08/31/2017 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Awareness Awareness

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Most months have been designated as an “awareness” month for one concern or another. For June, it’s “Migraine Awareness.” For April, “Stress Awareness.” For November, “National Adoption Awareness.”

August — perhaps given the expanse of daylight encouraging time for reflection — takes this concept a metaphysical step deeper. August is “Awareness Awareness Month.” As best we can tell, the idea was started by Sarah Birtles, a fashion designer in Australia. Her concept is for us to think positively about loved ones and friends in need. In other words, she’d like us to engage in the power of positive thinking on behalf of others.

Given that it’s easy these days to slip into a mindset of frustration or aggressive political posturing or plain old self-absorption, spending time thinking positively on behalf of others is not only a good idea, it might help all of us find greater calm — which would be good all around.

If you are an educator, whether or not you see yourself participating formally in this nascent Awareness Awareness movement, Birtles’s efforts is a good reminder at the start of another school year of the value of mindfulness in schools — for ourselves and our students.

For adults, mindfulness can reduce stress and worry and improve health. It can help us function better and feel better. We can contribute to our various communities with increased purpose and energy. It helps us, in other words, to be centered. Mindfulness, as Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology notes in a Washington Post article, “wants us to pause, reflect, gain distance and perspective.”

But mindfulness may be even of greater value to our students — who, of course, are in the process of discovering who they are, building neural pathways, navigating relationship with others, and figuring out how to learn. Plenty of research makes it clear that students benefit from mindful practices. We shouldn’t think of it as some kind of parlor trick for securing better grades (though we suspect some book has already done that). It’s more a matter of helping students learn how to be self-aware — to manage their social, emotional, and intellectual lives. Certainly these are tools we wish we had had when we was younger.

More than a few reports on brain-science research make it clear than learning always has an emotional component. Resistance to learning is also mostly emotional. In all cases, mindfulness can help.

John Kabat-Zinn, one of our mindfulness gurus, describes mindfulness as “the awareness that arises upon paying attention in the present moment nonjudgmentally.” Mindfulness is employed in the service of self-understanding, but it’s not about self-absorption or solipsism. The present moment we should pay attention to in mindful practice connects the self to all that’s around it. In many ways, it’s about getting out of thought patterns that are too self-focused.

We understand that mindfulness has taken on many forms these days — and is often oversold as a solution to one’s problems. It’s not a panacea. Joiner, for one, points out that we may be better off going for 40 minute walks three times a week, a practice that research clearly says helps our brain and body functions. But when we help students develop mindful practices, we’re also helping them develop metacognitive skill that will serve them well in school and life.

Thomas Newkirk, in his new book on learning, “Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning” (Heinemann, 2017), makes it clear that we too often underestimate the role of emotion in learning. In particular, he points out the ways in which embarrassment, or even the potential for embarrassment, can undermine our ability to learn. In fact, he says, for many students “any risk, any uncertainty, closes down student effort.” This is why, even if we know that having a growth mindset is better than having a fixed mindset (thanks to the work of Stanford’s Carol Dweck), we can often settle for a fixed mindset in order to protect ourselves from any possibility of shame or embarrassment.

Many of us here are not great at meditation, or even sitting still for long. So we’re not advocating for or against formal mindful practices in school. But as the Awareness Awareness month draws to a close, we do want to send out positive thinking on behalf of teachers and students so that (1) teachers will feel centered in their work and that (2) all students have the chance to examine the role or stress and other emotions in learning and gain enough self-awareness that they can engage in learning with an open hearts and minds.

If you are interested, an organization called Empowering Education offers resources on mindfulness in schools and more generally on social-emotional learning (SEL). A British-based nonprofit, Mindfulness in Schools Project, is working to train educators on how to teach mindfulness to students. The logic is simple: “Every child should possess the skills to help [him or her] manage difficulty and flourish, and an understanding of how and when to use those skills.”

We could connect all this to the ongoing conversations about grit and growth mindsets and resiliency in school. Or about how mindfulness can help children engage in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as flow, a mental state during which one becomes so deeply immersed an the activity that even the perception of time and space is altered.

But mostly, we’re hoping that all these conversations coalesce into a deeper understanding of what it takes for children to learn and thrive — as well as what it takes to sustain a fulfilling and joyful teaching career.

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