Mindfulness In the Classroom – How my 1st graders taught me that slowing down is good for all of us.

 

“I am aware.   I am safe.  We are connected.   These 3 simple statements had a huge impact on my classroom.  They were proposed by  my school’s climate committee as a way to help all of our students be more mindful. (Not only in the classroom but in the halls, on the playground and in our overcrowded  and very loud cafeteria.)  Social Emotional Learning is already at the heart of my school’s curriculum.  We explicitly teach students how to recognize, understand, and express their emotions.  We give them tools to help them self-regulate.  In every classroom at Queen Anne Elementary you will find calm body spots – spots that students can go to if they need a break. (Not sent to – as a time out) Students have access to noise canceling headphones,  a variety of fidget tools and other materials that help them focus on learning.  We believe that our students have different needs and there is no “one size fits all”  approach.  Our classrooms have flexible seating so that students can pick a space that makes sense for their needs. We give all of our students the power to make decisions that help them learn best.  We have daily classroom meetings run by the students with agendas that include a complement circle and problem solving.  So when our staff decided to make these 3 simple statements a part of our common language I wasn’t sure  they would add that much more.  But they did. They became a kind of mantra in my classroom that helped students become more calm and focused on learning.

It started when one of my students, whose job that week was the Class Breather, (this is a coveted job in my classroom – the student uses a Hoberman sphere to lead us in deep breaths when needed) decided we should say these statements after each breath.

I am aware.   Breath

I am safe.    Breath.

We are connected.   Breath. 

It was an idea that stuck.  And the more I watched my students, and did the same practice myself, I saw  we were all benefiting from this 3 minute activity. My students were more calm.  My most fidgety students were able to focus longer.  And we felt more connected.   But there were other ways I was incorporating mindfulness in the classroom. For the last 2 years I have integrated the mindset for learning strategies so skillfully laid out in Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz’ incredible book called A Mindset for Learning- Teaching the Traits of Joyful, Independent Growth.  These mindsets – empathy, flexibility, persistence, resilience and optimism,  are taught explicitly and my students use these mindsets throughout the year. I see evidence of it everywhere. They come up during goal setting, in conversations and on sticky notes that are left in  books.

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I also started using Go Noodle.  Go Noodle is a website that features short videos designed to get kids moving. But they also have videos that teach mindfulness, specifically  ways to enhance focus, practice compassion, build self control and manage stress. IMG_1131

I turned to Go Noodle after I realized that my kids were returning to the classroom after lunch (remember the previously mentioned overcrowded lunchroom above?) extremely amped up.  I tried everything –  A class read aloud, a moment of silence, a time to just sit and draw.  Didn’t work.  The energy level was too high.  One day, I turned down the lights, met the students at the door, asked them to find a brain and body spot and when we were ready I would play a Go Noodle mindfulness video. My students just naturally started sitting Criss Cross Applesauce and using the time to shut their eyes and think about their breath.  When all or most of us were ready – they would either continue sitting or standing depending on the video. And again this was 3 minutes of our day that made my kids less stressed and ready to take on the 1 1/2  hour of Math and Science still to come.   And I’ll be honest these brain and body breaks were helping me as well.  I found I was  more calm and was a much better teacher in the afternoons.

All of this had an impact on my personal life as well.  I’m now spending my summer reading about meditation, mindfulness and listening to the 10% Happier Podcast which features so many stories of people who are practicing mindfulness in their own lives and in their very different workplaces.   http://abcnews.go.com/Health/deepdive/10-percent-happier-dan-harris-44036003

I’m excited to hear other stories from educators who are seeing the difference that a few mindful minutes can make in the lives of their students.

~Molly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Innovation and Risk-Taking – A Reflection Inspired by #IMMOOC, Season 2

I have been catching up on the Innovators Mindset Open Online Course and it didn’t take long to inspire me to start blogging again.   It’s so easy to be so busy that blogging just isn’t a priority.  Teaching,  family, staff meetings, parent meetings, National Boards, etc. etc.  But when I start listening to innovative teachers share their practice, my head starts spinning and I want to share what I’m thinking too.  So often we feel like we don’t measure up.   So here I go.  Again.

There are many things that make a teacher innovative.  Because I value collaboration, face to face, and with people I’ve never met, communicating using 140 characters or less – I’m innovative.  Because I take risks in my day to day practice -I’m innovative. Because I learn from my mistakes-I’m innovative. And  because I give everyone of my   1st grade students the support they need to make choices and take risks in their learning – I am innovative.  But  the hard part about being innovative is that nothing stays the same.  I can’t rely on what worked last year or the year before because ever school year brings a new group of students. And a new set of challenges.

Right now I’m struggling with We Wonder Wednesday.  This is a day that I set aside for my students to learn about anything they want to.   They can work by themselves, they can work in groups – they just need to be learning.

 

I have students, 7 and 8 year olds, researching fish, dinosaurs, Michelle Obama, plants, bubbles, Mt. Everest and binary numbers.  ( crazy, I know.)  And they are learning.   They are picking a topic , doing basic research, and then creating a  poster or a book, often using technology,  and moving on to the next wonder.   And then they repeat.  Why aren’t they taking more risks?    Is it them or is it me?   By now my students have learned what it means to be a self directed learner, they know what it means to think critically and share their thinking.  And we  have also  defined what it means to be creative.

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For me being creative,  means not showing your work the same way again and again.   And  that involves taking risks.  Are all my student able to do that? I don’t think so.  So is it me?Or is it them?  What am I missing? Are students just picking a topic and saying, “OK, today I want to learn about fish?  Or are they asking questions, after all wonder means to be  curious about something.  They shouldn’t be picking a topic. They should be asking questions.    And if they don’t have a lot of questions about a topic, then they should find another topic.  One they are passionate about.  Maybe that is what’s missing.  Passion.  How do we create a classroom where children are passionate about their work?  Giving them voice and choice, time to wonder and ask questions, is a good start.  But how do we model passion?  That might be the key to innovation. So this Wednesday, I will remind my students  how I wonder continually-when I’m making my coffee in the morning, on my drive to work,  while I’m teaching, and most especially on a walk when I’m catching up on conversations  about innovation in teaching.   I will remind them  how passionate I am about learning and sometimes that means taking more risks, looking at things, even learning in a new way.  To do this we will need to be persistent, resilient and flexible.We will need to push ourselves to think differently about the world.  And if I can teach them that – I can consider myself innovative.

~Molly

 

 

 

 

WHAT IF? Inspired by the Innovator’s Mindset #IMMOOC

What if we believed that every elementary school’s responsibility was to teach social and emotional learning skills as explicitly as we teach reading, writing, math and science.

What if we all believed that developing social-emotional skills in children is critical to their academic success.

What if we gave every student  a voice.

What if teachers made their learning space accessible for all learners.

What if we held regular classroom meetings to have meaningful conversations about the way teachers and students work together.

What if we explicitly taught students how their brains work.

What if students used brain science to help them gauge their emotions and then provided them tools to help them regulate themselves so they could get back to work.

What if there was no shame in having a bad day.

What if every classroom had a calm body spot where students could go when they needed a break.

What if  every child knew that mistakes are an important part of learning.

What if every child had a job in your classroom.

What if we lifted expectations for every child.

What if, given this focus on social emotional learning, our children were more successful.

What if, given this focus on social emotional learning, our children  learned empathy is one of life’s most powerful tools.  Because when we connect with others we are compassionate, concerned, citizens of the world.

What if, given this focus on voice in the classroom, our children felt empowered to learn in and out of the classroom.

What if?

~Molly and Alicia

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Your People #IMMOOC week 2

This year I am teaching a first/second multiage classroom. This is a new challenge for me and while incredibly exciting, it is also incredibly time consuming. All this to say, I missed the last weekend IMMOOC and then on Monday morning, Molly came in raving about it and I realized I had majorly missed out. Well not this week, I woke up and tuned in to watch Shawn Clark and Brady Venables discuss how they are creating innovation in their own district in South Carolina. I was so impressed to see two district leaders talking about how they are still pushing and challenging each other to be in classrooms and teaching even though they no longer have classrooms of their own. Their conversation got me thinking about my own teaching experience through the innovator’s mindset lens George Couros talks about. This is my tenth year teaching and my fifth year at my current school. One aspect of my teaching that I am proud of developing is a comfort with risk taking and this has happened because there is someone right next door to me willing to do the exact same thing.

Molly and I connected instantly when I was hired, I think at the time because we both taught math in a similar workshop manner. However, what I quickly found in Molly was someone who was willing to listen, push and take risks right along side me. And this connection has allowed me to feel comfortable with taking risks and the failure that may sometimes occur. Simply put in Molly, I have found my people. And watching Shawn and Brady this morning, I realized the power and the need for all teachers to find their people. When you find a person that pushes you, encourages you and reflects with you, your teaching becomes so much more powerful. Part of having an innovator’s mindset,  in my opinion, is finding your people without a person who is walking down that same path with you, you are way less likely to take risks, to know failure really isn’t failure if you reflect and learn from your experience. I know that there is no way I would have been able to develop a true Innovator’s Mindset without Molly. So my challenge to everyone reading is to find that person or people. If not at your school, in your district or maybe through a twitter PLN. When we find people we truly connect with, we grow so much more in our teaching and our students and our school community benefits.

Real World Learning #IMMOOC

It’s incredible that I have the opportunity to come home from work and dive into professional development while I go on a much needed walk.  I am joining thousands of other educators in George Couros’s Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course.  And already, week # 1 my head is spinning.  But I have to begin somewhere and I have a confession about something I consider really important in my practice as a 1st grade teacher.  I am teaching 6 and 7 year old children how to use social media.   Whew!  I said it.  Those of you who read this blog know that both Alicia and I are passionate about preparing our youngest learners for the real world.   And as I listened to Couros talk about his own experience with people (I’m assuming some of whom were parents, teachers and administrators) telling him that we need to prepare people for the real world, my  brain immediately started thinking about the conversations I’ve had  when I tell people how much my students are learning from twitter.  Usually it sounds like, “Really?”  And then, “In first grade?” And as I get ready to tell them why it’s so important, they have already moved on  and truly aren’t that interested in my purpose.  But I know, first hand, that it’s only just 4 to 5 years from now that most of my students will be given a phone or other digital device and will be sharing  ideas, thoughts, pictures, video’s and more  on social media.  Jut like my own kids did.  So when and with whom does this learning start?

I have two children, both are teenagers.  My daughter is now a sophomore in college and is studying communications.  She called me up last week and told me that she was was working on a project that was going to showcase how I’m educating students how to use this powerful tool.   Yes, I’m a proud mom and I smiled when she said “It’s so important mom, my generation was just thrown into it, we had no idea what we were doing.”  No idea. Just one of the reasons why I think it’s our duty to begin teaching students how to interact online.   And I do believe that this education starts early, at home and in school.    In my classroom it takes just minutes a day to look at our twitter feed. (Usually during snack time)  And then later we will decide what we want to share.  You can follow  my class at @MsMecksClass but just know that we’re getting started a little late this year because the district blocked twitter from my teacher computer- again.  It’s something I have to spend  a few frustrating days- every year- trying to fix.  I explain to a nameless person downtown why I want to use social media and then eventually they decide I can until the next time they block it for reasons unknown. Apparently they don’t see how this applies to the “real world” of education.   But I do and in a couple of weeks my class twitterers will be composing tweets about our day.  I, of course,  will be checking their work before sending it out to the world.  That’s my job, to scaffold this important learning, and hopefully by the time they get those phones they will know what they can and cannot share online.

~Molly

For Me, The Year Begins With A Dot. #DotDay2016

Our first day of school is Wednesday, September 7th.  This is just 5 school days before International Dot Day on September 15th, 2016.  And for me the timing couldn’t be more perfect.   Dot Day has become an important part of my students first grade year.  It’s the first time, that we think and talk about what is  most important about ourselves and the learning journey that we are about to begin. This day is named for the classic Peter H. Reynolds story called  The Dot. The book shares the story of a girl named Vashti, who begins a journey of self-discovery after a teacher challenges her to “make her mark.”   This will be just the third year that I have joined thousands of other educators around the world who are asking their own students to make their mark.  And this one question is the perfect way to start a new year.

During the 1st week of school we will have read the book several times and have had many conversations about Vashti and her teacher.  But on Dot Day, it truly is a question that I pose for the first time to my brand new 1st graders – “How will YOU make your mark?” Then I will hand them a  single piece of paper, a paint brush and some watercolor paints.  I ask them not only  to make their mark but to write a word or two to go with it.  I explain that these will hang in our classroom for the 170- some days to come.  I’m always delighted with the outcome.

Every student’s dot is original and I’m always amazed by how these simple works of art inspire us as our year goes on.   We refer  to them when we are stuck,  last year, Carl’s dot reminded us to try.  During projects, Ruby’s dot gave us permission to explore.  When we were struggling, Noah’s dot told us to be brave.  And finally, Olivia’s dot lets us know that it’s always okay to follow your heart.  Important life lessons.  Other dots reminded us to work hard, to make new friends and to play.   And each one inspired me, as their teacher,  to take risks and know that my 6 and 7 year old students would rise to the challenge.  IMG_3917

2015-16 was a great year filled with challenges including  a teacher’s strike that delayed the start of our school year and meant that we did Dot Day 10 days late.  And that’s one of the reasons why Dot Day 2016 is scheduled for September 15th ~ish .  Dot Day is not about a  certain day.  It’s about a question that we as teachers need to ask students again and again.   “How will you make your mark and how can I help you make it?”  Here’s the link – It’s not to late to sign up.  http://www.thedotclub.org/dotday/

~Molly

 

 

 

Flexible Seating, A Reflection 5 years In

It seems like flexible seating is everywhere on social media and it makes my heart happy.  Last year Molly wrote about not having chairs in our classrooms and how our classrooms function without chairs. I would refer back to this article if you are curious about how it looks. Why We Don’t Have Chairs

When I came to Queen Anne Elementary and saw Molly didn’t have chairs in her classroom, I immediately said “ I don’t want chairs either” and I haven’t looked back. What’s funny, is five years ago it seems really progressive to me to not have chairs in a classroom and I remember getting plenty of strange looks from my teacher friends at other schools. “But where will they sit?” “How do you know they won’t just wander around all day?” “What if they sit/stand on the tables?” ( gasp! Something I’ve been known to do a time or two). Now I come into my classroom and it just seems normal to not have chairs. I still get asked from time to time “But why don’t you have chairs?” There is a variety of reasons but what always strikes me in our research driven school environment, is where is the data that shows students are more engaged sitting in chairs? Or the data that shows it’s healthy to have students sit in chairs for hours upon hours? There isn’t any  research that I know of that suggests that a more traditional classroom with students sitting in chairs for hours is engaging or healthy for students. What I’m reading is more and more research about the benefits of standing tables and low tables, both for engagement and health purposes.

I believe we made great strides when we took our desks out of rows. But we stopped moving forward when we simply rearranged the furniture putting students into desk/table groups. We need to continue to strive to make the best learning environment possible for our students and that includes flexible seating choice.

One issue I’ve seen floating around social media from teachers interested in flexible seating is how to give up control when you ditch the chairs. My response? Chairs don’t give you control nor do they engage students. So it’s not really giving up any control. It might be challenging to your sense of order as a teacher,  however engaging teaching and strong classroom management does more to create a positive learning environment than chairs ever have. If you are on the fence about flexible seating this year, I urge you to give it a go. I am so thankful that Molly challenged my thinking on seating in the classroom five years ago. Losing chairs inspired me to create more engaging content, sharpen my classroom management skills and gave my students more choice within their classroom.