“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:
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.