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Sunday, October 1, 2017

Mindfulness for the Middle Grades (interview)

photo courtesy Elizabeth McAvoy

Elizabeth McAvoy has more than 20 years’ experience working as an educator and professional mentor to at-risk youth. She currently teaches middle school Art and English Language Development in San Francisco, California, where she uses mindfulness to help her students self-calm and increase attention, focus, and compassion for self and others. She is the co-author (with Jacqueline Thousand) of the laminated guide Mindfulness for Teachers and Students.

Lately I’ve been featuring resources for adolescents and young children, so I’m quite interested in your perspective as a middle school teacher. What are the most effective mindfulness practices and activities for the ‘tween’ age group?

Every student comes to class with different needs. As a teacher, I continually tune in to the dynamic and energy of the room to determine how to best engage the students in learning. Inserting a mindfulness practice into the schedule is no different; different groups benefit most from different practices.

The first year I consciously implemented mindful techniques, I was teaching in a self-contained classroom. At that time, I had begun doing research for a thesis on mindfulness, so we tried a lot of the techniques I was reading about, including most of the practices in the laminated guide. (Others, like the Waterfall Relaxation Meditation and Glitter Bottle, were done with younger groups I had taught in the past). 

Year two I taught English Language Arts and Social Studies to two groups of sixth graders and a seventh-grade class. The sixth graders liked having a minute of silence to support their transition from a busy four-minute break. The seventh graders needed a bit more; they came to me right after taking PE and before breaking for lunch. They came into the classroom full of energy and most likely hungry. 

As soon as the bell signaled the beginning of class, I rang a chime and had them put their heads down and/or close their eyes, then we meditated in silence or did a guided meditation using the apps listed in the resource section of Mindfulness for Teachers and StudentsEach student had personal favorites, and about half of them favored the six-minute Focus meditation offered on Headspace. This meditation asks students to listen to a tone from its beginning until it fades into silence.

This year I am teaching art, a subject which naturally lends itself to being mindful. I started out by having each of my classes meditate in silence for a minute, but after a couple of weeks I realized that the very act of creating art put most of the students into a meditative, focused state. Since most of them hadn't had any formal training in art techniques, getting them to really observe colors, shapes, lines, and textures is an exercise in being mindful.  

Last week we worked on one-point perspective drawings of our school hallways, and the all the students, including those with behavior contracts, became utterly focused on recreating the lines that comprised the hallways, lockers, and doors. This makes sense to me, since I have always personally credited art with being the fastest and most dependable portal into a calm and focused state.

There’s a range of perspectives about how much training and experience classroom teachers should have before introducing mindfulness to kids. What’s your opinion about this, and which parts of your laminated guide would be most appropriate for someone without formal training in mindfulness meditation?

For me, it's important to be very familiar with the subject matter before I teach it. I’m a first-year art teacher, and I create every piece of art before I teach it to the kids. I gather the materials I think I'll need, pour the paint the way I think I'll want them to pour it, experiment with different brushes and brush strokes, and take notes on what works and what doesn't work. It's the same with meditation. Before I began consciously bringing mindfulness into the classroom, I needed to feel like I knew what I was doing and had benefited from it.

I created Mindfulness for Teachers and Students to help me remember all of my favorite techniques. It offers an intro to mindfulness and many exercises -- such as how to use the senses to be mindful -- that would be suitable for those who are unfamiliar with the practice. Those who have a background in mindfulness may use the guide as a refresher and an introduction to new techniques. The world is full of opportunities to be mindful – the guide highlights a few that have worked especially well in my classroom. 

Some parents object to yoga and mindfulness in public schools because of the historical connection to Hindu and Buddhist teachings, or because they believe it takes away time from academic content. Have you encountered any resistance from parents, or have they all been supportive?

I haven't heard anything from parents and I don't specifically address the practice when I'm talking to them about our classroom. For me, it is simply another tool in my classroom management toolkit. It is not so much of a spiritual practice as a scientifically proven way to increase impulse control, heighten attention, and reduce anxiety. I use neutral, non-spiritual terms to explain to students why we sit in silence. 

I might introduce a guided meditation by saying the following, 
"Today we're going to sit in silence and listen to a tone from its beginning until it fades into silence. Our minds are probably going to be full of thoughts and feelings, and we might find ourselves thinking about something else and not paying attention to the sound. When we notice that this has happened, we'll just gently bring our attention back to the sound. Our brains are busy, so we may need to do this many times. That's o.k. This is a good exercise for our brain because it teaches the brain to stay focused and it helps the brain calm down." 
Students notice the difference, and I imagine some parents do, too. I recently asked the students to write me a note to let me know whether they've used a "mindful minute" outside of the classroom. Almost every student had. Some examples of places the students said they were using meditation were in the bus, while in line at a store, during the credits in a movie, and while their video games were loading. 

You’ve taught in Costa Rica and South Korea.  How has living and working in different cultures influenced you as a teacher?

I've spent much of my adulthood seeking knowledge and new experiences along with my place in the world. But, as cliché as it is, I now realize my connection to everything around me was there no matter where I was. 

Over the past few years I've gradually woken up to the fact that I've had a really full life with so many opportunities, but because I lived so much of it on autopilot, I missed a lot of it. 

This understanding has been very motivating to me. I want to be present for the remainder of my life, one mindful moment at a time. Being mindful is the key to making this happen. 

What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

I began practicing mindfulness after a health breakdown that occurred after years of working with some of California's most high-needs, at-risk youth. While out on medical leave, I tried a variety of methods to heal myself, such as eliminating sugar and processed flour, acupuncture, massage, and different kinds of meditation. 

I noticed the most benefit from a 12-week mindfulness group that met at a medical center. I had been at a crossroads in my career, but I began to see that if I consistently applied mindfulness at work, I could return to the classroom and stay healthy while there. 

Essentially, mindful teaching means catching myself when I’m in frantic autopilot mode, and switching over to a more conscious state of being. A bit of background: I have a temperament that might lead to me being described as: perfectionistic, anxious, too hard on myself... you get the idea. So, put me in a high-energy, dynamic classroom full of high-needs pre-teens for seven hours per day, and if I'm on autopilot, burnout is inevitable. 

However, with consistent mindfulness, I can become aware of when I'm frantic, or when I'm not taking the time to sip water or use the restroom. I can become aware of when I'm literally running around the classroom during lunch, trying to get through my entire to-do list in 35 minutes. 

The reality is that the to-do list is never going to be empty, and I can only do one thing at a time. One thing! This was an epiphany to me as a teacher, because when you're in charge of 25 to 30 young people who change out every 50 minutes for a total of about 160 individual beings, it seems like you have to multitask. But the fact of having one brain in one body is that you can only do one thing at a time, and that will just have to be good enough.

Now, when the students come in, I smile, look into their eyes, and greet each by name. In class I listen to one at a time as they work in groups. I implement the one-mic (one speaker at a time) rule in my classroom and I run my classroom as if all the students can just do one thing at a time, because if they are human like me, that's all they can do. 

If I haven’t had water by the end of each period, I walk to my desk and take a sip or two. And if I need to use the restroom between classes, I walk down the hall and use it. I still have the same basic temperament, but I catch myself lapsing into that frantic mode far less often. The result is that I sleep more soundly, get sick less often, and simply enjoy my job and my life. This is far more important than trying to complete the impossible-to-complete to-do list.

What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

Almost every day I go to work at least 20 minutes early, lock the door, and meditate for 15 to 20 minutes. At night, I often fall asleep to the voice of a guided meditation. 

When I feel too busy to sit in silence for 20 minutes, I could either run around and work myself up into a state of insanity, then go to bed and let the thoughts keep running around and keeping me up half the night, or I can find 30 minutes to give my brain and body a break, knowing from experience that after the break I will work more efficiently and get more done, without the franticness. It just has to be attempted and practiced to be believed. 

When I don’t do it, I forget that my brain has a life of its own, and that it will work me to illness unless my conscious mind steps in and says hey, I need a break. It's like the flight attendants say, in case of emergency, I need to put the oxygen mask on myself first, or I'll be useless to give oxygen to anyone else. Only these days, I don't wait for an emergency.


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