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Quieting The Mind To Learn

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By JoLynne Martinez

Just as every student has a unique personality, so does every class. Five years ago, when I started teaching, one of my classes had such an energetic personality that every time class started they had trouble settling down. These students constantly needed to go get drinks of water, carry on side conversations, build architectural towers with books -- in other words, they were in need of nearly constant redirection.

But I knew that they were capable of learning, and their academic skills weren't lacking. What they needed was practice in self-management―one of an array of social and emotional skills crucial to learning in all subjects.

I also knew that I was at a loss as to how to help these students develop that skill. Then, one day I found myself clearing my mind and calming myself in preparation for the sensory onslaught of this class―a skill learned in long-ago meditation training―and I realized the skill that was helping me teach could help them learn.

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Because teaching can be a kind of performance art, I decided to set the stage by borrowing a set of Tibetan tingsha bells from my husband's instrument collection. Today in the West these bells are often used to begin meditation sessions. In addition to performance, what I had in mind was classical conditioning, a concept taught in education psychology classes. The standard example is Pavlov's dogs salivating in response to a stimulus. Often the stimulus is a bell.

Next morning, tingsha in hand, I asked my students: Have any of you ever practiced meditation? No. Then I invited everyone to find a place to sit, whether on the floor or in a chair. We were going to try a little silent meditation to quiet our minds. If they didn't want to participate, all I asked was that they be quiet and respectful for 30 whole seconds.

"Now get as comfortable as you can in your seat."

Of course there was some giggling and squirming, but luckily they seemed pretty good natured about it.

"Take a deep breath in, and as you breathe out, let your shoulders relax, and let your eyes close."

More giggling.

"Remember I asked you to remain quiet and respectful even if you don't want to participate. Let's try again. ... Take a deep breath in, and as you breathe out, let your shoulders relax, and let your eyes close."

Everyone was quiet except for a bit more squirming, but I thought I'd ignore that.

"Feel the back of your neck relax."

A slight pause.

"Feel your face relax."

Another pause.

"Feel your eyes sink deep into your skull."

The longest pause yet.

"And let your brain relax."

By the end of 30 seconds, everyone was still silent.

"Now let's bring our attention back to the classroom, counting up from 3 ..."

Opening my eyes, I saw someone making faces at a friend, but at least he was quiet.

"... to 2 ..."

Someone else had a cell phone out, and I paused until he put it away.

"... to 1."

Believe it or not―imperfect as that first experience had been―the class was more focused that day.

Five years later, I still start every class with silent meditation. Sometimes students ask if they can ring the tingsha themselves, and I invite them to lead the 30 seconds of silence. Is meditation a cure-all for self-management skills? No. But I find I have less need to quiet my own mind before class when I invite the students to meditate with me.

"Take a deep breath in ..."

JoLynne Walz Martinez teaches English at Kansas City Academy, an independent secondary school. Last year she was honored to be included in the National Fellowship for Social and Emotional Learning hosted by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year.

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