School Blog

Mindfulness and Middle School

Mindfulness is a modern term for an ancient concept of quieting the mind, intentionally.  Ms. Erica introduced this concept to her middle school students this year by adding “mindfulness” as a daily part of the curriculum.  She introduced mindfulness to her students by drawing their attention to their natural breathing patterns. Often, by simply putting focused attention upon the inhaling and exhaling of the breath, students began to notice a slight difference in their postures, their own breathing, and how calm they felt.  A breathing ball was used to demonstrate this process.

Research done by Northwestern Medicine confirms that “nasal breathing plays a pivotal role in coordinating electrical brain signals in the olfactory “smell” cortex-the brain regions that directly receive input from our nose-which then coordinates the amygdala (which processes emotions) and the hippocampus (responsible for memory and emotions).  During nasal inhalation, the fast electrical rhythms in both the amygdala and the hippocampus become stronger.  The in-breath specifically alters your cognition, improving both emotional and memory processing – any slow, steady breathing like the kind employed in meditation and yoga activates the calming part of the nervous system, and slows heart rate, reducing feelings of anxiety and stress. The act of slow, deep breathing, whether the inhalation or exhalation, is beneficial for your nervous system when you wish to be more still.”1

Every midmorning, middle school students are called together to practice the art of mindfulness.  Breath is always a key component to this process and is used to teach students how to tune into their mind/body connection. Ms. Erica has also found a way to reveal to her students that there is a direct link between the mind and the hands. When the mind is always active and on the go, sometimes thoughts can be tamed simply by engaging the hands in small, peaceful moments. A special shelf in the room hosts 55 different mindfulness jobs, including watching oil and water mixing in a container, tracing sand in a tray, and even trying their hands at solving the Rubik’s Cube. Students are encouraged to ground their thoughts before beginning the tasks. They are also encouraged to try various mindfulness jobs to expand their own experiences and to give others a chance to do the works.  Unlike other assignments, there is no goal in mind other than to experience the process of doing the work.

Once a week, a guided meditation is done giving students the opportunity to experience the power of “being,” opposed to “doing.”  Observation of the breath is the foundation of the mindfulness curriculum and is used on a daily basis. Tuning into and expanding the awareness of the five senses will take up much of the school year, with mindfulness, emotions, and the inner experience rounding out the curriculum.

During a recent class, students spent class time outside, just listening, trying to expand the reach of their sense of hearing.  They were amazed to discover the variety of sounds found outside when they were quiet enough to open up their perception to the natural world.  A recent survey conducted by Ms. Erica revealed the vast majority felt the class was helpful and they were enjoying it.

Mindfulness is a life skill that teaches the difference between being mindful (actively engaged in the present moment with mind, body and breath) and having a mind full of thoughts, each one racing to gain momentum over the other.  With practice and awareness, students are learning to quiet their minds, balance emotions, and harness the power of their thoughts.  A leading mindfulness teacher, Jon Kabat-Zinn, postulates “learning mindfulness practices in school would put people on the road to a much more healthy relationship to their body and their emotions.”2 We are seeing the truth of this statement with our middle school students. Finally, as reported by Time Special Edition, “mindfulness has been shown to increase kindness, sleep quality, behavioural control, concentration, and even math scores.”3

Mindfulness Magazine (10/2017)

1: pg. 12

2: pg. 18

Time Special Edition “The Science of Childhood” – Inside the Minds of our Younger Selves.

  1. Pg. 62

The Power of Observation

Observation is a foundational skill for an effective Montessori teacher.  The ability to watch, listen and not interfere with a student’s learning process is essential for creating a Montessori experience.  From the very beginning, Dr. Montessori (a trained physician) took the approach that teaching was not about filling a student up with facts and figures. The goal was to create an environment that was interesting and engaging while teachers introduced subject matter from the most concrete perspective, and then by extension to the abstract.

As the teacher creates and delivers specific lessons to a student, it becomes clear what parts of the lesson make sense to the student and is absorbed by them. It can be equally obvious which parts of the lesson did not resonate with the child.  The skill to watch the reactions of a student and determine where the breakdown in understanding occurs is the hallmark of a Montessori educational experience.

Watching with clarity and purpose is a refined skill for a Montessori teacher.  In this day of instant answers and very quick adjustments to the constant flow of information, it is tempting to step in too quickly with a student and give them the “right way of doing the lesson.”  Instead, a more measured and patient approach can actually net better results.  The more a student internalizes the lessons and experiences the process of manipulating the materials, or practicing more abstract skills, the greater the impact of the lesson.

Observing a student over time is also extremely helpful.  Since most of the students stay in a classroom for three-year cycles, it gives the teachers a wealth of history to draw upon and to apply useful comparisons to earlier observations.  Teachers’ abilities to quietly focus their listening and visual skills are the key to delivering an effective Montessori educational experience to their students.

Thinking Maps

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One of the foundations of a Montessori education at FMS, is the fundamental skill of teaching students how to “organize” their work.  It begins the first day in our primary classrooms and continues as a constant theme in every grade thereafter.  A key writing tool for organizing thoughts and ideas is the use of the thinking map.  A thinking map is a visual tool students are taught to help focus their ideas into a format that makes writing easier.

The entire FMS staff has had two full trainings by Ms. Erica, our Lead Middle School teacher, on the purpose and use of thinking maps.  Ms. Erica is certified by the Innovative Learning Group to impart the specifics of using thinking maps.  Her enthusiasm and proficiency for using thinking maps conveyed the big picture as to why thinking maps are vital as our “go to” writing tool.

Thinking maps corral scattered and random thoughts in a format that visually represents the desired final effect. It can be as simple as defining a concept, to comparing and contrasting, or sequencing and analyzing cause and effect.  Early in this process, Kindergarteners are introduced to the concept of classifying information by using the simplest format, the circle map.  They might use the word “colors” in the center and then list all the colors they know in the space around the center circle.

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We also learned that drawing a picture of an event in detail helps open the minds of the new writers as they explore the process of defining and describing events in their lives.  The more detailed their pictures, the easier it is for them to write sentences.  Before they know it, one sentence turns into three as they answer questions such as “When did this happen?”, “Who was involved?”, or “How did you feel about the event?”

According to Innovative Learning Group, thinking maps are a set of graphic organizer techniques used in primary and secondary education (“K-12”). There are eight diagram types that are intended to correspond with eight different fundamental thinking processes.  The eight map types are:

Circle Map

used for defining in context

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Bubble Map

used for describing with adjectives

Double Bubble Map

used for comparing and contrasting

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Tree Map

used for classifying or grouping

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Brace Map

used for identifying part/whole relationships

Flow Map

used for sequencing and ordering events

Multi-flow map

used for analyzing causes and effects

Bridge map

used for illustrating analogies”*

In Thinking with Maps, Elisabeth Camp (2007) investigates how individuals think and how thinking is related to language. Camp (2007) states that “…thinking in maps is substantively different from thinking in sentences” (p. 155). This concept supports Hyerle’s (2011) idea that Thinking Maps possess an artistic and kinesthetic component, where students can feel free to express their ideas in a “drawing,” or map, instead of using complete written sentences. Thinking Maps support learners who thrive with the artistic and kinesthetic multiple intelligences of learning.

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Thinking maps are used throughout each of the grades in FMS.  The level of detail and fact finding increases as the students move to the older grades, but the fundamental skills of framing their thoughts into a clear and reproducible pattern is taught in the early stages of learning to write.

Our middle school students weighed in on the usefulness of using thinking maps:

By:  Sabrina

Of all of the ways we have learned to study, thinking maps have been by far the most helpful. Whenever there is a test coming up and I get ready to study, I always organize my notes into thinking maps. I feel like when I use thinking maps it helps me understand the information better. If there is a whole section on dates – which personally are the hardest things to study for me, I always bring out my thinking maps and use a flow map. It puts the information in order to help me memorize it. Sometimes, I am even able to add multiple maps together to make it MORE easier.

Another reason I love thinking maps is because when we take notes in class it gets stressful sometimes when you have to write down information about a gigantic battle. But, if you use the correct thinking maps you will soon realize that it isn’t stressful at all. What’s also amazing about thinking maps is that they help me in writing class. When we prewrite, I have ideas but it can sometimes be hard for me to  organize all of my thoughts, and thinking maps really helps with that.

Thinking maps also are a great way to get me thinking critically. Thinking critically can be extremely hard for some people, but for me I like the challenge. And thinking maps give me the challenges that I need. Also, I have grown up with these maps. I have been going to this school since I was three and every time I would move up a grade we would have a thinking map lesson. This shows me how important and helpful they are. This is why I love thinking maps and can always rely on them.

By: Arianna

I personally like using flow maps and tree maps. A flow map is a map that puts events in chronological order. This map helps me memorize the order of any events for upcoming tests and quizzes. A tree map is a way of listing things in a more organized way than just bullets or sentences. It may seem like a long process at first, but when it comes up to that dreaded test or research paper you have to write, you have already memorized and put your information in a way that by adding a few words can become a great paper or way to study.

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By: Caroline

Thinking maps could be used in many different ways, such as brainstorming, prewriting, organizing information, taking notes, and much more! When you have several ideas or thoughts in your head, just create a circle map and write all of them down! If you are about to write an important essay or report, you could use a thinking map to organize your information and prewrite. Thinking maps are also very convenient while taking your notes. They are more brief and easier to read than just listing long notes. Overall, I believe that thinking maps are great visual tools that can help you anywhere and anytime. So, the next time you are taking notes or trying to solve a problem, instead of writing continuously in paragraph form, use a thinking map!

By: Gabriela

I love thinking maps. They are a super fun yet organized way of writing notes, brainstorming, or even sorting things out. I’m so glad that thinking maps are a tool that I learned to use because they have been very helpful to me so far. I use them in many different ways. When I want to compare/contrast two different characters in English, I might use a double-bubble map. Or if I need to make a cause/effect timeline on a battle for history, I would use a multi-flow map. Thinking maps can be used in almost every subject in school. I can organize my thoughts onto a piece of paper, and therefore be more organized and efficient. These charts make my life so much easier, especially when taking notes. It is sometimes easier for me to understand something when it is written down before me. In conclusion, thinking maps are a useful tool that everyone should learn how to use!

By:  Jaden

My personal favorite thinking map is the double bubble map because I think it is the most versatile. You can compare and contrast but you can also brainstorm with it. When I am studying the pages that are double bubble maps or any type of maps for that matter, I remember information more clearly when I am studying and when it comes time to the test I can almost perfectly visualize me holding the page whilst studying. That helps me with the pages that I didn’t have a thinking map on because it would spark a memory on the other pages. To be honest, I am not the best on thinking maps, but if I take the time to learn I believe that it will help me out later. For example my brother Brennan is in high school and he still uses thinking maps.

I believe it also helps when two or more people are thinking on what type of thinking map you use and what to put in it. For example, Ms. Erica in the past has had us work and make thinking maps about Upfront articles. Even now, months later, I can vividly remember the thinking maps we did and the article. Thinking Maps truly do wonders and I believe everyone should be educated about them in their life because they can also help not just in school, but life.

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