The Things that Matter

favorite things 1When we think about “things that matter” to us, we have been taught to try to think of those things that don’t hold any monetary value: family, friendship, love, and even time. This morning, I watched Nate Berkus talk about his new book, “The Things that Matter.” While he focuses on the objects in his life that hold meaning, in essence they represent the very things I mentioned above. As I began to scan my own home, which is carefully scattered with important possessions I have gathered along the way, it was easy to pick out those things that were most meaningful to me.

What is it that makes us hold on to things: old pictures, family heirlooms, shells and beach stones? Sometimes it’s the sentiment behind the object; the fact that someone important gave it to you and you couldn’t possibly part with it. More often, what gives objects meaning in our lives are the stories they tell of who we were or who we have become. They make up the layers of our life and, in some cases, are gentle reminders of those intangible things that make life rich and truly meaningful. For me, the “things that matter” are all too often reminders of lessons learned, journeys I have taken, and moments that needed remembering.

favorite things 3When I graduated from university, I was given a memory box. It has my name engraved on the front and it contains many of the things I hold dear. There are old black and white photos of family, my aunt’s small book of poetry about “Hope,” and all the letters and postcards I sent to my family while abroad only to have them given back to me one Christmas tied in ribbon. There is a heart shaped necklace given to me by dear friends when I left my teaching job in Finland. It was never really meant to be worn. Rather, the necklace came with a note attached asking that it serve as a reminder to always hold a space in my heart for the place and people I had grown to love. There is also a leaf, a beach stone, an old coin, a book mark, a few newspaper clippings, and a small glass rosary. None of the latter would mean much to anyone else, but each tells a small part of the story of my life.

favorite things 2In the past, I have had my students reflect on the objects that matter to them. I give them a few days to think about it, eventually asking them to bring their object in. Bringing in their item generally narrows the field down to things that can fit in a backpack, although I did have a student bring in his dog once. Each time I do this activity, I am surprised at the variety of important possessions that come into the classroom. I have seen beach stones, shells, an arrowhead, pieces of jewellery, handmade gifts, photographs, and ornaments of all shapes and sizes. You can tell a great deal about a child by the thing that matters to them. You find out who they care about and the things they value in life. Just like each item in my memory box tells a story, the object in each child’s hand tells a story of significance to them. With our prized possessions, we mindfully look at them and carefully examine the physical attributes not previously seen before. We then draw them, paying attention to the detail, and use our illustrations as the jumping off point for writing about the significance of the item we hold dear. Oftentimes, we then share our stories. Every single “thing that matters” has a story attached.

I encourage you to take a moment to look around at the little things that matter most to you. What is it that makes these simple possessions so important and meaningful? I also encourage you to try this activity with your students or even your own children. No doubt you will find it is not only a revealing look into their lives outside of the classroom but provides you with an opportunity to see beyond simply the object they hold in their hand and into the heart of what really matters most.

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Self-Regulation one breath at a time

mindfulness drawings 8

Amy Saltzman, a researcher of mindfulness education, stated that, “One of the primary ironies of modern education is that we ask students to “pay attention” dozens of times a day, yet we never teach them how.” In the MindUP program, students participate daily in deep belly breathing, or “brain breaks,” as we call them, in order to slowly learn how to focus their attention.

Studies of the impact of deep belly breathing have been done on everyone from stressed out medical students, to hardened criminals sitting in maximum security prisons, to kids with ADD and ADHD. The results are generally the same. Not only does it increase focus and attention, it improves pro-social behaviour, enhances daily happiness, and increases levels of calm while decreasing stress and anxiety. From a neurological or physiological perspective, deep belly breathing slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and sharpens the minds ability to focus and learn by slowing down the amygdala and supporting the higher brain function taking place in the frontal lobes.

One of the other benefits of deep belly breathing is the control it gives participants over their emotions, their learning, and their own lives. When I completed my own research on mindfulness education as part of my Masters degree, one of the surprising outcomes of my research was discovering that my students were using deep breathing in other aspects of their lives. While I had not discussed applying deep breathing to anything outside of the classroom, I discovered that they were applying this calming strategy to dozens of life experiences outside the classroom including diffusing conflicts with parents, calming anxiety before a big game, helping with sleep, and managing homework. In addition, they were teaching their families what they were learning. Below are some of my favourite pictures that came from a journal entry on ways students had used deep breathing in their own lives.

mindfulness drawing 3angrymindfulness drawing 2

 

 

 

 

In my class, I start students off by reading a script that helps them focus on their breath. To start, we aim for about 1-2 minutes, depending on the age of the children. In my class, I ring a resonating tone bar which, when repeated each day, signals the brain to focus. As they become better able to focus on their own I slowly reduce the amount I say until I eventually say nothing at all.

Here is the script I follow:

  • Please sit comfortably in your chair, sitting tall so the air can fill your lungs.
  • I invite you to close your eyes.
  • When I ring the chime, listen for as long as you can. When you can’t hear it anymore, slowly begin your deep belly breathing.
  • As you take a deep breath and fill your lungs, feel your stomach rise and then fall again as you breathe out. (wait for 30 seconds before moving on with instructions)
  • If your mind wanders, that’s okay, just focus your attention on your breath.
  • When I ring the chime again, keep breathing calmly. When you can’t hear the sound anymore slowly open your eyes but stay still and quiet.

Deep Belly Breathing takes practice. Here are a few ways students can begin to understand and practice deep belly breathing.

Deep Belly Breathing Techniques

HobermanHobermann Sphere: Have students slowly inhale while you slowly expand the Hoberman sphere and then exhale as you slowly shrink the sphere back to its original size. This is also a great way to demonstrate the expansion of the lungs.

Bubbles: Have students practice a deep inhale and then slowly exhale as they blow bubbles.

Back to Back: Have students sit on the floor back to back. One student begins by inhaling deeply. The other partner should feel the expansion in their partners back as they breathe deeply. Take turns back and forth.

Korea_CG_Art_design_rainbow_pinwheelPinwheels: Have students practice deeply inhaling and then using the exhale to control the speed of the pinwheel.

Objects on the stomach: Have students place a small stuffed animal or object on their stomachs. As they breathe deeply, they should feel the stuffed animals or objects rise and then fall when they exhale. For younger students, you can tell them their job is to rock the stuffed animal to sleep using the rise and fall of their stomachs.

Flower and Candle Breathing: Have students clench their fist as if they are holding a flower. Have students pretend to smell the flower by deeply inhaling. Students then pretend they are holding a candle and slowly exhale to blow out the flame.

cottonballsCotton Balls: This game doesn’t mimic deep breathing but demonstrates that breathing takes practice, controlled breathing, and focus. Students get into partners standing a good arms length apart. Students begin by blowing the cotton ball at their partner. The goal is to hit their partner with the cotton ball using only their breath. When done, students stand with their feet apart. They then take turns trying to score a goal by blowing the cotton ball through their partner’s feet. Finally, each individual student places their cotton ball on the palm of their hand. Their challenge is to slowly blow the cotton ball to the tip of their index finger without blowing it off the hand.

“Glitzing Up” Your Understanding of the Brain

I was recently teaching a MindUp workshop to teachers in my district. A primary teacher asked how to introduce the concept of the brain to young children, or more specifically, the impact of stress, anxiety, and fear on the brain. This is a question I have been asked many times before. From an adult perspective, learning or teaching anything about the brain seems like a complex undertaking. The reality is, we don’t need to be neuroscientists to teach students about the brain or about the impact of stress, anxiety, and fear on brain function. When I teach these concepts to adults, I use the same visuals I would use with a class of middle school students or with a kindergarten class. The key is to provide students of any age with key visuals they can connect to and refer to when needed.

In addition to using Dan Siegel’s “Hand Model of the Brain,” which I wrote about in an earlier post, the most successful visual I have found to demonstrate the connection between stress and the brain is by using glitter balls. The use of glitter balls came from Susan Kaiser Greenland. I have included her video clip below. When I demonstrate how the parts of the brain function in both a calm and stressed out state, I begin by explaining that all the pieces of glitter represent the roughly 2000 bits of information our Reticular Activating System takes in each second. When the mind is calm and clear, like the unshaken glitter ball, information is able to pass successfully to the other parts of the brain. If we need to store or retrieve memories, we can access our hippocampus with greater ease. If we need to solve complex problems, make connections, or focus and pay attention, information is able to travel to our Prefrontal Cortex where learning takes place.

In contrast, when the mind is anxious or in a state of stress, the mind becomes just like the shaken glitter ball. Information is sent to our amygdala, our flight, fight, freeze center, as opposed to where it is needed to go. Like the glitter ball, the mind becomes cloudy and unfocused, information swirls around, and it is much harder for information to get where it needs to go. Can’t we all think of a time when our mind felt like the shaken glitter ball? I imagine it was hard to focus, hard to remember things, and hard to keep information straight.

When I teach students about deep breathing, we look at the glitter ball again. This time, using our breathing, we shake the glitter ball and breathe while the glitter slowly settles to the bottom. This represents the calming effect of breathing on the brain. Students as young as kindergarten can relate to the visual of the glitter ball, and I have seen the image of the glitter ball reappear in conversations and in writing. I remember one of my former kindergarten students, during a particularly tough moment, tell me his brain felt like the glitter ball. His thoughts were swirling around and he recognized he was having a hard time controlling it.

If you can’t find glitter balls, making your own is simple enough. Before I came across Kaiser Greenland’s video, I used the jar of thick oil and small beads pictured at the start of this post. You can also create a more glittery visual by using hot water, food colouring, glitter glue, glitter, and a glass jar. In a small jar, mix a couple of tablespoons of glitter glue with hot water (if water is cold, the glue won’t break down). Stir until the glue is dissolved. Add a drop of food colouring and some dry glitter and shake. For a great book that goes with this concept, try “Moody Cow Meditates.” Since the deep breathing practice (Brain Break) used in MindUP is not considered meditation, I change the book to “Moody Cow is Mindful.” In this great children’s book, Moody Cow is shown how the glitter jar represents his “moody” brain in the same way we teach the glitter jar to students. By the way, for those techies out there, Moody Cow also has his own IPad app.

Once you have used the visual of the glitter ball, I have done a number of extension activities with students. Some of these activities include:

  • Journaling about a time their own brain felt like the shaken glitter jar. What was going on? What did it feel like? How did they calm their mind?
  • Having students cover a paper circle entirely with glitter glue and then write about things that cause them stress, anxiety, or fear. The paper glitter ball can also serve as the center starting point for a web.
  • Placing just a small bit of glitter glue at the bottom of a paper circle to represent a calm mind. Have students write about things that calm their mind or complete a similar web to the one outlined above.
  • Brainstorming a class list of strategies that can calm the mind and then writing them on paper glitter balls that can be posted in the classroom for future reference. This is also a great activity once students are farther into the program and have more information to draw on.
  • Having students bring a small jar from home. Students can then create their own glitter jar that can be taken home, explained to parents, and left at home for future reference.

In short, you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to demonstrate the impact of stress on brain function. No matter how old or young your students, the glitter ball teaches the basics of what students need to know. I also promise you that whether you teach adults, middle schoolers, or kindergarteners, the enthusiastic response is the same. For those students that want to learn more, which some do, you also don’t need to have all the answers. Sometimes questions are the best segue into demonstrating that teachers are learners too. While I feel I have a good understanding of the brain science behind MindUp or mindfulness education, a recent visit to a couple of middle school classrooms in my school left me with questions I couldn’t answer with “complete” confidence. One student insightfully asked whether a photographic memory was an indicator of an overdeveloped hippocampus. Another told me that the reason our flight, fight, freeze mechanism doesn’t always pick the best option is that it is so primitive it does not have the capacity to factor in modern dangers. You don’t need all the answers and, when in doubt, Google!

Teaching the Brain

Everything is better with a great book and teaching students about the brain is no different. Books on the brain for students can be few and far between, with most information found between the pages of dense non-fiction material. With that said, I have two favorites that I use with students all the way from kindergarten up to grade 8.

“A Walk in the Rain with a Brain,” by Edward Hallowell, is a great book for younger students. The main message of the book is that “each brain finds its own special way.” The story begins with Lucy, the main character, walking in the rain when she finds a brain sitting in a puddle. The brain asks for her help in finding his way home and, on their walk, Lucy expresses her  belief that she isn’t very smart. Fred, the brain, explains that everyone is smart but just in their own unique ways. He also argues that everyone just thinks and learns a little bit differently. The notion that everyone has unique strengths, and that everyone thinks and learns differently, is a commonly held belief amongst educators. Helping students to discover and utilize their own strengths, while at the same time providing strategies and structures to improve learning is crucial to the positive emotional well-being of children. This book provided the opportunity for students to take what they knew about the brain, and what they knew about themselves, to create their own cartoon brain. Each student spent time brainstorming a list of strengths they had. Students then had fun imagining what their cartoon brain might look like. In the end, each brain was an accurate representation of the child and the visual depictions were a general match too.

My other favorite book is “Your Fantastic Elastic Brain,” which is published by Little Pickle Press. You can download an activity guide from their site. I love this book for so many reasons. First, it does a fantastic job of introducing the parts of the brain we focus on in MindUp. Second, it explains to children, in a simple way, how we are all born with a brain that is flexible and can be shaped by the things we do each day. To improve our own fantastic elastic brains, the author suggests we try simple strategies such as taking risks, learning a new skill, solving problems, and even making mistakes and learning from them. This book can lend to rich discussion whether in a Kindergarten class or in a middle school class. Little Pickle Press also recently came out with a fantastic ipad app to support their book. It does cost a little money to download, but it allows your students or child to participate in the reading of the story. It also includes a wealth of fun activities, games, and journal prompts to stretch your own fantastic elastic brain.

With students, I have used this book in a variety of ways. I have had them work in groups to brainstorm specific examples of the various ways to stretch their brain. We have also displayed these “fantastic elastic ways,” in the classroom for future reference. For younger children, I have challenged them to find examples, in the books we were reading, of ways others were stretching their brain. Each time a student discovered an example, they would say the word “snap,” to represent the snapping of an elastic band. Students also made plasticine models of their own brain that demonstrated the unique strengths and skills of each child. The lesson plan for this activity can be found on the Kids Relaxation Website. For a high school example of a plasticine model of the brain, check out Newton High School’s blog, for a very cool look at their high school psychology project on the brain. This is a perfect example of the creativity of teachers and the ability to take an idea and stretch it to meet the needs of your own “fantastic elastic” students. More lessons on this book to come…