“Make sure you have enough room to spread your wings”, I speak in a slow, steady, deep voice as I try to center myself amidst a cacophony yelling, laughing, the thud of backpacks dropping on the floor, that sizzling, frenetic teenage energy… as they transition into the next 55 minute class of the day, after pushing their way through noisy, crowded halls crammed with the high intensity buzz of BHS’s 3,500 students. An ear-piercing bell rings to start class. That’s my cue to start chi gung- lungs first- arms spreading wide and a deep breath. Then we move on to the kidneys, scooping energy and using the palm heel to push a ball under water. In no more than 30 seconds, the volume in the class drops to almost total silence, the energy grounds itself and almost all 32 of them are following me through a series of Chi Gung exercises. Only a few resist in their apathy and sit listlessly in their seats or lean against the wall. “Get off your tushes!”, I smile and yell to them! “Join us, young ninjas!” “Why are we even doing this?, a student sometimes groans. “Think of Bumgarner who pitched for the Giants in the World Series”, I tell them as we move into the heart exercise. “He focused all his energy, his mind and his body, on that one pitch, strike after strike. Like a laser. Be like him. You are in charge of your energy. Direct it, tell it where to go and follow your hand with your eyes.” We finish with the heart and the spleen. I ring the meditation bell and they stumble to their confining desks. “Clear a space in your day. Leave aside your worries and stresses and all the thoughts racing through your mind. Breathe in. Breathe out. I speak so slowly, it defies the speediness all around us. Pay attention to your breath moving in and out of your body. What does it feel like? Breathe in. Breathe out. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to noticing your breath.” When I scan the room, most kids look like the stress is melting away from them. A few are struggling, fidgety, tapping a pen, unzipping a backpack , catching up on an assignment, eyes darting around the room or leaning out the window to listen to the lively conversation of some kids walking by. A minute later, I ring the bell again. “Raise your hand when you cannot hear the bell anymore.”
This is our ritual. 10 minutes every class period of every day. I do it because I know how valuable it has been in my own life, how it has often saved my life or saved my day, to find that peaceful place in my self amidst stress and worry. Clear it out. Get into my body. Get present in the room, in the moment. My students mostly trust me; as weird as these ancient Chinese traditions seem to them, they mostly let me guide them. I reassure the struggling students when we are finished. “Some of you will find this super hard, especially the sitting and breathing.” I tell them that I remember when my Sifu asked me to go meditate with the monks at Green Gulch for a whole hour. I was not just uncomfortable, but irritated and fuming that I could not stop the thoughts or distractions in my mind. I wanted to scream. “But I promise you”, I tell them, “if you practice this, it will get easier to find the calm, peaceful place in yourself, one that you can return to whenever you are stressed or angry or obsessing about something.”
I know that as a History teacher I can include this practice in my classroom because I am in Berkeley, California. I also know that I can include this practice because it falls in what is fashionable now in the Educational World- Social-Emotional Learning. Kids cannot learn optimally if they are not present and focused and too often they are not because of all that is going on in their lives. Both intuition and the research are clear: Kids need to learn how to manage their emotions and become self aware so they can be in control of their decisions and behavior. Kids learn best in environments where they are given space to be their full selves- brains and emotions both. Many destructive teenage behaviors can be prevented if kids and teens develop strategies for lowering their stress. Kids can focus more on learning if they learn strategies for managing their stress and distractions.
Even so, periodically, a parent will complain because Chi Gung and mindfulness (meditation) are not academic, do not belong in the classroom, and are worthless. This year, one parent was relentless in her emails to the Vice Principal. “This is history class. The teacher should not take 5-10 minutes out of each class to do this! She is wasting my daughter’s valuable academic teaching time!” she ranted. Finally, after over a month, she gave up her crusade. We told her to read up on social-emotional learning. We told her the educational research was clearly behind me. I must say that it was particularly powerful for me to witness the complaining parent’s child transform. At first, because of what her parents said, she was resistant, wound up, and tense, always with a sour, irritated face, refusing to practice our ritual. Now, she is a willing participant, who sits like Buddha with her eyes closed! She clearly feels the value, even if she cannot voice it to her parents.
I make the choice to teach my kids Chi Gung and meditation (mindfulness) every day for two reasons. For me and for them. One, it allows ME to be present and centered in the insanity of a factory educational system where 32 kids, 150 total, come in and out of my classroom every 55 minutes all day. It makes me a better teacher in executing my lesson plans, revising them if necessary, on the spot to ensure student learning during class, or in the one minute before the next class starts. And it makes me a more patient, compassionate person so that I can create an environment where my 9th graders feel seen and cared for. I can honestly tell them, almost daily, how adorable they are even when they are being contrary, resistant or lazy. I can more easily take a moment to notice a student who needs to take a short walk to clear his mind. After our 10 minute ritual, I have this capacity. I have created the space for all of us. I also do it for THEM. I have witnessed in my own children and in my students, the insane amount of stress high school students are under- homework until 2 or 3 in the morning, managing 6 different subjects and teachers every day, sitting down in chairs, mostly passively, for 7 hours a day, trying to learn when they are just overloaded, exhausted or not understanding, anxious about grades and college and all the social dramas they carry with them- all the anger and confusion and fear of bullying, parents in prison, divorces, homophobia, having pimples, not being pretty enough or “manly” enough or whatever. They carry it all and it weighs on their bodies and minds every day, interfering with their learning and their happiness. With this daily 10 minute ritual, they smile at me more, they connect with me and with each other more positively. It creates community in the classroom, both academically and emotionally. I am invested in them creating lifelong habits- habits of reading the news and having analytical discussions, habits of clearly expressing themselves in writing, habits of pursuing social justice, and habits of breathing and finding their inner peace. They are all equally valuable, even though the latter will never be graded or assessed.