Reflections on ‘Teach, Breathe, Learn’

Happy start of the new year folks.  Had a fantastic summer that concluded with an awesome trip to China.  I plan on putting some summer reflections / videos up here soon.

Part of our summer reading was to read a book on mindfulness in the classroom called ‘Teach, Breathe, Learn’ by Meena Srinivasan.  For a little bit of context, our school already has a strong culture around mindfulness in that we start every class with a breathing exercise that we call centering; generally looks like a few quiet moments to focus on your breathing.  I really love starting class on such a peaceful tone.  I went into this book thinking it’d probably provide a few other exercises I could put in my toolkit for when we center, as well as give some more language around why we center and practice mindfulness.

Also, I just got into the Goodreads app, so I’m going to post my little paragraph review that I shared there! (here’s my Goodreads profile if you’re interested)

I’d probably give this 3.5 stars if I could. Some excellent nuggets in there in how she frames the purpose and practice of mindfulness (coming from an educator that has been practicing mindful breathing exercises with students for years). She got a little woohoo for me (“Breath in – I am a flower, breathe out – I am fresh”) and in an effort to make chapters serve as a lesson plan all surrounding one big idea, they got very repetitive with repeating the main idea and classroom procedures with starting class.

I thought the majority of this reflection would focus on the things I plan on incorporating in my classroom.

A mindfulness bell.

This is something they already do at our elementary campus.  I want to get a bell or little xylophone to ring at the beginning of class to denote the start of centering.  Generally I just say ‘alright ladies and gents, lets go ahead and prepare to center’ and that generally works just fine, but on days I’m already a bit frustrated or if the class is loud, my tone when I say that can be a bit more aggressive, which can set a negative tone right at the start of class.  Having a pleasant and neutral sound to have us begin would be great.  I also plan on having a new job in the classroom economy where a student puts the tassle on the outside of the door and closes it (our schools sign to show the class is centering so please don’t enter until we open the door) and that student would ring our mindfulness bell and hopefully not yell out OK SHUTUP, WE’RE CENTERING!  Not sure if our school will be getting these for us since we’ve read the book and it seems to be a big deal, but if not, I’m thinking about getting THIS one.  I think having 3 tones could give me some opportunities to create other ‘jingles’ to use at different points in the class.

Emotional self-regulation.

This isn’t really new but having the author reflect on some instances where she recognized her initial emotional response to a situation and chose to instead respond from a neutral state of mind was a reminder of how important this is.  She talked about teaching in an international school in India and she was telling some students that the school was hiring a teacher aid for their class.  An American student yelled out “I hope it’s not an Indian!” (the author is Indian).  Srinivasan writes “The premindfulness me would have snapped at him that his comment was unacceptable.  Recognizing my feelings as they arose within me, I paused and took a breath, and instead of shutting my student down I politely asked him why he didn’t want an Indian instructional assistant.  He explained that he found it very difficult to understand Indian accents and this made it hard for him to learn.  As he spoke, I realized he had no intention of hurting my feelings as someone with an Indian heritage; instead I saw a young boy who had difficulty learning, a boy who hadn’t chosen to be in India, a boy who was brought there because of his father’s job – a boy who felt frustrated and need my love and acknowledgement of his feelings”

Loving kindness.

The author talks of the importance of starting the day with sending herself loving kindness.  On first read, it sounded a bit like hippy, yoga teacher talk, but I realized I do something similar from a faith-perspective.  She repeats ‘you are loved ‘for 5 breaths which is akin to spending time in prayer and meditating on the love that I experience from God as I reflect on my connection to Jesus.  One scripture reads “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”

Inviting mindfulness, not demanding it.

Sometimes during centering, I’ll want to redirect the student who is just looking around and not really engaged in the breathing exercises, or I’ll just get mildly annoyed with students who seem to have a ‘yeah I’m just going to wait until this is over’ attitude about centering.  The author talks about the importance of mindfulness being an invitation, not a demand, because that’d obviously defeat the point.  She writes “When I share mindfulness with my students, I always frame it as an invitation and never impose mindful practice on any of them.  Rather, I ask them to be open to what I have to offer, and if they don’t connect with it, that’s fine.  It’s important for students to feel safe and comfortable, and if they view it as an opportunity instead of a requirement, their participation will be more genuine.”  As long as students aren’t distracting others during centering, I need to be OK with their reluctance to participate.  I do want to make more of an effort on focusing on the reasons why we do mindfulness to begin with as well as try some new mindfulness practices that may connect with previously disengaged students.  Which bring me to the next point…

Find new ways to connect mindfulness for disengaged students.

One time, in an effort to help students become more aware of their surroundings, I showed a short clip from The Bourne Identity where Jason Bourne demonstrates an incredible sense of situational awareness.  I then had students observe the classroom for a few moments, had them close their eyes, and then had them visualize various parts of the class.  See the clock…what font were the numbers, what color was it, where on the wall was it placed…see the bookshelf…how many shelves are there, what books are on it, how copies of the textbook were there?  Some students who generally weren’t too into centering said it was one of the most engaging centerings they’d done.  Additionally, Srinivasan was trying to connect with a student who was really into basketball.  She shared how LA Lakers basketball coach uses mindfulness with his players, quoting the coach, “Like life, basketball is messy and unpredictable.  It has its way with you, no matter how hard you try to control it.  The trick is to experience each moment with a clear mind and open heart.  When you do that, the game – and life – will take care of itself.”

Discussion sentence stems.

She gives some sentence stems to facilitate dialogue when talking about mindfulness in the classroom but these would actually be great for discussing anything, including math.  I plan on adding these to my current list for our mathematical discussions:

  • My idea builds on ________’s idea because _________.
  • While I can see why you believe this, I see it differently.  In my opinion __________.
Restorative discipline.

I currently have a ‘redirection’ sheet students fill out when sent out into the hall but I like these questions better.  I plan on replacing my redirection sheet.

  1. What happened, and what were you thinking at the time of the incident?
  2. What have you thought about since?
  3. Who has been affected by what happened, and how?
  4. What about this has been the hardest for you?
  5. What do you think needs to be done to make things as right as possible?
Paying attention exercise.

To illustrate the difficulty in paying attention to something, have students focus on an object for 30 seconds and in their mind, note when their focus slips to something else.  Have students share how often they found their mind wandering and discuss that it’s hard to maintain focused attention even when we’re trying to.  Mindfulness is a practice in paying attention.

Talking piece.

I’ve generally avoided having a talking stick when doing any group discussions, mainly because I want the freedom to be able to calmly and quietly redirect any students who may be talking out of turn.  What do you do if someone is talking with the talking piece, and another person just makes a very small comment (not rude or anything, just connecting or adding what’s said, which can sometimes very naturally happen in a group discussion).  Well, since I don’t have the talking stick, I’d be in violation to verbally remind that student to keep their comments to themselves.  I could use non-verbals to communicate to them they shouldn’t be talking, but what if they’re not looking in my direction.  Does a soft ‘shhhh’ count as talking?  I could remind the group after we’ve all gone through about not talking but what if it happens again?  Some students really struggle with this, but who knows, maybe a talking piece will actually be the thing that helps those students.  Maybe group accountability is helpful; putting your finger to your lips to remind your neighbor they shouldn’t be talking if they say something.  Srinivasan talks about sharing how ancient civilizations used to have a talking piece.  I think that’d create more buy-in for students (and myself) and make it seem less like some flower-child group therapy session.

Mindful eating.

I’ve seen a teacher give each student a Starburst and walk them through a mindful experience with them (smell it, feel it, put it to your lips, hold it in your mouth, chew it 40 times, savor it, swallow it).  I’d like to try that.

Music centering.

Srinivasan talks about listening to music but not getting lost in the music and focusing your breath.  I think it’d be interesting to listen to beautiful piece of music and become aware of your emotions.  This video always chokes me up a bit…it’s beautiful.

That’s the gist of it.  I’d say this is a great book for anyone just getting started with mindfulness, but I know it may turn a lot of people off who may be allergic to a lot of the mystical vocabulary she uses.  She does incorporate a lot of the science behind it but you have to find it between the things she says that sound like your Bohemian great-aunt.

By Thom H Gibson

I help middle school STEM teachers create meaningful & memorable experiences for their students. Teacher, podcaster, YouTuber. Two-time teacher of the year

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