In the Circle: A Mindful Experience in middle school

Introducing mindfulness into the middle school classroom has been an interesting endeavor for me this year.  Mindful awareness (attending to the here and now, being fully present, with intention and curiosity, trying not to judge) is challenging for most people.  It certainly has been for me. 

I’ve read the research about the benefits of mindfulness practice and so I’ve been exploring what works –both for me and for my students.

Marieke van Woerkom 

Recently, I realized that listening to meditative music makes its easier for me to calm down, settle and be present than some of the other practices I’ve tried.  So I started looking for quiet meditation music to use with my students.  I came across a piece on YouTube that resonated: meditative music accompanied by a beautiful fall scene, a quiet lake surrounded by colorful trees.  It’s not a still image; there’s slight movement as the camera slowly pans the lake from one side to the other.  The water is just barely moving, enough perhaps to hold a student’s attention.

This has been a testing month, and the stress level at most of my schools has been high. Teachers told me that their kids were restless and agitated. Several asked if I could help address this and possibly increase student focus. These requests tied right in with the mindfulness work I’d been exploring. 

I got a chance to try out the YouTube clip in a 6th grade classroom a few weeks ago.  I invited the kids to quickly, but as quietly as possible, organize their chairs in a circle, pushing the desks to the edge of the classroom. This gave me a chance to pull up the clip of the fall scene on the Smart Board. 

In the circle, I asked students (and staff) for a show of hands of who ever feels stressed.  Most students raised their hands. When I asked them what stresses them out, we heard about siblings, teachers, homework, testing, parent expectations, the lunchroom, etc.  I talked a little bit about stressors, how they impact us and how mindfulness can help us better manage those stressors.  

I invited students to try it out with some basic guidelines:

Sit strong, like a mountain … straightened back … feet planted solidly on the ground …  hands in your lap …

Close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so or find a spot on the floor in front of you to gently rest your gaze … Alternatively you can watch the image I’ll be projecting on the Smart Board … Quietly arrange your chair if needed to see the board….

 … And as you start to listen to the music, to breathe calmly … try to check in with yourself and how you are feeling.
 

I dimmed the lights and watched students' responses over the next few minutes while the video played. Some students closed their eyes while others focused on the fall scene. Some girls across from me had a harder time settling down than others in the circle. There were some whispers initially, but, to the surprise of the teachers, all students settled down fairly quickly. 

As I phased out the music and turned the lights back on, I invited students back into the room and asked them how they felt.  Responses were popcorn-style, since this class had not been introduced to circles yet. Students shared that they felt good, relaxed, peaceful. There were nods of agreement around the circle and a peaceful atmosphere all the way around.  A few students shared that it was hard for them and uncomfortable. This is not unusual, of course.  I acknowledged it all and shared how hard it is for me to do this work as well. 

Then one student, out of nowhere, shared that he was tired of other students pointing out how dark his skin is.  There was some snickering to my left and a student proclaimed: “What does that have to do with what we’re doing and how we’re feeling?”  I explained that when we calm ourselves down and settle down the thoughts and feelings that distract us, we’re able to better check in with ourselves to “see” what’s going on. This boy might have been sharing what was going on for him, realizing what’s important to him right now.  What he shared certainly sounded important to me. 

I explained the tenets of a listening circle and sent around my turtle talking piece, asking students what was important to them right now.  Some students passed.  Then a girl opened up about the constant teasing and meanness among students and how it upsets her. She was new to the school, and at her old school students tended to talk behind her back because of her “home life” situation. She hadn’t lived in one place continuously for more than a year and as a result she was always moving schools.  She talked about how kids are mean to the new girl and they especially give her a hard time when they find out where she lives. 

A boy shared that he has been angry for months now.  His mother had been pregnant with twins.  But they died at birth in December and he’s been feeling angry ever since.  The circle got quiet.  Kids were focused, listening to their peers.  The talking piece went around, reaching the boy who’d talked about the color of his skin.  He explained that it was painful how other students called him black, and not in a nice way.  He wanted them to stop.

Other students talked about how they’d been teased for being different as well.  One boy talked about the names he was called for being short.  Then one of the teachers shared that when he was young he’d been made fun off because of where he lived.  He was called “trailer trash” by classmates. He didn’t understand what that meant in elementary school, but as he got older, it made him feel bad. 

A student to my left had been dying to get the talking piece.  He had a hard time waiting his turn, but he tried.  When the got the piece, he looked across the circle at the boy who’d been angry and shared that his mother too had been pregnant with twins who died in childbirth.  He shared how sad he’d been and how he was able to relate to the other boy. (What were the chances?) 

As the talking piece continued to go around, those who didn’t share the first time around either shared their own experience with teasing and the strong feelings that it brought up or started reaching out to others who’d shared they were feeling bad. 

When the talking piece went around a third time and reached the new girl who had moved a lot, she shared that she wanted her fellow students in the circle to agree that they’d be kinder to each other.  Could they try to be more considerate from now on?  Some students agreed and shared that this felt good.  They should do this more often and yes, they should be kinder.  In a final go-round, I invited students to think about and share one thing they could commit to in the coming week to treat each other better. 

As the circle wrapped up, students asked to have more opportunities for quiet mediation and to share and get to know each other better.  We closed the circle committing to confidentiality:  that we would keep what was shared in the circle.  


Note: The meditative YouTube music and video we watched lasts 10 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xp5w3DZh1CM. Have the computer muted for the first seconds of advertisement at the beginning.

 


Marieke van Woerkom has worked in the field of cultural exchange, interfaith dialogue, conflict transformation, violence prevention and human rights for 20 years. She has been a Morningside Center trainer and coach since 2006, using SEL to strengthen school communities. Having seen the power of restorative circles around the world, Marieke is now helping lead our effort to bring this transformative process to public schools through Morningside Center's Restore360 Program.