|Publisher:||New World Library|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
One fall afternoon, when I was six years old, my grandfather came to my first-grade classroom to share stories and photographs from his recent trip to Egypt. He told many memorable stories from Egyptian history that day, but it was the one about the discovery of a young pharaoh's tomb in the Valley of the Kings that stuck in my mind.
My grandfather explained that at the turn of the twentieth century, Egyptologists had spent years exploring the valley, looking for the remains of any and every ruler they could find. By 1907 many had left the area, convinced that all of the major discoveries had already been made. One young British archaeologist, Howard Carter, was certain that a major discovery still remained to be made in the region. With the backing of a wealthy Englishman, Lord Carnarvon, Carter dug in the valley for more than a decade, interrupted for a time by the outbreak of the Great War in Europe. After the war he returned to Egypt and continued his expedition.
Four years passed, and Carter was no closer to making any new discoveries. Lord Carnarvon threatened to cut his funding if he didn't have something to show for his work. Then, just by chance, only a few weeks before he would have run out of money and returned to England in disgrace, Carter stumbled upon a single step, buried beneath the rubble of the valley floor. Soon his team started digging in the spot, and eventually they uncovered twelve more steps. At the bottom of this set of stairs was a sealed door. What followed would be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in the history of the world.
As my grandfather described King Tut's tomb and the treasures Howard Carter unearthed that fateful November day, we all held our breath in anticipation of what might be found. Of course, we didn't understand the full significance of the discovery in either the history of Egypt or the history of the field of Egyptology. But we sensed that the opening of the tomb was not only a window into the life of an unknown boy pharaoh; it was also a window into a lost chapter of Egyptian history.
Like the discovery of that tomb, meditation is a doorway into a world of riches and treasures — not out in the deserts of Egypt, but right here within the center of our classrooms. For years now we have neglected many of the gifts and talents of the students around us, sometimes by choice but more often by the inability of our education system to understand how to engage more than just the mind. That deeper engagement is something the Egyptians, along with many other ancient peoples, recognized: the true power of the individual resides not in the head, but in the heart. In these next pages I hope to briefly outline the history that has shaped education policy in the United States, including the landscape of assessments that characterizes learning today. More importantly, this chapter will introduce the tools that mindfulness and meditation offer for uncovering the treasures beneath the surface of the mind.
As a high school history teacher, I often try to impress upon my students the importance of recognizing that history is not a static idea captured in a textbook, but a living and breathing entity that is constantly reshaping our lives. Over the past four decades, dating back to the publication of A Nation at Risk, in 1983, the US education system has witnessed an increased standardization of the K12 curriculum. The focus of policy and teaching has moved away from the holistic, child-centered approach proposed at the start of the twentieth century and instead turned toward one driven by the underlying desire to produce better and higher test scores. Unfortunately, this movement has only accelerated in the past two decades, with a barrage of state and national exams ushered in through initiatives like No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top, and the more recent Common Core. All this has left teachers as well as students lost in a barren landscape of testing and rote memorization.
As a result of all this assessment and policy shift, students have their minds stuffed with information but are rarely given opportunities for emotional or inner development. Most teachers would agree that the result is high school graduates who are shortchanged and stilted — not just in their intellectual development but also in their emotional and inner capacities. Understanding the context of these reforms in the history of education and their consequences, both intended and unintended, is fundamental to understanding how we got where we are today, and how meditation can act in shifting that narrative.
ACCOUNTABILITY AND STANDARDIZATION VS. THE INNER LIFE OF THE CHILD
Few teachers would deny that students are constantly being overtested, overassessed, and overevaluated in a top-down effort to maximize performance and scores. Students no longer find themselves at the center of the classroom; rather, they are now secondary to the scores and numbers they produce. The result is more and louder calls for better results, more homework, and longer school years, all at the cost of meaningful and deeper learning.
Recently, we've seen a wave of programs and trends challenging these forces. Some schools are introducing programs like mindfulness and yoga, and some are even reintroducing century-old electives on civic responsibility. Some students are being asked to explore deeper questions of who they are, who they want to be, and what they want to do. A larger part of this new movement is driven by concerns about student wellness and mental health that are ever more pervasive, with increasing self-reported rates of student stress, anxiety, and depression. Today we teachers find ourselves not just struggling to meet the demands of our administrators but often trying to navigate the mental health crises plaguing our students.
At the same time, mindfulness has become one of the most popular solutions to these problems. The first major effort to use mindfulness in the curriculum began in the United Kingdom in 2007. Since this initial project, interest in the movement has increased, and in 2015, plans to launch a seven-year $10 million study in the UK were announced. The growing popularity of mindfulness has also taken off in the United States, where more than a dozen initiatives have been implemented, including MindUP and Mindful Schools. The Mindful Schools project has trained thousands of teachers and reached more than three hundred thousand students, most of them in California, New York, and Washington, DC. These programs have grown in popularity, especially among prestigious boarding schools throughout the Northeast. For example, Middlesex, a top prep school in Massachusetts, now requires all incoming freshmen to take a mindfulness course.
A MIDDLE WAY FOR MINDFULNESS
With the efforts to introduce more mindfulness programming into the curriculum comes a counterwave of challenges and concerns. First, it is not uncommon to find that these potentially progressive reforms are being implemented piecemeal onto the mainstream curriculum. Mindfulness programs or workshops on meditation are often offered as after-school programs or supplementary aspects of the school day. When they find their way into the curriculum, mindful practices of journaling, reflection, or moments of silence are rarely used as an integral part of the day. Even yoga is mostly included only as a part of physical education or as an after-school program.
Second, as currently applied, meditation and mindfulness have become seen as just another tool to increase teacher and student productivity, and thus they find themselves subject to the same external measurements they are attempting to challenge. Rather than using meditation as a force to initiate a deeper understanding of self, teachers have found that it has become just another skill subject to quantify, to increase productivity, or to improve behavior. These certainly are some of the positive attributes of the practice, and they shouldn't be taken lightly. But there is so much more that can be done with these tools, and much of their potential is currently being neglected.
For mindfulness or meditation to have value in many school districts, it must have proven scientific outcomes that lead to tangible academic results. This creates an inherent tension, as districts introduce these programs into the school day but rework them to remain subservient to the outcome model of education perpetuated by the mainstream. Meditation and yoga are then repackaged and justified for their benefits in terms of managing a classroom or improving test scores, but not for their capacity to prepare students for a more meaningful life defined by compassion, empathy, and inner exploration. We need a reimagining of meditation, one that doesn't force it into the current standards-based curriculum but rather honors its original intent and purpose of nurturing the heart as well as the mind.
Third, most of these initiatives and practices are being advocated by researchers, scholars, and administrators who stand outside the classroom door. Just as teachers who have little experience in the practice of meditation are ill-equipped to teach it to their students, the outside consultants who are encouraging its use are ill-equipped to recognize the unique needs of the classroom. A viable approach must be able to recognize the day-to-day needs and demands of the classroom teacher and take into account the myriad of forces constantly vying for their time. Consultants might be able to offer insights and new ways of thinking about mindfulness, but it is only a grassroots effort and classroom perspective that can truly comprehend and balance the pressures of the profession with the work of inner growth.
It is also important to note that meditation has been perceived by some as an Eastern religious practice. From the debate over prayer in the classroom to the current backlash around mindfulness, there is an ongoing battle wherever educators, parents, and politicians feel that a larger religious agenda is being pushed onto their children. These battles have played out in school board meetings, state legislatures, and even the Supreme Court. Scholars and educators then struggle to find ways to explore the interior and inner life of students without framing it in a religious context. Meditation and mindfulness face this same challenge, as some communities feel they are advocating a specific form of non-Western prayer.
This book is not intended to advocate a spiritualized curriculum or specific religious tradition, but rather to explore how self-reflective habits of mind, like meditation, can be applied to the pedagogy and curriculum in a nonprescriptive or nonreligious way. I hope that this work, combined with the earlier research on social-emotional learning, mindfulness, service learning, and empathy, offers a promising pathway to the future. The current system — focused solely on external measures or the wholesale disregard of students' emotional development — is not a viable path forward, and yet one that completely drops testing and some measure of accountability isn't sustainable either. It is a matter not of one or the other, but rather of a middle way that can introduce meditation into the classroom while working in concert with the demands of the larger curriculum.
Modern conceptions of knowledge place great value on the head, or the intellect, but the sacred traditions of the ancient past situate this value within the heart. This juxtaposition is worth noting since mindfulness, both as a practice and a term, is about the mind only, and many books about mindfulness are coming out of the fields of psychology and neuroscience. This book seeks to look a little farther, to the connection between the mind and the heart, birthed from firsthand experience in the classroom.
What is the heart? The heart embodies the cultivation of values such as empathy, compassion, and service to the world, not just the maximization of student output or test scores. In seeking to understand the connection between the mind and the heart, this book explores meditation as a tool for helping students make meaning of their own lives and develop a deeper sense of self. In the process, some important questions are raised:
How can educators broaden the curriculum to include the development of the student's interior life while also meeting the demands of today's standards-based curriculum?
What does a curriculum that honors the student's inner life look like?
How can meditation be incorporated so that it doesn't just compete but coexists with the current expectations of a standards-based model?
How could principles of the practice of meditation help educators rethink teaching, the design of schools, and the design of professional development?
Are there other modes by which the interior lives of students can be engaged that go beyond meditation?
By addressing these questions, we can shift the focus of educational theory and policy so that efforts to enrich the lives of students such as mindfulness and yoga are not lost in a wave of trendy reforms, becoming instead a lasting and transformative part of the curriculum. Exploring the inner aspects of a student's life through meditation might reveal a way to reintroduce these practices back into the curriculum in a meaningful way, not just as part of after-school programs, advisories, or electives.
RETHINKING THE CLASSROOM
When done well, meditation is a pathway to the heart. It offers an entry point into the most transformative parts of teaching, the parts where we engage with our highest selves. Today the benefits of these practices are well documented; one can find a thousand articles on the positive outcomes of teaching meditation and mindfulness to young people. But how to integrate them into a classroom remains unknown.
Here is a list of five simple suggestions that might help to lay the groundwork for meaningful student reflection discussed later in this book.
Less is more. Move away from the notion that more content is better, and instead create opportunities for students to engage with the material they are studying for extended periods of time and connect the material to their life. In contemplative practices this is called rumination.
Shift the focus away from outcomes. The more we gravitate toward test scores and end-of-year evaluations, the more we create a culture where the actual process of learning is being devalued. Redirecting student and teacher attention toward the wonder of learning is a must. Meditation can play a role in doing this by awakening creativity and curiosity.
Provide more opportunities for creativity and play. Whether it's as simple as letting a student choose the topic of a research paper or as artistic as replacing conventional modes of presenting knowledge with a visual display, let the students be creative. Creativity is a gateway to the inner passions and worlds that reside in the heart.
Bring back reading. Fewer and fewer high school students read for fun. Reading is probably the most important act students can engage in at any level to aid their cognitive growth and development. It not only helps foster a sense of curiosity and wonder, but it also reopens the mind to nonlinear ways of thinking that are integral to meditation. Reading is a foundational component of many contemplative traditions.
Get outside. Later I'll discuss the practice of meditation on field trips and in nature, but for now remember that simply getting students outside of the classroom and outside of themselves can be a powerful tool for accelerating their reconnection with authentic learning and reenergizing the room.
At this moment in educational history we have an opportunity to reevaluate not just what is being taught in the classroom, but how it is being taught. Placing our students' hearts at the center of the classroom is a radical act, one that has the potential to transform how we engage their whole lives, in turn transforming the type of people they become. The gateway to this transformation is meditation. Meditation is not an ending but a beginning, a doorway into the emotional and inner lives of our students. Shifting our attention and focus away from the head and the intellect to also include the emotions and the heart is crucial to a larger shift in schooling.
THE BREATH MEDITATION
Find a comfortable spot on a chair or cushion. Make any adjustments you might need, rotate your shoulders, relax your arms, and let your legs be loose. When you are ready, either lower your eyes into a soft forward gaze or, if you are comfortable doing so, close your eyes. Now take three breaths and begin.
Feel yourself breathing in and breathing out. Feel the space around you and within you.
As you take this next breath, let yourself go inward. Let go of the sounds around you, any other distractions, and gently move into a single-minded focus on your breath.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Three Breaths and Begin"
Copyright © 2019 William Meyer.
Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsContents:
1. Introduction to Meditation
2. Creating a Space for Meditation
3. Meditating in the Classroom
4. Meditating Outside and on Field Trips
5. Meditations for Sports Teams
6. Meditations in Tragedy
7. Meditations with Younger Students
8. Meditations for Older Students Challenges
9. Student Thoughts on Meditation
10. Meditations for Teachers
11. Meditations for Parents