Mindfulness for teachers and learners – musings a year on

It’s been just under (edit: just **over** a year! Life got in the way of this blog post – book chapter resubmission deadline and last few weeks of term, I’m looking at you!!)  a year since the universe conspired to guide me towards taking up mindfulness. The 2nd of March, apparently, so 10 days hence (edit: 8 days ago!) will be the anniversary of when I picked up my first book about Mindfulness – “Mindfulness for worriers” by Padraig O’Morain. At about the same time, Rachael Roberts promoted her 30 ways to Mindfulness book which you can obtain from her very thought-provoking website, and the then TD coordinators promoted a certain Futurelearn course (see below!) Since then, I’ve learnt a lot about Mindfulness and developed my own practice of it, doing multiple courses, reading around it and integrating it into my daily personal and professional life and into my teaching. This blog post is a reflection on what has changed for me in the last nearly a year.

The first aspect of the journey has been learning about mindfulness and trying to apply it. There are two Futurelearn courses about it – Mindfulness for wellbeing and peak performance (this is the one the TD coordinators promoted and it is running again starting on Monday!) and Maintaining a mindful life (this is aimed at people who have already done the wellbeing and peak performance one) – delivered by Monash university and I have done each of them a couple of times, getting more out of them each time as my practice has developed. My choice of tense is deliberate – I am still learning about it and will probably repeat those courses again this year. As with many things in life, the scope for learning with mindfulness is infinite, because as you evolve so what you take from courses or reading etc evolves too. Here are some things I have learnt:

  • I have learnt how to be more aware of where my mind is and bring it back to the present moment when it wanders. (Some mind-wandering is harmless but general lack of awareness of where the mind is can lend itself to worrying/rumination/awfulising/catastrophising.) I have spent a year gently training my ability to bring my mind back to the present moment whenever I notice it wandering, so that I am better able to that when it goes in a direction I don’t want to go in. Which leads me to…
  • I have learnt that I am not at the mercy of my thoughts, I don’t have to follow them all or get bogged down by then. They are there and there will always be new thoughts popping into my mind, but just like buses coming past a bus stop, I can choose whether or not to board them.
  • I have learnt a lot about how the mind works. This includes the different parts of the mind and the different systems at play in the mind, as well as how they influence my behaviour. As a consequence I am better able to recognise what is going on in my mind at various times/in various situations and use that knowledge to influence the direction things take. This is partly as a result of the Futurelearn courses, partly as a result of extra reading and partly as a result of Rachael Roberts’s Facebook group, Life-Resource Lightbulb Moments, which is connected with her blog too. One of the many things that has happened in this group is a virtual book group – we all read (well I am still reading!) The Chimp Paradox. This has involved reading a portion of it and then discussing it on a thread within the group. I wouldn’t have read the book (or as much as I have so far, ongoing!) without the recommendation and the motivation of the reading group, much less had the opportunity to discuss it. So, if you are interested in mindfulness and how the mind works, join the group!
  • I have learnt how to meditate and how much I need it in my life! I now meditate for approx 40 minutes in the evening before bed and sometimes I manage to do a bit before work too. Minor meditative moments can also occur throughout the day. Fridays include extra meditation but more about this later! Meditation has a positive effect on the brain. For me, my evening meditation routine has really helped my sleep – I fall asleep much easier after it. Occasions where I can’t get to sleep because I am too wound up about something are much fewer and further between.
  • I have learnt to use red traffic lights as a mindfulness bell. So, rather than getting annoyed by a minor delay, I use them as a reminder to be fully present. They are little islands of calm in the commute now instead of irritation points. In connection, I have learnt to accept that Sheffield drivers are frequently rather inconsiderate and unpleasant, and not use up precious energy in getting worked up about it. Getting worked up doesn’t change their behaviour, it just affects me negatively.
  • I have learnt  how to deal with stress more effectively. Case in point the last couple of weeks. A colleague I work closely off has been on sick leave, resulting in a big increase in my workload. Where in the past I would have used a LOT of energy and time worrying about not being able to do everything, this time I communicated calmly with the leader relating to one of the hats I wear and explained what was happening to the other hat, then made myself an extensive list of things to do for said other hat and how to do them. Then it was just a case of focusing my energy on ticking them off, one at a time. Crucially, when the weekend arrived and I went home (and indeed each evening when I went home during the week), I deliberately focused my mind away from work and onto home stuff, allowing my mind and body a rest from the stress. (This is where the mindfulness concentration training comes in – being aware of when it started to wander towards work meant I could bring it back, repeatedly, away from work rather than being in a constant state of high alert due to stress.) Last year when a workload-time-related stressful situation arose, I handled it a lot less well – communicated unmindfully and spent far too much time panicking. The issue was resolved fairly quickly but it could have been resolved a lot more effectively. Live and learn! And Iearning I am!
  • I am much more aware of when my mind is slipping into states that are not useful to me. I’m human, so it is prone to do so! Thus, if something happens which goes against what I would like to happen (holiday to Sicily that was meant to happen on Monday next week but is now cancelled, I’m looking at you!), yes I am angry and disappointed, but I also choose to limit the amount of time and energy I allow myself to spend on that. Better to accept that it is what it is, find things to be grateful about (e.g. it would be a lot more stressful for me if I were already there and the lock-down kicked off!) and refocus on now and things I CAN influence (e.g. this will be a useful opportunity to knock my garden/greenhouse into shape ready for growing everything that is currently germinating in my propagators! I will also have more time to complete this fundraising challenge that I am currently undertaking!) By being better able to notice when my mind is slipping into those states that are not useful, through mindfulness meditation training, I can redirect it sooner and more effectively. Multiple times.

As well as learning more about Mindfulness and using it myself, I have in the past year also used it with students in the form of a short (+-2 minute) meditation at the start of each lesson. Feedback from various groups of different levels has been primarily positive. Out of 65 responses gathered thus far, 57 have given positive feedback (relating to concentration, calmness, relaxing stress etc.), 5 have said they aren’t sure or not helpful but not unhelpful, 1 said it wasn’t helpful due to being too short and 2 said it made them feel sleepy! For some of those who respond positively, it seems to make a huge difference. Here are some of the comments that came with the feedback:

This was indirect feedback i.e. the students mentioned the meditation in a question not relating to the meditation!

These below are all in response to more direct questioning:

All in all, I feel this has been a very positive outcome. Mindfulness and education is becoming a more popular topic of discussion, even in ELT, with Pearson recently hosting a series of three webinars about it, and it is definitely something I want to pursue further. At the moment, the start-of-lesson meditation is the main extent of what I do, with a little bit of focus on concentration, particularly in relation to listening to a 10 minute lecture twice, having already listened to fifteen minutes worth of twice-repeated conversations, as my students have to do in their listening exam. In the future, I want to look more into how I can help them train their concentration and do this more systematically.

All that really remains to  be said now, then, is thank you universe for starting me on my mindfulness journey just over a year ago! 🙂

Do you practice mindfulness? When did you start? What changes have you noticed since then?

One reason why blogs are useful!

Today I did something very radical. After I finished planning my lessons, I took off all my hats (or put them all on at once?) and decided to update my scholarship log. To explain, here at USIC/ELTC@The University of Sheffield, our schedules include 3hrs per week scholarship time, with the freedom to use it as we please as long as it is CPD-related. The TD team (including me) provide support/ideas for this through the bulletin (my current baby), and a varied programme of workshops. In order to monitor this/hold teachers accountable for it, we have to log what we do on a template provided centrally which we all make a copy of and share with our line managers. So back to today, which indeed is in February so actually (terrifyingly enough) not hugely far off half way through the academic year, I finally got round to sorting mine out for this year (new version each year required so that the document doesn’t get too unwieldy!). Which translates as being faced with trying to log, including dates and time spent, everything I did CPD-wise last term. Can I remember off the top of my head? Hell no. If I asked, I would have said well I did my SFHEA, suppose I haven’t done heaps else otherwise. However, fortunately, most if not all of the CPD I do includes an element of reflection carried out via my old friend, this blog.

In fact, it turns out that last term and into the beginning of this one I have:

…which is actually a fair chunk! Thank you blog for being my memory and reflective aide!!

Having done all the scholarship log updating and looking through my blog in order to do so, I am filled with fresh enthusiasm to add more, albeit time is not often on my side! 🙂

So that is just one reason why blogs are useful! Of course there are many more…

How does your blog help you (unexpectedly)? 🙂

10-year Challenge

Sandy’s 10-year Challenge has inspired me to do one of my own (something which the original 10-year challenge she mentioned did not manage – she is clearly more inspiration than it was :-p ). A whole decade is coming to an end (something which escaped my attention until I read Sandy’s post – I blame the cough and snot-fest I’ve been partaking of since Christmas Eve…) so I concur it’s a good time for a reflective activity.

Here is a photo of me from April 2010 (the first photo of me from 2010 I could find on Facebook where my face is vaguely visible and I’m not with other people who may not want their faces in this blog post!):

It’s at a crag called Bamford Edge in the Peak District. Up until June 2010 was the last time I climbed at this level or frequency so this photo is definitely fittingly symbolic of the decade preceding this one. What happened to make me stop? Don’t worry, no horrific accident or anything. What happened was I completed my CELTA in March 2010 and then went abroad, to Indonesia, to teach: the beginning of my ELT career. I didn’t manage to keep up the climbing and got woefully out of practice. Since moving back to the UK in 2015, to date I’ve not been able to bring the single-minded energy and focus back to it that it would need for me to get properly into it again. The point of this ramble is that priorities change and that’s ok. A lot of outdoor climbing may not have happened this decade but a lot of other cool stuff has!

Here is a photo of me taken in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, on Christmas Eve (the third of the only three healthy days this holiday!):

Lizzie dec 2019

Photo c. Rosa Pinard

Just like Sandy did, I will list 20 things that have happened in the 2010-2019 decade:

    1. Got my CELTA (Pass B, which I sulked about for ages because it wasn’t an A :-p, March 2010), did my Delta (Triple Distinction, which I worked very hard for so once in a decade I will exercise my bragging rights, August 2013), did my M.A. ELT (with distinction, see above, alongside the Delta, September 2013).
    2. Did various other training courses e.g. the IH Certificate in Teaching Young Learners and Teenagers course and the IH teacher trainer certificate course. (While at IHPA, 2013-2015)
    3. Won an ELTon (“New talent in writing”, May 2014).
    4. Published one or two posts on this blog (!), (which I started writing in May 2011 if I remember correctly, though not in earnest til 2012/2013 when I embarked on the Delta/M.A. thing). Got published in a peer reviewed journal and an edited book:
    5. Worked as a teacher in two different parts of Indonesia (Lampung and Jakarta, 2010-2012), Sicily (Palermo 2013-2015) and three different towns/cities in the U.K. (Newbury 2011, Sheffield summer 2014, 2015-now, and Leeds summer 2013).
    6. Presented at various conferences including IATEFL several times.
    7. Became an Assistant Director of Studies (ADoS) where I work now (April 2018-ongoing) and a Teacher Development Coordinator where I work now (September 2019-ongoing). (With the recent promotion of one of my co-ADoSes to interim Academic Director, I will now be the most experienced member of the current ADoS team by length of time in service in the role, which is weird!)
    8. Finally got an open-ended contract (May 2019), thus fulfilling a goal/dream set at the start of the decade (being able to live where I want to – here in Sheffield – and work in a job I want to work in – at the uni).
    9. Ran 30 miles in one go (an ultramarathon event, Dig Deep, August 2016). Ok so I walked on some of the uphill bits. It was in the Peak District for goodness sake! Also done a 78 mile bike ride (and lots of other cycling – this year alone a few thousand miles worth!), lots of indoor bouldering and even climbed outdoors a couple of times post-June 2010.

      Photo c. Nick Smith

    10. Did an Olympic distance triathlon (by myself rather than an event, summer 2019). So much fun that one of my goals for 2020 (and/or beyond) is a half ironman!
    11. Rescued/adopted the best horse in the world (Alba, June 2015), been surprised by a horse pregnancy, watched a baby horse grow in his mum’s belly and then outside it as well, Nursed the best horse in the world through colic and lost her (September 2018). Baby horse (Star) now 2.75yrs old!
    12. Adopted and cared for five hamsters, two of whom are still with me, all with unique personalities. Being a hamster mama is important to me. 🙂
    13. Understood and become comfortable with my sexuality (gay, demisexual*) and been on some nice dates. (I believe losing my mum at age 25 delayed things somewhat as grief took centre stage for a long time.) *Google it if it is a new term to you! 🙂 . Lucky to work somewhere where colleagues of any sexuality can and frequently do choose to wear a rainbow lanyard to show their support of LGBTQIA+ colleagues. I love my lanyard and I love seeing so many of them around.
    14. Became vegan (July 2014) and learnt how to cook lots of lovely things (ever since). Living in line with my values with regards to compassion for all living beings and respect for the environment in this way has made a positive difference to my mental wellbeing as well as my physical health.
    15. Learnt Italian (Summer 2014, intensive self-study) as well as bits and bobs of a host of languages that Memrise supports. I love Italian and continue to enjoy reading/watching/listening and when in Sicily speaking it. Memrise is one of the many things I don’t do enough of because I have so many places to put every minute.
    16. Started practising mindfulness/kindfulness and meditating regularly (since February 2019) which has improved my mental health/wellbeing dramatically. Done the Monash Futurelearn courses Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance and Maintaining a Mindful life.
    17. Spent my longest time living full-time in one house (and therefore also one place) since when I turned 11 and went to boarding school (the house I am currently in, in Sheffield, since June 2015! Very nearly long enough to be able to fill in my CRB check application form – no longer called that but you know that thing – were I to need to, without reference to the several pages long list of addresses I previously had to type up and save for such occasions!).
    18. Got a piano again! (May 2017) I don’t play it as often as I “should” (so many things competing for my time!) but I do love it.
    19. Met and got to know loads of amazing people in all the different aspects of my life, who have inspired me and helped me become who I am today. Thank you all!
    20. Learning how to live without my mum who I lost in August 2009 (so it was a decade since she died this August just gone) and have space for happy too. This has been the first decade without her, so I am even prouder and more grateful of 1-19 in that context.

Been quite the decade! What’s next? Well, this time 10 years ago I would have been hard-pushed to predict any of the above! In fact if you had put this list in front of me this time 10 years ago, I would have probably sniggered and gone “sure, yeah, as if…” or similar. So, who knows where the next 10 years will take me? All I can hope is that I can continue to be positive and live life to the full, whatever it brings, and learn to befriend all moments and events, so to place myself firmly in the life I am living. There is only one and this is it. Today. Now.

Happy 2020 and beyond, everybody!

Image from Pixabay, licensed for reuse

IATEFL Webinar: What makes a good language teacher? (Carol Griffiths)

It is Saturday 2nd November 2019 and Carol will be talking to us about what makes a good language teacher. Slightly more than a decade ago she did a book about the good language learner and now is doing one from the teacher’s point of view. The ideas she presents today come from this book that will soon be available.

She starts by saying teaching is a very demanding profession. The hours spent in the classroom are only the tip of the iceberg. What are the characteristics of a good language teacher? Do we define in terms of qualifications, student success rates, popularity ratings, experience? All these have their limitations. The good teacher is a hopelessly elusive notion – and what is good anyway? However, she will attempt to throw some light on the factors that contribute.

Carol suggests that in order to be good a teacher needs to be autonomous, reflective, culturally aware, sensitive, knowledgeable of things like ELF, methodologies, feedback techniques, assessment procedures, and be able to manage all sorts of things from relationships, to grammar, to vocabulary, to skills. She wants to take a human perspective, recognising that teachers are not machines but real human beings with feelings, needs identities and lives of their own – which she believes is an underrated aspect of teaching and learning.

Identity

Learner identity has been around for a long time, recognised as a powerful force but what about teacher? (e.g. Barkhuizen 2017) but what about teachers? Only recently being recognised as much as it should be. What a teacher does in the classroom and the effect this has on the classroom is connected with it.

Cognition

Teacher cognition = knowledge, thoughts, understanding, attitudes and beliefs – influence what teachers actually do and the way they do it. Although their cognition is recognised, also by themselves, good teachers are able to adapt as the need arises, flexibility is important.

Intercultural awareness

An extremely important goal in education. One goal is to heighten learners’ sensitivity to different ways of seeing others. Can be profoundly motivating for learners. Arouses interest in them and therefore the teacher doesn’t have to struggle to raise it.

Reflection

We have to think about what we are doing, an important aspect of CPD and teacher reflection whether on or in or for action, it is important for the enhancement of situated cognition, teaching process and sound decision-making

Autonomy

An indispensable characteristic. Need to be able to create links between theory and practice. Need to overcome contextual constraints. Autonomous teachers are reflective and self-directed. Tends to promote learner autonomy as well.

ELF

This has aroused a great deal of controversy. Hotly debated. The relative importance of accuracy over intelligibility. This can be problematic. Which is more important. Given that students have to pass exams, and are expected to pass exams, this is an important factor which good teacher, all teachers, have to consider. You can’t just do as you like. In the face of these conflicting questions, we need ELF aware teachers who can exercise judgement within context. Needs to be developed at the teacher training stage. By the time the teacher is in the classroom, survival is the priority. If they are already ELF-aware, then hopefully this will come through in what they do in their classrooms.

In addition to these macro-perspectives, there are other things that teachers need to be aware of. In terms of method, good teachers are aware of different methods and ways of doing things and will choose what best suits their learners. Adapting what they do to meet the needs of their students. Technology is another important factor, it is everywhere these days and it is important to get up to speed with it in the classroom.

Classes are full of individuals and we have to manage to accommodate these individuals. One class is never the same as another. The individuals in a class dictate what is useful, good, interesting etc. Differences may include cognitive, affective, societal. Good teachers factor individual differences into their classroom practice.

Assessment – we are expected to assess our students regularly. We have to equip ourselves with strategies for doing this. How they are assessed can have far reaching effects on their motivation and trajectory. Very serious. Good teachers need to be assessment literate, well-versed in the use of assessment tools.

Classroom management is essential – without it a classroom is chaotic. We have to develop ways of managing a class effectively which can at times be challenging. Good management will promote learning. Good language teachers are able to adapt their own personal style to adapt what is required to suit a particular class.

Corrective feedback – lots of ways to provide this which we come across in training and through experience. Another area which can be challenging. Students tend to expect it. If you don’t correct them, they think you aren’t doing your job. It’s something that we do have to consider very seriously. Overcorrecting or correcting the wrong kind of way can be demotivating. Knowing how to correct well and effectively is an important skill to develop as a teacher. Need to provide appropriate feedback according to context and learning targets.

Relationships – often underestimated but gaining in recognition for its importance. The teacher is an important person. Learner-centred-ness goes back to last century and is important but the greatest single influence on what a student learns is the teacher and relationship with the teacher, the quality of it. It is a great responsibility. Our relationship with students also contributes to our own motivation and job satisfaction in a demanding job.

Strategies. What do we actually do in the classroom? What are we required to present in the classroom? Language learning strategies have been studied extensively from various viewpoints. Controversial but that is not for this talk. In Carol’s research, the best students use a wide variety of language learning strategies and they use them frequently. These students outperform those who use strategies less. Not always that simple but overall. It is also important to develop teachers’ awareness of strategies and their perceptions and beliefs about these strategies. Need to be aware of the need to promote strategies, provide modelling, whatever it takes to encourage students to use their own strategies. This relates to autonomy, helps learners to be autonomous. They need to learn to do it for themselves, the most useful thing we can teach them.

Pragmatics. Long considered the Cinderella of the language learning scene. Probably still underdone in relation to other areas but has received increasing attention. Important that students know when is appropriate to use particular vocabulary when they learn it. While a student may know both vocabulary and grammar, they may not always know how to use it in a real life situation. Good teachers are aware of the need to develop their pragmatic cognition and assess their learners’ pragmatic competence.

Vocabulary is important. You can’t say anything without it. In recent years study of vocabulary has been revolutionised by the use of corpora. Dunn and Webb (2020) say that teachers have four roles with regards to teaching vocabulary – planning, training, testing and teaching. Need to set goals, select activities, evaluate progress and train learners.

Grammar. There is consensus that it needs to be taught but not about how. How it should be introduced, practiced or corrected. However, it is agreed that learners need the opportunity to practice and automatise their use of it meaningfully.

Pronunciation. A slightly thorny one. Teachers often dodge around pronunciation. Carol says it is because grammar is reasonably easy – you can refer to a book to know what is correct. With pronunciation, it is pronounced in so many different ways. It goes far beyond the British-American dichotomy. Even in Britain it varies enormously from place to place. What do we teach? What do students want to learn? Some kind of model needs to be decided on and students themselves need the freedom to choose how they want to pronounce the language. The idea of whether pronunciation is right or wrong has become unfashionable, the question of intelligibility is more important. Somehow the importance of speaking the language has to be dealt with and the teacher has to deal with these issues.

Listening. Not developed merely through exposure or repeated tests. Need to seek to develop orchestration of skills and strategies, which can be facilitated by metacognitive awareness.

Speaking. Another very important skill. Good speaking allows students to participate in social and academic interactions in an environment when the language is spoken. There is often a lack of explicit instruction of skills and strategies needed. Exam washback is an issue. In the end, what passes the exam doesn’t necessarily mean that the learner can perform in the target language environment. Good language teachers help learners to develop spoken accuracy and fluency and heighten their metacognition to regulate their own performance, and also realises that speaking in an unfamiliar language can feel threatening. If a student makes mistakes, it’s important that the teacher supports and encourages them to continue and keep trying.

Reading – the mainstay of previous language learning programmes. Although it’s long been regarded of a cognitive process irrespective of context, there is an ecological perspective which is getting quite popular – the context of the learner environment is important. As with other things we have talked about. Every environment has a mixture of affordances and constraints. Good teaching arises through interactions between people in a particular context. Reading is still very important and should not be underestimated. A book is much more patient than a human listener. You can learn a lot from reading and go back and read again, check the dictionary. We should not underestimate the importance of reading.

Writing is the last skill to develop after listening, reading and speaking. Not everyone is good at writing even in their own first language. Even more difficult in a foreign language. If we’re teaching students who are going on to university, it is an extremely important skill. For us as teachers if we want to going to publishing and for students. It is a process. It doesn’t just happen. You don’t just write something and its perfect even in your own language so can’t expect it from students. Can’t pick up a manual and read the rules, you need to practice. Teachers need to not only have an interest in classroom practice but also writing and learning about writing. Those teachers who do writing themselves may be better able to communicate enthusiasm to students. Good teachers need to adapt to different genres and requirements. We need to lead students through the process.

Burnout. Teachers are very prone to burnout. The time we spend in the classroom, as said before, is only the tip of the iceberg. Teaching is a performance and stressful, so it takes its toll. Attrition is high among teachers. Good language teachers have ways of coping with that stress. It is a real issue and needs to be talked about more. Carol says of teachers she has trained, few stay in for very long as it is too hard. Some don’t even go on to teach after the training course. Good teachers need to find ways of dealing with it in order to stay in the profession, as the job is extremely challenging and demanding. This issue needs more attention and discussion.

Conclusion: good language teaching is multidimensional. Not just one thing. can’t say you have qualification x therefore you are a good teacher or you have experience therefore you are a good teacher. It is more complex than that. They know about all of the things mentioned in this talk.

The book is/will be called Lessons from Good Language Teachers.

Interesting webinar. Feeling reflective as I come away from it!

 

TD Workshop – Mindfulness in Teaching

Yesterday (30th October 2019), I delivered a workshop at the ELTC called Mindfulness in Teaching.

I started by asking participants to articulate how they were feeling, what emotions they could notice and what sensations they could feel in their bodies. Then we did a quick meditation (the one that I normally use at the start of my classes with students at USIC). Then I asked them again how they felt, to notice the difference.

The outline of my session was as follows:

What is Mindfulness?

I asked everyone (I say everyone, there were three attendees plus the other TD coordinator!) in pairs to discuss what they understood from the term mindfulness and then shared a definition taken from Emma Reynolds’s recent webinar on Mindfulness for Macmillan Education:

“Mindfulness is being aware of what you are doing, whilst you are doing it, without judgement.”

(The ‘without judgement’ bit is important, as you can be very aware of what you are doing when you are resenting every moment, which is not mindfulness!)

Why use it ourselves?

I gave this equation as the basis for my explanation:

“Stress management + greater enjoyment = better wellbeing”

Talking about stress first, I borrowed from Emma Reynolds again, asking participants if they ever felt stressed (and of course the answer was yes – everyone feels stress!) and then using that as the basis to talk about what stress is i.e. the result of a chain of processes that starts with a trigger. The trigger is anything, whether internal or external, that the amygdala perceives as a threat. When a threat is perceived, the amygdala pushes the thinking part of the brain out of the way and swiftly prepares the body for fight or flight (or possibly freeze!). A useful survival mechanism when tigers and the like were a regular issue, not so useful at work. Mindfulness enables us to interrupt the mechanism and engage the thinking part of the brain, meaning we can manage whatever is troubling us better.

In terms of greater enjoyment, I explained that this is because mindfulness means being more present (without judgement) and spending less time ruminating about past events or worrying about future ones (or indeed resenting current ones). As well as being a relief (as we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts and wandering mind), this means that when we are doing something enjoyable, we are able to enjoy it more.

How?

Here I talked about formal practice (meditation – no need for bells or being crosslegged!) and informal practice (bringing awareness to everyday activities, savouring things and bringing gratitude to experiences). I signposted 30 ways to Mindfulness which is a pdf that is available to download for free from the Life-Resourceful website to give participants of specific ideas for how to do this.

Using it with students

Having discussed the benefits of using it ourselves, I moved on to talk about possibilities for using it with students. This part of the talk then drew on the session I did with teachers here at USIC at the beginning of term but with an additional aspect of informal integration of mindfulness into lessons. First I myth-busted using meditation with students (it’s not just for monks, they won’t think you are crazy, you don’t need to be a mindfulness expert to do it, it’s not a waste of time or weird) and one of the participants added the question of religion and whether it might be seen as dogmatic. I explained that mindfulness meditation is not religious, as there is no deity involved, and is simply paying attention to the present moment through the senses.

How?

After myth-busting, I talked about how I set up using mindfulness meditation with students: handing out a printout of the meditation, getting them to discuss what it was, the purpose of it and potential benefits of using it regularly and at the start of classes. The idea is to get some buy-in from the students. Feedback from my students (you can see it in this post), which I displayed and let speak for itself, was resoundingly positive. Since collecting this feedback, some of my colleagues have also started using mindfulness meditation with their students and I have started doing it with my new groups this academic year. Here is the feedback from the three students from my group this term so far who have completed my mid-term course questionnaire, in which I asked a question about the meditation:

(I will update this when they’ve all done that bit of homework!!)

As well as doing a meditation (concentration training, basically!) at the start of class, I have started to try and integrate the concepts into lessons by trying to raise students’ awareness of how the brain works. That is to say, the mind wanders. It is normal for the mind to wander, that’s what it does! The trick is to notice when it wanders and bring it back to the present moment. Notice again, bring it back again. And again. And again. Many times over. This is crucial for example when students are listening to a lecture recording in a listening class or exam. If they lose concentration, they miss vital information. And they WILL lose concentration (see above!). Therefore it is of value for them to be aware of this and to train themselves to notice when their mind wanders and bring it back. The sooner they notice, the less information they will miss. I used this image to introduce this idea to my students:

Another aspect of Mindfulness that can be helpful for students is in the context of nerves for example before an exam or presentation. Nervous stress/anxiety is the result of future worries (what if I don’t understand the recording? what if I forget what I am supposed to say? what if I fail? My parents will kill me etc). It happens to us all but it is something that mindfulness can help with. By noticing the stress response and re-engaging the thinking part of the brain (by reconnecting with the body, through the senses), we can calm down and deal with the situation more effectively. (Let’s face it, if the thinking part of the brain is re-engaged, the exam or presentation is much more likely to go well than if the lizard brain is in charge sending us into panic mode!)

This brought me to the end of the session, and I finished with my top tip for when your mind is racing (e.g. when you are trying to sleep), which I actually got from Padraig O’Morain: Focus on your feet. Your feet are the part of your body furthest away from your mind. If you keep bringing your attention to your feet (and your mind will keep trying to take it away again of course but just bring it back to your feet and repeat and repeat), eventually your mind will realise you aren’t listening and calm down. I use this tip often and it is very useful in the context of falling asleep! 🙂

These are the extra resources I shared at the end:

Do you use mindfulness? Yourself? With students? Would love to hear what your favourite mindfulness techniques are, if so, so please do comment! 🙂

 

Macmillan World Teachers Day Online Conference – Emma Reynolds: Mind full or Mindful?

On the 2nd October 2019, Macmillan Education hosted an online conference in honour of World Teachers Day. I managed to tune in for Emma Reynolds who presented second, though I had to leave before it finished as the day was running late and I had a meeting to attend. I have finally caught up with what I missed via the Youtube recording of the event. (Check it out if you also missed out!)

Emma is an MBSR-accredited teacher who lives just outside Barcelona. This is her website and here is the Macmillan recording (again) but cued to her session (which I really recommend watching – she delivers it in a very engaging way and you get to experience mindfulness rather than just read about it in my blog post!)

Her session was called…

Mind full? Or Mindful?

She started by inviting us all to close our eyes and just notice sound. That could be sounds in the room, sounds outside, even the sound of our own breathing. Then we were asked to notice our breathing and the movement of breath in and out of the body. In other words, a very brief awareness of sounds and breathing meditation. A quick, easy way to get back in touch with the senses, which is one of the key elements of mindfulness.

Then she told us that she usually starts sessions like this by asking participants to put their hands up if they have ever experienced stress. Of course, everyone puts their hands up. Life is stressful. Being human is stressful. Being a teacher is stressful, it is a stressful profession. Emma proposed to offer us some practical tools for teachers to bring to classroom experience, to calm nerves, to deal with emotions, to avoid the spiralling mind, so that we can be present with our students. As one of the webinar participants said, though, these aren’t just strategies for the classroom/workplace, they are strategies for life.

We moved on to the following questions:

  • what is stress?
  • how does it feel?
  • how does it affect us?

Emma invited us to think of something that had happened in the last week or two (not a really big, traumatic life experience, just a run of the mill stressful situation), to close our eyes and put ourselves there for a moment, to picture where we were, what we said out loud and what was said inside ourselves. Then we had to feel it – how does it feel in the body? Where in the body? Is it a tightness in the chest/belly? Tension in the neck muscles? Faster breathing? Pounding in head? There is an actual physical experience.

When something stressful happens, we start with a thought process, which then fuels emotions which then show up in body sensations. That is the fight or flight system in our brain kicking in. That system is a survival mechanism which all humans and animals have. It responds to threats by preparing us to fight, freeze or run away. All the physical ‘symptoms’ of stress are connected to it. It is the body being told by the system “We need to do something and do it NOW!” Which was useful when we were faced by sabre-tooth tigers back in the day but how useful is it when it’s triggered by an email arriving in your inbox? Or a chance comment from someone? Probably not very.

The fight-flight system, Emma explained, is a very finely tuned mechanism, like a hair trigger. And if you are tired or overwhelmed, then even more so – one small thing can make you explode. She talked about the amygdala area of the brain, which is the primitive alarm centre that acts on instinct and the pre-frontal cortex which is rational, thinking part of the brain. She asked us to imagine walking down the street, not concentrating, when a bus starts coming, we step off the pavement, the bus might be about to hit us but then…we’d be propelled back onto the pavement. Without thinking about it, it would just happen instinctively, spontaneously. The image of the bus would hit the retina of our eye, trigger the alarm system and flight would get us back onto the pavement. The prefrontal cortex gets flipped out of the way by the amygdala and it happens in milliseconds – “before we know it”. It is very reactive, which is useful for running away from tigers but not at work. At work it looks more like receive a rude email, reply, send, and then “oh…er…oops…”. Stress, frustration and anger have the same effect as the tiger. So we may be reactive to situations, shouting at a class, being rude to someone, feeling cut off from everyone.

What can we do about this? How can mindfulness help? Everyone has that reactivity, the amygdala brain area, but we can learn to notice and bring back control to the thinking part of the brain. The mind is often full of thoughts:

It wanders off into the past, rehashing situations that have already happened, or the future, planning all sort of things e.g. what if this, what will I do when; projecting usually stressful, worrisome thoughts about the future or “if only” about the past. The brain has a negativity bias, or a tendency to look for problems/scan for threats. It likes to worry about how to fix things that may or may not happen in the future. I.e. imagined problems, so trying to fix things that aren’t actually there. This means that you are here but your mind is not. You are not present. And that means you are missing the positive present moment experiences. Emma suggested next time we are in the shower, to try to be present – be aware of the smells, the sounds, the sensations. That is an example of getting into the senses and out of the mind.

Children are all about the senses but as we become older and socialised, we lose contact with the body and get stuck in the mind. Lots of stressful ruminating results. Emma told us about a Harvard study which found that we are lost in thought 47% of the time. In other words, stuck on autopilot. There was an app that pinged participants every so often and asked them What are you doing? What are you thinking? And it would be something like having dinner, thinking about tomorrow’s presentation. What are we missing? The shower, the food, the lovely sensations, the appreciation, the excitement, in other words enjoyment of now. We are always somewhere else.

Automatic pilot is not bad. It can be useful. For example, riding a bike we can just get on and ride without thinking about it. We need a certain amount to function in life. However, it is not useful to be stuck/lost in thought all the time, or stuck in the present moment being judgemental of it. (“I don’t want to be here. I don’t want this. This is bad” – resentment, stress.) Mindfulness can help us here. Emma’s definition of Mindfulness is knowing what you are doing whilst you are doing it without judgement. And the without judgement part is important – we may often notice what we are doing but in a resentful/judgemental way, ruminating. Mindfulness allows us to notice what is happening and step away in a non-judgemental, kind way. It is a way to step of the the cycle and start to do something proactive to calm down and get the thinking lid (prefrontal cortex) back down, so that you can deal with the situation creatively and with wisdom.

Emma then talked to us about formal and informal practice. She said the formal practice, meditation, is a loaded word but it’s really just sitting down, being quiet and tuning into sound, breathing and the body. Informal practice is noticing the senses, or information from the senses, in the present moment, for example in the shower or brushing teeth or eating. When your mind is full of to do list or worrying, tune back into the senses and what is happening now. Notice the sensation of feet on the floor. She explained that we can send our concentration/awareness/mind to different places, e.g. the feet. The untrained mind flies about all over the place, training awareness can bring it back., place concentration where you want it to be. When you notice it wandering, you can bring it back. The more you practice, the less and less it will wander. She likens the mind to a puppy. When you are training it to sit and stay, it will keep wandering off every two minutes but practising over and over and over, giving praise, reward, treats, bit by bit the puppy will stay. The same goes with mindfulness. We need to practice over and over but in a kind, non-judgemental way. Notice the mind has wandered, not get frustrated, just gently bring it back.

All of this is also relevant for students. When they get angry or upset, it means they are flipping their lid, and as teachers we can recognise they are stressed and feeling threatened, and help them bring their thinking lid back online again.

Bring awareness to thoughts (gentle curiosity). What is the narrative? What emotions are in there? How does it show up in the body? Curiosity is key.

Emma told us about the “3 step breathing space” activity:

  1.  How are my thoughts? Allow thoughts be, just noticing but not getting caught up in a narrative. What emotions are here? How am I feeling? Where is it in my body?
  2. Centre attention on the breath.
  3. Become aware of sounds or the body.

This can be done very quickly to bring yourself back to the present moment with kindness, care, compassion.

Emma said that the language we use is very important here. “There is anger here” not “I am angry” – the former gives us some distance, allowing it just to be, noticing how it feels in the body, recognising that it is just that system response. Then we give the mind something to do e.g. focus on the breath. You can do it whenever and wherever you notice yourself getting stressed/frustrated, to break the cycle through the moment of awareness.

Then she gave us some other activities we could try:

  • “Look up and smile”

If you are feeling a bit stressed, e.g. before you go into the classroom, look up and smile. It releases good, positive chemicals in your brain, even if you don’t feel like smiling. Then you can enter the classroom with better energy.

  • Frame things differently

The thought “I’ve got so much to do” usually hunches you over and makes you feel very heavy very quickly. Instead, straighten up and shout it out loud (as if you are excited about it!) How we frame things can make us feel better. Sensations of stress also accompany excitement. It’s the same sensations but a different narrative/framing.

  • Labelling

Stop the alarm bell by labelling what is going on. “There is anger/frustration/tiredness here”

  • Take in the good

Consider what is good right now in this moment. This counters the negativity bias.

  • Create calm moments

There is so much bombarding us these days, that our minds can’t tell the difference between real threats and perceived threats. The stress response happens just the same – we get adrenaline and cortisol flowing. But what we need is the calm, soothing rest and digest system, to give the fight/flight system a break. One way to do this is slow down. E.g. walking, try walking a bit slower, noticing how it feels, what you can see, hear and smell, to take you out of the mind and into the body.

  • Traffic light bell

(She suggested this during the Q&A but it fits in with this section of practical suggestions.) Use red traffic lights as a mindfulness bell: instead of getting irate because it is delaying you, think “ah, red light.” And do the 3-step breathing space activity while you wait. Then you are back with a choice, you can choose not switch on the negative complaining narrative about the red light.

Emma gave us the secret that repeated behaviour, whether good or bad, gets wired into the brain and becomes more likely to be triggered in the future. Mindfulness gives us a choice to respond differently. Ultimately, if what you are doing doesn’t serve you, do something differently. Mindless chatter generally isn’t serving.

She recommend using apps such as Calm, Headspace and Insight timer, and doing an MBSR course. Once you do such a course, you could then train to become a mindfulness teacher and bring it into your school.

She finished with this lovely quote: Happy teachers will change the world. 🙂

A really fantastic session, great to see it as part of the Macmillan World Teachers Day conference line-up!

University of Sheffield Workshop – Inclusivity: The Fundamentals (24/10/19)

Today (24th October – starting to write up on same day as attendance, remains to be seen if I will finish same day as well!), I was able to attend a workshop run by the university which focused on inclusivity. (Previously I have also attended workshops about mental health and supporting Chinese Students – there’s lots of good stuff available, it’s a question of whether or not it clashes with your timetabled classes! Today I was lucky again!)

Inclusivity: The Fundamentals

The Elevate team started by saying that inclusivity is a broad topic and that today’s session would provide an overview of current inclusivity best practice and tips on how to develop an inclusive curriculum/learning environment.

Inclusivity is an umbrella term and definitions with regards to what is included within it have changed and developed over the years. 10 years ago it was limited to specific support for students with specific disabilities: it was limited and focused. Now, it includes all of the following:

  • support for specific disabilities e.g. dyslexia
  • support for international students
  • accessible measures that benefit all students
  • sense of belonging
  • retention/success
  • decolonising the curriculum

One aspect of the university’s current teaching and learning strategy is as follows:

“Developing inclusive curricula, to close attainment gaps for students from under-represented groups and to foster a sense of belonging for all students, with equal opportunities for all to succeed.”

Good inclusive practice and good teaching/learning practice have a lot of overlap. Our first task was to think about and discuss what we already do that is inclusive. People from various different university faculties/departments were in attendance, including two others and myself attached to the ELTC (one from the main ELTC, one who mainly does DLP, while I of course hail from the USIC arm), so it was interesting to hear from a range of subject areas.

My brainstorming points were:

  • scaffolding in terms of assessment (KIP 4)
  • formative assessment that teaches students how to approach summative assessments (KIP 4)
  • clear instructions (KIP 1)
  • variety of task types (KIP 2)
  • using models (KIP 4)

(Interestingly, a colleague from the journalism department, upon hearing that I work at USIC, told me that the students they get from us are often reticent to speak up, and one way of overcoming that which she has used is to incorporate mobile phones into activities, for example by using Padlet for brainstorming.)

What is a KIP, I hear you asking?

KIP = my shorthand for Key Areas of Inclusive Practice, of which there are 6:

  1. Academic Community
  2. Classroom and Accessibility
  3. Technology
  4. Assessment
  5. Feedback
  6. Evaluation and Review

We looked at each area in turn.

1. Academic Community

Why is this important? The more somebody feels part of and represented in a community, the more they will achieve. They need to feel they have a place. As teachers, we need to bolster that feeling. We need to remember that this is an unfamiliar, intimidating environment for students who come to us and to help them feel at ease. We need to respect their identity e.g. call them by the name they wished to be called by (I always ask students what they want me to call them!) and use the pronouns they want us to use for them. In this way, they will feel more accepted.

Language use also comes within this area. Basically, use plain English! Of course, this is an issue more for university departments, as ELTC folk are used to grading language for obvious reasons! It’s nice to see that the importance of not being jargontastic and of explaining specific terminology clearly is being highlighted at university level.

It’s also important to involve students by letting them have opportunities to feed back (in a variety of ways) so that their experience of your classes is communicated clearly to you and can help inform what you do.

2. Classroom/Accessibility

Accessibility is not only about the physical space (e.g. the classroom), but also about how materials are presented and how lessons are delivered. For example, classroom materials should be representative of the students you are teaching. It is also important to get to know your students and what they are bringing to the room, as their prior learning experiences may be very different from what you are expecting of them in your classes. Using a variety of activities means that you don’t repeatedly advantage or disadvantage particular groups of students. Neurodivergent students may be excellent lateral thinkers, in activities which require this their peers can learn a lot from them.

The university has a lot of support available. It would be helpful to signpost different aspects of it to students at point of need e.g. highlighting the existence of WAS to students about to embark on their first essay assignment. Try to look for opportunities in the curriculum where different things could be highlighted/referred to.

3. Technology

There are lots of different ways that students can use technology to access learning in a more suitable way for them, for example screen readers for partially sighted or blind students. Keeping this in mind, it is important that we optimise our materials for use by these students. One way of making sure that course materials are accessible is to use Blackboard Ally, which is a tool that measures the accessibility of materials for staff and allows students to download materials in whichever format is best for them (including audio). An example of making materials more accessible is including image tags so that screen readers can interpret the image for the students using them. Also, using the headings function in word to format headings means that the screen reader can differentiate between headings and normal text and incorporate that information into how the information is transferred to the student. When you put your materials through Blackboard Ally, it will give you a score (Red, Yellow or Green) depending on how accessible they are.

Another way we can help students is to use consistent online methods for assessment and try to work towards having VLE navigation consistent across modules so that students don’t have to learn how to access the VLE for their various modules in completely different ways from module to module. To make this easier, there are templates in Blackboard that can be used.

Here is a week by week task breakdown template and an example of how a completed one might look:

Using colour coding is helpful for students who are aided by the visual. There is recent legislation in the UK regarding accessibility online in the public domain, and university VLEs come under this. However, it is also just good practice. In terms of font, it is best to use a sans serif font such as calibri or arial as these are easiest to read.

Technology can also enable us to get feedback from our students in a range of ways. Even with very large groups, using feedback opportunities can help you get a better feel for your students’ needs/worries etc. For example, you could use Google forms or a similar tool such as SurveyMonkey, you could use Smartboard “Shoutitout” or any other brainstorming tool such as Bitpaper too.

4. Assessment

Assessment is very important in terms of inclusivity, as it is how we recognise and reward progress, and how we build up students’ skills. It is important not to assume that everyone will know/have experience of the assessment task type you are asking them to do. In order to help students understand what they are doing and how it fits into the bigger picture, refer to learning outcomes and go through assessment criteria with them. This way, they will understand what they need to do in order to be successful.

As teachers, it is also important for us to become more familiar with the effects that certain disabilities have. In the Know is a set of brief introductions to a range of disabilities that you can use as a starting point to broaden your knowledge. Below you can see which ones they have so far:

Where possible, use a range of assessment types so that students have opportunities to play to their strengths. For example, if a course is 100% assessed by exams, or 100% assessed by coursework, certain students will be disadvantaged in either case and therefore a mixture is preferred. Ideally, give students a choice of assessment types to meet their learning outcomes.

5. Feedback

There are a variety of ways to do feedback and it is important that we make use of this to avoid doing feedback in the same way every time. As with materials, tasks and assessment, doing things in the same way every time disadvantages and advantages the same students every time. It is important to ensure that students understand the role and function of feedback, and that you teach them how to use it most effectively to improve their performance.

6. Evaluation and Review

  • It is important that you make your expectations clear to students from the outset.
  • Collaboration with students will support more effective evaluation and review.

(I will come clean – this is the only thing I have written down in my notes here. Towards the end of the session so areas 5 and 6, the session deliverers noticed time was getting away and accelerated accordingly!)

The final task we did in this workshop was reflect on and discuss what three things we would like to take away and build on in our own departments. Here are the notes I made:

  • Week by week task breakdown template: we have a weekly syllabus at the front of our workbooks – could it be more effective? Could there be another document with more information/colour available on Blackboard?
  • Signposting support: could it be better integrated? e.g. signposting mental health services in conjunction with topic on social media and mental health? Need more familiarity with various services available in order to signpost them where relevant.
  • Student feedback opportunities: how shall I get feedback from my students for mid-term? (Midterm is upon us already!) – Discussion on Google+ community page? Use a Google Form? (Having talked to a colleague of mine, and got some inspiration, I have now decided to go with a Google Form!)
  • Consistency across modules: Do all the modules the students do within a given pathway at the college + AES use Blackboard in the same way with regards to navigation? Do we use those templates? (I have no idea, this was one to bend the ear of our tech folk about!)

All in all it was an interesting workshop. Here is the handout we were given, which has a lot of information in it:

Hope this session write-up is of interest/use to some of you out there! 🙂