Friday, February 26, 2016

Mindful in the Middle

If walking the middle school hallways of our school at precisely 8:06, you will see the following: students in chairs or standing, eyes closed, quiet. This is the daily mindfulness practice we have implemented to bring a sense of calm and focus to the day ahead. We began the practice earlier in the year after teachers collaborated on a way to incorporate quiet time as a means of reducing the stress of middle school.

We launched the initiative in Mandell Meeting, our biweekly community assembly, by asking students to share privately what stresses they feel. Students responded with a variety of stressors, ranging from academic to social pressure, societal expectations, family dynamics or illnesses. We then had them place the items in a “worry box” for the day and led them through a visualization exercise in which they were cued to draw the emotion they wanted to feel most often throughout their day. We discussed mindfulness as a practice which can take various forms and shared a video documenting how one school used mindfulness as a way of reducing the life stresses students faced in an underserved, crime-ridden neighborhood. Students built empathy and  shared similar obstacles despite very different environments.

Since that Mandell Meeting in October, we have practice daily quiet time in morning homerooms and throughout the day as needed or appropriate to each class’s activities. For example, Drama begins with a breathing exercise in which students center their focus and energy on the creative output required in the class. We also continue to incorporate whole-division mindfulness at the opening of each Upper School Mandell Meeting. This practice can take the form of quiet time, a “sound bath” of singing bowls, mindful listening in partners, or movement oriented practice such as chair yoga. Teachers have incorporated tools such as to expand their classroom approaches, and teachers have participated in two workshops on mindfulness this year including one on classroom management, one on classroom mindfulness, and another on mindfulness in writing.

Like other schools incorporating Mindfulness into the day, we have seen a positive impact at both the individual and group level. Gianna in Fifth Grade shared her thoughts on mindfulness practice stating, “I like it because it helps me think about my day and get calm. Like today, we have a quiz and it is helping me not get stressed.” This sentiment was echoed by Elaine in Eighth Grade who said, “I love the mindfulness practice in the morning because it is a nice time for me to relax before I begin my hectic day. It puts me in the right mode for school so that I don’t start off the day stressed.”

At one teacher workshop, a quote by Viktor Frankl was shared, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” As students mature into older childhood and gain heightened awareness of their world, they are inundated with stimuli. We are committed to providing them the tools through which they can create space to respond to these mindfully rather than to react impulsively. Through Mandell’s tight-knit community of trust, we have found a way to build this capacity through mindfulness. To read more about how this practice is making its way into the classroom, take a look at the following links.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

STEM Fest - Community Tinkering in Action

Exploring the Maker Marble Run
Yesterday after school, we hosted on of my favorite events, STEM Fest. We started this tradition a few years ago, originally calling it Tech Fest. Our goal was to engage our parent community in learning about the technology used in our academic program. Parents are often wary of technology in the learning environment, and part of this stems from a lack of understanding regarding how it is integrated and used to enrich the learning experience. The thought we had was simple: let's invite the parents in, create spaces for students to be the teachers of the technology in play, and let everyone explore together.

That first year, Tech Fest was a huge community success, accomplishing much more than we had hoped in building positive culture around blended learning and technology integration. Parents did walk away with valuable insight to the use of digital curriculum and tools, but they also learned from and alongside their children. Our students had a chance to learn from and alongside peers across grade levels as well, generating excitement for the years of learning on the horizon. Here is a quick step-by-step guide to putting on such an event...

Data Probes
Step 1 - Form a small planning committee to organize the logistics for date, spaces to be used, and planning documents.

Step 2 - In a shared document, create a map for the event which includes a list of rooms and the beginning brainstorm of tinkering spaces so that other teachers have an understanding of the hands-on nature of the activities.

Step 3 - Share the document with other teachers to have them signup to facilitate a station. Include a table with the columns for tool/app/activity name, description, and student helpers. Have teachers engage students as the leaders of these spaces.

Step 4 - Communicate and broadcast. Spread the word about the event and have parents join in the fun. We run our event after school with high attendance, but if this time is not conducive to parent attendance for your school, try to select a time that is. Participation is key.

"Dance Dance Revolution" Circuit Controller
This year, our STEM Fest included several stations for hands-on exploration, including spaces for coding, 3D printing, marble run maker space, science lab fun, photo booth, iPad art, board games, Google Docs, Schoology, iMovie, math apps, learning apps, and data probes. A fun way to draw visitors into the different spaces around the school is to run a live broadcast via Google Hangout. Our Webcast club reporters broadcasted the event live via Google Hangouts on Air from a news desk in one of the STEM Fest rooms, and other reporters go "live on location" to the different spaces. We broadcast the event in different spaces throughout the halls via projectors and screens.

When it comes together, STEM Fest gives the appearance of being a complicated event because there are so many wonderful spaces to explore. However, because of the collaborative prep and the goal of teachers facilitating exploration rather than leading workshops, the workload is light on the teachers. STEM Fest has quickly become a highlight of our academic year and a great way to build positive culture and shared understanding of our blended learning program.