Mindfulness Blog Challenge

IMG_20151028_182534I’m proud to announce that I’ve recently taken part in The Mindfulness Summit, a not-for-profit project with a mission to make mindfulness mainstream.

Now, what is mindfulness and why am I writing about it on an ELT blog? In a nutshell, mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. Mindfulness is a near synonym of awareness, i.e. knowing and understanding what is happening in the world or around you.

There are two reasons why I’m about to devote a whole blog post to mindfulness. For one, I believe that being mindful (or aware) is synonymous with being a good teacher. In other words, understanding what is happening in the world around you (read: classroom) is fundamental to good teaching practice. Noticing and knowing that a problem or a situation exists is a prerequisite to finding solutions. But most importantly, being mindful is a straight way to happiness.

The other reason why I’m writing this post is the blog challenge I came across earlier today, written by Micaela Carey. In her post, Micaela describes the ways she uses Mindfulness in the classroom and why and she challenges fellow bloggers to do the same:

Whether you’re just starting to practice Mindfulness or you’ve been doing it for years, write a post about it.  Tell us about how you practice, share an anecdote or simply write about why you would like to practice Mindfulness.

So here’s my take on mindfulness.

My regular readers may know that I’ve always been a believer in dogme teaching. To my mind, dogme, a communicative approach to language teaching that encourages teaching without published textbooks and focuses on conversational communication among learners and teacher, closely relates to what mindfulness is about. From my point of view, the relation lies in the fact that both zoom in on the present moment.

As SLA research implies, there’s no point in a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching English; the sequence of acquisition is not identical with the order language items are presented in coursebooks anyway. Thus, it makes more sense to build on what each and every student already knows and can do, and the only way to find out what our students know is to be mindful, i.e. to pay attention to the language they produce at each given moment.

There are many ways of practicing mindfulness with your students. Needless to say, they don’t even need to know about the concept to benefit from the practice. To an outsider, your mindfulness practice will probably look like a cool activity or an effective warmer.

So, here’s what I did with my 13-year-old students the other day. The idea came to me unexpectedly, as most creative ideas do, and that might be one of the reasons why it eventually went so well.

I handed out post-it notes and asked each student to write one thing that was on their mind at that moment. Then I got them to put the post-it note on somebody’s back without revealing the word. Each student had to find out what the word was by asking appropriate yes/no questions.

When everybody finished, I collected all the post-it notes and stuck them on the board. We put them into categories, such as people, pets, problems, the future, the past, the present, etc. Then I, in a deliberately jovial and triumphant manner, gradually removed all the cards with things which didn’t relate to the present moment. For example, most students had thought of their upcoming tests. This, as they admitted, was a rather worrying thought. I said there was no point in worrying about the future – the only thing that mattered was the precious moments we were having together. I told them that from then on we would only enjoy the lesson – every single moment of it.

They nodded in agreement, smiling ….

So, what are your ways of practicing mindfulness? Although this may be the first time you’re pondering this question, give it a try 🙂

When the pain is finally blown away …

IMG_20151028_120203The draft of this post was written a couple of days ago. It was written in a very vulnerable and unstable state of mind. When I calmed down later on, I decided not to post it. But earlier today, something eventually made me change my mind. A friend of mine told me about something that had happened to her, which I felt was in some way similar to what I had experienced.

Both stories have something to do with the fact that you have no control over what people think and what they say about you. If they say nasty things and they share them publicly, on social media, for example, you can’t but let it be when the pain goes away.

Here’s the original story.

As you probably know, I’m a homeroom teacher to a class of 25 teenagers. One of them recently set up a class blog. Soon afterward, I incidentally learned about the blog and I immediately whooped with delight.

I promptly shared my joy with the kids so from then on they knew I was visiting the blog. Over time, I’d discovered that only a handful of students were regularly contributing to the blog. Unfortunately, some of the stuff they shared verged on inappropriate. I suspected that the web was not a perfectly safe place, so the rest of the class probably preferred avoiding it. So I told the kids that they should be careful about what they post and that they were fully responsible for the content of the blog. I reminded them that cyberspace can be a tricky place. This story is an irrefutable proof of that.

The other day, the founder of the blog posted a ranty comment in which he complained about school. He mentioned a few teachers, including me. In his comment, he said that he had enough of Mrs. T, who constantly pokes her nose in everybody’s personal stuff. Another boy joined in and actually continued in the same vein – he complained about school and how annoying it was, how disgusting the food in the school canteen was, how irritating the homeroom teacher is – nothing new under the sun. Anyway, the first boy then replied to the second boy’s comment. This time, however, his comment was intentionally and openly rude.

I know teachers get on teenagers’ nerves; I have two teenagers at home after all. At this age, adults are probably seen as enemies and students feel the need to be rebellious at all costs. Nevertheless, I did feel sad when I saw the comments. The matter was complicated by the fact that I was at home on holiday and I couldn’t talk to the students face to face to get things straight.

So my sadness slowly turned into a mixture of disappointment, fear, and anger. I had always regarded the founder of the blog a nice boy and I was surprised how much bitterness there was within him. I think I particularly didn’t like the fact that he was manipulating others, infecting them with his negativity and disgruntlement, but the worst thing about the whole incident is that he knew I’d see the comment, so I couldn’t but take it personally.

However, I tried to stay rational. I used a technique that should be helpful in situations like this; whenever I thought of the incident, I started breathing slowly. I tried to recognize the pain, feel it and then let it go. This helped a bit. I went back to the website to find evidence that I was actually being paranoid and that nothing really terrible was happening. I re-read the comments, especially the last one. The pain came back again. I dosed myself with another breathing exercise. Was I expected to respond? They boy had sent out a clear message and believed I’d receive it at some point.

After a while, for a fleeting moment, my feelings changed; I suddenly felt admiration and respect towards the student. I realized how much courage it took to write such a comment and sign beneath it.

But the disappointment came back. It was impossible to fight it. I was hopeless and desperate. I had to act. I had to do something. I kept telling myself that these things simply happen, that they help me learn and grow. This purely cognitive approach helped, for a millisecond, but then the negativity was back again. I finally became angry with myself. I ended up blaming myself for being totally irrational, impulsive and over-sensitive.

Now, this is my train of thought: I might have pretended I hadn’t seen the comment at all. Or, I might have pretended that I didn’t give a damn about their website. I might well stop visiting the blog completely to save myself from potential trouble and tears.

IMG_20151028_112554Long story short, I chose the third option. However, I should add that I did talk to the boy as well (not face to face to face, though). I wanted him to know that I knew. I wanted the other kids to know too. I don’t know if it was right, but for me, it was the only way of handling this burdensome situation. And even now, when I’m relatively calm, I don’t regret it. Now I can finally let it be and forgive the boy and myself.

My final set of (rather suggestive) questions would be this: Do I have the right to feel emotional in such a situation? Do I have the right to tell my students how much it hurts to hear the nasty things they utter. Should I teach my students about the rules of decent (online) communication? Or should I stop controlling them, i.e. should I stop poking my nose into their stuff, and let them discover things for themselves?