A few years ago, my theatre teaching practice was transformed by a conscious decision to begin class in a circle every day.
It’s not a perfect ritual, but it’s comfortable, a good way to get a headcount and a pulsecheck on the room, and it mostly builds energy for the students. It is easy to see the difference on days when we have to move class to a different location such as to the theatre for a presentation, how the students handle their confusion and bristle a bit before settling into their typical class personas, closed, individual, side to side. Shadows of the students I see in circle, bolder, able to grab a room, able to make a false step and bounce back in front of an audience of their peers.
Beginning every class with a grand opening has its disadvantages, mostly in the guise of teacher stress. On a human day, an off day, if you start class with a projection on the board or handing something out, you can hide behind those activities a little bit. If you’re working sick or tired or angry in a circle, there is no mercy. You gotta fake it so you can make it, so about a year ago, I started meditating in the mornings to see if I could fake it better, bringing myself into better regulation and form to deal with the 30 plus needy and disregulated young geniuses around me every hour.
It really worked. I still got cranky and frustrated at times with innattentive or disruptive kids, but I had way more energy and stamina overall, and simply enjoyed being with them more. When life got very strange and sad at the end of last semester with the impending loss of our classroom, I was able to mostly just be there for how sad it was, which helped my students step up and be there too. Looking back on this, I credit my practice with helping me make it through.
Last year, I dabbled a bit in doing some mindfulness work with students, mostly at the advanced level. This year I decided to formally bring the work into my curriculum, in a way that would be appropriate for them and hopefully serve as an extra tool in their self- discovery toolkits. I took an online course over the summer, Mindfulness for Educators, and started incorporating lessons into my classroom practice every week.
If you haven’t heard of mindfulness, it’s just, well, the practice of being for a moment.
Google defines mindfulness as the following: ” 1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something, or 2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” It describes it as a “therapeutic technique”, but that’s not really the focus I try to bring across in my classroom.
Basically, we sit down, get comfortable, talk about what is essentially the practice of “noting” or identifying thoughts without judging them in various capacities (good/bad, past/present, etc) and then focus on watching our breath for a minute to two, depending on the class. Nobody has to participate, as long as they don’t disturb others, and the discussion surrounding it is extremely clinical and non-sectarian. My students are invited to be curious about their minds, and ok with their feelings, for a minute or two at a time. If there is an implicit goal being expressed about the work, it is for us to know ourselves better so that we can have an easier time going about the business of the day.
The concept of “noticing” is a big one in my classes, as it invites students to respond to the work of others and their own work with honest reflection, an eye towards detail, and a way to discuss aesthetics of performance without labeling positive or negative. Some things we do in performance are effective, others are not. It takes the evaluation process away from personality and that silly word ‘talent” and moves it into achievable outcomes such as enough rehearsal and maintaining effective working relationships while practicing skills.
This language is very important to my highly analytical, sometimes socially cautious crowd, and when we “note” our feelings and reactions in mindful practice, it reinforces the idea that creativity and community are also practices which can be developed.
In order to maintain a very secular approach to the work, I use a Vibra-Tone, rather than a singing bowl. This is an instrument available on amazon or through music shops, which allows you to create a beautiful tone when you strike it with a mallet. It’s not a necessity, but it’s cool, and it helps students build on a foundation for settling down for an inclusive class ritual.
So what have I “noticed” while implementing mindfulness in my class?
- It’s easier to bring my class to focus at other times. Since we’re all calmer, I don’t have to escalate, vocally or emotionally, to get them back to attention paying mode from, say, simultaneous group work.
- Students appreciate the break. It goes without saying that our students are stressed by factors beyond their control, socioeconomic, societal, parental, media generated, personal, you name it. Most of my students actively look forward to a few moments away from these pressures, and the chance to be in their own moment.
- Students have better vocabulary to describe what they’re hearing, seeing and feeling. Because the discussion of feelings, of noticing is normal in my room, this extends to their feedback for each other’s work and reflection on their own.
- Students are incrementally able to focus a bit longer on rehearsing, relating, and watching. It’s a subtle shift, but one which is noticeable. We recently had one of the most delightful and distractible weeks at our school, Homecoming Week, where there’s a huge class rally every day with dances and a skit, and we still practiced. We had a room full of silent students with their eyes closed mere moments after a high energy rally, while the school was still exploding with excitement outdoors. It didn’t take away from students’ enjoyment of their week, but it gave them a moment to really notice how it was affecting them.
I hope as always you found some ideas here that could be helpful in your rooms. Happy Fall Shows to you!