Mindfulness and reading: a natural fit for Maureen Nagle

20130501_MB _085_P1At the heart of Moses Brown’s faculty cohort system are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. Maureen Nagle’s project merges mindfulness with reading in a way that perfectly fits Moses Brown.

In recent years, middle school English teacher Maureen Nagle observed that books were losing the battle for her students. “They’d say, ‘I just don’t have time to read!’” Maureen laments, “but while it made me cringe, I really couldn’t blame them.” Students’ days and nights are over-filled with homework, after-school and weekend enrichment activities, and pressure to stay connected through social media. Seized with the desire to make independent reading more personal and inspirational, Maureen and her colleagues launched the CARS (Conversations Around Reading Sessions) program in 2013. Students meet monthly in mixed-grade groups of seven or eight to talk about their favorite books, with a simple, hands-on activity as catalyst.

20130501_MB _055_P1Yet Maureen felt a stronger connection could be forged between independent reading and Moses Brown’s Quaker principles. In this and many Friends schools, meetings and classes start with some silence. Maureen experimented with beginning each English class with ten minutes of silent independent reading. “Reading prepares the mind for learning,“ Maureen found. “It completes the transition from social setting to learning environment. It’s changed the class experience.” This shared experience of reading builds community and, like mindfulness, offers a refuge from technology-driven routines. “Kids don’t have enough time to read,” she says, “but we can give them ten minutes a day.”

20130501_MB _031_P1This success inspired Maureen’s cohort project proposal: to develop and integrate a mindfulness curriculum into the classroom. Her study and research included an online mindfulness course, collaboration with MB librarian Anne Krive, and developing her own use of mindfulness through weekly meditation practice with other faculty and staff. She introduced mindfulness on September’s team trip, and redesigned a poetry unit to incorporate mindfulness exercises.

20130501_MB _054_P1“More than any form of literature, poetry has the power to activate our senses well beyond what we can only see,” Maureen says. “Students sometimes have the misconception that there is only one type of imagery: visual imagery. To encourage students to explore a variety of imagery in their own poetry, I introduced a ‘mindful eating’ exercise. We sat in a circle, passed around a bowl of clementines and spent an entire class period examining the color, texture, fragrance, taste of the fruit, even the sensation as we swallowed. The kids loved it and surprised me: one student held a segment of the clementine up to the window, commenting about how the light shone through to illuminate the inner fibers of the fruit, while another chimed in that the outer peel smelled like…onions!”

She adds, “An intentional benefit of the mindful eating lesson is a heightened awareness of our own relationship with food. Slowing down the eating process added an element of frustration for many of the kids. Amidst the laughter and occasional moaning (‘Can we just eat it already?’), we discussed how slowing down a process that we typically rush creates a richer, more meaningful experience – which we can apply to reading and writing poetry.”

Building an affinity for lifelong learning is part of the mission at Moses Brown. “We have to understand the reality of kids’ busy lives, the competition for their attention. When it comes to their reading, we’ll be relentlessly supportive.“ Teachers and librarians can help students build the resourcefulness and confidence to choose their own books, and be readers for life. “If they continue to build their love for reading in the middle school years, they can become lifelong readers.”

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Moses Brown’s faculty cohort system is a professional development and evaluation program for veteran teachers. Evoking our commitment to lifelong learning, a year of transformational study launches a five-year cycle of professional development. A cohort of teachers drawn from all three divisions sets goals, serves as resources for one another’s evaluations and shares professional development plans at year’s end.

At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers are continuously engaged in deepening their expertise, refining their curriculum, bringing the latest research back to the classroom and partnering with colleagues to improve the learning experience. A pilot cohort of six faculty began work in 2011-12, and a second group of sixteen followed in 2012-13. This year’s seventeen have already integrated their cohort projects into their curricula.

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