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Making Space: Entering Lessons Mindfully

Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins

If you enter a physical space, such as your home, with your right foot (literally), the act of pausing, deliberating, focusing—even if just for a few seconds—helps you focus on the present moment, brings your energy and your intention into the space you are about to enter, and helps you stay connected to your better self. When we remember to do this as we enter our homes, we are better—kinder to ourselves, more patient with our children, more connected to our significant others, and on and on. Basically, we manage to stay present with our families a little longer if we take a deep breath, literally and figuratively.

Similarly, a small shift in the way that we approach our lessons—such as taking a series of deep breaths before we begin teaching—can have an equally profound effect. This relatively small moment in time creates space and intention around each lesson, helping us focus on what we are sharing with students. When we enter a lesson this way, we are more present, have more energy, and connect with students better—the instructional equivalent of entering our homes on our right foot. 

To help you think about creating space around a lesson by breathing deeply, consider the following metaphor for mindfulness, as we have adapted it for a classroom context. This illustration helps us understand the ways the past and the future draw energy away from the now.

Imagine the dot below is the lesson you are beginning now (metaphorically speaking).


 

This dot represents what is happening now, in the lesson. It holds all of the children in your classroom, their energy and their intent, in the present moment. It holds your instructional content, your eye contact with your students, your presence in the room, now. It even holds your physical contact with your environment: your hand on a computer keypad or a child’s shoulder, a dry erase marker, with its caustic smell, its smooth feel, its vibrant color as you pull it across a dry erase board in a steady rhythm. It includes the rain or the sun hitting the classroom window, the clock ticking, and the scent of the vanilla air freshener . . . now.

Next, imagine a line extending left, or backward from the dot.

This line represents the past. It holds your lesson planning the night before, your curriculum meeting where your grade-level team developed this lesson sequence. It holds the angry phone call you received from a parent over your lunch break, the district decision that you will post the standards in your classroom, and the fact that you and your significant other argued before leaving for work this morning. It holds any history you have with any student, whether angst-ridden or joy-filled. Any attention to the past drains your energy from your lesson, pulling you away from, of course, now, which remains as the single dot in the center.

Next, imagine a line extending right, or forward from the dot.

This line represents the future. It holds the standardized test that is looming on the horizon. It holds the open house that will keep you at school late tonight. It holds your dinner plans and preparations, your child’s after-school events, the papers you must grade. The future even holds the assessment you will give to see if your students have learned the content you are teaching now. All things that haven’t happened yet—whether you consider them good or bad, whether the thought of them fills you with worry or eagerness—fall along this line into the future, again pulling you from the now. Now still waits in the present moment, a single dot that gets the least of our attention.

Both in our teaching lives and in our home lives, it is easy for our now energy to get pulled forward and backward with the stories we hold on to (the past) and the worry or anticipation we project forward (the future). But now, right now, you are a teacher in a room with a group of beautiful children. You are wise, and you are talented, and you are going to teach these beautiful children right now, as the rain or the sun hits the window, as the vanilla air freshener fills your nostrils, as you gather your energy to read a beautiful picture book or even teach a minilesson on noun-verb agreement.

To enter a lesson on your “right foot,” you simply pause before you begin, putting a margin of space around the instructionally congested learning schedule. Your eyes move around the room, looking children in their eyes, connecting with them as you take a deep breath. As the breath draws your energy and your intention to the present moment, your energy and attention will be pulled from past and future concerns, and you will feel more focused. The dot of the present moment grows into a vertical line, as the lines away from the now in either direction get shorter and the present moment deepens.

 

You take another, even longer breath. You make eye contact with more children. You accept the present moment even more, with whatever challenges and joys it brings.

 

Finally, you take a third, deep breath. This pulls the last remnants of distraction from the past and future and centers you in now. Your thoughts and concerns about the past and future fall away for the moment, and right now all that matters is the children who sit before you and the content you intend to teach them.

 

 

In classrooms, we all pay great attention to the physical space. We are conscientious about classroom clutter. We are intentional about room design, furniture placement, and color, particularly in these early days of a new school year. But, more important than the things we place and arrange in the classroom is the space around the people and the objects—the emptiness that is actually something. Similarly, creating space, or making room for nothingness, between lessons, by taking a few deep breaths as you cross over the threshold of a lesson, will affect your quality of life as well as the quality of student learning.

Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins

Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins are the writers and thinkers behind Burkins and Yaris -- Think Tank for 21st Century Literacy, where their blog and their instructional resources have drawn a national audience and made them thought leaders in the field of literacy instruction. Their book Reading Wellness is available through Stenhouse Publishers.