A Mindful Classroom: Establishing A Safe Space for Sensitive Topics
Many of us have seen the importance of mindfulness in our classrooms and personal lives. Being present and aware are integral to truly absorbing what is around you. How mindful are we of exactly what is around us in the classroom? The physical space we build for our students is often an afterthought to efficiency and more intangible metrics of behaviour and dynamics. This year, I made it my goal to be mindful of the materials within my classroom and how well they represent the values I hope we exercise within these walls. Here are a few elements I have become more aware of, with links to the studies I used, podcasts we discussed in class, and other resources. Tackling tough topics and having some uncomfortable moments are often a part of our Social Sciences courses. Having a physical space that supported and encouraged this seemed essential.
This was my starting point as plastic- whether it be single or multi-use- is a topic we have discussed often in our class. Looking out at my students in class last spring, I was struck by the fact that they were living in a plastic world and any discussions we might have about alternatives would never ring true in such a setting. They were wearing their school uniforms, all of which are various polyester blends. They sat on plastic chairs and wrote on plastic desks, often tapping away on plastic computers and devices. I looked around and saw almost no natural textures or materials.
My starting point for this was wondering if one could authentically have a conversation about the history and future cost of plastic in a room that screamed our dependence on that very material. I started small, just adding some plants and different items, like rock and concrete and metal. As I did this I realized that buying these classroom materials from local makers whenever possible was another way to ensure the room reflected the values we shared in class. Do we still have plastic in our room? Yes, but the students will never see me using plastic utensils, cups, or anything else I can easily replace with a sustainable, reusable alternative. Do other materials also have an environmental cost? Absolutely. The goal for this change was to create a room that reflected the vibrancy of many different textures and possibilities, nothing more.
Supporting Local Wares
It can be difficult as a teacher to ensure you are supporting local makers as often these are more costly than items you can pick up at the dollar store on your way home. It can also involve more research and time spent finding a supplier. These are well worth it, in my mind, because often the pieces I introduced to my classroom were very well made and stood up well to school life, and choosing to participate in our local community and to support our artists is an important message about who we are and who we value. Each of these objects also now had a person and a story attached to them. The students would know that this tapestry came from just down the street and that pencil cup was specially made for our class as it matched the other one. This meant the students were more mindful and careful with the room around them. It also creates a framework for using art to share a part of their own story or identity. This process often offers a new avenue of expression for students who might not know where to start. I often use identity charts in my classroom unit on Canadian Citizenship and Identity but will sometimes give the challenge of trying not to use any words. Often, the results express more than they would have otherwise.
Sourcing from and supporting local makers also means highlighting the artists and makers within your own classes as well. I think it is important for students to see the effort that goes into creating art and practical pieces. A key piece to sustainable thinking that I think is often overlooked is an awareness of the amount of work it takes to produce something. Whenever possible, I have students create with their own hands so they can have as authentic an experience as possible. For example, when we study the Mesopotamian cultures, we write on clay tablets exploring the evolution of pictographs and the strengths and challenges of cuneiform (example of one shown below). Then, throughout the room, I have framed some of the work students have created so they can see their own production is also a valuable piece of our environment. If you are in need of some inspiration on this front, look at FHAO’s classroom art ideas to find fresh new ways to showcase students’ voices.
Light & Placement
About 80% of the time in the classroom, the fluorescent room lights will be off. We use the windows for a light source or in a crunch turn on a back row of lights or my desk incandescent lamp. We know students learn better in natural light, a regulated temperature, and good air quality. I have made each of these a priority in my classroom, even monitoring the humidity level with a hydrometer to make sure we are not too dry, as this allows viruses and bacteria to more easily spread. We also have placed the desks in an E3 (for lack of better description) formation so there are wide aisles, easy access to all students, and a seating plan that lends itself well to discussion. These wide aisles are key for being able to get to students with questions but also for students whose mobility needs are best met with open spaces.
Messaging and Visual Cues
Finding a balance between having a room with positive social messages and visual interest while not overtaxing a student looking at it each day is a fine balance. There are some spaces I work hard to keep minimal so that students are not inundated with visual information. There are other areas that I use to showcase a few important concepts, examples, reminders, and new perspectives. I have two examples of propaganda up in my room (Keep Calm and Carry On and a series of vintage NASA posters) so we can always refer back to them as exemplars.
I ensure there is a recognition of our treaty relationship in the room and speak to it. I know many of our schools now start the day with a land acknowledgement but I think it is essential it also becomes a part of our own classroom life as well. One of my biggest goals as a teacher is to help my students develop their citizenship skills- either as a Canadian or global citizen- as well as challenge them to understand the roots of complex issues. As a nation we need to understand our treaty responsibilities and the spirit with which they were signed much better. An essential step towards a grassroots shift is to ensure that the next generation understands not only the historical context and legacy of our past but also the vibrancy and strength of indigenous communities today. This year, I used Buffy Sainte Marie’s Sing Our Own Song to explore the messages and the song’s sense of power and hope to ensure that our discussion ended with the clear message that the indigenous communities have more than just survived the systemic injustices they have faced.
Core values that I think are cornerstone to our classroom are also displayed, sometimes on my message board at the back of the room that changes to reflect our classroom focus, and sometimes with prints from local artists. I use many FHAO teaching strategies, like 4 Corners, in my classroom and used to have signs up. I took them down when I realized that this had become part of the classroom rhythm and these signs were not needed. Now I look around the room regularly to edit what is needed and what can take a break in back storage.
Feedback from Students
The response from students was pretty instantaneous. As soon as I began replacing plastic items, they would notice and positively respond. They started to look out for local markets and share those experiences. Our recycling bin is about 5x larger than our trash bin and students remind one another when they see something being tossed that can be redirected. The students check in on the plants and have even brought some to class. When our algae ball was struggling because of too much direct sun and needed to be taken to my house, they would check in for updates on its health. Taking the time to care about what was facing my students each day encouraged them to also be mindful and aware of it too. I would love to hear your ideas about using the physical environment of the classroom to build mindfulness! For those of you interested, check out New Zealand’s classroom design recommendations- it is a great starting point and wonderful to see this is a topic that is recognized as fundamental for student learning.