video is a passive exercise. Robert’s hands-on infographic, on the other hand, simulates the experience of making a photo, and lets you explore how settings relate to each other.”   

Hearing about a visual process, or passively consuming an inherently interactive phenomenon, will always be inferior to active learning. Experiences like Roberts’ Photography Mapped website are something I really enjoy, because I know that I can very easily lose site of how difficult it is for my students to learn something brand new. I can fall victim to the temptation of assuming their understanding will come from reading or listening to others explain their knowledge. Experiences like this are a great reminder that often, learning occurs when we are given a chance to mess up the settings, turn the light and ISO all the way up and take some bad pictures.

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Simon Roberts

PlaydateMI and the Importance of Play

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I had the privilege of attending the PlaydateMI “conference” put on by the tremendous folks at Jackson ISD. The reason I say “conference” is because the Playdate model is one of the “un-conference”, meaning there is no formal presenter and no required structure to the sessions. Instead, each has a facilitator, which can be any attendee, who simple introduces the topic, keeps notes and helps document the conversation.

The beauty of this model is its ability to let teachers “play” again. What I found to be most rewarding about the experience was that when left to our passions, and prompted only by a topic title, the teachers dive in with an engagement rarely seen at more “traditional” conferences. Just as we ask teachers to be more student centered and interactive, this model allows teachers to learn in the same mode. Just as we ask students to take risks and try something new, this lets teachers attempt both.

While there is certainly a place for more structured conferences and formal presentations, I am glad that teachers have the opportunity to stop and “play” with ideas. Just as we ask our students to develop certain skills, it is important that teachers sharpen their collaboration, creativity and critical thinking skills, too.

You can check out the Twitter hashtag here, and take a look at the resource docs from the various sessions here.

Share Your Love for Reading

The topic of our district Twitter chat (#ChatAPS) last night was geared towards March Reading Month, and how it impacts our students. One of the cool ideas that came out of the discussion was for teachers to be more proactive in sharing their love for reading with their students. One unfortunate truth is that many students do not see reading modeled for them by adults at home. One way in which we can combat this, is to model our love for reading at school.

One of the ways that we are trying this is with “What I’m Reading” posters. While it was an idea that I had thought of before, I had never managed to act on it. Thanks to the motivation from our Twitter chat, I found this neat site that creates a poster in mere seconds.

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whatimreading.org is free and easy to use, creating the poster in the blink of an eye that has your name, book title, cover of book, QR code and a clickable Amazon link to the book. I found it to be the perfect in creating a quick and easy way for me to share what I am reading with my students, no matter what month it is.

Digital Equity Webinar – MAET Bridge

This afternoon I was honored to participate in a webinar with a fantastic panel of educators. We had the opportunity to discuss digital equity, technology integration, BYOD and many other EdTech topics.

The elite panel included: Heidi Gascon an MAET alum and Instructional Technology Specialist at Ingham ISD, and Michele Ellis a middle school ELA and science teacher at Williamston Community Schools.

Facilitating our discussion was an equally amazing and impressive group of MAET year two students: Alex Miller, Jon Gere and Chris Armour.

The MAET Bridge series provides a wealth of webinars featuring exceptional educators addressing a myriad of educational topics. You can view this webinar below, and the archive of MAET Bridge webinars here.