Five Ways to Begin the School Year with Mindfulness and Compassion

For every teacher I know, the end of summer vacation means rising nervous energy, anxiety and excitement. It means getting ready to begin a new experience, with new students and sometimes a new curriculum.

To start the school year, or anything new, it is obvious that we must make plans. We need to determine where we want to go, and what we want to accomplish, in order to fulfill those objectives. But we often ignore the emotional side of getting ourselves ready.

  1. Meet Each Moment Mindfully

Take a moment to feel what you feel and notice your thoughts. Only if you notice your thoughts and feelings can you choose how and whether to act on them. Start with understanding what beginning the school year means to you and what you need. Then you can better understand what your students need.

Many of us plan our classes so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what is safe and already known. It’s not truly a beginning if you emotionally make believe that you’ve already done it.

Take time daily to strengthen your awareness of your own mental and emotional state.

If you arrive at school energized but anxious, get out of your car, stop, look at the building and trees around you, and take a few breaths. Then you’ll be in your body, present in the moment—not caught up in your thoughts. After greeting yourself, you’ll be more prepared to greet students.

 

Practice SBC: Stop, Breathe, Notice.  Periodically stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, take 3 breaths and notice your thoughts and feelings. Notice how it feels after such a break.

You can do this with students to begin each lesson, or in the middle of a heated discussion….

 

To read the whole post, go to MindfulTeachers.org.

 

A somewhat different blog for a general audience on the same subject was published last August by The Good Men Project.

Are We Undermining Our Children’s Education? A Mindful Use of Digital Media in the Home and Classroom

How difficult is it nowadays to engage the whole family in a talk? Or if you’re a teacher, how difficult is it to engage a class of students?

 

There has been much debate in the last few years about the role cell phones and other digital media has played in making face-to-face discussions at home and in school more difficult. A teacher and former colleague recently told me that students even use their phones to order food to be delivered to the classroom. When I asked why she put up with it, she said she couldn’t do anything about it. It was too engrained in the school (and national) culture.

 

I find this frightening. How can anyone learn well, or engage with others in meaningful discussions, when their attention is tuned to the expectation of a text? To say, “nothing can be done about this situation” reminds me of the discussion of bullying 20-30 years ago, when people said, “It’s just the time of life when children bully.”

 

Self-Reflective Questions for Parents and Teachers About Media Use

 

Teachers and other adults can be as addicted to their devices as children. We can all benefit by increasing our self-awareness and asking ourselves:

How much time do you spend on your phone, computer, and social media?

How do you feel when you see your children on their phones when you are trying to talk with them? How do you think they feel when you are on the phone when they are trying to talk with you? Who do you prioritize: the person standing before you, or the one on the phone?

Did you want to stop reading this post as soon as you realized what it was about? ….

 

To read the whole post, please click on this link to Spirit of Change Magazine, which just published the piece.

Using Mindful Questioning to Enhance Academic Learning (An Interview)

Mindfulteachers.org published an interview of me written by Catharine Hannay. Here is the beginning. Please go to their website for the entire interview.

What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

First, what does mindfulness mean? Mindfulness is a study of mind and heart from “the inside.” It is a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations illuminating how interdependent you are with other people and your world.

 

Without being judgmental, it notices whatever arises as a potential learning event. It is both a practice, as in meditation, and is also a quality of awareness or of being in the world.

 

When I first started teaching, like most educators, I made a number of mistakes. When you make a mistake, it is easy to get down on yourself, and then you don’t learn all that you could.

 

The more mindful I became, the more I could take in, the less judgmental I was, and the more I thought of my students as my teachers.

Mindfulness can be practiced either at a set time every day, or whenever you can do it. You might practice mindfulness because it reduces stress and strengthens your ability to focus and learn.

 

But if you practice mindfulness just for what you can get from it, you concentrate on your idea of who you will become in some future time and miss the whole moment you are doing it.

A New Review of My Book “Compassionate Critical Thinking”

The organization, mindfulteachers.org, a wonderful organization, just published a review of my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. The book was published by Rowman & Littlefield. It is a book that, I hope not only will help teachers, students, and parents in this time of anxiety and threats, but maybe help anyone trying to understand him or herself and what is happening in our world.

The review begins:

“Often, you have little choice in what material you teach; the only choice you have is how the material is taught… When a teacher enters the classroom with awareness and genuine caring, students are more likely to do the same.”


Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching is based on Ira Rabois’ thirty-year career teaching English, philosophy, history, and psychology to high school students. 

Rabois includes six types of practices in his teaching:

 

To read the whole review, go to the website. Enjoy.

Compassionate Critical Thinking and the Teaching And Living Using Spirituality Blogspot

This week, I was invited to write a blog on my book for the Teaching and Living Using Spirituality blogspot.

 

When I first discussed my book with friends, many said that compassion and critical thinking seemed contradictory to them. They thought ‘compassion’ necessitated taking in or opening to people, and ‘critical’ meant being judgmental, questioning or pushing them away. I then asked What happens inside a person when they’re compassionate? And then, after listening to their responses, What does critical thinking mean to you? If compassion leads to openness, taking in information, improved perception and understanding; and if critical thinking requires understanding a person or situation better, then wouldn’t compassion aid such thinking? …

 

To read the whole piece, please use this link. Thank you to Owen Griffith, author of Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, for engineering this guest blog and creating his website.

Compassionate Critical Thinking, A Book Worth Owning and Sharing

Here’s a review of my book that cheered me up a little during a tough week.

I sat down with this book, very excited to finally have a copy in my hands to read. I was looking forward to feeling inspired by it as I read it quickly over the weekend, and to feel appreciation for the teacher who decided to share his work.

Two weeks later, I am still very excited to have it, but it is not a book I want to skim through for vague inspiration. Rather, I am awed by what an amazing treasure of detailed information this is! I wonder what the world would be like if these lessons could be offered to every school child. I went to a Quaker high school where every day started with a short period of silence for the whole school. This book takes that kernel of an idea and brings it into the rest of the school day.

I will go further and say this is a wonderful handbook for an ongoing mindfulness or meditation discussion group for adults. The wisdom Ira Rabois writes about is not superficial or difficult to understand, but instead the book offers topics, questions and reference reading on being a human being in this world. His students were so lucky to have a teacher who was able to approach their education with this respect and sensitivity, and the publication of this book brings this opportunity to the rest of us as well.

While it is clear that Rabois has a strong background in Buddhist teachings, what he is able to get across in this book is not limited by a particular philosophy or religion. Rather, he offers a detailed plan to study the human mind in all its fullness and frailty, all its potential and confusion. This book has found a permanent place on my nightstand with a couple other books (such as a book on Lojong) that I refer to again and again for guidance as problems come up.

If high school teachers are interested in helping students develop compassionate critical thinking, they would probably be most successful reading this book first, applying its questions and ideas to their own lives, allowing a first-person understanding of this information to be the basis of their teaching style. If a school has staff development days, even a small amount of time shared reading and discussing this book would be of great benefit to teachers and students alike.

I only wish that the table of contents had listed the Lesson Plans. The vast amount of information presented is not just a single line of knowledge, but rather is also a reference guide for approaching specific concerns as they arise in a classroom, or in one’s own life. For example, It would be helpful to be able to easily find out that “Anger” is discussed in Lesson 14, or that a lesson plan to study the “Geography of the Brain” is Lesson 8.

Definitely a book worth owning and sharing with others. Thank you Ira for being able to articulate and gather together so much wisdom in this form! I am deeply grateful to have it in my life.

Compassionate Critical Thinking and the Adventure of Teaching

For most of my childhood, my family lived in a house in Queens, New York, which is a suburb of NYC on Long Island. There was still a feel, where I lived, not just of suburbs but of the declining remains of a rural area. There were many trees. We were one block away from a huge golf course, with a lake and hills, where I ran with my dog, played football with my friends, and went sledding in the snow. It was quite a privileged and protected life.

 

I used to write all sorts of stories for myself. One fall, at the age of 6 or 7, I borrowed a little wagon from a neighbor. I invited 2 or 3 friends or relatives to hop on the wagon and took them on a guided adventure through my backyard. The adventure was partly a story I invented and narrated, partly theatre, partly a miniature midway ride. I had such a good time, I repeated it until there were no more customers and winter closed down the midway.

 

While my love of writing started in my early childhood, until recently, I thought of it only in terms of fiction. As I got older, I realized the motivation behind my writing was not just to entertain, but also to feel inspired. I loved the heady joy of pulling ideas, images, and feelings together. It was so alive. I felt that I had something worthwhile and meaningful to say and to give. In other words, creative writing had the power to teach. The only thing I was unsure of was whether teaching had the power of creation.

 

And I discovered that it did.  After college, I joined the Peace Corps, in Sierra Leone. As a teacher, I felt respect from my students. What I was doing mattered to them. So I wanted to do it even more when I returned to this country. I found this again in other teaching jobs, most notably at the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, NY. Part of my childhood desire was met. Now that my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, is being published by Rowman & Littlefield, the other half of my yearning is about to come true. It is not a novel, but certainly describes a creative approach to teaching.

 

When you teach, you hold the hearts and minds of students in your hands. You have this amazing opportunity that you just can’t ignore and dread disappointing. You can take students on the greatest adventure imaginable—into the depths of their own minds and hearts. You can show them that there are these depths unrecognized in many schools, or maybe unrecognized since they were small and inspired children. You can show them how valuable and important they are. Show them the joy of play in PE, the miracles of nature in science, the creative spirit in literature, and in social studies classes, show the great diversity of possible ways of living and the importance of relationships, .

 

My book describes and illustrates methods to use in teaching as well as an overall conceptual framework for understanding the way the mind and heart can work together— to take in more of what’s around you and think more clearly and critically. Critical thinking is fueled by caring and feeling, and guided by mindful awareness to focus attention, and notice, formulate, and ask questions. Compassion and imagination help you understand and explore diverse perspectives and let go of distorting judgments.

 

When you quiet the mind by accepting, caring for and valuing it, you hear the world more distinctly. You hear what your own body is saying and how to befriend your emotions. The world is not at a distance but at your fingertips, or is your fingertips. What you think is right to do is evaluated more clearly. You feel more joyful, your life more meaningful, your relationships with others more conscious and honest. Now that is a worthwhile adventure to undertake—that is a way of teaching.

 

*The release date for my book was delayed a few days, but the book launch in Ithaca, at LACS, on Thursday, October 13, at 7:00, will go on as planned–I hope. There will also be a book talk on Saturday, October 22, at Buffalo Street Books, at 3:00 pm. I hope you can come.

Anxiety and Critical Thinking: How Helping Students Deal With Their Anxiety Will Help Them Learn To Think More Clearly And Critically.

Last week, I wrote about how to begin anything, especially the school year. One of the most important things teachers do to begin the school year is get to know the students, to help them feel supported, trusted, and part of a community. To do that, especially after a summer like this one marked by so much violence in the news, it is important to ask students about their summer, and discover what, if anything is disturbing them. Anxiety in schools has been rising over the last four or five years. Recognizing this in class, allowing students some space to talk about their emotions, is a crucial component of creating a supportive educational community and showing students that education can be a meaningful force in their lives.

 

Take a minute to think back on how you were affected by different events of the summer. How did you respond to Orlando? Nice? The police shootings of African-Americans? To shootings of police⎯or Donald Trump’s attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel? To the drought in New York or other weather disasters? By studying yourself, you learn how to help students do the same. If you can’t be a student to yourself, how can you ask students to do it?

 

Then bring up the image of one of your students. Imagine how she or he stands, her face, his posture. Then imagine how the student might have responded to different news items reported this summer. Pick another student and do the same. Maybe write down what you notice, in yourself, in your students.

 

If schools are to accomplish one of their hopefully prime goals, namely teaching critical thinking, teachers have to understand the role emotions play in thinking. Does being worried, for example, or anxious, fearful affect student learning? How?

 

Would you say that emotion does not influence how or how clearly you think? Depression, for example, can be viewed as a state of mind that severely limits the amount of new information your mind will process. When depressed, it is especially difficult to process information that goes against the view of the world that keeps alive the depression. What about anger, jealousy, fear?

 

Yet, what about this: If you aren’t interested in a subject, how hard is it to think about it? How hard is it to think clearly when you’re bored or don’t care? If you don’t care, you don’t think. When you’re interested in something, when you care, your mind and body are energized. Without emotion, thinking is difficult if not impossible.

 

We grow up, or at least I grew up, with people saying that emotion or feeling, and thinking are opposed. We are told to stop being emotional. But emotion, or at least feeling, is what integrates, assigns value and thusly guides and gives meaning to thought.

 

Teachers can’t be therapists. But you can use the skills that teachers normally teach, analysis, critical thinking, focus, and empathy, in order to understand and let go of emotion. For example, when you analyze an emotion, you step back from it. You switch your mind from being identified or caught in emotion to the mind of analysis. When you inquire, you become inquisitive.

 

There is also a form of analysis you can access that is the basis of any thinking. The initial level of emotion or any mental state is what Daniel Siegel and others call an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized. You begin to feel. Then you get “elaborative appraisal” which involves activating memory, directing energy, and creating meaning. You feel bad, good, or neutral, pleasant or unpleasant. Only after this do you get the desire to hold, as in joy or love, or push away, as in distaste or hate. When your mind is energetic and quiet, you are more likely to directly notice and sense this level of feeling and the development of thought. You can let your mind rest inside a developing idea without being caught by it. You can learn how to name what arises, not to get involved in purely intellectual thought, but to study or increase awareness of your mental processing.

 

In the case of anxiety, for example: If you were in an ongoing class studying the role of emotion in thinking, after sharing and examining different triggers of anxiety, you would need to determine what they all shared. What is it about these stimuli that trigger the emotion? And what are the historical, social, political conditions that contributed to the anxiety-triggering events? Then you’d research several scientific and philosophical perspectives on emotion. You’d ask: What is emotion? And what is critical thinking?

 

You’d take time to study your own experience of the emotion. By studying one emotion, as it arises in yourself, you can learn a method to better understand and deal with any emotion. By taking the time to understand the emotional process, you and your students will be better able to monitor emotions and state of mind, and better able to focus attention. You will be better able to think clearly, relationships in the class will improve, and the atmosphere will become more positive and supportive. You also study yourself so you can increase the positive applications and limit the negative affects of the use of computers and other digital media.

 

And remember, it’s important to help students understand that it is not the trigger or stimulus alone which causes an emotion, but the environment they’re in, and how they interpret, think about, and initially respond to the stimulus.

 

*This is the first in a series of blogs on different elements of critical thinking. Next week, I will focus on the different components of emotion and how to use inquiry, imagination and mindfulness practices to study yourself, think more clearly and critically, and teach your students to do the same.

Taking A New Perspective

I served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in 1969, teaching English and sometimes math or health, in a rural village. Sierra Leone is on the equator. Much of it is, or was, deeply forested jungle. One day, the headmaster and I were walking together to visit a village deep in the bush. It was near the beginning of the rainy season, so I carried my umbrella with me.

 

As we walked, the headmaster and I got into one of our usual discussions that were more like debates, and I don’t think I ever won. He often had a twist to his reasoning that put his point of view into a league of experience beyond my own. He was older than me, although I never knew his age. I would guess at forty. At possibly forty, he was already a few years older than the average male from his country.

 

As we exited from the tall thick trees of the bush into a clearing, it started raining. We had been debating whether change was possible. Back then, talking about political change in Sierra Leone could be dangerous. People could be imprisoned for what they said. I argued that change was necessary. He argued that change was impossible. I thought he was referring to the fact that corruption was considered a normal way of doing business and so corruption was the only reality. To my mind, change was not only a constant reality but a necessity. As the rain increased, I opened the umbrella, held it over our heads, and said: “I changed the situation. We are no longer getting wet.” “No, you changed nothing,” he replied. “It’s still raining.”

 

He taught me a great deal in those months that I knew him. Clearly, our points of reference, our very notions of ourselves were different. He identified more with the natural world around him than I did. For him, changing my position in relation to the rain was no different than changing the position of a raindrop. So, no substantive change occurred. Raining was the world being the world.

 

By taking in his perspective, I was able to learn from him, and think about identity and change in a new way. This openness to and empathy for totally new perspectives is important in thinking critically, but goes beyond such thinking. A Zen Master from 13th Century Japan, Daito Kokuji, wrote: “No umbrella, getting soaked,/I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.”

 

 

Maybe there’s a kinship between the headmaster and the Zen master. What experiences have you had where your perspective was suddenly turned on its head?