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BANNER, Winter 2014: A Mindful Approach to Learning

Helping Students Develop Key Life Skills
Mindfulness is making headlines these days. This philosophy and set of techniques aims to help practitioners quiet overloaded minds, live in the moment, reduce stress, and pay attention more fully to tasks.Time Magazine’s recent cover story "The Mindful Revolution" details the growing movement of people seeking to find focus in our multitasking culture. Evidence suggests there are clear benefits to the practice especially in professional settings, athletic training, and education.

Brookwood’s educators are keenly aware of the value of this mindset and work in a variety of ways to help students develop essential skills. Although Brookwood does not have an official “mindfulness program,” our classrooms have long fostered a mindful approach to learning. 

“We believe that the basis to academic success, and ultimately out in the world, results from the individual student’s understanding of his or her learning needs, emotional and social needs, and working proactively to support them,” comments Head of Lower School Nancy Evans. “This type of self-awareness is best developed through a pro-social classroom that promotes supportive teacher-student relationships, provides creative outlets and choices for students in a structured environment, and in which social skills are explicitly taught by teachers.” 

“Morning meeting, academic choice and the focus on hopes and dreams; these are all essential components to the Lower School curriculum. They begin on the first day of school, providing daily tools to help students understand their individual selves and their roles as community members,” explains Nancy. She adds that children gain confidence as learners by building on their strengths and understanding where they struggle. This knowledge and understanding of themselves empowers them as they grow and experience academic and social challenges.

With the foundation laid in Lower School, Brookwood’s Middle School then builds on the mindful approach to learning. Fourth and fifth grade students are currently engaged in a curriculum in which they learn about their brains, examine their individual learning styles and consider big, essential questions like “How do I think?” and “How do I learn?”  This study of metacognition helps each student develop knowledge of him or herself as a learner and understand areas of strength and vulnerability, which allows him or her to effectively self-advocate, devise strategies, and reflect on his/her own learning.

“Students needs change as they grow,” comments Middle School Coordinator Lisa Johnson.  “Through a variety of exercises, our fourth and fifth graders are expanding their understanding of how they think and learn at this time in their lives.” (Brookwood’s Fall 2013 Banner featured an in-depth article about the program.) 

The exploration of essential questions like “Who am I and who do I want to be?” continues in Brookwood’s Personal Growth and Development (PGD) program. Additionally a new project launched in late February aims to further self exploration for Middle and Upper Schoolers as they embark on a trial use of digital portfolios.

“With the explosion of technical resources in the school, like iPads and laptops, we are poised to make the leap to digital portfolios,” explains Kent Lenci, Grade 7 History teacher and coordinator of the PGD program. Building on the hard copy binder portfolio system that has been a part of Upper School for several years, students in Grades 4 through 8 are now creating ePortfolios to deepen an awareness of their own personal development. Photos, videos, links to blogs, digital files of their work, and audio files are just some of the ways students can reflect on themselves, demonstrate who they are, and record their accomplishments and growth over time.

The Upper School Advisory Program and the annual Wellness Week in February also give students group platforms for exploring issues and challenges related to personal growth and development. According to Head of Upper School Evan Diamond, the mindfulness portion of Wellness Week has become more and more important as students work to balance increasingly scheduled lives.

Will Slotnick, the founder and director of Wellness Collaborative, has spent decades working with kids, much of the work revolving around the unique needs of adolescents. Evan says, “A large part of his course is now on mindfulness as he teaches kids to slow down and be in the moment. Mr. Slotnick's classes during Wellness Week offer students opportunities to explore the stressors in their lives, and he guides them through various mindfulness strategies such as meditation to help them better manage everyday tension. Additionally, his classes look at the connection between these stressors and substance abuse."

Self-exploration extends to our school’s seventh and eighth grade athletic program, which this year includes yoga as a PE option. Along with other PE options like running and fitness and activities, yoga gives students a non-competitive physical choice outside of team sports. With 28 students enrolled in the winter Yoga program and 16 signed up for spring, student response to the new athletic option is incredibly positive.

“Yoga gives our students another way to get in touch with their bodies and their minds, and it’s a physical activity they can do for the rest of their lives,” says Athletic Director Jane Pirie, who added yoga after the huge success of the yoga class offered during Steep Week in 2013. 

For Harrison Timmer ’14, “Meditation is a very important part of yoga as it is a way to calm down and to connect with my inner self. It really helps me understand what I want and what I need deep down.”

Lily Armstrong ’14 enthusiastically agrees, “I love yoga, mostly because you learn a lot about how your body functions emotionally. I have learned that yoga is like a language, but the cool thing about it is studying how I react to different experiences. I feel like I know so much more about myself and how to change my perspective in a situation. I am really excited to do it again in the spring!”

In our community, the emphasis on reflection, learning, and self-exploration is not limited to students. Brookwood's 4 to 14 Speaker Series, now in its third year, brings prominent writers, researchers and thought leaders to speak to parents on topics related to raising elementary school age children as well as issues and challenges related to parenting.

“Brookwood has long recognized the importance of the school-parent partnership,” comments Head of School John Peterman.  “Our speaker series brings authors, researchers and other thought leaders in the parenting and child development fields right to our campus. By working in partnership and attending education programs like our 4 to 14 Speaker Series, parents and teachers can share a common understanding of the latest child development research and explore together the many ways to model the importance of reflection and self-awareness.”