Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning

“This is an important book for teachers, school administrators, parents, and all others concerned with the well-being of the next generation.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh


The essays in Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning demonstrate that contemplative methods can be used with any curriculum content to support development for self-understanding, empathy, emotional intelligence and social skills. Essays contributed by teachers for teachers show children, teenagers and teachers using pebbles, mandalas, literature, beanie babies, yoga, journals, homework, artwork to strengthen the core skills underlying all learning: concentration, observation, relaxation, and open, receptive awareness with a positive, curious attitude.

The 144-page book has been endorsed by leaders in the field of mindfulness meditation, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Shinzen Young, and Mary Rose O’Reilley.

“There can be no more important education for children in the 21st century than learning to be the master of one’s own mind. I am delighted that the contributors to this book have come out to share how mindfulness and concentration can be a pleasure to learn, as well as to teach.  This is an important book for teachers, school administrators, parents, and all others concerned with the well-being of the next generation."
- Thich Nhat Hanh


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Table of Contents

Part I – Teaching Mindfulness
Schooled in the Moment Richard Brady
Developing Integrity and Balance Kimberly Post Rowe
How to Teach Mindfulness Meditation to Children and Beginners Sumi Loundon Kim
Beanie Baby Meditation Mary Scattergood
Muscles, Pebbles, and Good Will Irene McHenry
Learning Silence and Reflection Through the Body: Yoga Class Barry Blumenfield
Exploring Mindfulness with Elementary School Students Judy Belasco
Part II - Quaker Practices that Center in Mindfulness
Meeting for Worship: Developing Reflective Practice in Friends Schools Irene McHenry
Love, Admiration, and Respect: Connecting Through Meeting for Worship in the Classroom   Christie Duncan-Tessmer
How Shall I Use My Time in Meeting for Worship? Chip Poston
Opening a World of Silence Mary Sidwell
The Magic Eye: Tuning In During Meeting for Worship Richard Brady
Worship Sharing: Centering and Reflective Inquiry in Friends Schools Irene McHenry
Mindful Discernment: The Clearness Process Janet Chance
Mindfulness in a School Community Marcy Baker Seitel
Part III - Cultivating Mindful Learning
Empty Rooms, Magic Oysters, and Talking Pencils Rebecca Martin-Scull
Nurturing the Inner Garden Denise Aldridge
Writing Is an Act of Love: Mindfulness and Micro-fiction Hope Blosser
“Why Are We Doing This?” Nurturing Academic Mindfulness Through Self-Grading Douglas Tsoi
Making Sand Mandalas: An Exercise in Impermanence and Letting Go Eric Mayer
Turning Toward the Other: Lectio Divina Richard Brady
A Spinning Top—One Whole Mindful Experience Daniel Rouse
About the Authors

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Introductions to the Parts

Part I - Teaching Mindfulness

Mindfulness practices can be taught to students of all ages to help them settle and center, sharpen awareness, and reduce stress. In this section teachers describe using practices that ground their students in awareness of the present moment by focusing on sensory input from the body and from emotions.

Kimberly Post Rowe provides an introduction to the benefits of mindfulness for both teachers and students, and introduces walking meditation as a mindfulness practice. Sumi Kim asks her seventh- and eighth-grade students to begin their experience of centering by simply listening to sounds in their environment. She then invites them to investigate taste, eating in a meditative manner. Finally, she uses body relaxation as preparation for focusing on breath, teaching awareness of the breath as a foundation for body awareness. Similarly, Irene McHenry and Richard Brady use breath as the basis for body relaxation practices. Body-centered mindfulness can also be developed through chanting and yoga, as described by Barry Blumenfeld. Mary Scattergood engages second-graders in awareness of the breath by using their special objects—Beanie Babies. Judy Belasco uses a singing bowl to focus her students’ attention.

The practice of metta or good will, which focuses students’ attention on love, is another tool, described in this section by McHenry, Kim, and Blumenthal. Thoughts, as well as emotions, bodily sensations, and sensory input, are all components of the “Stage of Awareness” experiment Brady uses to introduce mindfulness to his students.

We will encounter many of these techniques again in the context of cultivating mindful learning and relationships in Part III.

Part II - Quaker Practices that Center in Mindfulness

Part II addresses mindfulness in the context of Quaker practices in Friends school settings, especially the practice of Meeting for Worship. The ideas shared can be easily adapted for use in any public or private school setting toward the goal of developing core mindfulness skills for learning: concentration, observation, relaxation, and emotional balance. In secular educational settings, teachers can create simple names for these practices, such as quiet time, centering time, settling in, or silent meeting.

There are rich connections between mindfulness practices and Quaker practices rooted in being in touch with the Spirit within oneself and others. In this Part teachers explore these connections and describe how they draw on them to help students enter more fully into Quaker Meeting for Worship. Teachers also describe other Quaker practices that employ and cultivate mindfulness in students and in teachers.

Irene McHenry leads off Part II with an in depth account of Meeting for Worship in Friends schools and descriptions of activities that “develop reflection, concentration, awareness, observation and centered relaxation” to help students get more out of Meeting. She offers suggestions for supporting teachers in Meeting as well. Protocols for two approaches students can use to center themselves in Meeting are shared by Chip Poston. Mary Sidwell describes creative alternatives to the traditional Meeting format that add new energy to her school’s Meeting for Worship. Elementary school teachers wanting to include Meeting or a special time for centering in their classrooms are given helpful tips and observations by Christie Duncan-Tessmer. Richard Brady concludes the chapters on Meeting for Worship with a reflection on its hidden dimension.

The Quaker practice of worship sharing, described by McHenry is a corporate practice in which a contemplative space is created for considering a query together. Janet Chance describes clearness committees, another corporate contemplative practice that can help a teacher (or a student) discern how to proceed with a question or challenge. Finally, Marcy Seitel describes how mindfulness is nurtured in the context of a Friends school community through Meeting for Worship, the assessment process, town meeting, and other school practices.

Part III Cultivating Mindful Learning

Mindful learning refers to the development of a meta-awareness of the learning process while engaging in learning in any subject area. Mindful learning creates a context in which students can develop new insights, even wisdom. In this section teachers describe many ways in which they create mindful learning environments. One approach is to provide students with a time for stillness to help them center in order to be more fully present. This technique was described by Scattergood, McHenry, and Belasco in Part I and here by Becky Martin-Scull as she starts her classes with guided silence initiated by the use of a bell. Denise Aldridge also employs silence to help her students connect more deeply with nature through observation and drawing. Eric Mayer uses “noble silence” to help his students become more aware of all the present moment holds as they work together creating sand mandalas.

Mindfulness is used in a variety of forms to facilitate self-understanding. Questions or queries help students examine the role of grades in their learning process in Doug Tsoi’s social studies classes. Hope Blosser uses questions to invite students in her English classes to look inward and then write about their lives. Martin-Scull employs guided visualizations to help her students develop a healthy relationship to negative emotions. She also invites students to take a personal question into silence, holding it “in their hearts” and waiting for an answer to emerge. Richard Brady uses lectio divina, or holy reading and journal writing, to help his students deepen their connection to poems and prose passages. Self-understanding is also facilitated by the listening that students give to and receive from their peers. The experience of being listened to and listening without judgment enables those sharing in Blosser’s and Brady’s classes to connect more deeply to themselves and invites those listening to expand their boundaries to include others’ realities.

The section concludes with a caution from second-grade teacher Daniel Rouse, who is given a lesson on mindfulness by one of his students.

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by Richard Brady

I grew up on Chicago’s north shore, the area, I later learned, that had the highest teenage suicide rate in the country at the time. My own high school years were uneventful, but my younger brother’s were very troubled. I suspect his unhappiness was a major reason for my choosing to devote my life to working with teenagers. After teaching high school mathematics for 30 years, I realized that there was something more I needed to be doing with my life. I took a year off from teaching to explore the possibilities, but within a few weeks I had my answer. A friend called to tell me about the tensions students and teachers were experiencing in schools in her area. “Someone should teach them meditation,” I heard myself reply. Immediately, it dawned on me: I was that someone. I soon found support for my decision in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living.

During the last three years, returning to school, I have been given a number of opportunities to introduce mindfulness practice to students and teachers in my Quaker high school as well as to student and faculty groups in other private and public high schools. I usually advertise my presentations under the banner of “stress reduction,” since this is a fairly widespread issue for both high school students and faculty. Several major premises underlie these presentations: high school students and teachers are seldom aware of how their minds work; when given the opportunity to see how their minds work, they enjoy doing so; the experience will, in many cases, reveal sources of stress that meditation can alleviate.

The “Stage” of Awareness

When I present mindfulness workshops to students and high school teachers, I begin by suggesting that our minds play a significant role in our well-being. When I talk about mind, I say, I am talking about awareness. I then lead an experience to give people an understanding of what I mean. I suggest that it helps to think of one’s awareness as a theater stage. On that stage a succession of things make an appearance: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, physical sensations. I tell the group that we will conduct a short experiment so that we can watch what is playing on our personal stages. I ask them to get comfortable in their seats and then to close their eyes and tune in to whatever may be on their stages of awareness. I ask them simply to try to watch whatever thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations arise during the next few minutes, observing them, but not getting carried away by them.

After five minutes I ask them to slowly open their eyes. Then I ask them to respond to a series of questions by raising their hands: How many were aware of physical sensations—sounds, smells, tastes, contact with the seat, their heartbeat, their breathing, their feet, and so on? How many were aware of their emotions or thoughts? How many saw a thought arise? A thought end? Regarding feelings, I ask how many people experienced negative, neutral, or positive feelings? Of the negative feelings, how many had to do with things that have already happened, things they’re feeling upset or guilty about? Usually quite a few relate to this question. I then ask how many negative thoughts and feelings had to do with the future, things they are anxious about? This also gets a substantial response. Finally, I ask how many negative thoughts and feelings had to do with the present?

Ultimately, I point out that what our minds do during this particular five-minute interval of our waking life is repeated about 70,000 times each year. If we multiply the number of negative thoughts and feelings we observed by 70,000, we might understand why the mind plays such a significant role in creating stress. However, if we are able to become more aware of the negative thoughts and feelings that enter our minds and develop ways to replace them with positive ones, we will be able to live happier, less stressful lives—in school and beyond. Meditation, I explain, is one way to help our minds respond to negative thinking in a healthy way.

My Experience of Learning to Meditate

When I started reading The Miracle of Mindfulness by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh 15 years ago, I found the teaching so compelling that I began each math class with a short reading from the book. The students greatly appreciated the instructions for living more focused, peaceful lives they found in the readings. When we finished that book, I went on to read from another of his books, The Sun My Heart. The mindful way of living portrayed by Thich Nhat Hanh in these books sounded great. However, it felt so different from my own that it seemed to me that I could not get there from where I was.

As fate would have it, near the end of that school year, when the seniors returned from three weeks off-campus working on senior projects, I heard a presentation by one of the seniors—a boy named Chris—about his project at the Zen Center of Washington, D.C. Chris began by telling us that a classmate and he had been reading Eastern religion and philosophy since seventh grade. Recently, he had discovered the local Zen center and “decided to put my body where my mind was.” I felt Chris talking directly to me.

He spoke of his experience with tremendous enthusiasm. He showed pictures and recounted some dramatic experiences during the three-day intensive meditation retreat he attended as part of his project. At the conclusion of his talk, another student asked Chris whether his life was different in any way besides doing a lot of sitting on cushions now. Chris responded by saying that meditation had many effects on him. “However,” he added, “most are so subtle I can’t put them into words.” After a pause, he went on, “I can tell you that I am less angry.” Chris’s presentation, especially this last statement, was very moving to me. I thanked him and made a promise to him and to myself that I would try to meditate.

During the following six years I met Thich Nhat Hanh, began a daily meditation practice, helped establish the Washington Mindfulness Community, which supported this practice, and attended two retreats in Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastic community in southwestern France. On returning from my second retreat to Plum Village, I gave an assembly at my high school about my experiences, which included stories about Plum Village life and a slide show. At the close of the assembly I led a brief meditation focused on the breath.

A few days after the Plum Village assembly, as our high school sat in its weekly Quaker Meeting, a senior named Audrey rose and spoke out. She told the students how, late the previous night, closing her eyes and focusing on her breath had dispelled her feelings of stress. She concluded, “The action is so little, but the reward is tremendous.”

A Guided Meditation

When I give presentations now, I include Chris’, Audrey’s, and my stories because they provide a good opportunity for me to invite the participants to move, as I did, from learning about meditation to practicing it. I then lead the group in a 10-minute guided meditation, using Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness verse (or gatha):

Present Moment/Wonderful Moment

To prepare the group for the meditation, I ask them to sit erect, shoulders relaxed, both feet on the floor. Then I ask them to focus on their breath and to coordinate their in and out breaths with the phrases of the meditation verse. I use a bell to begin and end the meditation and to signal each transition. At the conclusion of the meditation, I ask the participants to turn to a neighbor and share their experience. Sometimes this involves waking up a fellow student or teacher.

This short introduction seems to convey the importance of awareness of the mind. I’ve encountered a variety of reactions. In one faculty workshop a teacher told me, “I could not even begin to focus on my breath and the words you gave me because I’m so riled up about an encounter I just had with a student.” This is one of many possible meditations, I replied. The breath can also assist us in being with strong emotions, helping us hold them in our awareness without getting lost in them. However, our meditation practice needs to be strong in order to use it that way. If we are able to embrace our emotions with our breath, we may learn some valuable things about ourselves and relate to our emotions in a less stressful way in the process.

Concentration and Dealing with Difficult Emotions

The members of the Physical Education Department at my school were not able to come to my meditation assembly, so they invited me to run a special workshop for them. I started in a similar fashion, inviting them to observe their minds. Then, since the group was interested in developing concentration in their sports teams and it was lunchtime, I invited them to do eating meditation with raisins. Later the boys’ varsity basketball coach asked if there might be something I could do with his team members to improve their foul shooting. A week later, I was with the team as they stood in a row facing a basket, each with a basketball in hand. I explained that we would do a meditation that could help them focus on the shot they were about to make and not be distracted by the noise of the fans. I then asked the players to assume comfortable positions with eyes closed and, when I blew the coach’s whistle, to begin watching whatever was passing through their awareness and continue doing this until I blew the whistle a second time, after five minutes. I didn’t have the opportunity to get the players’ reactions, but I heard later that the team’s foul shooting improved.

Several years ago a religion teacher at another Quaker school invited me to share mindfulness practice with a twelfth-grade class studying the Holocaust. The class had been focusing on events leading up to the Holocaust and would soon be reading disturbing, graphic accounts of the Holocaust itself. To help prepare the students to be open to the suffering they would be encountering, I told them that mindfulness practice could provide a way to be with suffering without being overwhelmed by it. I described the process of holding emotions in one’s awareness like a mother cradling a crying infant, holding the emotions with great tenderness. Class members then chose personal experiences of “suffering” out of their own lives, something they could relate to, such as an argument with a friend or a low test grade. After leading a guided meditation that helped them focus awareness on their breath, I asked them to bring their suffering into their awareness and hold it gently for five minutes. Afterward, some students responded to my invitation to share their experiences with the class.

Deepening the Observation

Over the last few years how I teach mindfulness to students and teachers has changed as my own understanding and practice of mindfulness have been affected by it. I first approached students with the notion that negative thoughts and feelings not only lead to stress, but were intrinsically bad. Watching negativity was part of my sales pitch for the guided meditation to follow, which had the potential for changing the mind’s channel away from negative thoughts and emotions. Now I find sitting back and just watching whatever is on stage important in and of itself—whether negative or positive. I now explain to students that to the extent that they are able to watch their stage without engaging, they will have less need to tune in to a different show. They can begin to see both negative and positive scenes as transitory products of mind and simply be with them, understanding that their primary significance lies in what you make of them. So I no longer present the guided relaxation meditation as the only means of responding to negative mind states.

My foremost goal in teaching—whether meditation or mathematics—is the same: to offer my students opportunities to be mindful of their minds, of their breath, of mathematics and math problems, of other students, and of their own ways of learning. As I create opportunities for mindfulness, students discover the meaning and value of their own experiences for themselves.

This essay is adapted from an article that appeared in Independent School Magazine, Fall 2004.

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About the Authors

Denise Aldridge, M.S., has taught for 14 years and loves working with students at Friends School in Atlanta. An avid athlete, Denise enjoys judo, yoga, dancing, swimming, hiking, snowboarding and camping. She loves to encourage students’ delight and excitement when investigating science, the arts, math, and creative writing. Her mantras are “Treat each other with respect” and “You are what you do every day.”

Judy Belasco, B.F.A., a marinescape painter residing in Maine and Philadelphia, taught art in the Lower School at Germantown Friends School for 32 years where she co-founded the lower school Quakerism committee and served as its clerk for 10 years. She is an active yoga student and has served as coordinator of regular public yoga programs. She was a founding parent of Project Learn School in Philadelphia.

Hope Blosser, M.Ed., Middle School English Teacher at Brooklyn Friends School, has taught for over a decade in various schools, including in central Ethiopia with the Peace Corps, and in public and private schools within the United States. She has been an active practitioner in the Zen community for many years and took lay precepts in 1997. Currently, Hope practices and teaches adults about Zen meditation at the Boundless Mind Zendo in Brooklyn, New York.

Barry Blumenfeld, M.A., is the dance educator at Friends Seminary School in Manhattan, where he has built the dance program over the past 10 years. He is an adjunct professor at New York University and serves on the board of the New York State Dance Education Assoc k kS9k@k`#@ksion.

Richard Brady, M.S., is a writer and an educational consultant with Minding Your Life, an organization that helps educators and schools wishing to incorporate mindfulness practices to enhance learning and promote more centered, less stressful life. His publications include: "Schooled in the Moment: Introducing Mindfulness to Students and Teachers," Independent School (2004) and "Learning to Stop, Stopping to Learn: Discovering the Contemplative Dimension in Education," Journal of Transformative Education (2007).

Janet Chance, M.Ed., began her teaching career at Tokyo Friends School, where she used drama and music to teach English to Japanese students. She now serves as the Lower School Director at William Penn Charter School. Janet has long held a keen interest in studying how communities support spiritual and ethical growth. She is currently exploring possibilities for creating a “spiraling clearness curriculum” for Lower School students.

Christie Duncan-Tessmer, Associate Secretary for Program and Religious Life for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, has a common thread through her work - the task of creating space for multigenerational communities to explore and experience what it means to live together from the center of God.  She has served children and their communities in a variety of Quaker organizations and schools and has worked with child witnesses and victims of violence in social service settings.

Sumi Loundon Kim, M.A., M.T.S., has edited two anthologies, Blue Jean Buddha: voices of young Buddhists (Wisdom, 2001) and The Buddha’s Apprentices: more voices of young Buddhists (Wisdom, 2005). She was the associate director at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, MA. Sumi teaches mindfulness practice to young people both in Asia and America, and has written extensively on the young adult encounter of Buddhism and meditation.

Rebecca Martin-Scull, M.A., C.P.C.R.T., teaches Mindfulness, Quaker Studies, Comparative Religion and Library Skills to students from Preschool through Middle School at Media-Providence Friends School. She has taught and supervised public school Special Education Programs and maintains a Cognitive Rehabilitation practice specializing in mindfulness, brain-awareness work, and organizational skills. Becky teaches piano using a highly cognitive method. An officer for the Society of Cognitive Rehabilitation, she reviews therapists seeking Certification in Cognitive Rehabilitation Therapy.

Eric Mayer, M.Div., is Chair of Religious Studies and a member of the Art Department at Westtown School. He teaches several courses there, including World Religions and The Contemplative Experience. The photos on the cover and throughout Tuning In are from student mandala projects, composed in Eric’s World Religions class, a required junior-year course.

Irene McHenry, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Friends Council on Education, was founding Head of Delaware Valley Friends School and co-founded Greenwood Friends School and Fielding Graduate University’s EdD program.  She serves on the boards of Council for American Private Education, Haverford College, and Friends Education Fund. She co-authored Readings on Quaker Pedagogy (2004) and Governance Handbook for Friends Schools (2002). Irene has taught mindfulness to children and adults in independent schools across the country.

Kimberly Post Rowe, M.Ed., is founder and Executive Director of Five Seeds, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to reducing the impact of stress on individuals and communities through education and awareness. She teaches in the private and community colleges in Maine, teaches mindfulness to teens and people living with cancer, and freelances as a copy editor. Her first book, A Settled Mind, was published in 2007. Her upcoming books include Contemplative Ecology and a foray into junior fiction.

Chip Poston, M.A., served as Religion Department Head at George School for 20 years.  From 1993-1996 he was a peace development worker for the Mennonite Central Committee in Jerusalem, where he has returned with student and adult groups five times in the last decade. Chip worked with the Young Friends at George School in developing the Meeting for Worship Orientation Program from 1996-2007. He is also the author of Minding the Light: Forty-five Lessons for Teaching About Quakerism (available via www.friendscouncil.org).

Daniel Rouse, M.A., teaches second grade at Germantown Friends School. He has taught for more than 25 years and delights in his work to nurture imagination, empathy, and compassion.

Mary Scattergood, M.S., teaches second grade at Friends School Haverford.  Mary has taught at Abington Friends and public school in Vermont. She collaborated with teachers and professors at Dartmouth College to develop the course, “Mentoring New Teachers.” She is a meditation leader at the Philadelphia Meditation Center. She is also part of a ministries group at Main Line Unitarian Church. She teaches mindfulness practices to her second graders at Friends School Haverford.

Marcy Seitel, M.A., recently became Middle School Head at Oakwood Friends School and is working with teachers to develop mindfulness practices for their students. Previously, she was Middle School Principal at Thornton Friends School and a teacher at Friends Community School.  Marcy adds her interest in mindfulness practices to her years of experience exploring the teaching of conflict resolution, peacemaking, and community building in the schools, especially Friends schools. 

Mary B. Minor Sidwell, Director of Development at Olney Friends School, has served in a number of roles at the school over the years. Early in their marriage, Mary and her husband Richard (now Head of School) taught at Olney. They also spent two years at Arthur Morgan School in Celo, North Carolina.

Douglas Tsoi, J.D., has managed a diverse career in law, education and community development. Douglas taught global ethics and sustainability at George School, a Quaker school in Pennsylvania and prior to that, wrote and negotiated contracts as an intellectual property lawyer. Douglas led a cross-sector, collaborative project between Open Meadow Alternative School students and the Portland Schools Foundation to produce a youth video about Portland high school graduation rates.

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To purchase this book

Copies of Tuning In are available for $16 each, with discounted rates for multiple copies. Order here, or to arrange for consignment, contact Sarah Sweeney-Denham: 215-241-7291.