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! 🙂

 

Scholarship circle: Using mindfulness meditation (3)

Meeting three already? Yup! This term is flying… (For previous and future write-ups, see here!)

Today we started with a 20 minute meditation as the consensus was it was much-needed (we have a lot of marking going on at the moment so everyone is a bit frazzled). Again, everyone agreed that it felt shorter than 20 minutes but minds managed to fit a lot of wandering in (unsurprisingly!). My mind certainly did a lot of wandering and I did a lot of bringing it back to the breath/various body parts/sounds as the meditation specified, as well as acknowledging to myself that I *was* finding it difficult and that that’s ok. (As vs. getting cross/impatient/frustrated about it!)

We agreed we felt better afterwards but one of us also said she was starting to feel angry that modern life requires this kind of thing in order to feel better. Another said that rather than getting angry with modern life, better to flip it and focus on what there is to be grateful about – using the example of well actually modern life is better than life for Louis XIV, who had candlelight only, no showers, less choice in terms of food. And then we talked about gratitude in general, coming back to the concept behind No. 11 in 30 Ways to Mindfulness. There was talk of a longitudinal study that one of us had read, which showed that people who kept a gratitude journal were happier than the control group who hadn’t. However, we also agreed that even if you didn’t necessarily write it down all the time, training your brain to perceive in that way is helpful. I used my own second week as an example:

I forgot to record anything on Monday, did too many on Tuesday (much like Week 1, my recording is hit and miss!) etc.

We also discussed how using meditation with students was going. Largely good but as some groups have changed (got large numbers of different students) due to post-late-arrival setting, there have been some teething issues around that. The good news is, the teachers in question want to persevere! We then talked about to integrate Mindfulness into our teaching beyond just doing a meditation at the start of the lesson. I told them about what I had done in our first listening lesson this term, which was to draw attention to the fact that the mind DOES wander and it’s normal for it to do so – the key is to notice it and bring the attention back. Obviously very important when you have a long listening recording (lecture) to listen to and make notes on, especially when exam questions follow – which is what we are preparing them for, as well as for university study of course. I used this slide to illustrate it:

We then brainstormed other ways of integrating it. So, for example, after students have listened to a recording, getting them to reflect on how they listened – did their mind wander a lot? Were they were aware of it? Did they bring it back? Did they keep bringing it back each time it wandered or did they give up? That kind of thing. A similar reflection could be done after any given task, not only listening. (The mind will wander indiscriminately, not only during listening recordings :-p ) We acknowledged also that doing the meditation at the start of each lesson is also attentional training so it supports this kind of metacognitive approach, helps students to train their brains/get better at managing/directing attention.

We all came away feeling much better and happier at the end of the session – and it went really quickly! (Possibly because we spent the first 20 minutes meditating!) 🙂

Scholarship circle: Using mindfulness meditation (session 2)

Today (Thursday 10th October 2019), our Using mindfulness meditation scholarship circle met for the second time. This time, there were 12 of us including me (last time – write-up here – it was 8 including me)! 3 new, 1 back from leave who had already been planning to come. There will be at least one more, who is on leave this week, joining us next week too. I hadn’t expected such a positive response to start with, never mind growth week on week! (Speaking of week on week, all write-ups will become available here!)

Today, we started with a 10 minute meditation (10 minutes and 10 seconds to be exact) and this time we all found it felt shorter. There were comments around mind wandering, so we talked about that being normal, it’s just what the mind does. So it’s not about “emptying the mind”, but about noticing that it has wandered and bringing the attention back.  That led nicely onto the “training the puppy” analogy that I learnt about on the Futurelearn Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance course (which I am currently doing for the second time!) – the mind is like a puppy that you are trying to train to sit and stay. It will wander off repeatedly. You need to bring it back repeatedly and GENTLY. If you shout at it/get cross/get impatient, it will just try to run further away.

Next, we talked about meditation practice and I gave out a printout of a pdf of tips for establishing and maintaining a mindfulness meditation practice. One of us said she doesn’t like routine, so doing it at the same time every day/week doesn’t work for her, another recognised that you can meditate for any amount of time – it doesn’t have to be a big chunk of time it could just be a few seconds, ten seconds, thirty seconds of bringing focus to the breath/the body/sounds. That moved us on to talking about informal mindfulness practice as well. We talked about mindful eating and the eating a raisin/piece of chocolate mindfully exercise, about savouring what is happening in the moment e.g. a shower, and being fully present. We talked about mindful walking (in my case often mindful running!) and forest-bathing (one of my favourite things to do, in conjunction with running!).

At this point I asked if anyone had looked at the 30 ways to mindfulness pdf that I had emailed out after the end of the last session. (Click on the image of it below to go to Life-Resource, where the download of this is available!)

Inevitably, a couple had but most hadn’t and those that had hadn’t got as far as trying anything. So I told them about the one I had tried, which was Day Eleven – Be Grateful. Since Friday last week I have been writing down 3 things each day that I am grateful for on that day. Not the big things like family, friends etc, but small and specific things. I used a sticky note on my laptop desktop to record them. Here is what I ended up with between then and today:

Obviously I haven’t yet written down anything for today but today’s session will feature! As you can see, my counting skills leave a little to be desired. On Tuesday I only managed one, on Wednesday 4, and three for the weekend as a whole rather than three each for Saturday and Sunday! However, despite my ineptitude in recording, I was thinking about it each day – noticing when good things happened and thinking I could record them, even if I didn’t necessarily get round to it! For me that is a win enough – it pushed my perception of each day to be more focused on the positive rather than the usual negative! And I really noticed it, in terms of that extra positivity going on! So I can definitely recommend no. 11.

Next we finally got onto the topic of what we want to get out of this scholarship circle! (Though, given the membership increased so much this week, it’s just as well we didn’t get round to it last week!) Here is what I managed to get down of what came out of that discussion:

  • to be less stressed (this connects with doing a meditation at the start of each session)
  • to learn how to do it with students/increase confidence around that (this connected with a discussion about concerns around student reactions and the importance of it being optional and so forth)
  • to have a week where people can practise what they would do with their students on us! (so, connecting to the bullet point above, to help people build confidence)
  • to have a session where people can make recordings of themselves doing it (one of us is going to bring in some equipment for that) as some members have decided that they would rather do it with the students than lead it, or are not comfortable leading it for various reasons.
  • to work on the English pair of shoes visualisation (this idea came out last week and is being carried forward)
  • to bring it into our professional lives more – start module meetings with a short meditation, start marking week sessions with a short meditation and so on (which I think is a brilliant idea!)
  • where needed, to change our mindset from “there’s no time for this in class” to “there’s not enough time *not* to do this in class” (i.e. the resultant improvements in focus are needed for effective study/use of class time.

Finally, I challenged everyone to try and do a meditation or two (of whatever length) between now and next session, AND, of course, to pick something to try from 30 ways to Mindfulness for the next week. (I’m going to continue with the Being Grateful one but pick something as well!)

Our time seemed to be up very quickly but what a lovely session it was, once again. As I said earlier, definitely on my gratitude list for today! 🙂

Scholarship circle: Using mindfulness meditation

Today (3rd October 2019) was the inaugural meeting of the USIC@the ELTC Using Mindfulness Scholarship Circle.

We created this scholarship circle to:

  • to explore the use of mindfulness (both formal and informal) for ourselves as teachers.
  • to explore the use of mindfulness (both formal and informal) with our students

There were 8 attendees including me.

We started by doing a 5 minute guided meditation (called The Full Stop), played through my laptop. Interestingly, one of us thought it had lasted a lot longer than five minutes while others thought it had only been 2-3 minutes. Once the recording had finished, we discussed how it felt. The plan is to do a guided meditation at the start of each session (varying from 2-20 minutes in length). A couple of us mentioned a feeling of “twitchiness”, including around the eyes. (It was suggested that closing eyes generates a feeling of vulnerability and this was the first time we had meditated in a group like this before so that was perhaps to be expected.) I found it more difficult than usual because my brain kept wanting to wander off into thinking about what was going to happen next in the scholarship circle (I suggested its creation so I was nervous!! 🙂 )! We also talked about how it can be difficult to put in place and sustain a regular meditation practice (so I plan to bring a printout of a pdf of tips for just that which I got from the Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance Futurelearn course I did earlier this year to share with everyone!).

We then moved on to talk about our personal experiences of Mindfulness (I won’t go into mine again, I already talked about it here) and about how using it with students had been going so far. Our term only started at the beginning of last week so it’s early days but a number of us had been trying it with students following the TD session I did about it based on this post. So far, so positive, in terms of student response from both foundation and pre-masters students. Not everybody who attended today has tried it with students yet  but they have plans afoot now 🙂 . We also discussed the student experience here, the pressures they face, and how our mindfulness/meditation initiatives could be helpful for them in that context. One of the things we have decided to work on is a meditation/visualisation script to encourage students to get into an English frame of mind at the beginning of class. Watch this space! We also shared resources that we have used and Lilian Eden sleep meditations were mentioned by one of us as a Really Good Thing for sleep. I mentioned Padraig O’Morain,in particular his books e.g. Mindfulness for Worriers.

We were also supposed to discuss/pin down what we want to get out of this circle and how it’s going to work, but time slipped away so we have relegated that to next week. We did agree, though, that developing our own meditation practice by starting each week with a meditation is a definite must. You can’t pour from an empty cup and all that. I have also suggested, in my follow-up email after our meeting, individually trying out an idea (picked individually at random rather than as a group) from 30 ways to Mindfulness

(scroll right down….keep scrolling…or if it is your first time to visit the site it will probably appear as a pop-up when you land!) from Life-Resourceful, to try out and share experiences around in our next meeting next Thursday. We’ll see what the take-up is next week and beyond!

There are loads of possibilities with this circle, but I don’t want to dictate what we do. It’s important to me that what we do and where we go is a group decision and that the space remains a stress-free one rather than something that becomes an additional burden on teachers’ workload. I have no doubt that it will be enriching for us all and our students (both directly and indirectly!).

Looking forward

In my latest TD bulletin (the one which also inspired me to blog about my “first class of the year”‘s!), in the “Food for thought” section, I offered teachers a number of reflective questions to help them think backwards to last academic year AND forwards to the one that lies ahead:

  1. How did last academic year go for you?

  2. What went well? What two things are you most proud of? Why?

  3. What two things did you do with your students last year that you would do differently this year? Why?

  4. What new things did you try? Why? How did it go? Will you use them again this year?

  5. What new things are you planning to try this year? Why? What effect do you hope they will have?

  6. How do you hope to grow as a teacher this year?

 

So, I thought I had better answer them myself! (Edit: I started, and then term kicked off. Now in week 2 so still early enough days to merit getting round to finishing and publishing!)

1.How did last academic year go for you?

I have already answered number 1 here – a post about the various things I felt I’d achieved during last academic year, with a positive slant to counteract the normal negativity bias that the human mind proffers. It’s just as well I did, as though I have only been back 4 days, there was also an intervening 4 week break, so last academic year seems an awfully long time ago already! For the rest of this post, I am going to focus on the teaching portion of my job here (rather than the TD coordination or ADoSing!).

2. What two things am I most proud of?

  • The improvement in my students’ performance over the academic year, knowing that I did everything I could to help them along that path.
  • That I pushed myself to try new things in the classroom rather than just staying in my comfort zone.

3. What two things did I do with my students last year that I would do differently this year and why?

  • I finished my lessons generally with productive activities. The way I want to change things up this year is to allow more time for feedback/reflection/evaluation afterwards – both in terms of the given activity and the lesson as a whole.
  • I used listening logs with them. It worked well and their feedback at the end with regards to using them was positive. But this year, or at least for this term as in January I will be pinged into to January start student classes due to my January cohort ADoS role, I have much lower level students. So I still want to use them but I want to give students more guidance, make it more scaffolded.

4. What new things did you try last year? Why? How did it go? Will you use them again this year?

  • Doing a short mindfulness meditation with the students at the start of every lesson. I did this for two terms, and their feedback at the end was very positive around focus, concentration and relaxation (in opposition to stress). I did it because I’d learnt about Mindfulness myself and come across lots of research to suggest it is helpful for students as well. I will definitely be continuing!
  • Using Quizlet live with students in class to review vocabulary. It worked really well with my foundation students, as they were a) fairly young (I know not a necessity), b) generally a bit knackered (lots of studying in all their subjects) and c) responded positively to the bit of geeing up that Quizlet live provided. I used it to liven up vocab review, motivate students, wake them up a bit, change the pace of the lesson. I will keep using it but I want to also work more on getting students to use the sets independently as well.

5. What new things are you planning to try this year? Why? What effect do you hope they will have?

  • I want to encourage growth mindset use so I am planning to incorporate advice from Chia’s EtP article about it into my teaching and read around it from other sources with a similar goal too.
  • I want to incorporate a range of flipped learning opportunities more consistently as I believe it will really help my learners to access the course content more successfully.

6. How do you hope to grow as a teacher this year?

  • I want to make use of all the tools, techniques, materials and methodologies at my disposal to ensure that my lessons help students get as much as possible out of them. This is in terms of content, how I deliver that content, lesson structure, incorporation of mindfulness-linked strategies, metacognitive strategies, encouragement of growth mindsets and more. This term I have a lower level group and a mid-level group, so a different set of challenges to the high-level group I had for a few terms last year.
  • I am also going to be participating in a peer observation programme, so I hope to gain new ideas from those I observe and insights from those who observe me, to enhance my practice.

If you decide to answer these questions and write a blog post about it, please do share the link to it in the comments!

Using Mindfulness with Students QandA

Yesterday I did a short TD session with the teachers in my team about using mindfulness meditation with students. This is not a write-up of the session, as the ground it covered is already largely covered in the afore-linked-to blogpost but I thought I would make a note of the questions my colleagues asked and my answers, as it is possible that others reading my blog post about using meditation with students, or who are just thinking themselves about using meditation with students, might have similar questions floating around in their heads!

Did you do the meditation at the start of every class?

Yes, every single class for two terms! And also when small groups of students came to do their seminar discussion exam, I led the meditation before starting their exam so that they would be calmer.

Did you use the same meditation every time?

Yes, the same one every time! So the students were familiar with and knew what to do/how it works etc. I think it also means that students can focus on the meditating, not on processing what it is that they are being told to do.

Did you get bored of doing it?

No, I found it a lovely, peaceful way to start each lesson and bring the class together into a space of readiness for learning.

What about getting the students to lead it?

I didn’t try that but I don’t think I would because I want them to just be able to benefit from those couple of minutes, and not have to take the responsibility of leading it which might be quite stressful for some (which would be counterproductive!).

Did you notice a difference in their behaviour between the term when you didn’t do it and the terms when you did?

The key thing for me was that once we did the meditation each lesson, they were with me and focused on what was to come. (And if you look at the feedback from them in the blog post I linked to at the start of this one, you’ll see focus and concentration were the major themes!)

What about lower levels?

This wasn’t actually a question, but we also discussed about how it would work for lower levels and the consensus was that you could simplify it right down so that you say much less and have longer silences. So that there are fewer, simpler words but the meditation takes the same length of time. But also, provided you give them time to look at the print-out in the first lesson and they can check any unknown vocabulary, and provided you then use the same meditation consistently, linguistic issues can be dealt with early on.

Do you have any more questions about it? Feel free to comment with and I will happily add them and answers to this post!

First class of the year

You have a new group of students in front of you and all you know about them is their approximate level. What do you do? This isn’t a trick question, this is what all teachers face at the start of each academic year and whenever else in between times that they are given a new group to teach for an extended period of time.

Where I work, there are no regular lesson materials for the first two-hour lesson. “Teaching proper” begins in the second two-hour slot of the week. In the first lesson, we have the luxury of time to spend getting to know our students and introducing them to what the AES (Academic English Skills) course looks like. At this point, I have taught a fair number of “first class of the year”s (especially as in January, being a January cohort ADoS, I switch from teaching September starters to January starters so two terms in a row, I get “first class of the year”s).

In my role as teacher development coordinator, I send out regular “bulletins” with links to content to help teachers develop and change up what they do in the classroom. The first bulletin of the academic year (which I have already started working on – I started towards the end of last term and have done a bit this week too – though I don’t start back at work til Monday!) is focused on beginning of the academic year-related content and one section is dedicated to ideas for making the first class of the year a fruitful one. So it is that I have been reading a range of content around first lessons, in order to select suitable links for the bulletin, and, thus, inevitably, reflecting on my own first lessons past and to come.

My “first lesson of the year”s

To me, the most important thing that should happen in that first lesson of the year is that I learn all my students’ names and they learn one another’s names too, as I feel this is essential for a conducive environment for learning: students need to be comfortable working together, so they need to know who one other are.

The activity I always use at the start of a lesson with a new group of students who are going to be my students for a term or more is a variation on the “I went shopping” memory game. Very simple, very straightforward: Student A gives their name and something they like (E.g. My name is Lizzie and I like running), Student B introduces Student A and then themselves (E.g. Her name is Lizzie and she likes running, my name is Bobby and I like football) and so on until everybody has introduced themselves and all the students who have already had a turn introducing themselves. While this is unfolding, I am silently repeating all the names along with the students (and chipping in to help when anybody struggles) so that once everybody has introduced themselves and their classmates (and the one who went first has to then introduce everybody!), I have a go. Obviously, the larger the group the longer this activity takes but I firmly believe it is worth the time taken. Simple but reliable, and the students tend to have a bit of a laugh doing it, which also helps break the ice and relax them a bit.

Once names are in place, I want to know a bit more about them all. In this slot, I don’t always use the same activity. I’ll use any activity that will get them talking to each other, learning about each other and sharing what they learn with the rest of the class, as well as ensuring that I tell them a bit about me and let them ask any questions they might have, which I answer as long as they are within reason. For ideas of such activities, see my Back to school-related links post. I tend to be strict on timing with this one, ensuring it doesn’t run on for too long so that there is still time for everything else I want to do!

Now that I know the students a bit, and they know me, it is time to focus on the course content so that they have a picture of what to expect from their 5 hours a week of AES classes for the next three terms. Each student receives a workbook and in the workbook there is a lot of information about the course. So for this element, I tend to do a workbook quiz i.e. give students a list of questions, the answers to which are in the workbook and have them work together to find the answers. This way, as well as ensuring that they have the information they need, they have the opportunity to practise working in a group. As well as going through the answers to the questions once they have finished (eliciting answers but also giving them a bit of a chance to sit and listen while I elaborate), this then provides an opportunity to get them to reflect on the effectiveness of their group work and how to improve it for future lessons when it will often feature.

In the powerpoint for the first lessons, there are two sentence starters – something like “I am excited about studying here because…” and “I am nervous about studying here because…” Generally students discuss these in pairs or small groups. This stage helps them realise that they are not alone in their feelings and that their classmates are all human too. This time I am toying with the idea of getting them to write their completions on a whiteboard (one board or half of a board, depending on the room per sentence starter) and getting them to identify the themes. With the “nervous about” board, we could look at each theme and brainstorm suggestions to ease those nerves. This time, I would like to perhaps also use this as an opportunity to cultivate growth mindsets: reframe the “nervous about” elements in a positive growth-conducive way. Turn any “I can’t’s” into “I can’t YET” and so on. This article by Chia Suan Chong has other ideas for cultivating growth mindsets which I will be referring back to in my preparation for this lesson and beyond.

Finally, I like to use the first lesson of the term to introduce regular features of the course. So, provided the students are already streamed and good to go:

  • get them registered on the Google+ community for their class, ensuring there is some content already there for them to dabble with.
  • introduce them to Quizlet and Vocab.com, again getting them to join the classes I’ve set up
  • and this time round, introduce the idea of doing a meditation at the start of each class, and have a go at doing one so that students know what to expect at the start of the next class

I don’t want to overcook things, so something like the listening logs, which will become a regular feature, I will leave til the first listening lesson of the term.

I like to finish off the lesson with a bit of fun – “How many of your classmates names can you remember?” (also to review that information and hopefully lodge it more firmly in their minds and mine) – and a preview of what’s to come in the rest of the week (has typically been a listening-based lesson in the second two hour slot and some sentence structure in the final one hour slot, but there have been some syllabus changes so whatever it is that is there) and set any flipped learning content I want them to look at in advance of those lessons.

So, that’s my formula, refined over the terms/years. Each stage has a clear goal and the activities tend to work quite nicely to achieve those goals. I always really enjoy those first lessons, getting to know my new students and getting things set up for an effective term/year of learning for them.

What do your first lessons of the year tend to look like? What are any of your go-to activities?

Using mindfulness meditation with students

Last academic year, having discovered mindfulness myself and done a 4-week Futurelearn course (Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance – next starting on 7th October and highly recommended!), I decided to experiment with using a mindfulness meditation with my foundation class students in their second and third terms. I finished the course sometime around the end of their first term, so the beginning of term two seemed the logical time to jump in, if I was going to do it.

As it was the first time for me to try something like this with students, I was very nervous about it BUT my belief in the potential benefits for them gave me the courage to try. Just prior to the first lesson of term two, I adapted the shortest mindfulness meditation from the Futurelearn course (the “Comma” – so called as you can use it to draw breath briefly and reset throughout the day) so that linguistically it was more accessible to my students. I didn’t have to make many changes as I had a high level group, but with lower level students I would make further adaptations/simplifications. In the first lesson of term, I distributed print-outs of the meditation and asked students to look at it and discuss these questions in pairs:

  1. What is this? What is it for?

  2. Why do you think it is called “Comma”?

  3. Have you used anything like this before?

  4. What could be the benefits for using it on a regular basis?

The “Mindfulness meditation: Comma” was obviously a give-away with regards to the what, and being Chinese students the concept of meditation was familiar to them. Once they had discussed the questions in pairs, we discussed them as a whole class. The fourth question is particularly important, as by talking about the potential benefits, you create some buy-in for when you then go on to say that the plan is to use this meditation at the start of each class.

What are the benefits?

  • It allows students to “arrive” in the lesson
  • It helps them focus their minds into the present, letting go of distractions such as worries generated by the previous lesson, content of conversations with friends, worry about various assignments, arguments they might have recently with friends/family – basically anything that isn’t happening now.

However, I will let the students speak for themselves. At the end of the two terms, having been observed teaching by my line manager who was impressed by the students’ response to the meditation, I gave them a little questionnaire to complete. There were four questions – one about the meditation, one about the listening logs we used at the start of one lesson per week (after the meditation), and then one about what they thought was good about AES (Academic English Skills) classes and one about what they thought would make AES classes better.

100% of them responded positively to the question about meditation (“For terms 2 and 3 we started every AES lesson with a short (2 minute) meditation. I think this was good/not good to do because…”). Here are their sentence completions:

I think this was good to do because…

  • it helps us to relax ourselves, and get our minds back to AES class.

  • It helps to concentrate on lesson better, feels great.

  • It was able to clear the mind and get ready to start the lesson in refreshing feelings.

  • It helps me relax after climbing up 7 floors. It helps me to concentrate easily. It could take up some lesson time.

  • I can pay attention for my AES lesson.

  • It made us focus better in the class.

  • Concentration.

  • This was a very good thing to as it allowed us to focus more.

  • It can clear my mind and help me focus on the tasks and activities.

  • It could help me stop thinking other subject’s work and help me be more focus in class.

  • During this section, I can relax myself before the start of the lesson.

  • It helped me concentrate better in class. I was able to clear my mind of all the unwanted thoughts and focus better. Relax too.

One student was absent. Obviously the clear themes running through the responses are about focus/concentration and relaxation. You might be thinking “but I don’t want my students to relax in my class, I want them to work hard!”. I think though that the sense of “relax” here is in opposition to stress. The students where I work are under an immense amount of pressure, and research shows that when stress goes beyond a certain amount, performance and productivity drop. So, if my students are worrying about all the assignments and deadlines, and what they didn’t understand in the class they had before AES etc etc, they aren’t going to be receptive to what I teach them as they will be distracted by stressing and worrying. Additionally, experience shows that when they are relaxed and engaged (the two are not mutually exclusive), they perform well in class and evidence of their learning can be seen in their assignments. As for the one who said “it can take up some lesson time” – these students have hours and hours of classes a day and I saw them 4-6 (last slot) on a Monday (all three terms), 2-4 on a Wednesday (term 1+2) 3-5 on a Tuesday (term 3) and 1330-1430 on a Friday so particularly for those late afternoon slots, it’s tough on them, so it’s not surprising they welcomed the chance to breathe for a couple of minutes. The benefits yielded in terms of focus were, to my mind, well worth those minutes.

I’m really pleased with the results of my little experiment and this academic year plan to continue my use of the guided meditation at the start of each class. (Basically, I lead the meditation, which begins “Now, with your body balanced in the chair and your eyes gently closed”. The first time you do it, the students might be a bit giggly, looking at classmates with one eye etc but very soon it becomes routine and they do it very calmly.) I will also be leading a short session with my colleagues next week, to share this idea with them so that they can also have a go using it with their students if they want to. I’m planning to get them to do the meditation just as I would do it with my students so that they have a feel for what it is like. Here is a link to the unadapted version of the meditation that I used, by Dr Craig Hassad. It is the first recording in the list – One minute comma.

Do you do any kind of meditation with your students? How has it worked for you/them?

If you are interested in the science behind mindfulness and learning, I recommend this book:

Finally, for those who want to know a bit more about Mindfulness, here is a TED Talk about it by Dr Richard Chambers: