Love of learning is essential for youth to truly internalize information. Contemplative exercises, contextual seeing, and the practice of re-framing our worldview cultivate a student’s curiosity. In this episode of The Conscious Classroom, Amy Edelstein will talk about how to shift a student’s experience from overwhelm to interest, and how to work with the art and science of observation and reflection. As always, the episode will include information and practice.Support the show (https://bit.ly/supportCCPodcast)
with Amy Edelstein
Hello. Welcome to The Conscious Classroom Webinar, our monthly sessions with tools and tips on how to use mindful reflection, mindful awareness in the classroom to cultivate calm, curiosity, and care in your students. My name is Amy Edelstein and I’m the Founder and Director of the Inner Strength Teen Program, teen mindfulness, 12-week curriculum that has supported over 5,500 high school students in the Inner City of Philadelphia in the last couple of years.
In the session today, we are going to talk about cultivating curiosity which is one of the elements of the Inner Strength Program which has most steered my heart. Really inspiring student to love learning, to ask questions, to be curious about their environment is such an important element of teaching and of learning. And it’s one that’s rarely taught and there’s not that much emphasis put on cultivating curiosity.
We learn how to behavior-managed. We learn how to control classrooms. We learn how to sometimes to engage students. But really inspiring that thirst for learning, that love of discovery, that interest to find out what they don’t already know is such an important quality to instill in the students that we work with.
One of the ways that I work with cultivating curiosity is by helping the students to see the world around them differently, really allowing them to experiment with their frame of reference. So if you’re in a history class and you’re asking the students to consider a particular question, ask them to consider that question from their vantage point now in the year that it is, ask them to consider that question from the vantage point of somebody living at that time without knowledge of what was going to happen in the future, and ask them to consider that question as somebody in the future looking back a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years from now.
What you will teach them is you will teach them viscerally that how they are framing their world view has a lot to do with the time that they’re in. And then they become interested in how history works, what influences our thoughts.
Let’s think about how we cultivate curiosity in infants. When they are little, we are trying to teach them so many things. We smile at them and we coo with them and we show them things. We say, “Look at this!” We tell them to touch things, “Pat the puppy. Isn’t it soft?” We talk to them in tones of voice that make them smile and be happy and be curious and feel that the world is a place to explore, to touch, to feel, to engage with. There’s something about infants that invite us to respond to them in that way.
Infants are captivating. They stare at us and we stare back at them. And we invite them to learn. We invite them to touch. We invite them to taste. We invite them to listen. And we do that by a welcoming tone of voice, a welcoming facial gestures, a welcome invitation to explore.
Generally, by the time that teens get to be 13, 14, 15, we are trying to mold them into learning behavior and focus in a way that doesn’t always catalyzed their love of learning.
When you are thinking about how to approach teens in a new way, how to activate their love of learning, remember what it was like when you last saw an infant and were leaning in to their world and trying to invite them and inspire them.
Of course, your behavior is going to change to the age appropriate but that love of learning, that desire to cultivate that love of learning in a teen can go a long way. So rather than the adult tone of voice that says, “Pay attention, sit up straight, learn this fact, do well on the test,” bring back that curiosity, that cultivation of their own abilities to engage with the world around them.
When you do that with teens, you are also going to be aligning yourself with exactly what’s happening in the adolescent brain. The adolescent brain is doing several things. And one of the things that it’s doing is it’s specializing whereas if you think of a young child as a generalist, learning absolutely everything they can about how the world works from the alphabet to the names of things to how to use their large muscles and small muscles from walking to jumping to skipping. They are just absorbing everything about the world around them and learning how to navigate in it.
When they are adolescents, the brain starts to do what it’s called brain pruning, and it starts snipping away all the extra no connections that were made when they were younger which are no longer needed and they are also that as the brain is pruning the synopsis, it’s also biasing those that the teen uses more frequently.
So this is the time when teens start to develop their likes and dislikes. They start to individuate. They start to express themselves creatively, hair colors, dance moves, room décor, fashion, athletics, hobbies, crafts. Teens start developing things that they really like to do and they will do those things over and over and over again.
So you can use this creativity as a learning tool. You can work with it and then you will be working with the teens’ level of development. And you will be cultivating their curiosity in a way that matches who they are and how they are growing and becoming at this particular unique stage of life.
So if you think about one of the mindfulness tools that most easily cultivates curiosity is of course the seeing freshly how mindfulness exercise or the mindful eating where you – and if you have the opportunity to do a mindful eating exercise with the students, you can really give them a sense of how to develop this way of seeing the familiar fresh lake. And then you can draw in that at any point in time while you are teaching them.
So you want to encourage them to this mindful eating exercise which we are not going to go through right now but where they take a Hershey’s Kiss or a piece of fruit like a strawberry or a raisin or dried piece of fruit or even a Pretzel and you have them engaged with that object of meditation for a good 15 minutes.
So using all those sense of perceptions, seeing how balance is, how much it weighs whether it’s light or heavy, what the smell is, what the texture is. If they touch it, does it make a sound? Then looking at the relationship between the mind and the body and emotions, so if you want to have them look at their object of meditation and if they want to eat it then seeing what happens.
If they like they want to consume their object of meditation, does their mouth start to water? Does their stomach start to growl?
Then what’s the relationship with the emotions? If they have to wait and they really want to eat that object of meditation, that piece of chocolate, do they start to get irritated? Do they start to feel impatient? Only because of a thought, the thought that they wanted to eat.
And then how many muscles have to move to bring that object of meditation to their mouth? How many commands have to go? And you can go on and on and on and you can see that just engaging with an object of meditation as an eating object can really activate so many of our sense organs and so many qualities of observation. You don’t need to even pull yourself out of your regular lesson plans to do these guided observations, seeing things freshly and evoking curiosity in that way. You can work with disregulated classrooms using these same tools.
So if you have a group of students who are having a really hard time paying attention, draw on their curiosity and their powers of observation. This will anchor them in the present moment. It will enable them to look at what’s happening, articulate their experience in a way that will help them regulate and settle down and then you can go on with the learning.
If your experiencing those kinds of disruptions in the classroom anyway, then it’s helpful to have these more mindful attention redirects than simply to have to discipline and use raised voices or other punishments or threats or punishments to try to control your classroom.
So an example would be if you have a lot of kids with the heebie-jeebies and start – so start asking them to begin to pay attention to what’s happening. Bring awareness to the fact that there are a lot of squirmingness and commotion in the room and then ask them to pay attention to the sense of touch.
So what are all the different things that they can feel right now? Are they touching their chair? Are they sitting on their chair? What does that feel like? Is it cold? Is it warm? Is it heavy? Is it hard? Are their hands touching their desk? Is it smooth? Is it rough? Are their hands touching their thighs? Are their pants soft or rough? Are they balancing their feet on the floor? What does that feel like?
Ground them in their bodies. Get them to notice what’s happening in the bodies. Awaken their powers of observation and their interest in what’s happening and that will also help focus their attention and focus the class’s attention on one thing. And then within 60, 90 seconds, you will be able to go back to teaching.
If you have a well-regulated class, these kinds of things are things that you can do as a pattern break between one activity or another activity.
If you’re working with students where you just feel like there is a lot going on for them and they can’t focus, it’s less physical but more – they just seem to have a lot on their minds, have them pull out a piece of paper and ask them to identify what they are feeling as a color, as a texture, as a temperature. Would it be a solid, a liquid, or a gas? Is it static? Does it change? Is it loud? Is it soft? Is it crescendo? Is there a decrescendo?
And have them just write down modifiers, words that describe the emotions they are feeling, what’s going on. You’re inviting them to engage with their experience in a way that can help bring them into regulation. Make them curious about what’s going on. Bring them some self-knowledge about what’s happening but in a way that’s more interesting, less therapeutic, because you’re in a classroom. This is a classroom-appropriate cultivating their attention.
And if you are dealing with more frustrated emotions, angry emotions, you can invite them into an imaginative exercise. So if a student is particularly angry or if the whole class feels hard done by a test that they had the period before and you can’t get them to focus, take 2 minutes and do a guided visualization. Imagine that all of the frustration that you’re feeling right now is like a mountain or a skyscraper, how tall would it be? How heavy would it be? If it’s a skyscraper, how many windows would it have? Is it metal or brick? If it’s a mountain, is it rock? Is it wooded? Are there animals on it?
And then allow them to imagine if it’s a skyscraper that the windows all open and that the sun streams in. You can even imagine a wind coming and blowing the papers out the window because it’s humorous. It will break the tension in the room.
If it’s a mountain, imagine what the trees look like when the breeze comes. Are there squirrels or rabbits or deer? Do they like the breeze? What do they do? Get them to pay attention to movement.
So all of a sudden, whatever big frustration they walked in with, it becomes an imaginative object in their mind’s eye and one that has movement that has flow, that has gentleness, that has humor. And then bring their attention back.
So while I’m focusing on ways to regulate the classroom because oftentimes that’s what the teachers that I worked with asked me the most is how do you work with students who have a hard time paying attention and my instructors as well often have to work with that.
These kinds of exercises can be used not just to regulate students but to really allow them to cultivate their attention, to cultivate their curiosity to be interested in how things work.
Other ways to work with cultivating curiosity with students is to pair them up in projects and have them interview one another. So you’re training kids to ask questions of each other and you are getting them to be interested and curious about what the other student knows or an aspect of their experience. And you can do this in any subject.
You can choose a character or a scene in the book that you’re reading in the English class. Pair them up. Have one be the interviewer and one be the interviewee. One be a character in the story or one be the author of the story being interviewed about the story.
And you teach the students how to ask questions, how to be curious, how to learn things, how to think about things differently, inviting them to be open, inviting them to wander, inviting them – when you train them to be good interviewers then they need to ask questions not just memorize the right answer. And very helpful for the students because it trains them when they’re studying to be thinking about things, to be curious about things.
Let’s do a short mindful awareness practice right now. And I will use this mindful awareness practice to help open curiosity, paying attention to the different senses and showing how a basic mindful breathing practice can be used to help train the students to be curious about their experience.
Let’s do this one together. Let’s begin now, Imagine that you are an x-ray machine and you could scan your whole body from top to bottom. You are a more fancy x-ray machine and you could discern and notice and pick up all kinds of different sensations in the body from top to bottom.
So start at the head with your scanner and move through your body. This was a special 3D scanner so it could go over your whole body 360 degrees.
What would it be noticing? Would it be sensing heat or coolness, calm or agitation? If it was displaying the color on a screen, what color would it see?
Scan all the way from top to the bottom, from your head down to the ends of your toes. And when you finish that first scan, you can just turn the scanner off in your imagination and save that image so we can look at it afterwards.
And now, pay attention to your in-breath and your out-breath. Is the air cold on the inside of your nose? Is it hot? Is the air sticky or smooth? Is the air fresh or stale? Is the air soft on the inside of your nose or does it tickle?
When you breathe, does the air feel like it goes in without effort or do you have to work your muscles to pull the air in?
When you inhale, can you feel the air brushing the back of your throat as it travels down into your lungs?
When you exhale, can you feel the air brush against the back of your throat as it comes out and as you expel the air, from your body, out of your nose or your mouth?
Open your mouth slightly and this time, breathe in and out through your mouth. What does the air feel like coming in across your tongue? Is it dry? Is it warm? Is it awkward or easy?
Can you hear your in-breath and your out-breath? What is the sound like?
And take just one deeper breath. Notice what happens in your ribs, in your chest. Can you feel your skeleton moving as the air comes in and your ribs separate just a little to make way for the expansion in your lungs?
Take another deep breath. And when you breathe in, can you feel the bones of your vertebrae, the bones of your spine moving, expanding, making space?
And just breathe normally and notice, does air have a smell? Does it have a taste?
And now, let’s take out our scanner again, our 360-degree scanner. And let it scan our whole body from the top of our heads all the way down to the tips of our toes. What is it picking up? Is there more energy or activity? What color is it noticing? What parts of the body feel more awake? What parts of the body feel more asleep?
And when the scanner finishes doing its work and you turn it off and look at the picture, see if it looks different to the scan that you made before the exercise. See if you notice any changes, any changes that came about from paying attention to your breath and noticing as much as you could about the very small movements that our sense organs can pick up.
And we can bring the exercise to a close.
So I hope you found these tools useful, useful as a way to start thinking about how to cultivate curiosity, useful as a way to engage with challenging moments in the classroom with a little more constructive direction and ways to turn your students’ attention to an attitude that will cultivate curiosity, cultivate interest, cultivate originality, cultivate connection, and also help focus and redirect and regulate at those moments when you need to help them find the right learning grove.
Thank you very much and I look forward to hearing what you do in the classroom. Please feel free to post any comments on the Inner Strength Facebook page, Inner Strength Foundation, and share your own tools with all of us there.
Have a good weekend, class. May you feel the delight of teaching in your own love of learning and may you have those moments where you realized that you are really instilling, you are planting seeds in the students that you are working with and you are instilling in them a relationship to the outer world that can bring them much joy and discovery, self-confidence, and purpose for the rest of their life.
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