When I was a kid in the secondary grades, one of my greatest fears was tests. Despite the fact I was an “A” student, I hated them. Being tested scared me: I would get stomach aches, cry and claim I did poorly on them, even though I always did well. My parents even offered to pay me to get a “C” so I wouldn’t worry so much. (I never got paid.) I have no idea why I was so afraid. I liked learning, I liked school, and the pressure to do well was almost nonexistent then.
Today testing stress begins at an early age. Years ago, I was in an East Oakland elementary school and the halls were covered with posters, made by kindergarteners, to cheer on the older kids during testing. Frankly, getting 6-year-olds to partake in the culture of testing made my heart hurt.
The focus on testing has become so intense that teachers feel enormous pressure. And students share that pressure to perform. I’ll never forget a second-grade teacher telling me that one of her students was throwing up because of how nervous she was about tests.
Although I believe in assessing student performance as one way to determine if good teaching and good learning is happening, I think tests often miss the mark. Plus, important achievement often goes unrecognized because it’s not “tested.” Many teachers share this perspective. And with each testing season, teachers are looking for strategies to lessen the pressure on their students.
The good news is that mindfulness helps calm everyone down about the process of testing. Instead of worrying about tests, being present for them enhances students’ chances for success. (A recent study suggests that the daily program of Inner Explorer, an online mindfulness platform, increases students’ performance in reading and science and reduces discipline-related events.) Asking students to take three deep breaths before a spelling quiz every week prepares them to do the same before taking tests for which the stakes are higher.
Even small, mindful actions will help students. Students can put their hands on their bellies and observe their bellies getting bigger when breathing in and getting smaller when breathing out. Or they might notice the shoulders rising with each in breath and falling with each out breath. Tying the movement of the breath to the body can help students anchor their minds when they feel anxious. Paying attention to the breath stimulates the parasympathetic “rest and digest,” calming part of the autonomic nervous system and bringing the body into a state of equilibrium. Because the exhalation is actually what stimulates the relaxation response, children—and adults!—benefit by breathing in for four counts and then breathing out for eight.
Testing is a difficult time for students, families and teachers. If you have a student who struggles with testing anxiety, try using the following role-play, centered on breathing, to help relieve their stress. Really, practicing this type of visualization with all students can help them be in the present moment while taking the test instead of worrying about the test. Once they’ve done it a few times, they’ll be prepared to use this strategy during actual testing.
Today we are going to bring mindfulness to test taking.
Schools use tests to see how much you are learning.
Tests can have interesting effects on students.
What are some of your feelings about studying for tests?
What are some of your feelings about taking tests?
Today we are going to bring our mindfulness to taking tests.
Imagine you are in class and I am about to pass out the test.
As I do so, close your eyes and begin to practice your breathing by paying close attention to each time you breathe in and each time you breathe out.
Take five mindful breaths, breathing in calm and relaxation and breathing out any nervousness or fear you have about the test.
Breathing in…and breathing out. Now take four
slow breaths on your own. (Give students 40 seconds to take those breaths).
Now imagine yourself picking up your pencil and holding it gently between your fingers. Take three more slow, deep breaths here. (Allow 30 seconds of silence.)
Imagine yourself answering the first two questions. They are easy and you feel good.
Now imagine that the third question is a little confusing. Instead of getting nervous, you put down your pencil and take three more breaths, each time breathing in calm and breathing out the confusion. (Allow 30 seconds of silence).
You look at the question again, and you decide to answer it or return to it later. No biggie! The next questions are not hard for you and you feel good.
At the end of the test, if you had skipped any questions, you return to them, taking a few breaths before working on each one. You do the best you can and finish the test.
You put down your pencil, feeling good about sharing what you have learned with your teacher.
Grossman, the director of program development and outreach for Inner Explorer, is the co-author of Master of Mindfulness: How to Be Your Own Superhero in Times of Stress and the co-founder of Mindful Schools.
We were having a classroom discussion when things got really interesting: A student, almost out of nowhere, mentioned that five people had been shot in our city over the weekend. As the facilitator of the discussion, I decided to connect his comments to our conversation: “Is violence natural?” I asked. This question sparked a deep dialogue about how weapons and anger relate to our views of the place people have in nature. We had started the class by talking about nature as trees and birds and how our ideas of nature were formed by experiences at parks and in the woods, but this turn in the discussion got us below the surface to a level where we could analyze rather than just describe. This level of critical thinking was essential to meeting our course objective: to assess how people’s ideas about nature have shaped the past, inform our present and will create our future.
The course I teach, Global Environment, includes reading Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond and several other texts about the general role of European imperialism in shaping the world we live in today. These readings offer important ideas for us to think about, but they haven’t really engaged students in the past. A recent course I took inspired me to shift the focus from the readings and content to essential questions designed to address the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards related to identity and diversity. Through these questions, students explored why they didn’t think people and the things we make—like guns—are part of nature, how other cultures think about nature and where students’ own ideas come from. This approach provided an opportunity for critical and creative thought, as well as a motivation to explore the content from different perspectives.
During the course I took, we dove deep into Teaching Tolerance’s curricular tool, Perspectives for a Diverse America. Studying critical literacy with this tool in mind led me, for the first time in my career as a science teacher, to make a conscious effort to include diverse voices and ways of knowing in my daily practice. Most of my ideas about nature had come from reading authors like John Muir and E.O. Wilson—after all, my teachers had told me that these were the naturalists—and I had never critically examined the fact that all of them look more like me than my students.
But when I made the effort to include articles that discussed nature from scientific, artistic and traditional ways of knowing, written by authors of different cultural backgrounds, we all became immersed in the complexity of varying perspectives and deeper knowledge. Students appreciated not reading an academic text written by yet another white man. Lucille Clifton’s poem “The Earth Is a Living Thing” mingled in their minds with Raymond Pierotti and Daniel Wildcat’s Traditional Ecological Knowledge: The Third Alternative. Pierotti and Wildcat’s discussion of the Rock Creek and Oglala Lakotas’ perspectives on nature shared space in students’ brains with the philosophies of the Akamba and Chagga people of eastern Africa, presented in Bakanja Mkenda’s “Environmental Conservation Anchored in African Cultural Heritage.”
The week ended with a student-led discussion, and we all connected American Indian and African ideas that humans are threads in a web of life. We recognized that we can follow the thread of violence through evolutionary history back to the first time two animals fought for resources. We reflected on how Muslims and Christians agree that nature was God’s creation and that people have the obligation to be stewards of it. We accepted that our American ideas are formed by the collision of European, African and indigenous cultures in the age of imperialism and colonization. Our group realized that we connected with the ideas of our African ancestors more than our European ones.
We didn’t agree on what nature is or our place in it, but there was general agreement around the table when one student said senior year was way too late to have thought about these things for the first time.
Widmaier is an instructional coach and science teacher at World of Inquiry School #58 in Rochester, New York. He is also a recipient of the 2016 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.
American Civil Liberties Union: “Every day in our nation’s schools, children as young as five are charged with ‘crimes’ for everyday misbehavior.”
Alabama Public Radio: “A recent investigation by Education Week shows that in the 2013-2014 school year, about 110,000 students were physically punished nationwide. That’s in part because in some states … tens of thousands of students are paddled every year.”
CNN: “Nearly 1,500 economists extolled the economic benefits immigrants bring to the U.S. and urged Congress to ‘modernize’ the country’s immigration system.”
The Huffington Post: “While [cutting the Lead Risk Reduction Program] is just a proposal at the moment, one thing is clear: poor black people, especially children, would be hit the hardest.”
The Huffington Post: “‘Last-dollar free-college proposals such as the Excelsior Scholarship don’t address the college affordability inequities at play in our country.’”
National Public Radio: “Having just one black teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade reduced low-income black boys’ probability of dropping out of high school by 39 percent.”
National Public Radio: “The idea for ‘Latin History For Morons’ grew out of a tough chapter for [John Leguizamo’s] family when his young son was being bullied in part because of his Latino heritage.”
Newsweek: “‘On the surface, the argument is about bathrooms, but at a deeper level, it is about whether or not transgender students will be included in our public education system. … If transgender students cannot safely access a bathroom, they cannot safely attend school.’”
The New York Times: “New evidence indicates that schools have contributed to these disparities [within ‘gifted’ programs] by underestimating the potential of black and Hispanic children. But that can change.”
Salon: “‘This report finds that this funding [building, buying, leasing] is almost completely disconnected from educational policy objectives, and the results are, in turn, scattershot and haphazard. … Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent each year without any meaningful strategy.’”
The Washington Post: “Florida has channeled billions of taxpayer dollars into scholarships for poor children to attend private schools over the past 15 years, using tax credits to build a laboratory for school choice.”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com, and put “What We’re Reading This Week” in the subject line.
April is Genocide Awareness Month. It’s also testing month, prom month and the lead-up to the last month of school in many parts of the country. As a result, the critical learning opportunities afforded by Genocide Awareness Month can be overlooked—but it’s time to bring these lessons back into the spotlight. As the events of this week have shown, the need to deeply engage this topic with students is more acute than ever.
We’ve written before about hateful acts of anti-Jewish bigotry being on the rise. News of bomb threats, vandalism, even desecration of Jewish cemeteries is reported daily. Just yesterday, near Washington, D.C., a Jewish Community Center was tagged with swastikas and the phrase “Hitler was right.” The incident was all the more painful as it occurred on the first full day of the Jewish holy week of Passover.
Also in the news yesterday was White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Spicer made what many listeners interpreted as a borderline-anti-Semitic gaff while speaking about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons: He stated that Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
Spicer has since apologized for his choice of words and acknowledged the seriousness of his misstep. But some bells you just can’t un-ring, and this is one of them.
Words uttered by the spokesperson for the country’s commander-in-chief inherently hold meaning. One possible meaning is that Spicer actually doesn’t think that Hitler used toxic gas to kill millions of Jews during the Holocaust. That position brushes up against Holocaust denial and has the power to embolden anti-Semites who insist—in the face of clear evidence—that concentrations camps did not exist.
Given the voracity of his apologies, the more likely meaning is that Spicer has a hazy understanding of the Holocaust, which led him to unthinkingly make remarks that were grossly insensitive and historically inaccurate. Here’s another example from yesterday: “[Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing," Spicer said when he tried to clarify his earlier remarks. This statement is, again, ahistorical as it suggests that many Jews weren’t German, and it displays a propensity to “otherize” Jewish people.
A hazy understanding of the Holocaust is still a huge problem. It implies that it’s OK to be sloppy and cavalier when speaking about one of history’s greatest human rights atrocities. It also indicates that Spicer wasn’t savvy enough to realize that downplaying Hitler’s actions to make a political point (during Passover!) was offensive in the extreme.
In other words, when it comes to being able to speak accurately and intelligently about a mark on history that is fundamentally necessary for everyone to study and understand, the bar is set far too low.
Vandalizing a synagogue and saying something insensitive on national television are not the same thing—but they both indicate something disturbing about our national understanding about the Holocaust and genocide. People who think the Holocaust was “an atrocity” but don’t understand the nuances have a looser grip on their position than they think they do. And they have a much looser grip on their position than people who think “Hitler was right.”
TT’s free film One Survivor Remembers and teacher’s guide
Perspectives for a Diverse America texts “Out of Auschwitz,” “About Feeling Jewish,” “Danger on My Doorstep,” “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport” and “What Is Talmud?” (Use the advanced filter to search. Free registration required.)
History and Ourselves’ anti-Semitism and religious intolerance resources
A new classroom activity from the ADL titled Anti-Semitic Incidents: Being an Ally, Advocate and Activist
The United States Holocaust Museum’s tools and resources
van der Valk is the deputy director of Teaching Tolerance.
We know there has been an alarming spike in fear, anger and violence toward American Muslims (and individuals perceived to be Muslim) in the last year; we also know that schools have the power to help counter Islamophobia.
Not sure where to start? Consider showing one or both of these short videos to your students and engaging them in a discussion about what they learned. Use the accompanying questions as a jumping-off point.
Muslim Students in America
- What are some ways you can be an ally or advocate to Muslim students who experience bullying or harassment? (beyond the video)
- In what ways are you and the students in the video the same? In what ways are you different? (connection to the video)
- What was an assumption you had about Muslims prior to watching this video? What is something you learned about Muslims from the video? (compare and contrast)
- What does the word Islam mean? Does this meaning surprise you? Why or why not? (within/beyond the video)
Small Truths: American Muslims
- Each individual in the video has unique experiences that make them who they are. What makes you who are? (beyond the video)
- What is something that surprised you about the video? (connection to the video)
- What message is this video trying to send? (within/beyond the video)
- In your opinion, are American Muslims viewed favorably in the United States? Provide evidence to support your answer. (beyond the video)
- What was an assumption you had about Muslims prior to watching this video? What is something you learned about Muslims from the video? (compare and contrast)