The students' solution worked! The first five minutes of each class period became known as a time to collect ourselves and do our best thinking and writing. By the time the door opened and late students entered, everyone was already in the flow, so the minor disturbance of neighbors walking past or sitting down didn't interrupt their thought process.
I may have been the most fortunate person in the room, because I got to experience this five times a day.
Still, one problem remained: even though the outside world of the classroom was calm and quiet, most of us have a pretty loud, chaotic chorus of thoughts in our head. How do you quiet THAT down?
Yesterday I asked students on Zoom whether any adult had ever helped them with a strategy for transitioning from one class --> passing period --> the next class. This doesn't seem to be a popular topic, but it's something that we have to do all day long. And this year, we have to do it on our own schedule.
It's not enough to say "clear your mind" or "switch gears" -- we all understand what those phrases are intended to mean, but it's sort of like telling a person to "pay attention."
HOW DO YOU DO IT?
Before I started teaching high school courses, I consulted for companies and organizations, helping them create ways to share information that improved their performance. To help the Los Angeles Police Department, I needed a better sense of what police officers needed to know on the job - I have never been a police officer - so I did a "ride along" with a veteran officer.
At one point the officer pulled over and said, "I'm going to talk to this guy." I cringed; the "guy" happened
to be Black, and to me it looked like he was just walking down the street. My first thought was that this was a textbook case of racial profiling.
But the officer's questions and search quickly revealed that the man was carrying two concealed weapons and illegal narcotics. "OK," I said later, after the man was booked. "How did you do it?"
"I had a hunch."
That didn't help me understand. You can't just teach rookies to "have a hunch" any more than you can just tell a student to "pay attention." So I asked the officer lots of questions, and he finally helped me see the little details about how the man walked and answered questions that gave the officer clues about whether to conduct a search. It turned out that the proper training can help anyone develop the same skills that the officer demonstrated that day.
The same is true for paying attention. There are little things you can do -- in as little as 60 seconds -- that are proven to make you more calm, improve your ability to concentrate, help you understand what you read, and remember everything better.
HERE'S HOW YOU DO IT: A FIRST STEP
Some people see the word "meditation" and think it's some mysterious, esoteric (hey! esoteric is a great word! click the link and learn the definition before you read on!) practice for monks or Kung Fu masters.
Meditation isn't like that at all. All you have to do is sit.
Here's how we did it in the classroom, and how we're doing it on Zoom this week:
1. Sit where you're comfortable. In class and on Zoom, we're in chairs, so I start with the sense of your feet on the floor, but you can also sit cross-legged on the floor (and substitute "butt" for "feet" in #2).
2. Focus on how the bottoms of your feet contact the floor. Wiggle your toes. Feel your body sit.
3. Place your hands on your knees. Focus on how your knees feel against your fingers, and how your fingers feel against your knees.
4. Breathe in, deeply and slowly, through your nose. Feel your breath inflate your lungs like a balloon. Breathe in so deeply that your stomach sticks out.
5. Exhale, slowly, through your mouth. When your exhale is complete, pause, then slowly inhale again.
6. That's it. Repeat. Breathe. Listen to your breath. When the timer goes off, or you feel complete, stop. Notice how you feel.
7. Set a timer for 60 seconds and just... breathe.
BUT MY MIND WON'T SHUT UP
Yeah, sometimes that's a thing. Our minds are constantly circling back over things we have to do, things that are bugging us, things that we're stressed about, things... things... things.
It can be really frustrating to try to manage our minds, so don't bother.
Instead, pay attention to what you think is valuable. If something comes up that's worth thinking about, like a problem you need to solve, stay with it and consider it.
Remember that you are the boss. You can choose which thoughts get to capture your attention, which thoughts are worth coming back to later, and which thoughts are worth letting go and forgetting about altogether.
Since you may not be used to managing your thoughts in this way, it might help to look at them differently. You can see your thoughts as images on a phone screen - click on them, or swipe them away and clear your mental screen. If you've already spent enough time with screens, imagine that your thoughts are dandelions blowing away on a breeze, or leaves floating gently downstream.
*Ding! You may be surprised at how fast 60 seconds can go by. Of course, you can do this for longer, and as often as you like. But for now, ask yourself: How do you feel? So far, students in this week's Zoom meetings have used words like relaxed, calm, and even sleepy to describe how they felt after 60 seconds of mindfulness.
One minute of mindfulness, and everyone felt better. Experiment for yourself and see what happens. If you'd like to, please share your experience in a comment to this post.