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At West Bath School, A Mindfulness Expedition

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This piece was originally publish in the December 24th, 2015 issue of midcoast Maine's Coastal Journal publication and features EL Education's West Bath School.

WEST BATH — Meditation has come a long way from the exotic, ‘60s flavored version of the Eastern practice that first got Americans’ attention.

Today’s meditation can mean a scant 10 minutes of quiet time in a chair, or at a desk, to focus one’s mind. It’s now practiced in corporations, small businesses, mommy groups and even in schools.

Educators are discovering the benefits of showing a room of energetic students how to turn down the inner noise, how to quell hop-scotching thoughts, to re-group, and prepare for the next phase of the learning day.

Meditation is only one part of teaching “mindfulness,” and helping kids understand the difference between their minds and their brains.

Midcoast schools from Woodside Elementary in Top-sham to Harpswell Coastal Academy to Edgecomb’s Center for Teaching and Learning have all integrated some form of mindfulness learning into one or more of their class rooms.

At West Bath School, fifth grade teacher Rob Schulz began introducing mindfulness to his students “in a very layman’s way,” after realizing that his own practices were making him a better teacher. “I thought, if it helps me become a better teacher, certainly it could help students become better learners.“

As an expeditionary learning school, West Bath has a couple of projects throughout the year that are large-focus, and the mindfulness expedition became one of those after enthusiastic reception.

“It’s expanded into a community of stronger learners, and a community that cares about each other and about how they’re learning,” Schulz said.

It’s all about the meta-cognitive skills that students develop, in thinking about their thinking. “We have focused on different parts of the brain, and how they are connected, how that might impact how they take in information,” Schulz said.

Some of this might sound like pretty deep concepts for 10 year olds, but that is precisely what helps them unlock the key to learning and self-awareness.

One of the biggest shifts Schulz has seen in his students is around the focus of “growth mindset,” a newish buzz phrase in education.

“Shifting away from having a ‘fixed mindset,’ about whether you’re ‘able’ to do something, ‘smart’ enough to do something - math, or art, for example - and coming around to a ‘growth mindset,’ and understanding that education and learning is a longer process, is an important journey,” he said. “The word ‘yet’ comes into play a lot more, the idea that ‘I can’t do something yet’ has been a tremendous shift. That has been the biggest yield out of the efforts we’ve made.”

About once a week, Schulz calls for “chillax” time, about 10 minutes out of the day, for something like a meditative break. “We do either self-reflection, or a kind of guided meditation. The 10 minutes can go very quickly. We’re always shuffling things around, to figure out the best way to continue this practice.”

There is plenty of research that shows both meditation and mindfulness is helpful in reducing stress and increasing focus.

According to Erica Nyhus, a neuroscientist at Bowdoin College, research on the effect of meditation on memory and learning is fairly scant. She and her students are just getting started on a research project to investigate the cognitive effects.

“There is some neuroscience evidence out there showing some structural changes in the brain from meditation and mindfulness,” Nyhus said. “Some of the most interesting evidence I’ve found so far is involved with 8-week training courses, where they train people in mindfulness and meditation, and they scan the brain before and after the 8-week course.

“The data shows that there are increases in gray matter and volume, in the regions that tend to be important for learning and memory, which is what my research is on. So I would like to know if those structural changes might correspond with anything that we can measure behaviorally, which would have some implications for learning.

“While there is lot of evidence that it’s very helpful for stress and anxiety reduction, my interest is more, can we actually improve our cognition? Can we improve learning and memory abilities by having more focused attention that comes from mindfulness meditation?”

Katie Byrnes, a faculty member at Chewonki’s Teachings in Mindful Education Institute who taught mindfulness in education at Bowdoin College, says that while meditation “is not a panacea for our collective and individual struggles and challenges,” the practice helps to create choice and flexibility in kids’ lives.

“It is one means of addressing challenges head-on with compassionate wisdom,” she said. “Children who experience mindfulness practices often notice how feelings such as anger might arise in the bodies, and with time, learn how to skillfully act with awareness.”

Schulz says the anecdotal evidence of the practice’s effect on behavior is clear, and perhaps just as important. “Office referrals, behavior issues, all those things are reduced, because this kind of work allows them to look at themselves, gives them the opportunity to assess why they are behaving the way that they are, which means less time out of the classroom.”

West Bath School Principal Emily Thompson is planning to attend an expeditionary learning conference on the brain and mindfulness in the classroom in December. Chewonki’s Teachings in Mindful Education workshop, where Byrnes is a faculty member, is held each summer, and gaining in popularity. For more information, visit chewonki.org/workshops.

Teachers and schools might also contact Erica Marcus, a certified Mindful Schools instructor (mindfulschools.org) and consultant based in Portland, whose “Wise minds Big hearts” curriculum includes lessons on mindfulness, gratitude, and specific skills for managing stress and test anxiety. For more information, visit wiseminds-bighearts.com.

WestBath

West Bath fifth graders and teacher Rob Schulz put the garden to bed for the winter. The garden is one of the school’s ongoing expeditions.