First Person

How mindfulness improves testing days for me — and for my students

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

Last week, when I asked fourth and fifth graders at my school how they felt when they thought about the test, they responded, “stressed,” “pressured,” “anxious,” “angry,” “butterflies in my stomach,” “fear of the unknown,” and “really, really, really, really nervous.”

So I was grateful that we were about to engage in mindfulness — the evidence-based practice that has helped me access calm, resilience, and joy during the hectic work day. I first came to mindfulness out of curiosity, and immediately noticed a drastic decrease in my own stress levels. After undergoing a yearlong training with the organization Mindful Schools, I started bringing the practices to my students. Three years ago, I adapted the practices specifically for state testing for the first time.

Research suggests that students who practice mindfulness show increases in attention, focus, and emotional regulation — all of which can be elusive in our frenetic world. A few years ago, my library was filled with students reacting to the large space and the absence of their regular teacher by running and screaming. After integrating mindfulness, I would see kids draped quietly over chairs, with their faces, minds, and imaginations lost in books. The same students (from the same challenging backgrounds) have more learning-ready brains that it is clear they are putting to use. I have transferred to a new school this year, and have been delighted to see the impacts of mindfulness on my new students.

But as educators know, even the most carefully calibrated classroom environment can fall apart when state testing rolls around. I could feel the tension in the room when I even so much as used the word “test” last week. By the time we got through the lesson, and with the skills they’ve built up through the past several months, I felt confident that my students would have the tools to get through these challenging weeks.

Testing weeks are hard for teachers, too. In a world where we are hyper-connected, and where it’s incredibly rare to spend several hours without access to devices or human interaction, the proctoring protocols are strict — and challenging.

Proctoring can be extremely boring, especially compared to regular patterns of constant interaction with very active young people. Mandated guidelines for teachers are similar to those for students: no talking, no reading, no electronics, and no sitting. So in addition to guiding my students through a pre-test activity to release tension and increase calm (which I will be sharing over the announcements in the mornings for all of our test-takers!), I developed the following mindful strategies to cope with, and ultimately benefit from, the mind-numbing protocols of proctoring.

Here’s what I did — and what I’ll be doing this week as my students start yet another round of English and math exams.

  1. Bringing full attention to the feet. Every time I found myself becoming bored, I would redirect my attention to my feet. While my eyes gazed upon my students, I directed all of my internal sensory attention to what the ground felt like, what the inside of my shoes felt like, to the varying levels of pressure that different parts of my feet felt. Fully feeling the ground beneath me — in most people this leads to a pleasant, tingling sensation in the feet (but not always). This grounding activity takes the attention out of the mind and into the body. For me, this significantly decreases boredom and increases feelings of pleasantness.
  2. Scanning the room. As I slowly scanned the room, I took in as much detail as I could as I swept my eyes from side to side. (My kids would call this using your mindful eyes.) It may take as much as 20 or 30 seconds to pan the room. Part of this scanning is taking in the details of the students as well, noticing, noticing, noticing, going to the deepest level of detail possible. Similar to using the feet to anchor the attention, this technique anchors the attention in the visual field and allows the brain to find nuance and novelty in a situation where it is definitely not generally expected.
  3. Walking mindfully. As I walk around, I do “mindful walking” — one breath per step, nice and slow. And then slower than that. I pick up one foot and inhale, place it down and exhale, pick up the other foot and inhale, place it down and exhale. I find that this feels extremely calming and pleasant to the nervous system, especially after the hours of pacing on testing days. This is more than just walking slowly — it is placing a deeper attention on the mechanics of walking.
  4. “Sending thoughts” to the students. One of my favorite aspects of being the school librarian is that I have no idea about every single student’s academic standing, so I get to believe in all of them. I spent several sweeps of the room looking at each kid and thinking “I believe in you!”; “You can do it!” and “You’ve got this.” This game doesn’t get old. I also told them before we started the test that if they catch me looking at them, that I’m thinking about how much I believe in them. (And while it may not make an actual difference in their scores, who can’t use a little extra believe-in in their lives?)
  5. Shared breathing. Before the test I told the students that every time I changed the “time remaining” on the board, if they wanted, they could take a mindful breath with me and then keep going (a school-friendly version of one of my mindfulness teachers’ “I love you, keep going”). It got to the point where, in their isolated you-must-do-this-by-yourself worlds, we repeated this sound sequence again and again: eraser on chalkboard, chalk on chalkboard, one big deep together-breath whispering through the room. It was nice to be in that “together” with them, under conditions that otherwise preclude connection. Now that the tests are untimed, this technique could be used with a simple updating of the “Time Now” on the board.
  6. Modeling the focused mind. There are such things as “mirror neurons,” so what we project is totally picked up by sensitive test-taking nervous systems. I looked at it as my job to not allow boredom, anxiety, restlessness, or frustration to sneak into my own mind. Instead I let myself be as engaged, calm, and focused as I wanted my students to be. When my mind would wander, or I’d feel it shift onto a course I didn’t want it to go (perhaps a very familiar thought merry-go-round), I’d take a deep breath, go back to focusing on my feet, and be as steady and stable as possible. It’s totally a challenge, but totally doable.

These six ideas have helped me to enjoy the proctoring more (and in fact, to sometimes walk away with my nervous system so calm, I felt euphoric). Students have told me that the “taking a breath together” really helped them to focus and not be as scared. Additionally, I provided a script and audio-recording for the pre-test calming to each teacher in the school, and other students came up to me and told me how much it had helped them focus and “chase away all the butterflies” before the test. Kids who didn’t get the pre-test calming script were begging for it.

I am looking forward to sharing these techniques in my new school this week — and with truly open curiosity, we’ll see how it goes. As one educator, I can’t change the tests, but I can do my part to influence how students experience them. It has been tremendously rewarding to witness the impact of mindfulness on emotional regulation in the face of a highly stressful situation.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.