Classroom Connection: Teaching Mindfulness

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IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
“Few of us ever life in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.” – Louis L’Amour

Mindfulness emphasizes paying attention to the present moment in an accepting, nonjudgmental manner.

In other words, experiencing the now.

That’s how I define mindfulness for middle school students: Experiencing life as it’s happening. Mindfulness can sound confusing or even silly to a 13-year-old— “Wait… how else can we live?”— so background information helps, as well as examples, practice time, feedback… and perhaps a bit of sarcasm. It’s about living in the now, man.

Mindfulness is a topic that is gaining more and more attention lately, but it’s one that has centuries of use in various societies and spiritualities of the world.

It’s important to stress that mindfulness is not something we need to create from scratch. Instead, it’s a skill we already have— just one that’s always in development. As humans, we have the capacity to be consciously present in each moment, so mindfulness doesn’t require us to change who we are.

Going forward, this is not an expert synopsis of teaching mindfulness; instead, this is simply a look at how I am personally infusing the technique into mental health lessons. Like any Health Ed topic, I am allowing myself to constantly learn, for lessons to be fluid and accommodating, and I will update resources as I find more.

The Rationale
In seeking to provide the best Health Education experience we can, it is imperative to offer skill development to students that will benefit them for years to come.

Since it’s beginnings, Health Education has used meditation or quiet time inward as a reflective process, helping students learn the benefits of slowing down from time to time in order to have clarity with thoughts, feeling, and actions. We teach valuable lessons about analyzing influences from the past and we motivate with goal setting lessons looking ahead to the future.

I find mindfulness to be useful in the between.

It helps students to realize there is a healthy place in the present. A place where we don’t dwell too much on previous events or overthink what’s to come. There are times where it makes sense to live in the past or the future, but there are many moments each day/each week where it’s more important to live “right now.”

It is noteworthy that mindfulness for children, particularly young children, can be taught without needing a definition. Activities can be done without calling it “mindfulness” at all.

By middle school, I’ve found that students are in fact ready for a basic description, and while any grade works fine, I have focused on 7th grade in particular. We begin with a full definition but immediately follow that with something far more simple… again along the lines of “experiencing life as it is happening,” or “being aware of the present moment.”

To the point: whatever your choice of wording, its usefulness is clear: Mindfulness is a life skill that promotes healthy habits of emotional management, of decreasing distress and anxiety, and of increased concentration.

For research studies on the topic, you can read through this database of articles on mindfulness compiled by the American Mindfulness Research Association. Other resources and rationale below.

Reading:

Apps & Podcasts:

  • CALM Calm.com and its app provide free access to teachers!
  • Insight Timer The largest app for providing meditation exercises.
  • Pocket Mindfulness A “start here” blog and app with tips for beginners.
  • Aura Daily 3-minute meditation prompt.
  • NPR A list of podcasts out there on mindfulness.
  • Developing Good Habits Another list of mindfulness podcasts from recent months.

Teacher Resources:

The Process
When promoting mindfulness, teachers should approach things in a way that works best for their classroom and personality. Rarely is any Health Ed lesson one-size-fits-all, so no mindfulness activity will work perfectly with every age group or every student population.

Choose a style of mindfulness that best suits the needs of your unit, essential learnings, and state/national standards.

Hook
Whether you jump right into an activity or give some background first, you will want to use an activator that catches student attention. Again, do what works best for you, but some intro ideas I’ve used are in the next section, “The Examples.”

What It Is / What It Isn’t
Mindfulness does not need to be a 20-30 minute ordeal. After all, to be mindful is to be aware. A quick meditating “reset” can be done in 30 seconds, as discussed by Phil Boissiere in his Ted Talk.

Mindfulness does not need to be meditation. While awareness can utilize a focus on breathing, worry less about forcing students to concentrate but to instead be aware.

Mindfulness does not require us to sit in any meditation pose. However, drawing awareness to posture can be a useful technique, and having eyes closed can help as well.

Practice
Taking part in regular mindfulness doesn’t have to take up too much class time and is certainly not interfering in anything academic; instead, mindfulness stands on its own as a precursor to concentrated learning.

Perhaps your mindfulness practice is within a specific unit or skill focus. If you have multiple lessons in a row, they can build on one another. Another potential use is to offer a mindfulness activator before one lesson a week.

I use both: a multi-day focus during a mental health/self-management focus in 7th grade, and then we have “Mindful Mondays,” with a quick activity at the beginning of the period to kickstart the week.

The Wrap-up
Journal
Often, no reflection is necessary because the time inward can itself help focus the group; you may find the class primed and ready for what’s next with a calm readiness. That said, you can always use a journal prompt— this might work well if you are having students assess progress with their approach to mindfulness.
Q’s: What did you become aware of either within your own body/thoughts/emotions or the nearby environment? Did you notice anything different during this activity compared to previous lessons?

Small Group Reflection
Mindfulness activities are often silent, but social reflection is still allowed! Use a “turn & talk” method for quick check-ins.
Q’s: What helped you to focus on the present moment? Was it difficult? Do you feel calmer now? Were you frustrated or bored? What can you improve for next time?

Large Group Reflection
Give a chance for students to share as a big group as well. This could lead to beneficial conversations and allow you as the teacher an opportunity for feedback (both giving and receiving).
Q’s: Have you enjoyed our Mindful Mondays so far? What method of being mindful are you putting to use in your personal life? Have you shared any of this information with family members?

The Examples
I know many teachers use various stress management techniques from relaxation stations to zen gardens to simple coloring activities, all of which are fantastic. Here, however, I will focus strictly on the mindfulness end of things. Below are quick and simple mindful activities that I’ve found successful in the classroom. Most of these examples are aimed at the middle school level, but the basic concepts could definitely be expanded for high school teens or used with younger students. Make sure you’ve scoped the resources from “The Rationale” section above for lots of examples too!

Introductions

  • Just a Minute
    Students close their eyes or put their head down and the teacher starts an online stopwatch. Students quietly look up when they think one minute has passed. The goal is to get the closest to exactly one minute without cheating. Yes, this is more of a mental “game,” but it allows students to understand how to focus on the current moment and can lead into more discussions or activities. Discuss what senses felt heightened; what thoughts of the past/future were abandoned for the present moment; how this can apply to other life scenarios.
  • Change Something
    Students pair up and face each other, about 5 feet apart. Have one partner turn around for 30 seconds and close their eyes while the other student changes something, anything, about themselves. Examples: take off an earring, switch shoes, or put their hair behind an ear. Then the first partner turns around to quietly try to identify what has changed. Switch roles and carry on for a few rounds each. Discuss how this can lead to solo mindful walks or meditations.
  • Ted Talk
    Why Aren’t We Teaching You Mindfulness?” from Anne Marie Rossi. Spoken to adolescents, this can be used as an excellent intro to mindfulness concepts. Discuss your use in the class afterwards, or link this to your first mindfulness practice.

While mindfulness doesn’t have to be religious or spiritually based, it might be worth referencing historical uses of meditation. I adopted the Buddhist teachings slightly to match some categories for activities in Health class. Much of this stemmed from Noah Rasheta and his Secular Buddhism website/podcast.

Mindfulness doesn’t need categories, of course, but it just seemed natural as I aligned our work to the National Health Education Standards. For clarity in mindfulness activities, I often connect what I call the 3 I’s. (Or, if you want an interesting connection to the inner consciousness of Hinduism, use the term Third Eye.)

For use in Health class: impermanence, interdependence, and what I call insight.

Impermanence
The concept of impermanence is that physical and mental events come into and out of being. Life is a transient and continuous change of condition; much of our reality is in a state of flux.

Potential Health Ed units: Analyzing Influences, NHES #2; Decision Making NHES #5; and/or Self-Management, NHES #7.

  • The Bell Tolls (Mindful Listening)
    Students close their eyes closed or put their heads down. Ring a bell or use this YouTube video. Students quietly open eyes when they think the bell has stopped ringing. Discuss what students noticed about when people stop hearing sound vibrations at different points; people sat up early/later; relate static in video as it can represent distractions in life.
  • Head in the Clouds (Mindful Seeing)
    At the possibility of a nice, but cloudy, day, simply lay on the grass, face up, and watch the clouds for a set amount of time (3, maybe 5 minutes). Have them notice the movement of the cloud patterns, and which direction and speed they are traveling. Can we see the beginning or the end of the line of travel? Or, rather, does it dissolve into and out of existing within our sight?

Interdependence
Interdependence refers to our state of human connectedness. It is the connection of nature and life, of all things and of all situations. We are all linked in some way, with our presence made possible by many factors and by many people affecting each other.

Potential Health Ed units: Analyzing Influences, NHES #2;  Accessing Valid Info, NHES #3; Interpersonal Communication NHES #4; and/or Advocacy, NHES #8.

  • My Favorite Things (Mindful Thinking)
    Ask the students to think of an item of their choice, a favorite possession, either at school or at home. This can be a book, a piece of technology, an article of clothing, etc. Have them think about how that item got into their possession. Who had an impact? Was it created? How did them make that item? Who had an influence, whether it was resources or tools or the machines themselves. Have the students become aware that some of our favorite things exist only because of others. Ask the students to consider the many steps it took to get the item of their choice into existence.
  • The Origin of Food (Mindful Eating)
    A tricky one for school, but perhaps linked to upcoming or previous lunch period. Before/while/after eating, take a minute or more to quietly be mindful of what factors influenced the meal. Where did the food come from? What had to happen in order for it to get to your possession? Who made it possible for you to eat this meal? What allowed them to prepare/process/manufacture each item involved? How far back can you trace the origin of your food?

Insight
Gaining in-the-moment awareness and feedback, so we can be responsive. Reaction is involuntary, albeit healthy depending on the scenario. Being responsive to our senses and our surroundings allows mindful concentration and process time.

Potential Health Ed units: Interpersonal Communication NHES #4; Decision Making NHES #5; and/or Self-Management, NHES #7.

  • Hidden in Plain Sight (Mindful Seeing)
    Hide a toy or maybe a common/well-known prop in the classroom, but somewhere in plain sight. Alert the students that the item is there, and their job is to quietly find it, and notice where it is in comparison to its usual spot. Follow up mindful prompts from there.
  • Pass the Cup (Mindful Teamwork)
    This easily works for interdependence as well. Fill small cups of water about one inch from the rim. Ask the students to form groups of 4-6. Paying close attention, and trying not to spill, have them silently pass the cup of water back and forth through the line/circle. Have them focus on the purposeful movement of cup, hands, and arms. If it’s a trustworthy group, you can even have them try to pass the cup with their eyes closed, while still being silent. Maybe combine groups for a larger activity. Discuss what senses were heightened; could they hear the rustling of clothing or feel each others’ hands as they worked to pass the cup?

 

Reflection Questions for Teachers

  • What are your favorite mindfulness activities?
  • Is there a specific skill or unit that best lends itself towards mindfulness practice, or do you interweave it throughout the course of the quarter/semester/year?
  • Have you found success, or failure, in a certain type of set-up versus another? Will you share any ideas or examples?

Other activities and lesson ideas are shared throughout the school year on social media. Join the conversation!

YouTube.com/MrTodnem  Facebook.com/MrTodnem  Twitter.com/ScottAmpersand

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The Long Road Ahead – A Marathon Session

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IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra

I ran a marathon. It was horrible.

Over five years ago, my lovely girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Sarah, decided to sign up for the Chicago Marathon. The challenge and the training and the culminating event were going to be representative of life’s roller coaster ride. It would be a test of her physical and mental will; a battle over the proverbial obstacles of stress and struggle at that time in her life.

However, after months of training, just two weeks before the marathon, she opted out. While fighting constant knee pain, she couldn’t put her body through the mileage that was beating her down with overuse injury. It was a tough choice but the right one, proving intelligence and foresight for future joint health. Smart.

That’s where I stepped in.

Why let the registration go unused? Or, at most, why sell the race number to someone else?

I could run it,” I thought.

I had already completed a few half-marathons. I had been running with my young athletes while coaching Cross Country and Track. And I was keeping up with strength and conditioning in my CrossFit workouts.

“I can do this,” I convinced myself.

So, in the two weeks leading up to the Chicago Marathon, I upped my mileage a bit with a vision of completing the 2010 race. And then, without a training run longer than 10 miles, I set out that Sunday morning ready to take on the long road ahead.

Mile 1: This is easy.
There were so many people present that it took at least 20 minutes to approach the starting line, even after the race began. Sarah was able to walk with me for a while as I neared the big banner overhead. Once close, we said goodbye, and I knew to look for her around the 10k mark.

My timing chip crossed the threshold and off I went, pulled along in the herd of humans– we were so close to each other that I’m not sure my feet touched the ground. The pack of bodies charged forward to sideline cheers and cowbells and Rocky theme songs. Willing or not, I was along for the ride.

Mile 3: Hmm… this is still easy.
Hitting the 5k mark, I remember feeling so strong and confident that I picked up the pace. Water? Gatorade? No thanks; not needed. Zigzagging the masses, I was on a mission.

Mile 6: There’s Sarah!
Finding my favorite girl through the crowd wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. Actually, she spotted me first. But after a quick hello, I was off, wrapped up in athletic bravado called “pace.” Our next check-in would be at mile 11.

Mile 11: It’s getting pretty hot, isn’t it?
At the hour-and-a-half marker, a sickening realization set in like the warm sun overhead: I hadn’t been drinking enough water. Uh oh. Sarah was there and she jumped in with me, grinning and excited and inspired by all whom she had already seen in passing. The plan was for her to join me for a bit, so side by side we ran, taking in the sights, already in awe at the experience.

Mile 13.1: You’re halfway done!
The marathon world record is just under 2 hours and 3 minutes. That’s a pace of 4:43 per mile. Times 26. Needless to say, the winners were almost done by the time I hit the halfway point.

My parents helped watch my two oldest children that morning, and my mom was able to get my daughter through the crowd at the midway mark for a quick stop, a reluctant sweaty hug, and well-wishes onward. I will never forget the pride I felt at that point. Seeing my little girl sparked motivation in my belly, and the adrenaline temporarily curbed the impending doom of dehydration. Fittingly, I will also never forget the dread of realization when I heard, “Keep it up… you’re halfway done!” 

Mile 16: Oh my quads.
Away from my family and big crowds, the backstretch through Chinatown was a furnace. Horribly full of concrete and obscenely lacking shade, I went to a dark place in the mind. Why did I say I’d do this again? Gatorade and water were no use; my body was an arid desert floor in the dead of summer. Fluid evaporated immediately, the heat picked up even more, and my quads locked tight like two pillars made of stone. All I could do was roll them along as boulders in a pained shuffle jog. Sarah was my only light, still running alongside me amidst my compulsive dismay that I somehow needed to run another 10 miles to finish this damn thing.

Mile 20: This might be it.
Sitting down on a curb to massage my legs and contemplate the meaning of life, it was at this point that I officially gave up worrying about time. 6 miles to go? Maybe back-peddling will work better. Hallucinations were setting in, but Sarah’s voice rang true in my ears. It was her constant positivity had gotten me this far, yet it was the simplest statement of the day that got me off my ass. “Scott, you can’t sit down in a race. Get up.” She was right. I could take one of two forks in the road: stop and walk away defeated, or stand up and finish what I started. I got up and I ran.

Mile 25: One mile left!
Complaining my way through the roaring 20’s wasted time, in a good way, and got me to a point where the end was in sight. Sarah needed to leave the race in order to let the finishers finish, so she veered off and there it was: the final mile. The end of the Chicago marathon is uphill. Truth. It’s gradual, but at that point it might as well be Everest. Why they do that to the runners is beyond me, but it brought on a bitterness that allowed me to keep enough focus to claw my way forward, if only just for spite. Maybe that’s the exact reason why it’s set up that way… as an extra kick to the kidneys to see who’s tough and who’s not. Or maybe it’s just better viewing for the spectators. Either way, some hipsters in bathrobes raised their coffee mugs my way and told me a grandma had passed a few minutes ago. So there was that.

Mile 26.2: Victory is mine.
The end stretch was an epic duel between me and my log legs. And? I won. Stiffly, I finished in a frankenstein walk through the chute. That was that. I had done it. I saved the feeling of accomplishment for later, focusing then on staying upright, getting food, and lamenting my poor choices in life. Plus, after looking at the time, we needed to run to catch the train back home. Literally. I had to run to the train station.

Back at home that night, safe and sound and sore as shit, I weighed myself.

I lost 8 pounds that day.

We endure marathon sessions in all we do. In essence, we are a marathon. We are a series of mistakes and small victories at each mile marker we pass in the road race of life.

Sarah ended up running most of the marathon with me that day. She may never fully comprehend what that meant to me, but I’m sure I would’ve quit if it wasn’t for her. Turns out she could have completed that race after all… and in less time than I did, no doubt.

In the end, running a marathon proved many things, particularly here in hindsight. It represented so much more than just cardiovascular endurance or muscular stamina. It signified the struggles of that point in my life… of all points in my life. It let me know that I can’ t do anything alone; I need my family and my loved ones to help me through emotional times. It stood as a reminder that I am human, and I can be defeated just like anyone. It also remains as a motivator that if I can withstand 26.2 miles, I can withstand a lot more in life. That race reflected the barrage of self-hate, the feelings of ineptitude, and the panic of second guesses I had always known, and will continue to know, in my journey of mental health.

That marathon will always symbolize the long road of life and the ups and downs of daily living.

We may not always make the right decisions, but we sure as hell live and learn and we keep, keep moving.