What Do You Do To Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?

There is nothing like a beginning. Going to school and teaching gives you a deep sensitivity to cycles, especially how summer ends and a new year begins. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.

 

To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open? What do the students need? You can’t do it solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness, will plan our classes or even vacations so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend that you’ve already done it. So allow it, make it, as new, refreshing, as much an adventure as possible. To lessen your nervousness, step toward it. Make it part of your teaching.

 

To do this, I recommend two practices. The first involves your mental state when you enter the classroom. The second involves how you plan your courses.

 

First, begin by shattering any fears or expectations that your students might hold that you will hurt or distrust them. Enter the class as a fellow human being, not hidden behind a role. After you greet and look closely at each student, mention your excitement and nervousness. When you trust students in this way, you yourself will be trusted. You model awareness, both of your own inner state as well as of the importance of the other people there with you. You are very present. You care about the students and recognize there’s more you don’t know than what you do know about them. When you enter with this compassionate awareness, you will be relaxed and confident. When you enter hidden behind a role with a schedule to keep, you will be stiff and nervous. And since mindfulness is central in the education of awareness, practice it both in and out of the classroom.

 

Second, to plan any trip, you need to know where you’re going. To begin, you need to know your intention for the end. To teach students, you need to know what you think is most important for students to know, understand and be able to do. I often used what is called the backwards design strategy, and I highly recommend it.

 

The energy behind backwards design comes from using essential questions. They are big questions, philosophical, existential, even ethical. They are open-ended with no simple answers to them and evoke the controversies and insights at the heart of a discipline. They naturally engage student interest because they connect the real lives of students to the curriculum. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and possibly solved, where meaning is created. In working with questions, teachers don’t dictate answers but model and coach active inquiry. Especially with secondary students whose lives are entwined with questions, essential questions are the DNA of learning. They are intrinsically motivating. Students look forward to coming to class.

 

I recommend leaving space wherever and whenever possible for asking the students to verbalize their own questions and then use these questions in shaping the course. You could ask for their questions at the beginning of the year and with each unit or class. What, right now, is perplexing you about the world? What do you want to learn in this class? Let’s say you’re beginning a unit, in a high school English course on the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse. The novel describes the influence of archetypes and dreams in an adolescent’s development.  You might ask students: What questions do you have about dreams or archetypal imagery? Have dreams been meaningful in your life or the lives of other people you know? And their assessment on the unit can ask them what answers their study of the novel gave them to their own unit questions.

 

Education, in any discipline, to a large degree is about uncovering questions.  If you teach sports or PE, there might be questions about your potential: What are my physical capabilities? About competition: Do I really compete against others or is it against myself? What role do other people play in my life and in developing my strengths? And in ancient history you can ask: What can the Greeks show me about what it means to be human? Is the past only an abstraction of what once was or is it alive in me today? Young people can easily get so caught up in their social relationships that they can’t see their lives with any perspective. What does history reveal about what I could possibly do with my life? What are the cultural and historical pressures that operate on me? How am I history? If you’re teaching biology, you are teaching the essence of life on a physical level. How does life sustain itself? What does it mean to be alive? Such questions can challenge assumptions and reveal the depths that students crave but which are often hidden away. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?

 

What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea that I had a whole year to lesson plan and so many students whose educational needs I would have to meet. All that work, all that time. I felt distant, separated from the task. But if I planned from the end, so I was clear about what I was doing and why; and I developed my awareness with mindfulness practice, then, instead of facing the idea of a whole year of work, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared, alive with questions, so I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time– I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life.

 

What do you do?

Critical Thinking Part Two: Imagination and Visualization

 

Visualization is a natural capacity of the mind. It can be defined as “the conscious, volitional creation of mental sense impressions…” We generally think in images. To go beyond the superficial meaning of language we use mental imagery. The imagination connects us to our emotions. When you read fiction, or daydream or night dream or remember something, it is easy to notice images running through your mind. But it is not always obvious how you use imagery in possibly all of your thinking.

 

You could practice visualizations on your own, lead or be led by others. In my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, I also describe inquiry practices which directly use visualization for examining evidence, finding solutions, revealing hidden attitudes, synthesizing material or gaining insight. The process I will be describing today is not mindfulness. It strengthens the ability to create and apply imagery. For teachers, it helps students be more relaxed and focused in class. It directly connects course material to student’s lives and so provides intrinsic motivation for learning. With enough experience, you can do a visualization in about ten minutes.  In order to lead others, you must practice on your own first. Read hyperlinked or other resources.

 

The method begins with progressive relaxation and then proceeds to a mental journey. The relaxation section will last two to four minutes. Unlike mindfulness, students can sit back or rest their head on the desk in front of them. I usually play calming music in the background. You can center attention first on the feet and work your way up, or start at the forehead and work your way progressively down. Before you begin, tell the students what topic you will be exploring. The following is a sample visualization on the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse.

 

Today, we will meet Sinclair in a new light, as we are first introduced to him in Demian. First:

 

When you are ready, sit back and relax. Assume a position that is restful, comfortable and that you can stay in for five minutes or so. Close your eyes when you’re ready. You could close them now or in a few minutes, when it feels right. Put your attention on your forehead. Calmly, breathe in, taking it nice and easy; then breathe out. As you breathe in, can you feel the subtle sensation of your forehead expanding very slightly? Just notice it as you breathe in. Then, as you exhale, notice how  your body naturally relaxes, settles down. You might settle more into the chair or feel heavier or warmer.

 

Keep the voice calm yet natural. Relaxed. You are teaching a relaxation method. Pace yourself so you introduce a new image or question just after the previous image has formed for your students.

 

Move you attention to the muscles around your mouth. As you breathe in, the area might expand a little; simply notice it. Then relax, settle down, let go as you breathe out. Pause. Move your attention next to your shoulders. You might find it easier to notice the effect of breathing on your shoulders. Breathe in, feel the expansion. Then, just let go as you breathe out. Notice how your body relaxes even more deeply. Your shoulders might drop. Do you feel any warmer, heavier? Just allow yourself to relax.

 

Now allow a flower to come to mind, any flower will do.

 

If not a flower, pick something that you think will be considered safe, familiar and of interest to your students. A tree? A quilt? A butterfly? A stone? An animal? One point of the flower is to get the mind ready for something more complex by starting with something simpler. This simple experience can be great fun. However, always remember that when people are relaxed and trusting of you, their minds will move instantaneously, at a mere hint.

 

Some students expect one thing, like a rose, and get something different, like a dandelion. It is important that there are no wrong flowers. In some cultures, the colors or specific animals have a meaning. This can be an interesting topic for research. For now, just notice and relax with what comes.

 

In teaching about primal cultures and religion, I had students visualize first a flower, then an animal. Visualizing an animal can be very revealing and exciting. Early humans, as in the art caves, extensively portrayed other animals with remarkable detail and aliveness. Humans, if portrayed at all, were stick figures, except for the shaman figures which were part human, part animal. Early humans obviously felt very connected to these animals. Most students even today easily bring to mind an animal.

 

Just notice what flower comes up for you. It might be one you know or have seen at your home. It might be one you imagined or read about.  Either way, it is fine. What shape do you see? Feel? What colors? Sometimes, you will simply see the flower. Other times, your mind will give you words that describe a flower or feelings. Just notice what comes to you. Is there a fragrance?

 

How big is the flower? Notice how delicate it is. How does the flower attach to the stem? What color is the stem? What is its feel, its texture?

 

The first time you lead a visualization, just do this much. After you’ve done this a few times, students will need less time to relax. Use mostly simple questions to develop detailed, concrete images. As much as it makes sense, refer to multiple senses. Transitions are important. They require the most sensitivity to how students might take your words.

 

Behind the flower is a beautiful path. Sinclair will soon emerge in the distance, from down the path. Can you picture him? What words come up for you about him?

 

Here are some sample questions you could use to guide such a visualization. Use those which best fit your goals. Remember to make the visualization clear and concrete.

 

 Notice how he walks. Does he stand straight? Does he stride, slouch or look calmly around him? How tall is he? What color hair does he have? How is he dressed? When you see him, what is your response?  When you hear his name, do any feelings arise?

Are you happy to see him? Are you upset with him? Do you want to tell him something? Is there someone on his mind? Who? What might he want to say? If Sinclair were a flower [or an animal] what would he be? Does he remind you of any other literary characters? Is he like you in any way?

 

Return attention to the classroom gradually. Proceed in reverse order of how you left, but in less detail.

 

Now, say goodbye to Sinclair. Remember that you can return any time you want. You can remember anything you want that happened here. Once Sinclair turns and walks down the path, notice the flower, its shape and color.  Pause. Then return your attention to your breath. With each breath you will be more and more aware of the room and the people around you. Your awareness will return fully to your body. Feel its weight on the chair or your hands on the table. Can you hear the music? Other people in the room? Pause. Move your fingers. Your toes. As you take a deep breath, gradually sit up. Open your eyes. Stretch. Notice the room and how it feels to be here.

 

Eventually, you will be able to simply ask the students to relax, close their eyes, settle down. Do the warm up exercise, then go to the visualization that ties to your class material. After the exercise, always process the experience with a journal prompt or a small group or whole group discussion. The processing will hopefully lead right into the heart of the lesson.

 

How was that? Were you relaxed? Did a flower come to you? Share with us the name and color of the flower. Did you learn anything about Sinclair? Name one thing.

 

I used this type of exercise over several years and with very diverse groups. If a student says that nothing came to them, that’s fine. If you sense something is bothering the student, talk one-on-one. Everyone is different. Years ago, before I started using mindfulness or a writing exercise before each class, I had a class of mostly middle school, active, even hyperactive boys. I thought they would never be able to do the exercise; I was wrong. They loved it. They relaxed and images came readily to mind. At least once a week after that, they asked to do a visualization.

 

There are other great methods for strengthening student ability to use the imagination in thinking critically. What do you do?

 

**One book I recommend is: educator and author Kieran Egan’s wonderful book Imagination In Teaching And Learning: The Middle School Years,