Mindfulness techniques can bring students a greater sense of calm, concentration, empathy and awareness. The practice can be described as bringing one’s full attention to the moment, with curiosity and lack of judgement.
I began using mindfulness in my classroom simply, with a version of the ‘Sound and Thoughts’ meditation that can be accessed on the ‘Frantic World’ website. In sessions after lunch, when students were returning to the classroom hot and frazzled, I asked them to close their eyes and simply to listen to their surroundings, noticing anything they could hear. I encouraged them to avoid ‘labelling’ sound or ‘judging’ it and to try not to be pulled into mental ‘stories’ about it.
As per the non-judgmental ethos of Mindfulness, I explained that if attention wandered away, as it would, they should gently escort it back to the matter in focus. This is the essence of most Mindfulness meditations and it is startling how quickly it changes the atmosphere in a room. Within minutes, students were calmer, more alert and engaged. I did not use the term ‘Mindfulness’ with them, but it wasn’t long before they were requesting ‘the quiet thing.’
Secondly, I wanted to investigate how I might use Mindfulness techniques to enhance the teaching of my subject – English. I decided to employ the core principle of ‘noticing’ to feed into the creation and analysis of poetry. I asked students to walk around campus, seeking out things they had never noticed before. It could be an element of nature, but it did not have to be. It could be something beautiful or something simply striking. I also asked them to take a photograph of something they would like to focus on. They then looked further into their images, breaking them down in order to describe aspects: building up nouns, adjectives, similes, metaphors and finally – so as to engage higher order thinking – potential themes connected to them. This eventually allowed for an original piece of poetry to be created. I was amazed at the quality and was brought to tears by one. I am convinced that it was the initial Mindful approach that made the students so open and sensitive.
I employed a similar technique in introducing a class to a poem for IGCSE coursework: ‘Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom’ by Marcia Douglas. The poet describes a moment in which villagers see electricity for the first time. I wanted students to think about the importance of moments, of how fleeting they are and how they should be savoured. I set them up with ‘The Chocolate Meditation’, also to be found on the ‘Frantic World’ website, in order to physically engage in this idea. I sent them out to pay attention to their environment, as though seeing it, like the electricity, for the first time. On return, we read the poem and I asked what they thought it was about. The responses were delightfully genuine, empathic and perceptive. Again, I attributed this to the Mindful activity they had engaged in.
These and other Mindfulness activities can be adapted for other subjects. The creative minds of teachers will have little difficulty in doing so. Taking students in a History lesson through the sights and sounds of a Tudor Street might be one idea, for example, or in PE asking students to ‘see’ or in slow motion ‘act out’ the process of a perfect throw/stroke/kick. Anything where we are asking students to slow down, focus on one thing, in the moment, will not only enhance their learning, but quieten their mind and, in turn, improve their mental and personal wellbeing.
By Karen McGivern
Karen is an English teacher and a passionate believer in the benefits of Mindfulness. She has been experimenting with the ways in which it can enhance teaching and learning and wellbeing. She is also a keen Shakespearean, with an MA in Shakespeare and Education.