LEMONADE STAND

I was walking back from the farmers’ market, on a recent Saturday, when I came upon a front-yard lemonade stand and its four young proprietors. Their refined sales approach caused me to pause in admiration: they let the tall, cool glasses and low, low price of 25 cents speak for themselves.

Only after I’d paused did one of the girls ask politely if I’d like some. “I don’t drink sweet things,” I said, but not wanting to disappoint them, “I’ll donate the 25 cents.” I dropped a quarter into their jar. As I turned to walk away, a wee lad of three or four piped up, “I like your blue eyes!”

He was looking at my green sunglasses: green lenses, green frames. I didn’t seize the opportunity to explain that statistically boys are more likely to be color-blind than girls; I did, however, proceed to argue with him about the nature of reality.

“My eyes aren’t blue!” I exclaimed, pushing up my glasses for him to see. “They’re green and brown! I like your blue eyes, though!” “My eyes aren’t blue!” he retorted winningly, all evidence to the contrary.

Did a satisfying conclusion exist for this friendly dispute? Standing there with four kids looking at me, I realized that I had betrayed the principles of mindfulness as espoused by Susan Kaiser Greenland. In her book The Mindful Child, she suggests a classroom exercise in which children take turns pairing off to tell each other how their eyes look, as opposed to what color they are, in acknowledgment both of individual perception and of the possibility of change. If I’d had my wits about me, I could have asked the boy, “Oh, do my eyes look blue to you?” and had an exchange that didn’t negate his very dear opening remark. Facts may (or may not) be facts, but regardless, they don’t necessarily need to come first.

“Possibility” has been a key component in the work of Dr. Ellen Langer, which I was excited to discover early this summer; her books represent decades of inspired and inspiring research. In The Power of Mindful Learning, she describes experiments in which material to be learned is presented conditionally—in essence, “This is one way it could be” vs. the more common “This is how it is”—with positive results.

In one study, free piano lessons were offered to participants randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was asked to memorize through repetition, as is typical, while members of the second group were encouraged to vary their style as much as possible while doing preliminary fingering exercises, and to pay attention to the influence of thoughts, sensations, and feelings. Each group was given the same specific lesson, and the piano playing was taped and rated by two experienced observers (presumably not privy to the grouping, although that’s not explicitly stated in the summary). The mindful players were seen as demonstrating greater competence and creativity—and also enjoyed the activity more.

In the first chapter alone, a number of other examples echo that theme: that more exceptional performances, as well as greater satisfaction, arise from the invitation to engage mindfully, which Dr. Langer describes in slightly different terms than the definition popularized by Jon Kabat Zinn. She identifies three traits of mindful learning as “the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.”

Having recently begun The Power of Mindful Learning at the time of my walk, its insights flashed through my mind as I was ruing my poor conversational choices, and I realized I could at least plant a different seed of possibility, before moving on. “Now you can decide,” I said, “whether you want to just keep that quarter as a bonus, or donate a free cup of lemonade to the next person who walks past.” Maybe they gave some thought to that; maybe it will stay with them.

 

A seed is, itself, a possibility. A small, good thing.

 

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The Mindful Child (2010) by Susan Kaiser Greenland, from Atria Paperback, New York.

The Power of Mindful Learning (1997) by Ellen J. Langer, from Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts. Quoted with permission from the author, from p. 4 of this edition.

 

ENERGY SHIFT

I’d like, on this site, to relay research that excites me and ideas that have me in thrall; but I’d also like to include, from the beginning, the voices of others: researchers themselves; former students who have memories of experiencing mindfulness in the classroom, as well as those who wish they’d had the chance; other persons in the helping profession who share this passion; and educators, who have a unique opportunity to connect with large numbers of kids.

To that end, if you feel you have more than a comment’s worth to say on the subject, let me know so that we can work out an interview or guest post. Also, if there are specific issues or questions you’d like to see explored, you are welcome to email me at presentmomentlearning@gmail.com.

Starting the conversation, here’s a brief Q and A* with Jenna Howard, who is lead teacher in the Choices Program at Lebanon Elementary School in Lebanon, Maine. Jenna works with students who experience behavioral and emotional challenges at school. As a flowering of her own spiritual path, Jenna sought ways to improve the experience of her students and in August 2013 attended a weekend workshop on mindfulness in educational settings, at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, NY.

Q: First of all, how do you, Jenna, define mindfulness?

A: I define mindfulness as being aware of everything in the present moment. I know some people don’t like to use the word “aware” with mindfulness, but that’s the best way I can describe it.

Q: Can you offer a synopsis of the workshop you attended?

A: It was led by a variety of people, including psychologists, teachers, administrators, and professors and several people who are well known in the mindfulness education / social and emotional learning fields: Daniel Rechtschaffen, Linda Lantieri, and Dan Siegel.

There were different lectures, mini-workshops, and breakout sessions to choose from throughout the weekend. Topics covered included: what mindfulness is and looks like; implementing mindfulness in schools; practices and programs that support social and emotional learning; mindfulness practice with at-risk youth; and using evidence from neurobiology to support the practice of mindfulness.

Q: What did you find most helpful and inspiring?

A: I found it most helpful to learn about different practices that work in other educational settings. It was also important to me to gain more knowledge about the science behind mindfulness, so that other people can understand it better from a scientific, factual perspective. I enjoyed learning about mindfulness work and its results with at-risk youth, and was able to connect it to my students.

Q: I often see the recommendation that those who want to teach or share mindfulness, practice it themselves. I’m guessing you may have heard something like that at Omega.

A: Yes, there was a definite mention of the importance of practicing personal mindfulness. They felt that in order for the students to buy into it, it had to be something that the teacher believed in or practiced regularly. Almost like a ripple effect. Something was said to the effect of, if anything, personal mindfulness practice would help the student climate because modeling and the energy that is put off by the teacher greatly affects the classroom environment. So in a way, start with yourself and build slowly into them.

Q: Can you offer a sense for what an average day in your classroom is like without mindfulness activities?

A: As a special education teacher in a self-contained classroom for students with behavioral and emotional challenges, an average day can be very stressful. Every day is different, depending on the circumstances and what emotional states the students are in. We encounter many behavioral / emotional “meltdowns” that can include aggressiveness. We teach a lot of social skills and academics, depending on what individual kids need most.

Q: Please share one or more examples of ways you have used principles of mindfulness in the classroom.

A: Twice a day, we incorporate an activity called Quiet Time. During this time, the lights are shut off and relaxing music is played. Students can choose to sit in a bean bag and relax or draw to get themselves centered. The students are aware that this activity is meant to help them refocus, calm their bodies and minds, and bring the energy of the room to a neutral place. They are aware that these activities help them perform and focus on their academic and social tasks throughout the day.

Also, we teach students different mindfulness practices to use when they are experiencing, or before an increase in, anxiety and aggression, in order to get them to develop their own coping skills in highly stressful situations.

Q: Dealing with anxiety and aggression! Can you give an example of that?

A: We show them how to take deep breaths properly and tell them to “smell the flowers and blow out the candles” ten times. It’s very simple but can work very well as they focus on their breathing and how it affects the way they feel.

Q: What do you notice in your students during and after the use of mindfulness-based activities?

A: We notice a change in the energy of the classroom. The energy of the students and classroom becomes calmer, more peaceful, more focused and productive. The students’ energy and anxiety levels often go to a more neutral place, rather than really high or really low.

Q: Have you had direct feedback about it from the students?

A: Students give feedback through their actions and with their words. Some students have said that they like it because it calms them down and the quiet helps them relax.

Q: What advice would you give to other teachers who might like to pursue this?

A: Start out small and at a slow pace. See what works and what doesn’t work. Adjust different activities to the needs of the students.

Q: What are your “next steps,” if any?

A: I’d like to learn more about more activities that worked for students who have similar challenges as my students. It would also be nice to touch base with other educators who are incorporating this work into their classrooms.

 

*This interview was lightly edited, with Jenna’s approval.

 

MOMENT BY MOMENT

Welcome to PRESENT-MOMENT LEARNING, a forum for ideas and strategies to enhance the learning experience of child and educator both, beginning with a special emphasis on mindfulness.

“Evidence-based practice” is a mantra in many disciplines these days, but for a variety of reasons, practice often lags behind the evidence. I’m interested in how the results of carefully designed research programs translate into actual, onsite, day-to-day implementation.

This project is the blossoming of my love for a particular K–5 school community in rural Maine, where I was privileged to spend the 2013–14 academic year, interning with the school social worker there.

Required by my MSW program to design a legacy project, I thought about the issue of “attention” in the classroom, and how often it seems to surface as a problem. Mindfulness, with an ever-growing body of research behind it, seemed a good solution to propose, making use of an online forum for discussion.

With any luck, the conversation will expand and draw in a range of experiences from many backgrounds and locales. Visitors here can contribute to a fund of “practice-based evidence.”

A special note on the language we use: Let us together remember that the children in our care are sensitive, not just to how they are treated, but also to how they’re discussed, and those memories are carried into adulthood. I hope this site will feel like a safe and welcoming place for anyone who visits, and I invite persons who find it otherwise to make their feelings known.

Thank you for reading, and let us hear from you.

EA