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.

Question Authority! Taking Questions Deeply Enough

A question can be beautiful and exciting. A good question can be a gift. In education, for example, when a teacher asks students a real, honest question, it can fire up a real and honest discussion. Such questions are at the heart of education. To notice such a question you must be at least part way to an answer. The question reveals that, and possibly what, you don’t know.

 

“Question authority” can be a powerful and useful slogan. It can mean you can and should challenge, not automatically believe in, the power and viewpoint of those people in positions of power, whether it be institutional, social, or personal. It means you can question and challenge those who are charismatic and those you put on a pedestal or highly admire.

 

To question does not mean to denigrate but to elucidate the meaning, test the accuracy and applicability, or to do justice to the person or concept and reveal implications. There are different questions you ask when you doubt the truth of a statement, and those you ask when you simply want more understanding.

 

Sometimes, a question is asked facetiously, or to end or divert a discussion, so not all questions are honest, or insightful. I remember students taking “Question Authority” to mean there are no authorities; no one’s viewpoint has any more truth-value than anyone else’s. I think that all questions asked in a classroom should be heard; but the level of understanding of those with little or no experience in an area of life is rarely as deep or broad as those with actual experience, or who have extensively studied a subject.

 

To question that anyone who has experience in an area of life has a viewpoint that deserves a little more weight than someone without that experience, is to deny the value of experience and learning—is to deny there are truths to learn. The value of life itself can be undermined. Authority is not only a person in power but also a source of reliable information or truths, accurate observations and such. “What do you mean by ‘truth’” is one question a teacher must not ignore.

 

Sometimes, a question does not go deeply enough. People often question only up to the point of reinforcing their own, old viewpoint. A person, for example, might question whether the views of a climate scientist are biased by their science and not question how their own views are biased. They might inquire into what was in Secretary Clinton’s emails but not wonder what might be revealed by Mr. Trump’s emails or tax returns. They might question that teachers with experience with a student might be able to objectively describe the student’s learning, but not question the value of a score on a test created by an educational corporation. One of the most important times to question is when you assume your own viewpoint is the one and only truth.

 

‘Authority’ comes from ‘author’ or ‘creator,’ ‘originator.’ So when you assume your own ability to think, question, act, and you learn how to monitor and let go of thoughts and emotions, you are an authority. In Buddhism and mindfulness training, the meditator is taught to doubt any explanation, any conceptual thought, but not lose faith in one’s ability to understand—to doubt the thought until one’s awareness and clarity of mind and heart is sharpened.

 

Empathy is needed to take in, value and learn from other viewpoints. And a little humility regarding your assumptions or naming of what is true can be extremely useful. Such humility does not undermine your ability to think and act but enlivens it. Understanding, as Paulo Freire (and opposed to Professor Gradkind in the novel Hard Times by Dickens) and others have argued, is not like depositing money in the bank, not a thing to posses. It is more of a relationship, a guide, a clarity and a spark. It is not a wall to keep you or anyone else out but a hand to hold. Your understanding of the world and yourself is constantly changing, flowing. You need to make your questions into vehicles to help you navigate and work with the flow, not dam it up.

 

 

Critical Thinking Part Three: The Process of Critical Thinking is Creative

In 1992, I saw a PBS television documentary called “The Creative Spirit” and it brought so much together for me. It proposed four steps in a process of creative thinking: preparation, frustration, incubation, and illumination. Just learning the techniques of an art is not enough to be creative. You have to develop a creative mind and attitude. I realized that critical thinking is also a process like creativity. You can’t just learn techniques and a vocabulary of “rational” thinking or problem solving and expect be a good critical thinker. You have to develop a whole process of living with a question or problem.

Here is an outline of the steps I propose for thinking critically about a question or problem:

1. Carefully construct and define the question or topic.

2. Prepare by immersing yourself in relevant material. Question sources, theories and assumptions. This is an area teachers know very well. As I described in an earlier blog, empathy and imagination are very helpful here. Define a thesis or first answer to the question, then confront that answer with an opposing antithesis.

3. Mindfully face your frustration, your fear of mistakes, or your anxiety when you realize your old ways of viewing the world won’t solve the problem or answer the question. Transform this energy into a broader focus on the task. Accomplish this by reflecting on your process. This requires monitoring what you’re doing, thinking and feeling, learning from mistakes, and directing the process accordingly.

4. Incubate: take a break, sit in silence, relax and let go of the whole question so it doesn’t overwhelm you, exercise, meditate or even “sleep on it.” Allow your mind the space to grow into an answer. Incubation can be the key for transforming frustration into the energy needed for persisting until a solution is created or discovered.

5. Insight: Formulate your new synthesis of the material.

6.In creativity, a testing period follows insight. If you create a script for a play, for example, you have to do a staged reading to determine if the play sounds right. In critical thinking, your conclusion must be tested. It is too easy to deceive yourself or get so committed to your old way of answering or solving a question or problem that you lose perspective. Or you can miss the implications of your answer. Use standards to facilitate testing: for example, evaluating the precision and clarity of the conclusion, the depth and breadth of the material examined, the flexibility and fairness in examining opposing positions, the implications of a theory. Test opposing theories to see which answer fits best.

 

Actually, these steps are more like conditions which make critical thinking possible. Each step or condition happens over and over again throughout the process. Questioning sources requires reflection on your process. You come to smaller insights in order to synthesize the material into a larger, more general conclusion.

 

These steps help the student integrate critical thinking into their whole life. The process recognizes, for example, that time off is required. It recognizes that the student’s emotions are part of the process. Without emotional awareness, students can get lost trying to figure out a complex question or complete an in-depth project. They lose the internal focus on understanding and shift to an external focus on being judged. Their drive to meet expectations, both their own and the perceived expectations of the teacher, can spiral into great anxiety. Mindful reflection gives the student the ability to recognize the early signs of anxiety. They can then step out of the spiral and return their attention to creating meaning out of all the information they are evaluating.

 

I think many teachers don’t recognize just what self-reflection requires. For example, in my school, we often ask students to reflect on their learning process. For students not familiar with mindfulness, sincere and skillful reflection is difficult. After one or two mindfulness experiences, I ask students “how many thoughts did you have?” Most students say they have few or no thoughts. They have little awareness of all that is going through their mind because they don’t know how to look. They need to learn a methodology of inner awareness. If they are unaware of what is going on in their mind, how can they self-reflect? And how can they use self-reflection to monitor and direct their critical thinking?

 

One example of an in-depth critical thinking project I used in some philosophy and history classes was a personal essential question project (PEQ). This gave students a way to shape their own education. A PEQ was a “big question” related to the course material requiring the formulation of a general conclusion or theory as an answer. The student chose their question, one which interested and/or intrigued, frightened, upset, excited them. It required research, analysis and synthesis. They would then present their research, reasoning and conclusion either in a lengthy essay or, occasionally, through a multiple-media presentation. This project usually took about four months to complete. Students undertook the project in addition to the regular classwork. Each student had a support group of other students. Every few weeks the students would get feedback on their progress either in person or through written comments on research summaries, drafts, etc. from me and/or their support group.

 

Defining the question in a way that a possible solution could be found was the first tricky step. Some questions could not be answered, only understood better. It was also tricky to pinpoint what the real question was which a student wanted to answer

 

Student essential questions varied greatly. They had questions about the environment, political systems, ethics, gender roles and power, the causes of anti-semitism, racism, the nature of bias, truth, suffering, violence, how to deal with their awareness of death, even what factors determine what’s fashionable. The project was like an intellectual rite of passage. It told the student that meaningful personal questions could be answered. It taught the student about applying critical thinking to their daily concerns.

 

Students theorized that culture helped people deal with death. That fashion followed what rich people did. That the way women were treated was correlated with the religion of the culture and with how the environment was treated. That there was such a thing as truth, but its not what most people think. Their conclusions were often creative—new to them, new to me.

 

Our intellectual work might seem to be about doing well in school or formulating ever deeper and wider generalizations or theories—creating intellectual gems. But as I said, it is not ultimately about those gems. Our ability to think critically is part of our larger ability to learn from and live our lives more deeply and thoughtfully. It is about improving our ability to better integrate information, synthesize conclusions, and reflect on our beliefs, actions and decisions so we can better understand the effects of those actions and decisions on others and our world. And to use emotion, empathy so we can also be more ready to act appropriately on what we understand.