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Meditation Before Mathematics

Teacher Voices | September 28, 2018

Every month we feature an opinion piece written by teachers in the MƒA community. Welcome to MƒA Teacher Voices.

By MƒA Master Teacher Michael London

As teachers we often fall into the trap of believing our subject area is the most important and fail to put ourselves in the shoes of our students. At my school, we’ve found that it’s imperative to step back and look at the school day from a student’s perspective. Getting into their mindset is important and necessary, especially in high school, where stress is often high.

With this in mind, my school decided to have all staff members be “students” for a day. This consisted of a week where each staff rotated following a student to all of their classes, including lunch, for one day. I chose to follow a 10th grade student who would often fly under the radar. By the end of this day, I was exhausted from trying to take in such a variety of content. It was also surprising to find out that the students barely got any time to themselves between classes. There was a two-minute passing time, and then as soon they walked into their next class, the teacher expected them to sit down quietly and begin working on their assigned task. After going through this experience, I noticed that this student was losing stamina as the day went along. To cope with this stress, the student would talk to his peers instead of beginning his work right away. I wanted to make some larger changes in working with my students to focus on mindfulness, helping them reset, relax and clear their minds before delving into the content of the day. I was very much inspired by a member of a program called “Brain Power Wellness” who visited my school. It uses many mindfulness techniques to improve student achievement, as well as emotional wellbeing. The presenter spoke of how he had come from a failing school where students would often fight one another. To improve the school, he developed a series of mindfulness activities, which led to improved relations among students as well an increase in academic achievements.

I have tried a variety of mindfulness activities inspired by Brain Power Wellness with students in the first few minutes of class. The goal of the activities is to help improve student’s mood and confidence levels, and to help them clear their minds to prepare them for the tasks of the day. The great thing about many of these activities is that they are short and can be replicated on a daily basis. Here’s what I’ve found works best.

I Can Do It       

There is one activity that I conduct every day. As soon as the class sits down, rather than have them start working immediately, I ask them to smile then take a deep breath in and out and repeat a motivational phrase which often links to the objective of the lesson. The phrase will often change based on the content we are covering. If there is a day we don’t go right into these exercises, I will often hear comments to the effect of “Mr. London, we didn’t smile today.” Students enjoy this exercise because it gives a chance to release some stress and feel good about themselves before class begins. The exercise shows I care about my students beyond their academic performance. In addition, the students are also reaping the physiological benefits of smiling and laughing. After modeling this a few times, the students then lead the activity themselves and add their own original spin to it. I found that this exercise improves students’ overall mood and puts them into a working mindset.

Picture This    

We’ve all had lessons that don’t go as planned, where students feel like they’re not understanding the content or losing confidence. On these occasions I use a different meditation activity at the beginning of the next class. Once my students are seated, I have them close their eyes and put their heads on their desks while I play soothing music in the background. They then do the following visualization inspired by the brain power program: Picture how you are going to be successful today. Picture how good it is going to feel after you solve a problem correctly. Picture how hard you are going to work. Breathe in and out. This activity has resulted in raising the students’ level of focus, concentration, and greater ability to think critically. This technique of visualization is often used by athletes and theatre performers; it has been shown to boost their self-confidence and lead to major improvements in efficiency and effectiveness.

Work It Out

I often see my students appear physically exhausted at the end of the day, especially after a weekend or long break. In order to improve students’ energy levels, we do basic physical activities such as arm stretches, toe touching, and synchronized clapping. These allow for the students’ to re-energize, which is an essential component to learning. After conducting these physical activities with my high schoolers, (sadly these are often reserved for early education students instead), I have noticed an increase in the student’s attentiveness and focus on completing the task given to them.

These mindfulness strategies help to create a student-teacher bond. After following my students for one day and seeing how much is being asked of them, I have become committed to helping them learn beyond teaching them content. I have a better understanding of them as complex individuals. Students need a mental refresh between classes. It sets the conditions that provide a greater chance for students to be successful in their learning endeavors for the day.

Michael London is an MƒA Master Teacher and high school mathematics teacher at The Queens School of Inquiry. He has presented at mathematics conferences, such as TIME 2000 events and LIMACON. Michael worked on the state-wide Standard Setting Performance Committee to determine the cut scores for the Common Core Algebra II Regents and will be included in a new book written by Dr. Alice Artzt entitled “The Untold Stories of Mathematics Teachers.”