Posted by Paul Barnwell on Wednesday, 02/19/2014
This past trimester has marked a drastic change in my beginning-of-class instruction. I’ve forsaken one of the most commonly implemented classroom and instructional management strategies: the bellringer activity. I no longer am beholden to bombarding students with content demands for all 70 minutes each and every period.
Instead, my students and I take 4-5 minutes at the start of every class to practice mindfulness with a simple breathing meditation. And so far, I’m happy with the results of replacing instant work demands with the expectations that students simply be.
I’ll admit not every student is on board, but the vast majority are. I’ll also admit I felt a little strange making this shift, as I’m the lone wolf in our school--heck, maybe even district--trying this out. But anecdotally, student participation is up and class disruptions are down. The latest batches of student writing were amongst the most stellar I’ve had in years. The one time I planned on skipping mindfulness practice, several students immediately convinced me to stay the course.
Here are some reasons why I’ve decided to bypass bellringer activities in favor of mindfuless practice:
Student Cognitive Development Isn’t Just About Content Knowledge
It’s certainly the primary focus of schools to help develop students’ academic abilities, but the Mindshift article “Why Teaching Mindfulness Benefits Students’ Learning” challenged me to expand my definition of ability as it relates to our brains. Patricia C. Broderick writes, “Most of the time, children and adolescents use their minds to manipulate ideas or concepts, to recall information from the past or from their storehouse of knowledge, to imagine future circumstances, to plan, to calculate, or to schedule. These are just some of the important functions of mind that improve as children age and that are enhanced through schooling.” What other functions of mind should we consider? Dealing with stress and learning to focus are just some of the benefits of mindfulness practice. And if you believe in a holistic approach to education, as I do, then think about how your classroom functions. Are you helping to develop student thinking in ways beyond traditional academic skills?
We All Need A Break From Information Overload
Imagine the typical day for one of your students. If the teachers in your building have structured classrooms, then kids likely enter classrooms with an academic task waiting from them on whiteboard or projector screen, perhaps an equation or grammar warm-up. Or maybe a question activating prior knowledge from the previous day or for a new topic. Each class period forges ahead with instruction, guided practice, and an exit card. Repeat, repeat, repeat, with class exchanges and lunch built in. The constant barrage of doing--for both teachers and students--is intense, and it’s exacerbated by our digital connectivity. Students constantly seek to connect with each other on their phones while paying attention (maybe) to their lessons, and many of us teachers are expected to check e-mail throughout the day. We all need to allow for some quiet for teaching and learning to sink in in preparation for the next task.
Students Are Stressed Out
From caring for siblings to social struggles, to upcoming tests and family dysfunction, American teens are pretty darned stressed out, according to a recent report from the Washington Post. 83% of teens reported school as a source of “somewhat or significant stress” and most of our students are unsure about coping strategies. Exercise is great, but students often turn to sedentary activities such as video games, TV, and social media as ways to occupy overloaded minds. Providing simple mindfulness practice at the beginning of class surely helps chip away at student stress levels, ideally leading to greater academic engagement and well-being.
We’re all urged to maximize instructional time and are tasked with significant demands relating to content and standards. But I’m more interested in testing out ways to improve the quality of time spent on academic work. For now, that means giving students a chance to simply be, to take a quick breather, and to avoid (hopefully) the urge to check their latest tweets and instant messages.
Let's acknowledge that a well-rounded, healthy educational experience for students and teachers should be more than the status-quo of instruction around the clock.