First Person

How mindfulness improves testing days for me — and for my students

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

Last week, when I asked fourth and fifth graders at my school how they felt when they thought about the test, they responded, “stressed,” “pressured,” “anxious,” “angry,” “butterflies in my stomach,” “fear of the unknown,” and “really, really, really, really nervous.”

So I was grateful that we were about to engage in mindfulness — the evidence-based practice that has helped me access calm, resilience, and joy during the hectic work day. I first came to mindfulness out of curiosity, and immediately noticed a drastic decrease in my own stress levels. After undergoing a yearlong training with the organization Mindful Schools, I started bringing the practices to my students. Three years ago, I adapted the practices specifically for state testing for the first time.

Research suggests that students who practice mindfulness show increases in attention, focus, and emotional regulation — all of which can be elusive in our frenetic world. A few years ago, my library was filled with students reacting to the large space and the absence of their regular teacher by running and screaming. After integrating mindfulness, I would see kids draped quietly over chairs, with their faces, minds, and imaginations lost in books. The same students (from the same challenging backgrounds) have more learning-ready brains that it is clear they are putting to use. I have transferred to a new school this year, and have been delighted to see the impacts of mindfulness on my new students.

But as educators know, even the most carefully calibrated classroom environment can fall apart when state testing rolls around. I could feel the tension in the room when I even so much as used the word “test” last week. By the time we got through the lesson, and with the skills they’ve built up through the past several months, I felt confident that my students would have the tools to get through these challenging weeks.

Testing weeks are hard for teachers, too. In a world where we are hyper-connected, and where it’s incredibly rare to spend several hours without access to devices or human interaction, the proctoring protocols are strict — and challenging.

Proctoring can be extremely boring, especially compared to regular patterns of constant interaction with very active young people. Mandated guidelines for teachers are similar to those for students: no talking, no reading, no electronics, and no sitting. So in addition to guiding my students through a pre-test activity to release tension and increase calm (which I will be sharing over the announcements in the mornings for all of our test-takers!), I developed the following mindful strategies to cope with, and ultimately benefit from, the mind-numbing protocols of proctoring.

Here’s what I did — and what I’ll be doing this week as my students start yet another round of English and math exams.

  1. Bringing full attention to the feet. Every time I found myself becoming bored, I would redirect my attention to my feet. While my eyes gazed upon my students, I directed all of my internal sensory attention to what the ground felt like, what the inside of my shoes felt like, to the varying levels of pressure that different parts of my feet felt. Fully feeling the ground beneath me — in most people this leads to a pleasant, tingling sensation in the feet (but not always). This grounding activity takes the attention out of the mind and into the body. For me, this significantly decreases boredom and increases feelings of pleasantness.
  2. Scanning the room. As I slowly scanned the room, I took in as much detail as I could as I swept my eyes from side to side. (My kids would call this using your mindful eyes.) It may take as much as 20 or 30 seconds to pan the room. Part of this scanning is taking in the details of the students as well, noticing, noticing, noticing, going to the deepest level of detail possible. Similar to using the feet to anchor the attention, this technique anchors the attention in the visual field and allows the brain to find nuance and novelty in a situation where it is definitely not generally expected.
  3. Walking mindfully. As I walk around, I do “mindful walking” — one breath per step, nice and slow. And then slower than that. I pick up one foot and inhale, place it down and exhale, pick up the other foot and inhale, place it down and exhale. I find that this feels extremely calming and pleasant to the nervous system, especially after the hours of pacing on testing days. This is more than just walking slowly — it is placing a deeper attention on the mechanics of walking.
  4. “Sending thoughts” to the students. One of my favorite aspects of being the school librarian is that I have no idea about every single student’s academic standing, so I get to believe in all of them. I spent several sweeps of the room looking at each kid and thinking “I believe in you!”; “You can do it!” and “You’ve got this.” This game doesn’t get old. I also told them before we started the test that if they catch me looking at them, that I’m thinking about how much I believe in them. (And while it may not make an actual difference in their scores, who can’t use a little extra believe-in in their lives?)
  5. Shared breathing. Before the test I told the students that every time I changed the “time remaining” on the board, if they wanted, they could take a mindful breath with me and then keep going (a school-friendly version of one of my mindfulness teachers’ “I love you, keep going”). It got to the point where, in their isolated you-must-do-this-by-yourself worlds, we repeated this sound sequence again and again: eraser on chalkboard, chalk on chalkboard, one big deep together-breath whispering through the room. It was nice to be in that “together” with them, under conditions that otherwise preclude connection. Now that the tests are untimed, this technique could be used with a simple updating of the “Time Now” on the board.
  6. Modeling the focused mind. There are such things as “mirror neurons,” so what we project is totally picked up by sensitive test-taking nervous systems. I looked at it as my job to not allow boredom, anxiety, restlessness, or frustration to sneak into my own mind. Instead I let myself be as engaged, calm, and focused as I wanted my students to be. When my mind would wander, or I’d feel it shift onto a course I didn’t want it to go (perhaps a very familiar thought merry-go-round), I’d take a deep breath, go back to focusing on my feet, and be as steady and stable as possible. It’s totally a challenge, but totally doable.

These six ideas have helped me to enjoy the proctoring more (and in fact, to sometimes walk away with my nervous system so calm, I felt euphoric). Students have told me that the “taking a breath together” really helped them to focus and not be as scared. Additionally, I provided a script and audio-recording for the pre-test calming to each teacher in the school, and other students came up to me and told me how much it had helped them focus and “chase away all the butterflies” before the test. Kids who didn’t get the pre-test calming script were begging for it.

I am looking forward to sharing these techniques in my new school this week — and with truly open curiosity, we’ll see how it goes. As one educator, I can’t change the tests, but I can do my part to influence how students experience them. It has been tremendously rewarding to witness the impact of mindfulness on emotional regulation in the face of a highly stressful situation.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.