How Are You Able to Be Mindful in the Classroom?

Life seems to come at us from every direction sometimes.  Do this, do that.  Now, take care of this issue.  Oh, and don’t forget to complete that task by tonight.  Then, of course, emergencies and unexpected crises seem to pop up when you are so not prepared for them.  It can often feel like a lot is resting on our shoulders at any given time.  How can we possibly juggle every ball that is thrown our way?  How will we ever accomplish every task on our list?  Stress and a strong sense of overwhelmingness washes over us on an almost daily basis with the numerous things we need to do, address, or get done.  Just when we think we’ve reached a calm in the ocean of life, a storm sweeps through, disrupting everything.  So, how do we do it?  How do we get everything done while also holding onto just a tiny fragment of our sanity?

For me, it’s about living in the present moment.  I try very hard to be mindful of what is happening at any given time.  I try not to dwell on my never-ending “To-Do” list or think about the future.  I try to focus on what is happening at that very second.  What sounds do I hear?  What am I doing?  How am I feeling?  Sometimes, when I feel the weight of everyday life pushing down upon me as if a giant giraffe were jumping on my head, I stop moving and doing, close my eyes, and take a few deep, mindful breaths.  I wipe distractions to the left and push my focus to the right.  I only think about the present.  Once I open my eyes and resume what I was doing, my body and soul feel a bit lighter, as if my cortisol levels decreased.  I feel more prepared to tackle life once I’ve taken a moment to reset myself and mentally recalibrate.  Mindfulness techniques make a difference for me in my daily life.  They help me deal with the many jabs life takes at me.  Being present and aware in the moment allows me to duck, dodge, and dive a little easier than I would have been able to if I allowed my distractions and the future to take hold.

As I see the power and value in being mindful, I make use of a lot of these strategies and approaches in my classroom.  I have my students participate in various mindfulness practices on an almost daily basis.  When we transition from one class or activity to the next, I allow the students the opportunity to stop, recalibrate, breathe, and be more mentally present in the moment.  Just this past Thursday, a local Yoga instructor worked my students through our monthly mindfulness Yoga activity.  The focus was on body visualization this month.  The students were way into it and very engaged.  They love having the chance to stop, move around, and focus on themselves during these monthly experiences.  I feel as though these mindfulness techniques and strategies have helped my students feel and be more aware, present, and focused during class.  Namaste, and thank you Lisa Garside for leading these monthly sessions.

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A big component of being mindful is that I am able to notice when the atmosphere of calmness and serenity becomes replaced with a sense of unease or negative energy.  Following lunch this past Wednesday, when I returned to the classroom, I noticed that some of the students were huddled together, talking quietly.  In my experience, when a group of people are gathered together and speaking softly, it generally means that they are talking about something that they don’t want others to know about.  In a school setting, this is usually not an indication that the students are planning a big party to celebrate their awesome teacher, oh no.  As I approached the group, I overheard students saying things like, “She said that she has a crush on…” and “He doesn’t even like her.”  I then made a blanket statement to the class that talking about people when they are not present is disrespectful and goes against our class norms.  “There is no place in this classroom for rumors or gossip,” I said.  Once the entire class was present and we were about to move into Language Arts class, I took a few minutes to address this issue in a more formal way.  For those students who were unaware, I explained the concepts of rumors and gossip to the class.  I then talked about how our brains, evolutionarily, are wired to hear and pay attention to negative pieces of information as a way for us to stay alive and survive.  “We need to now retrain our brains to focus on the positive and avoid negative things like gossip and the spreading of rumors.  Rumors tend to be untrue and are hurtful towards others.  If you are concerned about someone or something that you feel they have done that is upsetting to you in some way, address them individually and compassionately.  Don’t talk about people behind their backs,” I shared with the class.  I reminded the students that gossip and the spreading of rumors has no place here at our school or in our classroom.  “If you wish to continue with this behavior, which I would highly suggest you not do, you need to not do so in this classroom,” I said.  I then ended the conversation by asking if students had any questions or comments they would like to share with the class.  No hands went up.  And that was that.

I do believe that my students heard what I had to say and understood the messaging, as I have not been witness to any further issues of these negative behaviors in the classroom.  As my fifth grade students are still learning and growing, conversations like the one I had with them on Wednesday afternoon are crucial in helping them understand what behaviors are socially acceptable and compassionate.  I also want them to be aware that it is human nature to want to spread rumors and gossip, and so it is vital that we work hard to counter this tendency.  The students seemed to get it.

Because I was mindful and aware of what was happening in the present moment when I walked into my classroom that afternoon, I was able to address this issue with my students when it happened.  Had I not been focused and mentally aware, I wonder if I would have noticed what was happening.  Perhaps I would have been thinking about tomorrow’s lesson or all the things I needed to do after school, and would have completely missed the teachable moment.  I wonder what would have happened later in the day or the following day had I not stopped to address the issue of gossip and rumors.  Perhaps, some of my students would have had their feelings hurt.  Maybe, the emotional state of my students would have been heightened because of this negative energy circulating around the classroom.  I do believe that nothing good would have come about had I not talked to my students about this issue.  Being mindfully aware and present in the moment allows me to seize teachable moment opportunities like this one.  While addressing the social and emotional needs of my students does take time away from the “academic curriculum,” my students would not be mentally prepared to process or learn any new information if they felt unsafe or anxious and stressed in any way.  Taking the time to deal with issues as they arise in the classroom allows for the students to grow in numerous ways and feel and be safe, respected, and cared for.  Taking care of my students and fostering a sense of community within my classroom means that I have to earn the trust of my students.  They have to feel as though they are supported and feel heard.  Being mindful and living in the present moment allows me to do just these things on a daily basis.  What about you?  How do you take care of yourself in order to care for others?

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Is Our Focus on Social Emotional Learning in Schools Detracting from Academic Learning?

As I prepared for my big presentation at the New England League of Middle School’s annual conference in Providence, RI, this past week, I asked my students for some help.  “I’m feeling very anxious and nervous about my presentation tomorrow.  Any ideas on what I could do to help alleviate this release of cortisol in my brain?”  I was expecting silly answers like, “Picture everyone in their underwear,” but instead I received some very thoughtful responses that amazed me.

  • “You could do some mindful breathing before you start, like we do in the classroom,” one student said.  I love that they see the value in the mindful activities we utilize in the classroom.  It filled my heart with joy to hear this response.
  • “You could do some gambling before your presentation,” one student said, with a smile on his face.  I was hoping for at least one laughable suggestion; however, it does make me wonder what goes on at home that made him think this was something that people do.  Hmmm…
  • “You could picture all of the teachers in the audience as your fifth graders.  Like, don’t call them our names, but imagine you are teaching us,” one student suggested.  Ahh, be still my heart.  I love my students.  They always know just what to say.

Equipped with this sage advice from my students, I made my way into my workshop session on Thursday hopeful, calm, and a bit richer.  I felt ready to take on the world.


My workshop session was on the power of social emotional learning in the classroom.  My main goal was to help teachers and administrators see the genuine value and importance of focusing on educating the whole child.  I began my session by having the 30 attendees participate in a guided meditation, as a way of taking care of themselves.  I referred to it as my gift to them.  Many of the audience members seemed to get a lot out of this short activity.  I then attempted to engage the participants in a discussion regarding their prior knowledge of SEL, and you would have thought that I was asking for volunteers to recreate that final dance scene from the movie Dirty Dancing.  The large room was silent, with no hands going up.  Ohh teachers, we can be a strange bunch sometimes.  eventually though, the group warmed up to the fact that audience participation will enrich the session.  It could be that about three minutes after I asked them the question that fell on deaf ears, I had them participate in a pair-share activity that got the audience members out of their seats and moving around.  At that point, the overall energy level in the room did increase.

As we debriefed this partner activity, a school counselor added this interesting knowledge nugget to the discussion, “It feels to me that we are focusing too much on the social emotional aspects of teaching and moving away from the academic learning.  I’ve noticed that students at my school are struggling on tests and assessments more so than ever before.  I wonder if it is because we are spending so much time on mindfulness, conflict resolution, and other social apsects of learning.”  After she finished speaking, I heard people muttering under their breath in disbelief.  Did she really just say that?  I then thanked her for her input and posed a wondering of my own to the group “I wonder what will happen to those students who come into our classrooms filled with anxiety, stress, or some other negative emotion if we don’t provide them the space and place to relax, mentally unload, reflect, and release those strong emotions that will cause the release of cortisol in their brains.  Will they be able to really learn anything that we teach them?  Won’t it just go in their ears and back out again?  Don’t we need to prepare our students for academic learning opportunities before we jump right into them?”  Several other participants chimed in after me, echoing my sentiments.  People were trying to help this person understand the power of the social emotional aspects of learning.

But, was she getting at something?  Do we spend too much time on the “touchy-feely” aspects of teaching?  Are we moving too far away from academic learning?  Are our students graduating from high school less prepared for the rigors of the real-world now than ever before?  As our nation has been dealing with far more acts of school violence than most other countries in the world in recent years, schools around the country have been trying to address the reasons behind this violence.  Organizations and school districts have been implementing social emotional learning programs in schools across the nation to help curb the issues they believe are causing this influx of violence in schools.  Are these programs helping?  Are they making a difference?  Has there been a reduction in school violence since schools began putting these programs in place?  Should we just focus on academic learning in schools instead, and hope for the best?

While it is always important to view conversations and big ideas like this one from all perspectives, taking in all view points; however, at the end of the day, we do need to rely on our what our hearts tell us.  Great teachers know that our students won’t be able to learn if they are under stress.  And, if we allow this stress to fester and grow within our students and classrooms, it will lead to far bigger issues.  We cannot ignore the fact that many of our students are carrying around much emotional baggage with them when they enter our classrooms.  We need to provide our students with safe places to share their feelings, process their thoughts, become mindful and aware of the world around them, gain empathy, and feel cared for.  Only once our students are able to release some of the stress plaguing them, will they be able to begin the academic learning process.  Our students are humans, not robots.  We can’t expect them to compartmentalize their feelings and emotions so that we can shove our “important curriculum” into their brains.  The process of learning doesn’t work like that.  Brain science reaffirms this.  Our brains cannot intake new information if they are in a state of stress or under the spell of the “fight or flight” mechanisms in our brains.  As teachers, we need to focus on the social emotional aspects of learning before we can even begin to get into the process of academic learning.  Now more than ever, it is crucial that we spend time addressing the social and emotional issues affecting our students, because, if we don’t, future generations of students will be graduating with far fewer academic skills than those who have recently graduated.  Students need to feel and be safe and cared for before any sort of genuine learning can take place.  Thus, in some schools, we aren’t taking enough time to address the social emotional learning of our students.  As a nation, we need to better prepare our students to be kind, compassionate, resilient, emotionally attuned, and empathetic.


As I finished my workshop session on Thursday morning, feeling pretty good about how it went, something magical happened.  That same school counselor who posed the heavy-weighted question to the group during my presentation, came up to me to as I was packing away my materials to thank me for a wonderful session.  She told me that she now realizes and sees the value in focusing on the social emotional aspects of learning.  It took this session to wake her up a bit to the reality of the world in which our students live.  And this is why more teachers need to present sessions at conferences like NELMS and AMLE.  We need to get the word out about issues including SEL, brain science, and so much more.  So, to this school counselor who took a chance on my session, I say, “Thank you.”

How Do You Provide Students with a Voice in the Classroom?

In this incredibly digital and intensely social world in which we live, it’s very easy for anyone to have a voice online.  You can like posts that speak to you, love pictures that poke at your soul, follow people who intrigue you, and receive instant feedback from people around the world.  But isn’t it all a little superficial?  Do you really love that picture of your second cousin’s, half-sister’s, best friend’s uncle’s new car?  Isn’t it just a car?  Love is supposed to mean something more than just approval.  Love is powerful.  The online, social world in which many people seem to live is not so much about having a voice as it is keeping up with the Smith’s or that cool new blogger.  The choices offered to you online are not genuine or real, they are there to fool you into thinking that your thoughts and ideas really do matter.  If these so-called choices did make a difference, then perhaps that person who received 10,000 dislikes on a picture or post might actually care enough to take it down.  This feedback provided to others online is less about growth and more about connection, jealousy, and numerous other emotions.

Real feedback and choice come about in face-to-face interactions between invested people.  When someone asks you what you think of the picture he or she shows you, you will think before responding and, hopefully, provide an insightful and accurate response that could elicit growth from the photographer.  “I really liked your use of light and color, but the background was a bit fuzzy.  Was that intentional?”  This sort of meaningful feedback is how people can grow as individuals, thinkers, and so much more.  It’s thoughtful, compassionate, and real.  It’s not trying to get a rise out of someone or boost someone’s ego unnecessarily.

How do you provide students with choices and a voice in the classroom?  Do you allow them to choose their reading materials for Language Arts?  Do you let them choose partners for a group project?  Do you allow them to choose the topics covered in your curriculum?  Do you allow your students to help set up the classroom?  Do you allow the students to take care of your class pet?  How do you allow the thoughts and ideas of your students to be heard?  I’ve noticed that when students feel as though they have a voice or choice, investment in the class, project, or task is so much higher.  Students love to feel heard and respected.  They like to know that their teachers really do want to know how and what they think.  It empowers them.  It makes them want to work harder, be kinder, and grow as students.

In my fifth grade class, I try to provide my students with options and choices on a daily basis.  If the students want to reorganize the tables and chairs after a Yoga session, I let them have at it, as long as they work together as a class and come to a consensus on the choice made.  They tend to stay more focused when they are able to decide how the classroom is organized.  We have tried about 10 or so different configurations just this year.  My students choose their reading material for Language Arts based on their reading level and interest.  I want my students to find pleasure and enjoyment in reading.  Utilizing the Reader’s Workshop approach to reading instruction helps students grow as readers in ways that whole-class instruction through one novel or basal readers can’t.  I allow the students to determine where they sit in the classroom each day.  They pride themselves on trying to vary the place in which everyone sits on a daily basis.  They try to make sure that two people do not sit next to each other two days in a row.  It’s very cool to watch them layout the desk tags at the end of each day in preparation for the next one.  I allow my students to take turns caring for our class hamster each weekend or over each break.  The students really love being able to have a part in caring for Beans.  It also helps to socialize our hamster.  It’s win-win for everyone.  Providing my students with choices helps them feel as if they are a part of something greater and more important than just a class.  They take responsibility in how the classroom looks each day.  They bring their thoughts and ideas to our Morning Meeting in order to make our class community better, stronger.

Prior to our most recent vacation this past week, I asked the students for their thoughts on our next Science unit.  I wanted to know what the students had previously learned about space so that I didn’t repeat information and bore some of them.  I also wanted to know about any topics that they want to learn about during our unit.  So, I had the students complete a Google Form, on which they provided me feedback regarding our upcoming unit on Space.

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I want my students to feel as though they have a voice and that it really matters.  As I knew that I was going to finalize the unit during the short break, I wanted to ensure that I would be covering information that my students cared about, in a way that mattered to them.  I didn’t want to just teach them information they had already learned in a way that didn’t engage them.

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Based on this feedback, I knew what I had to focus on for the mini-lessons as well as hands-on activities.  As most of my students had learned at least the basics of space including planets and stars, I chose to skip those foundational topics and move onto higher-level  concepts in which they had indicated they were interested.  I’ll be covering exo-planets, other galaxies, NASA, life cycle of a stars, and the possibility of colonizing Mars.  I also crafted activities within the mini-lessons that utilize the work-style many of the students seem to prefer.  I made sure that almost every mini-lesson will make use of some sort of partner or group work.  I’m hopeful that throughout our unit on Space, my students will see that I incorporated their feedback, and feel respected and heard.

It’s important to me that my students have choices and a voice, because it is not my classroom, it is our classroom.  I want them to take ownership and be completely invested in what is happening in our class.  I want my students to know that I trust them and care about their opinions.  I want them to be heard.  In this often tumultuous, online world in which many of our students live, it is easy for them to be fooled into thinking that their voice and choice matters.  So, no matter what happens outside the walls of our amazing schools, our students should feel respected, heard, and be provided the chance to have a genuine voice that does make a difference and have an impact on the world in our classrooms.

The Benefit in Teaching Students How to Prepare for Tests and Quizzes

I am a product of the American public school system during a time when standardized tests, quizzes, and unit tests were how they measured your intellect and academic progress.  In my 14 years of schooling, you see I failed kindergarten and had to complete a year of Transition before moving into the First Grade, I completed numerous tests and quizzes.  The total is probably somewhere in the 100s.  However, despite the focus on tests and quizzes as a way of measuring what students know, not once in all of my years in school did I ever learn how to effectively prepare or study for tests.  No teacher ever explained how to study for a test or prepare to complete a test.  Not one of my teachers ever went over how to attack a test, especially one of the standardized nature.  I never learned how to prepare for the mountain of tests I was forced to complete.  Luckily, school came easy for me.  I figured out the system by the sixth grade and learned how to do school like a professional student.  I achieved the Honor Roll every quarter from the sixth grade through to graduation.  I learned early on how to please teachers and give them what they wanted.  While this skill helped me be successful while in school, in retrospect, it is also what prevented me from learning the material in a truly meaningful manner.  While I retained the basics from my many years in school, I don’t recall much more than that.  My knowledge of what I should have learned from my many history courses is shaky at best.  I wish I had learned how to effectively learn what my teachers were teaching me.  I wish I was provided with tips on how to retain information and move it from the working memory into the short-term memory, and so on.  I wish my teachers had given me more of a foundation in the skills of learning instead of focusing on the learning and facts themselves.

As a teacher who realizes the negative impact of not learning how to effectively learn, I make it a point to focus on the foundational skills of learning throughout the year in my class.  I want my students to know how their brain takes in information and stores it.  I want my students to see that if they can link facts or pieces of information with prior knowledge, it will more easily be stored in the brain for future use.  I help my students see the power in learning something in a fun, novel, and engaging way.  I teach my students tricks regarding memory retrieval, as that is the vital part of the process of learning.  I don’t want my students to graduate from high school feeling as though they didn’t really learn much.  I want my students to learn how to learn for the sake of learning.  I want to empower my students with knowledge on how to prepare for tests and quizzes.  I want my students to be and feel like successful students.

While I am not a huge fan of cumulative unit tests, I can’t deny the fact that my students will be taking tests of that nature in the sixth grade and beyond.  During the first half of the year in my fifth grade classroom, my students learn how to learn.  I teach them about the power of their brain and how it works.  I provide them with tricks on how to retain information.  I teach them skills ahead of knowledge.  I teach them how to use their peers as resources.  I show them how learning and school can be fun and engaging.  Then, during the second half of the academic year, I focus on preparing them for the numerous challenges they will face in the years ahead.  I teach them how to prepare for tests and quizzes.  I teach them how to manage their time in order to complete their work and assignments.  I teach them how to attack school with vigor and fury.  I prepare them for a future of taking in information and regurgitating it in some form again, and luckily, I am not alone.  The great school at work I work promotes this idea of skills first, knowledge second across the grades.  Students at the Beech Hill School learn the value of learning.

As we are in the downward hump of our school year, I am focusing my energy on helping my students learn how to prepare, study, and complete tests and quizzes.  As we just finished a large unit in Science class on Ecology, I took the opportunity to introduce and teach test preparation skills.  Prior to the test, we played a fun review game that covered all of the information learned throughout the unit.  The students retained almost every knowledge nugget I had thrown at them.  Yes, they learned the value in the retrieval strategies I had taught them earlier in the year.  Then, following this fun review game, I spent a period exploring test preparation skills with the students.  How do you prepare for a test?  What does that process look like?  I introduced the steps of the process to the students before I taught them how to create an effective study guide.  I also explained to the students the power in asking questions.  “Some teachers,” I said, “will be very straightforward with you about what will be on a test, while others will not.  It is your responsibility to ask questions regarding things you don’t understand or know.  If the teacher doesn’t tell you what will be covered on the test, just ask.”  I allowed my students to pepper me with questions.  I even showed them the test and went over it.  I don’t want them to think of the skill of test preparation as some secret and scary thing.  I want them to learn that it’s part of the learning process.  Solidifying and reviewing the information that is stored in their short-term memory, will allow it to be more easily moved into their long-term memory.  After our lengthy discussion and study-guide-making period, I explained the next step, studying.  What does studying look like?  “Knowing yourself as a student is crucial for this final step of the test preparation process.  Knowing how to best review the material will help you be more effectively prepared to showcase what you retained,” I told the students.  I then had the students think about how they learn best?  Are you a visual student?  Do you work best with others?  Do you take in information auditorily?  What works for you?  Each student then generated a study activity that they felt would work best for them.  One student made a Kahoot! review quiz, as he learns best from doing.  Another student chose to create a mock test from her study guide, as she learns best from thinking through all possibilities.  Other students worked with a peer to test each other on the material.  Each student chose a strategy or activity that works for them.  Their homework that evening, was to complete this process.

I felt confident that this first lesson on test preparation was successful.  Of course, this is only one of many lessons like it that I will teach throughout the year to help fully prepare my students for the numerous learning opportunities they will face in their future years of schooling.  I did feel as though the students seemed to understand the power in effectively preparing for a test.  They asked many insightful questions, created a useful study guide, and brainstormed some very cool ideas on how they will study for the test.  I felt hopeful.

Then came the test on Friday morning.  While I know that my students do indeed know the material covered on the test, I also realize that test anxiety is a real struggle for some students.  Despite knowing their stuff, some students freeze up during a test and are unable to recall what they know.  As this was our first large test of the school year, I wanted to be sure that my students felt as stress-free as possible.

Before the students arrived to school that day, I had left them each an inspirational note on their desk.  “You can do it.  You know this stuff.  You’ve got it,” were some of the messages I wrote on the sticky notes I stuck to the tables where they were working that day.  They seemed to like these notes.  I think it helped to lighten the mood in the classroom as well.  Directly preceding the test, I explained the brain research on test-taking before having the students complete some Brain Gym exercises.  They seemed to really enjoy these activities.  They liked being able to move around and get their blood pumping.  I then gave the students time to get some water, sharpen a pencil, and go to the bathroom before sitting down to complete the science test.  I then went over the importance of not talking during the test so as to respect your peers.  Once I handed out the tests, they got right to work.  I played some instrumental focus music via Youtube so that the room wouldn’t be entirely silent during the test.  Research studies have shown that soft music can help with memory retrieval and serenity during stress-inducing situations like taking a test.  I also handed out, to those students interested, a small butterscotch candy that I called test fuel.  Having something to chew or suck on allows the brain to do its job more effectively.  Throughout the test, the students asked very few questions.  They drew diagrams and wrote lengthy explanations to questions about ecosystems and biomes.  The one thing I didn’t see in the classroom during the test was stress or nervousness.  None of the students fidgeted in their seats or looked around the room confused.  They all seemed to look as though they knew what was going on, as if they were prepared.  It was pretty awesome.  Everyone finished in the allotted time as well.  After all of the students completed the test, we celebrated with a round of applause and tasty gummy worms.  It felt really good to me.  I was excited to assess their tests and see all that they learned about our unit on ecology.

Test Taking

Later that day, I graded and assessed their tests.  I was most impressed and excited by how well they all did.  Their diagrams showing how plants grow, including the process of germination as well as the resources required for growth to take place, were detailed and nicely demonstrated their understanding of this concept.  Their answers to the written responses were thorough and spot on.  Only one student struggled with one of the graded objectives, and when I met with him that afternoon to reassess him one-on-one through a discussion, he was able to explain his diagram in a way that showed me he understood the concept very well.  I can’t say that I was blown away by the result of this first major test-taking experience because this class of students is so amazing on a regular basis anyway, but I was incredibly proud of how well they all did.  They took this chance to practice taking a test very seriously.  They put their best into this whole adventure.

Our first foray into preparing for and completing a test was a huge success.  Was it the in-class preparation we did on Wednesday and Thursday of this past week?  Did the fun review game help them to retrieve the information from their memories?  Was that what helped?  Or was it that they learned how to prepare for and study for a test?  Did that lesson on the steps of the test-taking process help them effectively prepare for Friday’s big test?  Perhaps it was that I had provided the students time in class to create a study guide and study for the test.  Maybe that was the kicker that put them over the top.  Or was it something that took place on Friday?  Maybe the Brain Gym exercises helped alleviate some of their stress.  Or perhaps it was the test fuel or the positive notes on their desks.  Maybe those helped them attack the test with confidence and energy.  While I could probably ponder this whole experience until I am blue in the face, I don’t believe that it was just one thing.  Taking a test is an experience with multiple prongs.  The students have to have learned the information in meaningful ways first.  Then, they have to prepare for the exam in an effective manner.  Once they are ready for the test, they then have to complete the test in a way that will reduce the amount of cortisol that is released in their brain.  It’s a multi-pronged experience.  All of what we did throughout this unit led to Friday’s awesome outcome.  The students did so well because of every aspect of the learning process.  It’s good to know that they are now well on their way to being effectively and meaningfully prepared to attack the many tests and quizzes they will see in their future.

Taking a Risk and Trying Something New in the Classroom

As humans, we are creatures of habit.  We do not like to be stagnant or bored.  Our bodies and brains need us to be moving and doing for survival.  We are wired to be engaged in tasks, especially those that are routine and repetitious.  Eating at the same time every day or parking in the same spot day after day, for example.  It feels good when we know what to expect, but our brains are also wired to expect the unexpected.  We are animals, after all, prepared to live in a world in which other creatures are trying to attack and eat us.  Being ready for any type of situation is an evolutionary survival tactic that is hard-wired into our DNA.  However, in the very modern world in which we currently live, we don’t need to worry about an attack from a saber-tooth tiger, and so getting comfortable with a repetitive routine is quite common and calming.

I love knowing what to expect.  Because I have a long commute to my amazing school each morning, knowing what the weather and driving conditions will be is vital to my schedule and plan, especially during the winter months, as I live in New England.  I check the weather on a daily basis so that I can allot myself extra time if the roads may be slippery the following morning.  My brain feels very happy when it knows what to expect.  This knowing brings about a sense of harmony within my life.  When I am prepared for the weather and have a plan for everything, everything in life seems to fall into place just so.  I like that, but at the same time it can also make me complacent and bored.  If things always go as expected, my brain isn’t able to flex its survival-skills muscles.  As I’ve aged and matured, I have found absolute value and beauty in trying new things, taking risks, and being open to not having a plan.  It’s nice to mix things up from time to time.  I’m not advocating free-form living, I’m just suggesting, that for me, occasionally going into an experience without a plan feels good, as it allows my brain the novelty of something new.  What do I do now?  How do I solve this problem?  I try to be open to not having a plan or being open to all possibilities at least three to five times each day.  While the unknown can be scary, it can also be enlightening and magical.

Thursday morning, I set my classroom up for our monthly Yoga session with the amazing and talented Lisa Garside, a local Yogi.  My students began that morning learning about the five Tibetan Rites.  They were really into the mindfulness of it all.  The atmosphere in the classroom was serene and peaceful.  In the past, following our Yoga sessions, I had the students reorganize the classroom and return it to its normal configuration.  It just seemed to make sense to me.  Having a huge physical change will help them ready their minds to focus and work.  However, as I observed my students during our most recent Yoga session, I realized that they seemed very at home on their mats.  Their effort and joy were both very high.  So, I decided to throw caution to the wind and take a risk following Thursday’s Yoga session.  I asked the students, before we reorganized the classroom, “I notice that you all seem calm and peaceful right now, and I  wonder if putting the classroom back together is really the best option for you all at this moment in time.  What do you think?  Should we conduct our math lesson on our Yoga mats or return the classroom back to its original configuration with desks and all?”  The students unanimously voted to keep the Yoga mats.  And so, Math class was completed on Yoga mats.  The students lied down on mats to complete their Mad Math worksheets and various modules via Foolproofme.org.  They were more focused and happier than I’ve ever seen them during Math class before.  It was awesome.  They worked effectively and efficiently to complete their assigned modules using the online financial literacy curriculum Foolproofme. They were attentive and scored better on the final assessments than in past weeks.  They helped each other through challenges faced in quiet and appropriate ways.  They did not distract each other, but instead, helped motivate each other to work well.  It was so cool to observe this outcome.  They were mindfully present and aware following our Yoga session.  It was awesome.

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So, what was the catalyst for this outcome?  What allowed this peaceful atmosphere to be cultivated during Thursday’s math class?  I don’t believe that it was one single thing that led to this outcome; instead, I feel as though many different factors contributed to what happened.

  1. I went into the day with an open mind and growth mindset.  I wasn’t married to having the students reorganize the classroom after our Yoga session.  I was flexible in my thinking and open to possibilities.
  2. Our monthly Yoga sessions help center and relax the students so that they are more open to being able to focus and work hard.
  3. Thursday’s Math class was a bit different from a normal work period as the students were completing Mad Math worksheets and a module within the Foolproofme program.
  4. I have created a classroom culture that promotes student choice and engagement.  I want the students to feel heard so that the most effective learning environment is created within the classroom.

When you combine these four ingredients together, magic happens.  And that’s exactly what happened in the fifth grade classroom on Thursday.  Because I was open to any sort of outcome or plan, I allowed for anything to happen.  While structure and routine have their place in middle school, student choice and voice are also a necessary part of creating an engaging atmosphere in the classroom.  Students love to feel as though they can choose how learning happens.  Perhaps that was the biggest contributing factor to this epic outcome.  Maybe, due to the fact that I allowed the students to choose how Math class was conducted, they were more engaged and motivated to work hard.  I suppose, anything is possible when you are open to everything; and as teachers, shouldn’t we always be open to allowing our students to tell us what they want and how they learn best?